~ Special Edition Post ~
When he's not out saving the world and/or taking it over, Dennis R. Upkins aka Denny aka Neo-Prodigy moonlights as a published author and a freelance digital artist. His debut young adult novel, Hollowstone, will be released later this year from Parker Publishing.
He can regularly be found analyzing the portrayal of minorities in comics and media on his blog, The Chronicle (http://neo-prodigy.livejournal.com/), Ars Marginal
(http://arsmarginal.wordpress.com/) and his official website DennisUpkins.com (http://dennisupkins.com/)
How’s That Racism Paying Off For You?
You would think that with the economic climate being what it is, that the entertainment industry (which hasn’t been immune to the recession) would be all too eager to jump on the opportunity gain revenue.
But as people of color all too well, many racist whites (both fans and industry shot-callers alike) would sooner cut their nose (or in this case burn their wallets), just to spite their face.
When cis straight white fans demand certain things in media: be it movies, television or comics—storylines or better characters or what have you—they’re lauded and praised as being outspoken, passionate and devoted fans. Yet when marginalized audiences, specifically POCs, simply ask for better representation (or any representation for that matter) and to have our stories explored, suddenly we’re being entitled, uppity, unreasonable and too sensitive.
Yet the racist white PTB have been left to their own devices: be it the erasure and whitewashing of POCs from the media, inundating the media with the white Caucasian power fantasies, etc. and yet, they are still suffering economically.
And while they continue to hemorrhage financially, they still refuse to acknowledge that POCs can make an impact—even though we’ve proven it time and time and time again—and will make the flimsiest excuses to justify why POCs shouldn’t be visible in the media and why our dollars don’t count.
Excuses I’m about to debunk and with this post.
There Is Precedent
There are those out there who will swear on a stack of Bibles that there’s been no successful POC franchise or characters of color haven’t played a pivotal role in the success of a franchise. Don’t buy it for a moment. There has been precedent. There’s too many to list but off the top of my head a few of them include: The Cosby Show, A Different World, In Living Color, Ugly Betty, Vanishing Son, Rush Hour, Blade, The Wire, Batgirl: The Cassandra Cain Run, Romeo Must Die, Cradle to the Grave, Lincoln Heights, the Black Panther DVD, Proud Family, That’s So Raven, Spy Kids, The Famous Jett Jackson, New York Undercover, Living Single, Martin, Spawn, Soul Food, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Static Shock, the LXD, just to name a few.
And I’m not even touching the long list of the box office hits that have Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube or Morgan Freeman as its top billing.
And say what you will about Tyler Perry’s films (and I’ll be the first to admit that they’re a mixed bag for me), they have consistently dominated at the box office and have shown that there is an audience for all-black casted movies.
How soon we forget that The Cosby Show and A Different World was Must-See TV Thursday long before Friends or Seinfeld. And you know what it took to beat The Cosby Show in the ratings, The Simpsons, arguably the most successful scripted television series of all time.
There was a time when American media only wanted to embrace marginalized dollars when it was desperate to boost revenue until it could gain a white audience. When Fox first launched in the late 80s, it was all about diversity and appealing to the POC market. 21 Jump Street, In Living Color and in later years Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover as well as Bernie Mac which, among its many accomplishments, was winning a Peabody Award. And how many POC series is on Fox now? That isn’t a minstrel show?
The WB network. When it first launched it too was all about appealing to the POC market but when it found its niche with the pretty white kids with problems trope, POCs got erased away and whitewashed.
This tactic of using POCs to garner enough revenue until companies are able to appeal to a middle-class white audience is nothing new. In fact, this was called out in the film, Dancing to September. But even that doesn’t even seem to be enough now.
The Vanishing Son franchise spawned four syndicated made-for-TV films and a television series. It was groundbreaking for many reasons, not the least of which was for casting an Asian male in an attractive leading-man role. The story was epic and compelling. For me personally, it left an indelible mark as a kid because I remember that being one of the first times I saw a fellow person of color in a leading and complex role. While I’m not Asian, I could relate to his struggles to thrive in a racist society. It opened my eyes to many things that my Asian brothers and sisters have to endure and I can only imagine how enlightening the series must’ve been for white audiences.
Vanishing Son, much like the Rush Hour films, Romeo Must Die, Cradle to the Grave, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, proved that a white hero is not a necessity for success in American media. POCs can take the lead in films and it can still garner wide sums at the box office.
In this day and age it seems that cable is one of the few places where minority media can be found. Lincoln Heights became a monumental hit series for ABC Family and served as one of its flagship shows. Soul Food had a successful run on Showtime and The Wire was a critically acclaimed hit on HBO in spite of having an ensemble cast that featured a plethora of black actors.
