Quick. Name all the wheelchair-bound protagonists you can. No cheating now. Just off the top of your head.
Me? I’ve got Ironsides and Oracle.
Oh, wait. Scratch that second one.
Now name all the overweight minority characters in positions of authority in fiction.
There’s Amanda Waller from DC Comics . . . or at least there used to be.
Granted, there are probably handicapped protagonists I’ve never heard of and not-size-6 minority characters in prominent roles I’m also unfamiliar with. But this only highlights how rare and difficult they are to find. In comparison, if I were to ask you to name a prominent white male protagonist, the list goes on and on and on. No problem filling that one out.
Diversity matters. It’s time to acknowledge this. It’s time to prioritize this. And it’s time to stop making excuses for those who don’t. Or, worse, those who actively fight against diversity, if even only by accident.
This is why DC’s reboot annoys me. It’s not the comics themselves, which I have not found particularly impressive but also don’t really have a problem with. I’ve got my nitpicks, my dislikes, but I’m just one opinion and it’s been clear for a long time that I’m not a reader most comic books care about. And that’s cool. But when you take prominent characters who are basically the sole representatives of entire groups of people and remove those qualities from them, you have to accept the consequences.
If there were more prominent handicapped characters in comics, I wouldn’t care if Barbara Gordon started walking again. If there were more powerful, intelligent, capable minority characters in comics, I wouldn’t care if Amanda Waller went on a diet. But there are not. These characters, for better or worse, carry that weight on their shoulders. And when writers reset the characters (or in Waller’s case, just re-envision her as skinny because they can) then they should be called on it. It should be mentioned. It should be talked about. It’s not an imaginary concern. It’s not reactionary. It’s a reversal of everything these characters brought to the collective storytelling table, and we’re all poorer for it.
In my current project, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, Helen is a minotaur. She’s almost seven feet tall, has horns and hooves, and is covered in fur. I chose this because how often is a female character allowed to be “monstrous”? And how often is this condition removed by the end of their story? But Helen starts a minotaur, and she’ll remain one by the end of the story. It’s true that being a minotaur isn’t all bad, but it’s also true that Helen isn’t going to win any traditional beauty contests.
Troy is Asian. There’s no reason for that other than I could do it. I didn’t go out of my way to make him or his family “Asian” because the premise of Troy is that he’s the all-American ideal. He’s good-looking, smart, athletic, and just about perfect. He could really be any race, but I chose to make him Asian. Not as a twist. Not as a joke. But because it’s nice to add an Asian to the collective culture.
In Emperor Mollusk Versus The Sinister Brain, Emperor is a ten pound invertebrate. His bodyguard is a fierce warrior woman from Venus named Zala. She could just as easily been male. Her sex serves no purpose in the story. There’s certainly no sexual tension between the two. But i figured if I was going to have a major character, why not have her be female?
This is the question that more writers and creators should ask themselves. Why should I? Or why shouldn’t I? Especially in questions of diversity.
In DC, there’s a certain logic (that I don’t necessarily agree with but don’t disagree with either) that Barbara Gordon started out as Batgirl. And comic book characters get reset all the time, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they took her out of her wheelchair. It’s only surprising that they took so long to do it. But Amanda Waller isn’t being reset. She’s being undone. Not for any other reason than a writer thought it didn’t matter if they changed her.
Well, it matters.
Taking Harley Quinn out of her traditional costume and sticking her in underwear matters too.
And, while we’re on the subject, taking all the characters from The Last Airbender and making them white for the movie was a huge mistake. Not that it would’ve helped the movie to keep them ethnic because the problems with the film are found in its hamhanded direction and writing. But still, it doesn’t help.
Yet there’s no getting around a real and unspoken problem here. When someone complains about a white character becoming ethnic, everyone talks about it. When someone complains about an ethnic character becoming white, it draws very little attention. It seemed like there was more press attention to “Black Heimdall” than “White Airbender”. And when an alternate version of Spider-Man is black, the world gasps. When the Avengers film drops its prominent female founding character, The Wasp, there’s not a peep from even the comic book fan community.
It’s time to look beyond ourselves, to realize that just because something is unimportant to us that doesn’t make it culturally unimportant. I am neither black nor a woman nor do I have body issues. But I’m bothered by the thin-ifying of Amanda Waller because we can’t afford to lose her. And I’m less concerned with Barbara Gordon walking than I am with the fact that once she does, we’re having to look all the way back to a Raymond Burr series from the late 60’s for a handicapped hero.
If aliens were to judge American culture by its media, they could safely assume that we are all good-looking, thin, mostly white people who usually single. And if we’re not single, we’re almost never married. And if we do get married, it’s usually the end of our story, not the beginning.
Aliens could also deduce that it’s the job of minority characters to act as a support staff for the white characters, that fat characters are okay as long as they’re the sassy sidekick, and that mostly, minorities are around to either die for dramatic tension or sacrifice themselves for the good of a white character’s story.
They’d notice too that white male characters tend to have a complex array of personal histories and personalities, while most minorities and women are obviously of a hive mind and function on a certain baseline.
I’m not claiming racism / sexism here. I’m claiming something even worse. Indifference and insensitivity. Or, worst of all, a lack of imagination on the part of our cultural creators. After all, if you can’t tell a story with married characters, then maybe it’s your fault, not the characters. And if you can’t tolerate even one fat chick in your otherwise size zero universe, then maybe it’s time to admit you have a problem.
Writing the good write, Fighting the good fight,