Monday, August 3, 2015

We Don't Just Want It, We Need a Non-White Spiderman

You know who would make a good Peter Parker? Tyler James Williams.
The argument I'm about to make here isn't new. People have been making it, and making it very eloquently, for years. Since before Miles Morales ever donned his spidersuit, since before the ruckus over getting Donald Glover cast as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spiderman, people have been talking about this. So what's one more article going to do?

No idea. Make sure no one forgets?

Peter Parker should not be white anymore. Not in the comics, not in the movies. It's a weird statement at first glance. I mean, why? Why shouldn't he be white? Lots of people in this world are white, after all, and yes, you "All Lives Matter" people, it is okay to tell stories about white folks once in a while. But what I'm arguing here isn't that the old Spiderman stories are inherently bad or something, or even that there are no interesting stories left to tell about white superheroes, but something more nuanced. I'm saying that Peter Parker in particular, Spiderman in particular, should not be white anymore. And here's why.

So the basic story of Spiderman is the same in the comics and in the movies and seems repeated ad nauseum these days. I mean, here we are just a few years off the Andrew Garfield version and he's already been rebooted with a cute young white boy as Peter. Marvel and Sony understandably want to keep working the cash cow that is Peter Parker and his "nerd makes good" appeal. What they haven't realized, though, is that by continually making Peter white in all of these adaptations, they're actually missing the original point of the story. 

The story is this: Peter Parker, a nerdy loner outcast from a poor part of town, is picked on and has no friends. He's miserable in his daily life and his only outlets are his studies of science and his photography. Then, one day, somehow, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider. All of a sudden, Peter has all of the strength and grace he could want. He's living the dream. But it comes at a cost. 

Due to his own actions, his Uncle Ben is tragically killed by a street level criminal, and Peter decides that the best way to use his new powers is to help people. To track down criminals and keep the streets of New York safe for all the kids just like him. And to do that safely, he has to keep pretending to be the Peter Parker he was, the nerd with no friends, hiding his transformation. That's his core struggle. That the people who look at him on the street every day and hate him or laugh at him or ignore him are the same ones who cry for him to help them when he's in costume. That's the Spiderman story.

Do you see why he shouldn't be white anymore?

Look, I get it. The ascendance and dominance of nerd culture is a relatively new thing, if we're talking generationally. Heck, even when I was in high school you'd get laughed at for having a favorite superhero. Sure, I touted my weirdness and made sure everyone knew, but most people with any geeky tendencies kept them well hidden. And this was the early 2000s. Back in the 1960s when Spiderman was created, there were few creatures more openly reviled than the nebbish, poor, possibly Jewish nerd kid. Peter Parker was a picture of a person in society who had no power, no influence, and who no one wanted around. 

Giving that Peter Parker superpowers worked as a grand metaphor. It was this intriguing idea: what if the person no one likes or suspects is actually a hero working among us? And that story worked as long as nerdy teenage boys were the objects of ridicule and derision and misery.

Miles Morales. Yesssss.
That, however, is really no longer the case. Really. And to stave off any commenters who might feel the need to remind me that bullying is still a problem and nerdy guys still have it bad, isolated cases, though undoubtedly meaningful to the individual, are anecdotal evidence and not symptomatic of any statistical truth. In other words, just because one nerdy white guy still has hell in high school doesn't mean that nerdy white guys are anything near as reviled en masse as they were when Spiderman first came into being. It's just not the case.

I mean we talk about nerd culture now, but you have to remember that just ten years ago it was unthinkable for nerds to have as much cultural cache as we now do. I started blogging back in high school (under a pen name, so don't even try to find it) and when I wrote about the kind of genre stuff that's now mainstream it was weird and edgy and not at all known. Now it's very known. Marvel rules the box office. We're getting a new Star Wars movie. Peter freaking Quill is a household name, and so is Mad Max. Nerds are in.

Especially white teenage nerd boys. If you look at the projects being highlighted now, they're ones that celebrate the white teenage nerd boy. The Fantastic Four trailer paints Reed Richards as a boy genius who grows up to do incredible things and invent teleportation. Teen Wolf's Stiles not only stole the show out from my precious lamb Scott McCall, but he practically has a cult worshipping him these days. Parks and Recreation has a whiteboy nerd who not only marries the main character but also eventually becomes a Congressman and probably the First Gentleman.*

In other words, being a white nerd boy now isn't something that will get you harassed on the street. Not in New York City. We're raised on stories of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates being white boy nerds who grew up to invent amazing things. The media feeds us the idea that white male nerds have the ingenuity and resources to revolutionize our world. Heck, our media is made primarily by men who were white nerd boys in the 1980s. We don't fear them, we almost worship them.

