As a single Black mom knee deep in pandemic life, I gleefully purchased one of my first tubs of overpriced movie theater popcorn in years for the weekend premier of Marvel’s long-heralded first truly diverse film – The Eternals. On January 12th, The Eternals becomes available to wider home audiences on Disney+, just five days before the country celebrates the advancement of Black Americans and racial equality through the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Though certainly more diverse, the film has been ranked at the bottom of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As I splurged on trans fats and watched the dazzling stories on screen, I, myself, developed one burning question:
Why, oh why, is almost every one of these long-awaited diverse cast members exclusively seeking the affections of white people?!?!?!
As Ivy League faculty specializing in antiracism, I don’t customarily write op-eds about superhero movies.
Yet! I watched as Sersi, portrayed by British Asian actress Gemma Chan, paired with not one but two brown-haired white men with chiseled jaws and flawless fair skin, played by British actor Kit Harington as Dane Whitman and Scottish actor Richard Madden as Ikaris. Next, I saw my favorite companionship blossom between Druig, played by yet another brown-haired Irish actor Barry Keoghan, and Makkari, played by Lauren Ridloff, a Mexican/African-American actress who is also Marvel’s first deaf superhero.
I dug my hands deeper into that tub of popcorn, desperate to blind myself to yet another intrusion of glorified whiteness into my hard-earned free time. Marvel cast diverse men of color yet diminished their desirability by repeatedly prioritizing these white, Prince Charming ideals of romantic pursuit. Literally! Madden was Prince Charming in 2015’s Cinderella.
The only romantic pairing that did not idealize whiteness was that of Marvel’s first openly gay couple of Phastos, a Black Eternal played by Brian Tyree Henry and his loving husband, Ben, played by Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese-American actor. Still, the film’s romantic glorification of whiteness concludes when in saunters Harry Styles cast as Eros, the fourth white man with brown-hair and a chiseled chin to undoubtedly become the fixation of lustful urges to come.
Ok Marvel, stop it already.
What would it mean to write storylines for the phenomenal Sersi and Makkari where they felt attracted to various men of color, in addition to the buffet of Prince Charmings?
Writing loving, devoted roles for people of color to uplift whiteness is nothing new. Before people of color were permitted to be romantically involved with white people in film, we were first domesticated and subservient. The first Academy Award to a Black person went to Hattie McDaniel in 1939 for her role in Gone with the Wind playing a mammy – a stereotyped, docile, ever-smiling, big-bosomed matronly figure who adds value to whiteness because she happily raises their children. The domestic Black helper trope repeats itself in films ranging from Driving Miss Daisy to The Help, which actually earned Octavia Spencer an Oscar for her role as a maid to white people, reminiscent of Hattie McDaniel before her.
The Eternals tenderly nurtures whiteness with people of color, too. Gilgamesh, played by South Korean actor Don Lee, volunteers to spend his immortal existence being a caretaker to Thena, played by the white actress Angelina Jolie, who is suffering from the Eternal equivalent of trauma-induced violent dementia, called “Mahd Wr’ry.” Thus, we have the mammy trope. Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani American, was cast as Kingo, who spent over 7,000 years untethered to romantic or platonic interests. Yet, by the end of the 157 minute film, he too was relegated to being the film’s second mammy when he literally assumed parental responsibility to raise the white Eternal, Sprite.
What would it mean both theatrically and societally if we scripted whiteness to love diversity – to people of color – enough to sacrifice their eternity to protect our well-being for once?
Why does this matter? Personally speaking, as a Black woman, I represent only 2% of all medical faculty. During my medical training, my older, white male supervising physician once sought to grow his connection to this Black, young physician by sharing how much he adored his mammy growing up. I, Dr. Mammy, added value to whiteness not through independent thought and clinical excellence, but through docile assimilation. Failing to satisfy these ideals, Dr. Mammy was remediated for clinical incompetency and resistance to feedback. Once I escaped, the liberated Dr. “Not-Mammy” aced her psychiatry board certification at the 93rd percentile and became Yale faculty. Biased fiction perpetuates the inequitable realities against which civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr fought endlessly to undo.
To be clear, the problem I’m highlighting isn’t the on-screen portrayal of caretakers of color or interracial relationships themselves. From Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar winning mammy to television’s first interracial kiss with Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura to The Eternals today, representation of interracial partnerships plays an important role in diversifying Hollywood. Rather, the point I’m making is that writing scripts where people of color kiss white men and raise their dependents ceased to be groundbreaking many decades ago.
To Marvel Comics – thank you for the first important step towards desegregating your franchise. Next, as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and countless other advocates for racial equality this month, let us showcase our true talent and value and desirability – without rooting it in our proximity to whiteness.