COLORBLOCK Magazine-May 2016

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Problematic Deaths in Sleepy Hollow and The

100 A Roundtable Discussion about Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell 

May 2016


Editor in Chief Monique Jones

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EDITOR’S NOTE First, apologies for the lateness with this issue. But I, like a lot of you out there, have been struck with grief. It’s been a sad couple of weeks. We’ve seen annoying, disrespectful actions taken in shows, leading to the deaths of key characters. We’ve seen the usage of whitewashing and the near-usage of yellowface. And to cap it all off, we’ve weathered the death of a legend, Prince. In this issue, I take a look back at some of the most heartbreaking moments of March and April, including my obituary/personal essay about The Purple One. I hope you enjoy this issue, and I hope you’ve been able to have some good moments amid the bad.

Monique Jones

Sleepy Hollow: Abbie’s Death and the

Painful Erasure of Black Women Nicole Beharie in the “Ragnarok” season finale episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Friday, April 8 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Tina Rowden/FOX

Originally written on JUST ADD COLOR April 9, 2016 This formulation of this post started after indignation, shock, and later anger. Indeed, several TV critics on Twitter were aghast at what happened, with critic Ryan McGee tweeting, “I haven't’ watched #SleepyHollow since early S2 and tonight’s news still makes me sad. What a waste of a show on all levels. Crikey.” HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall tweeted, “Been a long time since I watched Sleepy Hollow, but when I liked it , it was for the interplay of the leads. Sounds like a big mess now.” “Way behind on #SleepyHollow but this (spoilery) news is so sad,” tweeted Maureen Ryan of Variety . “Few shows had more potential at one time but now…” And several online recaps had the same theme throughout the post: If Abbie and Nicole Beharie are gone, then what’s the point of even watching the show? Just as important: Why on God’s green earth would the writing team as a whole (including the showrunner) go out of their way to lead the fanbase on and act like they were going to give the fanbase what they wanted (which is a final say-so on #Ichabbie) just to turn around and destroy the only thing that made the show worth watching? To quote Vulture’s Rose Maura Lorre, “The latter statements [of Pandora stating in her dying breaths that Ichabod loves Abbie] lead me to believe that, intentional or not, this show’s careless disregaard of its Ichabbie ‘shippers has been fucked up. Make them just-friends or make them more-than-friends, but have a conversation about it and stick to your decision.

Don’t keep stringing the ‘shippers along with your hand-kissing and your ‘be still my beating heart’ (which no person has ever said platonically) while you know Abbie’s imminent fate full well.” And as The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen wrote, “I’m not sure if there were behind-the-scenes issues we are privy to, but Beharie’s a crucial element of the series. Tom Mison is a fine actor, but without the two of them together, what’s the damn point?” The chemistry between the two leads, Tom Mison and Beharie, was the only thingthat kept mostly everyone tuned in. (I say most, because somehow, there are folks out there who think Sleepy Hollow is just Ichabod’s story of time travel. When was hethe only lead on this show? I have a lot more to say about this later on in this post.) Sure, the creative elements that made up the show, like the lighting, the set design, the creature makeup and stuntwork, and the time travel/ Christian apocalypse madness were amazing and really gave the show its creepy edge. But the glue that stuck all of those disparate parts together were the grounding forces provided by Ichabod and Abbie. Without one or both of them, the show’s just a bunch of junk, to be quite honest about it. So I ask again: Without Abbie, what the f*ck is the point of watching a fourth season?!

I don’t even like using coarse language, but how else am I supposed to get this point across? How much more plainly can I say it? Abbie was the show. Even Mison would agree to that, I’m sure, since he was never without a kind word to say about working

with Beharie and being able to share the same breathing air as her. Mison has always stuck up for Beharie and looking back on it, it makes a lot of sense as to why neither Mison nor Beharie have done a lot of press for this season. It’s slowly come out that Beharie was deeply unhappy during S2 and wanted out of her contract, and I don’t blame her for wanting to leave, because as I’ve written before,Abbie was made to be a house slave for Witchy White Feminist Katrina. As far as Mison is concerned, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Mison eventually leaves as well. If someone decides to interview Mison about his thoughts on everything, I betcha he’ll reveal his true emotions over this, just like how he did with Ichabod fawning over Katrina in S2. (To paraphrase him from an earlier interview, he had a serious disagreement with the writers about how Ichabod was acting out of character. We already know how he felt about Katrina from some of his DVD commentary, in which he shades Katrina for only being able to lift a stick even though she was supposed to be a powerful witch.) I could just go on rambling, but I’m going to use my favorite writing tools— bullets—to boil down my points into easy-to-follow chunks. • Abbie didn’t have to literally become the “mule of the world”: I know one of the things I wrote last year caused a dustup, and I don’t know if any of my original point ever came across the way I wanted it to. There were two things in-

volved in what I wrote: 1) that Abbie’s ways of dealing with emotions—bottling them up—is valid as a character trait and 2) that Abbie’s fate and worth should never be tied to a man and/or to white patriarchal acceptance standards. She can love Ichabod all she wants, but everything goes down the drain if her life and her worth as a character becomes completely dependent on Ichabod’s privilege as a white, straight, cis man. I was advocating that the show and some of the fans shouldn’t tie Abbie to such constraints. But things seemed to have gotten muddied in the shipping waters, and it became misconstrued as me saying that Abbie should never find love and that she shouldn’t be with Ichabod. That whole thing bothered me for a while, even more than when I got lambasted for supposedly being the Girl who Cried #Ichabbie in my interview with Sleepy Hollow writer Dana Jackson Leigh. It’s only now that I realize that I was basing my entire article on the premise that Abbie would be eventually fleshed out and studied as a character and validated for her imperfect humanity, not that she would just be saddled with the figurative and literal weight of the world and get killed off without any character exploration. I wrongly assumed that the writers had figured out large chunks, if not all, of Abbie’s characterization, that they had a plan, and that at some point—either this season or the next—they would get into why she always stuffs her feelings. I wrongly assumed that they were going to show her inner life, her mental workings. Color me surprised and betrayed when I watched Friday’s episode. I wrote my original post imagining that the writing team was looking at the show the way I was looking at it, which is that Abbie, in all of her flaws and shortcomings and her strength, was someone I could identify with. I truly identify with the trouble of processing emotions, of pushing stuff to the backburner. I identify with the fact that Abbie (in my mind) knows that she has a serious problem with emotions and that she should probably work on that. I understand how she is ready to keep people at arm’s length for fear of either losing them or somehow not meeting their expectations. I read all of that into the character, which is why I loved how she used workaholism as a crutch. But never did I imagine that they were going to leave Abbie as a shell of a great, complicated character.

