“…you don’t tug on Superman’s cape
you don’t spit into the wind
you don’t pull the mask off of ol’ Lone Ranger
and you don’t mess around with Slim…” -- Jim Croce
Two iconic heroes from the 1940’s, Superman and The Lone Ranger, were resurrected on 2013 movie screens across the globe, continuing to hold fast to the notion that to be a hero required two key elements. First you have to be male and second you have to be of European cultural origin, aka, “white.”
When I was growing up I imagined myself at one point or another either the “man of steel” fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.” Or the black masked, white equestrian who dressed always in white and his hat never left his head even during the most violent scuffles with the bad guys. I can remember listening to Fred Foy’s “Hi ho Silver, away,” on radio and being swept away by the way Noel Neil purred breathlessly at George Reeves on our black and white, 12 inch Philco TV.
Whether acting out scenarios with friends or just by myself I became the hero. That “the hero” in movies and on television were always “white” never occurred to me that it should be any other way. So “Superman” came from the planet Krypton and the “masked-man” rode in the Old West, it was just natural that these “heroes” should be white men. After all wasn’t it their world and I’m just living in it?
The imagination is a powerful thing. I could look in the mirror and see that I was Colored, but I somehow knew instinctively that that didn’t mean I couldn’t play or be the hero in my own story. So does it matter that in 2013 these same archetypes still play out in front of millions? Does it matter that at least in the minds of the creators of these fictions that the fact of the centrality of the Eurocentric point of view remains extant even in the age of Obama? Yes it matters.
Because what is being sold to folks around the world is that nothing really has changed. The subtext of “white” supremacy remains extant in all forms of popular mythmaking. Just look at the brouhaha which developed recently over the assertion that both Santa Claus and Jesus must be seen as “white” and for there to be any thoughts to the contrary were ludicrous. Even though both narratives seem to be tied to what we call the Middle East where most folks look more like Anwar Sadat than Bebe Netanyahu.
Racism of the imagination is just as powerful as racism in action, maybe more so. Because ask yourself when you check out the latest “Man of Steel” at Redbox as I did recently why is it that Krypton, a fictional planet in a fictional universe were the humanoids could take on any form and color, everybody looks like they are from Australia, Western Europe or the United States. As General Zod says to the people of the Earth, “He is not one of you, but he fits right in.” He wouldn't if his ship had landed say in Kenya as opposed to Kansas.
Interesting that in the real world an Australian, a European, an American could just as well be brown haired, brown-eyed, and brown-skinned as blond and blue-eyed. Yet we always see many more heroes that look like the latter than the former. Why? Are the mythmakers in Hollywood “image challenged?” Are they only capable of seeing the world through their own “white” lens? Or as many would argue it’s just good business. But is it?
A recent study funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation concludes “that the implicit, or internal, biases carried by both whites and minorities and perpetuated by the media and other cultural representations, subtly but powerfully influence how we view ourselves and each other.”
The study goes on to say “A more diverse workforce brings with it a better understanding of cultures and potential new markets around the world and a greater variety of perspectives, leading to more innovation in products and services. Research has shown that businesses with a more diverse workforce have more customers, higher revenues and profits, greater market share, less absenteeism and turnover, and a higher level of commitment to their organization.” So maybe the myth of a Hollywood peopled by “progressive” and “liberal” decision-makers is just that, a myth. The lack of diversity of portrayals, and stories quite possibly stems from the blinder wearing perspective of those creatives and their bosses.
Yet we know that “diversity” draws audiences. An article from Colorlines refers to the conclusions drawn from a study by The Ralph Bunche Center at UCLA.
“Researchers found that in the 2011 through 2012 season, cable television shows like “The Closer” and “Falling Skies,” with at least a third of their casts who were people of color had the highest ratings. The lowest performing shows, meanwhile, had casts that were more than 90 percent white. And the same held for broadcast television. Television shows whose casts were 40 to 50 percent people of color performed the best in median household ratings.
‘It’s clear that people are watching shows that reflect and relate to their own experiences,’ Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor and author of the study, said in a statement.
“But viewing habits aside, Hollywood is embarrasingly [sic] out of touch with the demographic reality of the country. People of color are over 36 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. But you wouldn't know it from TV, where people of color are the leads in just 11 percent of broadcast television shows and 15 percent of cable shows, UCLA researchers found.”
However subtly with movies like The Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger relying on the old “white” hero archetypes is just behind the times. Of course the hero is always “other,” the one who doesn't fit in because of some “gift” or “prowess.” And for now, at least, in the minds of the Hollywood mythmakers that “otherness” equates to being both “white” and “super.” So for many having Idris Elba portray a Norse god in Thor is somehow unimaginable, or for Megan Kelly and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, having Santa and Jesus being seen as “persons of color” a sacrilege.
So I guess when I played the lead role of St. Patrick as he drove all of the snakes out of Ireland in the sixth grade school play even though I and most of the cast and audience were young students of color that was somehow being sacrilegious? Maybe it should have been a play about some “heroic” African American or other “black” world figure of heroic stature in the first place. And maybe it says more about the motivations of the teachers and the administrators who were mostly non-black. Imagination is a powerful thing.