No More Straight White Men: On THOR, Entitlement, and Representation

It should be no secret that modern media and mainstream entertainment have something of a representation problem. Look at current examples like Ridley Scott’s whitewashing in Exodus, or the worrisome representation of women in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise – reaching its logical but awful conclusion in characters quoting statutory rape defences to absolve problematic relationships. Pull a random film or boxset from my collection and chances are the protagonist will be a heterosexual white man. For someone raised with iconic heroes that ranged from Buffy to Captain Sisko, it seems sometimes unfathomable, the preponderance of the singular physical pattern of the archetypal hero which continues to inundate the entertainment industry.

Of course, society at large has a representation problem, let us be honest; the overspill into the media and entertainment industries is just a wider part of the ongoing cultural discourse. In a particularly Irish context, just this week the UN took the Irish State to task for its attitude towards women. In particular it drew attention to the situation where women made pregnant by rape were “by the law clearly treated as a vessel and nothing more”. The definition of women as vessel is not something unique to our political landscape; it is a widespread cultural problem that manifests in the presentation of women as secondary characters, important for their relationship to the male characters in their lives, rather than as agents in their own stories. These are the unrequited loves, the girlfriends, the kooky best friends, victims, beloved princesses; they are the women in refrigerators. POC characters have, historically, fared no better. Take, for instance, something like Noah, re-imagining one of the great creation myths of western Christianity, a story borrowed wholesale from Middle Eastern culture. Here it is portrayed as a fantasy story, set in unhistorical time, rather than a “realistic” rendering of a folk-tale. As such, it had plenty of scope to play with aspects with the mythology; unfortunately it chose to configure our antediluvian ancestors as totally Anglo-Saxon in appearance. POC characters have no place in the genesis of our culture, even when that culture is actively being borrowed from them.

Korra, protagonist of Nickelodeon’s ‘Legend Of Korra’

That is not to say that there are not numerous companies and creators who are making excellent art with good representation for POC and female characters. Orphan Black’s premise virtually dramatizes the feminist critique of social/religious/corporate control of female bodies and representation. Despite recent award snubs, it seems its popularity has surged in the second season and has been renewed for a third. The Legend Of Korra, the Nickelodeon children’s show, for instance features a main character who is both female and of colour. The fact that it is critically well received and commercially viable is an aspect of the sea change which various aspects of the entertainment industry are slowly starting to accept. This is in stark contrast to the cancellation of Young Justice, on the basis that its growing audience of girls would not buy the available merchandise. The runaway success of both Frozen and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games franchise will undoubtedly contribute to a continuing improvement in female representation.

That is not to say that all entertainment which is disappointing in terms of gender or colour representation is necessarily terrible. Some is excellent; True Detective and Sherlock spring directly to mind. Doctor Who is a particularly good example of the lack of diverse representation. Although the show has gone to some lengths to indicate that neither gender nor colour are fixed concepts in Galifreyan biology, as the Doctor enters a thirteenth incarnation he remains utterly white and male. Obviously Peter Capaldi will make an excellent Doctor, but that doesn’t quite assuage the disappointment that the status quo has not been challenged. That said, the fact of diverse casting does not in and of itself guarantee positive portrayals of those characters. The second and fourth seasons of A Game Of Thrones have shown how easy it can be to make a mess of representation, when the agency of the female characters is downgraded in the name of melodrama and rape becomes an unaddressed shock tactic. Penny Dreadful, a show I still cannot figure out if I like or not, is made up of a cast of characters literally and figuratively haunted by their pasts. All of the main cast have some secret curse, affliction or ghost, and the first 8-episode season has teased out the majority of those mysteries. However, with the character Sembene, the only person of colour in the show, when his past is approached, he responds that he has no story. This could easily be setup for the second season; but it could equally be commentary on the invisibility of POC characters in Victorian literature, their virtual erasure from the history of the time. They are good servants, guides and/or shamans, exotic mysteries, rather than realised individuals. Whatever the intention of the remark, Penny Dreadful will, in its sophomore season, need to make good on the commentary or the mystery inherent in Sembene’s depiction or run the risk of marginalising the only non-white main character they have featured.

