The following is a guest post by writer Melanin Monroe. This essay originally appeared on The Salad Bowl. Republished with permission from the author.
It’s no secret that Marvel has a diversity problem. With every new release in film or television, the problem becomes larger and more noticeable. However, many of those that criticize Marvel’s diversity problems, tend to highlight the wrong thing. The large majority of criticism stems from the lack of representation of “women” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and while there’s a bit of truth to that condemnation, it’s also another conversation that falsely centers white women.
Over the course of the last 7 years, there have been 12 films in the MCU, starting with 2008's Iron Man through to this year’s release, Ant-Man, and there is at least one white woman (or a woman that presents as white) in every single one of them. Many of them are exhibited as love interests first and foremost, which is the primary point of contention of the female fan base. But while there are very few female superheroes, none of which have headlined a film thus far, women do exist in the MCU even if they play supporting roles, and nearly all of them are white.
What’s missing from the conversation is what is always glossed over and forgotten about, when we talk about “women”: Women of Color. To date, there has been exactly one WoC character of note with a name and speaking role, out of all 12 Marvel films: Dr. Helen Cho. Dr. Cho makes her appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and thankfully she is not bogged down with the usual tropes and stereotypes that surround Asian women in our media . She is not simply relegated to a love interest, and she does play an important part in the creation of Vision, but her contributions are overlooked by the rest of the characters. She is not what I would consider a “hero” in the traditional sense, and she is primarily a secondary supporting character, with no backstory or development, unlike every single other female character in the entire franchise.
There were two other female characters that appeared alongside Helen Cho, both of whom are white: Black Widow and Scarlet Witch. Both women would fall easily into the “hero(ine)” category. In fact, most of the women in the MCU do in one way or another (eventually at least), whether they are super-powered or not. With the exception of Helen Cho, Jane Foster, and (arguably) Pepper Potts, the women in Marvel films all have fight scenes in which they demonstrate that they can more than handle themselves, even if they may pull double duty as love interests. And even those who are not shown to physically fight, are all in positions of power (Helen Cho and Jane Foster are world leading scientists in their respective fields, and Pepper Potts is the CEO of Stark Industries) And whether with wit or brawn, none of them are entirely helpless (Peggy Carter, Sif, Maria Hill, Hope and Janet Van Dyne, Gamora, Sharon Carter, Frigga, & Nebula).
So really the problem for white female fans is not lack of representation, or even the kinds of representation (because most present the “Strong Female Character” archetype everyone says they’d like to see), but that there has yet to be a Marvel film lead by a woman. And while that is certainly a valid complaint, I can’t help but point out that there are exactly zero WoC (or non-Black MoC) heroes in Marvel films at all, and there have been exactly zero MCU films lead by a Person of Color thus far (and no, Gamora does not count as a WoC because while Zoe Saldana is Afro-Latina, Gamora is not, nor does she code or present that way. And if you were thinking of a joke about her as a “literal WoC” because she’s green, smack yourself in the face for me).
Marvel has made somewhat of an effort to combat its race problem. There are a few POC heroes in the MCU. However, all of them are Black men; Heimdall, Rhodey, Sam Wilson and Nick Fury. That is not a problem in and of itself, it’s always a good thing to have positive POC characters, particularly Black men, who are rarely presented as heroes in American media. But it seems that all of these characters function as the “magical negro” for the white characters; there to impart wisdom and advice or to be the supporting savior at the end of the movie. Like Cho, they generally don’t get much in the way of backstory or personal development in the films, they are plot devices that lack an arc separate from the white hero du jour. This is diversity without actual representation, just something Marvel can point to to address their race problem. And now with the addition of Falcon and War Machine there are two Black and two female Avengers - because all the women are white, and all the Blacks are men, and the rest of us are just supposed to be grateful for it.
Marvel has done a much better job in terms of diversity and representation on television. The medium itself has become a hotbed for shows highlighting characters of color, particularly WoC characters in recent years. However, while Marvel has certainly done better, that is not to say that they don’t fall into the same racist tropes that has plagued television since its inception. MCU is a little bit more daring and progressive on television, particularly the Netflix properties. All, with the exception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., have social justice themes embedded into their narratives (Agent Carter - sexism and patriarchal (double) standards; Daredevil - gentrification; Jessica Jones - rape, sexual assault, control, abuse, and consent). And yet, many of the same race problems that loom over the film franchise also appear in their television properties.
Let’s start with Marvel’s most recent release, Jessica Jones. This show has been heavily praised as the progressive feminist show “we’ve” all been waiting for. This is true in a lot of ways, as it does confront many issues about rape culture not regularly seen on television. However, none of the notable characters of color are treated very kindly, most suffer terribly just by being associated with Jones, which to be fair is kinda the point, and everyone around her suffers by association. So some of that is not her fault, but she’s also not above directly purposely hurting people herself, even her own friends, to get what she wants.
And then there’s Reva Conners, Luke Cage’s wife in the series, who is postured as someone who is narratively important, but doesn’t actually have any lines (none that I could remember, correct me if I’m wrong). And truthfully her character is only important as means to put Jessica and Luke Cage together. Her entire value and identity is through her husband. Not only that, but her character has been lightwashed, continuing the long Hollywood tradition of utilizing colorism to represent Black women in a specific way: lightskinned and/or biracial. So while the show may be “feminist” it is not intersectional, and it seems to largely appeal to a certain kind of feminism.