Speaking of cable shows, what’s interesting is that children’s programming is more open to POC representation than adult programming: Dora the Explorer, Avatar: the Last Airbender, Static Shock, Justice League, Batman Beyond, the Proud Family, Gargoyles, The Famous Jett Jackson or That’s So Raven. Each of these shows have been immensely successful and have appealed to a wide demographic of fans, young, adult, black, white, male, female. It seems that the PTB shot-callers behind children’s programming also seem to understand that quality minority media can lead to large profit margins. Amazing what we forget when we become adults.
Furthermore, people conveniently forget that the successful comic book film era, most notably Marvel, is due to a little film called Blade. Yes, the movie starring the dark skinned African American vampire hunting superhero broke box office records and paved the way for other comic book films. When Blade hit theaters, comic book movies were a joke: Tank Girl flopped, Batman & Robin killed the franchise, Barbwire, Judge Dredd…do I even need to go there? If it hadn’t been for Blade, there wouldn’t have been X-Men, Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, Captain America or The Avengers. Because you know that if the first Blade film had flopped, it wouldn’t have been because of a bad script or poor marketing, it would be because of a black superhero. And while the Blade franchise produced three films and a television series, for many, it was for any other reason other than the fact that he was a black superhero.
They say minorities don’t generate dollars? Look no further than Cassandra Cain’s run on Batgirl. Her run produced solid numbers and regularly outsold legacy characters such as Aquaman, Green Arrow, and Catwoman. In fact, her last issue outsold the current Stephanie Brown run of Batgirl. Cain is still the most asked about character at conventions. Why? Because she’s one of the few minority characters who was handled with the same care and respect as straight white male protagonists.
X-Men is hands down one of the most dominant titles of all time. One of the reasons it was successful and made such a profound impact with audiences is because it’s an allegory to the Civil Rights struggle. In its prime, the success stemmed from the fact that it had such a diverse cast of superheroes: black, white, Asian, Latino, Indian, Native American, men, women, young, old. Storm, a powerful regal black woman, could lead the team of a company’s flagship title. Unlike other superhero teams, there wasn’t a hierarchy and each team member could take center stage at any time. It wasn’t the Wolverine show with his 150 sidekicks, the way it is now. Emma Frost wasn’t the only X-Woman by virtue of the fact that she was blonde and sleeping with Cyclops, and as much as Cyke is my favorite character (along with Storm), the writers actually focused on other characters and gave them front burner storylines. In short, X-Men wasn’t limited to Cyclops, Wolverine and Emma Frost the way it is now. And the title that actually beat X-Men during the 90s? Spawn. Yes the dark tale about the black anti-hero from Hell.
While it’s never been aired in the U.S., the recently released Black Panther DVD has already outsold comparable X-Men and Iron Man animated films. And what’s more is that unlike its peers, Black Panther doesn’t have a major motion picture backing its franchise.
The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD), the online adventure that features a multi-ethnic cast has been an international phenomenon and has consistently dominated as the most watched series on Hulu. Paramount executives have pointed to creator Jon Chu’s use of Web 2.0 and social networking (not to mention a quality product) as setting the standard and being a game changer in reaching a mass audience, execs can only dream about.
Even astute storytellers understand that tokenism isn’t acceptable and that creating compelling characters of color in pivotal roles in ensemble casts will strengthen the product artistically and reach a huge demographic and will result in the overall success of the franchise.
A few examples: Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly/Serenity, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Merlin, Star Trek, Tru Blood, The Matrix and The 4400.
After multiple seasons, Grey’s Anatomy has consistently been ABC’s #1 show and the top rated show on network television. While hospital dramas are nothing new, Shondra Rhimes: executive producer and a black woman, is certainly bringing something unique to the table, not only with Grey’s Anatomy but with its successful spinoff, Private Practice.
Grey’s Anatomy is one of the few shows on American airwaves that features an ensemble cast of multiple POCs (and for that matter LGBTQs): black, Asian, Latino, biracial, etc. in compelling and crucial roles. It’s one of the few shows where the marginalized characters are on the same footing with white characters. And for American television, that never happens.
One of the reasons why Tru Blood has such a devoted following is because it dares to feature characters of color in compelling roles. But more than that, it’s also one of the few shows that feature queer POCs in its cast. Entering its fourth season, the show is still a huge hit.
Most people familiar with the history of Star Trek in regards to its legacy in the Civil Rights movement, understands why each series has striven to maintain a diverse cast. And why diverse cast has been a key element into most of the shows having a seven year run.
