Women of Colour are Superheroes Too















By Yen-Rong Wong

DC’s film Wonder Woman has been released, highly anticipated since DC announced it was in the works about a year ago. From all accounts, it seems to be doing quite well. I’ve seen photographs of mothers and daughters of all ages dressing up as Wonder Woman, getting involved in a culture that sometimes can seem reserved for ‘nerdy white boys’.

It may have been this stereotype that pushed me away from comic books and superheroes in my childhood. It really should have been my cup of tea – I gobbled up fantasy novels like there was no tomorrow, and there was a while when I entertained the idea of having superpowers, even though my rational brain knew I probably couldn’t fly or move things with my mind. Now I’m a little older, and have become increasingly invested in many things superhero-related.

I recently visited the Marvel exhibit at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, where costumes and props from all of the Marvel films are on display. While I admired the intricacy of the costume and set designs, and enjoyed seeing collections of comic books on display, I also came to realise why I probably didn’t like superheroes when I was younger. It was because I was unable to see myself in any of them – and even now, it seems as though we still have a fair way to go.

While it is true that there are more women involved in and fronting shows about superheroes (see Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Supergirl, to name a few) – they all white women. The word “woman” seems to only mean “white woman” – ethnically diverse women have to deal with the pleasure of having their ethnicity slapped on for good measure. The issue also goes far beyond physical representation. The way in which women of colour are portrayed or discussed in such shows – as sidekicks, followers, damsels in distress, or the “exotic” seductress – is problematic. Women of colour are more than just flat stereotypes and they deserve more than the lip service that seems to be paid to ethnic minorities in the name of “diversity”.

Such a phrase has, in some instances, become almost tokenistic. Progress in this area is slow even though it has been proven, time and time again, that shows starring women (and people) of colour do quite well. Marvel’s Agents of Shield stars a bunch of women of colour, the most prominent being Melinda May, played by all round badass Ming-Na Wen, and Daisy Johnson, who eventually becomes Quake. Daisy is played by Chloe Bennet (born as Chloe Wang), who readily admits that once she changed her last name to something more “Western”, she started booking more jobs.

On the flip side, Marvel also came under intense criticism for casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, a character who originally hails from the Himalayas. When Swinton commented on the controversy, she lauded the director for “[deciding] to reimagine the Ancient One as a woman. People shouting loud and proud about needing more diversity in Hollywood cinema have got us right behind them.” This is all well and good, but feminism is intersectional – it has to be. Surely it would not have been a terrible shock to the system for the Ancient One to have been Asian and a woman?

There are those who claim that films with people of colour as leads (let alone women of colour) would do poorly at the box office – and yet this has been disproven, time and time again. Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film, Get Out, has raked in US $241 million, blowing its US $4.5 million budget out of the water. In contrast, Matt Damon’s film, The Great Wall, which is set in China and plays right into the white saviour myth, was a relative flop at the box office. Additionally, the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report, conducted by the Bunche Centre, offers more quantitative evidence that “increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film and television content”. The report also found that “films with relatively diverse casts enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment.” The evidence is there, if you bother to look for it. A film with a woman of colour superhero will sell.

Interestingly, comic books themselves have become more ethnically diverse, with characters like Lunella Lafayette (Moon Girl), and the reintroduction of Iron Man as a young black girl. I can only hope this trend continues, and spreads to similar representations on screen. Marvel has recently announced that they will be making Captain Marvel, a film based on the comic book series, Ms Marvel. The current Ms Marvel series, written by G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman, features Kamala Khan, a teenage Muslim Pakistani American girl. I hope Marvel will see it fit to cast Ms Marvel in this iteration.

It will be another step towards telling girls and women of colour around the world that they, too, can be superheroes.

Yen-Rong is a Brisbane based writer, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of Asian Australian artists. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Catalogue Magazine, and Djed Press. You can read more of her words at inexorablist.com.


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