Spiderman should not be a white boy anymore. In order to tell the story that the comics originally intended to tell, one about the outcast from society becoming the one society looks to for protection, Spiderman in fact cannot be white. And by telling a story where Spiderman isn't white, we actually open up so many different plots and motivations and universes that it's hard to imagine why we haven't already.

Sinqua Walls
So let's start. What if we tell the exact same story but Peter Parker is black? Well, for starters, if he's black and still a nerd then that puts him in a new context. He's a young black man living with his aunt and uncle after his parents pass away. He's sweet and nerdy but he doesn't fit in with the people at school. 

When he walks down the sidewalk he gets stares and clerks follow him around the store while he shops for his Aunt May's organic eggs because they think he's going to rob them. No one wants Peter Parker to save them, no one thinks he's going to amount to much of anything except his Aunt and Uncle.

And then Peter gets superpowers and it's like all his dreams have come true. Forget about being scared of the cops, he can just jump away from them. He never has to be scared to go outside again. 

But before the joy sets in, his Uncle Ben is killed. Killed by a stupid street criminal and when the cops come they don't do much to investigate. They call it "black on black" violence and close the book. Peter tells them again and again that it was a white mugger, that it wasn't gang related at all, but the cops don't buy it. They push him back and cordon it off and his Uncle Ben, the best man he's ever known, is swept up into a coroner's van. There's no case number to call, the department barely even comes by to tell Aunt May. He's just...gone.

So Peter becomes a vigilante. He knows what's out there, and he knows that when it comes to his neighborhood, the cops aren't going to do anything to stop it. He can help people. He can keep them safe. He doesn't have to worry about being arrested and assaulted by the police, he can get away. And he can protect other people from that same harassment. Peter Parker becomes the big brother to every scared kid in New York who's worried that if they call 911 no cars will come. 

When he walks down the street without his mask, it's like nothing has changed. He's still a black boy in a world against him. But he knows the truth. He knows that when he has that mask on he's the one they call for. The world might not expect much of him, but he'll save it anyway.

Tyler Posey
How about another story? This time pretend Peter Parker is Hispanic. Every day when he walks home from school he hears the other kids muttering that he should go back to Mexico. Nevermind that he was born right here in New York City and his family is Puerto Rican.

When he excels at science his teachers wonder quietly if he cheated. They tried to prove he was faking his results but they couldn't, because he wasn't. He's just another kid going nowhere fast, even if he has an internship at Oscorp to prove otherwise and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Brooklyn Bridge.

When he gets the powers it's amazing, finally feeling like he can fly above the voices on the street and the even scarier ones in his head. The ones that call him a dumb spic and who laugh all through his physics presentation. But then Uncle Ben gets shot and it's like the end of everything. The cops barely process the case. Why should they care if someone guns down an illegal on the street? All of a sudden he's got INS breathing down his neck and triple-checking his citizenship. Aunt May has to hold her breath while they dig through her records too. All the while, Uncle Ben's killer gets further and further away.

So Peter goes out looking for him and he finds a whole world that the cops don't care about. He puts on the mask and suddenly people look up to him. People like him, ones who never wanted to call the cops because they didn't need the attention legal proceedings could bring, they still need someone to take care of them. To keep them safe. Peter can be that person. Peter can keep his city safe and maybe just maybe it'll become the great place Uncle Ben always told him it was.

One last version. What if Peter Parker is Arab-American? What if he's a Muslim, growing up in the shadow of a New York City that fears and reviles him? What if he was only one year old when the towers fell and his whole life he's lived knowing that the people around him hate him. Blame him. This Peter Parker doesn't call the cops either because he knows that no one cares. The kids at school are either scared like him or hate him like everyone else. The people on the street cross the street when he walks by.

At the mosque he holds his breath when he enters, praying that this won't be the day that some crazy person comes in with a gun or a bomb and tries to make him pay for something he's only heard about on the news. When this Peter Parker wants to go into science people either tell him it makes sense, since he's Indian - which he isn't and that's a stupid stereotype anyway - or they ask only half joking if he knows how to make a bomb. He does, but that's not the point. Anyone who passed high school chemistry can make a bomb.

Karan Brar**
He gets his superpowers and he doesn't have to be afraid anymore. He doesn't have to worry about being beaten up after school or a crazy person in the mosque. For the first time in his life he feels safe. And then Uncle Ben dies, gunned down in the street, and Peter is terrified. He has this power, he was given this power, and still he cannot protect those he loves. The police pretend to investigate, but he knows they don't care. They quietly let the case go and Peter feels his heart harden towards them. 