While the critically acclaimed series and film may possess cult status, one of the cornerstones of Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity is none other than Zoe Washburne: a powerful complex black heroine who was not only one of the most popular characters in the series, but has become one of the most iconic figures in speculative fiction.
With a multi-ethnic cast—not to mention a Latino lead—not only has the revamped Battlestar Galactica been critically acclaimed as the best show on television, but it has launched a franchise and almost singlehandedly reignited SyFy with spinoffs, movies, prequels, webisodes, etc.
Author JK Rowling has always made a good-faith effort IMHO to make Harry Potter an inclusive universe. One of the key reasons why many people have begun reading again and because it has had the unprecedented success is because characters of color were placed in key roles and marginalized readers could relate to them. Interracial relationships were handled with respect and minority characters were actually fleshed out. These among many other reasons are why Harry Potter has such a massive and fiercely loyal following.
While the BBC may not be perfect, when it come comes to issues of race, they are light years ahead of American networks. BBC show-runners have figured out that nothing will garner a loyal following from British and American fans like casting POCs in lead and key roles.
Their portrayal of women of color, for example, is often far better than anything seen here in the states: Guinevere (Merlin), Dr. Martha Jones (Doctor Who/Torchwood), Anne (Being Human), Rani (The Sarah Jane Adventures) are handled with femininity, grace, appeal, wisdom and power that’s usually reserved for white female characters.
One of the things I’ve loved about Russell T. Davies’s run on Doctor Who is that he consistently made an effort to include people like me in his universe. He never shied away from featuring POCs and LGBTQs in his world; not only as a backdrop but as prominent characters. While the series wasn’t perfect (no show is), Davies did something that I’ve rarely seen in television: the constant inclusion of marginalized people.
For POCs and LGBTQs who are regularly ignored, this good faith effort made us fiercely loyal to the franchise. This has led to the international success, not only with Doctor Who but its spinoffs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. And speaking of which, we’re talking about a young adult series featuring a woman as the lead but the POCs actually outnumber the white cast members 4-2. The POCs have prominent leading roles and the show is a hit!
I could go on forever discussing how anime has left a permanent place in American pop culture with everything from Akira to Sailor Moon and how American audiences don’t mind watching Asian characters and viewing Asian culture.
I could discuss the success of multi-ethnic video game franchises from everything from Street Fighter to Mortal Kombat to Final Fantasy to the Kingdom Hearts series...
But that’s right, there’s no precedent for POCs generating sales.
POCs Never Start A Trend
One thing I’ve always found fascinatingly sad is that despite the fact that POCs have set the standard and changed the game (time and time and time and time again) in arts & entertainment, we’re never credited. More than that, many white execs will rather lose money than capitalize on minority dollars.
We’ve seen legions upon legions of eager writers and publishers cash in on the Harry Potter franchise with endless knockoffs. The same goes for Twilight and Gossip Girl. Makes sense. If there’s money to be made, why not make it? That’s just smart business. Harry Potter, Twilight, and Gossip Girl are also credited for the trending.
But we never see trends or anyone looking to cash in on successful minority media franchises. What’s sad is that too many whites will line up to make every excuse as to why POCs don’t play a factor (never mind the fact that we’re the first ones blamed if a franchise fails). Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, American media would rather go broke than to do so. It’s little wonder that it’s led to the endless racefails.
How’s That Racism Paying Off For You?
Some of the most common arguments that racist whites make is that “It’s just about sales,” “PC has nothing to do with numbers,” “There’s no racism in the industry. They’re only focused on making profit.” “It’s just business.”
If that’s the case then movie producers wouldn’t continue to whitewash films like 21, Dragon Ball Z, Avatar: The Last Airbender and the upcoming Akira, even though this racist trend has continuously come back to bite moviemakers in the ass, be it bad press and/or these films flopping at the box office.
Despite having a dream cast and being one of the most well-made movies in many years, Just Wright was also a victim of poor decisions from the movie executive brass. The film failed to meet box office expectations, thanks in no part to being released to a limited audience. And when, surprise, they didn’t garner the figures due to its own enforced limit, they put a hold on all other “urban” (i.e. black) projects.
Yet no one thinks of limiting films featuring white actors when a Tom Cruise movie flops. How many romantic spy comedies have come out in the last year and how abysmally did they perform? Yet they’re continuously pushed.
Steve Harvey had a sitcom on ABC entitled Me and The Boys. Essentially My Three Sons meets The Cosby Show, it was ABC’s highest rated new show bar none. What happens? They cancel it, without rhyme or reason.
