Robot 6

Identification and ownership: why fans attack change

asm-garfield

Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man

The illusion of change is the usual approach to mainstream superhero comics. It offers the excitement of change without losing the successful elements to actual change. It’s cynical but it’s smart from a corporate standpoint. Every once in a while, however, actual change happens. Or maybe change is just talked about. Some like it, some don’t like it. And then there are the people that really, really don’t like it, and head down to their local torch-and-pitchfork store.

Such is where we find ourselves in the ongoing discussion of The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield’s hypothetical consideration of making Peter Parker bisexual.

But why did Garfield’s idea trigger such heated responses? I’m not talking about the calm “Oh, I don’t know, I’m not crazy about that idea, but rather the aggressive, threatening and hateful reactions that seem to come from a very dark place.

As with anything that generates heated, emotional reactions, there are a number of reasons. On one level, there is the rampant biphobia and homophobia, and America’s general discomfort with sex and sexual issues. That’s definitely present, but I think there’s also another level at play for a segment of the reactors, something that pushes those phobias to the forefront as a defensive mechanism. Because what’s really being threatened for a segment of fans is a strong identification with Spider-Man.

As Garfield eloquently expressed at Comic-Con International, the original concept of Spider-Man was that he represented the underdog. The unpopular and bookish nerd became the confident and clever superhero, even if life was never easy in either identity. That cathartic freedom and empowering persona juxtaposed with the shy outcast is one of the brilliant pieces of the character that made him so successful, and more importantly, so relatable.

Before the Internet made geeks king, probably hundreds of thousands of insecure and awkward pre-teens and teenagers stumbled through life without webbing and a mask to become charming and athletic. They felt isolated and alone because maybe they didn’t know how to connect to others. Maybe their home life was too difficult. Maybe they had health problems growing up that kept them out of school too much. Maybe they just had different interests from everyone else. That loneliness is paralyzing. So finding a fictional character that embodies both what you are and what you want to be is extraordinarily powerful. That dual aspect in fictional characters can show up in a lot of places, but probably nowhere so pronounced as in superhero comics. And Spider-Man may be the most inspired example of this.

I can say all of this because the hypothetical “they” I mention above was me growing up. Finding the fictional character or characters that both reflected back myself and a better self helped me get through my formative years. At first they temporarily removed the loneliness, then they taught me how I might be able to speak up — and, in time, how I could start finding the real me. By the time I graduated high school, I had gone from being painfully shy and introverted to extremely involved in theater and other groups. I was not conscious of any of this while going through it, but looking back, it’s pretty obvious to me.

Of course, not everyone goes through some kind of personal transformation while reading superhero comics. But when there’s a deeper connection to the character beyond a casual “Yeah, Spidey’s kinda cool,” there must be a personal reason.

That deeply personal reason, whether consciously recognized or not, creates an intimate bond with the character because it’s so representative of them. So when that character is radically changed, on some level, it feels like a personal attack. Making Spider-Man bisexual isn’t just changing a corporation’s brand, it’s modifying the personal avatar of thousands of children, teenagers and adults who have not yet grown beyond this bond. The personal identification might be taken away; that’s scary. And as we know from nature shows, when an animal is threatened, and humans are animals, they either fight or run. The Internet gives a lot of them the courage to fight, regardless of how sloppy, messy, illogical and poorly thought out that fight may be. There’s the disconnect of latching on to the very close-minded and bigoted arguments that their character/avatar has starkly opposed in so many stories. There’s the proof that progressive reinventions of iconic characters are not only possible but refreshingly welcome. Garfield’s idea and reasoning behind it is excellent, and just as there is room for a multiracial Spider-Man, there is room for a homosexual, bisexual or transgender Spider-Man, whether that be Peter Parker or someone else behind the mask. But facts, examples and reason are usually ignored when a person feels threatened.

A lot of people have the good judgment to suppress those urges to fight. They’ll take a step back, get some perspective, personally mourn the loss and move on. Or maybe they’ll write a letter or post online somewhere while maintaining some level of human decency. But a percentage have that disconnect where they impulsively and obsessively attack using whatever ugly or hurtful thing think can think to throw at the person who is changing or talking about changing their personal representation. Or they write death threats. However they act, it is without realization of how antithetical to the very character they so hold dear and they don’t see it because the perceived threat feels so great.

This is not meant as a justification or defense of the hateful statements that invariably end up in the comment threads or on Twitter, or Google knows where else. They are categorically hateful, shameful, embarrassing and selfish. They are ultimately driven by fear, and fear of change is inevitable. Fortunately, despite efforts to maintain the illusion of change, actual change in whatever form it takes is also inevitable.

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Comments

14 Comments

I guess I can be a skeptic but when they take a well known character and suddenly change his gender preference, it seems like a way to generate buzz more than true character development.
Why not create from scratch a chaarcter that just so happens to be, whatever you want, and leave the basics of a established character alone.
Look at the modern Batwoman. Let’s face it..she wasn’t the most known character in the world and her shift to being a lesbian was done in a smooth way. It didn’t feel like a gimmick, It was part of her character, not something that defined it.

@Nicole:
“It didn’t feel like a gimmick, It was part of her character, not something that defined it.”
Why not change an established character’s sexual preference and make it part of the character, not something that defines it? Doesn’t that make a more powerful statement to do something that they know will rile people up, “but who cares because it’s not a big deal,” over making a new character out of fear that doing otherwise will upset some people?

