It’s no secret that superheroes and comic books are the current bread and butter of the Hollywood system. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a multi-billion-dollar a year enterprise, and the rapid growth of the DC Extended Universe makes it another hot commodity for the vested financial interest of Hollywood. The rise in popularity for the genre - which stretches across the globe - has led many to criticize the lack of gender and racial representation in superhero films, with pundits around the world and across the internet wondering why most of these films feature white male superheroes only.
Strides have been made, of course. In the MCU, there are female characters like Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, as well as non-white superheroes in Falcon and War Machine - though, these characters play secondary supporting roles in the MCU. For example: Black Widow, despite both Scarlett Johansson and the character's popularity, won’t get a movie until Phase 4 (at the earliest). However, one place in the MCU where women and/or minorities have already begun to receive adequate representation is on the Marvel TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - a fact that one of the show's stars is particularly proud of.
S.H.I.E.L.D. star Chloe Bennet, who plays Daisy Johnson (formerly known as Skye) on the ABC series, recently spoke to CBR about the current direction of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3. While she offered some hints about what to expect as the series reaches the end of its current season, she also spoke at length about the problems faced by female and minority actors, as well as the representation of both on the series:
“I went to lunch yesterday with my friend, who's an actress, and she's also Japanese, and we talked about this. When we were kids, we truly did not feel we could be on TV unless we were blonde … unless you were white. It just felt like that's how it was. Even when I got here, which was about six years ago, I was told that I wasn't Asian enough to be the best friend, but wasn't white enough to be the lead. I truly was like, ‘Well, yeah. That makes sense.’ I truly believed that! And just that that's something I believed and I nodded my head in agreement -- that's some kind of brainwashing!
"You realize how far this industry has come, but how little representation there is. People say, ‘Oh, will you change your name?’ I changed my last name because I wanted to just get cast for the role because I was right for it, because of who I was. I think so often people look at the color of the person and they determine right away that they can't be this role because of the way they look or who they are. It's just crazy to me. So it means so much to me.”
Bennet, who is also half-Chinese, makes some excellent points about the problems faced by woman and minority actors that simply aren’t faced by their male and white counterparts. It’s an issue that gets right to the heart of the underlying problems that set off the #OscarsSoWhite controversy earlier this year; namely, that an actor’s gender or race still presents a problem when it comes to their chances of landing decent roles. As she notes, she had to change her name from Wang to Bennet before she started being considered for meaty roles.
The actress goes on to note that even within the MCU, a cinematic universe in which she plays a big part, the problem of representation is still present. However, she’s also optimistic about the breaking of barriers that’s being performed by her series, and the standards they’re helping to set for the franchise as a whole.
“In the [Marvel] cinematic universe, there's a lot of white guys named Chris. There's really no [black or Asian headlining characters] in it at all. That's really disappointing! I don't think our show gets enough credit. I think we're quietly changing the game on our show on TV. I know it's not as big as the movies, but I think we're really doing big things here. You know, our showrunner [Maurissa Tancharoen] is an Asian-American woman, Ming-Na Wen is obviously incredibly talented, and she's Chinese, I'm half-Chinese, we have Juan Pablo Raba and Natalia Cordova-Buckley, who are Mexican and Colombian. I think we really represent the world. I'm proud of our show and proud of what we're doing.”
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has quietly been breaking the boundaries of female and minority representation within the superhero genre now for almost three full seasons of television. In its own way, this has only whetted the appetites of fans who long to see themselves represented by people who look like them on the big screen. Still, the argument that fans won’t see a female or minority led movie holds less and less water with each passing year, and Marvel should definitely take notes for their other properties.
As the success of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Jessica Jones, as well as the anticipation for Luke Cage, has shown, people will absolutely watch—and love—stories about female and minority characters without a second thought. It’s only a matter of time before this begins to translate onto the movie screen. Indeed, with both Marvel’s Captain Marvel and Black Panther both in the pipeline, the tides are definitely beginning to change.
This is great news for fans and for the genre as a whole. The reality is that not all comic book characters are white and male, and the cinematic universe should reflect this. Hopefully, as the phases continue to roll out, we’ll begin seeing more and more female and minority characters take larger and larger roles. Given that the comic book movie genre is now an international phenomenon, this direction only makes sense.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesday nights on ABC.