On Superheroes, Stereotypes, and Creative Courtesy

Earlier this evening, a friend of mine who is a big fan of Paco Ramone, Vibe from the Detroit stretch of the Justice League, came to me upset. He plays the character on an online game and someone who plays Supergirl was...suffice to say, I can only convey to you that she was unbelievably rude to him and, without ever having once ever played with his version of the character, labelled him as a stereotype. Since I love Paco too, I want to make some cogent points that in fact, Supergirl is far more of a stereotype than Vibe.

Think of it as a challenge, not because I'm actually attacking either character. I do love Supergirl as well, at least I did in my younger days. But I'm not going to sit here and say that, compared to Vibe, she's a remarkably novel concept or a bold defiance of what came before. Nonetheless, I think the idea is still a good one, and as long as there is a Superman, there should always be a Supergirl.

In essence, let me say that I do not necessarily espouse all of these reasons myself as such, or believe that any or all of them necessarily call the character's integrity into question; I believe that a character's quality lies firmly in the quality of their writing and interpretation.

I'm also not looking for debates. I essentially am writing this solely for my friend's benefit, and because I had some time and found it an interesting challenge, to present some hopefully thought-provoking points illustrating the problem with belief that stereotype is obvious and objective.

That aside, let's begin.

1. Blonde hair, blue eyes. It's the classic 'hero' look, at least the classic Aryan ideal. This is still incredibly common in a lot of American and European cultural presentations of heroes; ask a bunch of schoolchildren to invent a hero, without giving them any modifiers? A lot of them will draw a fair-haired, blue-eyed person.

I know what you're probably saying here: 'but Superman and Batman are both dark-haired!' That's true. But you know who isn't? Captain America. Captain Britain. Storm. Dazzler. Aquaman. Thor (who is a bearded redhead in actual mythology). Flash Gordon. Human Torch. Invisible Woman. The Flash (Barry Allen). Hawkeye. Iron Fist. Angel. Ant-Man. Quicksilver. Power Girl. Havok. Longshot. To name only a few. And you know what all of those have as well? Blue eyes.

Superheroes have a disproportionate occurrence of blue eyes! If you're trying to colour a picture of a hero and you don't know what colour their eyes are, just choose blue. It's correct more than half the time.

Vibe, on the other hand, has black hair and brown eyes.

2. The 'girl next door'. It says something for the whole madonna/whore thing that most heroines and villainesses are either wholesome, pure types or chaotic and dress like they based their entire concept of practicality on a new wave bondage video. Supergirl fits perfectly into the first category (unless of course she's being mind-controlled or turned evil for some script-dictated purpose).

Paco's personality was not easy to pin down, at least when written by Gerry Conway and Chuck Patton. Being one of the only Latino characters created at that point in any prominent heroic position for DC, great expectations were placed on Paco, and no character could possibly fulfill all of them. He had plenty of character and was vivid and lively; the same accusations would have come about had he been bland and flat, with nothing to indicate his heritage but his name...which has happened with more characters than I can even list.

The League was brought more to a level of the people than it had been for a while, and the relocation was to Detroit since they could no longer use the satellite, which had recently been severely damaged. Detroit's diversity, as well as its danger, presented a new venue that had largely gone untouched in comics, even during the brief period in the early 70s where they were grabbing at any kind of remotely relevant social issue. Especially urban ones.

Let's take some of the problems people pick with Paco:

- He has a large family. And? This is by no means a stereotype, it's called a character background. He's also the oldest of a number of siblings (or possibly second-oldest, depending on interpretations and sources; he was in any case the oldest of his siblings that still lived with the family), which gives him a lot more depth than people give him credit for. Older children have a huge amount of pressure on their shoulders, which was shown very clearly in the Detroit days; he was pressured constantly to achieve, and putting it in perspective, he was actually pressured to levels no person, whether in his situation or otherwise, could ever be expected to achieve. Nonetheless, he did achieve the unlikely, by not only becoming a costumed hero, but a member of the Justice League.

I'd also like to point out that his brother Armando and his sister Rosita were both prominent characters in those stories, so complaints about them being just placeholders have no basis: Armando was trying to make his own way through any means necessary, and Rosita was studying psychology.

