The new Wonder Woman trailer dropped this week, bringing us that much closer to the first movie out of this generation of superhero film to star a woman. Meanwhile, despite Marvel’s many delays, in 2018 Black Panther will become the first superhero film in this generation with a black lead. Both will be some of the first black and female superheroes to headline major blockbuster releases at all, preceded mainly by flops like Catwoman that lacked studio support and failed both critically and financially.
These achievements are so late coming that it’s almost difficult to be happy about them rather than just incredulous that it took so long. The studios bear a large part of the responsibility, giving white male B-listers multiple films while repeatedly delaying female and nonwhite A-listers. But it’s difficult not to acknowledge that the DC and Marvel canons also bear some of the blame. The original Justice League was all white (unless you count the Martian Manhunter) and had only one woman; same for the original Avengers and X-Men. All these teams eventually incorporated more diverse heroes—but not only did the original white men remain important headliners, but the teams also added new white men, leaving women and minorities constantly playing catch-up. (Canonically GLBT superheroes wouldn’t even make an appearance until much later.)
Superheroes are a big pool, so there are a lot of diverse heroes out there, but while relative newcomers like Squirrel Girl might be fan favorites, nobody really expects them to get studio films any time soon. They are not yet part of the canon.
I use the word “canon” here not in the sense of “works that are official parts of a fictional universe,” but in the sense of “works that are widely recognized as important and influential and that everyone is expected to be familiar with.” No one officially sets the canon for a particular genre or medium, but I think there’s a fair amount of agreement; everyone would probably acknowledge that Batman is in the superhero canon but, say, Matter Eater Lad is not. Isaac Asimov is part of the science fiction canon; Garrett P. Serviss is not. And so on.
Looking at the canons for various nerd genres, what’s striking is not just how white and male they are but how old they are. We all know that feeling of excited recognition when a work you know and love gets a new reboot or sequel, but that feeling causes us to keep propagating franchises that are 60 or 70 years old. Most of the aforementioned superheroes date from the 1940s and 1950s; Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937. Even more nimble media like television feature long runners like Doctor Who and Star Trek. Over and over, we return to the same wells—wells from an era long before diversity was a priority.
It turns out that nerd culture is incredibly conservative about its canon. Once a work enters the canon, it tends to stay there, and new works must attempt to carve out space in an ever more crowded field in order to achieve prominence. Even lackluster works like Eragon will duly continue to show up on lists of important fantasy books. The only way to remove a work from the canon is through a major genre shift, such as the shift from fairy tales to epic fantasy, which closed the door on George MacDonald.
Compare this to the world of literary fiction. Literary fiction is often seen as stodgy and old-fashioned, but it’s also faddish. Every decade or two a new theory or movement comes along and the former titans of the genre become passé. While this makes literary fiction critics seem capricious, it at least allows for a constant stream of new voices.
In nerd culture, by contrast, there’s only room for new voices once the old ones have fully gotten their due. This is a major impediment to diversity. If a true sci-fi nerd has to read Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Dick, Bradbury, Herbert, Gibson, Card, and Adams, who could possibly have time to read books by diverse authors? If every new Neil Gaiman or China Miéville book obviously has to get honored at the Locus Awards, how can an author of color ever expect to win an award? If audiences continue to reward every Batman and Spider-Man reboot with record-breaking box offices, why would studios even bother to expand their repertoire?
Attempting to make nerd culture into less of a white boys’ club while adhering to the canon can lead to tokenish treatment of authors like Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin. Racially diverse characters in the canon are so few that attempts to highlight the diversity that’s already there often end up centered around dubious portrayals from an era with less cultural sensitivity (African king who’s also the high priest of an animal god? Japanese woman literally named Katana?).
Creators often try to solve this problem by adding more diversity to an existing franchise, keeping it tied to familiar, beloved elements of the original. This can be done through distaff counterparts (Supergirl, Batgirl), revamps of existing characters (Miles Morales, Ironheart, Starbuck), or entirely new lineups with more diversity (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, Ghostbusters). While many of these are excellent works that mark important progress, the fact that they’re all part of preexisting franchises can also work against them. It can create the subtext that women and minorities can only be allowed into the canon through a connection with a white male character and that fully independent works with diverse casts and creators are either unfeasible or unnecessary. There are so, so few big franchises that star women or minorities and don’t somehow have their roots in a work about a white man.
And there’s an even deeper problem. The works of white male creators not only occupy space in a genre, they also define what that genre is. Our ideas about what constitutes science fiction, fantasy, or superhero fiction. This presents diverse creators with a two-pronged problem. If they adhere to the expected conventions, they’re reinforcing white men’s right to set the rules. But if they break out and defy conventions, they face a much more difficult journey that can include rejection and backlash from the community.
I believe that achieving real diversity in nerd culture requires unmooring ourselves from the canon. As long as our movies, books, comics, and TV are defined and codified by what white men wrote 70 years ago, the rest of us will always be playing second fiddle.
Images: Wonder Woman (2017), The Brave and the Bold #28, BBC’s Timeline of Science Fiction Literature, The Light Princess by George MacDonald, Google search (go ahead, try it), Action Comics #252.