Determining when a character has been whitewashed is, in theory, a rather simple task. Specifically, its a matter of asking oneself:
- Was Character X established as a Person of Color in the original work?
- Has an adaptation of that work changed Character X so that they are now White instead?
If the answer to both is “yes”, then whitewashing has occurred.
Of course, reality has ways of taking the simplest of tests and adding a whole bunch of complications along the way. For example, what if the answer to sub-question one is “yes and no”? This is the case with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ April O’Neil, a character who had no established heritage aside from her last name of Irish origin, and whose looks could change rather drastically between appearances, because apparently, her creators–Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird–had different ideas, and never definitively settled the question while they were working together.
Because people are complicated, there are a lot of differing opinions about this matter, most with at least some evidence backing them up. Hence, this series, chronicling the many looks she’s had, beginning with the moment of her creation and taking us all the way to 2014, where she is set to appear on the big screen once again, this time played by Megan Fox. The idea is not to argue for any particular conclusions–although I do have my own opinions on the matter–but simply to allow people to come to their own. Plus, I like timelines, I really like seeing the visual evolution of a concept, and I think that April’s is, in particular, really interesting.
We begin this first section in 1984, the year when Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird for the second issue of their surprisingly successful comic book, and go all the way to 1987 when she was set to make her debut in the cartoon that changed the franchise forever.
Note: While comments for this series are closed–I do not feel that I am capable of moderating the particular discussions on race that this has the potential to lead into–feedback, either in the form of factual corrections or whatever thoughts you’d like to share, can be sent via the Contact Form at the bottom of the post.
So yesterday I got the finished version of this:
So last night, I watched The Fosters‘ spring finale, featuring the wedding of Lena Adams and Stef Foster, who together form the superlative lesbian couple at the center of the show; afterwards, I took to Tumblr to try to translate my thoughts into written words, and realized that despite all the hullabaloo surrounding the wedding, I had little to say about it or them. I had lots to say about Callie, the white straight teenage girl who is the show’s point of view character, but not the people about whom the episode was ostensibly about. It wasn’t until I read a friend express their disappointment with the episode that I realized why. Like my friend said, the episode, in the end, wasn’t really about Lena and Stef.
And they’re right. Sure, Lena and Stef are prominent throughout the episode, and time is spent on their conflicting ideas about the wedding and the heaping helpings of parental drama that became inevitable the moment Stef proposed. They’re even show in bed together. But as the many, many shots of Callie’s pained face made clear, it wasn’t their story, not really. After the brides’ dance with their children, we hear no more from them, and the final few minutes of the episode are spent on heartbreaking Callie angst.
Now, this isn’t to say that what we did get regarding Lena and Stef wasn’t fantastic, or that one is wrong for enjoying the heck out of it. But that doesn’t necessarily make it enough. The Fosters had set up high standards for itself, as the show that had expressed over and over again a commitment to rarely-represented experiences, and tackled privilege as one of its main themes. As the only same-sex wedding between lead characters we’re going to see in this series, and one of only a handful we’re likely to get in the near future, it was not at all out of the question to want and expect it to be treated as the important thing in the episode, as it almost certainly would have been had it been a traditional wedding. And yet, once one thinks about it, for every thing included, there was something that could have been added: a post wedding conversation. A scene with Lena and Stef’s queer friends (although that one I can sorta understand, given the already-large number of guest-stars already in the episode). An actual sex scene.
Discussing the episode, I got touch of Deja Vu: the execution of the wedding reminded me a lot of the way Archie comics handled Kevin Keller’s wedding a year or two back. Like the one in The Fosters, it was hyped up to all heck. Like the one in The Fosters, the actual issue was less about Kevin and his husband-to-be and more about using that wedding as a background for the more prominent characters’ drama.
And you know, as a straight guy who has his experiences as a straight guy consistently validated, I was satisfied with that, back then: I thought that it indicated a tremendous level of progress, and that that was enough, for now. But as the same-sex wedding as background becomes a trope, it strikes me that while that may indeed indicate a heck of a lot of progress, it is also a sign that we haven’t gone far enough. As well-meaning as the people behind these works may be, the way they are executed nevertheless send a problematic message: gay people’s experiences are not worth focusing on to the extent equivalent experiences by straight people are. And it is precisely because these people are well-meaning—and are at the helm of works experienced by a not-inconsiderable amount of people—that it’s important to let them know that hey, they can do better. If they are truly committed to making things better, they’ll take the constructive criticism and use it to improve their craft, and maybe sooner rather than later, we can have the same-sex wedding episode QUILTBAG people deserve. On the other hand, if this episode wasn’t a fluke (and a big dang fluke it is) and Lena and Stef’s experiences continue to be treated as second-class events, then I’m sorry, The Fosters: you’re not the show I thought you were.