I also never imagined that the writing team would literally make her a second-

ary character in her own story. The true lead of this story is Abbie, because without Abbie, the crimes wouldn’t get solved, the monsters wouldn’t have gotten killed, and Ichabod wouldn’t have a friend to navigate him through the future. Abbie gave him so much, and we were led to believe that it was because they were equal partners, not that she was being set up to become a sidekick to the sidekick. Yes, Ichabod is the sidekick in this show. He’s the one that’s been the tagalong as Abbie and Irving solved the cases. Ichabod isn’t even a U.S. citizen yet; he had to tag along with Abbie just to have a home! In the end, my fear of Abbie falling victim to the white patriarchy came true after all. In the end, Abbie was seen as less than, as replaceable. The fact that Ichabod has to go out searching for the next Witness drives home the idea that Abbie is just another cog in the wheel, while Ichabod’s still-preserved life (a life spanning 200 years), is much more important. Somehow, Ichabod is now the one that’s got the bigger, more important job, even though the story was never solely focused on him in the first place. Abbie’s death isn’t the first time a black woman has been killed in a roundabout, discriminatory fashion. Too many times, minorities of all stripes are used as ways to prop up the white male characters. The last time I personally remember outrage over a black woman’s death on a show was with Taraji P. Henson’s character Joss Carter on Person of Interest. Like Abbie, Carter was also getting fridged out of her own story and was later killed off (more than likely after behind-thescenes drama of the treatment of Henson’s character). Fans on Twitter have also cited Rutina Wesley’s Tara from True Blood as another example of a black woman getting killed for no reason. What’s so amazing is that just two weeks ago, Sleepy Hollow saw its own future with the horror show that was The 100 disaster. Alycia DebnamCarey’s Lexa, one half of the same sex relationship #Clexa, was killed right after consummating her relationship with Eliza Taylor’s Clarke. The “Bury Your Gays” hate was just the teaser for more outrage, when Ricky Whittle’s character Lincoln was also unceremoniously killed. Afterwards, Whittle confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that he had been bullied on set and actively fought for his character to have more meaning. He also spoke against Lexa’s death, citing it and Lincoln’s deaths as “really weak” and “sabotaging the story.” These words

could be aptly applied toSleepy Hollow‘s poor handling of its stars, story, and fans. Abbie’s death is even worse because black people, black women in particular, are rarely seen in horror. The cliche line “the black guy dies first” isn’t some kind of post-post-modern, cynical thing to just spout off; it’s a fact. The black person generally dies in horror, sci-fi, and action films. Even Jurassic Park, one of the greatest films of all time, still has Samuel L. Jackson dying for no reason, even though his character Ray Arnold stays alive throughout the entire book. (Spoiler alert: It’s actually John Hammond who dies in the book, as nature’s way of getting back at him for his hubris.) Don’t even start on the countless black men that have died in both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. The most legendary black person death in horror has to be Duane Jones’ character Ben in Night of the Living Dead, which is a masterful display of social commentary in pulp fiction and made history for having the black guy actually last all the way to the end, a victory in itself. I wrote in my piece that black women have been described by writer Zora Neale Hurston as “the mule of the world,” and that couldn’t have been any more apparent than it was Friday. Abbie had already sacrificed herself in the midseason finale, but to have her do it again, in much the same fashion, is ludicrous. To have her save the world by herself could be seen as empowering, but it’s also very much indicative of putting all of the onus on the black woman to know her place, do her part, and ultimately suffer for it, while the white character gets to grieve, but also gets to live. Compare this scene to a show like Underground, which does a fantastic job of showing how much black women have been mistreated throughout history, either by the white men and women who either owned them or had higher status than them just because of their race, or even by other black women who are also drowning in their own suffering and see destroying another black woman as one less person to compete with for relief (I’m looking at you, Ernestine). Even with Underground‘s issues with death and blackness in its past episode “The Macon 7,” the show still imbues hope, as frail as it is, into the struggle for survival. These characters still know that there’s a better way for them. Or, to paraphrase

Abbie and Ichabod themselves, there’s always another way. However, when it really counted, Abbie wasn’t given that promised other way. By extension, Beharie and the fans weren’t given that other way out either. It’s to the detriment of the show, which started out with amazing social and racial commentary, that it didn’t recognize that it’s black woman lead was the hero, not the mule. • Not to do #NotAllWriters, but not all writers are at fault here: With all of this said, I’ll refrain from blaming individual writers. Overall, the writing team as a whole has to take the blame, but if we go by the individual writers, the deck was stacked against the writers of color from the get-go. There were less than a handful of POC writers on the Sleepy Hollow team, and I think that led to many of the problems in the latter seasons. Also, despite J.J. Abrams not being involved with Sleepy Hollow, to me it always seemed that the ghost of Abrams reigned supreme over Sleepy Hollow‘s first season, because the first season was spectacular in its sensitivity to racial and cultural discussions as well as fan engagement. Abrams himself might have not had a hand in Sleepy Hollow, but a lot of his surrogates did, such as K/O Productions, and Abrams seems to hire people who are sensitive to diversity and inclusion because Abrams himself is sensitive to such. (He has been vocal about inclusion before and after #OscarsSoWhite and has produced several projects about inclusion, including the mismatched show Undercovers, the NBC show starring two black leads before it was “trendy.”) Even without the color/race issue, there’s still the concept of group writing. A writing team is an exercise in writing by consensus, with the showrunner getting the last word. At some point, someone’s not going to get what they want, and Abbie’s death seemed to be one of those unhappy moments. But, with less people of color to advocate for different outcomes, it becomes easier for the majority to get their way. So in our grief, we should remember that some of the writers are probably grieving as well. We will never know if there was another plan that got voted down, a plan to have the show go out on a high note and to at least give fans some kind of closure as far as Abbie’s validity

and her relationship with Ichabod are concerned. Like Ichabod and Abbie always said, there’s always another way to get out of a jam, and even with Beharie wanting to leave, there was still another way her exit could have been handled (such as maybe both of the Witnesses dying and their journey into fighting the good fight from beyond the veil, like Katrina did during Season 1). But was that way proposed only to get rejected? It would be a crying shame if this turned out to be true. • The show destroyed Jenny, too: Abbie may be getting the brunt of the grief, but let’s also not forget that Jenny’s emotions were also sidelined. Again, I assumed that the show would delve more into Jenny’s own trouble with processing emotion, and to a degree, they did with her relationship with Joe. That exploration made Joe’s death all the more painful, because that meant that 1) Jenny would once again have to feel like everyone she loves dies and 2) It would translate to the fans as Jenny always having to suffer, just like her sister. For the show to pull that card on Jenny twice in two weeks is astounding to me. Jenny has always seemed, to me, like the most sensitive and emotionally vulnerable of the two sisters, despite her outward strength. She had already said this season how she hated getting close to anyone because they always leave her. Why did it make any type of storytelling sense to be this masochistic to Jenny? Do her feelings not count for anything either? As bad as I feel for Abbie, I feel nearly doubly as bad for Jenny, who was finally growing accustomed to putting down roots and living a (mostly) emotionally stable life. • Ichabod is now a man without a home: Ichabod was also treated horribly. Ichabod has always maintained that he and Abbie were the only two Witnesses. The clumsy Avatar: The Last Airbender-esque caveat of a Witness’ soul getting reincarnated is something that we could have accepted if the show had started with that premise in the first place. Heck, even the Bible doesn’t state that Witnesses can be reincarnated into different people! What the Bible states is that yes, the Witnesses die, but they are brought back to life after they’ve served the Lord. They

