On -isms: Why It Matters

By | Thursday, September 18, 2014 Leave a Comment
So the question that comes up is: why does it really matter what Marvel, DC, Archie, Dark Horse, etc. publish with regards to showing equality/parity in their books? If someone wants to read about and identify with some minority group, they can comics about them online. And, also, if the majority of those publishers' audience is Caucasian, why shouldn't their stories reflect that?

Let's set aside the why-is-this-still-a-difficult-concept-to-grasp idea that maybe minorities want to see more characters that reflect themselves in comics. Let's also set aside the dumb-foundingly obvious business notion of being able to sell comics to those minorities more easily. There's long been an arguement that discussions about these issues in comics, even if they are presented as allegories, helps to broaden readers' minds and perceptions in the real world. That sounded all warm and fuzzy, but it was largely based on vague anecdotal evidence. But we now have proof that it works.

Psychologists Loris Vezzali and Reggio Emilia recently did a study of people who grew up reading the Harry Potter books. What they found was that reading the series helped improve readers' attitudes toward stigmatized groups, such as immigrants, gays and refugees. While many of those issues don't sound like ones that are addressed directly, you might recall that there is a decidedly negative stigma attached to characters who look down on Muggles, Half-Bloods, and the like. It's not just that those groups are singled out but that, "Harry has meaningful contact with characters belonging to stigmatized groups. He tries to understand them and appreciate their difficulties, some of which stem from intergroup discrimination, and fights for a world free of social inequalities."

My first thought was that this sounded more than a little like the classic premise of the X-Men. Except the X-Men are the perecuted minority, having to fight for themselves. Their champions are within their own group, and they (generally) don't have any from the outside lending their support. In the Harry Potter universe, Harry is one of the priveledged elite fighting on behalf of the outsiders.

This can be a dangerous course to navigate, because it's easy to show the protagonist as a "White Savior" character. Perhaps key to Harry's distinction is that, as pointed out, he's very empathetic to their situations and fights not just on their behalf, but the behalf of all groups.

I noted back in 2007 some of the thematic similarities between Harry Potter and Spider-Man. I still think much of the first Tobey Maguire movie's success was parlayed off the back of the Potter franchise. Anyway, the notion of openness and tolerance is ripe for the picking in Spider-Man, but has largely been ignored. Peter Parker was initially very much an outcast character, and that's a large part of why he became so popular. And though he does gain powers to put him into a more elite group, and uses those powers to help the less fortunate, what is usually missing is the attempt to understand and appreciate the plight others are actually going through. He'll save little old ladies from purse-snatchers, and stop Electro and Rhino from reigning chaos on New York, but his actions are out of guilt and a general sense of doing the right thing, and there's little/no thought given to helping a class of individuals. Spider-Man's not out to make things fair for everybody, he just wants to keep the bad guys from hurting innocents.

But getting back to the study, Vezzali and Emilia have shown that there is indeed a very positive correlation between reading stories that include messages of tolerance, and having those messages reflected in the readers' own personalities. And while this is only one study, focused on one set of books, it strikes me as a very compelling case as to why it's vitally important to promote the same messages of tolerance -- about race, about gender, about sexuality, about... -- in comics. Because even though the Harry Potter books have widely outsold Spider-Man's, those comic characters still resonate with a lot of people!
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