Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Background vs Headline Representation in Fiction

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and she said that she'd always pictured Captain America as being Jewish. She is Jewish, and she went to a high school that was heavily Jewish, and she said that Steve Rogers pre-serum personality and build seemed like he could easily have been from her high school: determined and eager, but with a physically small frame that people over-looked. "We didn't have a football team," she said. "We just didn't have any big guys."

I'll admit, I don't tend to think at a character level about Marvel movies, treating them more as spectacle, so my initial reaction was to picture something along the lines of Captain America meets The Hebrew Hammer (a comedy in which a Blacksploitation style Jewish hero defends Hanukkah from the depredations of Santa's evil son who seeks to force Christmas on everyone while wiping out other holidays -- it sounded like an amusing premise, but the execution was extremely lackluster IMHO) with Captain America still a red-white-and-blue American hero punching Nazis, but now with a Star of David on his shield. Bring on the food and mother one-liners.

As I was turning this over in my mind later, however, it struck me that this image underlined the two different approaches that story creators take to representing people who aren't the default ethnicity, religion, or culture. It's hard to discuss things without names, so I'll call this the headline approach to representation and the background approach. Allow me to explain.

When an author uses the headline representation technique for showing a member of some minority group, that character's minority identity becomes the single most obvious and defining element of that character. I'll turn from superheroes for a moment and talk about another very self-consciously American set of characters, the characters in the American Girl Doll books. My mom and sister were very much into the American Girl books and catalogs when I was young, and being a voracious reader I ended up reading all the books that my sister brought home from the library. The creators of the dolls were eager to depict a wide variety of girls through American history, and yet there was a pattern to how they depicted ethnicity and religion which stands out. Either a character was a standard white Protestant (though religion was barely mentioned) and her books explored the period, or her books centered on The Ethnic Experience and religion (now an acceptable topic since it was ethnic) took a more prominent role.

I might have otherwise thought of the character Molly (a little girl with two brown braids who wears glasses and was often hiding with a book somewhere) as like my mom as a girl. But of course, Molly was a WASP, not a Mexican-American Catholic like my mom. When the series decided to check the Mexican-American box, they did so with Josefina who lived in 1824 New Mexico. If the book was about an ordinary suburban girl who gave you a general feeling for the time, she was an anglo and a Protestant. Or put differently, if the main character wasn't an anglo and a Protestant, it had to be a major point of the book that the character was Ethnic. Thus, headline representation.

Background representation is when the character's background is just that: in the background. Going back to superheroes, in the animated Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse movie, the main character Miles Morales has an African-American father and Hispanic mother, a fact which is never actually referred to in any dialog so far as I recall. One could argue that Miles's penchant for street art and his musical interests tie with his ethnic background, but otherwise it's entirely a story about a boy who suddenly acquires superpower and is thrust into a situation in which he needs to develop the confidence to use them, as well as about his relationship with his affectionate but tough father. It would have required no changes to the plot of the movie to have Miles be a white kid. But every person has some background, and one of the things about background representation is allowing a character's background to be something other than the perceived cultural default without that background being the main point of the story.

So yes, one could imagine a Captain America where the whole Captain America persona was different because he was Jewish, but one could also simply imagine that Steve Rogers, the small kid from Brooklyn who desperately wanted to go fight America's enemies despite everyone telling him he wasn't big and strong enough, is from a Jewish family. Since we see nothing of Steve Rogers' family in the existing movies, this would require precisely zero changes versus the movies we currently have. I suppose in a case of Schroedinger's Ethnicity, one could argue that Steve Rogers is currently both Jewish and Christian simultaneously until this aspect is defined.


Daniel Conway said...

Re: Miles Morales

The Into The Spiderverse character was more developed yet subtle. A gifted boy from a neighborhood going to a boarding/magnet/charter school for sciences with an urban background who wants to return to the 'hood? While not original, its not actually wrong. Additionally, the inner city identity concerns re: uncle v father is also again, while not original, not incorrect. Miles Morales resonates as a someone from the inner city, someone folks do find resonant. Someone "representative." What makes this important is not the originality, but actually its lack of originality- that its something some folks will understand. Hence "representative."

Darwin said...

Daniel Conway,

I think if I understand your comment right, I agree with you. There's a lot of drawn-from-life detail that makes Miles seem like a believable boy with the background he's depicted as having. I'd assume this makes him all the more familiar to the people who share his particular background and experiences.

My point about the interplay of plot and character with Miles is not that he's generic in a way that he could be either white or black/brown. I think the character and his family are really well drawn (no pun intended) in showing the very specific kind of family he comes from. He's in no sense generic. But the movie makers let him have that background while engage in the overall plot without being utterly focused on his background. Thus, the plot/setting is not "what would it be like if Spider-Man was Black?" with the entire movie focusing on that question, but rather it's got a plot that works at adventure, family, and personal levels while letting Miles just be who he is.

We talk at times about how it's important for kids to see characters who are like them in fiction (and hey, us adults like it too) but I think that even more so it's important for kids to see that people like them can be in ordinary stories just like any "ordinary" character. Otherwise we'd get this weird fiction segregation, in which a school story or a mystery story or a thriller always has WASP characters, while a story about a Mexican-American kid has to be about What Is It Like To Be Mexican American?