Both of the Big Two comic publishers, DC and Marvel, can trace their origins back from the late thirties right through to the 1960s. Given the prevalent cultural climate of these formative decades, it should probably not be a surprise that the characters who emerged from this age are predominantly straight white males. A few women were peppered into the universes, many as love interests, some few as individuals in their own right – Wonder Woman being a particular example. Although later decades brought newer characters and improved diversity, these new entrants rarely immediately achieve the kind of instant recognition of those iconic originators. Batman is instantly recognisable, but I can guarantee that my parents would not recognise either Luke Cage or Captain Marvel. As such, I would suggest that new characters face an utterly uphill battle to claim their readership. Just because something like Gail Simone and Freddie William III’s The Movement has a diverse cast representing disabled, LGBTI and coloured teenagers does not mean that it will be able to tap every aspect of the potential audience. Many people who would be interested in the story of these diverse teenagers in literal battle with vested capitalist, political, and social interests will never hear of this group of heroes, particularly since their story ran for only twelve issues. This is a story competing with three or four Batman titles, a similar number of Superman ones, possibly as many as seven X-Men titles, all of them established and familiar. Anyone who walks into a comic book shop has thousands of trade paperbacks featuring decades of Avengers or Spider-man story arcs to choose from; the twelve issues of The Movement or Bunn and Sliney’s The Fearless Defenders do not have the steam to outpace, or even match, the familiar giants that dominate the shelves. Twelve issues, or two volumes, of these stories are practically invisible beside the wall of continuous history presented by established titles. Many people argue that new superheroes simply have to earn their place in the pantheon, whether they are female or minority characters. This is a kind of Darwinian capitalist essentialism. It is a philosophy that suggests that woman and minorities – and indeed, straight white men – are only as substantial as their bank accounts, and one which favours the inheritors of historically racist and marginalising systems. Adherence to this system presupposes that the playing field is level, rather than infinitely stacked in favour of the straight white male. It imagines that people are buying straight white men because that is all they want, rather than because that is predominantly where the industry has been focusing its attention for decades.

The new THOR (Russell Dauterman)

Marvel have been making inroads for a few years now, attempting to promote new, more varied characters. The recent debut of Kamala Khan, a teenaged Pakistani-American female superhero, under the Ms Marvel legacy has won considerable phrase, particularly since the resulting book as been of such high quality so far. Obviously, I am a fan of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie and it is in no small part to their stellar Young Avengers run, which was particularly concerned with gender and sexuality representations. Captain Marvel’s popularity exploded with her reworking under Kelly Sue DeConnick. Marvel also launched an all-female X-team under the title X-Men, grouping many of the most popular female X-Men into one title, as a sort-of challenge to any preconception that they X-women might in an context be considered supporting characters. Last week, Marvel comics took perhaps it greatest step yet and announced a number of changes to its line, two of which were calculated specifically to address some of the deficit in terms of POC and gender representations. On Tuesday, it was announced that Thor would, from October, be a woman. On Wednesday, they followed with the news that Sam Wilson, currently the Falcon, would be taking up the mantle of Captain America from a depowered, aging Steve Rodgers. Bolstered by the fact that these announcements came on high profile American TV shows, The View and The Colbert Report respectively, certain tracts of the internet subsequently went ballistic. There are many who are delighted. There many who are pleased but will want to see the finished product before passing judgement. And then there are those who are angry. Those who are very, very angry.

Some examples, from Marvel editor Tom Brevoort’s Tumblr, are presented here –

how much money Marvel gets the Pentagon to create ideological propaganda in your comics?

Just because Planet of the Apes is a big hit doesn’t mean you have to make Captain America one.

So you pea brains are Marvel know nothing about the history of slavery, so you have white guilt due to ignorance on the subject, and think a black Captain America will erase the images of the white devil that you’ve been manipulated into believing?

Watch your sales drop, you arrogant fucks! Turning Thor into a woman is the stupidest thing ever! You guys are full yourselves! You guys have made him a woman several times out of continuity, now you want to inside of it. It’s bullshit! BULLSHIT! UP YOURS YOU FAT BASTARDS

Sam Wilson in the first look at the redisigned Capt America costume. (Stuart Immonen)

