As of this writing, I’m nine episodes in on the first season of Luke Cage, the latest installment in Netflix’s Defenders corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m loving it so far. It has the same kind of ground-level, realistic tone as the previous two (Daredevil and Jessica Jones), and to me feels even more intense than its predecessors.
The intensity, however, is of a different flavor this time. Daredevil, with its Catholic protagonist, wrestled with questions of faith, morality, and self-sacrifice, and Jessica Jones, with its nearly all-female cast, dug into issues of women’s relationships with each other and gendered violence. Now we have Luke Cage, an unapologetic examination of racism and its pervasive effects on urban Black communities, including the experiences of Black women (which is a major point in its favor, especially because it has so many older women. How refreshing!)
Predictably, this has led to some hand-wringing. As some male viewers groused about Jessica Jones being too much about women, some white viewers are now complaining about Luke Cage being supposedly too Black.
Oh, dear. Where to start?
OK, first off: I’m not Black. I don’t even have many Black friends (though the reason for that is complicated and I won’t bore you with it here.) The culture being portrayed here isn’t one I’m instinctively familiar with, because it’s not my personal experience. But there’s also an enormous laundry list of other things that aren’t my personal experience. I’m queer, genderqueer, fat, grew up poor, have a handful of chronic illnesses and a non-standard brain, atheist (but raised conservative Christian), infertile (and an adoptive parent) . . . The list goes on.
In other words, the chances of almost any type of pop culture having characters–much less a whole ensemble of them–with whom I can identify are pretty darn close to zero. I can come close on occasion, but there’s always something missing. Probably 95% of characters in mainstream entertainment are cis, het and have a slim or athletic build. Only a rare few have any sort of disability, and when they do, it’s usually a stereotype of someone who uses a wheelchair or someone whose non-standard brain is either a “gift” or the source of their tragedy or villainy. I’ve been pleased to see that we’re finally starting to get more women and queer folk, more diversity in body size, and even a handful of Trans or gender non-conforming characters. Yay for progress. But characters I can truly identify with? No.
This has been the case all my life, however, and because of that, I’ve learned how to enjoy good storytelling even if it’s not about someone like me. People who are used to seeing themselves in the entertainment they enjoy may not have developed that skill, so when they’re confronted with something different, they feel alienated. It’s like a right-handed person having to figure out how to work with a left-handed desk. You’re used to everything just plain working because everything is already made for you, so having to figure out where you fit in something that isn’t designed for you takes an amount of effort you’re not used to expending. Enjoying a story as an outside observer, or just identifying on levels of broad, universal human experience, feels foreign to people who otherwise never have to do that because the world of entertainment already includes them. Even in diverse ensemble casts, there’s always at least one person like them, so they can feel that they’re part of the story. With something like Luke Cage, in which there are only a handful of white characters and virtually all of them are villains, some white people, even those who otherwise appreciate and respect diversity, are going to feel weird about it because enjoying the story without being included in it involves a skill they’ve never had any practice with.
Things are slowly changing, but most writers, producers, directors, publishers and other people on the creative side of Western entertainment are still cishet white guys, and they create from that perspective. When they include people unlike themselves, they have a tendency to either do stereotypes or write characters that are basically just cishet white guys wearing a costume. Many of the people who do this mean well, and I think it’s great that they’re trying, but they suffer from a pervasive problem: the idea that we’re somehow all the same but for a few surface-level differences. While of course there are many elements of human experience that nearly all of us share, we’re not all just variations on the same standard mold, like the old “ethnic” Barbies that were the exact same doll as the original blonde, but with different-colored plastic and hair, and a different paint job on the face. There’s a reason it’s usually cishet white people–particularly men–who complain that “labels” are divisive and that acknowledging our differences, instead of ignoring them, is what perpetuates bigotry: They’ve grown up with the idea that their lives and experiences are somehow a default state of humanity, and everything else is a variant on it. They want people to stop identifying as queer or Black or disabled because they think those things are just cosmetic differences, rather than a core part of someone’s identity. They’re like a jar of mayo upset about the existence of mustard or ketchup or sriracha because they assume mayo is the ubercondiment, and everything else is just a squirt of ranch or pesto or chipotle flavoring. Stop being proud of being olive oil! You’re really just olive-oil-flavored mayo!
(Of course, the hilarious part about this is that these “we’re all the same!” people are usually the ones hollering the loudest about the idea of peeing next to a Trans person. Guess gender is the one thing that makes us fundamentally different from each other!)
When folks with this attitude are confronted with the reality that the rest of us aren’t just side characters in a story in which they’re always the protagonist, it triggers a lot of cognitive dissonance, and they start scrambling to try to stuff us back in our boxes. Sometimes this gets ugly. Witness the fact that the only demographic that Trump is winning is white men. Some, whether consciously or no, see him as their last hope for dominance in a world seemingly being overrun by people unlike themselves. Never mind that white men are less than 35% of the U.S. population, and a far-smaller percentage in the entire world. Growing up in homogenous communities and being the primary faces they see in entertainment and positions of economic and political power means they think something’s wrong if other people start approaching even a quarter of roles in those landscapes. (See also: The studies showing that men think women are dominating a conversation if they talk more than about 30% of the time.) Following the country’s first Black president with its first woman, without even a break in between for a white guy, is a sign that white men are facing genocide! Because the previous 43 presidents were something other than white men, apparently.
To be fair, I don’t think all of the people having a problem with Luke Cage right now are hardcore racists. Honestly, most of those probably would never have watched it in the first place. What we’re getting instead are all the people who genuinely want to be inclusive, but don’t know how to deal with a situation in which they’re not only not the majority, but not really even present at all. They’re people who are cool with–or even excited by–the fact that the MCU now has a lot of women and PoC characters, but who just don’t know what to do with an MCU story that doesn’t give a lot of screen time to white men. They’re so conditioned to expect stories to focus on white men that when they’re confronted with one that doesn’t, it feels odd. They may not consciously understand this feeling as coming from culturally conditioned racism, and would be embarrassed to admit that even if they did understand it, so instead they’re just saying the show doesn’t “resonate” or isn’t as “engaging” as other MCU stories.
My most recent novel, Tesserae, has exactly one major character who’s a cishet white man, and he’s a villain. Everyone else is some flavor of queer, PoC, or both. Upon reading it, my husband, who’s bisexual and actively supports anti-bigotry efforts, said he liked the story, but the setting just didn’t feel realistic. After a few questions, it became clear that the underlying problem was that he didn’t understand why the world I had created seemingly didn’t have cishet white people in it. After having a bit of a laugh at him, I explained, “Of course the world this story is set in has plenty of those people. The story just isn’t about them.”
That’s the thing with Luke Cage, too. There are plenty of white people in New York City–even a fictional version of it. There are plenty of white people in the MCU. But this story isn’t about them. If you’re a white guy used to seeing superhero stories that give a lot of screen time to people like yourself, then sure, it might feel weird. But relax. You still have Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and the other 27 (I counted!) white-male heroes in the MCU. You can still see stories about them. You’re just not going to see them in this particular show. If I’ve learned to enjoy–even obsess over–literally hundreds of stories that almost never include people like me, you can learn to enjoy this one thing.
(And you can also learn to live with a woman president. Just saying.)