In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a “normal” person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor, but may come from another oppressed minority.
The Social Justice/Politically Correctness/Diversity movement (the Diversity crowd, for short) has given rise to many strange, and often paradoxical, phenomena. One of the more distressing is a trap that simultaneously demands diversity while also punishing diversity. It starts with well meaning people that want more representation of women and minorities in popular culture. At the same time female and minority characters that deviate even slightly from the doctrines of the SJ/PC faith prompt the diversity crowd to erupt with toxic, and often very personal, criticism.
In shorthand I call this phenomenon ‘Magneto or Magical Negro’, and it begins with a binary decision;
–Either, the character is an individual, and both their virtues and their vices are simply the individual expressions of a given character,
-Or, the character is an avatar, representing their whole demographic. Thus their virtues are the virtues of their entire group, their vices the vices of the entire group, and their failings and limitations paint the entire group with the same brush.
The Diversity Crowd claims that they want morally complex, fully developed characters (Magneto), but their insistence on treating these characters as avatars leads to demanding flawless (thus one-dimensional) caricatures (‘Magical Negroes’). My paradigm example of this comes from the vastly different responses that two popular comic book characters received for very similar character moments: Micheal Fassbender’s Magneto in X-Men: First Class and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In X-Men: First Class, we receive a great deal more backstory on the character of Magneto. Since 2000’s X-Men we’ve known that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, now we learn the story of what happened to the boy last seen at the gates of a death camp, specifically the torment he endured at the hands of Nazi ‘doctor’ Sebastian Shaw. We follow Magneto in the post war years (what fans refer to with affection as the ‘Magneto, Nazi hunter’ scenes). After extracting information from a collaborating Swiss banker, he follows the lead on Shaw to a bar in Argentina, where he discovers several former colleagues of Shaw. What follows is a magnificently tense scene between the ex-patriot Nazis and the Holocaust survivor that eventually culminates in brutal revenge.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron the scene is dramatically different: early on the film establishes there is some form of relationship between the alter egos of Natalia (Natasha) ‘Black Widow’ Romanova and Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner in the form of the ‘lullaby‘ (nickname for Natasha’s ability to sufficiently calm the Hulk that he reverts to his Banner form).
This, along with banter between Banner and Steve ‘Captain America’ Rodgers during the celebratory scene in Stark’s Avenger’s Tower, hints at Natasha’s desire for a deeper connection to Banner. It also establishes that banner is reticent (to say the least) about pursuing a romantic relationship with anyone, considering his own personal challenges.
Some time later in the film the Avengers are regrouping at a safe-house, having been handed a significant defeat by the villain Ultron. More importantly, Scarlet Witch (at this point acting as his agent) has tampered with the Avengers’ minds, leaving them emotionally shaken. It is in this context that Natasha makes an emotional appeal to Banner, trying to convert their relationship into something more… intimate.
In the course of this scene, Natasha responds to Banner’s fear that he can never provide her with children by noting that, along with the physical and emotional conditioning that made her an assassin for the Soviet State, she was also sterilized. He is not, she points out, not the only “monster” in the room. Unfortunatly for her, the Bruce Banner of Age of Ultron is very much the ‘Hulk is a curse’ version of the character familiar to fans of Bill Bixby’s long running series, and Banner cannot bring himself to accept Natasha’s romantic overtures.
Note that as different as the emotional tone and the content of these scenes are, the characters are actually revealing notable similarities between the characters;
-Both Magneto and Black Widow bear deep, emotional scars inflicted on them by tyrannical regimes (for Magneto the Nazis, for Black Widow the Soviets).
-Both had their childhoods stolen; First Class and Age of Ultron make clear that each character was subject to systematic abuse with the intent of turning them into living weapons.
-Finally, though neither serves their former tormentors, both characters recognize they have become ‘monsters’; one a man so driven that he is willing to do literally anything in the service of his cause (up to and including attempting to murder his long-time friend and ally Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past), the other driven by guilt over the ‘Red in her ledger’; an allusion to innumerable bloody deeds in the service of the Soviet State that Loki taunts her with in The Avengers.
So, of course, naturally these interesting character moments were equally well received? Well… no. Fassbender’s take on the character of Magneto in First Class was widely praised, to the extent that any criticism seems more oriented to the idea that Magneto is too sympathetic. Johansson’s Black Widow, by contrast, despite being fleshed out a great deal more then the (somewhat shallow) ‘action girl’ of the previous Iron Man and Avengers movie, was the subject of a torrent of criticism.
While there were some critics that valued the message and development of the character, a disturbing amount of criticism condemned both the plot point, the movie and the director, often as ‘sexism’. For example, Black Widow: This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things read the bilious article at Io9. The daily Beast chooses to post their ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’s’ Black Widow Disgrace under the “Sexism” category. The bulk of the vituperation would be reserved not for long pieces with room for (slight) nuance, but for a storm of outrage on twitter that grew so intense (and personal) that many at the time blamed it for Joss Whedon deleting his twitter account (a claim he denies, to be fair).