Given these extreme reactions, it seems prudent to question what changes Marvel announced. They didn’t, for instance, announce the wholesale slaughter of all straight white male characters in their universe. In fact, they are explicitly not killing off either of the current figures helming these titles. The current Thor, it is suggested, will perform some action which will render him unworthy of the hammer Mjolnir. We can infer, perhaps, that he will abandon his name, or be stripped of it, as part of his penance. The new female character who takes up Mjolnir will also assume the title of Thor. Jason Aaron, the current writer of the title, will continue to pen the series. In the Captain America book, Steve Rodgers has been depowered and is aging rapidly. The Falcon, a secondary character in the current ongoing, will assume the mantle of Captain America. Contrary to the impression on the internet, he is neither the first successor to Steve Rodgers, nor even the first black Captain America. Following the admittedly-temporary death of Steve Rodgers in 2007, Bucky Barnes wore the flag-themed costume. Isiah Bradley, introduced in 2003 as a 1940s contemporary of Rodgers, is considered the ‘black Captain America’, a figure largely unheard of outside of Marvel’s African-American community, but an inspiration to modern heroes such as Wilson, Luke Cage and Monica Rambeau. He is representative of the disguised, ignored or forgotten history of black figures, those marginalised by the dominant, white narrative. There is considerable precedence for Wilson to take up the shield in Captain America. As he already functions as supporting character in the ongoing series, providing air support for Rodgers. He is an obvious and natural successor. Again, the current writer, in this case Rick Remender, will continue to script the series. Certainly, these books are unlikely to be fundamentally different in tone after the characters changeover, even if the story beats presented turn in a new direction. Marvel, I would argue, is not looking to revamp the titles themselves, because they are both relatively successful; rather it is a chance, a concerted effort, to make some of the core, established characters of the universe representative of aspects of the audience that have previously been neglected. As I have said, new characters struggle to match the saturation levels of the classic characters. By reconfiguring them, Marvel are hoping to bypass the necessity of popularising new characters, while still capitalising on the decades of backstory already in place.

The cinematic universes of the comic franchises actually present a slightly distorted image of the reality of reading comic book stories. For those who only partake of the films, these stories appear infrequently enough, many months between different aspects like Captain America and the upcoming The Guardians Of The Galaxy, and years between direct sequels, like the various instalments of Nolan’s Batman franchise. The actual comics, however, come out month on month, in some cases shipping twice a month. Particular arcs might last for five or six issues, or for a writer’s entire run, sometimes totally thirty or fifty or over a hundred issues, but the story is always continuous, inhabiting the same universe as those published in the 80s or 90s. Essentially, mainstream comics are mythological soaps, Coronation Street with superpowers. Every so often, upheaval kicks the status quo a little out of place. I’m not sure how many times Thor has died, but at least twice in the last fifteen years. Nothing is permanent in terms of any superhero universe; it is a genre fuelled by reinvention, escalation, upheaval. One legitimate criticism of this act, is that it will not last; Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-man ran for 30-odd issues, and eventually Peter Parker returned. In twenty, or fifty, or a hundred issues, Steve Rodgers may take up the shield again, male Thor might be redeemed, his hammer returned. It is not merely possible, it is likely. That reality does not negate the attempt to try something new, in my opinion. It is always possible that one or both of these changes will hold in the long term, but experience would tell us this is optimistic.

Given then, that male Thor and Steve Rodgers have not been erased, that their return is possible, some would argue inevitable, it is almost doubly difficult to understand the full extent of the bile these announcements have aroused. I think it is fair to say, that if the industry has a representation problem, the fandom has an outrage problem. A certain amount of this is bleed-through from an internet culture which considers typing in capital letters and hyperbolic misrepresentation the highest form of discourse. It is borne, very clearly, of western educational systems which privilege test-scores over and above instilling comprehension skills or any form of critical thinking. It is an issue with those aforementioned inherent (and inherited) systems of entitlement. Certain elements of the fandom presume that consumption is the same as ownership. This is a particular form of fan entitlement that leaves some confused and even enraged when the corporate or artist decision-making process no longer lines up with their own reality. Marvel, in this instance, own the content; what they do with it is essentially their business. Criticism is both allowed and necessary; whether it is directed at a perceived deficiency in the materials or at changes to accommodate those previously neglected by the status quo constructive, critical discourse is essential to the survival of any medium. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns, but both these announcements have garnered an incredible level of outraged warbling misogyny and racism. Marvel is not making a good business decision, capitalising on neglected elements of the market, according to this ideology; it is not improving disproportionate representation; it is pandering to a PC agenda which seeks to disenfranchise straight white men, to erase our idols. So preciously held is our privilege, some of us cannot tolerate even the slightest encroachment into what was once perceived as white/male territory, when in truth it is at best public space, and in actuality, the intellectual property of a private corporate body. I do not own Thor, any more than manhood in general does. In very real terms there is no more about the God of Thunder that is inherently male than there is anything intrinsically white about Captain America. There is nothing to prevent me, as a straight white man, from identifying with female or coloured characters. Any arguments to the contrary is, without doubt, nothing but thinly veiled racism or misogyny.

No one is obliged to be thrilled by these announcements. No one is obliged to buy these comics upon their release, but few to none of the arguments against them have any real weight, particularly those which suggest that this is some kind of attack on straight white men. Tom Brevoort, editor at Marvel, responding to a disgruntled reader, said it best –

I’m sorry that there are no longer any white male heroes in comics that you can relate to.

