Of geeks, canon, privilege, inclusion and the Avengers

As Melissa McEwan said so eloquently in her Thor review  there is a line at which “canon” starts to operate in the same way as “tradition” to entrench privilege. 

I got into a bit of a squabble with some (hetero white guy) friends at work today about the role that canon (i.e. exactly how events/characters/plot unfolded/looked/occurred in a work of (usually science) fiction) plays when it comes to casting and creating a production for stage or screen.

Specifically the gulf between the role canon DOES play and the role I think it SHOULD play. Even more specifically, in Joss Whedon’s upcoming The Avengers

Look at Shakespeare, for example. I am not the world’s foremost Shax scholar but I have seen and read at least 30 of his plays and I know that back in the day all his productions featured men, presumably white men who could all be mistaken for one another in long-lost twin scenarios. White men of an undisclosed sexuality, though I’m sure there were rumors.

But when modern theaters produce Shakespeare, I venture to suggest that it is irresponsible of them not to make use of color-blind casting and to consider gender-bending casting as well. Consider Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing with Denzel Washington. Consider Dame Helen Mirren in Prospera. Or the gay-making purple flower in Were The World Mine. Or the production of Lear at the Shakespeare Theater where Cordelia was deaf and mute – she signed her lines and the Fool translated aloud. At this stage in the game, we all know what a bunch of gender-conforming white people playing Macbeth and Viola look like. It’s time to mix it up. Have different people say old words in a new way

Maybe we’re still too close to the era that old-school comics were all written in for my Mix It Up theory to apply (though it would seem from his interviews that on some level Joss Whedon agrees with me…”. . .I do feel a little like we need to make the next step. Comics need to blow up in a new way”) but when I look at a cast list of a movie, releasing in 2012, starring 8 white straight guys, 2 white straight women and 1 Black straight guy…in which a bunch of fantasy heroes from different time periods have some adventures…We know what that looks like already too, and it’s hard not to feel like something is wrong.

Like when there are no Black people in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham, or in Watchmen’s…Gotham…or Spiderman’s….Gotham….or in the X-Men universe with the exception of Halle Berry (not to ignore the ass-kicking contributions of Kelly Hu as Deathstrike)….

A few weeks ago Gigantor got into an argument at Games Workshop because some asshat tried to tell him that women couldn’t be Space Marines. To paraphrase Tina Fey’s Bossypants, when a Second City producer told her that no improv crowd would come out to see sketches with more than 2 women in them… We’re making it up! It can be anything we want it to be! And more to the point, women are ACTUAL marines, and space marines are FICTIONAL so in theory ANYONE can be one and in PRACTICE they don’t EXIST. *ahem* ….I kvetchgress.

I know that comic book fans are extremely committed and I know how hard it is to make the point that as a woman and a feminist, I think my voice, or a voice with which I can identify, still deserves to be represented even though in the 60s, nobody was doing that. These days are not those days. 

And as a fantasy reader, adherence to original material is important… but for me the crucial identity of a book, story or universe is in the emotional content, not the physical trappings. That’s why it was ok that Daniel Radcliffe actually had blue eyes, and Hodor was older than I thought he’d be and no Jane Eyre has ever actually looked like the Jane Eyre in my head. Scarlet Johanssen’s Becky in Ghost World did not look that much like the comic drawing. And would you believe that Billy Crudup is not actually a giant blue person who underwent a scientifically impossible meltdown? AND YET WE LIVE.

Not everyone has that flexible approach to a medium transfer – John Krasinski may have lost out on the role of Captain America because of the massive shitfit comics fans threw when his casting was rumored. It’s the same closedmindedness that leads to racist protests when someone as impressive, talented and awesome as Idris Elba is cast in a movie about a fictional Norse gatekeeper (Racist protests thoroughly dismantled by the Comics Alliance here).

Look, I’m not denying that there would have been a Comic Con frenzy if Joss Whedon had announced that everyone playing a crossover character who shows up in the Avengers would be reprising their roles, but anyone who hadn’t yet had a movie made about them was going to be cast in an innovative, color- or gender-blind way…. but how many geeks of color, how many women, how many gay nerds might turn out to see people on screen doing awesome stuff while being of color, female or gay? (Based on the current cast list, this leaves only Bruce Banner, who could have been anybody since they were recasting Edward Norton anyway, and Maria Hill – I like Colbie Smulders from HIMYM, but I would have also been delighted to see this go to Zoe Saldana or Sarah Shahi or Gabourey Sidibe! ANYONE who is surprising and up to the task, honest.)

What I’m saying is that if we can’t free up our imaginations to create works of FANTASY, when are we going to take risks in realism? When is inclusion going to be come the norm, a reflex, like making sure that soundstage in Toronto actually looks like a West Village loft?

Maybe indie movies are the way to go. Maybe only indie movies of new, progressive, diverse comics have the leeway and the inclination to have some damn vision. But I expect more.

Even from an establishment that consistently tells me they have pigeon-holed me and my tastes into a genre called “chick flicks” and it is perfectly acceptable for these movies to be monothematic and subpar in conception, writing, execution and acting (hair, make-up and wardrobe, however, will be impeccable), I expect more. 

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4 Responses to Of geeks, canon, privilege, inclusion and the Avengers

  1. RiverVox says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful, awesome post. The Shakespeare comparison is spot-on. I also want to give credit to the brilliant job Katee Sackhoff did as Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica which I think took this conservative, small-minded way of thinking and kicked it out the airlock.

    • mkpheartsnyc says:

      Thanks for commenting! I have never gotten into the Battlestar Galactica oevre but I hear that and the Torchqood Dr Who spinoff have a more fluid approach to sexuality that I appreciate like whoa.

  2. Kim says:

    King Lear worked best in Japanese. (something about King Lear being a king, and not just a feudal lord, didn’t do it for me… Something like “wasn’t there someone smarter around to take over at some point in his life???”).

    • mkpheartsnyc says:

      Hee hee – that’s an interesting point! his kingdom does seem rather short on co-leadership. Now here’s someone who could have used a good Hand of the King. I get the Lear samurai movie confuse with the Macbeth samurai I saw at some point. I loved Stacy Keach’s Shakespeare Theater Lear

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