James Orbesen

July 31, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Indeed, Spider-Man is the superhero that embodies the underdog. But,a white, gifted male living in Queens is hardly representative of those constituting the downtrodden. That’s why Miles Morales should resonate far more than he does. Making Spider-Man gay or bisexual would hardly alter his character or appeal except to those who like the same flavor of ice cream again and again since 1962. Also, simply because the character is taken in a new direction doesn’t mean your stories are null and void.

I suppose I do identify with Spider-Man to a certain degree. He has a lot of crappy things happen to him but he keeps trying to do the right thing. That’s really what I like about him.

I’m not really sure why Spider-Man’s basis as being a nerdy white heterosexual male suddenly makes him less emblematic of the downtrodden. Sure he’s never had to deal with discrimination just on the basis of his skin or his sexuality, but why does that make his problems somehow less problematic? He’s still often been dirt poor and his friends and family drop like flies around him. This sucks for EVERYBODY.

Anyway, I really don’t care what anyone’s color, sex, or creed are. I just feel that changing it around for an established character is just a cynical ploy. People can pat themselves on the back for being forward-thinking when it’s just a different packaging.

Let’s also note that Garfield is an actor. In approaching a role that has been played by others, actors often try to search for a wrinkle that distinguishes their version from what other actors have done in the role. Whether Peter Parker’s sexuality is altered or not will really be the decision of the writers, actors, and Marvel Studios (the answer is probably no) but it’s not unreasonable for Garfield to entertain different notions that might not fit into the continuity established in the books.

Oh no, straight white nerds might lose a character that they can identify with personally. Whatever will they do now?

If a person sharing you sexual orientation is a prerequisite to identifying with him or her then you really need to grow up. I said it in the earlier thread on this, but as important as sexual identity it’s one part of a total identity.

Jake Earlewine

August 1, 2013 at 6:24 am

The problem with “change” is that poor writers and dumb editors use it as a substitute for creativity. Whenever they want to boost sales, instead of telling better stories with better art, they just CHANGE the character or costume.

This is disrespectful to the character, disrespectful to the character’s creator, and disrespectful to the fans who love the character the way he is and have supported him for years. If you don’t like the way a character is — the way he has existed for twenty or forty years — then create a NEW one. Change is not creativity.

I could enjoy new heroes who happen to be gay or bisexual. Doesn’t matter to me. But Peter Parker is not gay. And Nick Fury is a white man. And Captain America has three-dimensional wings that stick out from the side of his head. Other depictions are corruptions. For me these corruptions exist in an alternate universe that I won’t pay money to read about.

Wait, Jake, the lack of 3-D wings on Cap is enough to make you write off depictions of him that way as an alternate universe take? I’m a really liberal guy, but I can get why changing race or sexuality of a beloved character might throw someone off,nbut 3-D wings?

Now that’s crazy.

Jake, as he’s stated previously, will however read them at the LCS and then return them to the shelf. Way to take a stand Jake!

“But why did Garfield’s idea trigger such heated responses?”

Because fanboys are entitled assholes. Next question.

Jake is a perfect example of why comic readers should stick to reading comics and let others write them.

Change is constant. Change is creativity. Keeping something the same for years on end is just stagnation.
Let’s take his Captain America example:

Cap’s first significant costume change was Nomad, and reflected his disillusionment with the American government. It was Englehart’s way to investigate the Watergate scandal. It was, and still is, a milestone in Cap’s comic career.

Cap’s next significant costume change was “The Captain” and was an identity he undertook to stand up against a shadowy government agency trying to force him to compromise his ideals. It also was a way to clearly demonstrate that Steve Rogers was the heart and soul of Captain America, and not the costume, let alone his wings.

Even the clunky Captain America exoskeleton was a device to explore Cap placed under the strains of a deteriorating body, but still compelled to fight for freedom. Was it gimmicky? Hell yeah, but for it’s time it was still an OK and popular story.

Even Mark Waid gave Cap a costume change when he teamed him up with a newly resurrected Sharon Carter in a great story that required him to go undercover.

Sure, Cap’s current costume change is purely a reflection of the movie costume, and as far as I can see has not been explained, but big f@cking deal. The character is exactly the same character I’ve been reading for the last 38 years. Do I feel disrespected? Not at all. Would I boycott the comic I’ve been reading for 38 years just because of “wings?” That’s not rational. That’s OCD.

If it was up to “fans” like Jake, Alan Scott would still be Green Lantern in his 1940’s costume, Jay Garrick would be the only Flash, I wouldn’t have got to enjoy Wally West for 20 years, Superman would still be wearing lace-up boots and leaping over buildings, Batman certainly would be a helluva lot poorer (talk about a character constantly changing over 70 years!) Daredevil would be in yellow spandex, or possibly still angsty (so no great Mark Waid stories) and Spider-Man would still look like a dork from the 60’s.

@Nate A

You make a great point. As a teenager reading comics, I related to Spider-Man more than Black superheroes published at the time. That’s because like Peter Parker I was a very smart nerd in high school.

This is not unique. I once met an Asian horror fan who was into Blade. Then, on my previous job, I knew a Hispanic co-worker whose son was a big fan of Static (a Black teen superhero).

So, it’s a myth that Spider-Man has limited appeal because he is a White heterosexual male. The blockbuster success of his movies proves otherwise.

If including homosexuality and bisexuality isn’t a gimmick where was all the mention of it in the past? All of a sudden every single topic needs to include discussion of homosexuals and I’m supposed to think it’s organic? Was Archie trying to push their lecturing agenda in the 70s?

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