black and nerdy: representation matters: why a black spider-man is exactly what the world needs

April 6, 2015

By now, I’m sure most of you have seen various examples of racebending online; drawings or digital paintings of a less-Aryan Superman or photo sets of non-white actors fans would love to see portray their favorite superheroes. But is race-bending a good thing? For the uninitiated, “racebending” refers to changing the race of an established white character, and is seen often in fan art or in official re-tellings or reboots. On the heels of the announcement that we’d be blessed with (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) yet another Spider-Man reboot, discussions of race-bending in mainstream media have re-emerged once again. People tend to fall into one of two camps: “Just make your own original characters if you want POC on screen so badly!” or “You’re black- you’re black- let’s make everybody black! (Or at least non-white.)”
I tend to fall into the second camp. I’m not a purist; typically, I don’t view source material as something over which to hunker down protectively (except when it’s Tolkien, and it’s the third Hobbit film, in which case I will never forgive certain changes that were made). When I hear about a reboot, one of the things I’m most excited to see is just how differently they’ll interpret the source material. As long as the final product tells a good story, I’m a happy camper.

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt, AFROPUNK Contributor *

Reinventing well-known characters and stories doesn’t mean that those characters and stories will be stripped of their defining attributes. Rather, it can serve as an opportunity to explore different aspects of the story and/or character in the context of these new situations. A black Spider-Man would still be Spider-Man, because guess what? Black people also deal with bullying and unrequited love and regret and the responsibilities that come with great power. Casting Tyler James Williams or Alfie Enoch to play Peter Parker doesn’t mean you have to put Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s house in the hood (though what’s so wrong about getting creative in your storytelling? Also, I would so watch that.)

Do I personally need to see a non-white Spider-Man? Not really. I know where to find stories starring POC, and it’s not in mainstream media. Now, does my nephew need a non-white Spider-Man? My nieces? Yes. A million times yes. They need to be able to sit in a movie theater with their friends and see that being a POC doesn’t mean you have to be a side character or a stereotype, that people who look like them can be the heroes that save the day. If race-bending a few characters can be the start of that, then I don’t think neglecting to cast another Tobey McGuire or Andrew Garfield is going to kill anyone – especially when the world has already had multiple lily white Spider-Mans to satisfy the people who just, I don’t know, really, really need Spider-Man to be white.

I love the idea of a 10 year-old going to see their first Spider-Man film in a theater and there being a POC on screen. Representation matters so much for kids in their formative years. They need to see POC in mainstream roles because they may not have the resources or guidance to find the kind of independent media where POC take center stage. I want it to be easy for these kids to find images of themselves as heroes, because it sure as hell won’t be hard to find negative representations, even when they aren’t looking, and something needs to be done to counteract that. We can teach our children media literacy (in short, to dissect the implicit messages in media so that negative effects are lessened). However, I’d argue that it’s hard for some adults to completely ignore the messages around them. To expect a 12 year-old to be completely unaffected by the hundreds of implicit messages he receives daily about what it means to be a POC puts the onus on children to be unshakably confident superhumans, an expectation that just isn’t realistic.

We can talk all day about how people who want to see more POC on screen should just make new characters and/or support independent media that already exists – and you know what? I agree on the importance of that, but doing one doesn’t mean you can’t engage in the other. If racebending can be among the first steps to getting more POC on the big screen, then I’m all for it.

Fan-art: Donald Glover as Spider-Man?

* Sharon Lynn Pruitt is a writer born and bred in St. Louis, MO. She can be found talking about things like intersectional identity and Battlestar Galactica on her blog, The Black Feminist Geek, or on Twitter at @SLPruitt trying to make her long-winded rants fit into 140 characters.