Tea Party hats, promoting racial stereotypes since 1943
Given that women and people of color are so underrepresented in Hollywood generally, this analysis revealing the diversity gap in sci-fi and fantasy films is not entirely surprising.I have to admit, as a science fiction author and fan, this statistic certainly doesn't make me proud. Sci-fi fans like to think of the genre as one where creators are willing to push social boundaries, and where fans are willing to reward them for doing so. Which makes it seem odd that the top sci-fi film ranks should be so... pale.
But some small, uncynical part of me thought that just maybe a genre that is entirely, utterly unbound to current realities would be slightly more diverse. Syreeta recently quoted the great Octavia Butler, whose sci-fi novels Hollywood should be adapting for the big screen all the time: “There are no real walls around science fiction. We can build them, but they’re not there naturally.”
It made me wonder if some of these stories had been whitewashed to serve as vehicles for white actors. Also, having written a series of science fiction books with a female protagonist, which were turned into a television series with a male protagonist, I wondered if looking through the list of best performing sci-fi might turn up a few in which a Y chromosome had been spliced in before filming.
What I found when I started checking was a little different than what I expected.
Of the top 100 films IMDB lists as science fiction, eleven are actually animated films. I'm not sure you can really categorize a protagonist who is a CGI dinosaur or a cartoon dog or a sad little robot when taking a survey on race or gender. And no, I didn't count to see how many films had girl dinosaurs or boy dinosaurs. Besides, if you do start running statistics on the animated films in the list, you have to note that one of those films is Disney's Lilo and Stitch, which has a young Hawaiian girl as its lead.
Those eleven films are merely the completely animated works in the list. They don't include another ten films where the real protagonist is either a giant robot, more CGI dinosaurs, giant monsters and robots or blue aliens. These films have token casts of human beings, but is someone going to seriously argue that the protagonist of Godzilla is not... Godzilla, or that anyone, anywhere, at any time attended a Transformers movie to see Shia LaBeouf?
Once you've put aside films mainly centered around non-human characters, you get to the biggest block of films on the whole list. As it happens, twenty-four of the top 100 science fiction films all have their origins in the same place—comics.
That statistic suggests that what we really have here is a different kind of story. A story about time.
Come on in, true believers, let's see how this works ....
Of the twenty-four comic-inspired films, you'll find a noun that features in a large percentage. See if you can pick it out: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, X-Men, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men:Days of Future Past, X-Men: First Class, Superman Returns, Superman. You may also note that, for reasons that would probably take a much longer essay than this, IMDB includes The Avengers in its list of sci-fi films, along with Bolt, an animated film about a dog, and Chicken Little, an animated film about, um, a little chicken, but it doesn't include either Spider-Man or Batman films, because ... okay, moving on.
All that man, man, men, man, men up there isn't a coincidence. It's not just a signal that these films aren't exactly going to be rife with female leads, but a clue that points, not to the era of the comic book films, but to the era of the comics themselves. Most of the comics that have achieved the kind of universality to be the basis of films—Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, the Avengers, X-Men—are franchises that are many decades old. Here are those film characters along with their first appearances on a four-color press.
The first thing you might notice is that DC's stable of heroes are primarily from the "Golden Age" of comics. Superman, Batman and Green Lantern are all products of the era when America was turning away from the fears of the Depression, and looking toward the fears of war. That charming cover up there at the top of the article is one of Superman's and Batman's contemporaries from 1943, the Fighting Yank. Covers from Superman in the same time period were sometimes not much better.
In case you're wondering (pun intended) Wonder Woman also first appeared in 1941, and will make her film debut in 2016 as a side character in Batman v Superman. How long we'll have to wait to see the warrior princess of the Amazons in her own film, is still up in the air (possibly in an invisible jet).
Marvel's crew is mostly younger, with the bulk of them appearing in a similarly brief burst of creativity in the last months of JFK. Even so, we're talking about a set of characters most of whom have been jumping, fighting, and flying around their comic universe for 50 years plus.
So, does that mean they're all racist, sexist and worthless? Not quite.
Comics (and sci-fi in general) have often been at the cutting edge of social commentary, and have used their forums to highlight issues using metaphor and exaggeration. It's not going too far to say that many comics are about prejudice, acceptance, valuing people for who they are instead of what they look like. You could make a good case—and it's been made—that many of the Marvel comics were created specifically as models of the racial conflict then roiling the United States. It's no coincidence that the X-Men first popped up two weeks after the March on Washington.
However, comics are definitely artifacts of their times, and they didn't operate with perfect freedom. Following the publication of Seduction of the Innocent and the institution of the repressive Comics Code Authority, one of EC's horror comics was actually sued specifically because the lead character in a single comic story was a black astronaut (actually, a reprint of a story that had run without furor in the pre-CCA days). It's the sort of thing that didn't exactly lead to conspicuous displays of political bravery.
