Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The generic white guy

I never think of being white as a defining element of who I am. It feels like some kind of happenstance, like my height or my shoe size. I know that this is an experience I have that's due to white privilege, and I don't kid myself otherwise. At least, I don't when it occurs to me to think about it at all. But no one bothers reminding me that I'm white, as I go about my day.

I'm always confused when other white people thing of being white as a thing in itself. It always seems like they must be making it up, but it often seems they're not.

This isn't idle. I'm not unaware of the background that makes me white and it's not abstract to me. My maternal grandmother came to the US from Norway as a child and my great-grandparents were alive until I was in high school. A degree of my whiteness is not abstract to me. It's specific to my being descended from specific people from a specific place. But again, I don't think about it that much, except when I think that it's impossible to get decent lefse or when my brother gives me rømmegrøt he makes. Or when a vile fuckstick is elected president and I think "Would it be any easier for me to emigrate to Norway?"

By the same token, though, I have to remind myself as a creative artist, that when I'm creating characters, diversity is better. It's better on every level.

We tell ourselves stories and those stories are important. Humans have developed the ability to understand our world through storytelling. Any time a teacher or lecturer, at least a good one, wants to make a real point to drive something home, they'll tell it as a story or tell a story that associates with it. We internalize and process stories we hear, and they build how we understand our world.

So when the we live in a market in which the biggest stories, the ones we all hear and know, are all about centered around white people, in which white people are nearly always the most important people in the stories and, if there are people of color at all, they are just people who helped those really important white people do their really important stuff, that's the message we're telling everyone, over and over.

There was a real movement that started after World War II, but really started to get moving properly in the late '60s to early '70s, to show more diversity in our media. Somewhere in the '80s that fell off. I don't think there was any conscious decision made, but it was sort of realized there could be one major black movie star at any given time and little was done to elevate anyone else beyond moderate success at side parts or character roles as long as that one guy was reigning. I talked about the half-assed attempt to maintain an Asian star, too, in Issues around Iron Fist. It could be covered in more detail, but I'm not going to today.

So, we're back to being not much further ahead than we were just after World War II really. A world in which any story about "some guy" is always definitely about some white guy.

Most of our comics heroes were created that way. There's nothing in the whiteness of Bruce Wayne or Reed Richards that makes them need to be white. They're just white because all character were white. I don't imagine it ever occurred to their creators to make most characters another race any more than it occurs to me to that I'm white at any given moment of my life. It's the blank slate. Again, "some guy" is some white guy by default.

A few of them have had backgrounds grafted on later, a few stuck well enough that anyone who isn't an avid fan of the character would know it, like Daredevil is Catholic and... maybe there's another one I'm not thinking of.

Especially because you're learning stories from the stories you know, and the most stories most people know are about white guys. So you just start with your building blocks and give a name, the kind of name that guys get in stories you know, and those are white guy names, which further leads you to feeling like their a white guy. It wasn't until guys like Jack Kirby and Tony Isabella started working to develop non-white, usually black, characters that they existed at all, and they struggled - and often continue to struggle, to be more than characters defined by their ethnicity.

And at the end of this path, we come to where we all are now, where the racists are taking over again, because more and more people are comfortable with a kind of white guy standard. There are more complications and many of them involve the stories we tell ourselves, about how communities get in our way, and the really good guys slough off the dead weight of everyone around them and take care of business on their own, but those aren't what we're considering today.

So, when you come to 1974 and Roy Thomas is putting together his story of the rich kid who is lost in the mysterious east and learns the mystic ways, I see no reason to conceive he weighed the options of various cultures. Iron Fist's Danny Rand is kind of a lazy mix-up of Batman's lost parents myth with the recently revamped Green Arrow origin with an Eastern twist. Can I swear he'd never considered the possibilities of Asian-American kid, who would be at once connected to and an outsider to the culture he's immersed into? Of course not, but I'd frankly hope he was just going about the usual easy process of hammering out one more character in the same way he had others before, because the second way is much more interesting.

A second or third generation non-white immigrant, who in the world of the US is still to some degree viewed as foreign and part of a world that's foreign to him, plunged into the foreign world to find himself treated as foreign to it as well. It just has so many more branches to explore dramatically, even if you think Shang-Chi already filled your diversity quota.

Considering the options, as a relatively young white guy at a time when cultural complexities such as the ambivalence many Asian-Americans can feel toward both their Asian and American identities was not discussed openly, when not only did "some guy" mean some white guy, but some rich guy definitely meant some rich white guy, it just makes more sense that Danny Rand was another comic book generic white guy.

In 2017, it seems the bare minimum of telling a story about Asian culture would involve telling a story that uses the better understanding that even a below average person has now. The bar is simply higher now. We've all been exposed to more, whether we like it or not.

I don't know that the change would have been enough to fix whatever is allegedly wrong with Marvel's Iron Fist, that's causing it to be the big first Marvel project to get the thumbs down from critics, or even that I'll necessarily agree with them that it is wrong.

I get stumbling into not telling a story as effectively as you'd wanted. I get that sometimes people don't react to things the way creators expect and that's part of the challenge. I just think, were it me, if I were going to go down with "Iron Fist", I'd want to do it while making the same kind of concerted effort to represent Asian culture that Marvel's Jessica Jones did representing women and Marvel's Luke Cage did representing African-Americans. If the producers feel like they made that effort here, then they have at the least failed in communicating that effort to the public.

Hopefully, this is the last I'll bother to write about this, because while I care a lot about diversity, and I care some about the Netflix/Marvel series, I've really stretched my limit on interest in Iron Fist.

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