- Paco belonged to a gang. I'm not sure if you realise this, but gangs were (and are) a huge part of many large cities in the United States. If they'd moved the League to Detroit to convey a closer connection with the people and not had someone either involved in a gang or turning tricks, they might as well have just not bothered and kept it in New York. Which is where they were before...and come to think of it, they didn't have anyone even then. Plus, they inexplicably moved them from Detroit to New York later anyway, clearly by editorial edict and not because it fit the story.

It's hardly stereotypical that Paco was part of a gang. If anything, it's noteworthy since he was the leader of the Lobos and made them better people than just toughs. Who else was going to have a link to such a prominent and persistent youth issue? Elongated Man? Aquaman? I don't think so. Unlike a lot of the Justice League, Paco was neither caucasian nor middle class, and was on the cusp of his twenties rather than approaching 30 or above.

- Paco has a temper. Now you're just reaching. Because he's Latino and gets angry sometimes, he's a stereotype? Try again. And a fair point is that Green Arrow pitched about a thousand times more bitch fits than Paco ever did. When Paco actually seemed to be upset or lose his temper, I might add, he actually had good reason to do so, such as being obviously manipulated by a control freak Aquaman who was extremely unstable at the time or being confronted by an intergalactic sadist with cosmic power who had, in fact, decimated the Justice League more than once in the past. He was not the 'fiery Latino' stereotype, by any means. If anything, he was often even physically abused for pointing out hypocrisy or abuse of power on the parts of the older Justice League members, which is a poor reflection on them, not him.

Compare this to Green Arrow, who threatened to quit -- or outright quit -- so many times over frivolous issues that it became an actual running joke of whether or not he was a member of the team this issue, and whose hissy fits were so legendary that it became an overdone story element. You could develop a drinking game around them, but you'd get alcohol poisoning pretty quickly.

- Paco used a lot of slang and had a certain way of speaking that also peppered English with Spanish. The first point I can make here is that his speech with family and people he trusts is simply everyday speech; his slang-filled street talk is a put-on, and that's made very clear almost immediately in his stories. The second is that not only is peppering speech with different language words not uncommon in comics, it's not really that uncommon in reality either. Hardly stereotypical, especially as a lot of it was also based on trendy lingo of the time.

- A breakdancer superhero?! Breakdancing was (inaccurately and incorrectly) criticised as being outmoded by the time Vibe was introduced. However, no other League member (or superhero that I can think of at the moment) was ever a performing dancer. Paco was. If you're going to compare breakdancing unfavourably to ballet, please don't; I was a dancer, I can tell you that breaking takes as much if not more discipline, demand, and fitness, as well as grace and artistic ability. If anything, breaking is much more difficult due to the fact that many breakdancers improvise...something that takes a higher level of talent and skill to do well than simply performing strictly choreographed steps.

Breakdancing, additionally, was not by any means unpopular by the time of Vibe's introduction, and it remains a performance art to this day. Just because someone inaccurately labels a time period for something where it hits the radar of mainstream America doesn't mean it wasn't popular before or wasn't popular after.

3. The costume...or costumes. All of Supergirl's costumes are basically just adapted versions of Superman's. All of them. She also wears a skirt in almost all of them (or sometimes, hot pants).

Vibe's first costume incorporated a number of colors that reflected the sometimes garish street fashions that were popular in a number of cities when he was designed, especially in terms of performers, which Vibe was. It also uniquely showed more skin than most costumes to this day show for male heroes. His second costume miraculously retained that décolletage, while streamlining the design and toning down the colors. His costume was not based off of any other hero and was completely his own.

4. Race and class. Yep, I went there. Supergirl, like most superheroes (especially of her time) is a caucasian with middle class circumstances. She's an alien. From galaxies away. And she's a caucasian with blonde hair and blue eyes who finds herself after a short time in middle class means.

Paco is from a poor and large family, and he's from Puerto Rican stock. He's had to fight for everything he manages to have.

5. Supergirl is a 'girl version'. You would not believe how common this is. Or maybe you would. So many female characters are nothing in concept but a female version (usually diminutive) of a more prominent male hero or share a motif with one.

Vibe is, as mentioned before, an independent hero with a unique design, power set, and identity.