Magneto is not just a Jew but a Holocaust survivor. It’s a part of his character, and a very important part, but it is only a part. Black Widow was forcibly sterilized by a totalitarian regime, part of their process to make a more perfect assassin. It’s a part of her character, and a very important part, but it is only a part. Because the Diversity Crowd does not consider Jews a ‘minority’ (because reasons), Magneto is free to be a complex, flawed and… well, a ‘monster’. Because Black Widow “is the main female character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe” she thus can’t be permitted to admit emotional scars over a disturbingly physical, intimate violation.
Of course this isn’t the only example of this phenomenon; it’s not even the most recent. What do I mean? It’s the action-adventure movie that smashed box office records this summer. It’s proof that a cast starring four diverse women can attract both men and women. So why isn’t Suicide Squad getting the “Girl Power” treatment that the pool of box office ectoplasm that is Ghostbusters 2016 enjoyed?
Suicide Squad made more in its opening weekend then Ghostbusters has in the four weeks since release, and at first glance this would seem to be a triumph for ‘women protagonists in action movies’ movement. After all, by the standards of the diversity boosters it’s arguably an even better standard bearer then Ghostbusters 2016!
If your goal is ‘diversity’, it’s worth noting that GB2016 gauchely cast three Caucasian women as scientists while relegating their lone non-white lead character to the role of ‘street smarts’. By way of contrast, the lead cast of Suicide Squad features African American Viola Davis as Amanda ‘the Wall’ Waller, one of the more formidable women in the DC universe and throws in Karen Fukuhara as Tatsu ‘Katana’ Yamashiro for even more diversity.
Yet though Suicide Squad seems to tick every box for the Diversity Crowd, that same group was not merely indifferent but actively hostile to the box office hit, positively angry at how it has eclipsed the sinking ship of GB2016. At Breitbart, Ben Kew rounds up a selection of the scathing opprobrium directed towards Suicide Squad;
And the critics are already throwing their toys out of the pram. “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record, Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies” huffed Gawker’s Gizmodo blog, which also branded the film “misogynist bullsh**.”
Slate, meanwhile, went after the movie’s Joker-and-Harly-Quinn-themed merchandise:“nothing says #relationshipgoals like the tortured pas de deux between a deeply troubled woman and her abuser.”
Perhaps my favorite example of explaining just how badly the box office hit of Suicide Squad measures up to the box office failure of GB2016 comes from Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune. In a piece titled Harley Quinn vs. Holtzmann? The Ghostbuster emerges with smarts, grace, Phillips gives his best shot at salvaging something from the wreck of Gb2016 while also denigrating Suicide Squad*;
After the Chicago press screening, writer Bastien recalls, “I literally held my head in my hands … this straight-up racist, sexist, poorly edited, nonsensical, ugly movie. And it was a bummer because, for once, the casting was incredibly diverse.”
Ah, if only that “incredibly diverse” cast could have been advised by people like Phillips or Basttien, it might have had the success GB2016 is now enjoying! All of this, despite the fact that Suicide Squad achieved what is perhaps the holy grail in box office performance;
The biggest surprise in terms of audience makeup was the strong turnout among females, who made up 46 percent of Friday’s audience, according to exit poling service CinemaScore. That’s unusual for a superhero film. Warners also succeeded in luring younger moviegoers: 28 percent of ticket buyers were under the age of 18. Both females and those younger moviegoers liked the pic better, giving it an A- and A, respectively.
A movie with a diverse cast of women explodes at the box office, with huge appeal to both women and younger movie goers. In other words, it does exactly what Sony executive Tom Rothman claimed Hollywood needed to do: “In his estimation, studios need to recognize and address [a lack of diversity] or “die,” and that is part of why movies like Ghostbusters are so important to the future of an already ailing business.” Yet for all its commercial success and actual diversity, for many commentators the women of Suicide Squad are more embarrassing then the potentially franchise killing GB2016.
While this summer Suicide Squad didn’t conform to exactly what the Diversity Crowd considers acceptable portrayals of women, early this year an even larger version of this same phenomenon gripped the media. In the lead up to the 2015 Oscars, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign dominated entertainment news with (at least) the Guardian, CNN, NPR, The Blaze, the LA Times (to list but a few) writing stories about this grave injustice. It seemed that no news outlet could resist the urge to talk about tiny gold statues not being distributed evenly. Much of the furor centered on the perception that black actors were being funneled into ‘stereotypical’ roles.
The Hollywood reporter came closest to quantifying this, producing an info-graphic that attempts to categorize how Black actors win their Oscars. Most notable is the degree of parsing that has gone into their classifications; apparently the character of Ray Charles, for which Jamie Foxx won an Oscar in 2004, is reducible simply to ‘drug addict’ and ‘musician’ while Denzel Washington’s conflicted and complicated Private Silas Trip is simply reduced to ‘slave‘.
