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For Women of Color, the Price of Fandom Can Be Too High

When the geek community is asked to empathize with characters who don’t look like them, the backlash can be severe.


A recent cover of The Village Voice features a colorful rendition of Ms. Marvel, the Pakistani-American superhero published by Marvel Comics, with the headline: “The Superhero For Our Times: Ms. Marvel and the New Inclusive World of Comics.” Comics and their adaptations have been going through a much needed revolution in regards to diversity. At least that’s how it looks at first glance: Wonder Woman is finally hitting the big screen next year for the first time in her 75 year history, Ta-Nehisi Coates is currently at the helm of the Black Panther series for Marvel, and Neflix’s Luke Cage features several complex black women who steal the spotlight from the titular hero. But as minorities gain prominence within geek properties, the blowback against this progress has increased in kind, especially within the fandom itself.

The Flash, the CW show based on the DC Comics hero who fights crime with superhuman speed, premieres its third season this week—and for a third year, Candice Patton’s Iris West, a journalist and love interest for the titular superhero Barry Allen, has been a target of racist discussion amongst the geek community. The attacks on her character range from obvious bigotry referring to her as a monkey to more subtle remarks about how the two love interests don’t “look good together”. Look through Tumblr, Twitter, or even the recaps on popular sites and you’ll find an inordinate amount of hate toward Iris for things other white female characters get a pass for. The fandom for shows like this have always been intense, but the issues with Iris often seem less based in the writers not using her well enough, and more in her not being a blank slate that white fans can project their desires or identity upon. Being a woman of color and enjoying these storylines means you learn quite young to see yourself in places the creators can’t imagine people like you exist. For the first time, white male audiences are asked to empathize with characters who don’t look like them in properties they have intense nostalgia for.

Since her comics debut in the mid-1950s, Iris has been portrayed as a white woman; casting a black actress in the role was both a major selling point and point of contention amongst fans. Patton embodies the role spectacularly. She’s warm, brave, and really, the heart of the show along with the other members of the West family. But Iris isn’t just the usual, forgettable Superhero Love Interest™. It’s the love she and Barry share for each other that saves him from oblivion time and time again. The pointed criticism toward the character doesn’t just come from a vocal section of the fandom that argues Iris doesn’t deserve to be with Barry and ships him with white female characters he has no romantic chemistry with. The showrunners often sideline Iris’s storyline in favor of whatever temporary, usually white love interest the writers want to throw toward Barry. Even worse, critics seem to feed into the bitterness of the fandom by writing articles that demean Iris as “self-centered” for being angry at Barry for gaslighting her about his secret identity. Iris is integral to the Flash mythos—something many of the criticisms seek to downplay. Her role as Barry’s love interest and future wife isn’t going anywhere.

A similar level of animosity came to the forefront when it was announced that Zendaya, the former Disney Channel star, would be playing Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both Iris and Mary Jane are long-running female characters intrinsically tied to the stories of their superhero partners; they are also some of the most superhero fantasies that readers can identify with, or desire for themselves. That DC and Marvel have decided to disrupt these fantasies is why the casting receives so much backlash. Underneath the complaints that Zendaya isn’t a natural redhead like Mary Jane—a fact which didn’t stop Kirsten Dunst from playing the character three times on-screen—or that Patton isn’t good enough to play Iris, is the idea that black women shouldn’t exist in these worlds in the first place. (And they especially shouldn’t be the cherished love interest—a rarity for black women in any genre.) Even Marvel’s Netflix show Luke Cage isn’t immune to such criticism. Despite being about a black hero with a primarily black and Latino cast, which is been true in the comics as well, a subsection of fans feel that the show itself is racist for not including white people. Perhaps this reveals the heart of the matterthat white viewers are forced to empathize with characters that don’t look like them in a genre they thought they owned. If you’ve been involved in the dedicated fandoms of comics, science fiction, and fantasy as a black woman for any length of time you’ve undoubtedly had to face a degree of racism and sexism that such tweets are rooted in. It doesn’t matter if you’re an actress or a journalist, a screenwriter or a director, the price of visibility for black women in geek properties feels too high.

This summer, when SNL writer and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones faced criticism for starring in an innocuous reboot of a mediocre but beloved 1980s franchise, her website was hacked, nude pictures leaked without her consent, and an onslaught of vile racist comments were sent her way on Twitter. It isn’t a coincidence that Jones faced scrutiny in ways her more established white co-stars did not: Jones was targeted for being a dark-skinned, “unconventionally” attractive black woman moving through a geek fandom that white men consider their own.