aren’t reincarnated; they’re brought back as themselves, similar to how Jesus served the Lord, sacrificed himself, and came back as himself, but holy. The Witnesses are supposed to become holy people. Biblical theory aside, what sense does it make to have Ichabod, who has always been attached at the hip to Abbie, and—if the hints were to be believed—was developing a deep, romantic love for her, now suddenly without a love, without a home, and essentially without a purpose? What sense does it make to have Ichabod become the lead of this show, which has always relied on the power of two? Why should Ichabod, who has a core principle of railing against his own set of racial, cultural, and status privileges, suddenly become the privileged Dr. Who-esque white British male trope? Why should Ichabod’s internal logic be rewritten in order to make him okay with finding a replacement? If this was the Ichabod we knew in Season 1, the Ichabod who was ready to kill himself in order to save the world, then I think Ichabod would have sacrificed himself with Abbie in order to keep Pandora’s box from destroying everyone. If he jumped into the dreamscape with her in the second episode of the first season, then he’d certainly jump into the abyss with her to save humanity. At the end of the day, the show forgot what it was, who it was for, who its characters are, and what its ultimate goal was. The only thing I have left, now that the anger has subsided, is just severe disappointment. Sleepy Hollow has always been a show that did things to extremes. It had the best pilot anyone had ever seen in years, then it had the worst season anyone had seen in years. Now it’s garnering the most disappointment anyone, fans and critics included, have experienced. If we could just revert back to the first season and pretend these last two didn’t happen, that would be great. If the show could just end its misery and get cancelled, that would be even better. Season One producer Roberto Orci is now talking to fans on Twitter, hinting that he could be trying to come back to the show. Do you think he should come back, should the show go off the air, or should the show stay the same? Tweet your responses at @COLORwebmag and @moniqueblognet!

What The 100 Didn’t Learn from

Teen Wolf Screencap from The 100. CW.

Originally written on JUST ADD COLOR March 16, 2016 Do you watch the CW’s The 100? The show was breaking ground with its same-sex relationship between fan favorites Lexa and Clarke, but something happened recently that left fans up in arms. If you’re not up to speed, here’s what happened. Lexa inexplicably died during the latest season, leaving fans who loved the characters, the relationship, and what the relationship represented, were left grieving yet another lesbian character who has fallen victim to trope.

Maureen Ryan for Variety has summed up the issue succinctly in her opinion piece,“‘The 100 Lexa Mess: What TV, Jason Rothenberg Can Learn”: “So here’s the nitty-gritty: The character who died, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), happened to be one of the few welldeveloped and comple lesbians on TV, and it’s an unfortunae but enduring TV cliche that lesbians rarely, if ever, live happily ever after. In the March 3 episode, ‘The 100,’ which had touted its commitment to quality LGBTQ storytelling, invoked one of TV’s oldest gay cliches by killing her off mere seconds after she consummated her relationship with another woman, Clarke (Eliza Taylor). Many fans, regardless of sexual orientation, were left shaking their heads in disbelief.”

Ryan goes on to write that the death

itself didn’t make storytelling sense, even though the actresses involved played the scene well. “But all things considered, the blithe manipulation LGBTQ fans and the show’s willingness to deploy harmful cliches about gay characters remain the things that rankle the most,” she wrote. Quite a few fans feel like they were led on, used to boost ratings with teased relationship, only to have the rug pulled from under them.

Peeples writes:

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s not simply because creating the “tragic LGBTQ character” is a very tired trope. That’s just one of the reasons. The other reason this might sound familiar is because MTV’s Teen Wolf faced a similar firestorm a two years ago. You can read Jase Peeples’ op-ed for The Advocate, “The Trouble with Teen Wolf“ to get the full details, but in a nutshell, Teen Wolf dropped major hints of highly-developed characterizations (and relationships) of gay male characters, such as the popular pairing of “Sterek” (Stiles and Derek), but the show began being labeled as a “queerbaiting” show once Danny and Ethan, characters who were in a relationship, faded to the background and Stiles was put in a relationship Malia, a female werecoyote. Even worse, the male teen of color on the show, Mason, was tokenized and underdeveloped.

The continued teases that a character might be bisexual with no payoff, the same-sex romances that end as quickly as they begin with little development, the disappearance of gay characters without explanation, and the absence of any well-developed LGBT character four seasons into a show that appeared to bank heavily on its queer appeal early on have left vocal fans howling.

“While some might dismiss fan outrage over the show’s dwindling LGBT representation, their passionate outcry highlights a growing divide between younger viewers and those who are creating the shows they watch. For a generation that has never known a time when LGBT people were not represented on the small screen in some form, limited visibility and queer subtext are no longer enough to hold their interest.”

He goes on to say that network execs and showrunners need to recognize that the audience they’re trying to court (and, in the case of Teen Wolf, successfully courted) are not the audience of the 1980s or even some of the audience of the 1990s. This new audience lives in the world the audiences of the old had been hoping for, so it’s time to actually give this new audience the type of representation it wants sans trope and stereotype. “For this demographic, LGBT integration isn’t simply a future aspiration-it’s real-

ity,” writes Peeples. “More than ever before, young people are out, allies are vocal and a person who doesn’t interact with a member of the LGBT population on some level is becoming an anomaly.” It seems like The 100 also needed to learn this lesson, even though it portrayed the air of deft avoidance of trope up until Lexa’s death. Just like with Teen Wolf’s audience, the audience of The 100 saw Lexa and Clarke as a beacon of hope, that TV was finally putting the spotlight on lesbian relationships, something that’s not always focused on when TV decides to showcase LGBTQ characters. Usually, TV just show gay men, and even then, the focus is mostly on gay white men. As I wrote in my February issue of COLORBLOCK Magazine (in which I

did laud The 100 for its seeming progressiveness): The biggest trend across the reports is that on the whole, gay white men make up half or more than half of the LGBT characters portrayed on television. Meanwhile, lesbian characters specifically usually make up half or less than half of LGBT characters; bisexual characters make up a paltry amount usually in the single-digit or barely double-digit numbers, but still more than transgender characters, who usually comprise about 2% of the LGBT character population. With so few lesbian characters and relationships between lesbians on-screen, Lexa and Clarke stood for more than just two characters in love. They represented many viewers and their relationships, and to have that representation taken away has got to hurt. No wonder fans are upset. The biggest lesson The 100 can learn from this is to look at what happened to Teen Wolf. Fans are asking for proper representation from their shows. Fans are asking for their shows to represent them, because they’re living the lives that are routinely left off the screen. Instead of seeing their audience as a niche with a marginalized interest that can be dangled in front of fans like a carrot, they should actively create storylines that honor their audience. The last thing shows need to do is alienate the folks who make them money. Ryan echoes this sentiment with her breakdown of the lessons showrunners need to learn. Ryan states that when fans feel manipulated they’ll walk away. She also writes that showrunners shouldn’t gloss over legitimate concerns from fans. But the rule that all of these rules rest on is this: “Don’t mislead fans or raise their hopes unrealistically.”

