Priorities: Hair Color, Race Representation, and Adaptation

Posted in Screening Room by - September 01, 2016
Priorities: Hair Color, Race Representation, and Adaptation

The rumor came down over the weekend that Zendaya, already cast in the upcoming film Spider-Man: Homecoming would be playing the character, Mary Jane, longtime comic love interest for Peter Parker.  The brouhaha started when some fans cried out that the black, dark haired Zendaya didn’t match the white, redheaded character, Mary Jane, claiming that Mary Jane needed to be played by a natural redhead. Now, overlooking the fact that Mary Jane has been played, without complaint, by non-natural redhead Kirsten Dunst before, or that Zendaya is actually mixed race and of Scottish descent, and that genetically speaking she could easily have red hair, and that hair dye and wigs, you know, exist, this situation really boils down to being the latest instance in an ongoing debate about whether to alter the races of comic characters in media adaptations (and sometimes, where possible, within the comics themselves). And I think some points need considering when discussing this.

The Virtue of Visual Adaptation

The first thing I want to talk about is the fact that comics are a visual storytelling medium, and as a result, the visual design of a character matters as a point of expression. If a picture is worth a thousand words, comics, as the marriage between prose and illustration, represent a thousand and one. Writing, both story, and dialogue, helps us get to know a character over time, but there is not an insignificant amount of establishing information conveyed in the first moment we see a character, told entirely through the visual design of a character. Just look at the basics; there’s a lot you can glean just from Superman’s basic visual design. The simple shapes and bold primary colors of his costume speak to a bright and pure ideology; the unmasked face and uncovered hands make him stand out as open and trustworthy, a person who can look you in the eye and shake your hand; his barrel chested form and chiseled musculature gives us an idea of his power, his immense strength, and this is added to with the physicality of his costume design, reminiscent of a strongman or wrestler’s outfit, with a sturdy, almost royal cape. Add color theory to it, and the red suggests boldness, passion, determination while the blue grounds him with wisdom and stability. So much is being said before a word has even appeared.

To a degree, hair color and style is of similar importance. Comics have their root in cartoons, a simplified, line and color based form of animation, and when simplifying the human form, there’re a couple of key elements that help distinguish individual characters. Body shape and unique individual details like a scar or dimple or beauty mark help significantly, but hair is one of the most prominent physical elements that can contribute to defining a character visually. This is particularly important with superheroes, many of whom spend time in both their costumed superhero worlds and as regularly dressed civilians. There is a need to make the famous characters, be they secret identities or loved ones, stand out at first glance, and again, hair can be quite a useful tool when illustrating this. Through color theory and archetypes, hair speaks to personality in and out of costume; if you want a good example of this, just look at the three Batgirls of DC. The redheaded Barbara Gordon is spunky, bold, and defiant; the jet black haired Cassandra Cain is introspected and comparatively sober with a tragic past; the blonde Stephanie Brown is peppy, fun, and youthful.

So when it comes to adapting these stories into other media, the visuals carry an individual importance in addition to the personality. Comics already find themselves at a weird place regarding adaptation; because of the long form, episodic nature of comics, films and television frequently don’t attempt to adapt specific storylines but instead translate the characters into their new media and let new stories play out with them. This makes portraying the characters accurately all the more important, as they are the thing being adapted more than the stories themselves.

I think the importance of appropriately changing the visual design of these characters plays no small part in the success of the Marvel films compared to most of the other adaptations out there. Obviously, there are many factors, but looking at the Marvel movies is frequently like looking at the comic characters stepping out of the page and onto the screen; that effect of seeing a character visualized in live action just as they have been portrayed for decades in the comics carries a tremendous appeal. And while I can’t speak for everyone, I can say that the lack of visual faithfulness in the DC movies is a part of my lack of enthusiasm for this DC cinematic universe; Superman with darker, duller colors, a more complicated design, poor color blocking, and different hair feels inherently less like Superman than other, more faithful adaptations. Sometimes these altered designs manage to work actively against the characterization; the bulky, armored look for the Flash looks cumbersome and slow for a speedster compared to the sleek, simple costume in the comics, and the Wonder Woman costume based on ancient Greek warrior gear feels like it’s sending a very different message than the peace-seeking ambassador of the source material. And this might ultimately be a trivial complaint, but I will forever be annoyed that the raven haired Lois Lane of the comics was portrayed with strawberry blonde hair on film, while the redheaded Lana Lang had black hair. At some point, it feels like they’re doing this kind of thing on purpose.