This phenomenon extends far beyond actresses to even the women who cover these films and TV shows. Look through the mentions of any female journalist who covers geek properties and you will find an onslaught of vile responses no matter how mild her coverage. For black women this dynamic is even worse. I never had to block so many people on Twitter until I covered Suicide Squad this summer. I wrote about the film extensively including a primer for Thrillist, an editorial for Nylon about the troubling history of Harley Quinn played by Margot Robbie in the film and an essay for The Atlantic that used Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker as a jumping off point to discuss the toxic masculinity behind modern method acting.

I’m open to criticism and discussing my writing with those who respectfully don’t agree with my opinion, but in covering comic properties, I’ve dealt with everything from people accusing me of not reading comics as if I had no idea what I was talking about to being told I was race baiting by acknowledging certain issues in the film. The worst were the very pointed attacks calling me an “idiot” or a “bitch” and far worse epithets from people I blocked. I won’t even go into the Reddit threads about my article that I was once tauntingly sent screenshots of. It’s something I’ve grown almost numb to as a critic. But what was more interesting to me was the level of hurt coming from these men and their routine way of doubting my comic knowledgea dynamic other female journalists get time and time again.

I have been reading comics obsessively since I was about ten years old. I can probably quote from John Ostrander’s original Suicide Squad run in my sleep, I’ve watched all of the Star Trek series more times than I can count, and I often whip out Klingon when I’m nervous. But I’ve found that the love and knowledge I have on these subjects never seems to be good enough for the people who grow furious at a black woman writing about these properties. White male fans often don’t want to face how their beloved properties often have troubling racial and gender politics.  (Just peruse the comments on my review of X-Men: Apocalypse for “The author feels like the X-Men series in general has failed its female characters—ignoring the fact that Mystique is elevated to a leadership and relevance level well above the source material.” Many didn’t want to face a critique coming from a woman, and a fan, who knows them better than they do.) You can only delete emails and block people on Twitter for so long until you feel burnt out. The reason why we don’t see more black women writing about these subjects with such visibility isn’t because we haven’t been interested in them, it’s that publications rarely give us the opportunity, and when we do write, we often find ourselves facing personal scrutiny that has little to do with the actual writing. At times, I’ve been left to wonder, why do I love these stories so much when they rarely care about people who look like me?

In recent years, as people of color have become more visible as creators and characters within geek properties, white male fans have felt that the mediums that so often acted as power fantasies for them no longer cater to their every whim. In a piece for the Guardian, Rose Hackman writes that “despite still persistently experiencing much better outcomes when it came to income, employment, home ownership and health, white Americans felt that as black Americans had gained in rights over the second half of the 20th century, white Americans had experienced a mirror decrease in rights.”

So much of the genre trades in metaphors for people of color—what is the X-Men without the language of the Civil Rights Movement?—but having experienced the bigotry within this fandom, it’s clear that the idea of championing those without power is somewhat misplaced. This vocal minority of geek fandom isn’t interested in dismantling the structures of oppression, but becoming the oppressors themselves. In many ways the company’s whose work fuel the geek community created a fantasy for primarily white men in which their voices, opinions, and desires matter above all else. Even when heroes of color were depicted, white people were still the primary creators and audience. As times are changing, white audiences are having to face this privilege and are forced to reckon with the fact that the geek community has far more diversity than they are willing to acknowledge. Black women have loved these genres for a long time—we’re just becoming more vocal than ever. 

Science fiction and fantasy are nothing without the presence of women who look like Leslie Jones, Candace Patton, and Nichelle Nichols who played Uhura on the original Star Trek, inspiring women of color for generations. Is it possible to find safety in these communities? Websites like Black Girl Nerds have found considerable visibility and champions partially because they offer a safe haven for geeks of color who love these works but not necessarily the scrutiny they face in more mainstream parts of the fandom. But for black actresses and journalists, isolation isn’t an option. We have to engage with communities that often don’t have our best interest at heart. But I like to keep in mind that’s it the voices of black women and other minorities that often power these stories whether white audiences want to realize that or not. As Junot Diaz wrote, “Without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Color, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible, yeah. In the Green Lantern Corps, we are the oath. We are all of these things—erased, and yet without us—we are essential.”