Ben Affleck isn’t the problem: the whiteness and maleness of movie superheroes

 

While the casting of Ben Affleck as the new Batman has many people up in arms, I’m upset for a different, though related reason. I don’t have a problem with Affleck. In my opinion he’s a great actor who has proven his talent in both acting and directing. I’m also not personally invested in the Batman saga and have never been a huge fan, so take that as you will. But I don’t think that Ben Affleck is the problem. What I have a problem with is the consistent casting of straight, white, male superheroes.

It’s a classic case of under-representation. From Superman, to Spiderman, to Iron Man, to Batman, we see only white men depicted as heroes. They may have black male sidekicks (Iron Man), but the lead protagonist is always white. In the cases of Superman and Batman, this is justified by the assertion that the movies are merely staying true to the comics – which depicted white, male superheroes. Spiderman and Iron Man, however, are almost always in their suits in the comics, making their race unreadable. Movie producers could have easily cast black men into these roles, but specifically chose white men (Tobey McGuire and Robert Downey Jr.).

Iron-Man-3

All of this is extremely problematic. By broadcasting, over and over again, that only white men can be heroes, the notion that everyone else needs to be “saved” by white males is reinforced. And that’s some racist and sexist bullshit. In my opinion, justifying the overwhelming whiteness of superhero movies based on staying true to the comic is a poor excuse. Changing the color of the hero’s skin shouldn’t affect their values or purpose, nor should it diminish their power. If you claim that the change is too much because you “already have an image in your head” from the comic, think about why this is the case. Why is it that you can only picture a white man as a hero? Why not a black man? Why not a woman?

The answer, of course, is that the patriarchal structure of our society dictates that to be a white man is to be powerful – to be anything else is to be “other.” There is no privilege quite as potent as the privilege of whiteness and maleness, and this privilege and dominance leaks into every aspect of our culture. The comics mentioned above were written in a time of less equality and awareness about social justice, but the consistent and current casting of only white men as the heroes demonstrates that we haven’t come as far as we think we have. The misrepresentation of blacks, women, and the LGBTQ community in media is as pervasive as ever, and something needs to be done.

If movie producers are unwilling to change the race or gender of Batman, then perhaps they should come up with original stories that feature women and people of color, instead of making a Batman movie for the 15th time. I would love to see a new superhero – one that is a black, queer, woman with more strength, compassion, and confidence than Superman ever showed. The closest thing to a female superhero that I can recall is Halle Berry as Cat Woman, and she was not the center of the story. Despite the numerous plot lines and back stories connected to Wonder Woman, we have yet to see a movie featuring her appear.  Many have speculated as to why this is and have argued that Wonder Woman would make a compelling movie star. Movie producers, however, seem content to keep re-presenting movies that feature white male superheroes (with various white actors).

Perhaps they’re confused about who their audience is. The Batman and Superman movies have been such huge hits that nearly everyone I know, from every walk of life, rushes to the theater to see them. It’s not just white men who are watching these movies, and people look to the media to find characters that they can identify with. There’s not much chance of this even being possible if only white men are cast as the lead roles. Disney has recently attempted to be more inclusive in their creation of characters, bringing us the first black princess (still a married princess, though) and the first princess who exhibits all of the traits of a heroine and doesn’t end up married (Brave). Merida, from Brave, is the most progressive character yet, in my opinion, but there is still work to be done.

brave-wallpaper-merida

I want to see women as heroes, not sidekicks or damsels in distress. I want to see a black Batman and I want to see Wonder Woman get the glory she deserves. I want visibility for the LGBTQ community, rather than seeing them constantly erased or misrepresented by mainstream media. In many ways, media reflects the value systems of our culture and certainly perpetuates them, and if this is the case then there is much progress to be made. The race of Batman may seem insignificant, but the overwhelming whiteness of male leads, especially superheroes, is destructive on a broad and influential scale. You can complain about Ben Affleck all you want, but recognize that the racism and sexism in the media is a far greater problem.

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