The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a diversity problem. There’s no way to really skirt around this issue politely: it’s a fact. Five out of the six Avengers that make up the largest movie franchise in the world are straight, white, conventionally-beautiful males. That’s over 83% of the Avengers franchise headlined by people born of systematic privilege.
What’s frustrating about these numbers is that in 2015, the argument can no longer be made that the kind of Avengers representation we’re getting is an accurate portrayal of America’s demographics, let alone the world’s. Since 2009, the majority of babies born in the United States have been racial minorities, and as of the 2013 United States census, only about 60% of the population identifies as White. With those kinds of numbers, an Avengers team that accurately represented United States demographics would only have two white males on the team.
But putting aside United States demographics, The Avengers is a global franchise, with the 2012 theatrical release raking in almost a billion dollars in foreign sales. Hollywood understands the importance of appealing to an international market, so when over two-thirds of the world’s population is decidedly not white, it seems counter-intuitive to produce such a bland, non-diverse approach to Marvel’s flagship superhero team.
The Avengers’ poor representation of women and non-existent representation of people of color is abysmal, but it is a part of a larger systemic problem perpetuated by the media for the last century: the idea that a straight, white male is the default human being. This way of thinking insinuates that women and people of color are merely supporting players within the white male narrative. It’s the assumption that if Black Widow were to headline her own film, it wouldn’t be universally marketable as a “girl movie,” in the same way that if Miles Morales headlined a Spider-Man film, it would suddenly turn into a “Black movie.” So instead of diverse representation, Marvel studios chooses to shower audiences with yet another Peter Parker reboot.
By having five out of the six Avengers be a white male, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is showing heroism to be a position of privilege. It’s feeding into the White Savior Complex narrative that people born of privilege have created for themselves, deciding that people of color need to be saved because they don’t have the capability to save themselves. When Gina Rodriguez accepted her Golden Globe win, she lit the Internet on fire by declaring that her win represented “a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” And while television has made great strides in terms of gender, queer, and racial representation over the last couple of years, film still seems to be woefully behind.
The lack of diverse representation in Marvel films is a problem because it feeds into the perpetuation of a systematically racist culture. As much as we hate to think about it, unfortunately, even in 2015, racism is still very real. In the United States, people are literally rioting in the streets over the fact that African-American male teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.
But racism doesn’t have to be overt — in fact, the subconscious, casual racism that major film franchises promote is just as dangerous in continuing the circular nature of oppression. According to a University of Chicago study, resumes with “black-sounding” names are 50% less likely to get a call back for a job interview.
Movies don’t have an inherent responsibility to save lives, or change lives, or even be anything other than profitable, but decent human beings do have a responsibility as filmmakers to recognize that their position in pop culture influences people. A franchise that refuses to make Black Widow action figures contributes to misogyny. Her lone position in the Avengers suggests that a woman is worth exactly one-sixth of a superhero — less than that really, because she doesn’t even get to have her own movie. It insinuates that as a human being, Black Widow is only worth as much as what she can do to help out the boys she’s around. This subtle dehumanization of women normalizes the blatant sexism that lets Jeremy Renner think it’s perfectly fine to call a female character that little girls idolize a whore.
With the Avengers film franchise, Marvel is refusing to acknowledge the diversity of what a hero can look like, choosing instead to play it safe with a superhero lineup that looks embarrassingly old-school for a 2015 audience. Fortunately, and perhaps ironically, the Marvel comics that the films are based on are much more progressive in both looking ahead to the future, and recognizing the world we live in today.
While Marvel comics has traditionally been a lily-white good ol’ boys club, within the last few years, it has chosen to transform with the times. The new Ms. Marvel, featuring Pakistani-American Kamala Khan, has turned into a surprise hit, outselling both X-Men and Daredevil. Ms. Marvel will be a member of the the new Avengers team this summer once Marvel comics debuts The All New, All-Different Avengers following the Secret Wars. Besides Ms. Marvel, the new Avengers roster will feature a female Thor, an African-American Captain America, and a bi-racial teen as Spider-Man. If the rumors of Pepper Potts taking on the Iron Man persona pan out, this will be the first time in Marvel history that the Avengers team will feature three women and no white men.
The Marvel films are fun, frothy, and their superhero story lines unite cultures across the world with their vision of a community that believes in honor, justice, and doing the right thing, even when it requires extreme bravery. These are all beautiful ideals to live by, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs to put their words into action by showing diverse representations of what a hero can be. Because representation leads to humanization, and humanization leads to understanding.