Why can't Spider-Man be black?

Why can't Spider-Man be black?
PHOTO: Columbia Tristar

A new batch of documents released by Wikileaks exposes the agreement between Marvel and Sony Pictures on mandatory traits for the Spider-Man character, including the requirement for him to be "Caucasian and heterosexual".

With Hollywood trapped in a web of its own making, the social media has rightly crawled in to feast.

Let's be clear: Filmmakers have a right to make their characters any colour they want.

Creating a Caucasian Spider-Man doesn't make one racist, but making his 'whiteness' mandatory, as if the plot is somehow hinged on his skin colour, is quite disturbing.

The reason for that is something I can safely illustrate with a personal example.

I've been an impassioned writer and storyteller as far as my memory serves me, and in all my earliest stories and unpublished short novels, I recall almost exclusively using white characters.

One might ask why a 12-year old Pindi boy, born and raised in a distinctly Punjabi household, miles away from the nearest "Kevin" or "Jane", would rely so heavily on white characters living in predominantly white countries.

The answer is obvious.

The children of Pakistani upper-middle class and elite families are drip-fed American movies, cartoons, and imagery of white superheroes.

The influx of Japanese anime is barely half a generation old, which much more often than not, is reliant on stereotypical portrayals of Japanese people for the interest and amusement of mostly Western audiences.

While the generous infusion of Western arts into global media has helped normalise white people for people of colour in most parts of the world, the inverse has not happened.

People nearly everywhere would be shocked if I admitted that I don't know what 'Christmas' is, but a white American would be easily excused for not knowing 'Eid' and what it represents.

From an early age, I had submitted to a Eurocentric, heteronormative view of the world, realising that to optimise my chances of global success, my protagonists would have to conform to the same character traits made mandatory by Hollywood: white, preferably male, and living in a predominantly white city.

Characters of other ethnicities, "exotic" geographical locations, "odd" gender types, or "questionable" sexual orientations, would serve as interesting side-stories at best.

Being white, cis-gender and straight is relatable. Any other trait on the main character would be too distracting.

After all, we've witnessed a similar kerfuffle when Idris Elba, a black British actor, was rumoured to have been chosen to play the next James Bond.

Many Spider-Man fans have scoffed at my indignation, citing 'authenticity' as the reason for why Spider-Man must remain white and straight.

After all, how ridiculous would it be if someone remade 'Blade' with the Daywalker being played by a white actor?

'Authenticity' buffs are perhaps not aware that almost every character detail and plot element in the Spider-man franchise has evolved remarkably from how it was originally portrayed in the comic book.

The previous Gwen Stacey, played by Mary Jane Watson, was a redhead, as opposed to the comic book blonde.

And Peter Parker meets her at the university, unlike in the movie where they meet in high school.

Even the fundamental plot details surrounding the death of Uncle Ben, and the nature of the spider that bites Peter Parker, have all been changed in the latest Spider-Man movies.

While all these changes, and many more, have unfolded before the public's eye without controversy, a change in Peter Parker's skin colour wouldn't; possibly because people continue to see race as such a massive divide, that changing a protagonist's race would wholly transform the franchise.

A white boy getting bit by a radioactive spider = 'The Amazing Spider-Man'.

A brown, Pakistani boy getting bit by a radioactive spider = A childhood ruined.

Doing the opposite, as in the case of a white Daywalker, would count as cultural appropriation.

It would mean whitewashing the precious few superheroes of colour that we actually have, which would further alienate people of colour.

While I'm certainly not proposing a forced remake of our beloved superhero characters, I won't pretend that comics and movies have no influence on the way we see the world.

Or that they have no power to change our perception towards people who weren't born with the popular, Hollywood-approved traits.

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