Saturday, August 5, 2017

Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' and 'Slingshot' Prove That Diversity Matters — and We Need to Do Better

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. first aired in 2013 as an effort to bring Marvel (and Phil Coulson) to our smaller screens. It's had mixed reviews from critics and fans alike, and in general, it's appeared to be underappreciated in the Marvel fandom. However, recently its spinoff series Slingshot received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Comedy Or Drama Series. This prompted a conversation on the Instagram page of Natalia Cordova-Buckley, who plays the lead character of Slingshot, about how this was the first Marvel digital series centered around the first Marvel Latina superhero to be nominated for an award.

Slingshot's Emmy nomination and Cordova-Buckley's post about it prompts a bigger discussion about the impact Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Slingshot have on the landscape of pop culture. As Cordova-Buckley states, Slingshot is the first digital series centered around a female Latina superhero, and the fact that it got an Emmy nomination is extremely important.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. contributes to bringing diverse superheroes to our screens as well. In fact, Slingshot's protagonist, Elena "YoYo" Rodriguez, got her start on AOS before landing her spin-off show, and she continues to star in a recurring role with a lot of badassery. From the very beginning, AOS gave Asian women the spotlight with its main characters Daisy Johnson and Melinda May.

Chloe Bennet as Daisy Johnson. (source)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s commitment to representation is highlighted throughout the show. While the show highlighted its Asian female leads early on, AOS continued to add non-white actors in starring roles. Ruth Negga had a long arc as Raina, Henry Simmons as Mack gives the show layers of depth, and in the latest season, Gabriel Luna had an incredible run as Ghost Rider with an opportunity to return. That's only to name a few.

Gabriel Luna as Ghost Rider. (source)

Every piece of media has its flaws—for example, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s LGBTQ representation is not ideal. However, AOS is ahead of the game by casting leads that aren't white and showing that they belong in the spotlight. This spotlight is thriving as well—AOS has had a four-season run, and they're gearing up for a fifth. Their fourth season especially was met with critical acclaim. Network executives often like to argue that diversity doesn't sell, but AOS is one example that it does.

Fiction may not be real, but it's a reflection of reality, and we seek to see ourselves in the characters on our screens. Our identities are such an incredibly personal part of who we are, and seeing characters who share our identities is so validating. (One example of this is the girl who cried when she met Gal Gadot.) For that reason, it's important to have all kinds of people represented in the stories that are told.

As a white person, I'm used to seeing myself represented everywhere. Asians, Latinxs, and people of color don't have that luxury because representation is so sparse on television and in the media. For me, it can be easy to forget how important representation really is. Zendaya, who played Michelle in Marvel's Spider-man: Homecoming, has this to say about diversity:

"Here's what I think... I think that we have become kind of numb to the diversity issue when it comes to film. Like, I didn't even feel that way until it was brought to my attention when you come up to like, an Oscar. It's crazy because you don't even think about it — you're just used to it."
Zendaya herself is one good example of how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is making strides to be more inclusive—along with Laura Harrier, she portrayed a well-developed female character in Spider-man: Homecoming. It's so rare to see not one but two women of color in the same movie, much less characters who are allowed to be love interests (while not a love interest in this film, Michelle has the potential to become one). So, while there could certainly be more improvement, there are still people like Zendaya and Laura Harrier who are making an impact on the film industry—and the Marvel universe in particular.

(source) Zendaya as Michelle in Spider-man: Homecoming. (Spoiler warning for the link!)

We also have Black Widow and Scarlet Witch in the films, and they are valuable—I don't want to discredit that. It is so important to have badass female superheroes. But it's also important to have badass Latina superheroes and badass female Asian superheroes, badass female superheroes of color. We need badass superheroes of all kinds. We need to go further. The girl who cried when she met Gal Gadot proves this. Little girls need heroes to look up to.

In 2016, Elena of Avalor premiered, making Elena the first Latina Disney princess. That is so valuable, and we need that to extend to the superhero realm as well. For the girls who love superhero movies, we need superheroes that look like them, too. And for the girls who grew up and never got that when they were younger—they need that as well. It's never too early or too late for someone to find themselves in a fictional character. Every single person deserves to see someone like them on screen.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe especially, representation is lacking. This is confusing because there are so many Latinx superheroes in the comics that could be adapted into great film characters. Miles Morales, America Chavez, Ava Alaya, Antonio Stark, Anya Corazon, Julio Rictor... just to name a few. There are also Asian superheroes that need to be highlighted, as well as so many other superheroes from different backgrounds (Pakistani American superhero Kamala Khan is one wildly popular example). There is a giant wealth in the comics just waiting to be unleashed. Why aren't we utilizing that?

America Chavez from Young Avengers by Kieron Gillon and Jamie McKelvie (source)

Daisy Johnson originated from the comics and was integrated into AOS (with a plot twist to rule them all, might I add). In the comics, she was a legendary character who kicked ass and originally became the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. She was also originally white. Her ethnicity was changed in the show, and it made her character all the richer. Another example of this is the character Molly Hernandez from the upcoming Marvel Freeform show Runaways, whose name was originally Molly Hayes. Her ethnicity was also purposefully changed for the show, and we'll get to see her on screen when Runaways premieres November 21, 2017. (Runaways also has a diverse cast!) Malcolm Ducasse from Jessica Jones also had his ethnicity changed for the show, and I think it was an extremely valuable change. Taking established comic characters and translating them to the big screen is one way I think Marvel can embrace diversity. Ideally, I would love to see some of the Latinx or Asian superheroes from the comics adapted to screen, but Daisy Johnson's well-developed role has proven that changing a character's ethnicity can also be a solid route to take.

This brings me back to the Marvel TV universe, where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Slingshot are making waves. In a world where we seek to see ourselves represented in the fiction we consume, Slingshot and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s casting contributions are desperately important. Their award nominations could easily be seen as a validation of their efforts. Considering the white-washed atmosphere of many awards ceremonies, it's a good sign to see that Slingshot was nominated. However, award or no award, it's important for us to individually be conscious of the importance of representation and to celebrate the shows that uphold it. We also shouldn't stop pushing for even more diversity. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Slingshot are just the beginning; may we only slingshot forward from here.

(Thumbnail source) — Many thanks to Brandon and Kaleb for assisting with the comic information in this article.


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