Tinseltown Racism?

We saw the latest X-Men film last night. Now is neither the time nor place for me to comment on the quality of what we saw; one thing I do want to talk about, though — and the motivation behind setting up this blog — was the film’s peculiarly reductive view of race. And it starts with the fact that only two members of the ensemble cast (it’s an X-Men film: you know the drill) were non-white. [Minor spoiler coming up, so I’ll give you time to stop reading if big-budget superhero blockbusters with little in the way of characterisation or dialogue are your thing………….] The first, an African-American man, was (from memory) the first death of a named character in the narrative; the second, a mixed-race woman — quite apart from the fact that she was first seen strolling around on the bar in a lap-dancing joint — is the first mutant to switch allegiances to (for want of a better term, in a film with multiple ‘sides’ and numerous questions of nationality/species loyalty) ‘the bad guys’.

And sticking with the superhero genre, in which there’s been an upsurge in interest recently (Rob’s your man for more on the relationship between comics and movies), one film that we saw a trailer for last night — Green Lantern — has a character called ‘Kilowog’. How d’you like them racisms?

Now I know what the purists among you are going to be saying/screaming: these examples are from comic books, and the original characters (‘Darwin’ and ‘Angel’ in X-Men: First Class; ‘Kilowog’ in Green Lantern) were created at a time when such lazy racial stereotyping was the norm. Ok. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Why should we — for the sake of artistic verisimilitude — stick with the racial types or names provided by Ed Brubaker, Grant Morrison and Ethan van Sciver, and Bill Finger?

To put a more general, and worrying, question: why are we seeing a return to racial stereotyping?

Maybe it’s a post-9/11 thing, or post-7/7, or whatever; hell, maybe people just think we live in a post-racist world.

Ummm…no.

Racial violence is still a commonplace, maltreatment of public intellectuals on the grounds of race is not unknown, and a high-profile LSE academic can make comments about the objective attractiveness of women of different races and stay in his job. (And don’t get all smug about the Britishness of this last point, America: you’re the ones who countenance the presence of an outspoken Holocaust denier at a major university, on the grounds that ‘at no time has he discussed those views in class or made them part of his class curriculum’.)

So racism is alive and…well…putting the (steel-capped) boot in. And though examples like the superhero ones with which I started aren’t exactly the most newsworthy examples — after all, they’re comic book adaptations, right? — they are cultural manifestations of a tacit social acceptance that belongs firmly in the past.

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3 thoughts on “Tinseltown Racism?

  1. True, there has always been a ‘those of an “ethnic” persuasion die first’ trend; I suppose I’d just hoped that after, y’know, electing a black man to be kinda the most powerful person in the world, America (slash the world in general) had started to see sense. Ha.

  2. Thinking about it (yes, I’ve been thinking a while), I disagree: as S mentioned when I discussed it with her at the time, I think this is a recent revisiting of racial stereotyping rather than a smooth continuation. Granted, it would have been de rigeur to see such casting in the ’70s and early ’80s, but I think from the mid ’80s onwards — certainly post-Thatcher/Reagan — the world became more aware of racist cultural portrayals. In recent years, it’s as if there’s been some tacit acceptance of the fact that we’re somehow ‘beyond’ all this racism stuff — ‘look, we’ve even elected a black man into the Oval Office!’ — and therefore can happily slip back into racial furrows ploughed in the previous few centuries.

    (This is, of course, a theory, and a shaky one at that; I’m more than prepared to be called out by someone — frankly — less white and middle-class…)

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