You know, given my burnout on Batman, I wasn’t all that hyped up about the third cartoon series in ten years. While the hype indicated that this one, at least, reflected some unconventional choices—Katana as a regular character, loads of emphasis on Alfred as a former spy-master, new takes on E-list villains—still, it’s Batman.
Well, two episodes in, and I’m interested. There’s plenty of room for polish—the latest episode, for example–but the way the show is building up its overarching stories and characters is currently reminding me a lot of Scooby-Doo!: Mystery Incorporated—I understand both shows share a producer–and that can only be a good thing.
- I’m unsure what to make of Magpie’s design. While I have no problem with “sexy” costumes when they make sense for the character involved, I’m not sure this particular one passes this particular test. Sure, there’s a lot of Catwoman in Magpie, and Selina was always one of those characters partly defined by their sexuality, but just like it annoys me when Ms. Kyle’s zipper is left open to her navel, I feel there’s a space between “sexy” and “bustier and kinky boots”. It feels like an unwelcome encroachment of an unwanted design element into a realm where it’d previously held little influence.
- Given my continuing frustrations with he latest TMNT‘s lack of female characters, the fact that the second episode of the show features four different women playing different roles within it makes me supremely happy. It doesn’t pass the Bedchel Test, sadly, and my gut tells me that such prominence will prove an outlier (although three of the four women are coded as “recurring”, so who knows) but still, it’s nice to see.
- On that note, Barbara looks adorable.
- Also like TMNT, Batman has that CGI-show problem of looking like it’s taking place in an empty city. It’s slightly better than TMNT is, but only just. Here’s hoping it doesn’t limit this show like it does that one.
- As someone who’s put in a lot of thought into the concept and history of gun censorship in cartoons—I’m a frequent contributor at TVTropes’ “Family Friendly Firearms” page—I was quite interested on what approach the creators would take after the Aurora massacre convinced them to tweak their firearm designs to be less realistic. And this one is particularly interesting, because you can sort of tell what the original weapons were supposed to look like. In any case, the weapons have altered in a way that doesn’t annoy me too much–a couple in the first episode are given weird un-weaponlike colors, but they still work.
- There’s a weird dissonance when it comes to the way Batman’s acting. There’s a certain callousness to his actions that feels at odds with his level of experience. Like, it feels to me that earlier Batman should be a kinder gentler, Batman, yet this version is putting people into comas, electrocuting them, and telling them it’s their own fault when they agree to become subjects of unethical experiments—as if coercion weren’t a possibility.
- Professor. Pyg and Mr. Toad, from the first episode, have been turned into eco-terrorists. While it kinda works, I also kinda wish they’d taken a different approach when reimagining the characters. I’m tired of seeing the only people concerned with the environment being either terrorists or jokes.
- Clearly, the film takes place in a world in which Neon Genesis Evangelion never existed. While actually mentioning the resemblance would have left a bad taste in my mouth, I would have still appreciated some nod to it.
- That said, I wish that in some respects, it had been more like Evangelion, particularly as it pertains to the world-building, which is where I had the most problems with the film. First and foremost, I find it inconceivable that any sort of competent authority would have taken such a blasé attitude to the study of Kaijuu as The People In Charge do here. I mean, how the heck does “Kaijuu research”–which would be necessary regardless of whatever measure is taken against them—get reduced to a two-man team? THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF ANY ANTI-KAIJUU MEASURE. And yet it takes years to figure out they’re clones? NERV would be so disappointed.
- From what I understood, there was nothing inherently special about the Jaegers—they were just equipped with enough firepower to take down most Kaijuu. So if it’s about having the right weapon, why not diversify? Why not have plasma-cannon equipped planes, or maybe a killsat placed directly above the seam? Or heck, any sort of non-Jaeger scout-units, so that they don’t have to go in blind every single time and waste their only effective defensive measure trying to figure out what their up against?
