Thursday, March 06, 2014

On -isms: Normcoring the Superhero Set

The latest trend-that-goes-against-trends in fashion apparently is normcore. It's got much the same attitude of self-awareness that was found in hipsterism, but takes it in another direction. Rather than trying to make terminally un-hip outfits look hip by wearing them ironically, the idea behind normcore is to make terminally un-hip outfits that make a statement against corporitization. That is, normcore is about trying to deliberately look as bland and unassuming as possible. Trying to not stand out in a crowd in any visible way. And this is evidently done to make the statement that you're not a mindless slave to fashion. (Although, oddly, this doesn't seem to preclude them from wearing mass-produced clothing with logos readily visible.)

I've caught a few references to normcore recently, and only decided to read up on it yesterday. I started with this piece by Cat Smith who flatly titled her article "Normcore is Bullsh*t." (Her asterisk, not mine.) She called it bullshit because she needs to wear leg braces and use a wheelchair. If she were to try wearing something in the way of normcore, she'd just look like she had too much trouble getting into or even just getting something fashionable.

That's because normcore starts by assuming there's a "normal" in the first place. That there's a default setting for people, and they can choose how they're perceived by changing their clothes, or hairstyle, or whatever. They can stand out, or not, by deliberately deciding what uniform they want to wear. But that isn't the case. Trayvon Martin was wearing about the most unassuming clothes he could have on, and he was still gunned down by George Zimmerman because his skin color overrode any other messages of style that his clothes or hair might project. (Martin is hardly the only example, either; he just so happens to be one of the most well-known right now.)

In comics, it can lead to panels like this one from Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #8...
James Rhodes had taken over as Iron Man during Tony Stark's battle with alcholism, but that was hardly public knowledge. Those who knew him knew that someone other than Stark was wearing the armor, but that was about it. So when Rhodes asks Mr. Fantastic to repair the armor, we are led to the above scene. The panel occurs almost without context; before it the X-Men are monitoring Galactus, and immediately after this panel Thor and Hulk point Spider-Man to the room where he gets his infamous black costume. Given that a throwaway line of dialogue about Reed repairing the armor could get dropped in anywhere in the story, that leaves the only reason for this panel to occur is for Rhodes to ask, "Were you surprised there was a Black man under the metal?"

It's a valid question because, to this day, Caucasian is the default setting for superheroes. Although I doubt very few people would openly admit to it, I suspect a lot of readers viewed (and probably still view) Rhodes as the "Black Iron Man." Just as John Stewart might be seen as the "Black Green Lantern." Despite the fact that their clothes confer as very specific role -- not just "superhero" but a very specific type of superhero -- they're still thought of in terms of their race. They don't have the privledge of being able to step outside their skin and be seen as simply Iron Man or Green Lantern.

And you want proof that that is learned racial prejudice? How about those kids whose first and primary relation to any Green Lantern was the Stewart version from the Justice League cartoon? He was simply "Green Lantern." It's only people who can't identify him as a unique character that put him in contrast to others. He's not "John Stewart Green Lantern" but "Black Green Lantern." Why single Stewart out like that unless you can't identify him as his own being?

The point of a superhero costume is to stand out from most people. Because, let's face it, if you're shooting lasers out of your eyes, no amount of normcoring is going to making you look inconspicuous, so you might as well play up your individuality. But at the same time, the superhero costume is something that helps a character blend in with other superheroes; Iron Man doesn't look at all out of place in an Avengers lineup. But with that being said, the minority characters that we don't see very often in comics continue to stand out regardless of what they're wearing. We're going to immediately spot Stewart in a Justice League meeting because he's the only Black person there. Our culture has taught us that James Rhodes and John Stewart are outside the norm and we should treat them as such.

But maybe we should start focusing on what they choose to say about themselves, rather than what we choose to say about them.

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