Of Mermaids and Sunshine Supermen

Were there black-skinned hobbits in the mind of Tolkein and translucent mermaids in the head of Hans Christian Andersen? Who cares?

Imagine a world where everyone on Earth has roughly the same skin color. How would it happen? I don’t know, imagine! Maybe COVID-45qanon affects skin color. Maybe God snaps her fingers and we all turn chartreuse. I picture a super popular K-Pop/HipHop documentary directed by Harry Styles that starts a worldwide trend of everyone marrying someone different looking and ten generations later we’re all looking like Mariah Carey, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, or Bruno Mars, only more so.

Color-blind casting won’t be a thing because it’ll be the only thing. People will know about skin tone—they’ve read history books—but that won’t be how they judge actors because it can’t be.

It was one of the dreams for the future, that we would become colorblind because we would all end up some shade of mocha, wearing silver jump suits and getting places in flying cars. And perhaps that will be the future, but it’s not the present.

Maybe you’ve heard that people are mad about Black actors being cast in Lord of the Rings. Or Game of Thrones. Or maybe it was Star Wars. Or perhaps Thor. Wait, maybe it was Titans, or SupermanThe Witcher? Or maybe you heard that people are angry that Black Panther got made in the first place, because Wakanda is fictional, unlike one of those fantasy countries authors seem to think will seem more mysterious if you add enough accents or apostrophes, like Warthéréth’rién. (I just made that up.) Maybe you’re wondering why adults care about a Disney mermaid being Black.

We’ve had the founding fathers rap on Broadway to acclaim, even though it’s generally accepted that George Washington had white skin and nobody was harmed. And he was real, unlike Superman or Catwoman. Then again, Liz Truss, the third female prime minister, Tories all, of the United Kingdom, is real, as are the members of her Great Offices of State.

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, is the daughter of Kenyan and Mauritian immigrants. The mother of the foreign minister, James Cleverly, emigrated from Sierra Leone. The new chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, was born to Ghanaian parents.

But in real life, it doesn’t seem to take on the same hue as the movies.

Did the left break into applause? Were there hosannas throughout progressive Twitter heralding this racial, ethnic and gender diversity as a step forward for society?

Not exactly.

“It’s a meritocratic advance for people who have done well in education, law and business,” Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a think tank that focuses on issues of immigration, integration and national identity, told CNN. “It’s not an advance on social class terms.”

One of the arguments, a very good argument I might add, is that the casting of black actors in roles where the characters were previously portrayed as white, is that they were just the better actors for the role. After all, if there is an open casting call, and Halle Bailey kicked butt, then she got the part fair and square. Who can argue with merit, the combination of innate talent, hard work and good fortune?

And it may very well be merit that landed the gig for Bailey. But even if she’s wonderful, what if she wasn’t the most wonderful?

I revile any concept of equity that allows for appointing Black people to positions over more highly qualified non-Black ones.

There is a strong argument to be made that all these characters are perceived as white isn’t because their race mattered, either to the story or to some ridiculous attempt to rationalize the science behind creatures that don’t exist. When Superman was first drawn by Joe Shuster as a white person, was it because people from the Planet Krypton were, in fact, white?

Then again, Superman, like Ariel, has become an iconic character in the form originally created and changing it now, at this moment in time, emits the unpleasant odor of forced  racist pandering, turning characters from white to black as a backlash to “Jim Crow casting,” as Adam Serwar calls it. If so, then it’s substituting one racism for another rather than  striving to eliminate racism.

Some will argue that this is moral and just, as black actors were denied roles and so putting out the casting call for “black actor wanted to play superhero” is merely reparations for the generations of actors who were denied equal opportunity. But for those of us who dreamed of a future without racism, any racism, we’re never getting to mocha this way.

9 thoughts on “Of Mermaids and Sunshine Supermen

  1. Elpey P.

    We have gone from a manufacturing economy to a service economy to an identity politics economy. We may have already passed Troll Event Horizon.

  2. davep

    SG: “One of the arguments, a very good argument I might add, is that the casting of black actors in roles where the characters were previously portrayed as white, is that they were just the better actors for the role.”

    Not a good argument at all. Who gets picked for the lead is a big part of marketing movies. This has been the case for over a hundred years.

  3. Markh

    Call me cynical but all these reasons are maybe a small consideration compared to that they believe engaging minorties will just make them more money. And i think that is the way it should be.

  4. B. McLeod

    The Lord of the Rings thing isn’t just the harfoots. By equal happenstance, it has developed that there is one black elf and one black dwarf. Presumably, there must be more of them somewhere offscreen, because the other elves and dwarves don’t find them at all remarkable. It’s not of significance to the work as a whole, but just a background cliche like the dwarf-tossing references in the original Lord of the Rings movie. There is more of token than of Tolkien about it.

  5. Dan J

    If the race of made-up people in made-up stories doesn’t matter I would love to see the reaction of these same people if a bunch of white people showed up in Wakanda in Black Panther 2. It doesn’t make sense to have white people in an African story, or white people in an asian story (Matt Damon in Great Wall?) or white people in a middle eastern fairy tale (any Egyptian gods/monsters movie). Of course you can do it if you really embrace your argument that it is all made up anyway, but if both sides are getting upset about the wrong color of people in their made-up movies what is the point?

    Tokenism aside, my theory is that Disney and Amazon are mostly doing this for the publicity and as a shield against criticism. The Sequel Trilogy sucked ass, and after each movie came out and got ripped apart there was the claims of terrible, incessant racism against some member of the cast. Nevermind the writing was terrible an a dozen other complaints, if you don’t like it you are racist. Same with Obiwan. A pointless cash grab that was boring as hell(will Obiwan save Vader? Will little Princess Leia die? Will Vader kill Obiwan? We already know the answers to all these questions), and the main black actor they cast was pretty bad at acting but to point that out made you a racist.

    Amazon is doing the same in Rings of Power. The color of 2 of the actors is pretty irrelevant to all but the most obsessive Tolkein purists. Not being a lore nerd I don’t care about their skin color, even if it makes no sense that there is only one black elf and one black dwarf. The writing is abysmal, the pacing is glacial, the visuals are nice but 4 hours in and almost nothing has happened. But to point that out makes you a racist, and then the actor who plays the black elf claims he gets tons of hate mail yet produces 0 evidence.

    In an attempt to redeem this post, my question is why don’t studios develop more black stories? As a few black media critics have noted, Africa has a rich history or lore and mythology, even aside from Egyptian stuff. It should be a gold mine for studios and guarantee an all-black cast that no one would complain about.

  6. Will J. Richardson

    “Imagine a world where everyone on Earth has roughly the same skin color.”

    Does no one remember the effective dreamer, George Orr, protagonist of The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin? He solved racism by turning everyone gray.

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