Sunday, July 7, 2013

Rantings and Ramblings: "The Black Guy"

I'd like to actually follow up on a previous post of mine, wherein I discussed the Green Lantern franchise. Let's talk about this guy a bit more.

John Stewart: Don't let the picture fool you, he's not just an angry Black man.
If I may put on my English-Major-to-be cap for a bit, let me bring up August Wilson. August Wilson was an immensely talented playwright who wrote plays about African-Americans, for African-Americans. Let’s take, for example, his play Fences.

Fences focuses on an African-American family, and their struggles given their lives and situation. The fact that they are African-American factors into their lives, especially given their predominantly white and racist surroundings, but that was not their sole defining characteristic. The play’s focus, Troy, is an immensely complex character. We know so much about him that shapes who he is. He cares for his family, he loves baseball, he’s got a bit of a temper, he makes up tall tales, he doesn’t want to hurt his family, but his bitterness ends up almost tearing them apart. Troy Maxson is a compelling, human character. His race helps to create who he is, but it is not the only thing that makes him the man he is.

Too often, when writers want to create a minority character, their race becomes their only characteristic. This is where we get not characters, but stereotypes.

This is where John Stewart in the Justice League cartoon comes in. John Stewart was partially (but not primarily) chosen to add diversity (which was a point of contention for many Green Lantern fans)  because, basically, all the other team members were white. Well, except for the Martian Manhunter, he was green, but still.

But John Stewart was not solely defined by his race. He was a former Marine, he had a strong sense of duty, he had to overcome doubts about himself, he fell in love. Take all that together, and he was a well-written character. He wasn’t just: “The Black Guy.” As he was written, he was a well-rounded 3-dimensional character.

But this is oftentimes not the case. All too often, when a character is added to a work because of their race, their characterization is simply "S/he's [INSERT MINORITY HERE]."

Characters who have been affected by this include: Steel, Cyborg, Falcon, Apache Chief, El Dorado, Black Vulcan, Samurai, Defensor, Shamrock, Luke Cage, Sunfire, and more. (I'm not saying that that's all theses characters are, but they've been zapped by the "token minority ray" at some point in history.

"Tokenism" is basically Step 1 when it comes to adding diversity. A writer sees a lack of diversity and adds a minority. But you have to take it further than that. You have to add personality traits. Faults, foibles, quirks. You know, the same thing that you should be doing with all of your characters. "Tokenism" is what happens when you add in a black guy with no personality and pat yourself on the back.

TL;DR: Ethnicity does not automatically equate with characterization. I am against crappy characterization, and I am against stereotypes.

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