Years later history repeats when D.L. Hughley lands his sitcom, The Hughleys. Again, number one new show for ABC that season. It nearly gets canceled until UPN saves the series.
The braintrust Fox execs decided to retool and whitewash New York Undercover for its fourth season and make it more mainstream despite being a consistent Thursday night hit. And shocker, they cancel the series when the retooling didn’t take.
I don’t even have to mention the numerous POC novels whose covers have been whitewashed. Or women of color who are whitewashed and vixenized in comics, commercials and other media.
I could go in depth about why there seems to be an indefinite delay in releasing hit black series on DVD (Static Shock and Lincoln Heights) but the evidence speaks for itself.
And despite the success of the Blade franchise, how many POC superhero films have been released since by DC or Marvel?
“But Catwoman?” some of you say.
While that film had its flaws, by no means is it the only one. Case in point: Jonah Hex or worse, Ghost Rider. But those movies certainly didn’t call for an end of movie featuring cis straight white male leads.
Despite all of the success she has garnered, you would think the Cassandra Cain run of Batgirl wouldn’t have been axed. Never mind the fact that her sales averaged 25K which, in comic book terms, are solid numbers. Meanwhile, Aquaman and Green Arrow have been given reboot after reboot after reboot even though their series have flopped time and time again. If this were really about sales, then the Asian super-heroine would’ve been given the same number of reboots that the comics featuring blond white male superheroes have been afforded. Instead she gets written off and gets replaced by an inferior and inept ditz who has proven herself to be the Bella Swan of the DC universe.
What’s also interesting is that X-Men continues to be whitewashed, and continues to suffer in sales.
“But POC comic book titles have failed too!!!!!”
Yeah, but before we play the game of “Scapegoat the Coloreds,” let’s keep in mind some key reasons why many POC titles fail. The main issue is lack of marketing. They don’t give minority titles the same push they do their straight white male power fantasies and think that putting a black face on a title with hackneyed writing is going to automatically generate sales.
This is where DC has fucked up time and time again. When the legacy characters (Oliver Queen or Aquaman) aren’t generating sales, they write them out and replace them with minority characters to take over the mantles (rather than giving them original identities). Fans don’t take to the new minority fill-ins because well, they’re fill-ins. They know they’re going to inevitably be replaced by the original white characters again and it’s only a matter of time. These characters are rarely pushed or developed but the brass believes that because they’re minorities that will automatically generate cash. So when it doesn’t happen and practically commit racial genocide wiping out characters of color in one fail swoop, to replace them with the original white characters, then they don’t understand why they fucked up or why so many fans are alienated.
How many crossovers are done to push the character and title? What compelling storylines are they allowed to have? Truth is POC titles are often sabotaged and aren’t given an equal opportunity. Because when editors want white characters to happen, they’re practically shoved down our throats. Case in point: Magog. Despite pitiful sales, he continued to receive reboot after reboot and was heavily pushed.
Last year new Doctor Who showrunner Steve Moffat had to explain and justify why the Nu Who has faltered in the ratings. To be fair, it did feature a new cast, a revamp, and David Tennant & Co. are difficult acts to follow. However, in order to make the show more “universal”, the powers that be virtually erased POCs and LGBTQ from the Whoverse. For anyone who thinks that didn’t play a factor, I have beachfront property for sale in Idaho.
I could almost, ALMOST, respect execs’ decision to go the white power route if it actually resulted in profits. But the thing is, it hasn’t. They continue to lose money.
So I’m just left shaking my head asking one question, “How’s that racism working out for you?”
What You Can Do
So is it hopeless? All for naught? Are we powerless to do anything?
Hardly. No matter what anyone claims, they need us desperately. They’ll deny it until they go belly up but the truth is, our colored dollars count for plenty.
So what is the answer? Grassroots movements have been a most successful strategy. Say what you will for the internet, it has become the great equalizer in communication and letting our voices be heard.
When Racefail 09 dropped where white authors and fans engaged in racist comments and even asserting that fans of color were only a result of the internet, many women of color stepped up and had a POC roll call at communities such as Dead Bro Walking (http://community.livejournal.com/deadbrowalking/). More than that, a publishing house was spawned in order to give authors of color the opportunity to have their voices heard.
Inspired by these extraordinary women, I personally stepped up and organized the Shatter the Silence event later that year (when another Racefail ep occurred) and subsequently created the community: Fen of Color United or, in short for those who erase the identity of us, FOC_U (http://community.livejournal.com/foc_u/). With hundreds of people participating, the event was an overwhelming success. Said success wouldn’t have been possible without the help of some truly wonderful souls; too many to list here, but they know who they are.
