In this piece, guest author Albert Fu discusses recent controversies over the casting of actors for super hero movies.
I am a huge fan of Marvel’s movies, television characters, and comic books. However, I am keenly aware that superheroes – like all cultural icons – are produced by a society in which not all racial/ethnic groups are equally represented.
You may have heard of some of the different controversies regarding race and casting decisions for Marvel’s movies and television programs. Before Finn Jones was cast as Iron Fist, there was an online campaign to cast an Asian-American actor to portray the character. Last year, controversy erupted upon the release of a Doctor Strange trailer that featured Tilda Swinton, a white English woman, depicting the Ancient One, a character born in a fictional village in the Himalayas. To many Swinton was playing a traditionally Asian character in yellow face. Once the movie came out, an online exchange between comedian Margaret Cho and Tilda Swinton regarding the casting was made public. There was also a negative reaction to Zendaya Coleman’s rumored casting as Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man film. It was argued by some that Mary Jane could only be played by a white woman. I could go on here, because there have been many other similar controversies about the race of actors hired to play Marvel characters, but I think you get the gist.
Race, Representation & Social Structure
Why is there controversy? Part of the controversy stems from the fact that Hollywood has a long history of avoiding stories focused on people of color, excluding characters of color from their scripts, and casting white actors to play the few characters of color that have made it into their films. For some fans, they saw the re-interpretation of beloved characters as an opportunity for Marvel to deal with the racist and Orientalist origins of many characters in their comic book universe. Yet, for other fans, the mere suggestion of “racebending” beloved characters was an attack on their subculture and beloved Marvel characters.
In this essay, guest author Cleran Hollancid explores whether or not sociology is making a difference in society and suggests what the discipline could do to increase its impact on the “real world.”
Sociology today, like other social sciences remains alive, but its actual place and purpose in contemporary society lacks much admiration. As a whole, the discipline seems more concerned with studying society than doing anything to change it. I’m not sure that sociology is even visible in contemporary society, much less that it makes a difference or its presence felt. The many practitioners and writers within the ambit of sociology, as a discipline, may find great pleasure in doing what they do (e.g., research and writing, as in pure sociology). But is that all there is to it – a discipline catering to the few insiders who write and speak the language?
And that’s just the point. It does no good to the public, upon whom research is carried out in the first place, when ‘outsiders’ can’t understand or interpret research findings. The disconnect is too compelling. To merely point out that such a state of affairs is futile is itself an understatement.
What is Sociology?
Before proceeding, we need a working definition of sociology. In a broad sense, sociology is “the scientific study of social relations, groups, institutions, and society” (Smelser, 2003:6). This means that no one individual is studied apart from relation to others. It is also fair to surmise that though sociology has come a long way since the days of its early pioneers, we’re still not near the vision of early sociologists like Émile Durkheim and his hope for the ability of sociology to be able to resolve real social issues. Rather than simply studying social issues like rampant socioeconomic inequality, sociologists could be supporting or leading efforts to reduce social inequality. However, while many sociologists aspire to create social change or solve problems (as per applied sociology), and be more accommodating to the public (as in public sociology), more often than not, these goals elude them.
In this guest post, Tobias Griffin, asks us to consider the role laughter plays in society by examining the game show Family Feud.
On the television game show Family Feud, two opposing families compete for money by trying to answer questions the same way an anonymous group of one hundred people did prior to the show. The only way to win on Family Feud is by responding with generally accepted answers. This reveals a fundamental assumption underlying the competition on “Family Feud”: namely, that those who do not conform to the social norms of American society should be economically disadvantaged.
A telling instance of conformity-based shaming took place in a 1977 Christmas episode of Family Feud. Richard Dawson, the show’s host, asked a family to “name a food that helps keep Americans fat.” After several successful answers, Dawson comes to a contestant named Steve Jones. Most of the “good” or survey-approved answers having been taken, Steve is forced to resort to original thought. Instead of coming up with another answer that most people would think, Steve says, “sour cream.” This is a reasonable answer: sour cream is fattening; there is, logically speaking, nothing wrong with this response. However, because the response is out of the mainstream, Dawson pouts, frowns, looks doubtful, and mocks Steve. All the members of his family and the audience groan in response to his non-conformist answer—Steve, it appears, has gone against the wishes of the collective. When Dawson calls out “a little sour cream!” it is not on the board. The disappointment and emotional deflation caused by his response is apparent. Steve, by giving an unusual answer, has stepped outside the narrow boundaries of the communal beliefs he was called upon to affirm. He pays the price both financially and socially.
On another episode, Dawson asks a female contestant, “during what month of pregnancy does a woman begin to look pregnant?” The woman answers “September.” Dawson laughs so hard that he is unable to ask the question again for over three minutes. No doubt the discrepancy between intended question and intended answer is that Dawson was looking for a month in which all women begin to look pregnant (i.e. any woman’s third month, fifth month, sixth month), whereas the contestant was probably thinking of a particular pregnancy, either hers or someone else’s, in which that pregnancy began to show.
“It feels like knives are stabbing me all over my entire body.” To live with Sickle Cell Disease is to live with immense chronic pain. This quote was taken from our ongoing research on the health care experiences of people living with Sickle Cell Disease (Lawrence et al. 2014). Beyond the pain, to live with Sickle Cell Disease is to live with a disease that many people don’t understand and many doctors don’t know how to properly treat. Sickle Cell Disease shows us how social constructions and social structure profoundly change the experience of living with a chronic disease.
The Social Construction of Sickle Cell Disease
If you’ve heard of Sickle Cell Disease, chances are you’ve also heard the myth that it is a, “black disease.” Sickle Cell Disease affects people of all races. According to the World Health Organization, the Sickle Cell Trait is more common among people whose ancestors came from areas of the globe where malaria is common, such as West and Central African, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. The Sickle Cell Trait provides some protection against malaria which partially explains why it is more common in these geographic regions (for more information about the controversies surrounding Sickle Cell Trait, see Lawrence and Shah 2014).
It is true that African Americans are affected at a higher rate than any other racial ethnic group. Nelson and Hackman (2013) report that 1 in 500 African Americans was affected by Sickle Cell Disease, but that rate dropped to 1 in 3000 for all other racial ethnic groups. All told, Sickle Cell Disease affects approximately 100,000 in the United States and millions more worldwide.
Despite the scientific evidence, many still believe that Sickle Cell Disease is a “black disease” and this misconception affects the quality of care individuals with Sickle Cell receive and the amount of money devoted to Sickle Cell research and advocacy (Smith et al. 2006). Or put in more sociological terms, the way we socially construct Sickle Cell Disease influences the social structures that surround it.