The Black Superhero – by Kaitlyn McCafferty
Superheroes were the catalyst to my deep fascination with comics. I remember watching X-Men: Evolution as a kid, amazed by the very concept of superpowers. I’ve always cherished the world of superheroes because within it, anything can happen. There’s an entire universe of possibilities at your fingertips; you can fly, punch through walls with your bare hands, or even shoot lasers from your eyes! That is, if you’re a straight, white male.
When I try to discuss the representation of people of color in media, I am often met with two responses from white people. The first is that representation doesn’t matter because media doesn’t really hold power. The second is that characters of color will not sell. I find both arguments rather absurd.
The weight of influence between art and the world is reciprocal. We, as people, create art where we find value, concern, or interest. We know art to be a reflection of what we perceive as valuable or important in reality. In turn, the images, stories, and media we consume can shape and normalize the way we perceive the world around us.
Superheroes represent the values of our society. They are capable, strong, independent, powerful, and just. Their appearances often reflect heavily romanticized versions of the societally idealized body. Male heroes are hyper-masculine, reflecting the societally successful and powerful male, while female heroes are hyper-sexual, reflecting the societally successful and powerful female. This is also why most heroes are white and male; in the eyes of American society (both consciously and unconsciously), being white and male is the key to success and power. This is a deep-rooted inequity that has been left untouched far too often. Because of the influences between media and our perceptions of reality, changing the way people of color are represented in the media can influence the way they are seen in the real world. Exclusion or detrimental representation is not just complacence; it is a conscious decision to perpetuate the racist system.
We are inundated with images all around us in this modern age; they surround us at all times. We look to them as reflections of reality. If the images that we see exclude black people, then the media is showing a flawed and deceptive reality. Such a practice is not incidental. The comics industry is dominated by white men. None of the writers nor illustrators of the current Wonder Woman nor the 2008-2010 Black Panther (Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister) are women. One of three illustrators and one of two authors of the 2008-2010 Black Panther were black. Art is a form of communication. If only one type of artist is allowed to share their voice, the conversation becomes one-sided and often close-minded. Rather than characters of color not being able to sell, I find much of the problem lies in the racially biased industry.
Representation of black superheroes in popular media has always been and remains a constant struggle. One need only look to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to see where the inadequacy lies. None of the members of the active, main Avengers team are people of color. The only heroes of color are black men; no women of color are represented. And even when the black characters are present, they are not treated with the same reverence as the white ones. Good representation doesn’t depend on presence of black characters alone.
In both the Captain America and Iron Man franchises James Rhodes’ War Machine and Sam Wilson’s Falcon only serve the role of “friend” to their white, male counterparts. They ask questions to advance the plot, give a masculine shoulder-touch of support when need be, and add comedic dialogue to lighten serious moods. In Captain America: Civil War this is especially apparent, as both Rhodes and Falcon appear at very similar times and possess no character outside of their banter, moral support, and plot advancement. Instead of acting upon the plot, they are used as devices inside of it.
Some hope for this franchise lies with Black Panther—T’Challa Udaku—the first black Marvel superhero film protagonist. He is also the first black Marvel superhero ever to be created, debuting in 1966 from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. There is potential to portray a black hero on the same level as white heroes through this movie. However, one must also take Black Panther’s power origins into consideration. Black characters—even when represented—tend to suffer from racial stereotypes just as often as they are relegated to the status of white character support. Black Panther finds his power in racist stereotypes that associate black people with animals, voodoo, mysticism, and savagery. One can find a similar sexist association between female characters and feline powers, such as Cat Woman, Cheetah, and Black Cat.
The current author of Black Panther is Ta-Nehisi Coates, an accomplished author whose book, Between the World and Me, is recognized as the 2016 University of Oregon common reading for its powerful insight into the African-American experience. Coates attempts to bring power to black heroes through Black Panther. Concerning T’Challa, he states,
“ Longtime fans of the character obviously got something out of seeing T’Challa a certain way, that we all need. [It’s what] white fans get out of seeing Captain America a certain way… [Y]ou pick up the Black Panther and you’re not really getting that, so it’s like, ‘What the fuck, man!’ Where do I go to get my black—and I would add this because I think it’s very important—male machismo? Where do I go to get that feeling of power that I need to get reading Black Panther?”
These are elements to consider when consuming all forms of media. Viewers have a say in what they want to see. Products are often directed by the needs and desires of the consumer. Complacent viewing and consumption is just as much of a decision as complacent creating. When watching a superhero movie, it’s important to see how black characters are represented, if they are at all. Once aware of the social environment, we can begin to foster change and work towards equality.