In recent weeks, the internet has been riddled with vocal fans criticizing the casting of biracial former Disney star Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman, known as simply “Zendaya” to fans, as Mary Jane in the new sci-fi fantasy film “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
The controversy began as a response to Zendaya’s physical appearance, but it may suggest a larger problem within the media industry. Zendaya’s role is not only a provocative glimmer of hope in a positive direction, but also very important to the industry’s stance on representation. A self-proclaimed feminist and person of color playing such a powerful character in the comic world is sure challenge viewers and make waves in more ways than one.
After her role was announced, Zendaya’s skin color had a large affect on her perceived ability to fill the obligations of her character. Many Twitter users took to their keyboards to criticize the casting choice, responding that Mary Jane was illustrated as having red hair, green eyes and a light complexion. However, other users countered this argument, saying that naturally blonde and blue-eyed Kirsten Dunst was not met with the same acrimony when her physical characteristics did not meet those consumer “requirements” in the previous making of the Spiderman trilogy.
Although the former Disney star’s casting has caused a great uproar in comic culture, Zendaya was not the first to be affected by the racial controversy. In 2010, fans were disconcerted by the casting of Idris Elba as a Norse god in the blockbuster “Thor”. The mythological god was drawn as a white male in the original comic; however, Elba is a person of color. Likewise, in the continuation, “Thor: Ragnarok,” that is set to be released November 3, 2017, Tessa Thompson was met with resentment for her role of the warrior goddess Valkyrie. Similar to Zendaya, a lack of wide representation in the media led to fans questioning the casting of Elba and Thompson.
In the wake of these recent controversies, a study has been conducted that highlights the quantitative validity of media representation. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Southern California, racial and ethnic representation in film is not the only piece that can be extracted from this narrative. Within this study, 11,306 speaking characters were examined in relation to their demographics, sexualizations and roles. Researchers at USC took into account the individual’s participation on and off set. Data collection and analysis over a series of years suggests a larger scale diversity problem in Hollywood:
Out of the 11,306 speaking roles that were assessed, 66.5 percent were male and 33.5 percent were female. This is two males to every one female speaking or named character. Of those speaking characters, 71.7 percent were White, 12.2 percent Black, 5.8 percent Hispanic/Latino, 5.1 percent Asian, 2.3 percent Middle Eastern and 3.1 percent identified as Other. Hence, 28.3 percent of all speaking characters were from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. Of the 11,306 characters, 11,194 characters were able to be evaluated for apparent sexuality.The study found 49 Lesbian characters, 158 Gay characters and 17 Bisexual characters. That is 2 percent of all speaking characters across the 414 movies identified as queer. Only seven speaking or named characters identified as transgender across the sample, which leaves the total calculation below 1 percent.
Evidently, the industry still remains largely exclusive “” a problem that reaches far beyond Peter Parker’s love interest. USC researchers offer that the solution may lie within the executive positions that make up the scope of media production. The study states that “strategies must involve more than simply “˜checking a box’ when casting a film, series or episode” and “go beyond making a “˜diversity hire'”. Making a conscious effort to expand boundaries, Hollywood is more likely to make leaps in the right direction through expansion of the demographics of those who control media production and make up the executive suite, not just hiring actors who don’t perfectly resemble superheroes.
If we plan to address the exclusivity within the world of Hollywood as we have seen through the “Spiderman: Homecoming” controversy, it is crucial that we begin to reimagine a world of proverbial casting past what we see to the naked eye.