All over the internet there’s been a growing movement of POCs creating their own content and/or enjoying media in their own spaces.
My internet wife RVC Bard did the impossible when she wrote the play Tulpa or Anne & Me which went from a script she posted online to getting a full production. The play pulls no punches in tackling the intersectionality of gender, racism and orientation from a queer woman of color’s perspective. Not only has this play reached a wide audience in a deep and moving fashion but the grassroots effort allowed for it to get major funding and a staged production.
Late last year the website Ars Marginal (http://arsmarginal.wordpress.com/) was launched. A site dedicated to analysis and discussion of media and its trends and depictions of women, POCs, LGBTQs, disabled and other marginalized audiences.
As for me personally?
About two years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to primarily support exceptional minority media. This meant using my disposable income to seek out media that showcased women, POCs and LGBTQs in a positive and respectful light. This meant searching for web comics or lesser known comic book titles featuring POCs and let me tell you, I’ve found some true gems. It’s been like a treasure hunt and I’ve been rewarded countless times over. One of those gems was, in fact, The LXD. Not only was I floored by the series but the story behind the series itself. A web series about a group of gifted characters who discover they have amazing abilities through energy known as the “Ra”. Think high quality, epic, operatic Heroes, only with an excellent plot and without the fail. The Justice League of dance might be a better description. As I mentioned earlier, it went from internet sensation to global phenomenon, primarily through word of mouth. People believed in the project, people want to see our stories and talents shared, they have also proven that diversity = success. All of the choreography and stunts are real; no special effects, no wire work, no green screens. I’m also proud to support this series because 50 percent of the sales of the official LXD t-shirt support the work of the Invisible Children, a cause that’s personally dear to me.
But don’t take my word for it, check it out: http://thelxd.com/episodes/
I’ve also personally continued to write posts and essays on this subject and boost the signal on minority media worth checking out. In addition to writing on this heavily at my blog (http://neo-prodigy.livejournal.com/), I continue to contribute to Ars Marginal as well as Prism Comics (http://prismcomics.org/), I’ve conducted various interviews online to bring awareness to these issues.
I’m also proud to announce that my debut young adult novel, Hollowstone, will be released later this year. Part noir, part paranormal, part southern gothic, this multilayered tale pulls no punches in tackling racism, sexism, homophobia and many other facets of institutional oppression. It’s not enough for us to be represented. We have to tell our stories. Our voices desperately need to be heard. That’s how we bring awareness to the injustices we endure every day. That’s how eyes are opened, minds are broadened.
Because a white person’s perception of our struggles, our culture, our identity is vastly different than our reality of our culture, our struggles, our identity.
The truth of the matter is we’re not alone. In fact, we are legion. There many of us who are fed up and realize that American media isn’t going to get its shit together. It has no incentive to do so. Actually, it does, but they’ll sooner perish rather than change.
This is why I strongly urge POCs to start pooling our resources. One thing I’ve learned since being online is that the talent is there. It’s just a matter of mobilizing.
And it can be done. Hell, we put a black man in the Oval Office, don’t tell me POCs can’t do the impossible. We’ve done it before: be it Milestone Comics or the economic boycotts during the Civil Rights movement.
You’re not alone in this. And your dollars count. Don’t know where to start? Contact me.
If there are POC events, media, ecarnivals going on, let me know and I will boost the hell out of that signal. I’ve got many other friends/associates who are happy to advertise because they want change as well.
Send me links and send me websites. If you know of other efforts going on, spread the word. I’m sure many would love to join forces or join the ranks. Don’t let them trick you into thinking that colored dollars don’t count, because they do.
They need us, we don’t need them. And that truth is what they fear the most. But more than that, white audiences want diversity in the media and many of them have been putting their money where their mouth is. Every previous show, video game, film, TV series, comic, cartoon, etc. has had a wide following of white fans who are just as passionate about POC protagonists as minorities are.
Prime example: Black Panther Executive Producer Reginald Hudlin stated that he was actually shocked at the wide demographic of fans who bought the Black Panther DVD. There was a huge contingent of Caucasian fans who want to see the adventures of a prodigious African king.
Here’s the score: we spend just as much money on media as white audiences. So to say it’s disturbing that in the 21st century, we’re STILL having to explain why diversity is not a sin, nor is it about political correctness and why marginalized people deserve to be represented on equal footing as straight white audiences is simply 20 kinds of frakked up.
You deserve better. We deserve better. And if they don’t respect us, then they don’t deserve our hard-earned cash.
And for anyone who is so strongly against minorities being represented on equal footing, then my only question for them is: Why are you REALLY tripping?