- I’m unsure what to make of the relationship between Raleigh and Mako. Part of me wanted it to be platonic, because genuine friendships between straight opposite-sex people are still so rare in film, but another part of me wanted to support the idea of having the only romance in a film be interracial. What I got in the end, though, just let me unsatisfied, cause it read to me like a romance arc, with the lack of a kiss in the end suggesting that they wimped out about making it explicit for some reason. Then again, there’s a good chance that I may be misreading things, so I don’t know.
- Given the Tumblr hype for this film and the good things I’d heard about what it’s approach to diversity, I was, in the end, rather disappointed on that front. As fantastic as Rinko Kikuchi and Edris Alba are on their roles, and as much as their characters are totally the emotional core of the film which isn’t to say I found either of them terribly interesting: theirs are the sort of characters whom I feel are made worth paying attention to by their actors– their inclusion feels like an oasis in a film that otherwise leaves me parched. As nice as it is it to see a woman of color in the female lead role, it’s hard for me to give cookies to the film when Mako is the only woman in the film (the other female Jaeger pilot is essentially a named extra). In the end, the two characters end up feeling like exceptions and exceptional. Just where are all the female Jaeger pilots/pilot candidates?
In the end, my biggest issue with the film is this: it does nothing that others haven’t done before or better, and what it does is for the most part boring. I feel that given the premise and the actors and the budget, Pacific Rim is a film that I feel easily had the potential to be another Speed Racer (I love Speed Racer) and yet falls short, landing instead on “merely okay”. I’m glad it exists, and that it was given a shot, and hope there are films that improve on what it does. I’m glad that it found an audience, and hope that further increases the profiles of the people involved in it, particularly Keiko Minuchi, whom I hope to see in lots more stuff. But I just can’t share in the enthusiasm.
Lately, it’s been hard not to feel ambivalent about Superman. I love the guy and what he stands for, but given how it at times feels like my ideas of what makes the character work are the complete opposite of DC’s, I haven’t been happy with the character for a while. And yet, I don’t feel sadness or even disappointment, because the Superman-sized void in my feels has been more than capably filled by other fiction. If I’m in the mood for larger than life, physics-bending superheroics, Gurren Laggan and its galaxy-sized robots has me covered. If I want stories about an alien whose the last of his kind, adopts Earth, and inspires regular people to themselves become heroes, I’ve got Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who to keep me satisfied. Superman, in comparison, often brings thoughts of “good idea, but…”
So in the end, I wasn’t all that excited during the run-up to Superman: The Man of Steel. If it worked, great. If it’s didn’t, eh. I’d been mostly unspoiled, so I’m not sure what to expect, except that it seemed very heavy on the Krypton—rarely a good sign, when I’m concerned, since I tend to feel that where he was born says very little about who he is, and therefore focusing on it is a good way to start off on the wrong foot.
In any case, let’s start with the good. Lois Lane is great, and Amy Adams is fantastic in the role (I’m so happy she got it). The character’s a bit drier than she tends to be portrayed as on the screen, but she works supremely well, particularly given the one big change in the film. And all the characters are well cast and give good performances, elevating the material. General Zod, is, I feel, as good a portrayal as the character is going to get on the screen.
As for the rest? Honestly, it was all a bit boring. The first few minutes are spent establishing Krypton’s backstory, and through it all I was “get ON with it”. It’s kinda necessary for the plot, but then, I don’t care for the film’s plot, which is all about how Clark became Superman–or rather, it would be if there were a difference between the two sides of the character.
One of the things the film does differently from past versions of the story is to essentially do away with Clark’s double life. Arguably, it also does away with Superman as we know it, leaving us with the story of Kal-El, who wears a costume and has Diane Lane as an adoptive mother, and is still unsure about what he wants to do. With the Daily Planet‘s staff serving as satellite characters to Lois (which isn’t at all a bad thing, except insofar as they were shunted aside for most of the movie), the film is centered in Kansas in a way that feels weird.
Like I said, I have Ideas about Superman, and in the end, what I got from the film is that their take on Clark wouldn’t have become Superman if he hadn’t found about his heritage, which feels wrong. I’ve always been partial to versions of the story where Clark becomes Superman before finding out about Krypton, because it makes clear that there’s no correlation between the two things. Clark being Kryptonian has no bearing on who he is, and if he had no super-powers, he’d be Lois Lane, except less impressive because of male privilege. Here, however, the heritage and the heroism are connected to an uncomfortable degree. Yes, he’s seen helping people as Clark, but throughout those scenes, it doesn’t convince me that he gets any emotional satisfaction from it, which I feel Superman should always feel. It doesn’t help that this version of Jonathan Kent—one half of the couple that made him what he is–is far too willing to make Clark feel guilty about helping people. The film seems to agree with him, which again, makes this feel like the story of someone who is not Superman. Yes, people shouldn’t be expected to harm themselves for the sake of others, but part of what makes Superman Superman is the fact that a) he totally would, without hesitation, and b) he’s clever enough not to need to, most of the time.