When considering an adaptation, there’s a certain amount of faithfulness that’s to be expected. The basic structure of most stories or genres is similar enough that it’s the particular trappings of a property that make it stand out. While adapting a property to another media inherently requires alterations due to time limits, pacing, and the limitations of one media involved or another, there’s also an amount of the source material that is important to carry faithfully over. The very fact that material is being adapted in the first place tends to speak to the success of the original story, and if for no other reason, the fact that something works in one form is an indication that those same elements will work in another. When adapting a major, beloved franchise property like superheroes, there’s also the desires of the existing fan base to take into consideration. Superman is one of the most famous and popular superheroes (and arguably fictional characters) in the world, and it’s in the studio’s best interest to give an audience who recognizes and loves Superman one that they can truly appreciate. The visual design of comic book characters is an essential element that, while impossible to directly translate to live action for a variety of reasons, still deserves a relatively high level of respect.

All that said, visual design is not the only concern to take into consideration.

The Need for Racial Representation

Mary Jane is not the only Marvel character getting a race change in an upcoming movie: considering Zendaya’s role as Mary Jane is still not official, perhaps the more high-profile change is that of Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, to be played by Tessa Thompson. Speaking about the decision to cast a black actress as a traditionally white, blonde character, director Taika Waititi said, “You know what? None of that stuff matters. Just because the character was blonde and white in the comic book. That doesn’t matter. That’s not what [that character] is about.”

And guess what: he’s right.

While there are characters whose race or ethnicity is a notable aspect of their identity, for the majority of comic book characters it isn’t. An argument could be made that Batman should be white because he comes from an old money Gotham family, though this does not preclude the possibility that the Wayne’s intermarried, resulting in a mixed race Bruce Wayne. An argument could be made that it is important that Superman resemble the most accepted or privileged group of humans, though he is from an alien planet and is not strictly speaking Caucasian, but instead merely passes as one, and giving him features that resemble a handsome mix of humanity could fulfill all the same requirements, especially now that we live in an era more accepting of diversity than 1938. Wonder Woman pretty inarguably should be white; more specifically, she should look Greek; she was formed from clay by a tribe of women living on an island near Greece, brought to life by the Greek goddesses, and blessed with beauty by the Greek Goddess of love who presumably sees Greek women as being the (or at least an) ideal of beauty. This, however, does not apply to the rest of the Amazons, who in 1987 were given an origin where they were brought to life using the souls of women from throughout the earth and human history, resulting in a tremendous mix of races within the Amazon community. Even as far back as 1973, there was another woman with an identical origin to Wonder Woman, except she was black, formed using a darker colored clay from the same island, and considered by Wonder Woman to be her sister. Even in situations where white is a necessary part of a character’s identity, there’s still room for leeway within the lore itself. For the huge majority of comic book characters, they do not have origins or backgrounds that demand they be white; superheroes are, by and large, regular people representing ordinary humanity who by some extraordinary event become superheroes.

And this is where you have to consider the institutionalized racism that has led us to have so many white characters in comics. As commercialized properties, the superheroes created for DC, and Marvel was subject to some criteria from the companies, criteria representing the times in which these characters were created. In general, white was the default race for superheroes, due a number of reasons including the type of audiences being pursued, the racism of individual editors (like Murray Boltinoff, who expressly prevented writers like Mike Grell and Jim Shooter from introducing black characters), and even the racism of the Comics Code Authority (who in 1956 objected to a story that was itself “a potent allegory on the evils of race prejudice” because the central character was black). People today may try to make the argument that writers’ and artists’ visions should be respected and that these characters were envisioned to be white, but that’s not inherently true, as when writers and artists tried to create non-white characters, they were frequently prevented from doing so.

