So, I’m here with another collaboration with Irina @ I Drink And Watch Anime. This would have happened sooner but my creative juices just cannot compete with Irina’s. After many drafts, re-drafts and re-thinking on my part, we settled on a semi-list, semi-discussion post on a topic I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to and find incredibly interesting, and Irina did too.
Her post is centred around 5 Anime Characters [She] Would Love to See Racebent and is so fascinating! Deliberating on the homogenous nature of Anime as a medium and the untapped ore of diversity in a classical narrative – you absolutely should go read it. Right now. Before mine. I’ll wait.
Great, you’re back!
I will start off here, just to be safe, by saying that at no point in this post do I mean to cause anyone any offence whatsoever. If I do offend you with anything I write here, please, politely educate me and reasonably explain my error and why you found it offensive, so I might do better next time (without my getting upset and hiding from the internet for 3 days).
I also would like to add I’m not a huge fan of the term racebending for many reasons, one of which is that it just doesn’t look as though it is spelt correctly even when it is, but the main one is the classification and different ethnic groups as ‘races’. I am a firm believer that the only race on earth is the human race; our ethnicities, orientations, genders and capabilities my differentiate us but they do not define our very being or separate us so entirely as to define them as a whole separate ‘race’. To me, this perpetuates the divisions in society but for ease of understanding, it’s the most appropriate term for this purpose.
In case you haven’t heard the term before, racebending is defined as:
‘Racebending is a neologism used to describe a process where a character’s perceived race or ethnicity is changed in a narrative by an adapter as it is created in a new media form.’
(There is also the definition that racebending applies only when characters of colour are played by white actors, but I believe based on the context I’ve heard it used in more recently that the definition has been retconned to reflect the one above.)
Improving diverse representation and the promotion of marginalised voices are among the social issues most important to me. Of course the latter expands past just ethnicity and into mental illness, disability, sexuality, gender identity and a whole trove of silenced minorities but I want to focus on the former for the moment.
Padnick, S., (2018)
I was prompted with this idea after I read an article on TOR.com entitled ‘Miles Morales Is Not Peter Parker: Why New Characters Don’t Solve the Problem of Diverse Representation’ by Steven Padnick. It discussed, essentially, the importance of racebending iconic characters when the opportunity presents itself in order to create a more genuine diverse representation. It’s an interesting article that I highly recommend you read, and it got me thinking about racebending in a whole new way.
Now, I did a lot of reading around this topic and people’s various viewpoints online but it’s something of a rabbit hole so if you’re interested, I encourage you to nose around what’s out there but here’s the point of Padnick’s article that got me thinking:
“If anything, the existence of Miles Morales suggests that Peter Parker can’t be black. Since 2011, a black kid in the costume signifies that this is definitively not Peter Parker, not the Spider-Man everyone expects. This shock reveal is used to that exact effect in both Miles’s first appearance and the teaser of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. And other versions of Spider-Man who are Indian and Japanese who are definitively not Peter Parker mean that Spider-Man, the main Spider-Man, can’t be from those backgrounds, either.
Creating different versions of Spider-Man who are not white does not prove, cannot prove, that Spider-Man doesn’t have to be white—but casting an actor of color absolutely would, and to be super-duper clear, Spider-Man does not need to be white.
… Spider-Man changes constantly and dramatically. Every new version of Peter Parker adjusts his age, his dating status (is he single, engaged, married, or magically divorced?), and his job (is he a high school student, a photographer, a teacher, scientist, or a CEO?). These are all drastic changes that radically affect Peter’s history, how he’s treated by society, and what personal problems he faces. Why can’t his race change too?
The only objection, the only objection, one could have is racism. It is the literal definition of racism to believe that Spider-Man possesses essential characteristics by being white that would be lost if he were another skin color. And it is frankly stupid to think that a black actor can’t play a character usually portrayed as white but it’s no big deal for a tiny 19-year-old like Tom Holland to play a divorced CEO of an international tech conglomerate born in the ’80s (which Peter was, in the comics, at the time Holland was cast). Both casting choices require rethinking who Peter Parker is, and both are opportunities to explore new perspectives while keeping the fundamental core and heroism of Spider-Man intact.”
He is absolutely correct in what he’s saying, of course, though some can argue that racebending should have an impact on a character’s iconic story – expanded on in this (also very good) article by Stitch @ Stitch’s Media Mix – though I am inclined to agree with the above when it comes to personal traits and values. To claim that an entire character cannot work with the singular change of ethnicity is absurd. To say so would be to say that the entirety of one ethnicity shares (or is incapable of possessing) at least one personal trait or quality, which we know can’t be true because everyone is unique and has the potential to be whoever they want. In terms of backstory, I’m of the belief that if it’s done well, racebending doesn’t necessarily need to change a character’s backstory but it could do so, in varying levels of subtly and obviousness, depending on the character.
Another point Padnick deliberates on is the organic introduction of racebending; in his article he concedes that ‘it would be weird if [Spider-Man] were suddenly, say, Latino in Amazing Spider-Man #801 when he was white in the 800 issues before that’ but makes the valid point that every new adaption be it on screen, in games or new series is an opportunity to rethink.
Another reason I feel that the organic introduction of racebending is important is that to make changes like this abruptly without thought or feeling, see J. K. Rowling (sorry guys), tokenises the inclusion of minorities as a point-scoring plot device and that’s wrong. Diverse representation should be across the board and not utilised as an empty plot device or to flesh-out throwaway characters. Whilst the inclusion of different cultures certainly adds vibrancy and interest to a story or piece of media, the first and foremost reason should be equality and to end the symbolic annihilation* previous generations of marginalised voices have experienced and that future generations are at risk of experiencing without serious reform.
