Why is Spider-Man white?
Don’t give me a smart-ass answer like explaining the coloration process of comic books or the heritage of Tobey Maguire’s parents. The question is simple: Why is the character of Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, a white person?
It’s sort of a weird question, but it’s one that gets right to the heart of how race is approached in popular entertainment, especially in the superhero genre. And the answer is that there’s no reason. Peter Parker’s racial heritage has no impact on his career as Spider-Man, if not for the least reason that his outfit covers every single square inch of his body – he could be Samoan, for all the people of the Marvel universe know.
White and male is the default. It’s the standard setting for characters, especially in popular fiction. In fact, the more people who aren’t white that you put into a comic, book or a movie, the more likely it is that the comic, book or movie will find itself getting marginalized and put into the ‘urban’ section of the store. The more women you put central to a comic, book or movie, the more marginalized that will also become.
White’s just where it starts. It’s not even conscious, I imagine. In fact I bet it’s the other way around – the creation of a black or Hispanic or Asian character (in any popular fiction, but especially superhero stories) probably begins, on some level, with that character’s race. And that’s kind of a problem.
This issue came to a head today when comedian Don Glover started a tongue in cheek campaign on Twitter to get himself cast as Peter Parker in Sony’s Spider-Man reboot. The fanboy world went predictably insane. Like, simply crazy. There were plenty of reasoned voices out there (including some who simply dislike the idea of Glover as Peter Parker because of how they feel about him, and others who were just bemused about the whole situation), but message boards and comment sections erupted with people kind of freaking out. Not over an actual bit of casting news. Not even over a legit rumor. Simply over the conceptual idea – just the idea! – that a black guy could play Peter Parker.
There have been a couple of things I found interesting about this whole mini-tempest in a teapot. One thing that’s fascinating is watching the racism in the hearts of many fanboys rear its head. It’s ugly, and it often shows up, along with homophobia and sexism. I think there are a lot of really progressive, smart and open minded fans of genre entertainment (which makes sense, as the best genre stuff is about seeing the world in new ways, about taking the next step as people and as a species, and about the limitless possibilities around us), but their voices often get drowned out by the regressive, ignorant haters.
Some folks have raised an important point: maybe it isn’t that fanboys are racists, but rather that they’re just painfully Aspergian. After all, fanboy nation shit a brick when the X-Men costumes were changed, and when Spider-Man got organic webshooters. These are people who don’t take well to change, and whose main concern in an adaptation isn’t quality or talent but fidelity – they’d rather have some wrestler in a role because he looks the part than hire an excellent actor who doesn’t quite match up with the drawings. There’s something to be made of that argument, and it is sad to see people so unable to step away from their obsessive interest in something to understand what an adaptation is, or how it works. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.
See, it isn’t that Sony has announced they’re hiring Don Glover, or that some site is reporting that he’s in talks. He just kind of jokingly said he’d like to do it. And they blew a gasket. Went ballistic. I’ve been busily deleting hate speech from the CHUD comment section all day, in fact, much of it indicating a deep anger at minorities (we’re talking about the kinds of morons who rail against political correctness, or the sorts of racists who talk about special treatment or ask why not cast a white Martin Luther King, Jr. And those are usually the comments that begin ‘I’m not racist but…’). All over a guy saying he’d like to play the role.
I’m glad they went nuts, though. It’s always helpful to see just how far we haven’t come, although we have come far enough that most racists realize they can’t get away with just being racist (see: The Tea Party). But it also raises a really interesting point for the rest of us to pay attention to, a point that’s right in front of our faces all the time and that most of us ignore:
White is default. That’s just so important to keep in mind, because it tells you so much about who we are as a society, that we still start our characters from that position, unthinkingly. And that’s not even taking into account the white-washing of ethnic characters, like the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia. That’s a mishigoss for another day.
Bringing it all back to Spider-Man: Why is Peter Parker white? There really is no good reason, and there’s pretty much no specifically ‘white’ experience that Peter Parker has had that is unique to honkies. A character like Black Panther kind of needs to be black – he’s the king of an ancient African civilization. Luke Cage is a black guy because he’s Harlem’s protector (although keep in mind that neighborhood hues change over time, and in thirty years Luke Cage’s blackness could be just as pointless as Peter Parker’s whiteness). Of course these black characters are black because they are based in their blackness; one of the few black characters in comics whose race isn’t that important is Blade (although I really feel like his origins probably come from some sickle-cell anemia stuff).
So why can’t Peter Parker be black? I honestly couldn’t think of a single thing that we’d have to change in the history of Spider-Man if Peter Parker was suddenly made black. I think that you could change things to reflect a more specific modern black experience, but that would be a choice. It would be an interesting choice, but it would be totally voluntary and I don’t think a black Peter Parker would suddenly have to confront crack in his family to be authentically black. Believe it or not there are plenty of black people on the same economic level as Peter Parker. And there are plenty of black kids as nerdy as Peter Parker.
And Peter Parker lives in one of the most ethnically diverse places on Earth, the New York City boro of Queens. Whites are a dwindling majority, making up about 40% of the population. There are more languages spoken in Queens than anywhere else in the United States, and it’s one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world. Peter Parker being non-white in the next movie is actually less far-fetched than Peter Parker knowing only white people in the current continuity. Even when I was growing up in Queens twenty years ago it would have been impossible to know only white people, and I’m sure that hasn’t changed. I know the part of Forest Hills where Peter Parker lives, and it isn’t the fancy bit where Art Garfunkel has a house. There are a lot of different ethnicities in the area, and it’s one of the great melting pot neighborhoods.
There’s a flip side to ‘Why is Spider-Man white?’, and it’s ‘Why does Spider-Man have to be black?’ He doesn’t. That’s the thing that people who are freaking out about a black guy wanting a crack at the role are missing. He doesn’t have to be black. It just turns out that Don Glover thinks he’d be a pretty good Peter Parker, and a bunch of people agree with him. There’s a lot about this actor that feels like it would work when he played Parker, with only the most superficial thing – the color of his skin – being ‘off.’ Setting aside all the latter day baggage, imagine if the casting of Wolverine were limited to actors of a certain height; I think that Hugh Jackman made a pretty good Logan in a couple of movies there, and his height didn’t really hold him back. Peter Parker’s whiteness doesn’t define the character, so it shouldn’t define the talent pool from which the filmmakers can choose.
As all of this bubbles away there’s an image in my head that I like – it’s eleven year old Donald Glover reading an Amazing Spider-Man comic and really feeling the Peter Parker character. Just totally understanding this nerdy guy who tries his best to be good but who finds circumstance conspiring against him at every turn. A young guy who can’t catch a break, but who doesn’t let that stop him from doing the right thing. That young Donald Glover is reading that comic and never thinking about how he’s different from Peter Parker, just about how he’s the same. What kind of an asshole wants to tell that kid that he can never be Spider-Man? What kind of asshole wants to tell whole generations of up and coming little black, Asian, or Hispanic nerd kids that they can watch these characters, but they can never be them?