Now, when the subject comes up of racebending white characters into non-white characters, someone inevitably tries to say that it should be fine to change a non-white character into a white character. I’m sorry, but no, it doesn’t work like that. For the exact reason that the whiteness of many (but not all) white characters isn’t integral to their story, the non-whiteness of most non-white characters is. When any particular trait becomes the default, any time a new character who is different is made, their status as not the default becomes a defining part of them. They are an alternative to the mainstream and changing them to reflect the mainstream inherently loses a part of what makes them work, what makes them stand out. Black Panther is the king of an African country; Luke Cage represents people living in specifically black neighborhoods like Harlem and takes inspiration from the blaxploitation films of the 70’s; Vixen’s powers stem directly from West African mythology. You can’t change these characters’ race without fundamentally changing something major about them. Valkyrie, on the surface, might seem to be in a similar position, but within the lore, the Marvel movies have set out with, she isn’t. She may be a representative of Norse mythology, but within the films, the Norse gods are aliens from their planet, a planet that has no reason to be populated entirely by Caucasian appearing beings.

Why race bend existing characters in the first place? The alternative is making new characters who are themselves non-white, and that is a good option and should be taken up. But it’s not enough. Comics love their history and the characters who are the most famous are frequently the characters who are also the oldest. Look at the superhero films. With a few exceptions, the movies being made predominantly star the oldest characters of both companies; The Guardians of the Galaxy is the newest property to be adapted into a film, with the team lineup seen in the movie only being formed in 2008, but the individual team members are themselves old canon characters, with Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon being the newest creations, both introduced in 1976. For a timeline comparison, the first black superheroes were Marvel’s Black Panther, created in 1966, and DC’s Vykin the Black, created in 1971. The current slate of movies is mostly drawing from characters created in the period before or right as black characters slowly began to be introduced. The core characters of both companies are the oldest, most famous, most successful characters, and for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, these characters are almost all white. When movies and TV shows get made, it’s the core characters who get them; when times get tough, and the companies cancel outlying comics, it’s the core characters who are safe; when companies reboot their line, the core characters are the first ones reintroduced. The comics industry is stacked against newly introduced characters. Representation is not just important; it’s vital. It’s crucial on an ethical level that everyone have the opportunity to see themselves represented in the fiction they consume; it’s essential on a commercial level that new audiences who can keep the industry alive have a way into this media. If the comic industry wants to simultaneously maintain the focus on established characters but also broaden their representation of humanity, something’s got to give.

Why Can’t We Do Both?

I maintain that representation is important, and supporting the visual design of characters is also important. When choices are made (choices where there are legitimate options) regarding the creation of a character, those choices become a part of that character’s identity. Where ethnicity was not always an option for character creation, hair color was, so I still feel like hair color is something that should be considered when adapting these characters because it was at one point a conscious choice meant to help identify the character in a visual way. That said, there’s a matter of priority to take into consideration.

There are some characters’ whose hair color is simply not that important. Take for instance Barry Allen. Allen is officially blonde in the comics, but of the three times he’s been adapted into live action, not a single one of them has been blonde; no one batted an eye. To Barry, it’s not that big of a visual aspect of his design. When he’s the Flash, you’d never know; his costume covers his head, and none of his hair is visible. His time as civilian identity Barry Allen is also not quite of the importance it is with other characters, like Bruce Wayne. Like Waititi said of Valkyrie, ‘that doesn’t matter; that’s not important to his character.’ For other characters, however, it matters more. If representation is one of the top concerns here, that applies to lesser represented forms of white people as well; redheads and gingers count among this. Obviously, this is not on the level as it is of different ethnicities, but the standard heroic model for white characters is blonde or black hair, solid color skin, and blue eyes. The ruddy complexion and red hair of ginger characters stand out among the other white characters. Notice that Wally West’s original Kid Flash costume had the top of the head exposed so that his red hair was prominent even in his superhero form. While he took on the full head covering outfit of Barry’s when he became the Flash, he was different from Barry in that he had an open identity; it was public knowledge that Wally was the Flash, so the redheaded Wally West made a lot more appearances in his comic interacting with people as the Flash would than the unmasked Barry ever did. All things considered, Barry could just as easily be made black and no more would be lost than casting a brunette actor in his role; Wally does lose certain elements of his visual design and what that design says about him by not being redheaded anymore.

