In case you missed it yesterday… THE DEFENSE OF MARRIAGE ACT (DOMA) WAS DECLARED UNCONSTITUTIONAL!! The internet literally exploded with rainbow flags. It’s a great way to end LGBTQ Pride Month. But for the geeks for equality out there, I thought I’d offer up a nerdier celebration. Here are 5 couples that should tie the knot in celebration of this (long overdue) step towards social equality in the U.S.!
Batwoman (Kate Kane) & Maggie Sawyer
Kate and Maggie have had flirty repertoire ever since they first met on the pages of the rebooted Batwoman in 2006 and they hooked up not long after. By issue #17, Kate risked it all and exposed her Batwoman identity by proposing to Mags in full Bat costume. It’s four months and four issues later and I’m feenin’ for some wedding bells. Batwoman is pretty much the most high-profile lesbian character in comics (who wasn’t relegated to an alternate universe at that), so this wedding oughta be a Huuge and super awesome. Come on, just imagine the complementing black & red tuxes… right?!
Stahma Tarr & Kenya Rosewater
Okay so this one is a lot of wishful thinking, but when big things like the government actually supporting gay rights are happening, we gotta dare to dream big. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been absolutely adoring this duo. They’re pretty much perfect for each other, both straddling that strange complex line where they are both incredibly strong and powerful women, yet they have found themselves in abusive relationships….
So, there I was watching Zod and the caped Mr. Kent plow through 20-story buildings, when the camera halted for a minute and began following an extra at the scene of the destruction for a strangely extended period of time… and the extra was ethnically South Asian.
Finally, the camera breaks the shot and pulls back to reveal more extras, running for their lives, and lo! many of them were people of color too!
That’s when it hit me, just how hard Man of Steel was trying to make a more diverse Metropolis! And between the more colorful crowds and the two major Black characters Perry White and General Swanwick, they did as good a job as one can probably do with one of the whitest superhero franchises out there.
And they took a shot at gender balance too… But even with a handful of seemingly non-stereotyped women characters, the movie doesn’t quite pass The Bechdel Test.
If you don’t already know it, The Bechdel Test came out of Alison Bechdel‘s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule. Movies or stories that pass The Bechdel Test must meet all of these criteria:
(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.
So for Man of Steel… (1) More than two women? Faora, Lois, Mrs. Kent, and Lara Lor-Van, Superman’s mother – CHECK.
(2) Who talk to each other? CHECK
(3) About something other than a man? Well… no.
In fact, the primary form of the inter-woman dialogue was fairly violent… and it wasn’t just about a man, but a super man. So, 2 out of 3. Nice try but no gender balance award.
Now what about the people of color depicted in the film? How can we tell how the film rates there?
Obviously, like The Bechdel Test, the biased treatment of characters of color in fiction is much more complex than a 3-step test can ever capture. But like, The Bechdel Test, a test — let’s call it The Token Test — could simplify and generalize some of the issues in POC treatment in fiction so that we can get the conversations started, talk about the issues more easily, and maybe force creators/publishers/studios to think about these things before putting their beloved brain-babies (or wallet-stuffers) out into the world.
Well, lets try one on for size…
A work of fiction that passes the test for biased treatment of characters of color in fiction will…
(1) have at least two characters of color,
The most obvious issue in the treatment of characters of color in fiction is that, well… there is no treatment. Many shows/books/movies/video games simply don’t include diversity in the cast list, and those that do tend to be guilty of tokenism. One character of color, included for the sake of diversity. I imagine this first rule will make most films and TV shows fail right away
who (2) aren’t somehow related or dating
TV shows and movies in particular thought they were wising up after they got called out for tokenism, and that’s when the couples and families started making an appearance. TWO characters of color! But… of course, they were dating each other or the second characters was our token’s sibling or parent… Nothing wrong with POCs dating each other, but it’d be too easy if we let cheap ploys like that pass this test!
and (3) regularly speak more than a few lines
From the token Black woman who pops in for a quick “aw hell no!” to the token Latina who exists to occasionally suck her teeth and roll her eyes, we’re all familiar with the token who’s sole purpose is to be the resident POC with a line or two to legitimize their existence. Rule #3 will be the fail safe against having several tokens conveniently stationed in the background but for a few exhortations.
(4) about something that has nothing to do with race or racial stereotypes
And finally, some works of fiction can get past all of the previous steps, with a diverse cast of characters who aren’t related or dating and actually have a few lines and decent amount of screen time, but every single one of those lines will be laced with racial stereotypes or is only about race. The token Asian guy helps the main character with math homework and kung fu… The token latino is mowing lawns to pay for a house full of kids… The token Indian guy hacks your main character’s computer or yells something from a grocery store doorway… Rule #4 is there to stop that nonsensery.
