Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Gender/Racial Swaps—So What?

It really is based on Casablanca.  No.  Really.
Ironman is now a woman.

Should everyone be up in arms about this?

Not really.

The comics industry isn’t adjusting to fit in with “progressive” times—whatever that is meant to mean. There isn’t some agenda-toting cabal going around telling the artists and the writers that they have to adapt. There is a long, long, really long tradition of riffing and stealing the stories of other artists and cultures, and then using them as a vehicle to tell your own story. Playwrites and authors have been doing it for nearly as long as there has been paper and ink. Othello, Shakespeare’s dark moor, has been played by every spectrum of color across the board, including very white actors. Akira Kuroawa told the fantastic Seven Samurai, a decidedly Japanese movie. It was later retold as The Magnificent Seven, a decidedly American movie.  It’s true that Kurosawa sued, but not because the race of the characters has been changed to white and Mexican, but because they’d blatantly ripped off his story. Otherwise, Kurosawa loved the adaptation of his work, and presented the director, John Sturges, with a katana. If that wasn’t enough, The Guns of Navarone (first in the book then in the movie) recast the entire group as US, British and Greek allies in World War II.  Finally, Pixar picked up the exact same theme again when it used bugs to tell the exact same story in A Bug’s Life. Most audiences enjoyed the film and had no issue with Bonnie Hunt (a white woman) portraying Rosie, a black widow.

All that jazz!
There are countless other examples, so many that it makes my head hurt a little just trying to select from them for review. But I would like to point out that The Three Musketeers most recent BBC version cast a mixed-race Porthos. That’s not just an attempt to check a box on a diversity worksheet, but rather as an homage to the author himself, Alexandre Dumas. Most audience don’t know that Dumas’ father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was the son of an enslaved African. Whatever folk think of the show itself, this was a nice little nod to the author’s origins.

But, but . . . it's in the name!
That’s really the crux of the matter. Storytellers of any stripe aren’t necessarily trying to win points on some amorphous “progressive” agenda. A lot of times we’re (myself included) just trying to give a new and interesting spin on a story that has been told many, many times before. Writing is like playing jazz—the notes are all the same, but when you’re doing it right, your particular riff on a theme will become something almost magical. Changing gender or race is like changing the setting or the time. It’s another tool in the storyteller’s “box of tricks” that allows them to explore a slightly different variation on a known theme. Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe of Babylon became Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet of fair Verona, Italy. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is in fact a retelling of Shakespeare’s own King Lear, which was also adapted by Akira Kurosawa in Ran.

It’s all circles and more circles, expanding as more stories are told, but essentially harking to the same themes over and over, with variations to try to keep it entertaining. The attempt doesn’t always result in a hit knocked out of the park (see Pamela Anderson’s Barb Wire as a counterpoint to the classic Casablanca) but sometimes you get Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavina, a retold version of Virgil’s The Aeneid.

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