Thoughts On #YesAllWomen And Agency

On Friday 23rd May in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, a young man murdered six people and injured seven others, in an attack which he claimed was retribution against the women who had ignored and rejected him all his life, against the men they chose instead. In the aftermath, two familiar arguments were suddenly in the public spotlight again. One, that of gun control, is a particularly American issue, and I’ll leave it aside, saying only; obviously have controls on guns. Obviously. The second issue brought up by the murders, that of violence directed at women, is a more global phenomenon. There is a certain narrative which couches Elliot Rodger’s actions as aberration, which is interested as seeing him as only the unknowable lunatic; unfortunately this is neither accurate nor helpful. Certainly, mental health issues have played a role in the tragedy. Rodger’s family was concerned about him and various professionals, including law enforcement officials, had been in contact with him prior to the attack. There were clearly failures. To consider this the sum total of the incident, however, does a disservice to Rodger’s victims, as well as the victims of others who share his ideology.

Make no mistake, Elliot Rodger adhered to an ideology. His world-view required sexual gratification in order to measure his personal worth. In his videos he made explicit reference to feeling “pathetic” because he was still a virgin, because of repeated rejections by women as a whole. Further, he could not understand the rejection, because, in his own mind, he met some set of criteria that entitled him to sex. He considered himself the consummate gentleman and thus that it was his absolute right to be sexually and personally gratified. Female bodies are explicitly codified as being a – or rather, the – source of pleasure which will fulfil him. In this context, the man cannot be fully realised because women refuse to provide what he is fully entitled to. Denied this affirmation, Rodger’s frustration manifested in violence. His final video, Retribution, might make reference to humanity, but it also more specifically targets women, “the hottest sorority”, those who rejected him, as those deserving of his anger. The men who prefigure in his revenge are the undeserving recipients of that which was rightfully his; namely, the bodies and pleasure provided by women.

This ideology is not something that Elliot Rodger plucked wholesale from the ether, nor is he one of a small coterie of adherents living on the fringes of decent society. Rather, he is the worst-case scenario of what happens when Western culture’s rigid gender roles reach crisis. Capitalist commodification and that pervading brand of lazy, uncritical media conflate to perpetuate, if not actively, consciously reinforce easy and controlled definitions of normative sexuality. This is the narrative that produces phrases such as “boys will be boys” and seeks to excuse predatory male behaviour as something “we all do”, when we know it is not. It is the same culture that seeks to silence female experience of the consequences of male social privileges. Rodger was – all of us have been – sold a vision of gender relations that gives primacy to male identity, where our role is to ‘win’ female affection as part of the image of heteronormative actualisation. The criteria for proving may have evolved from bride-stealing, but the result is the same; women are a commodity for men, an object to provide social and person affirmation, as well as sexual pleasure. Women are sold as inherently requiring a man; all the male actor must do is prove capable of fulfilling the prerequisite criteria. He is then entitled to affection; from a woman, any woman, all women.

Women, in Elliot Rodger’s world, betrayed the prevalent social framework and thus were the deserving victims of his revenge. Rather than unfathomable, his actions should be viewed as the logical extension of any misogynistic ideology that privileges the male role in society over and above the female. When a woman is no longer entitled to her own physical agency, because she chooses to drink, or wear particular clothes, or any other excuse, we are codifying the attitudes which create future Elliot Rodgers. His behaviour is that of an ideological extremist, someone for whom the ability to control and oppress women is a right, as much a zealot as suicide bombers in the Middle East or dissident paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Laurie Penny writes more fully on the topic here. His philosophy might be considered social, rather than political, but there is no denying his inherent radicalisation, manifested in massacre. Elliot Rodger should not be simply considered a violent madman, but the poster-boy for male sexual entitlement and violence, the misogynist terrorist, now martyred for his cause.

Consider the scenario. A man approaches a woman; directly or indirectly, he attempts to begin a conversation, desiring sexual or personal gratification. The woman is uninterested. He responds to her rejection with anger. This is the Elliot Rodger story, but it is also one that virtually none of the women I know are unfamiliar with. Delving into my own personal experience I can think of infinite occasions where one of my female friends had me pretend to be a boyfriend in order to deflect the unwanted attention of aggressive, relentless men. I have done this for virtual strangers as well, because for many men, a women’s agency is irrelevant, her refusal negotiable. Only another man’s presence requires respect. When I was fifteen, taking a bus, a guy decided he wanted to sit beside my friend. He was in his mid-twenties, she was fifteen. Obviously, she wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of sharing the bus journey with a rather drunk and aggressive man, growling that that I’m in his way. He dragged me out of the seat, many punches were exchanged, he bit my face, my friend reefed a load of his hair out trying to get him off me and then it was over and that was that. Sometimes, when I tell this story, I tell a story about me, but it’s not, is it? It’s a story about how on a specific occasion, a specific fifteen-year old girl was lucky enough not to have to sit beside a creepy, violent man. It’s about how her personal agency was not enough of a barrier, and another (male) body had to be. How often do you think fifteen-year old girls are trapped in that situation?