So he puts on a mask. He looks for the man who killed his uncle, but he also looks for the others. The ones who target his friends. The ones who write death threats to the Imam. The ones who go out looking for a fight. Well they find a fight. And soon Peter finds himself not just stopping bad people but helping good ones. He realizes that with a mask on he can do real good in the world. He can save people and help them and bring them the justice they need. But only with the mask. When he takes it off he's just another boy who looks like a terrorist walking through the city.

There are more options. I could go on, but I think you've got the picture now. These stories are heavy and hard and, I think, good. They're good for us. They're the kind of stories we ought to be telling. We don't need another Peter Parker with white skin and no real reason to be afraid. The best stories are the ones that remind us of the world we live in and inspire us to make that world better. We need a Peter Parker who isn't white. We need a Spiderman story that reminds us to look past the outward appearances. We need to be reminded that anyone can be a hero.

We don't just want it, we need it.

Also Harry Shum, Jr. Just saying.
*Because Leslie Knope becomes President which is the best thing ever.
**Karan Brar is not Arab-American, but he is adorable.

14 comments:

  1. Just a correction: the Fantastic Four trailers talk about inter-dimensional travel, not teleportation.

    I am pretty sure they are going to the Negative Zone in the film.

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    1. It's from that scene when he's a little kid in the classroom and he's like "I invented teleportation!" Basically.

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  2. I remember seeing a tweet from Ryan Potter where he either photoshopped or dressed as Spidey as a joking audition and my only reservation was that I might go in still thinking of him as Hiro Hamada. Otherwise, I was all "I'd love to see that."

    But yeah, I agree 100% with this.

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  3. Seems like a good argument to me. It reminds me of something about J Jonah Jameson, which is that one version's opposition to Spider-Man is rooted in his early reporting years being in KKK country during the Civil Rights era, and thus having a jaundiced eye when it came to masked figures pursuing their own unaccountable version of justice. Clever in that it didn't make him a good man with a blind spot about Spider-Man, but an all-round asshole who's opposition to Spider-Man was tied to his only sympathetic trait.

    It's too late to have that now, really, but it could be evoked by Jameson being genuinely anti-racist, being essentially a break for Peter by being an employer who respects him, while leading the torches and pitchforks against his alter-ego - a reverse of the rest of Peter's life.

    Anyway, I find your argument convincing. I'd go with the Black or Hispanic options myself.

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    1. That's a phenomenal idea. I want that so bad now. I feel like it would add a lot of weight and depth to that relationship which, while funny in the normal canon, doesn't have much gravitas. It's mostly comic relief. So yeah, that would be amazing.

      Also, I now can't picture anyone other than J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson.

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  4. Playing the Devil's advocate: In a way, isn't stopping a character from being something big because their skin is the wrong color kind of racist? Especially if the main reason for switching the race is because another one can have more a victim status?

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    1. ...No.

      The point I'm making here isn't that we need to burn all of the versions of Spiderman where he's white, it's that any modern interpretation of the story set in the current day just plain doesn't make sense if he's a white guy. The story doesn't work.

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    2. White people can feel like major outcasts if they're ugly, poor or just plain different from the norm. (Just look at any middle or high school.) There is more to Spidey than just being a victim of society. Things do get better for him as an adult, but he is also optimistic, smart, witty and has good things happen as well. (A lot of the public also loves him.)

      Part of me has to wonder a bit about the main reason for picking a non-white actor is because of how much of a victim the character can be.

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  5. Ok. Now I want to watch all of these. I also want to watch the one that tries to do them all at once, with some kind of "arthur king of time and space" twist.

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    1. Yessssss. That would be amazing. And it's not too far off from a thing they just did in the comics called the "Edge of the Spiderverse" where they had the Spiderman from all these different universes show up and fight together...

      I could pitch that.

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  6. I was really hoping for a non-white spider-man and I was disappointed in the casting decision (I don't hold it against the actor, of course, but I do with the casting directors had chosen another actor). I'd been especially hoping that Osric Chau would get the part (since I'd love to see him in more roles and he'd be perfect as Spider-Man!).

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    1. Osric Chau! He'd be wonderful. He has such a good blend of adorable nerd and incorrigible snark.

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  7. The thing is...people already forget that Peter Psrker is Jewish.
    Like, canonically, in the comics. He is Jewish. And I'm only willing to accept a spiderman of color if his jewishness remains intact.

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