Eliza Taylor as Claire o The 100. Screencap/CW

The Ghost in the Shell/Doctor Strange Roundtable: Discussing Whitewashing, Yellowface, and Erasure Paramount Pictures and Marvel/Disney

Major. Paramount maintains that the fx filter was for a background character and never for the Major, but the fact remains that Paramount engaged in yellowface, regardless of who the character is.

Originally written on JUST ADD COLOR May 2, 2016. Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange are two of the latest in a litany of projects in Hollywood

that have whitewashed and otherwise erased Asian identity from film. The films have been an issue for as much as a year in advance (or, in Ghost in the Shell’s case, longer) before their initial releases, meaning worry for the respective studios and mounting anger for fans and moviegoers who want an authentic and culturally respectful film experience. Each film has its many problems, but to give

Sam Yoshiba, the director of Kodansha’s international business division (based in Tokyo), states that he’s fine with Johansson as The Major and that this is a great opportunity for a Japanese property to make it to the international (i.e. American) market. (which has rights to the Ghost in the Shell property). According to Kotaku,Yoshiba told The Hollywood Reporter, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” Yoshiba also told The Hollywood Reporter that “he was impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.”

dearth of big names in film. “As recently as about 10 years ago, there stopped being big stars,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer stars who mean anything.” Not true. Meanwhile, the internet took matters into their own hands by fancasting Rinko Kikuchi, from Pacific Rim, as Kusanagi. What’s heavily ironic is that it seems like the costuming/hair department took direct inspiration from Kikuchi’s Pacific Rimcharacter Mako Mori when designing The Major for the big screen. 

pants talking about the Ghost in the Shell controversy. The throughline of the

a short overview of what’s plaguing these films, here are the bulleted points:

video is that the people interviewed don’t

Max Landis, the screenwriter

see a problem with Johansson as The Ma-

of American Ultra, released a video conGhost in the Shell 

Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi (now just called “The Major” in the film, possibly the first clue that the film is not only wiping away the main character’s Japanese racial identity, but also the property’s inherent ties to Japan’s post-World War II tech boom).

According to ScreenCrush’s source, Paramount allegedly hired visual fx company Lola VFX to create a Japanese filter for a character, probably Johansson’s

jor. But now the video is being used by pro

demning the casting, but also states in his

-Ghost in the Shell movie fans to denigrate

video (as reported by Entertainment

those, particularly Asian Americans, who

Weekly), “The only reason to be upset

are against Johansson as The Major.

about Scalrett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works.” He also stated that outraged fans are “mad at the wrong people,” stating that the problem isn’t with parties such as Johansson, the studio or the director, but with the film industry itself. He also argues a point that many would disagree with—that there’s a

A video features Japanese partici-

Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu invokes the term “blackface” when discussing the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy, making people upset. The statement was made during a panel including Wu, Ming-Na Wen, Joan Chen, and Lynn Chen, moderated by Teddy Zee. “It was particularly heinous because they ran CGI tests to make her look Asian,” said Wu.

“Some people call it ‘yellowface,’ but I say ‘the practice of balckface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative.” She also said the special effects tests “reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look.” Before the conference, Wen had tweeted about Johansson’s casting, writing, “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role.” Doctor Strange 

Tilda Swinton is cast as The Ancient

could – Iron Fist, anyone?

One could say their statement features

So why switch The Ancient One from a Tibet-

many fictional statements as far as their

an man to a British woman? Could the reason

film universe goes, because the MCU is

have been that without including another fe-

still not diverse enough in terms of race,

male character, the film would look the way

gender, and sexuality.

most movies, comic book or otherwise, do – a sausage fest? OK fine. Let’s make her a

These are a lot of moving parts, and there’s


a lot to parse through. At first, I was going has an unspoken rule about not allowing more

felt like I, a black woman, might want to sit

than one person per color per movie or TV

this one out. I’ve written on entertainment

show (if at all). On the rare occasions there is

moves affecting Asian Americans before,

more than one person per color, they’re usual-

but let’s be honest; I’m not Asian, and I’m

ly a minor/expendable character and therefore,

not about to wade in any “honorary Asian”

the first to get killed off…Unless you’re Em-

waters, especially with how nuanced the is-

pire or Blackish, you can’t have more than one

sues surrounding these films have become.

black character…Doctor Strange has Benedict

Instead, I thought I’d ask some of my online

Wong playing the servant. They have Chi-

Swinton tells Den of Geek that when she

buddies if I could interview them about their

wetel Ejiofor playing Baron Mordo. So, of

was approached to do the character, she

opinions on these films.

course, they most certainly cannot have anoth-

to create a more updated, nonstereotypical version of the character, and while casting a woman is a unique decision for the character, the casting also erases the character’s original Asian roots.

was never told that she was playing an Asian man. “The script I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It will all be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.” C. Robert Cargill, the co-screenwriter for Doctor Strange, tells his friends, film reviewers and hosts of movie review/ comedy show Double Toasted Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas, about the process he took in remaking The Ancient One. In his words, he didn’t want to offend China with a Tibetan character. However, Cargill later clarified his comments on Twitter, since his original comments suggest that he and Marvel were of the same mind about the Tibet-China situation. “CLARIFICATION: that interview answer going around was to a question from a fan specifically about MY JUSTIFICATION, not Marvel’s…FOR THE RECORD: no one at Marvel or with the film ever talked to me about China, so contrary to headlines, I didn’t confirm anything.”

Keith Chow is the creator and head of The Nerds of Color, a site focusing on the nerdy side of entertainment, but from the perspective of POC and other marginalized peoples. Claire Lanay is the new weekend cohost of podcast Afronerd Radio and CEO of Renegade Nerd Entertainment. I was happy to interview them both via email and break down just what people needed to understand about the lack of foresight and sensitivity that went into the creation of the Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange movies. What were your initial reactions to the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi?

er POC playing the Ancient One. Heavens, no! Too many minorities! I may not like Hollywood’s twisted logic and how they conduct ethnic/gender musical chairs to feign balance or political correctness, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. Now that they’re saying the reason why the character isn’t Tibetan is because it would piss off China… I’m right back to square one asking “WTF?” Here I was trying my hardest to understand their reasoning and then they go throwing me for a loop with their mental gymnastics in a weak attempt to rationalize white-

Chow: I think like most folks, I was disap-

washing. Just because you don’t want the

pointed but not surprised. It’s hard to be-

character to be Tibetan doesn’t mean the char-

lieve that whitewashing is still considered

acter cannot be Asian. Would The Ancient

acceptable practice in Hollywood, and these

One originally have announced him/herself as

castings are no exception. But in light of the

Tibetan? If they’re so worried about making

outrage (and lack of box office) that movies

all that Chinese dough… why not make the

like Aloha and Gods of Egypt engendered,

character Chinese? Have him/her speak Man-

you’d think the studios would start taking

darin. Have him/her walk around with a large

the hint.

neon sign that says “Made in China”.

