Diverse Superhero Casts are Masking the Issue
When it comes to ethnicity, comics have always struggled with representation. In the early days, black characters all spoke in an exaggerated dialect, Asian henchmen died by the boatload (especially at Batman’s hands, back before his no-killing policy) and more than a few villains were insensitive stereotypes. It was a long time before characters of colour could be anything but thugs, and even longer before they could be heroes in their own right. It was no different in the cinematic or televisual adaptations either. So it’s great to see the diverse line-ups on today’s programming. Isn’t it?
The problem is, representation hasn’t really improved all that much. These shows are still full of stereotypes that pre-exist the superhero genre, going back to pulp heroes like the Spirit, Crimson Avenger and Green Hornet. Black and Asian characters remain sidelined by an otherwise white cast of more integral roles while displaying stereotyped behaviour.
When John Diggle was introduced in Arrow, he had all the hallmarks of a great character and an instant fan favourite. His friendship with Oliver Queen allowed the show a capacity for emotional depth that didn’t always hinge on angst-based whining and angry brooding. But at the same time, he was a man with a gun, kept largely on the bench because he had no codename or costume. Even now that he has a mask, Diggle rarely brings anything to the table that isn’t already provided by Oli or Laurel, or Thea or Felicity. Only when he’s given his own sub-plots does he really come into his own.
Flash’s Joe West was a similarly strong character, but one’s whose use to the team is questionable at best. Except for the injection of warmth Joe adds as a father-figure, I struggle to see any way in which the show’s core narrative would be affected by Joe’s absence. Yet West and Diggle are two of the best utilized characters of colour.
Both Iris and Kendra have been bland throughout their appearances, only featuring to give viewers something to look at and our heroes someone to fawn over. Patty Spivot showed more personality in her first minute on-screen than Iris has accomplished in two seasons. Linda, on the other hand, showed plenty of spunk for the two or three episodes she featured in.
In the season one finale of Agents of Shield, Tripp dies, proving that it’s not only horror movies where the black guy dies first. Mike Peterson, despite becoming Deathlok, has been underused and remains a little 2 dimensional. But the three worst offenders are all from CW’s offerings, Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow: Andy Diggle, Jefferson Jackson and Wally West.
We’ll start with Andy Diggle. When first mentioned, he was remembered as an upstanding member of society and a veteran. John only ever had good things to say about him , while he hunted for Andy’s killer, Deadshot. Now, since Andy’s frankly unsurprising return as one of Darrk’s footsoldiers, all of that is out the window.
First of all, nobody seems to have mentioned Andy’s wife, whom John tried having a relationship with in the first season, or his son A.J. So, we’ve got a black guy who ran out on his wife and kid. Stereotype number one. Second, despite Diggle never mentioning it before, it is revealed Andy was involved in drugs before he joined the army. Black guy as a criminal. Stereotype number two. Third, since the moment of his return, Andy has been nothing but aggressive, leaving little to his personality beside his constant anger and resentment towards his older brother. Hot-headed black guy. Three strikes and you’re out!
Of course, to say that this kind of personality is off-limits to black characters would be absurd. One aggressive black man from a criminal background is simply a role that was needed, and Andy works as a character. But that doesn’t forgive two more in the exact same mould.
Wally West starts off in a one-parent family, just him and his mother, which is just the reflected image of the first stereotype. When he reunites with the rest of his family, Iris and Joe, it is soon revealed that he takes part in illegal street races to pay for his mother’s medical bills. It’s frighteningly close to the background given to Michael B. Jordan’s Human Torch in the failed F4 reboot.
Then there’s his continual anger at Joe for not knowing about him and not being there to be a father. I know that they were going for emotional depth, but we’re yet to see any other side to the newest addition to the family. All his grief, confusion, and resentment manifests as anger. And it doesn’t take long for that to become boring. Especially when we’ve seen it all before.
The worst of the worst has to be Jefferson Jackson. Jackson, like the Diggles, is a character unique to the show, and a surprising addition to the cast. When Ronnie Raymond supposedly died in the season one finale, the replacement counterpart for Martin Stein seemed obvious. After all, we had already met Jason Rusch, one of the DC comics characters who uses the Firestorm Matrix. So this unknown ‘Jax’ guy was an unexpected twist.
Where Jason Rusch – who appeared in just one episode – was a scientist, the new character was a mechanic, whining about lost glory as a football star (reminiscent of Cyborg’s origins, as well as the comics version of Rusch). He, too, has lost his father and grown up in a single-parent household. He immediately rejects the prospect of a partnership with Stein, and when he finally comes around to the idea, his remains hot-headed – both literally and figuratively. But at least he’s not a criminal, right? Until the episode of Legends of Tomorrow where he helps Captain Cold and Heatwave by performing as their getaway driver, apparently unable to resist trying out the futuristic vehicle.
So, to recap, those five stereotypes are:
1. First to die
3. Broken home
4. Bad attitude
5. Criminal background
Jax is hitting four out of five of them already, and although it’s unlikely CW will opt for yet another new Firestorm, anything could happen. Meanwhile, most other black characters are hitting at least one of these stereotypes. Even ignoring the social-political ramifications, this is getting worryingly predictable.
It’s easy to think that the diversity of characters in our superhero shows represents a change for the better, but as of yet, we’ve made little progress. Characters like Mack and Curtis Holt are a good sign, but until they’re allowed to flourish as the stars they have the potential to be, we’ll continue to perpetuate the myth that characters of colour must always play second fiddle to the white heroes.