* “There’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”
– Nicole Martins of Indiana University, Why On-Screen Representation Actually Matters
So with that in mind, I tried to reimagine some of the characters I would most like to see adapted & to bring diversity and representation to pop culture.
5. James Bond
The man with a licence to kill has been portrayed by many great actors and each has put a superb spin (mostly) on this iconic character, but frankly, I think it’s time for a shake-up. As a spy, in a great, multi-occupancy fictional role, I feel like any director could go in any ethnic direction with this and there is already a campaign in place for some incredibly talented Black actors to play Bond but really, he could be played by anyone – anyone with the skill to pull off such an iconic character. And in answer to the well-known argument against racebending iconic characters, no this is not a catalyst for a drop in quality. To use a phrase I’ve heard at work recently, this is a way to ‘widen the door without dropping the standards’.
Open the doors and open them wide for that casting call, there are dozens of fantastic actors from all different ethnicities that could do a fantastic job with that character. What are they waiting for?
Padnick, S., (2018)
4. Buffy Summers
The Verge. (2018).
You may notice a trend of badass females in this list as you read it because, hey, I just don’t think they are given enough credit in media. Buffy Summers, whilst fantastically portrayed in the original TV show by Sarah Michelle Gellar, may well be getting a reboot soon enough … or not a reboot if these rumours are correct. But if the kickass Vampire Slayer from Sunnydale High is making a comeback, why not rethink her character a little? Why not make her Romanian? I always found it kind of odd Buffy has no ancestral connection to (one of) the birthplace(s) of the legend she hunts?
3. Clark Kent (A.K.A. Superman, shhh)
The Man of Steel is inarguably one of the most iconic characters ever to grace our screens, books, toy stores or games consoles. He is the symbol for heroism to children and adults alike, everywhere. I personally would like to see him, the real him, that is, not an alternate version on another world, portrayed as African-American (as he would likely identify in his secret identity as Clark as, strictly speaking, Kal-el, is an alien and not from America at all despite his Kansas upbringing).
This adaption could be done in one of two ways, a) the way Stitch from the earlier article I mentioned describes in that Clark’s darker skin would have an impact on Superman’s story in that it would change how he is treated, and ‘change… the way that the Kents are looked at for taking him in’; or b) in that nothing changes and, stay with me here, he’s treated the same way white Clark Kent is treated because all people deserve respect and equality regardless of the colour of their skin *gasp*.
Admittedly, that second option would be problematic in that airbrushing out discrimination that is still clearly present in today’s society isn’t the way to combat it but, hey, a girl can dream that one day we’ll live in a world where it’s not considered unrealistic for a black flying man to be treated in the same way as a white flying man.
2. The Doctor
So you all may have noticed that after 55 years we finally got a female Doctor at the helm of the iconic, classic sci-fi show and I, amongst many others, could not have been more pleased – until I really thought about the homogenous (kinda loving my the new word, sorry guys) casting we’ve experienced over the show’s duration.
Now, I am a Whovian, and have loved this show since childhood and sure, when William Hartnell first drove the TARDIS off the lot in 1963 odds are 99.99% of people watching that show ticked the box marked ‘White-British’ on their census form – and they were probably mostly male too. But times have changed. Even if the Doctor’s viewership was still 99.99% white (which I highly doubt, somehow) it’s unlikely the circa. 15% of Britain’s population that is not white (figure from 2011, that I’m positive now, in 2018, has grown considerably) is going to be able to relate to a middle-class white guy aged 30 – 55 – whether or not he is ‘technically’ an alien.
Britain has a growing population of African, Caribbean, Asian, Indian and Pakistani citizens many of which were born here and have lived here their whole lives after their parents or grand-parents migrated 40 years ago. Why not make the next regeneration of such an iconic character, so important to Britain and so many children’s upbringing, represent one of these ethnic groups? I could likely write a whole book on the discrimination of these groups within Britain alone that are every bit as important to the running, strength and heritage of this country as the majority white population but, let’s not go there.
1. Lara Croft
Despite her creators’ checked history of paradoxically being both a boon and a detriment to the progress of feminism, no one can really dispute this highly intelligent, athletic, and beautiful archaeologist is a badass. I’d like to see her represented as someone of African descent. Maybe Morroccan like famous explorer Ibn Battuta, or Kenyan like the revolutionary archaeologist Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey?
Though the British and the Americans may have been the most prolific when it came to barging into other countries, digging up their treasures then taking them home with them, there’s no reason Lara Croft, or even her male archetype Indiana Jones, needs to be either of those nationalities today given the wealth of successful archaeologists and explorers from other cultures to draw inspiration from and follow by example.
Frankly, there are so many people that could have made my list not least of all a dozen more comic book characters, Disney Princesses and a certain Teenage Witch though I’m aware she’s already getting her reboot. In all honesty, the character choices themselves don’t matter, and when it comes down to it, neither does the ethnicity.
Diversity shouldn’t be something media and content creators actively think about, it should be a natural occurrence when equal opportunity is given to all. Unfortunately, like sustainability and health and safety and many other things vital and prevalent in our lives that ought to be so fundamental we don’t need to consciously consider them, it isn’t. So, it’s our responsibility to create media and pop culture that provides this generation and all future generations with relevant role models they can see themselves represented in and inform them that the world is diverse and brilliant and through these iconic characters.
Thank you so much for working with me again, Irina, it’s been a blast – I’m so sorry it took me so long to get here!
Until next time!