Friday, August 7, 2015

The Necessary Whiteness of Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen

There are precious few superheroes whose whiteness I feel is an important aspect of their character. For the vast, vast majority, they are white as default and created and drawn in an era when the idea of making them anything but white would've been unthinkable- literally, no comic creators would think of it. Holding onto them as white is basically saying that we accept that enduring legacy of racism in our popular culture. That's because they have always been white, and obviously they must continue to be so- it's our heritage.

However, there are two men whose whiteness says something about them and about their roles as superheroes.

Bruce Wayne is a man who grew up with every single possible privilege afforded to him. His childhood was spent comfortably in the blanket of invulnerability that created for him. When that was shattered by the death of his parents, he turned to rage and vengeance. He looked at a world that damaged his own privileged perspective and demanded 'justice' for that crime.

Bruce Wayne, ladies and gentlemen.
It's notable that Bruce's initial quest was not to be a crimefighter- he merely wanted to punish the man who killed his parents, Joe Chill. Generally, he doesn't get this revenge- other people tend to kill Chill before Bruce has a chance, frustrating his quest and redirecting his rage. He no longer has a clear target, but someone needs to be held accountable.

As a result, he uses his vast wealth to be the Batman. Batman is a force of fear and legend. The intent is that the possible consequence of brutal violence at the hands of a masked vigilante will cure the city of its criminals. These people who commit crimes need to be punished swiftly and without question. It is inherently the logic of the white male who thinks society itself has wronged him by allowing these people to exist. Bruce Wayne is a man who faced tragedy and instead of asking how and why it happened, demanded that other people suffer for him. He asks society how it can rebuild his fortress of privilege.

In contrast, take the other essentially white man in question: Oliver Queen. Again, his whiteness is intrinsically tied to his privilege and how that informs his personality and his goals. Like Bruce, he comes from a whole dang lot of money. After being stranded on a desert island and forced to survive on nothing but himself, he developed skills by necessity (not anger, unlike Bruce)- skills he would have to use to destroy criminal organizations based on the island.

He returns to Star City to fight crime as an adventurer, the Green Arrow, but the more he explores the criminal side of his city, the less he sees it as adventure- he starts to understand the real core problems. He starts to empathize with those who are truly oppressed. He starts to see the systems of power keeping them that way and endeavors (with varying degrees of success) to fix them, both through his connections and money as Oliver Queen and by the point of an arrow as the Green Arrow. He's not acting out of rage- he's acting out of concern. Where Bruce asks society "How can you help repair my fragile feelings of privilege and masculinity?" Oliver asks "How can I help you repair yourselves with my privilege?" The (fantastic) Arrow TV show goes a step further- he returns from the island understanding that not only was he blinded by privilege, his privilege was actually quite directly causing the oppression of others. His family's wealth was built on the backs of other people and the systems that allowed that to happen, the people who caused it, were the things that needed to change- not the petty criminals who were created in that system. 

There's a lot put upon Bruce Wayne's psyche in that really, even when he's being Bruce, he thinks of himself as Batman. He's only in danger when he's Batman, when criminals and supervillains are aiming to kill him, when society shuns him as a vigilante. So it's telling that he chooses to internalize those feelings even when he's not wearing the suit- when he's actually just the richest whitest dude in Gotham and no one could possibly be a threat to him. In contrast, Oliver Queen adopts the Arrow persona, but is still essentially Ollie. He doesn't internalize that oppression and danger- he willingly takes it on to help people when he has to. He's a great contrast in every way.

It's not like I'll get up in arms if such a day ever passes that either is cast with a person of color. I'll actually be fine with it. But I do think there's something important said about both of them via the fact that they're white. It doesn't happen often with superheroes, but in these two particular cases, it actually works. 

Here's a picture of Stephen Amell shirtless.

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