Representation Over Diversity: The Superhero Genre in Film and TV

A rallying banner that many Hollywood movies and TV shows have rallied under in the past decade is increasing diversity on screen. While we’ve always had people of color on screen at some capacity, in the recent years with more push from those communities for ore rounded representation and calling out racially insensitive portrayals and white washing, the entertainment industry embraced the age of diversity.

This is of course an over simplification, but despite seeing more lgbt, black, Latino, Asian and south Asian characters I never truly felt satisfied. It wasn’t that there weren’t people of color on the silencer screen with no personality or stereotypical lines, they just didn’t ring true.

It’s only after I heard Riz Ahmed’s comment on the Daily Show that it hit me. “I don’t like to talk about ‘diversity’,” he explained. “I feel like it sounds like an added extra. It sounds like the fries, not the burger, you know? It sounds like something on the side - you’ve got your main thing going on, and yeah, you sprinkle a little bit of diversity on top of that.” Riz continued: “That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s about representation. And representation is absolutely fundamental in terms of what we expect from our culture, and from our politics. We all want to feel represented, we all want to feel seen and heard and valued.”

Diversity was just the band aid solution to satiate growing dissatisfaction among people of color, one genre in particular who have long been called out for having token people of color and token gay characters if any is the superhero genre. As one of the biggest money making market of recent years, it is interesting to see any “representation” is usually that of a side character. In fact a strong storyline with a woman was not explored till Wonder Woman, sure Black Widow and Gamora preceded her, but they ultimately served as side characters that furthered the male white leads storyline.

In a world where people can fly, lift trucks and change the very reality of the world with magic or the speed force, it often seems that seeing a person of color or any other minority with the same treatment is too PC. While “avid” comic book fans claim that it is not sticking to the origins of the character, I say so what? Most of the superheroes you ardently claim as white, don’t have their ethnicity as a defining trait, rather it is their struggles and convictions that make them the hero they are. In fact I believe having these iconic roles played by people ignored generally, would create more nuances and give the world of comics a more grounded feeling, one where a young kid can look up to a superhero and inherently identify with them cause they look like him/her.

In fact in the very medium these movies are based upon, often deal with very real and grounding issues like domestic violence, being Muslim-American, being black or LGBT. Comic books about Miss Marvel and Batwoman continue to provide representation for those who vie for a voice and figure in the world of the Avengers and Justice League. Recently TV shows have been filling this gap with shows like Black Lightning, The Runways, Legends Of Tomorrow, Agents Of Shield etc, bringing to life many heroes while providing representation on a platform many nuanced issues such as police and the African American communities relationship, healthy LGBT relationships, addressing Toxic masculinity and even changing the ethnicity of many characters that just add another layer to them. And the response has been instant with fans floored by the fact they can see someone who looks like them on screen alongside or as their favourite hero, which drowns out the few naysayers.

So yes I am against diversity, cause I believe representation is more rounded word for what I want to see in the superhero genre as an Indian woman. I want to see the struggles of being a person of color, how we give up our culture to fit in, how despite all that we can still fly, fight aliens and demons and how we aren’t just a plot device to make a movie more colored and serve just to further the main characters storyline. Rather I want to be able to enjoy a movie without being awed by the fact there is a character who looks like me and reminds me of myself, I want it to reflect real life.