If it's true that comics dealt with issues of diversity from their early days, why do comic book films look so diversity-free today? It's mostly that the cycle from comic to film has often been a decades-long path. We're still watching origin stories, over and over, reboot after reboot, that often go back to Issue #1 of the comic involved. If you're going to make movies of material from an era when racism was institutionalized at every level and sexism was de rigueur, you shouldn't be surprised that it looks a bit timid when it comes to expectations of diversity circa 2014.
Mutant as a metaphor for non-white, non-straight, non-wholly enabled may look like a pretty weak step toward upholding equality now. It didn't in 1963, especially to people who had one eye on a screening organization likely to stomp them at the first whiff of actual racial politics. It's really not until the 1960s that major black supporting characters appear with regularity. The Falcon, who is soon to take over the role of Captain America in the comics, was introduced as one of the first black superheroes in 1969. Storm, played by Halle Berry in the first set of X-Men films, was introduced as the first black female hero in 1975.
Several of these comics have seen some minor, or major, adjustments over the years to eliminate elements that would seem wildly out of step in today's world. You no longer see the kind of stereotypes and damsels in distress that littered comics through the 1950s, and the latest generation of heroes includes many more characters of color (most of whom are not the painfully awful creations that marked attempts at diversity in earlier comic eras). Major comic pubishers have titles centered on characters as diverse as female, Pakistani-American, Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan who has taken the role of Ms. Marvel in the latest series of books. Publishers are definitely experimenting with greater racial and gender diversity, when it comes to their main characters. Still, the core of the old stories, and the old characters, has remained only lightly touched.
Seeing the diversity in modern comics come to comic films is probably several years away. Why? Why don't they scrap all that old, race or gender insensitive material right now and go for a more diverse cast? The answer is that they do. They don't do it nearly enough, for several reasons.
One reason is that people have the same emotional attachment to the original characters as they do to the protagonists of Pride and Prejudice, or True Grit, or even The Bible. You can insert a more modern ethos into these works, but you do so at risk of alienating the audience that wants to see "the real story," and even at the risk of losing insight into what drove the original narratives. I'd like to think that no one would insist on a film of Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield is female any more than they would want a version of To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout is a boy. Either effort might result in a good story, and might give us a yardstick that says something about how racism and sexism warp our perceptions, but it's unlikely they'd be acceptable as accurate portrayals of the original material.
When you see people fretting over a black Captain America or a female Thor, it doesn't necessarily mean they're racist or sexist, only that they have an emotional attachment to the current character and they're worried that significant changes are being made to someone they love. Which isn't to say they're not also displaying race or gender bias. Both may be true, and I certainly expect that some of those fuming over the changes to these characters have no connection with them beyond a headline on Drudge.
Still, let's assume that not all the outrage is manufactured by the womens-and-non-white-people-are-taking-over fear factory. Every little detail of events when the Wayne's walk home from that opera house, and every nuance of Peter's relationship with Uncle Ben, gets furious analysis from some quarters. Film producers, who are rarely counted among the most daring people on the planet, are loathe to move too far from very well beaten paths. You may not think that comic book characters are deserving of the kind of reverence that makes them worth preserving with every bump and blemish in place, but their fans do ... and the fans are the people rushing the gates on opening weekend. The filmmakers know that.
When the thinking starts out with "let's make a new version of a story that a huge percentage of our target audience already knows," you can expect that what will be delivered is at best a minor variation on a theme. And it's certainly what we've seen, over and over and over. If you're looking for a source of new thinking about race, gender, disability, or any other topic, you're unlikely to find it in retreads of material older than John McCain.
Really, what bothers me the most as I look though this list of the top grossing sci-fi films is that there are very few titles in the list that are either good films or good sci-fi. Can you seriously draw any reasonable judgments from a list that includes Armageddon, a film that gets my vote for the worst atrocity ever committed in cinema, along with the hamster-centric G-Force, but which doesn't include 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Alien or even ET? It's a pretty awful list.
And maybe that's a better question. Just why is any list of "top grossing films" so filled with films that are not only insensitive to race and gender, but painfully godawful in terms of good filmmaking? Why is that true both in sci fi, and in films in general? Why do we give so much money to movies that are so, so bad?
One thing is sure. So long as idiocy like the latest Transformers film can open to so much money that it's already on this list, things are unlikely to get better.
Footnote: Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the few comic films based on characters created in the last 40 years. As a team-focused comic, it's hard to say that any character is the lead, but at least it does feature one African-American actress in the group of five. Though, yeah, she's painted green. I'm just hoping it's a halfway decent film, and that it bumps Spy Kids off the list.