According to this test Man of Steel could pass with flying colors, depending on how one feels about the lines allotted to the POCs in the cast.
(1) At least two characters of color? General Swanwick and Perry White. CHECK
(2) who aren’t somehow related or dating? CHECK
(3) and regularly speak more than a few lines? Tough call. Perry White is an iconic character in the Superman universe and received a decent amount of screen time, slightly more than General Swanwick. Both characters certainly spoke more than the usual token, if you ask me so I’ll give it the nod, but it could certainly be debtated.
(4) about something that has nothing to do with race or racial stereotypes? CHECK
What do you think? Letting ’em off too easy?
Let’s see if the test works for works of fiction we know shouldn’t pass the test.
Some will be obvious, like The Avengersmovie:
At least two characters of color? Noope.
OrGame of Thrones:
At least two characters of color? Yep. Currently, Grey Worm and Missandei, and I suppose the very rare appearance of Salladhor Saan. Oh right and the horde of brown slaves that the Khaleesi has freed who’ve only spoken the word “mother” in one of the most racially charged scenes of the series.
who aren’t somehow related or dating? Yep.
and regularly speak more than a few lines? Nooope. I mean, if the Unsullied are mostly POCs under those helmets, 99.9% of them literally never speak. And sorry, a thousand brown people chanting “mother” to their white savior doesn’t count.
Shows or movies with big casts might present a bit of a problem too, like The Walking Deadwhich clearly has it’s issues (particularly surrounding T-Dog), and definitely wouldn’t have passed the test in Seasons 1 or 2, but in its current state, actually does manages to pass:
At least two characters of color? Yep. Currently, Michonne, Glenn, Tyrese and his daughter, and maybe Morgan will come back…
who aren’t somehow related or dating? Yep. So far (minus Tyrese and his daughter)!
and regularly speak more than a few lines? Yep. Given Glenn’s leading role, the promise of a more involved Tyrese, and ever since Michonne started talking, it qualifies. Pre-Michonne, T-Dog’s lack of dialogue (ahem, and character development) would’ve disqualified it.
about something that has nothing to do with race or racial stereotypes? Yeps. Mostly.
PASS (and crossing fingers they don’t muck it up next season, the comic sure pushed the line)
And what aboutDefiance?:
At least two characters of color? Yep. Rafe McCawley and fam and Tommy Lasalle
who aren’t somehow related or dating? Well Tommy isn’t related to the McCawleys, so… yea… just barely
and regularly speak more than a few lines? Not really. The McCawleys namely Christie, Quentin, and Rafe have been getting a lot of screentime, but most of the speaking is coming from Rafe (Graham Greene). Tommy, however, is more or less a plot tool at this point. Hell, he doesn’t even make the fuller cast promotional posters.
So Nope. FAILS.
But don’t worry there are some geeky works of fiction that would pass the test! Like, the new Mighty Avengers comic out in September! And possibly the forthcoming Sleepy HollowTV show. And this season’s True Bloodactually passes the test:
At least two characters of color? Yep. Tara Thorton, Lafayette Reynolds, and Luna Garza played by Indian & Dutch American actress Janina Gavankar. Plus Jurnee Smollett-Bell joins the cast this season as a series regular Nicole
Who aren’t somehow related or dating? Yep. Tara and Lafayette are cousins, but Luna isn’t related or dating either of them. And here’s hoping Luna sticks around cause without her the show doesn’t pass this rule.
And regularly speak more than a few lines? Tara and Lafayette have been major show stealers since season 1, and Luna was a major character in seasons 4 and 5, though we’ll see for season 6.
About something other than race or racial stereotypes? Okay, so sometimes the “aw hell nahs!” from Tara and Lafayette are a bit too frequent, but they themselves are actually important to the plot and have their own storylines.
Clearly, what I’ve come up with isn’t perfect, but, for a general test, it actually kinda works!
But I’m just getting the discussion started. What do you think? Too strict? Too easy? Rules you would add/change/get rid of?
Black leadership in the U.S. has sometimes seemed to be a notion stranger than fiction. That Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois could arise in the midst of intense subjugation is truly incredible. And the legacy has continued on through the civil rights movement and today. In fact, today is the birthday of MalcolmX, one of the most influential Black leaders in history. Yet though there are many real-world examples of Black leaders to choose from, science fiction, one of the most imaginative and visionary genres of art continues to struggle to imagine Black characters into lead roles. On Malcolm X’s birthday and in this golden moment of immense geekery with a huge line-up of sci-fi and superhero movies and tv shows, what better time to take a look at the state of Black leadership in science fiction?