And if I’m honest here, I feel like this is an area where Marvel and DC (and in this case mostly DC) have done a pretty poor job in many of their attempts to help. Wally West, Iris West, Jimmy Olsen, and now maybe Mary Jane Watson; all of these are redheaded characters of the comics who have been race bent as black in live action adaptations (Iris West, twice now). While it’s noble that these companies are attempting to diversify, they happen to have repeatedly race bent all the redheads, AKA the hair color for white people that is already the least represented. While there’s plenty of blonde and brunette white characters, they are disproportionately being left white while the redheads are disproportionately being changed. Part of this ongoing problem of the lack of representation is that the companies are simply not taking the time to think about it, and unfortunately, even in the situations where they’re trying to help, they’re still not stopping to think about it hard enough to notice this trend.

Another theory; well, it’s worth noting the relative importance of these characters to their worlds. Wally West is a successor to the Flash that isn’t likely to be the Flash himself at any point while Barry Allen is still around (and since Allen is the star of both Flash franchises, he’s likely not going anywhere); Iris West is a love interest which, in the show, keeps getting obstacles put in the way of her romance to Barry, and spent most of the first season not even knowing his identity, and therefore playing a limited role in the narrative; Jimmy Olsen is a Superman supporting character who currently barely plays a role in the comics and was deemed so unimportant that the movie version was murdered on screen without even being fully introduced (he was listed in the credits, however, so he is definitely dead in the DC film universe). There is a certain level of a perceived lack of importance shared by the characters DC has been willing to race-bend. This extends to the comics as well; the New 52 was a reboot that afforded DC the opportunity to visually redesign nearly any of their established characters, but it wasn’t until 3 full years into the reboot that they actually race bent some major characters, and the two characters they chose were Helena Bertinelli and Wally West, characters who had been initially introduced to the New 52 as dead and whose superhero identities (Huntress and the Flash) were then being held by other, white characters. While it’s good to see the companies finally taking some steps to rectify the lack of representation in comics, it would be nicer to see them do so with characters whose perceived value was more apparent.

This is, however, where it’s important to note that a redhead doesn’t have to be white. The line that people tend to draw is that either visual design is more important and Wally West or Mary Jane or Jimmy Olsen can only be a white redhead, or the representation is more important so casting a non-white actor in this role is such a good thing that we can just forget about the hair color, but this overlooks fact that you can do both. They’re pictures online of Zendaya with red hair; she looks good. There’re redheaded black guys with a freckled complexion that would make a perfect race bent and visual design accurate Jimmy Olsen or Wally West. While I’m happy with the actors who have already been cast in these roles on Supergirl and Flash respectively, the shows could have opted to dye their hair or add colored tints at least as a nod to the comic design. When the upcoming Flash movie started looking to cast Iris West, their top three choices were women of completely different ethnic backgrounds, and I couldn’t help but notice that they were all three pretty fair skinned relative to that background; it’s possible they’re aiming for a redheaded and black West family for the Flash film. Native Pacific Islanders naturally have dark hair but due to the bleaching effects of sun exposure, many have sun-dappled blonde streaks; there’s nothing that says we can’t have that for Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. So many people turn this discussion into an either/or scenario that they forget that people across the world look different from each other, in infinite combinations. And if the representation is a major part of the goal here, shouldn’t that include all the looks that human beings are capable of?

The bottom line is that there is a level of importance to maintaining character design in superhero adaptations; it is also important to represent humanity. When you’re looking to prioritize, people matter more than a cartoon character’s hair color. But there’re many, many ways to compromise in this situation that will satisfy both desires. You just have to care enough to try.

This post was written by
He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn't paying attention.
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