There’s a Nietzschean joke in the above image somewhere about supermen, and the abyss staring back at you. I just haven’t found it yet.
To paraphrase Cicero: ‘Times are bad. Fans no longer obey the creators, and everybody is called Chris.’ This photo set came across my Tumblr last year, then about 6 months later it passed through Twitter. I looked, was horrified, I laughed, and I despaired about diversity in Hollywood casting, like a lot of people who saw this. One blogger, at SoLetsTalkAbout, aptly headed their post referencing this image ‘Peak Whiteness’. That term gets thrown around a lot, but honestly, I think he called it here! Starting with hiring for physical similarities, and a lack of racial diversity which is systemically a massive cultural problem, it only builds. The dominant racial group in Hollywood culture white people have literally made ourselves interchangeable. The assumption being, sadly, that a white (straight) (cis) masculinity is a default, a blank space onto which anything can be layered. Like the body above, faces interchangeably deployed.
This is obviously incredibly insulting for everyone who doesn’t embody these traits; being told that we are ‘different’, or a ‘minority interest’. At worst, its dehumanising. Statistically, it it completely obvious that white, straight, cis, and male is not the majority population of the Earth. It’s not even the majority population of Hollywood’s home state, California. The people we generally don’t see raising this as an issue, however, are the white men. And sometimes I wonder why. On the one hand, its great to see yourself reflected back at you by culture in positions of power and wealth. Always to be Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Captain of the StarShip… But this idea that anything can be layered onto a blank canvas is suggesting there is a blankness to begin with. And that’s the thing I want to address here.
Origin stories are popular on screen because they start a possible series or franchise, and might appeal to a wider audience than a film that assumes a familiarity with established characters. Origins also give heroes a purpose, a reason to do what they do. And they all come to the same conclusion: power bestows responsibility. We only ever see this revelation play out with reference to their secret identities, not the previous civilian one – which becomes merely a mask, a shield for their heroic alter-ego. White, male identity is completely erased because it is assumed not to have existed at all. Black heroes wonder how to balance the experience of living their race with the concept of patriotism in a country that is profoundly unequal. A black hero already had something to fight against, but apparently the white guy needed something to fight for. Not a very flattering portrayal. And, again, dehumanising to everyone else, as it reinforces the idea that there is something ‘different’ about all the people who already had this strong individual motivation, a very clear ‘identity’.
I want to see stories that treat all their characters as individuals, with motivations and identities shaped by their experiences both cultural and physical. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) attempted this, as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) got a lecture on his social impact as a citizen which he had abandoned in his absorption in his heroic identity. (Robin) John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) reminds him of all the charity investment he used to do, as a rich orphan able to help other orphans. Tony Stark had a complicated relationship with his father, does his new found responsibility mean he’ll start to sponsor family counselling services? The damage Wayne had sustained to his body made for dramatic tension, but the audience never saw him learning to adapt his fighting style, or becoming more aware of the tell-tale signs of physical pain in others. A little bonding with Alfred over the state of their knees would have been a nice touch, reminding us that his identity is embodied as much as any one else’s.
By accepting that white really can just be a ‘basic’ identity, we are accepting a neoliberal script that says that socio-economic class, race, and other bodily markers such as disability, are differences to a putative norm, differences to be overcome through individual effort, through heroism. There is no underlying, unifying template for a person or a character. Everyone is different from everybody else. White men called Chris can be well-rounded, complex characters – if we only hold them to the standards we expect of ‘minority’ characters. What is their reason to be on screen, what aspects of their background and social upbringing are they bringing to this story, and why? Why have you made this character white? That shouldn’t be stupid question.
(If you enjoy fanfic and Captain America, check out this short story, that makes you think about Steve Rogers’ identity growing up in New York, in the 1930s.)