A Culture of New Racism in Comics

17 Sep

By Whitney Hunt


New Racism Ideology In the USA

Whiteness is an enduring construct of privilege and power that systematically shapes and maintains racial inequality, resulting in a hierarchal system of oppression toward people of color (Feagin & Elias 2013). Systematic racism requires generations of people reproducing racist institutions and the white racial framings that support them (Feagin 2013). According to Feagin (2013), the white racial frame is a broad concept encompassing racist practices, imagery and discourse throughout US society shaped by and for the primary benefit of individuals considered white by society. In all eras of American history, manifestations of racism contain the ideological underpinning that justifies racial inequality. Moreover, the societal grip of white racial framing underscores the gross reality that America’s racist foundations are regularly unacknowledged (Feagin 2014; Bonilla-Silva 2017).

When matters of white racism are overlooked or ignored, the issue is forgotten among most whites. Feagin (17) emphasizes that “the collective memory of racism also involves a collective forgetting” and underscores research finding older white Americans recalling the Jim Crow era as a time of peace and equality between races. After slavery became illegal and before the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws legalized ‘separate but equal’ realities of segregation. These laws personified a system of racial inequality barring black Americans from voting and owning land, deliberately blocking every opportunity to intermingle throughout legal, political or social settings in American society (Feagin 2013; Bonilla-Silva 2017). To some, the end of the Jim Crow era represented the end of racism. Race scholars argue this thinking has only produced an emerging ‘new racism’ since the late 1960s (Bonilla-Silva 2017).

New racism necessitates subtle, more clandestine strategies that continue to preserve white dominance in society; in other words, undercover forms of racism are replacing traditional and explicit forms. Beyond white racial framing, dominant ideologies of new racism subsume a variety of interrelated concepts that include racial apathy and colorblindness. Apathy and indifference toward racial inequality generally means ‘to not care’, ‘pay attention’ or ‘know about’ ongoing racial inequality. Avoiding racial conversations sustains ignorance and indifference, further cementing new racist ideology. Racism, in this way, is surreptitiously preserved, becoming more firmly embedded within society, broadening systemic issues of inequality. Thus, ignorance and indifference reproduce racial inequality and, as a form of contemporary racial prejudice, racial apathy is an extension of colorblind racism. Scholars (Bonilla-Silva 2015; Jacobson 2015; Mueller 2017) generally describe colorblind discourse as the way people enact colorblind logic through language and text. Whites and nonwhites draw on colorblind frames to make seemingly non-racial claims about what is, in fact, irrefutable evidence of racial inequality. Bonilla-Silva (2015: 119) further emphasizes the media’s role in exploiting racial stories, only to reframe and reconstruct them in ways that validate racial angst.

Pop culture and mass media representations are mechanisms that enable larger issues of systematic racism to develop the utility and ideology of new racism. For example, Jacobson (2015) examines how race, class and gender projects overlap and finds participants generate racially constructed selves from the standpoint of a white racial frame using colorblind language and logic. “By using the white racial frame and colorblindness, participants discuss consequences of systematic racism without recognizing the intentional structural organization of social groups” (Jacobson 847). Furthermore, Jacobson (2015) finds participants assume a low socioeconomic status to explain why more black and latina women appear in hip hop videos compared to white women. These findings explicate the social consequences of white racial framings and colorblindness and how they are transmitted and internalized regularly throughout pop culture media. Feagin (92) refers to this kind of response as ‘social alexithymia’, or “the inability of whites to understand where African Americans and other Americans of color are coming from and what their experiences are like.”

New Racism Ideology & Marvel Fans

Historically, comic books have been a cultural space dominated by white, masculine characters and audiences, leaving narratives for women and minority characters as significantly underrepresented or portrayed in stereotypical contexts (Hall & Lucal 1999; Singer 2002; Davis 2013). More recently, comic book narratives are being adapted into film and television series, propelling the subculture into mainstream pop culture. Moving into mainstream media has encouraged traditionally underrepresented voices to become more prominent in the world of comic books, as women and people of color have been creating and consuming comics at an increasing rate. However, traditional leaders in comic books, Marvel and DC have been slow to diversify their characters and creators and have been subject to substantial criticism for maintaining the dominance of white male characters. Considering the wider societal context of racial representation throughout pop culture and mainstream media, I set out to research how fans of comic book culture discuss the way Marvel films depict superhero characters. Employing a qualitative content analysis of an online forum tailored to comic book culture and superhero movies, my research explores how fans of Marvel comics negotiate their continued fandom amidst claims that the comic book industry is discriminatory towards people of color.

