Have you ever noticed that, in most superhero movies and TV shows, there is a moment, however small, where they touch on sexism? Even in settings where the prejudice doesn’t make much sense, like if the majority of the cast are aliens and therefore shouldn’t have the same conceptions of gender and biological sex as humans on Earth?
Have you ever noticed that racism hardly ever gets the same focus?
This is something that has been bothering me for a while. I think it is great that these stories highlight sexism in some way – it’s a very real problem that should be discussed, and who doesn’t love a woman who can take care of herself? – but why is it so rare for them to give racism the same treatment, especially when so many of the issues presented in their stories have racism woven into their roots?
In Iron Man, for example, Tony Stark shuts down weapons manufacturing in his company when he discovers that terrorists in Afghanistan are using his weapons. This is a decently good act and show of accountability on his part. However, the movie never once talks about western imperialism or islamaphobia, two things that probably would produce those terrorists in the first place, and that Stark Industries would have directly benefited from as a part of the United States military complex.
Or you can look at Jessica Jones, which highlights anti-blackness with an incident involving Malcolm Ducasse, yet doesn’t explore the very deep implications of its white female protagonist using that same anti-blackness as a tool later in the episode, even if it doesn’t approve of the act. A more extreme example is Captain America: The First Avenger, which erases and/or ignore the racism and anti-semitism that was so prevalent during the time it takes place in, going so far as to not even bring up the Holocaust. And these are just examples from the MCU.
The one that I have spent the most time thinking about, discussing, and stressing over, is The Dark Knight Trilogy, a set of movies that focus on corruption in the justice system while also painfully misunderstanding the real failings of our justice system. Throughout the series we see our titular hero striking back against organized crime in Gotham City, the likes of which are corrupting the city’s police, among other things. Much like Tony’s weapons cut, this is a decent act, especially in a town where the system is so corrupt that moving against the mob bosses is near impossible (something showcased very well in The Dark Knight).
The issue is that the mobs are sort of treated as the beginning and end of the situation, when realistically that is not even close to the case. The Dark Knight Rises does refute this, in a way (what good is the clean system when cleaning it required lies and robbing people of their rights?), but even that manages to miss a huge point – that the justice system itself is fucked up, because it is racist.
It is the refusal to talk about institutionalized racism, especially anti-blackness, that makes these movies ring hollow to me. Yes, Batman can take down the mob, but that isn’t going to end police brutality or unfair sentencing against PoC, because the Mafia isn’t responsible for that – anti-blackness and racism are, and both have existed in America far longer than organized crime.
It is because of this inherent lack of balance that organized crime can even get a foothold in government in the first place, because they have the same victims. Displacing the blame to them completely, however, is ahistorical, irresponsible, and disrespectful, to my people and others. Slavery is responsible for a lot of this – should we blame that on the mob or some old conspiracy as well?
This is only the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even touched on how talking about sexism but not racism completely erases the struggles of women of color across both axes, or how white male heroes are constantly positioned as the only people who can save us from these issues, despite being the people who benefit from them most (this goes double for the rich ones). I’m very frustrated, because the people that should benefit the most from street-level superheroes like Batman and Jessica Jones and Daredevil are the marginalized, the people that are victimized by the very systems that are supposed to protect us. Instead our issues are erased and ignored because the writers don’t (or refuse to) understand how they actually work.
Yes, it would be a downer if at the end of, say, TDKR, someone pointed out that Batman can’t truly scrub the corruption from the justice system because of the racism engrained in it, but you can’t paper over that fact either. People are rotting in jail because of systematic bias and racial profiling. People die because of systematic bias and racial profiling. It costs too much to pretend that any one person could topple longstanding institutions of oppression by themselves.
But happy endings, right? Happy for who?
Images courtesy of DCU and Marvel