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The world is diverse—and our superheroes should be too.
I have very red hair. Growing up in a big Irish Catholic family packed with redheads, my hair was the reddest. After a few years where unwanted attention made me wish I could look like everybody (anybody) else, I embraced my hair, becoming something of a redhead advocate. It’s not a high priority, but I do wish there was a redhead emoji.
When random people tell me they’ve heard that in the future, redheads will be extinct, I laugh and explain that sexual selection produced redheads in the first place, and sexual selection will keep us around forever. We redheads are just too pretty for the rest of you to leave us alone. I get excited when red-haired actors like Ewan MacGregor or Damian Lewis become sex symbols. [Michael Fassbender: Good for the Gingers.] I like to joke that when I watch movies where the villain is a redhead, I root for the redhead. (I am not actually kidding about this.) I get upset when non-redhead actors are cast as redhead characters like Jean Grey, Daredevil, and Mary Jane Watson. (Jean and MJ were at least bottled-up redheads in the movies, but Ben Affleck? Come on.)
And I was delighted when Noma Dumezweni was cast as a grown-up Hermione Granger in the new play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in no small part because this means Hermione’s children with redhead Ron Weasley, Rose and Hugo, might look something like my own son: multiracial, with a glorious head of bright red, curly hair. It was hard enough to find cool redheads in popular culture growing up: Finding families that look like mine is like searching for hen’s teeth.
Representations matter, even for someone as privileged as I am, a cisgendered white American man. (Yes, redheads get teased, and Irish-Americans have a complicated history, but come the fuck on. We’re so successfully assimilated, you can barely even hurt our feelings.) The thrill of seeing someone who looks like you, whose story might be something like yours, portrayed as a hero in the wider culture is something everyone deserves. Robust, fully realized diversity pays off in ways you can’t even recognize or explain until you’ve seen it for yourself or had it snatched away.
Not everyone agrees. A vocal group of Harry Potter fans resisted a black Hermione, going so far as to pore over the original books and supplementary materials to find proof that Hermione is and must be white, like the actress Emma Watson cast in the films. (It doesn’t exist. Even the J.K. Rowling story “Quidditch World Cup 2014,” in which Rose has inherited her father’s “unfortunate [red] hair,” tells you zilch about her race or Hermione’s. Trust me.)
Robust, fully realized diversity pays off in ways you can’t even recognize or explain until you’ve seen it for yourself or had it snatched away.
A black Human Torch or Captain America, a black and Latino Spider-Man, a woman worthy to lift the enchanted hammer of Thor, gay and lesbian X-Men, a black man and white woman becoming our new Star Wars protagonists—nearly every move to make these universes more diverse and inclusive gets met with wry cynicism or full-blown temper tantrums, usually from the white, straight, able-bodied men to whom the stories have always catered, who are used to seeing their own identities, and those of the characters they already love, as the default.
In the New York Times, Malaysian radio host Umapagan Ampikaipakan makes a slightly different argument. Growing up in Kuala Lampur, Ampikaipakan and a small group of friends grew up idolizing American superheroes.
“We were Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian,” he writes. “We were brown and yellow. But we didn’t mind that our role models were all white. We were Spider-Man. We were Batman. We were Superman. We were Captain America. We were always, happily, obliviously, super.”
Echoing a point made by many American fans of color, in Ampikaipkan’s childhood—under the mask—Spider-Man could be anyone. “The current push to draw diversity into comics and add variety to the canon is meant to reinforce the notion that anyone can be a superhero,” he concedes. “But that only risks undercutting the genre’s universal appeal.” The obvious fallacy here is that white heroes are universal—non-white heroes are not.
Ampikaipakan’s take is just a little more sophisticated. He thinks it isn’t an accident that the modern superhero myths originated in the United States, and that there’s something undeniably American about the conventions and values baked into the superhero genre. Many of the attempts to try to transplant American superheroes to Asian settings, like the overly literal retelling of Spider-Man set in Calcutta with Indian names, have been awkward, unsuccessful, or inauthentic. The most successful superheroes of Asian ancestry have been Asian-Americans, like Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan, or Astro Boy, each of which hew closely to the precedents established by American superheroes.
