The movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance” popped into my head this morning. (And you think you have problems…) Thinking about it reminded me about how back when it came out, there was a big debate ovSer the movie’s use of the “magical negro” stereotype. I remember agreeing with the people who pointed this out, but not without some reservations…after all, I pointed out, if George Lucas had cast Sidney Poitier as Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of Sir Alec Guinness, would he have automatically become a magical negro even though the script hadn’t changed?
Which, in turn, reminded me of “women in refrigerators”. The list is well-known by now among comics fans, as are some of the excuses different writers have come up with for its existence. But the fact is, the most common one (“Hey, it’s not like men have it easy either!”) is actually sorta kinda true…Steve Trevor bit the big one a couple of times, the Vision was gruesomely dismembered and revived as a pale imitation of himself in order to put a little conflict into the Scarlet Witch’s story arc, the first couple of guys who even thought about dating Ms Marvel bit it, and let’s not even get into the whole Terry Long thing. (Husband and son both bit it there…)
But that’s the thing: Only an idiot would actually try to use these as arguments against the prevalence of racism and sexism in popular culture. Even though you can say, legitimately, that the “magical negro” is simply a mentor archetype that happens to be black, and even though you can say, legitimately, that a “woman in (a) refrigerator” is simply a supporting character that gets bumped off in order to provide a little drama for the main character who happens to be female, we can all recognize that there’s still something skeezy about it all. (Well, most of us can. I know all the enlightened, wise readers here can.) So what is it? Why is it not okay?
The answer is that there are so few other roles for these characters to take that the supporting roles become disproportionate representations of the characters in popular culture. Or, to put that a little less fancy, it’s not that there are lots of black “wise mentor” characters, it’s that there are so few black heroes getting mentored. It’s not that there are so many women in comics who die, it’s that there are so few who get to go off and avenge the deaths. These things are symptoms of a far deeper, more fundamental problem in pop culture, namely a dearth of protagonists who aren’t white guys. Nobody thinks to cast a black guy in the Luke Skywalker role; he’s relegated to the Obi-Wan (or more accurately, Mace Windu) part. We’ve reached a plateau in bringing diversity into our cult fiction, where characters outside the white male “standard” are included, but almost never in a leading role. Until that changes, you’ll continue to see the same stereotypes. Because they’re not stereotypes, they’re archetypes….but they’re the only archetypes women and minorities are allowed to inhabit.