Lanay: Initially, I was mildly annoyed yet

They’re implying that in order to avoid offend-

amused by Swinton’s casting as The An-

ing other cultures, they have to erase

cient One…I tried to play devil’s advocate

them. Are they so lazy that they are not will-

and ask myself what discussions led to this

ing to put any thought into how they could

actress was chosen.

outcome? Similar to the problems with the

modernize these POC characters for today’s

Mandarin in Iron Man 3, many of these


Marvel releases a statement about their record of inclusion, obtained by PEOPLE. “Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker

comic book characters were created several

Entertainment Weekly also states that the film version of The Ancient One is now based in Nepal, which makes it even more confusing as to why a non-Asian

ings in a manner the savage natives never

but the more I thought about it, the more I

Asian mystic. Swinton was cast as a way

dom, magic and skills of these mystic teach-

I half-jokingly tell my friends that Hollywood

well as an antiquated stereotype of an

a day and is better suited to unlock the wis-

to write a post providing my point of view,

One, originally a Tibetian character as

passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”

decades ago and are inherently racist. Other properties were created as a result of cultural appropriation which has now become a recognizable trope in it of itself i.e. White guy learns the ways of the East, masters it in

As for Ghost in the Shell, here are some thoughts I had in regards to Max Landis’ comments: To make a blanket statement that there are no

Asian A-List actors, well yeah, if Asians are

character’s story should be

Chow: It’s the same problem with Iron

not even allowed to play Asian, then I don’t

told”. According to that logic, we should

Fist, Doctor Strange is another example of the

see how it would be possible for them to be

stay 100 percent true to the original cannon

white man goes to the Orient for enlightenment

visible enough to become A-list. That’s not

and lore even if that means 80-plus years

trope. It’s so obvious that people’s reaction to

by accident, that’s by design.

of American comic book history has pri-

the trailer was “Didn’t we already see this

marily only given us white male leading The other thing that was mentioned was that

in Batman Begins? And I’d answer, yeah,

characters as the hero and a handful of fe-

there are no Asian actors capable of getting a

you’ve seen it in every movie! At this point,

male/POC characters seen mostly as side-

movie greenlit… See the highlighted movies

Hollywood should start casting more POC leads

kicks, background or filler.

just to stand out from the pack. Studies have

on this list [in this article’s inset]. [Most] fail,

already proven those films make more money

flop, bomb. Yet, nothing changes. I’m start-

Recall, if you will, Michelle Rodriguez’s

ing to wonder if they ever will…Scarlett Jo-

comments after Michael B. Jordan was

hansson is playing a character named Mo-

cast as Human Torch and Jason Momoa

toko Kusanagi. It baffles my mind that there

was cast as Aquaman – “Stop stealing the

are people who don’t see this as offensive.

white people’s characters and make some

Lanay: I do not deny they have a very talented

of your own”. As if no one has

roster. I’m a Sherlock fan, so I don’t doubt

tried? Even if I understood why it’s be-

Cumberbatch will bring something interesting

moaned when a POC is cast as a character

to the role. Tilda Swinton also played a role

originally envisioned as white, why is it ok

originally meant for a male in the mov-

to “steal” our characters who were specifi-

ie Snowpiercer. Her bizarre character was in no

cally created to be of color?

way defined by gender or race regardless of the

Marvel has had a long-standing issue with casting for a certain demo; i.e. casting all male leads except for the Black Panther as a white male (even more specifically, a white male with either dark or blonde hair and a “dudebro”-ish attitude, even if the character wasn’t originally written that way). Marvel has no Asian superheroes, and the chance they could have had to give representation, with Iron Fist, was missed [for more information on Iron Fist and the lack of Asian representation, visitThe Nerds of Color and Twitter hashtag #AAIronFist]. With that said, how do you feel Marvel should have tackled The Ancient One?

As much as I like and respect Marvel, I am truly disheartened by their approach to this issue. They rather avoid it than face it head on. For a company whose brand is kick-assery and bravery, this looks cow-

Chow: The problem is that Marvel, like a lot of people, assume whiteness is the default. So when they encounter tricky ethnic characters (i.e., stereotypes) like the Mandarin or the Ancient One, their solution is to remove that character’s race and think they’re doing us a favor. I said this during the whole #AAIronFist thing, but the way you deal with negative racial stereotypes isn’t to erase race from the equation, just write the character better. In the case of the Ancient One, just make the character not one-dimensional, and he/she could still have been Asian.

ardly. Am I sur-

anyway. But Strange and Iron Fist and evenDaredevil prove Hollywood only thinks of Asians as set decoration and not human beings.

fact the movie was directed by a Korean or that the story was based on a French graphic novel. Swinton’s look is androgynous, unique and has always benefited her with sci-fi roles. For all we know, she’ll be utterly fascinating to watch in Doctor Strange.

prised? No. Disappointed? Yes. Captain

As for them playing dress up in monk-esque

America: Civil War will be their 14th film

attire? Appropriation is unavoidable. I’ll say

and only now are they barely getting Black

this – I have a problem with folks using all of

Panther and Captain Marvel on the film

my toys but not allowing me to play with them.

schedule. Swinton has come out and said that the way I will say that they do seem to be putting in

she was approached for the role was never

a concerted effort on the TV side. Agents

under the guise that she was playing an

of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the wonderful Ming-Na

Asian man and that she’s confident in how

I guarantee an actress of Tilda Swinton’s cal-

Wen as Melinda May and Chloe Bennet’s

she’s portrayed the character in the film.

iber would not have taken the role if it was

Daisy Johnson (nee Skye) has addressed

How do you feel about her statement? Also,

one-note. So why not afford that opportunity

her bi-racial parentage. I’m pleased to see

what do you think about the compounded

to an actress of color? Better yet, if you had

that has been acknowledged since other

problem Marvel has created by whitewash-

to racebend Ancient One (for fear of Chinese

hapa actresses such as Kristin Kreuk have

ing a character, yet adding diversity by mak-

censors or whatever) then don’t cast Benedict

played fully white characters on shows

ing the character a woman?

Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange! Can you

like Smallville.

imagine someone like Sendhil Ramamurthy

Chow: It could have been a woman of color. Doctor Strange, as a comic book series,

Just because they gender bent the character

draws its inspiration from the 1930s ra-

doesn’t give them a pass if they’re still being

dio seriesChandu the Magician, which

racist. If they were going to change the charac-

also features a white man receiving mys-

ter, and not make him “Asian,” then what’s

tic instruction from an Asian teacher,

with all the orientalism in the setting? Even

Lanay: Wasn’t anybody out there the least

this time an Indian yogi. With all of the

then, it’s still wrong because they’ve taken yet

bit curious as to what George Takei could

stereotypical Asian mysticism Dr.

another POC character and erased him from

have done with The Ancient One? Ken

Strange is based in, how do you feel the


Watanabe? Chow Yun-Fat?…How about

film should have been approached

Michelle Yeoh? Joan Chen? Gong Li? Bai

(despite the fact that we haven’t seen the

That goes back to what I said earlier, she may


full movie)? With Benedict Cumber-

not be “playing Asian” but that doesn’t mean

batch playing Doctor Strange and set

they didn’t whitewash the character. They still

I’ve had so many heated debates and argu-

pictures featuring non-Asian actors in

took an originally Asian character and bent

ments with people about Iron Fist. The argu-

Asian locations and in Tibetian monk-

over backwards to come up with a reason for

ment for keeping Danny Rand white is that

esque clothes, how do you feel about the

why said character had to be played by a white

“it’s what the author intended for how that

appropriation factor of the film?

person. This is the double standard that’s the

or Naveen Andrews in the role? Hell, I would have been happy with Keanu Reeves (who was rumored). But they cast the whitest man in the world? Come on now.

most frustrating. When I called for an Asian

in Ghost in the Shell is because they already

to make a point. I think as a community we

American actor to play Danny Rand, I had to

have their own media infrastructure. They

have to be mindful about how we coalition

come up with every justifiable reason for the

already have their own, actors, singers,

build and support one another without being

suggestion, how an Asian American would not

dancers, writers, producers, directors. They

anti-black in the process. This is why the

alter the character whatsoever. But white folks

already have their own content made for

backlash against #OscarsSoWhite was dis-

are like “just shave your head, it’s all good.”

them by them. So they don’t really care

heartening. This was an example of a pan-

about one movie with one white actress. In

ethnic protest against the industry’s over-

this country, Hollywood gives us less than a

whelming whiteness, but for whatever reason

handful of opportunities to see ourselves

non-black POCs thought their issues were

represented in movies and television, so of

being ignored. It didn’t help that during the

course we’re clamoring for whatever

telecast aired, Asians were still openly

crumbs and scraps are tossed our way. The


Ghost in the Shell is, as Jon Tsuei has written on Twitter, an inherently Japanese story, but now the history is probably getting taken out of the film. Do you think the film is on the path of ignoring some of the historical and cultural elements that makes Ghost in the Shell as provocative as it is? Lanay: If that’s the case, then why call

rest of the world soaks up our content, but

it Ghost in the Shell? If you’re going to re-

we don’t promote or watch content from the

move the character’s backstory and culture,

rest of the world. That makes seeing diver-

then call it something else. At least Tom

sity in American media all the more im-

Cruise and Doug Liman understood that when

portant to POC in this country because it’s

they were making ‘Edge of Tomorrow’. It

such a rarity.

was an American adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill. They weren’t going to be idiots and keep the same title, the same character names and the same history. Would you buy Tom Cruise playing a character named Keiji Kiriya? The publisher of Kodansha has stated that he sees nothing wrong with Johansson play-

Do I think it’ll do as well as Lucy? Doubtful. Do I think a Black Widow movie would

So I understand the frustration and feeling like you’re invisible. But we shouldn’t criticize others for not standing up for us if we don’t first stand up for ourselves. This is why I’m working with Ellen Oh (of #WeNeedDiverseBooks fame) to launch a campaign to bring even more attention to the racist practice of whitewashing. We’ll be attempting to take to social media on May 3 with the hashtag #WhitewashedOUT. I’ll have more details on that soon[click here for that information].

be the better option for Johansson? Absolutely! She’s not hard up for cash

Lanay: As someone who was fortunate

or some struggling actress trying to make

enough to grow up with friends and influ-

her big break. She didn’t have to say yes

ences of all backgrounds… As someone who

to Ghost in the Shell.

has so much love and respect for the African American community… As someone who is

I want to see Doctor Strange. Controversy

deeply proud to call many intelligent, crea-

aside, I am a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch,

tive, beautiful Black people my friends… I’m

Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ll

very troubled by Constance Wu’s choice to

take a look at Iron Fist since I’ve enjoyed

use the term “blackface” over the term

watching Daredevil and Jessica

“yellowface” in regards to what we’re dis-

Jones. Even though the nasty discourse has

cussing here. She specifically said

left a bad taste in my mouth, I’m very curi-

“blackface” because she thought it would be

Chow: The way we view and discuss race in

ous to see how they build towards The De-

more “evocative”.

America is very different than how people in

fenders. Can’t wait to see Luke Cage! Will

other countries view and discuss race. Japan

I watch Ghost in the Shell? Nah, I’ll be

While I fully appreciate the outrage towards

has its own issues with how it views race and

skipping that one.

her comments, I have some idea of where

ing Kusanagi, and quite a few Japanese movie goers have expressed the opinion of not going to see the movie anyway. What does this tell you about how the international market, particularly the Asian market, might accept or reject this film?

ethnicity that is irrelevant to Asian Americans

she’s coming from. During the Oscars teleRecently, several actresses of Asian de-

cast, Chris Rock did a fine job of addressing

scent have called The Major “blackface,”

the #OscarsSoWhite elephant in the

To be blunt, folks in Japan or China might

launching another layer to the outrage.

room. So all the more reason people in the

flock to the movie. Who knows? But that isn’t

Do you think about the controversy over

Asian community were upset and insulted by

the problem. My advocating for Asian Ameri-

calling such casting “blackface,” despite

three little Asian kids being paraded on stage

can actors has nothing to do with Chinese

the term “yellowface” in existence?

to make fun of their own kind. Can’t forget

in America.

moviegoers, to be honest. China has its own movie industry with its own stars. There are a billion and a half Chinese people in the world. In China, “representation” of Chinese faces isn’t an issue. That is not what’s happening here, however. We [in America] have to move away from this idea that Asians in America are all foreign. Going back to Iron Fist, the whole gist of my original essay was to prove that we too are American. Why does “westernizing” something automatically require casting white people? This is the question I want people to ask themselves. Lanay: The reason why a lot of folks in Japan are not upset about Johansson’s casting

Chow: Yeah, I cringed when I saw that report. I in no way condone the analogy, pri-

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “little yellow people with the tiny dicks” joke.

marily because yellowface is an offensive

While I deem her tone to be a little aggressive

and racist enough practice on its own — but

or hostile, I can understand why Wu and

I get why Constance felt she had to make it.

many others were incensed by these jokes

One of the problems is that most people

during a show that was basically hammering

think race in America is binary. This has

diversity down people’s throats. Yes, there

always been part of the struggle for Asian

were no Black nominees. There were no His-

Americans when discussing race in that

panic, Asian, Native American, Disabled, or


LGBT ones either (as far as I know).

Often in matters of race, Asian Americans

…When I came across the “blackface” com-

are only perceived depending on their rela-

ment, my first thought was: “Why all of the

tion to whiteness or blackness. But I don’t

sudden, are Asians getting angry now? Why

think that excuses co-opting black struggle

weren’t they speaking out and standing up

when we were getting disrespected or excluded before?” I was starting

Hollywood’s History of Whitewashed Asian Films

to feel like I was the only Asian-American who gave a damn. Why are the rest of them so late to the party?

