Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Redskins and The Human Torch - why the way things have always been isn't good enough

Already intending to write about this topic today, the ongoing controversy over the Washington Redskins NFL team added a new chapter. 

This morning, the US Patent Office ruled that the team nickname, "the Redskins" is disparaging of Native Americans, then terminated the trademark. The team will be permitted an appeal of the 2-1 decision and will retain rights until the appeal is settled if they so choose to pursue that course of action.

As soon as the news hit, the internet went crazy over it. The arguments on both sides came out swinging, with people on one side declaring that it's not offensive and that it shouldn't be changed. They say that this is political correctness gone too far, that people are spending too much time worrying about things that don't actually hurt anyone. This is the way we've always done things, and we should just leave well enough alone.

Which might actually all be valid points...from their perspectives.

That's the thing about these debates that most people can't seem to wrap their minds around, truly. Perception is 99% of the issue, and if your experience with the world doesn't lead you to believe that something is offensive, then it just isn't. If you've never dealt with the issue personally, it hasn't affected you. If you haven't been called names or had assumptions made about you for traits your have no ability to alter, then you don't understand.

If you make no attempt to understand, for whatever reason, then you can sit back and continue to believe that just because something isn't offensive to you means that it shouldn't be offensive to anyone.

That doesn't mean your experience is the only one that matters.

By logical extension, if your experience matters, then the experience of everyone else is relevant as well.

In this case, many tribes have come out publicly against the name. It has been a contentious issue for decades. Earlier this year a letter signed by numerous elected officials was sent to the NFL Commissioner about the issue.  Just because something has been done by people for years doesn't mean it is right or fair or proper. Habit isn't a reason to continue objectification of people. Familiarity isn't a reason to keep stereotypes alive and well.

"The U.S. Patent Office has now restated the obvious truth that Native Americans, civil rights leaders, athletes, religious groups, state legislative bodies, Members of Congress and the president have all echoed: taxpayer resources cannot be used to help private companies profit off the promotion of dictionary defined racial slurs," said Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter and Nation Congress of American Indians executive director Jackie Pata.


As I said in the beginning of this post, I was already planning to write about this subject, although not in the world of football. I was going to discuss it in the world of the superheroes, because believe it or not, there is a large and growing controversy over basically the same issue there. 

The nerdiverse isn't infighting because of names or labels, though...they're arguing over whether characters originally written and drawn as white men can or should be portrayed by non-whites. 

Yes, really. 

This is happening. In 2014.

One of the panels I was hoping to sit in on during Comic Con last week had to do with this exact issue - of the struggle for diversity in comics, television and film. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for the day before I was there and I missed it. 

I've written before about the lack of female lead characters before, primarily about Wonder Woman and all that she stands for. The issue goes deeper than that, though, much deeper. 

The hard truth is that the vast majority of these characters have been written by white men, targeted at white men and boys. For generations. 

Sure, when they were first conceived, these characters were just the ones that those who created them related to or aspired to look up to. I don't think that there was ever any intention of excluding entire groups of society from these roles, it just worked out that way because those drawing them drew fictional heroes they could connect with.

The consequence, though, is that the vast majority of heroes in the fictional universe are white men.

Women and girls, as well as the members of literally any other racial group, might be included out there on the fringes. Maybe added as a sidekick here or there. More likely cast as a villain....but not the heroes. Almost never.

At the center of this latest controversy, The Human Torch. 

In a conscious effort to introduce more diversity to the industry as a whole, producers and directors are casting roles in ways that challenge the way things have always been. 

The role of the Human Torch, a member of the Fantastic Four in the Marvel universe, has been filled by Michael B. Jordan. 

Does it really matter what color your skin is when you're on fire?
This has actually generated a huge amount of controversy....because Johnny Storm a.k.a. The Human Torch has always been white in the comics and the prior incarnations of the films. Some oppose Jordan's casting on it's face just blatantly because of race. Others because it somehow goes against everything we've ever known about this totally fictional made-up fantasy character. Still others are raging because Johnny's sister Sue Storm has already been cast...and she's being played by Kate Mara, a white woman. 


Clearly there is no possible way that a black man and a white woman could be siblings, right?

Actually, that assumption is completely wrong, but whatever. Go ahead and keep using that as an excuse to perpetuate racism. We'll just ignore the fact that mixed race twins happen, or that families can be blended or that they could be step siblings or that one or both of them could be adopted or literally any other way that two people who don't look alike could be related.

The way things have always been isn't good enough.

The way things have always been isn't an accurate reflection of our society now. It wasn't even accurate then, and allowing it to perpetuate would be allowing a disservice to huge percentages of the population to also continue.

So, whether the nerdiverse explodes on itself or not, Jordan will be playing The Human Torch. His response to the outrage?

“They’re still going to go see it anyway.”

He has a point.

If the Redskins change their name, people are still going to watch football.

If Johnny Storm isn't white anymore, fans will still see the movies.


Progress, you guys. It's a beautiful thing...but it means that we can't do things the way we used to anymore. 

It means we have to do them better

1 comment:

  1. This same "outrage" has happened over my Highschool's mascot. I graduated from South High. Our mascot was a Rebel- each year we voted for "Johnny and Jody Rebel." In the 70s it was a hotbed of racial riots. In the 80s it had an incredibly diverse population-mostly black with a growing gang presence.

    Last I heard, they are still known as the Rebels, but the Johnny Rebel mascot and trademark are gone. Why haven't they changed the actual name? 'Cause "tradition". The irony: it is a predominantly black school now.


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