As you’ve probably seen there’s a lot of talk about Riri Williams, who will be taking over Tony Stark’s mantle in Marvel comics. Unfortunately, there have been objections from some that it’s just Marvel trying to be politically correct. And some people are asking – in a very dismissive way – “Why can’t they just create a separate female character?”
It’s true that we absolutely need more female protagonists who are not tied to the histories of pre-existing characters. And more completely independent characters who aren’t white and straight. Yes, by all means, I am 100 percent in favor of this.
However, a lot of the people who ask this question on social media don’t really care about seeing more diversity in comics, movies, or TV. But rather than just coming out and saying that, they try to pass themselves off as people who actually do care. Their argument goes something along the lines of, why should Riri, for example, have to be presented as a “lesser” Iron Man? Why can’t she just be her own person? And that is a valid question, but it seems like there are a lot of people out there using it as a cover for their own prejudice. It’s a red herring. They’re not really interested in diversity – in fact, they want to criticize Marvel (or whoever) for diversifying their characters without having to come out and say that and face the objections that might come from those who really are in favor of greater diversity.
Of course, there are people who pose the same question in a genuine and earnest way, and it’s a shame that the conversation gets obscured by those who throw out the question as a false cover for their objections to diversity.
So I’ll go ahead and address the question in a genuine way now. When I was in high school, I was on the track and cross-country teams. The school’s mascot was a matador, and our teams were often referred to as the “Lady Mats.” This infuriated me to no end. It was as if the guys were the “real” Matadors – the athletes everyone should really care about – and we were just cute, girle, second-class runners. I think that this is what bothers some people about having characters who aren’t male/white/straight take over mantles from straight, white guys. It can feel a little condescending, like a woman, character of color, or LGTBQ character isn’t compelling enough to carry his or her own storyline – instead, they have to piggyback off of already established characters, just as “lesser” versions.
And it’s easy to see why people would think this way. In earlier decades, female heroes in fact often were presented as lesser versions of their male counterparts. And in those days, they didn’t often actually take over for the guys, they were kind of the JV versions of male superheroes. But things have changed quite a bit over the years. And having a female character actually take over the mantle of a male character is different and more significant than simply having her follow in his footsteps while he’s still out there fighting, like it used to be. Take a look at the landscape these days. Jane Foster isn’t “Thor Girl,” she’s just Thor – and Thor Odinson has been out of commission while Jane wields the hammer. Kate Bishop wasn’t “Ms. Hawkeye.” Carol Danvers has graduated to Captain Marvel. Kamala Khan, although she carries the “Ms.” title, is one of the most compelling characters around. And similarly with Riri, she’s not just going to be tagging along behind Tony.
These days, I think having a female or LGBTQ character, or a character of color, take over for a straight, white male sends a different message. It’s saying that the creators believe that non-male/white/straight characters can be just as popular as their original counterparts. Making Riri Ironheart is Marvel’s way of asserting that a young, black woman can and should be given as much prominence in the Marvel Universe as Tony Stark.
The new Ghostbusters movie did the same thing. It operated on the premise that a group of women could be just as funny as a group of men.
Creating new characters who are not male/white/straight, and who have no affiliation with already existing characters, is also extremely important. We need characters who have their own completely unique stories. But handing already existing mantles over to female and LGBTQ characters, and characters of color, sends a uniquely powerful message.
So my question is, why is this so often posed as an either/or situation? Yes, we need more diversity among completely original characters! Yes, we need non-male/white/straight characters to take over old mantles! We need both! Just because Riri is Ironheart, doesn’t mean that Marvel can’t also create another new, independent character.
We absolutely need new characters taking over old mantles because it sends a very specific and important message. And we need new, independent characters. We also need more diversity among creators (but that’s a topic for a different blog). At the end of the day, I think these are all positive steps forward.