The topic of representation is fraught, but it shouldn't be. The principle is very simple: because there are lots of different types of people in the world, mainstream fictional media should reflect that. There's plenty of psychological and social science to support this, as a lack of representation leads to groups of people feeling alienated and internalizing prejudices against them. Yet, even though filmmakers have the power to change this — some might even say a moral responsibility — they refuse opportunities for representation for one simple reason: Greed. And probably prejudices too.
As if we weren't sick of publishing call-out articles about this by now, the debate has reared its ugly head once more, because of #Marvel rejecting yet another opportunity to finally introduce an #LGBT character to their expansive, seemingly infinitely profitable #MCU.
No Queer Rep In 'Ragnarok'
It all started when Tessa Thompson replied to a comment on Twitter that identified Valkyrie as a lesbian. The Westworld actress, who has enjoyed researching her role in Thor: Ragnarok, was eager to correct the fan:
Valkyrie is a much-loved character from Marvel Comics, and her bisexuality definitely plays a role in that, considering how few LGBT superheroes there are. Naturally, Thompson's tweet sent the internet into a frenzy of speculation, as fans wondered if Ragnarok would finally introduce a canon queer character to the MCU. However, less than a week later, Thompson clarified her comments.
Out of context, this seems fine. So Valkyrie isn't explicitly bisexual in Ragnarok, what does that matter? But when we look back over Marvel's history of avoiding LGBT representation like the plague, it's starting to look like the franchise isn't just ignoring queer representation, but actively erasing it.
Marvel's History Of Avoiding LGBT Representation
Marvel has been criticized for their lack of queer representation over and over again. At first, this was simply because they weren't using queer characters in the movies — and that wasn't really that much of a problem. When establishing their expansive universe, Marvel wanted to use their most well-known and popular heroes, and all of them happen to be straight. But as time wore on, more and more characters were added to the MCU's pantheon, and sure enough, there are now several MCU characters who are queer in the comics — but are not obliquely so in the movies.
Earlier this year, Marvel was widely criticized for seemingly straight-washing Ayo, a lesbian hero from the comics who has a supporting role in Black Panther. After a screening of early Black Panther footage, Variety reported a flirtatious scene between Ayo and another woman, referencing Ayo's popular solo comic — World Of Wakanda — that dealt with her sexuality. Marvel swiftly shot down this possibility, ordering Variety to edit the article with a statement from the studio.
A Marvel representative reached out to say that the nature of the relationship between Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Florence Kasumba‘s Ayo in 'Black Panther' is not a romantic one and that specific love storyline from the comic 'World of Wakanda' was not used as a source.
Meanwhile, James Gunn hinted at a queer character appearing in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, yet none appeared, leading to much criticism of filmmakers asking for diversity points for including queer characters, but not really providing the LGBT representation they want credit for.
With Ayo, and now Valkyrie too, this matter has gone beyond Marvel simply ignoring LGBT characters to actively erasing their sexuality. Granted, Black Panther has not been released yet, but with Thompson's quick clarification that Valkyrie won't actually be bi in Ragnarok, it's starting to look like Marvel is trying to avoid any kind of queer representation in their movies.
This Erasure Needs To Stop
And honestly, this is just exhausting. Characters should not be reduced to their sexuality, but sexuality is still a crucial part of identity. To put a character onscreen that is seen as a beacon of hope and representation for LGBT people, and then erase that part of their character is a cruel move on the part of the filmmakers. Again, queer people are shoved out of the spotlight and into the shadows, as a clear message is sent: You are not part of this world. You are not a superhero. You are invisible.
It would be so easy to establish a character's sexuality even without making it play a large role in the plot. Ayo flirting with another member of the Dora Milaje is one way to do it, as would be an offhand comment about her girlfriend. After all, filmmakers never worry about how heterosexuality could detract from the plot — on the contrary, it's difficult to escape all this straight representation, as it is constantly shoved in our faces.
Of course, Marvel is not alone. DC has also garnered criticism for ignoring the bisexuality of their two biggest selling female characters: Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn. Fox has also taken pains not to include Mystique's bisexuality — and considering the the X-Men are frequently used as an allegory for queer rights, this erasure is particularly aggravating.
So why won't these superhero franchises support their LGBT fans? Most people suspect it comes down to money. Movies are international products, and the studio execs are well aware that if they include queer characters in one of their films, that film will likely be banned in conservative countries — specifically China, whose ticket sales often determine whether a movie is a flop or a blockbuster, and the country has banned any "gay propaganda" from being shown onscreen.
But social change doesn't come easy. Call me a social justice warrior, but I have always believed that the purpose of fiction — and especially the superhero genre — is to uplift and empower the audience. Ergo, the creators of fiction have a responsibility to ensure that all people feel empowered, regardless of their race, gender, or sexuality. By choosing to only show straight (predominantly white and male) characters as heroes, filmmakers are actively alienating members of the audience who are not straight (and usually, white or male, too).
Everyone deserves to feel like a hero, especially those who are consistently marginalized by society. And really, isn't that what superhero stories have always been about?
Tell us in the comments: Which queer superhero would you like to see represented in the MCU?