Of Superpowers and Privilege: Diversity in Superhero Narratives


Cultural Studies and Media Studies / Interdisciplinary Humanities

Mary Ellen Iatropoulos (Independent Scholar)

The word “diversity” has been thrown around a lot lately in the world of superhero narratives. The last two years have featured an increased diversity in Marvel Comics’ set of characters and creative staff, with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work on Black Panther, G. Willow Wilson’s co-creation of Ms. Marvel, the character Jane Foster being deemed worthy of Mjolnir and with it the name Thor, and Riri Williams taking over the role of Iron Man from Tony Stark. At the same time, Marvel has faced criticism for whitewashing of films such as Doctor Strange, and a refusal to increase diversity in casting with its main character taking on the white savior narrative in Iron Fist. While creators and editors at Marvel have taken steps to increase diversity, the company’s vice president of sales, David Gabriel, recently blamed “diversity” for slumping sales. Fans’ backlash to such failure to increase diversity, even to blame diversity, demonstrates that, for all the repetition of the word “diversity,” its ideals are far from its implementation.

As each case shows, what it means for a story, comic, or film to be “diverse” and “have diversity” can change from context to context. While diversity as an idea seems to be everywhere, at least in conversation, this session determines to investigate diversity in actual representation. This roundtable session seeks papers investigating how “diversity” has manifested in twenty-first century superhero narratives, and to what ends.
How has “diversity” manifested in 21st-century superhero narratives, and to what ends? To what degree are recent conversations regarding diversity in superhero narratives indicative of social progress being made (or not)? How do corporate experiments with diversity subvert or reinforce institutional oppression of marginalized groups? What’s the interplay between attempts at diversity on screen and “diversity” in real life?