Struggles With Representation Part 1: Race

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Depp as “Tonto” in The Lone Ranger

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about representations of race in media. This is partly because I personally cringe every time I see a commercial for The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp as Tonto, but I know there aren’t wide-spread protests about it, and many Native Americans seem fine with his representation (though others do find it offensive). So, I find myself asking, “Is it okay for me to be offended as a non-member of the minority being represented? Am I just showing my liberal white guilt when my first reaction to Johnny Depp Johnny-Depping it up as Tonto is to smack my forehead and ask how anyone thought this was a good idea?” I’m not sure I have the answer, hence why I ask the question.

Another reason racial representation has been on my mind lately, especially as it pertains to fandom, is due to representations, and the reactions to those representations, of my favorite character from one of my favorite shows, Young Justice (RIP). This character, Artemis Crock, was  half-Vietnamese with naturally blonde hair. Largely due to this unusual genetic combination, representations of this character, both in the companion comic and fan art are constantly being criticized as “whitewashing” the character, even if the artist makes a clear attempt to show Vietnamese facial features. Seriously, it seems there are some users on tumblr whose only occupations are seeking out representations of this character and arguing whether or not they’re offensive. 

Now, changing representations of established characters is something I covered in my last post about “adaption rage.” But, I’ll be expanding on it here.

If we look again at Young Justice, the creators of the show wanted to introduce racial and ethnic diversity to a show. For the bulk of the first season, they relied on two characters to add some diversity. The first was Aqualad. Instead of using the pre-existing Aqualad character, Garth, who was depicted as white (and sometimes grey-ish), the show creators invented a new Aqualad, Kaldu’ahm:

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“Garth”: The original Aqualad

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“Kaldur’ahm” from the Young Justice animated series.

I haven’t seen too much back-lash about this decision, as Kaldur is both a popular character and the original Aqualad, Garth, has appeared on the series and in the comics. There is also little-to-no backlash over another change the creators of the show made to the racial identity of another character. Artemis Crock, as I described above (half-Vietnamese) is not the original version of that character. In fact, if the animated show had gone with the original races of all its characters (excluding Miss Martian, but not really) the show would have been 100% white.

This is where fandom can get a little tricky on the subject of racial representations. Often, fans of the original are just as, if not more, offended by the simple fact that some new-comer made any change to a character they loved. This is why you get certain geeks who flip-out at the idea of making traditionally white characters black. And, the more iconic or well-known the character, the more backlash there is for any change. I doubt, for example, there would be such a dearth of complaints if the show had dared make Dick Grayson, the original Robin, black.

So, why are people so angry about whitewashing a character that was initially white? 

Well, as I discussed briefly in my analysis of “Adaption Rage,” there is another representation issue that comes with minority characters. No matter how you spin it, minorities are still massively under-represented in media. So, when there’s an opportunity for wider representation of Native Americans or Asians or African Americans that is ignored or deemed unmarketable, it’s understandable that people will get upset. 
 
This is why, in part, people got so mad at M. Night Shyamalan and his unholy creation: The Last Airbender. I won’t go into more detail here, because I covered the “racebending” issue in my last post, but I will end with the third reason I felt the need to blog about this today, and that’s this semi-rant I found on tumblr. this morning.
 
For those of you who didn’t follow the link, let me summarize what happened. This is a tumblr. post by Bryan Konietzko who co-created the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel series, Legend of Korra. Konietzko is responding to an anonymous comment someone made based on a preview image he’d shared of Legend of Korra‘s long anticipated second season. The image features the children of two characters from the original series, all of whom look somewhat pale despite their mother having darker, Inuit-inspired features. 
 
The race of these characters has been a somewhat touchy subject for both the lovers of and creators of these two series, especially in light of M. Night’s (who is gloriously called out in Konietzko’s post) decision to make most of the main cast white for his movie. While Konietzko is righteously frustrated with the misrepresentation of his and his partners’ work in the live action movie, he also has room to be understanding:
I am all for social justice and breaking down ignorance and oppressive, hurtful social constructs, particularly when the path to that is to inform, educate, open minds, and promote empathy and equality. I am not a fan of self-righteousness in any form and I struggle to keep from drifting in that direction with my own views and convictions. The internet provides a great platform to call BS on a lot of things, and I encourage people to use it for that. But now that you have the official local color swatches of these characters’ “normal” skin tones in the image above, I can assure you that using it like some Behr color chip ammunition to lambast every fanart depiction of Korra that doesn’t match #a08365 is a flawed pursuit. Ask yourself if any of the things listed above in this post might be factoring into a color variation before you shoot from the hip with your judgement. And if the depiction of Korra in some fanart is without a doubt offensive to you, consider phrasing your response in a way that could help them see it your way. Art is hard! Maybe he or she is trying to get the hang of painting and working with color (skin being one of the hardest things to master). Maybe he or she is still ignorant to the worldly views that are obvious and significant to you. You could take this opportunity to turn it into what they call in parenting “a teaching moment.” You could open some eyes and educate someone who might turn around and share their enlightenment with many others.
 
This is a side to the argument that I sometimes wish was there when the “How dare you whitewash Artemis” army gets fired up. It also make me rethink my own self-righteousness at times, as well as what I take for granted. 
 
The thing is, as much as we’d like to think these issues are simple, they’re not. I still think it’s wrong for Johnny Depp to play a Native American, but I know his heart is mostly in the right place. I also know people who are constantly on the look-out for whitewashing come from a very legitimate position, but I think they sometimes shoot first and ask questions later. 
 
I don’t agree with those who say fictional characters’ races are arbitrary, and thus not something to be concerned about, but I don’t think it should be the ONLY thing we are concerned about. 
 
However, if there’s one aspect of this issue I can firmly take a stand on, it’s this. When you’re dealing with race, don’t let money be your chief motivation, particularly if you’re choosing to underrepresent a minority. Don’t whitewash a character because you don’t think non-white heroes and protagonists are marketable. Don’t give a white actor a tan to play a Native American or Latino just because they’re a big-name star. 
 
There are serious issues with representation in the media, and ignoring them because the only color you care about is green does a disservice to everyone.
 
 
Part 2 will delve into a topic of the representation of women.
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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Struggles With Representation Part 1: Race

  1. Pingback: Updates: Gina Torres as Wonder Woman, Videos With Better Analysis Than Mine, Babsgirl vs Oracle, and My New Action Figure | The Fandom Learning Curve

  2. Pingback: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? A Look At Debate in Fandom. | The Fandom Learning Curve

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