Framings of new racism illuminate a racial hierarchy palpable through the way framings are normalizing perceptions of white dominance. My findings are commensurate with the new racism canon of literature and reveal fan perceptions of diversity are constructed by implementing a white, racially framed perspective to explain both white dominance and overwhelming absence of women and characters of color in Marvel films. Themes of new racism throughout forum discussions implied that only overt racial content suggests race/racism matters. Despite craving more diverse comic book movies and characters, most discussions reverted to maintaining a character’s origin story, even if that means character roles remain white and male. Pop culture consumers frequently adopt frames of new racism to make sense of media content that is predominantly white (Feagin 2013, Jacobson 2015, Mueller 2017). Fans not only rely on the use of white racial framings to account for a lack of diversity, but also to explain continued expressions of white dominance occurring throughout pop culture media. Accordingly, it is through the lens of white racial framing by which fans both reinforce and normalize white dominance in media and pop culture contexts, frequently asserting that the fan base is and will remain, predominately white and male.


New Racism Ideology & Marvel Films

Representations of race are producing new and more subtle forms of racism. Historically, comics and film have exhibited ways that reflected overt racism and sexism of the past. The recent surge in Marvel superhero films are a pop culture phenomenon that has been highly criticized for a lack of equal character representation on screen. White men are still considered as the primary consumers, creators and central characters throughout the genre; neglecting women and characters of color or casting them as the perpetual sidekick or hypersexualized love interest (Singer 2002; Wolf-Meyer 2003; Davis 2013). Fan discussions collectively concur that film companies, like Marvel, are primarily profit driven, leaving women and characters of color for secondary roles because it would simply be bad for business. Yet, fan perceptions are inconsistent with independent market research, as young women are predicted as the fastest growing demographic of comics (Pantozzi 2014). Furthermore, Marvel comic book films are slated for release through 2028 and beyond, however, these adaptations continue offering representations that do not match up to their changing demographics (Keyes 2014). Women and people of color are more likely to go to the movies, are purchasing comic books more than ever before and are just as likely to attend comic conventions (Comichron 2016). However, male characters outnumber women 9 to 1 at both Marvel and DC franchises and an estimated 79% of comic creators are white (Hickey 2014).

In April of 2017, The Federalist, a conservative web magazine, released an edgy piece that politicized issues of character diversity and argued that political correctness is causing Marvel to lose money. The editorial further claimed that creativity would continue to decline unless there was an increase in Christian values and a decrease in “extreme leftist” values staff in Marvel’s writing room. To defend these claims, the author cited a trade magazine’s interview with Marvel’s vice-president of sales, David Gabriel, who declared that fans did not want more diversity or female characters (Del Arroz 2017). What is not explained in the article is that the author misquoted the VP of sales. Gabriel went on to say that the numbers indicated a lower interest in some of the more diverse films but that that did not necessarily match up with fan desires and that Marvel would therefore continue to promote diversity in film (Griepp 2017). The conservative argument was effectively using underhanded strategies to generate and spin conflict against diversity in comic films. Not long after the film adaptation of Marvel’s Black Panther hit a number of records at the box office, IndieWire (2018) released an article with the headline: “Marvel Movies Are Now ‘Required’ to ‘Reflect the World in Which They Are Made’.” According to Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige, proof of increased diversity lies not only in the blockbuster success of Black Panther, but also in the talent behind the camera. Feige asserts that most of the Marvel creators are limited to the collaborative imaginations of filmmakers and because conversations about increased diversity throughout the industry are beginning to produce results, Feige subsequently yields to the success of the African-American-directed Marvel film Black Panther, as the driving force to continue creating stories with “diverse talent.” (Erbland 2018) Moreover, Marvel will continue the pace of increasing diverse roles with Captain Marvel, expected to be released in 2019 and is “Marvel’s first film focused on a Superheroine.” (Erbland 2018) Furthermore, Feige claims that this project marks the first time a woman has been involved in the directing process. Working as a co-director alongside Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden is the first woman behind the camera for Marvel. While this may be a major milestone for Marvel, it is a small step for mainstream millennial fans, as they make up most of the movie-going audience and are on track as the most educated, multicultural and liberal of any generation to date (Pyles 2013; Gao 2016; MPAA 2016; Milkmen 2017).


Whitney Hunt is a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in the department of sociology at Wayne State University Detroit, MI, USA. Her research interests include inequality of race/ethnicity, sex/gender and class, socialization, media representations and transmedia. This guest piece briefly talks about her recent research, which is forthcoming this year in Media, Culture & Society.



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Posted by on 2018/09/17 in Guest Writers, Women


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