Here you have it, folks: our new Spider-Man for Marvel/Sony's latest attempt at a reboot is none other than Tom Holland (The Impossible). The question of who the latest Peter Parker would be has been hotly contested within the past few weeks, first with false reports of Asa Butterfield (Ender's Game) snagging the role, and then with a list of the final contenders: Holland, Butterfield, Matthew Lintz (Pixels), Charlie Rowe (Red Band Society), Judah Lewis (Deliverance Creek), and Charlie Plummer (Boardwalk Empire).
What did all of these actors have in common? They are all white. To our, or anyone's knowledge, no person of color was even considered for the role. Despite the fact that there is no particular reason that enforces Peter Parker's trend toward whiteness, a black, Latino, or Asian characterization is apparently unacceptable. And with an e-mail leak earlier this week between Marvel and Sony that revealed the "mandatory character traits" Peter Parker must have in the franchise -- hetero, cis, and Caucasian -- it's clear that both corporations support this philosophy.
Although Marvel has traditionally been framed as more progressive than DC when it comes to the POC/LGBT/female representation/identity politics department, it more or less only extends to their comics sector, with a few exceptions. Inasmuch, the reluctance to entertain the idea of a POC Spider-Man projected onto the silver screen indicates a larger issue, one that breaks the confines of celluloid frames and outpaces the whirl of manic projectors, throttling into the real world: the societal problem of whitewashing our narratives.
When the first installment of the film version of The Hunger Games trilogy was released in March 2012, the Internet went into an uproar over the casting of Rue, one of the most beloved characters in Suzanne Collins' series. While Collins characterized Rue as irrefutably black -- the introductory excerpt literally reads "[Rue] has dark brown skin and eyes" -- certain fans were furious over what was a straightforward casting choice - Amandla Stenberg, a POC actress.
Evidence of the reactionary response to Stenberg's casting is most unabashedly represented in the Tumblr Hunger Game Tweets, a blog originally created for the purpose of "[exposing] the Hunger Games [sic] fans on Twitter who dare to call themselves fans yet don't know a damn thing about the books," which quickly became a euphemism for fishing out racist tweets about Rue, Stenberg, and other bigoted epithets lobbed at POC characters (see photo for a handful of vitriolic, nausea-inducing examples).
(Photo courtesy of Hunger Games Tweets)
But the question remains -- why such a gut reaction to something as innocuous as casting a POC actress as a POC character? And why did so many readers ignore Collins' very obvious description?
Over at The New Yorker, Anna Holmes mused at the general Western tendency to default to whiteness -- to automatically assume that a character is white unless otherwise stated. She wrote, "...the heroes in our imaginations are white until proven otherwise, a variation on the principle of innocent until proven guilty that, for so many minorities, is routinely upended." Holmes cited a general lack of POC representation in children's literature, the very thing that germinates and cultivates our tastes in the stories we cherish:
"[D]ata analyzed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Cooperative Children's Book Center in 2010 found that only nine per cent of the three thousand four hundred children's books published that year contained significant cultural or ethnic diversity ... the white default - in books, as in other forms of mass media - is learned and internalized early, including by children of color."
To wit: lack of representation contributes to how we process the narratives we read; if we have a drastic imbalance of POC characters to an overwhelming majority of white characters, we default to whiteness.
More recently in the realm of superhero films, a similar controversy cropped up surrounding the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot - a role that has only previously been played by white men (or, in the case of the comic books, a character that has only been drawn as a blue-eyed blonde).
The backlash lead a certain segment of Fantastic Four fans to say that the franchise was "ruined" - one of the milder, less obviously prejudiced responses -- because of director Josh Trank's casting decision, compounded with allotting the role of Sue Storm, canonically Johnny's biological sister, to Kate Mara. (Their familial relationship has been rewritten in the reboot as adoptive, not biological.) Jordan addressed the kickback by penning an eloquent piece for Entertainment Weekly, touching on the theme - and sometimes burden - of representation:
"Sometimes you have to be the person who stands up and says, "I'll be the one to shoulder all this hate. I'll take the brunt for the next couple of generations." [...] People are always going to see each other in terms of race, but maybe in the future we won't talk about it as much. Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles[.]"
The connotation of Jordan's intelligent rejoinder - and possibly one of the more depressing realizations of the essay - is not only an expectation of rejection, but that of a shouldered burden, to "take the brunt." It's a symptom of inequality, and it's something that would never happen to someone like Tom Holland or Charlie Rowe.
The Spider-Man franchise is not immune to this whitewashing, either; indeed, it could be said that the casting frenzy of the first Spider-Man reboot served as a prelude to The Fantastic Four and The Hunger Games controversies. Back in 2010, when America was riding on the crest of the (very faux) "postracial" wave, and when casting for the first reboot of the Spider-Man franchise was reaching its end, the #donald4spiderman campaign was born. It was first conceived in response to an io9 article that championed Donald Glover for the coveted role of Peter Parker, which then, like now, was a white-actor-only-enterprise.
Soon after this, the hashtag campaign started going viral -- and was even picked up by Glover himself -- before becoming one of the most successful Twitter trends in history. Although some good did come out of it (Marvel swapped out Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, a half-Latino, half-black protagonist partially based on Glover himself for its Ultimate Spider-Man series), here we are the second time around, no POC actors for yet another reboot in sight.
The reaction to the casting decisions of The Hunger Games and The Fantastic Four reboot are sadly almost what we've come to expect: a noxious mixture of outrage culture and a type of verbose, wrongly unapologetic racism. Fans like these, who balk at or protest against POC casting choices -- even those that are hypothetical -- live in a world of stark polarity, one that is easy for even the most basic anti-racist to trace. There are immobile, monolithic rules. If whiteness equals Western purity and morality, it therefore equals supremacy. And if this is the case, blackness is the foil of whiteness. Blackness is impure. Blackness is immoral, inferior, even evil. Blackness must be caged. Blackness must be broken. Blackness must, more than anything, disappear.
But the latter -- in the context of the last Spider-Man reboot and the latest one -- is more difficult to detect. It relies on laziness and a strange sense of comfort: the default of whiteness. It hankers on a parasitic symbiosis and a willful blindness that is inherent to the American racial hierarchy, that whiteness is intrinsically the norm. It feeds off a lack of information and the reluctance to discuss race in any other context than within the realm of a "postracial society," which has been proven time and time again is only a myth. This benign racism thrives when we refuse to even entertain the notion of racial justice, inequality, and non-representation, even in something as seemingly insipid as who is cast in a superhero movie.
This is not to say that Holland is undeserving of the role of Peter Parker. I wish him luck and hope he does a great job; Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, so I'll root for him. Despite this, I still mourn for what could have been: a Spider-Man who represents a concept of justice for all, even if, as a POC, he is not always granted it - a hero to inspire us to do better.