(as provided by Claire Lanay)

…I’m bothered by Wu’s comments because it reinforces the divide amongst POC. We should be working together. It’s bad enough that we keep falling into the trap of begging Hollywood for a seat at the table and trying to convince white people of our worth without us turning on each other too. What do you want Hollywood to learn from these casting debacles? Chow: Mainly that white people are not the only people in the world. I wan the studios to understand that having non-white people in a movie can actually be a good thing. But mostly, I want there to be more opportunity for actors of color. Lanay: The studio executives don’t view these decisions as debacles. They’re not listening. They don’t care. They wanted to cast name -actors, so they did. White is the standard of beauty. White is the grade for which excellence is measured. White is the default setting. Anything outside of that is seen as an abnormality. Rinko Kikuchi is an academy award-nominated actress for her role in Babel. She’s already in the nerd-sphere starring in projects like Pacific Rim. Tao Okamoto is a supermodel in Japan. She was in The Wolverine and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I bet you anything, these women weren’t even considered. I bet you no Asian actress was considered for Ghost in the Shell. There have been plenty of white-starred movies that have failed. There have been plenty of diverse-starred movies that have succeeded. Hollywood learns nothing. The outliers who take risks and go against conventional wisdom are the ones who will instill change… eventually. I hope I’m still around to see that change. Scratch that. I am going to be part of that change. ♦ The controversy surrounding these films are needed, and the conversations they’re starting are necessary. If Hollywood is really going to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to proper representation, two of the first places to start are finally ending the practices whitewashing and yellowface. When a group of people grow up hardly ever seeing themselves on-screen, that causes serious psychological, social, and cultural repercussions. Ending these practices and representing people fairly on-screen would allow for everyone to feel accepted and like they are a valued part of America. Lanay states this point best: “For a long time, I hated being Asian. I hated the way I looked. I hated not getting the auditions I wanted. I hated not being taken seriously. My mother would always tell me not to make waves. With all due respect – F*ck that sh*t! I’m making some damn waves! Nobody should feel like they were born in the wrong skin. Nobody should feel ashamed for being what they are.”

BORIS KARLOFF Fu Manchu in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ 1932  KATHERINE HEPBURN Jade in ‘Dragon Seed’ 1944  JOHN WAYNE Genghis Khan in ‘The Conqueror’ 1956  MARLON BRANDO Sakini in ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ 1956  MICKEY ROONEY Mr. Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ 1961  ELIZABETH TAYLOR Cleopatra in ‘Cleopatra’ 1963  DAVID CARRADINE Kwai Chang Caine in ‘Kung Fu’ 1972-1975 &‘Kung Fu: The Legend Continues’ 1993-1997  FISHER STEVENS Ben Jabituya in ‘Short Circuit’ 1986  LIAM NEESON Ra’s Al Ghul in ‘Batman Begins’ 2005  JUSTIN CHATWIN Goku in ‘Dragonball Evolution’ 2009  JAKE GYLLENHAAL Dastan in ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’ 2010  NOAH RINGER, NICOLA PELTZ, JACKSON RATHBONE Aang, Katara, Sokka in ‘The Last Airbender’ 2010  BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH Khan Noonien Singh in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ 2013  JOHNNY DEPP Tonto in ‘Lone Ranger’ 2013  CHRISTIAN BALE, JOEL EDGERTON Moses, Ramses in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ 2014  EMMA STONE Ng in ‘Aloha’ 2015  ROONEY MARA Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ 2015  GERARD BUTLER, NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU Set, Horus in ‘Gods of Egypt’ 2016  TILDA SWINTON Ancient One in ‘Doctor Strange’ 2016  SCARLETT JOHANSSON Motoko Kusanagi in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ 2017

PRINCE: 1958-2016 Prince and the Power of Individuality Prince Live in Rotterdam, 2011. Photo credit: Peter Tea (Flickr/Creative Commons)

particularly care about it? Would I have to

finally looking forward to writing some stuff

give my opinion on everything? And if I did

on Underground and maybe even that pesky

give an opinion, would it be the opinion that

article about Ghost in the Shelland Dr.

would put me on the ever-present

Strange. I got out of bed, remade it, did my

‘m finally feeling better,” I told my

“problematic” lists of Twitter and Tumblr

morning routine, and started putting some

mom over the phone. I’d just expelled

denizens? I’d already had my brushes with

laundry away while talking to my mom about

a lot of grief I was experiencing in an hour-

that before—those brushes exposed me a lot

whatever else had been rattling around in my

long rant to her. At that point in the day—

more to the hypocrisy of social media life


around 10 to 11 in the morning—my grief

than I would have liked to have experi-

wasn’t anything Prince related. In fact, like

enced. How hypocritical was I expected to

Then my sister texted me. “Prince is dead!”

everyone else that day, little did I know the

be? In other words: what kind of “self” was

she exclaimed. Angina, something I’ve never

rest of my day would be consumed by the

I now allowed to have on Twitter now that

really had an issue with (despite my history of

news of His Purple Majesty’s passing.

more eyes were looking at what I’d have to

chronic stress and anxiety), flared up so badly


I briefly considered if I needed a paramedic

Originally written on JUST ADD COLOR, April 25, 2016


At the time, what I was ranting about was about personal stuff; my Sleepy Hollow post concerning Abbie’s death had become one of the biggest hits, if not the biggest hit, JUST ADD COLOR and my personal writing portfolio had seen. Even Variety‘s Maureen Ryan, a writer I’m a huge fan of, and Kelly Connolly, my Entertainment WeeklyCommunity Blog boss, had read it, having found it organically (I had actually considered sending them the link to the article, but I figured that if they read it, they’d read it, and if not, then whatever.) Ryan even went a step further and highlighted a part of the article she was the most affected by and retweeted the article to her followers. I was flabbergasted and honored that I was now considered worthy to be retweeted by writing elite. That’s when the panic and fear set in.

myself. As strange as it sounds even to me, These thoughts about self-preservation, self-

the most recent time I’ve felt so directionless

representation, and the inherent fakery of

was about two years ago, when my uncle—

internet culture had consumed me for days,

another person I wrongly assumed would live

leading me to rant about it to my sister the

forever—died. Instantly, I was trying to figure

night before, and then to my mom the next

out if this was a hoax—it had to be a hoax,

morning after staying in bed for far too

because Prince doesn’t just die—but as I

long, dreading to start my day and deal with

switched between my mom and Twitter, I saw

my social media quandaries yet again. After

that it wasn’t a hoax. It was true. “NOT

that hour of ranting (so much so that I was

PRINCE!” I yelled to my empty room and my

putting my mom to sleep by talking so

mom on the other end. “NO! NOT PRINCE!”

much) and letting off steam in the form of

My mom, on the other hand, was waiting on

tears, I felt better and said so. “That’s

CNN or MSNBC to confirm it. Once they did,

Now that I had reached another plateau in my

good,” my mom said. “It’s good to get it all

she sounded tired. “I was waiting to see if it

online writing career, what did followers ex-


was true,” she said. “That’s sad.”

pect from me? Would I have to write about every pop culture thing, even if I didn’t

