Someday I’ll have to write about something other than The Avengers. Someday. But today is not that day. Today I’m going to be the guy that reminds us that everything we love is awful. Today I’m going to be the guy that talks about why the Avengers, and comic book movies in general are racist and why making jokes about it is actually pretty f***ed up.
First, the obvious.
Ignoring how completely fake everything in this picture looks because of all the photo editing, it’s hard to miss that all the important characters are white. And don’t think I didn’t notice that only one of them is a woman, but since I don’t have the room to cover how pervasive sexism is, I’ma stick to race.
Even if you forget the fact that all the people with the coolest powers and gadgets are white or that Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury was a white guy in the comics for 60 years or that he spent the entire movie lying and getting his ass kicked, you have to face the ugly truth: he, Cobie Smulders and Scarlett “leaked photos” Johansson are the least powerful, least interesting characters that don’t have their own movies.
But John, it’s not Joss Whedon’s fault because The Avengers have been a staple in comics since forever and Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America already established that the whole cast was white! Also, so what if this movie doesn’t have any minorities of note?
You might be right. Having no important minorities in this one movie isn’t really a big deal. And wouldn’t it be unfair to mandate all casts have to be racially proportionate? However, it’s not just this movie. Geek culture (and really just American culture) does this all the time. It keeps happening!
So why is that? It’s not like all the directors, producers, and studio executives got together and said “hey, let’s coordinate not having any minorities ever!” And it’s not just that minorities aren’t present, it’s that when they are the story doesn’t revolve around them. Is Iron Man about Terrance Howard/Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes? Nope. Is Thor about bifrost guardian Heimdall? Nope. Do Captain America or The Incredible Hulk have any notable minorities at all? Nope? Because at some point, somehow it became inappropriate to have a man (or heaven forbid, a woman) of color play a protagonist. Unless it’s Will Smith, you’ll only find them in supporting roles, martial arts films and stories about overcoming adversity.
It’s because of systemic inequality. I went on a tear about this a couple weeks ago, and I’m glad I did because The Avengers is a perfect example of how a specific indecent or experience is part of a larger pattern. The theory goes something like this: our society is made up of symbols and gestures that allow us to collectively understand each other. For example, if someone points a gun at you, you can be reasonably sure that you are in danger and that the gun wielder wants something from you. Both you and the would-be gun pointer understand, without many words, what’s happening. And symbols don’t just have to be actions. They can be pictures, phrases, or pretty much anything else we use to infer meaning.
These symbols are etched into the fabric of our society and we usually don’t even notice. Now let’s go back to our example from above. More often then not when you see a black guy with a gun in a film it means something completely different from when you see a white guy with a gun. You can try to account for context or plot, but it’s not just about that one film. It’s about all the films where black stereotypes are in play, Latinos pretty much don’t exist, and the stories always revolve around a white guy.
An Epistemology Of Ignorance
This isn’t benign. People internalize this over the years and year and years that they watch movies and television. These ideas about minorities become powerful symbols. And that’s why all the movie executives don’t have to get together and decide to lock minorities out. It happens all on its own because these symbols feed a system of selection which, in turn, reproduces those popular symbols. And if you’re white odds are you never see it. Charles W. Mills and Jessie Daniels have written a lot about the epistemology of racism.
Epistemology is a $100 word that asks, “how do you know what you know?” It has deep traction in philosophy and arguments about how to determine what is real. Both Mills and Daniels argue that modern America suffers from an epistemology of ignorance; a set of blinders that keep the majority from seeing the subtle and overt consequences of racism. Since I don’t feel like going outside the boundaries of movies today, it means that racism in cinema seems normal. People watch all kinds of movies centered around white folks without ever questioning it. CNN won’t be covering any stories about how movies are disproportionately white because it’s old news, and it’s business as usual. The sad truth is that ignoring racism is the new racism.
And while I’m talking about weird things in movies, something else that bothers me is how every movie has to have an underlying love story. All of them. It’s another weird thing we take at face value. Why is that?
More often than not we play off serious issues as jokes. I’m just as guilty as everyone else given how often I make light of serious political situations. There was a time when I thought joking was a good way to get people talking about it, but I’m starting to think that isn’t the case. Jokes are part of a throw-away culture where we laugh about something bad and move on. There may have been a time when your Pryors, Carlins, and Chappelles used their craft to help people see how messed up what we take for normal can be, but those days feel far away. Modern humor in the digital age is so ironic and so up its own ass that humor has become the easy way to sooth the discomfort of knowing that something is wrong.
One of my favorite articles about ironic racism run amok was written by Lindy West at Jezebel. She goes on a tear about how jokes can cause more harm than good while allowing said jokers to ignore the implications.
So what’s the bottom line here? Talk about it with people, treat it seriously and don’t accept it as normal.