Of the more than 25 major superhero and sci-fi movies coming out this year, only one, After Earth, starring Will and JadenSmith, features a Black character in a leading role. A handful of others, including Star Trek:Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, and the forthcoming Ender’s Game,feature major Black characters in their casts.
Black characters in science fiction and comics tend to be relegated to side-kicks or token roles (that is, if they’re not immediately killed off first… (*spoilers ahead) RIP random Black guy in last week’s episode of Defiance, Black guy in the first 10 minutes of Star Trek: Into Darkness,Luke Cage and Black Panther in Age of Ultron).It remains a rarity to see a Black character in a leading role in science fiction or superhero stories.
There are, of course, exceptions spread out over the decades: Abar, The First Black Superman(1977), Steel(1997), Spawn(1997), Blade (1998-2004), and Hancock(2008) are all examples of films with a leading Black hero. Granted, several of them were pretty bad…
In comics Batwing and MilesMorales in Ultimate Comics Spider-manare pretty lonely as two of very few Black characters leading their own major comics. Black Panther and Nick Fury however are at least in leadership roles in the Avengersstory lines.
The small screen today, however, has a lot more to offer. In sci-fi television right now Revolution’sCaptain Tom Nevilleis one of the only Black sci-fi characters in a leadership role. The show also features the mysterious Grace Beaumontin a recurring role. And Merlinwas so bold as to cast Black actress Angel Coulby as leading lady Gwynevere(to much of the usual internet rage and backlash).
Defiance’sTommy Lasalle, Falling Skies’sAnthony,Teen Wolf’sBoyd, and The Walking Dead’sMichonneare regularly recurring Black characters in science fiction tv; however, each of them plays a sort of “hired hand” or “body gaurd” role. Game of Thronesrecently introduced Grey Worm, the elected commander of the emancipated Unsullied army, who has had few lines and little screen time thus far, and he is quite literally a hired hand. Missandei, a translator for Danaerys, was also recently introduced. Though far from being a leader, she does get a bit of screen time. The now deceased Xaro Xhoan Daxos, a leader of Qarth was the only other Black character to be given substantial screen time in the show.
Characters like True Blood’sTara Thornton, Vampire Diaries‘s Bonnie Bennett, and Grimm’sHank Griffin are all cast in the role of best friend to the main protagonists. Hank Griffin more specifically is the protagonist Nick Burkhardt’s partner in the Portland police force
And there are some exciting new shows with Black leads to look forward to…
Sleepy Hollow, premiering this fall on Fox, is truly unique among sci-fi shows, casting Black actress Nicole Beharie in the leading role of Abbie Archer, a police officer and lead investigator on the supernatural case rocking her town. The show also features Black actor Orlando Jones as Lieutenant Frank Williams. The trailer seems to indicate that Jones and Beharie’s characters are the main characters along with Ichabod Crane himself.
While the idea of a modernized time-travelling headless horseman is a tad ridiculous, it’s such a rare sight to see a Black woman leading a sci-fi series that we’re crossing our fingers pretty hard that it will be good. . J.J. Abrams’ AlmostHuman, however, looks pretty dope. And the leading character’s robot partner, Dorian is played by Black actor Michael Ealy.
Science fiction is often a genre that looks ahead, that beats society to the punch, projecting fantastical futures, predicting technologies that will define our future, or showing us the possible outcomes of our current destructive behaviors. While there have been small victories in the inclusion of recurring characters of color in many tv shows, comics, and novels, it is hardly beyond the imagination of such a visionary genre as science fiction to create worlds where characters of color (because this conversation obviously extends beyond Black and white) are the main protagonists of a story, or perhaps *gasp* multiple characters of color are the leads! Of course, we have sci-fi writers who are placing characters of color at the center of their stories, like Samuel Delany,Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson and more. But unfortunately such stories are often considered “for Black people” rather than for general enjoyment, and so they remain outside the mainstream, never making it to movie adaptations or major network TV series… or even simply into the hands of a wide and diverse readership.
But how do we go about fixing that? Is this gradual route – slowly introducing more and more characters of color in increasingly leading roles – the right way to go? Is it working? What else might work?
*This is hardly an exhaustive account of all of the Black characters in comics and sci-fi, though we did attempt to capture the major players. Please feel free to add more in the comments! We look at a few current comics with major characters of color here.