Three things happened last week, none connected, but all speaking to a larger trend that's coalescing around us:
- The first trailer for Fantastic Four gave us our first glimpse of Michael B. Jordan as a black Johnny Storm.
- The cast for the Ghostbusters reboot was announced, and as we expected the four leads are all women.
- The pilot for the new Supergirl TV show announced the actor who would play Jimmy Olsen - Mehcad Brooks, a black guy.
Each of these announcements were met with some degree of backlash from the internet (even though we knew two of these - the Fantastic Four and Ghostbusters stuff - for months). The outcry was essentially the same each time, a complaint that these changes - of skin color or gender - were absolute betrayals of the original source material. It was amusing to watch people tie themselves into knots pretending to give a shit about Jimmy Olsen. I engaged (I know, dumb of me) with a guy on Twitter who was furious that the character had been altered from his idea of canon... Smallville.
Make no mistake: every single complaint was based in racism or sexism. We've been having this conversation for a long time now, and we're only going to be having it more often as we move forward: unless you can explain to me why being white and/or male is integral to the central conception of the character you're a racist/sexist if you get mad that these minor aspects have been changed. Period.
Get used to it. As our entertainment culture moves forward while maintaining an iron grip on properties that are thirty or fifty or eighty years old, you're going to see more of these changes. The old system - one that defaulted to white, one that defaulted to male - is crumbling. It's not crumbling as fast as some people want it, but that's always the way. Regardless, it's crumbling, and having a movie or TV show without a person of color or a strong woman is quickly becoming as unthinkable as having a black superhero was in 1938. Corporate culture isn't going to let go of these IPs, so they're going to have to morph them to keep up with the times. Unless you want all your superhero movies and shows to be period pieces set in the time when the characters were created, that's just the way it's going to be.
But I must admit that I do agree with the complainers a little bit: it is a bummer that we have to change the color and gender of characters to fit with the changing times. I'm bummed that there's an all-female Ghostbusters not because I think giving all the Ghostbusters vaginas is a travesty but because I think it's a bummer that nobody wants to take this cast and give them an original concept to play in. I'm bummed that Jimmy Olsen or Johnny Storm have to be made black because there are still so few black or Asian or Hispanic characters being created in comics. And the ones who are being created - like fan-favorite Miles Morales in Ultimate Spider-Man - are just riffs on white heroes.
I have faith that this will change as well. When? I don't know, but eventually we'll gender and race swap as many things as we can, and we're going to mine all of these 20th century properties. And somewhere, someone who saw their face reflected in Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four or who saw women being diverse lead characters in an FX comedy like Ghostbusters will sit down and create the next character who will be getting exploited for the next hundred years. And some time in the 22nd century people are going to get mad when that character ends up sexuality swapped or nuerologically swapped or even species swapped, if we happen to make it off this planet in the next few decades. And that, slowly but surely, is how we're going to progress.
So save the whining, racist and sexist fanboys. The rest of us are moving forward. You're invited to come along.