As for the action…meh. While there are a few nice bits—I like that his initial fight with the Kryptonians is mixed with the rescue of the soldiers also with him—it’s all very generic-looking. This has been done before, and frankly, I’m tired of it. Again, Lois comes off better, with the scene where she—helped by Jor-El’s post-mortem A.I.–escapes Zod’s ship being a highlight.
In the end, I don’t feel this was the Superman film to sell people on the character—at least, if I didn’t also think that what I like about Superman isn’t what other people like about him. In any case, if nothing else, I feel it placed the characters in a very good position for an excellent sequel, so here’s hoping. But until then, there’s always Doctor Who.
Lois Lane enters the Daily Planet, disguised as a man.
This is the sort of thing that could have easily been heavy-handed, but I’m really glad is not; instead, Lois’ first scene in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman serves as a nice literalization the path women often were–and often still are—forced to take in order to obtain professional success.
We haven’t chanced as much as many like to think we have. We still live in a society where someone like Hillary Rodham Clinton—one of the most impressive public figures of the past thirty years–cannot express strong emotion in public, lest people—including some self-identified liberals–start thinking variations of “just like a woman.” As subversive as Elle Woods is, the world is still miles away from Legally Blonde‘s,where one can be girly—very girly–and still be recognized as being professional and smart. In order to be recognized for one’s worth, one needs to abandon everything (*1) that suggests womanhood, be it emotion, fear, or the very things that distinguish us from machines.
So right from the beginning, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman has something to say about women and society, and how our titular reporter fits into that. It is that understanding that fuels its take on Lois Lane, the ur-career woman. When we see Teri Hatcher asserting in no uncertain terms that she is top banana, we know that she knows it’s a survival mechanism: if she’s not careful—if she ever lets her employers forget that she’s The Best Reporter On The Planet, and they ever start thinking of her as the woman they can just task with whatever needs doing that day (say, showing rookie reporters around) the career and reputation she’s made for herself and loves is over.
And so, she’s aggressive—maybe more than she’d like to be–and hides parts of herself which others would find unacceptably feminine. She is embarrassed to admit she’s working on a romance novel in her spare time, because that awesome goal is nevertheless a “girly” one. When she decides in “Honeymoon in Metropolis” that she wants a weekend to pamper herself, her first instinct is to keep it quiet, and when she tells her co-workers’ her plans, their initial reaction is disbelief, because it goes outside the persona she’s worked so hard to establish. She appears to have no female friends outside of her sister Lucy (whom I’m really sad disappeared after the first three episodes (*2)—I loved the idea of Lois having a roommate) and her relationships with female peers in her field are defined by rivalry. While Perry White deserves a lot of credit for allowing her to shine, and Jimmy Olsen is a great friend, there’s no one she knows who can tell her “I know what you’ve gone through, because your experience mirrors mine.”
In a bit of an ironic reversal, the show with the most unaffected Clark has the Lois Lane who is most obviously performing. Just like there’s usually been a difference between Clark as he actually is and Clark as he presents himself to others, the Lois Lane we see working on The Daily Planet in Lois & Clark not quite her true self. It is only with Clark—Superman—that she can let those defenses down. Just like Lois eventually comes to accept that Superman can’t always be Superman—he’s also Clark, with all his preferences and quirks and flaws—Clark also accepts that Lois Lane is not just the hyper-competent reporter for a major Metropolitan newspaper: she’s the woman who likes caramel apples and is biased against farmers and cheats at Scrabble. While these things most likely won’t be mentioned in the museums time-traveling baddie Tempus assures will be dedicated to her in the future (which oh my crap yes) but are still vital parts of her, and are therefore parts Superman loves to pieces, while at the same time understanding that they don’t negate the part of her that’s tough as steel.
I love it to bits.
(*1) Okay, not everything, but talking about how physical attractiveness plays into sexist narratives regarding professions is beyond the scope of this essay. Sorry, folks.