6. So badass! Yeah, so Supergirl is, in pretty much all of her incarnations, the 'girl next door' type. And so, when she (invariably) loses her temper, it's supposed to be impressive. Except she does it all the time. And it seems kind of suspicious that the writers repeatedly present it as surprising or even shocking that someone who can lift a mountain can beat up some assorted bad guys. There's a difference between 'women can do anything men can' and 'whoa, a girl who can fight? What is this black magic?!'

It's like the 'last girl' syndrome in horror films. In fact, it's almost exactly like that.

7. Supergirl is weaker in terms of raw power. Superman is, naturally, more capable. While it is a part of the character, and Supergirl is younger than her cousin, it's still common enough to be stereotypical and was obviously part of the concept. You can practically hear them saying 'of course she is, she's the girl version'.

8. Naive. It's a quintessential feature of her character that she's naive. Even after getting plenty of experience under her belt...she's still naive most of the time, in some cases distressingly so. Even to this day, writers have her put into situations she really should know better than to get involved in, with alarming frequency.

Paco, on the other hand, questioned all forms of authority, and with good reason.

9. Unquestioning. While it is something I do respect -- that a lot of heroes in comic books used to have a very strong idea of good and evil -- Supergirl either doesn't question enough or just acts out in a way so transparent that it just appears she's being a typical teenager...or should I say, stereotypical. She rarely ever questioned authority or law, even when the issue wasn't exactly clear-cut, and in plenty of situations just went along with her cousin.

10. Drive-thru 'feminism'. Remember in the 70s, when feminism was really strongly coming into the mainstream and making a lot of headlines? Remember how a lot of writers for comics decided to make some powerful heroines into feminists? Well, to be fair, I should say 'into their ideas of what a feminist was', which tended to vary significantly from any actual concept of feminism. Remember that? Remember when 'chauvinist' was guaranteed to be said by a female character in every issue where they'd appear, whether it was fair criticism or not?

Unfortunately it hasn't improved much in thirty years.

I could go on. If I had the time or the inclination to, I would. But here I'd just like to stop and say that when you're actually a person role-playing and giving a character depth that it cannot have in any other medium, when you're actually being that character to the fullest extent of your ability, portraying them and making them come to life in your hands...when you're doing that, you're beyond criticisms that may be levelled at their medium of origin.

When you're doing that, dismissing a character as a stereotype is a direct, and significant, insult. It indicates that this person -- who as in the case of my friend, had absolutely no experience with his portrayal of the character -- assumes that the player is going to disappoint them. It assumes that there is no potential for depth or compelling storytelling with the character. It assumes that, even if the character can be considered to be a disappointment, that nothing can be done and that the player's creativity is not up to the task of improving it.

It is assuming that, in every medium in which the character has ever appeared, every interpretation, and every possible interpretation, they are somehow disappointing.

To be quite plain, it's rude, it's arrogant, and it's a shitty thing to do.

If you want to talk stereotypes, talk superheroes. Archetypes and stereotypes populate the genre. They always did. Even the mythology and folklore and legends that much of superheroic writing is based on is populated by identifiable caricatures, often distilled regional idiosyncrasies or attractive features. If you want to talk stereotypes, be very sure you're not throwing stones in glass houses.

Supergirl is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed alien who has super-abilities and establishes herself in the same motif as another super-powered alien who miraculously happens to be related to her and shares a system of values with residents of a single region on a foreign planet. Vibe is a Latino of Puerto Rican heritage, with vibration powers, who is a professional-level dancer and comes from Detroit. Okay, so...which one was supposed to be the more stereotypical?

The difference between a stereotype and an archetype can, in many cases, be an extremely fine line. It's arguable. And a character you consider to be an identifiable, sympathetic representation you see elements of yourself in can, to someone else, represent stereotypical qualities. You'll also see plenty of people in the superhero genre who consider themselves fans, but who in reality do nothing but take other people's opinions and present them as their own.

Don't be that guy. Or that Supergirl, as the case may be.

Before you show your ass and insult someone else's favourite character, be sure you're not opening yourself and your own favourites up to criticism. Because you can take it from me, there is not a single comic book superhero or supervillain who's above it.

In the right hands, even a simple idea or an idea you didn't think was worth loving can become an inspiring hero.

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A Guide to Gotham by Hushicho



 I know this is old and wordy at points, but I thought it would be fun to share with the people around here. Enjoy! More of my work at my official site (http://hushicho.captainn.net since apparently the blog editing doesn't work). Just a bit of fun!
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