You’ve probably heard the words representation matters being bandied about sometime in your life on this planet. It comes up a lot when we see people of color in important roles on television. Or women, or nonbinary folk, or any of the queer rainbow.
And, in case you are one of those people who don’t understand it, it’s a pretty simple concept. It’s the idea that it’s important to see characters in fiction that you can identify with, whether it’s through race, gender, sexual orientation or other. Heck, even religion counts here. I have numerous book reviews attached to my books that like to highlight whether or not there is Christian content in my books, because: representation matters.
While I agree with this in concept, I’ll admit that I’ve long struggled with pieces of it. While I love the character of Miles Morales, I remember when Marvel was first talking about introducing a black Spider-Man, and how annoyed I was by this idea. Not because I am idealistically against a black Spider-Man, but because I didn’t see a world in which this character would continue to exist past the initial point of all the little black kids (or, let’s face it, black 30-somethings) buying up the book in excitement, allowing Marvel to eat up all those sales before returning to the normal Spider-Man.
You know, like when they made female Thor, which would actually be later, and much more short-lived.
I actually found it worse that they placed Miles Morales in his own timeline, meaning that he was readily able to be trimmed from ever having existed because he didn’t exist with the rest of the Marvel comics universe. But, luckily for Miles and all those who identify with a black Spider-Man, the writers actually knocked this character out of the park and then Marvel suddenly needed to find a way to bring this character into their regular universe. Instead of having a gimmicky little quick hit with a black Spider-Man, they had a character people adored and they realized they could capitalize on it far more than initially planned.
This is huge. Black Spider-Man is here to stay. Whereas female Thor is not.
You see, my issue here was never with the idea of there being a black Spider-Man, but with the idea of capitalizing on the importance of representation. Instead of creating a new character that they would put all their energy behind, they were using an existing character’s popularity to create a gimmick they could profit off of. And if the writers hadn’t done such an amazing job with the character, they would have finished the series by basically saying, “He could be black, but he’s actually just white, like always.”
This is what happened with Thor. They actually did an amazing job with the female Thor storyline as well. The upcoming Thor movie is capitalizing on the spectacular writing done in that series. But ultimately, they didn’t have a reason to keep female Thor around, and so, they dropped her. Amusingly enough, they actually made it dangerous for female Thor’s health to be Thor any longer, thereby ultimately killing off the prospect of her at all.
I have a problem with the idea of short-lived color-washing of characters. Not because I can’t see any merit in it at all, but because they seem to me to be nothing more than cash grabs from a company realizing they have untapped markets they can manipulate. I’ll admit that I’ve been a bit more torn on the similar take they took with the Ms. Marvel rebrand, in that they brought in a new character of Kamala Khan to be the first female Muslim superhero. But she felt like a fresh character from the start, not one purely capitalizing on the Ms. Marvel name. But that might have been due to my limited experience with Ms. Marvel prior to Kamala’s arrival.
However, although I struggle with these types of things, these moments where we try to make existing characters diverse, purely from the aspect that they often feel forced and not doing justice to the real need for diverse representation, I wholeheartedly believe we need diverse representation throughout all of our fictional characters (and, you know, in government and leadership roles in general). And so, I’m going to argue with myself a little bit in telling a story about my first time being able to identify with a character on TV and how much that meant to me, and why that probably means that even if characters like Miles Morales started as a pure cash grab from people of color, it’s still hyper important that this experiment ever happened in the first place.
And it all happened because of a television show called Family Matters, which is a show that would become famous because of its capitalization on a character that was intended to be short-lived, but went on to become synonymous with the show, Steve Urkel.
Now, let’s be honest here, this character was intended to make fun of the nerdy. It was a vaudevillian act based on the absolute stereotypes of what nerds in the late 80s looked like. But, although he and I didn’t have the same skin color, he looked and acted like me. He was awkward, didn’t know how to talk to girls (or anyone), was a bit clumsy, had trouble making friends, wore huge glasses and ill-fitting clothes, and had an absolute love of cheese. He was the comedic relief, but I immediately saw myself in him.
And that meant so much to me. I fell so absolutely in love with this character that I started working on my impersonation of him, which was pretty darn solid. And by Halloween, all I wanted was to dress up like him. Now, here’s where things get a little iffy. You see, Steve Urkel was a black character. I’m white. While the late 80s in South Carolina weren’t exactly known for their compassion toward folks of different races, I’m guessing we probably still should have known that black face harkened back to terrible stereotypes cemented against people of color during vaudeville. But at the same time, I had never felt so absolutely connected to a character in my life.
I’m not saying I should in any way be forgiven for wearing black face, as there is so much more behind it than just a white kid not knowing any better. But I do want to suggest that there was something a little bit more on my end than simple ignorant racism. Because it wasn’t that I was making fun of a black person. It wasn’t that I was trying to appropriate something of some other person’s culture. I wore black face on that Halloween over 30 years ago because I found someone on television who finally reminded me of me. I colored my face not because I wanted to be black, but because I wanted to show off how much I saw myself in this character on tv.
And I only bring this up because even to this day, I have a difficult time wanting to accept how bad of a choice this was (it was, don’t get me wrong) because of how important it was to me to show how I identified with this character who was so incredibly popular with the world at that point in time. For once in my early life, I didn’t feel so nearly alone as that awkward nerdy kid who pulled his knee high socks all the way up to his knees. I felt seen.
And so, even if I cringe at the idea of a megacorporation deciding to capitalize on the news-grabbing concept of briefly changing the race or gender of a beloved character, I also can see how exciting of a moment that can be for those kids needing to see themselves in the characters they love. While I don’t think I would have appreciated a white Steve Urkel nearly as much, mostly because Steve’s character was already exactly like me in nearly every way, the character of Miles Morales has a background and a story that is far removed from that of Peter Parker. Although I know the skin tones help, I believe it’s far less about that than it is about the character himself being so much more like the kids who now identify with him.
We all want to know that we’re not alone. It’s nice being unique, but sometimes it’s nice to know that someone out there also understands what it’s like to be you. Even if that means they bring in a character with a grating voice who is crafted purely to annoy the hell out of every people he interacts with on the screen. Because sometimes those characters are the exact characters a young friendless nerdy boy in the South needs to see.