(*2) I really want to hear the story of why Lucy was written out, particularly given her initial prominence. Her actress, Elisabeth Barondes, was even included in the opening credits for the pilot , which is especially weird when one realizes that Eddie Jones and K Callan–who play Jonathan and Martha Kent–aren’t. It would have made more sense to me if she’d been written down either immediately after the pilot or later in the season, after the showrunners had a good idea of what worked and what didn’t, but not after three episodes.
So seventy five years ago today, Superman, Clark Kent and Lois Lane came into this world. Since then, they have saved the planet countless times and inspired millions. They haven’t always been perfect, handled as they have always been by imperfect people, but they’ve always represented our capability to do better, which is, in the end, all we can and should expect, always.
I don’t have much to say about the characters at the moment: I’m generally a slow writer and haven’t given it much thought, and the fact that there are far better writers than me doing excellent jobs elsewhere means there’s no urgency to it.
What I do plan on doing is writing a piece for the Women Write About Comics’ Lois Lane blog carnival. It’s going to be on her Lois & Clark persona, because I like her, and because that’s what I was asked to write about. And while the part of me that never likes what I write has concerns about doing justice to the topic and the character and the English language, another part of me relishes the challenge. I’ve already got a first sentence. Look for that here soon (ish).
In any case, happy birthday, Lois and Clark. You’ve been there all through my life, starting with those tapes of the Fleischer cartoon, and then though Lois & Clark, the comics, the animated series, the films and then through Lois & Clark again. Hopefully you’ll still be there when I die, still inspiring people. And thank you for all of the people involved in giving them life and spark; you’ve helped shape an icon, which at the end of the day is pretty damn cool.
Also, where’s my book with Lois and Superman as actual seventy-five year olds, DC?
“Now look, Lois: Kent was a heck of a reporter, but so are you, and if anybody can find a way to save Superman, you can.”–Perry White
“I have voluntarily agreed to leave Metropolis by noon tomorrow. I believe it’s the best way to put all of your fears to rest.”–Superman
It’s not hard to determine what the biggest obstacle facing the production of Lois & Clark was: it was a Superman story without the money to make us believe a man could fly without it looking obviously greenscreened. Still, the creators made the most of what they had, and when the series was on its game, they showed that while they couldn’t show Superman fighting Darkseid for the fate of the world, they didn’t need to.
So not surprisingly, it turns out that I can be productive–but only if there’s an outside force providing incentives, such as deadlines. I haven’t written anything here for months, but I have managed to write up a couple of new reviews for the Trade Reading Order.
Even so, if the point comes ever comes where I realize that all the mystery is for naught, I still feel like I could enjoy Morning Glories, thanks to its characters, who continue to shine. This volume in particular does a lot to flesh out Jade, who up to this moment had been little more than “the suicidal, gothy one”, as she opens up and proves to be actually quite interesting. On the opposite end of the scale, Hunter, who’s been aggressively pushed as the most normal one in the bunch (read: he’s a socially awkward—yet strictly within the bounds of what is generally considered attractive–geek), displays a rather ugly side to himself in this volume, as he slut-shames classmate Zoe. While the incident isn’t cut-and-dried—this occurs just after Zoe herself insults him, and she later stops him from apologizing, making it impossible to know just what it is he later feels remorse for—it’s the sort of thing that makes me worried about potential problematic outcomes. While Nick Spencer has proven himself a capable writer, past experience with other stories has taught me not to be optimistic when it comes to geeky, socially awkward characters in fiction. Meanwhile, Zoe herself continues to kick ass as she takes advantage of circumstances like a boss, Ike’s shtick as someone who wants to convince the world that he is nothing more than a heel and cad continues to wear thin, and Jun’s arc continues being pleasantly surprising.
As the main player in the book’s drama, Virgil naturally gets most of the writers’ attention, and he makes the most of it. Over the course of the four issues collected here, he comes across as a person with various different dimensions, some of which help make him flawed—he’s entitled, especially when it comes to women—but mostly sympathetic and fun to follow. Perhaps more importantly, he is both smart and smartassed, in a way that could have easily felt derivative but instead marks him as is own person and serves to highlight the way race affects him. Virgil is very eager to stand out, and its hard not to think that his persistent flaunting of his vocabulary and references nobody else gets is his way of pushing back against narratives of how black men should be. It’s also rather fun and refreshing to see a geek who is openly a geek and yet manages to avoid the common stereotypes associated with geekdom.