The two most prevalent PoC characters are Luke Cage, Jessica’s love interest and Malcolm Ducasse, Jessica’s neighbor who are two of the most abused characters in the series, and not just by Kilgrave: Funny how in Jessica Jones PoC characters are hurt by white girls but it’s romanticized. Like on the one hand you have Jessica’s sexual violence, as she sleeps with Luke while knowing perfectly that he would never consent if he knew she killed his wife. But it’s presented like the beginning of a love story. On the other hand, you have Malcolm’s characterization that is reduced to his kindness and patience as Jessica and Reuben’s sister disrespect him, basically using him as a rug they can step on. Jessica relays on racist prejudices to obtain things, until he can’t take it anymore and leaves. Reuben’s sister yells at him and insults him until she can use him as a flyer distributor/personal confidant 24/7 in order to get better and grieve her brother. Both Jessica and Reuben’s sister disregard Malcolm’s feelings and needs. But of course, it’s still presented like a friendship. Luke Cage and Malcolm both deserve better.
While overall probably the best story to come out of the MCU, Daredevil has massive problem with its portrayal of Asian characters. Most, if not all the Asian characters on the show are villains. Now to be fair, Wilson Fisk - a rich, straight, white male - is also a villain, one of the best villains in the MCU perhaps. But that is precisely the problem; there is a huge difference between how Fisk is treated versus Nobu or Madam Gao, the other villains in the series. Fisk gets an elaborate tragic backstory, he is a character study with loads of development, and even a love interest! Unfortunately, none of the Asian villains are given similar treatment (even the Russian villains had backstory and development, we even got to see some of it), they are manifestations of the Yellow Peril trope/stereotype.
At the very least there is one WoC of note in the series, Claire Temple, who also happens to be the only Black/Afro-Latina woman of any significance in the entire MCU. But like all the other PoC characters, she gets very little backstory or development, and only serves as another magical negro (and part-time semi-love interest), ready to patch up the white heroes mentally and physically (she also appears in Jessica Jones in a similar capacity). I’m hoping Claire gets to play a more significant role in the second season (her role was scaled down due to scheduling conflicts) and that we learn much more about her. And as the link between all the Netflix heroes, culminating with The Defenders, she certainly has a lot she could do. Time will tell.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Agent Carter and it’s glaring erasure of POC from 1940s New York. What’s funny is that the producers and writers spent a painstaking amount of time on “accuracy”, particularly in terms of the dress, language, and slang used at the time, yet they couldn’t manage an accurate portrayal of what New York would’ve looked like demographically in the 1940s. It’s not that hard to find examples of PoC in history, especially as recently as 70 years ago. The problem is that period shows like these just continue perpetuate the ignorance about what PoC were doing back then. We weren’t just soldiers or “the help”, which is exactly how Agent Carter treats the very few PoC they decide to include. There are a total of 5 PoC in the series, *all of whom appear in exactly one episode and are never seen or heard from again. Of the 5, three end up dead within the episode, and one of them is a villain. There are no WoC in Agent Carter. None. Not a single one, not even half of one. It’s no wonder that so many Black women in fandom decided to boycott it.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is pretty well known for having one of the most diverse casts on television. At first glance, it seems to be true, as they also feature many guest actors of color. But if you take a closer look, it’s not so simple. While AoS features PoC in the main cast, and even features two WOC, the main cast is still majority white. Currently, there are 3 PoC that are main characters (there were 4, but they killed one), two Asian women (one of whom is white passing), and 1 Black man. Now compare that to the 7 main characters who are white. 3/10. Hooray diversity! If you take a look at the supporting/guest actors, it’s significantly more diverse, but they also tend to be either outright evil, or otherwise antagonistic to the heroes in some way (some through force by Hydra).
There are a few of these characters that have a small redemption arcs, like Akela Amador and Mike Peterson, but even in that case these characters are paying for crimes they were forced to do by Hydra, and are often left physically maimed as a punishment for their misdeeds. Peterson in particular undeservedly suffers the most. So if you see a PoC character on AoS, that character will likely be maimed, killed, and/or eventually evil. Most likely evil and killed. The show also has had a hard time staying away from racist stereotypes and tropes regarding PoC, even turning Mack, one of the two Black main characters at the time, into a giant, mindless attack-dog, the “scary Black man” of white nightmares.
As we gear up for Phase 3, it looks like it’s going to be slightly more inclusive. With Black Panther, on the way on the film-side, we’ll at the very least finally have an MCU film that is not focused on a white character, and it’s almost guaranteed that there will be some representation for WoC. Same goes for the Luke Cage series on the TV side, and they’re still trying to figure out how to make Iron Fist work without being appropriative or outright racist (good luck with that, Marvel). Yet, WoC will still largely be left out in the cold in terms of proper representation for the time being, without much hope that there will be a film or a show led by a WoC character in the near future. Marvel has stated that it currently has plans for the MCU through 2028, I just hope I live long enough to see them do diversity right, for once.
Melanin Monroe is a writer living in Los Angeles. She writes in her spare time and is a regular contributor to The Salad Bowl. She has a BA in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently considering postgraduate possibilities. Find her on twitter at @TheLittleStarr.