The most convincing part of Ampikaipakan’s essay is the idea that there is something powerful and magical about projecting your identity and affinity into a character who looks nothing like you, whose background is nothing like your own, who has stories and abilities and experiences you could never have. Stories of superheroes and wizards and warriors in the distant past or far-off planets are uniquely suited for this kind of imaginative alchemy. You can call it escapism—and many of us have elements of our lives that are well-worth escaping—but there is something liberating in that too.
The trouble is that for too long and for too many, when it comes to gender, race, religion, and a dozen other forms of identity, this imaginative miracle only happens in one direction.
The benefits of diverse heroes are reaped by everyone.
Little boys and girls of color in Kuala Lampur can be encouraged and expected to identify with Captain America, but it’s too much to ask white boys in Cleveland or Berlin to identify with Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Rey, or even to buy a set of toys in which her figurine is included.
This is the “realist” variety of racism and sexism, a kind that’s endemic in the culture industry. It’s what director Ridley Scott is appealing to when he defends casting white actors to play biblical characters by saying he couldn’t get a movie financed with a lead actor named “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”
We would make more progressive choices—these people insist—if the market would support it, but we all know it won’t, so we can continue to do what we’ve always done.
This same racism-as-realism is the spine of Ampikaipakan’s essay, too. Even if we could put in the work to create a superhero that Asians would recognize as their own, we all know that no one else in the world would buy in. We’d be left with a balkanized market, where every identity was represented, but none were shared.
We need to stop telling ourselves and our children this lie. It is a feature of the market we cannot and ought not accept. What’s more, it’s not even true.
I have a special place in my heart for fictional redheads, but my favorite superheroes, as a child and now, are T’Challa (the Black Panther), and the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde. My favorite athlete was Charles Barkley, and my favorite musicians were Whitney Houston and Run-DMC. I wanted to be Scott Thompson’s character Buddy Cole from Kids in the Hall—or at least that funny, that cool, that brilliant. From an early age, my life (both real and imaginary) has been immeasurably enriched by heroes who looked nothing like me, whose background was nothing like mine, whose stories and experiences were like nothing I could ever have. This imaginative miracle required no real miracles: All it required were creators and decision-makers with the courage to tell a wider range of stories than the generation before them had done—often but not always because they themselves were different than the creators who’d come before.
The benefits of diverse heroes are reaped by everyone. And despite what toymakers seem to think of children’s preferences (or really, of their parents), if you look at young white Americans, they are ahead of the curve. They worship Steph Curry and Beyoncé, love manga and anime, and are more progressive, tolerant, and capable of imaginative sympathy than any generation before them. This has been happening for our entire lifetimes. We’re the ones who refuse to believe it.
Finding heroes across race or gender is no magic bullet. There’s a famous scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing where Spike’s character Mookie confronts John Turturro’s Pino about his racism. Mookie gets Pino to admit that his favorite actor is Eddie Murphy, his favorite athlete is Magic Johnson, and his favorite (or second-favorite) musician is Prince. None of this stops Pino from seething with hatred and throwing racial slurs at his black customers and co-workers. He’s compartmentalized his racism by taking the black men he admires, emptying their racial signifiers, and treating them as blank slates. Prejudice and privilege are complex, multilayered structures. We’re not going to dismantle them with basketball jerseys and action figures.
At the same time, it’s a place to start. For me, watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was able to resist rooting for the most prominent redhead, Domhnall Gleeson’s Grand-Moff-wannabe Hux. This is partly because Hux’s character is a little thin, but mostly because I fell in love with John Boyega’s Finn. As a character, Finn shows that our bonds and loyalties are to the people we choose; that we are more than what we have always been and were intended to be; that we are always able to choose something other than what we are given. That this character is played by a young black man only makes the introduction of these themes into the Star Wars mythology even more powerful.
Tim Carmody is a recovering academic and former writer/editor for Wired, the Verge, and the Message. He writes about changes in media, technology, and culture.
Illustration via Max Fleishman