I hope that is an extreme example, although within the context of the Elliot Rodger’s story, it becomes considerably more benign. Examples of a lesser order teem however. Only a few months ago I was leaving a fairly well-known Dublin pub with three female friends. Two guys had been hitting on them, and were sort of nonplussed that we had decided to leave. The girls had gone just ahead while I put on my jacket and one of the guys grabbed me, demanding that I “share”. In his mind, I was hoarding these women to myself, denying him and his friend something they were socially entitled to. Their opinion of the matter was secondary to mine, and indeed, his. These may be familiar examples, but they are also cherry-picked from a litany of examples in my rather male life. There is no doubting that the female experience of these kinds of events is both different and infinitely more prolific.

Within days of the Isla Vista massacre, the #YesAllWomen tag exploded on Twitter. It is a continuing litany of the failure of our social structures to deal with male privilege, and to hear female voices. It is remarkable the degree to which men (including myself) are unaware of the daily, grinding degree of sexism women toil through. The #YesAllWomen tag is a platform through which women can express, and are expressing, a universal experience; that they have been, at some point, treated like an object by a man, like their only value was in their sexual significance, and most worryingly, as if their own agency was of secondary importance to that of a man. Many men continue to view consent as a negotiation, refusal as an obstacle to be circumvented, others still that the strictures of consent do not apply equally to all levels of physical contact. Some men are “just handsy”, runs the excuse; it is a hazard women expect to encounter. If the thread is a useful mechanism for women to let each other know they are not alone in their experiences, it can also be a harrowing object-lesson in reality for men.

Predictably, the response from men has not been all positive. Firstly, most obviously, a deep swell of misogyny arose to greet it. There are any number of posts suggesting women must simply “suck it up”, “learn to live with it”, or worse, literally blaming women for the Isla Vista murders, suggesting that if one of them had just slept with Rodger, none of this would have happened. Remembering the reaction to Caroline Criado-Perez’s attempts to have a woman represented on British banknotes, we should note that the issue of women’s representation, and the violence and anger with which it will be opposed, has not significantly changed. Lewis’s Law, suggesting “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism”, applies to the response directed at the #YesAllWomen campaign; that fact that there are those who reject the right of women to express their lived experience, who would reduce it to “whinging” or “attention-seeking”, inherently remind us why it needs to exist.

Perhaps equally as predictable is the common refrain of #NotAllMen. This tag makes the suggestion that women, for highlighting their experience, seek to tear down men as a totality, that the chosen form of expression borders on misandry, of all things, because it does not actively, at all moments reassure that not all men are encompassed in their complaints. At its most extreme it operates in total opposition to a chosen form of female expression, mocks, undercuts and denigrates it; at best it is a wilful misunderstanding of female experience, and an immature response to the merest hint of personal criticism. It is men crying, “But not me, right!?” instead of actively hearing and engaging with the lived female reality. In a sense, at a moment of social significance for women, men are demanding, not merely to be heard, but to be affirmed by women. Sounds familiar, right? Women are firmly aware that not all men are misogynistic, abusive monsters. Many women consider us to be loyal friends, worthy peers and equal partners. How frustrating then, to have their attempt at honest communication of real experience met with demands for personal exemptions and affirmations, denials and protests, rather than with understanding, empathy, engagement or the desire to improve either the self or society. Make no mistake, men have a profound responsibility in the project to improve the social space women inhabit. We have been, for the longest time, the gatekeepers, and there are those of us who are vehemently opposed to giving up that privilege.

Following on from the debacle surrounding Janelle Asselin’s completely correct comments on a Teen Titan comic cover, Andy Khouri wrote a call-to-arms for men, not just in the comic book industry, but in wider society, to end the gatekeeping which seeks to silence and denigrate women’s voices, particularly in previously male-dominated spaces. Chief among his suggestions is the idea that men must take active responsibility for the kinds behaviour that is tolerated in their social sphere, not just their own individual actions. Rather than telling women “Not all men”, we men need to say to other men “That’s not acceptable.” We need to hear women when they are telling us it is unacceptable to direct certain behaviour at them. We need to be listening, not asking to be assured that we are “not one of those guys”, and perhaps most importantly, we – I – must be ready to push over on the stage, so that women also have their opportunity to be heard.