At the risk of minimizing the #OscarSoWhite concerns, perhaps when a representative system reduces an honorable and upstanding Marine Corp Drill Sargent, a murderous and corrupt police detective and a vicious African dictator all simply to ‘tyrant‘**, perhaps the problem lies more in the metric then the measured. As a bonus, both the Drill Sargent and the and the corrupt detective also join the African dictator under the classification ‘violent‘. In fact, though the graphic claims that Black actors win Oscars”most often for roles that paint stereotypical (or painful) portraits of African-Americans”, the actual roles listed are so varied as to defy any description. It’s a listing of saints and sinners, reduced to a box score that obscures vastly more then it reveals.
So in the end what was the point? It’s hard to say; after all the complaints about stereotypical roles the big Oscar contender for blacks was… the slave rebellion story Birth of a Nation (before being troubled by controversy). What lesson, what policy, what guideline could be implemented after the 2015 Oscars that could possibly mollify this complaint? Worse yet, if the complaint is ultimately misplaced, based on ham-handed narrative crafting like the graphic above, what if the complaints can’t be mollified?
This leads to the final incident I’ll touch on, notable more for the perfect summation then its notoriety: the ‘Stop Killing Queer Women (On TV)‘ controversy that sprang up after a recurring lesbian character died in the third season finale of the show The 100. There is actually quite a lot of effort that goes into tracking how many fictional lesbians die on TV (satire or SocJus, who can tell?). Rather then go into my thoughts on the matter, let’s hear how YouTuber Undoomed reacted (warning, language and merciless mockery);
Now, amusing as all this insanity may be, it actually… got results: the showrunner for The 100 apologized. Let that sink in for a moment: nothing in the apology indicates that this plot twist was a poor narrative choice or didn’t make sense in the universe. No, the apology is entirely designed to pacify people who are upset that a lesbian character was treated like she was a character instead of a tool for raising self-esteem.
What motivates all this is… complicated (certainly too complicated for a post this long). In the end the motives don’t actually matter, what matters is where it logically leads. Talking about The 100 lesbian controversy, William Shatner manages to sum up the logical outcome of all this in one tweet;
At its core the ‘Magneto or Magic Negro’ trap isn’t the result of racist, sexist or bigoted motives on the part of creators. It’s the logical result of a series of incentives that both demand more representation of ‘minority’ characters, then engages in punishing, hypersensitive offense-taking when it comes to that representation.
Imagine you are a film maker, but not a Chis Nolan or a Joss Wheadon or Russo Brother; instead you’re a new film maker, one without the clout to buck the studio’s desires. A Josh Trank, for example, whose Fantastic 4 movie was taken over by the studio and forced, like sausage through a meat grinder, into the shape the studio wanted. A director that has to fight with the studio system to get their vision on the screen and who, chances are, end up doing mostly what the studio wants even when the studio executives are imbeciles. Quick aside; yes, that’s right, the same Tom Rothman that was pumping GB2016 for Sony a few months ago is the responsible for keeping (box office hit) Deadpool in development hell while he was at 20th Century Fox.
Directors, showrunners, writers, basically everyone on the creative side of entertainment is constantly struggling against the bean counters whose primary job is to manage risk. Well, guess what makes bean counters think something is risky? Internet outrage.
See, the thing about a one dimensional, blandly positive ‘Magic Negro’ character is it’s safe. Actors don’t want safe, writers don’t want safe, directors don’t want safe; no one on the creative side really wants these safe, bland characters, just like no chef wants to make vanilla pudding all the time. Somewhere along the line, though, the creative person is taken aside and asked ‘do you really want to take the heat for having a black guy/woman/LGBT/etc do that?’
So the edges get ground down. The rough patches get smoothed out. Sometimes the path of least resistance is to change nothing at all except to make the dangerous, risky character into a white, preferably straight, male. So a movement that is theoretically devoted to increasing diversity in roles instead becomes an engine for reducing actual diversity.
There is nothing mysterious or conspiratorial about all this; it’s a simple example of incentives not lining up with goals and it is everywhere. As long as this article is I barely scratched the surface. This phenomenon shows up everywhere creativity exists: video games, books, comics, art, music…
What’s truly ironic is that the ‘fix’ to the problem is the one thing, the simplest of all things, and it’s the one thing that we can confidently predict isn’t going to happen; Stop complaining. As the saying goes, the best way to make race less important is to stop treating race like it’s important (and that goes for all the other groups as well). When a female/black/LGBT/etc character is simply a character, instead of the embodiment of an entire group, that’s when we will get the diversity almost all of us actually want.
*As an aside spare a moment to wonder, given he “had issues with the Joker’s sex toy Harley Quinn long before”, his 10-year old daughter was allowed to see the PG-13 Suicide Squad that he labels a train-wreck of violence, sexism and bad editing.
**Louis Gossett Jr.’s Marine Corp Sgt. Emil Foley, Denzel Washington’s corrupt LAPD Det. Alonzo Harris and Whitaker’s Idi Amin.