“Yeah,” I said, already feeling lighter and



ike the news junkie I am, I ran to my television in the living room to see what

MSNBC was saying. As I watched Brian Williams say what we were all thinking at that moment—that we were all living what we thought would be a normal, uneventful Thursday only to hear the unthinkable—I started reflecting on things. It’s not unusual for me to think a lot; thinking is what jumpstarts this site every day, after all. But this train of thought, after the shock started subsiding microscopically, began to center around Prince’s way of life. More specifically, how Prince never let anyone define him; he was always in control of himself and his image.

had Madonna, The Culture Club’s Boy

more” culture is right now. The ’10s are a

George, Adam Ant, and even “standard”

time in which we’ve got access to everything

R&B acts like Shalamar played with beauty

and everyone just by using our phones, tab-

and androgyny (something Charlie Murphy

lets, or laptops. We are closer than we ever

hilariously highlighted in his infa-

were to celebrities, dignitaries, and presidents

mous Chappelle‘s Show skit about Prince).

alike. You’d think that would satisfy us. But

All of them, though, have to pay homage to

instead, all of this access to each other has on-

originators of androgyny-in-music, like Little

ly made us more neurotic and more prone to

Richard, David Bowie, and even James

wanting to fit in than ever before.

Brown to a certain extent. And while I’m certain David Bowie, who was steeped in soul music history, did know how his bread was buttered (and often said so), Prince (as it has been said so much over the course of these strange days) was one that relished in the path paved by his musical forefathers and sought to create alchemy with the tools they left behind. He certainly did, giving the world something that was both in line with

My sister observed that Prince’s iron grip on his image might have been “a little psychotic.” But regardless of what kind of control issues Prince may have had (or probably did have, judging by how rigid he was with how Vanity 6, Sheila E., and Apollonia are all versions of the same dream woman archetype he fostered over the decades) Prince’s control over his outward persona and his introverted personal life is deeply rooted in two of his philosophical mottos:

the era’s play on sex and sexuality and much

“I can’t be played. A person trying to play me plays themselves.”

ipated in the ’80s androgyny; it was because


labels, Prince used none. To use another

“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”

more than anyone could comprehend. (Indeed, Prince himself actually said so in “I Would Die 4 You”: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something you could never understand.”) From where I’m sitting, Prince’s legendary status wasn’t achieved just because he partiche defined what it meant for him and never apologized for it or explained it. Whereas most others were still defining themselves by song, he raps “My name is Prince,” and that is the summation of it all. He is everything you saw and then more, tons more. He was-

Article after article after article states how Facebook (and social media in general) has led to a dramatic uptick in depression, all because we’re posturing to each other. Most of what you see on social media isn’t real. Too much of the time, there’s someone lying to you about what they’ve got, who they know, how “woke” they are or how accepting or inclusive they are. If they’re not busy trying to convince you of how much more together they are than you, then they’re busy overloading you with opinions about how to get to where they are in life and why you aren’t there. Why you and your fave “will never.” (“Will never” what, exactly?) Why you should strive to be a #carefreeblackgirl, even if you don’t feel that carefree. Why you shouldn’t express why you don’t feel as magical as the #blackgirlmagic hashtag suggests you should (Dr. Linda Chavers, who wrote in Elle about how her debilitating illness has left her feeling like a shell instead of someone who feels magical and important, received a mountain of clapbacks instead of nurturing support from a community). There are too many people out there busy tearing down others to uplift themselves. Too many times in the social media world, having your own view on the world— whether that opinion is something the majority agrees with or not—can be seen as detrimental to your social standing, much less your career. The “gimmie more” culture has evolved into a shaming culture. Are you feminist enough? Are you queer enough? Are you alternative enough? Are you black enough (and to that

The former is one of the reasons why Prince became known as the Prince of Shade on social media, and the latter is about his battles with Warner Bros. over owning the rights to his own music. But both also speak to how Prince carried himself and how he practiced the art of disregard for other people’s feelings about how he should live his life.

n’t man or woman, and he wasn’t something

Prince became a star because of his musical

In his way, he invited us all to discover our

aspire to. But is wearing a uniform actually

talent, first and foremost. He was a musical

own mysteries. When he sang “Paisley Park

being alternative? Is critiquing others for their

prodigy, playing at least 27 instruments, not

is in your heart,” he wanted us to find out

personal Paisley Parks building up your own?

counting his own honeyed vocal cords. But

what made each of us special and cultivate

what launched him into supernova-dom was

that, just like he’d figured out how to culti-

his ability to be completely unique, particular-

vate his own specialness. Prince, who had

ly during a time in which everyone wanted to

been bullied in school and suffered from epi-

be unique.

lepsy, wanted us to create our own Paisley



we could comprehend. The fact that he was the only one who could understand his own mystery intrigued us and made us want to be in his quirky, fascinating, dreamscape of a world.

Parks, our own personal universes that allowed us to be the spectacular selves we want to be. He had figured out the secret, and in order to join in on his fun, you had to be

he ’80s are best known for its androgy-

willing to search for the answers to your-

ny, the pounds and pounds of makeup

selves. You had to build your own personal

women and men would wear, the frantic, des-

Paisley Park, a task that’s much easier to sing

perate desire to be something new and differ-

about than it is to actually do.

ent, something no one’s ever seen before. You I’d say a direct parallel to the ’80s “gimmie

end, are you carefree or magical enough)? There’s even a specific uniform for the “alt” person; just go on Tumblr and Twitter and you’ll find that a lot of folks who want to be perceived as “special” all end up looking similar, depending on what brand of “alt” they

Prince didn’t tear others down while staying in his own lane. Instead, he worked on his own stuff and released his own personal stamp on life into the world for us to marvel at. What we saw in his music and artistic representation was a manifestation of his own high self-worth. As many have said online, what they loved most about him was his ability to be himself. While most of us are struggling to find peace with our identities, Prince seemed to casually live in it and mine it for inspiration. He was his own inspiration—how many of us can say that about ourselves?



hate that it took Prince’s death for me to realize what was the most grand thing about him, and that he was the teacher of the most important lesson I need to learn in life. I’ve always struggled with just being myself; if you read my Mr. Robotpiece, you’ll see that I’ve always had a bout with accepting my own sensitivity. But I’ve had other battles, most of them racially and culturally charged. The more I’ve become a part of the social media and online journalism/ blogging spheres, the more I’ve realized how crucially important it is to have a strong sense of self-worth and self-understanding. Not only is it important just in life in general, but it’s comes in so handy when having to deal with strong personalities, a barrage of opinions, and others who are keen on tearing you down just to prove how special they are. That’s what brings this article full circle; my rant to my mom was based in the fact that I still didn’t know how to grapple with the stress of being in a forum where almost everyone is trying to present their best, most perfect, most special selves. I couldn’t get my mind around how social media perpetuates the act of folks trying to prove their specialness by pointing out where others are “problematic” and never letting them live down whatever mistake they might have made. All I wanted to find was peace and the belief that I could be whatever and whoever I wanted to be without worry from what other people would have to say. I wanted relief from the stress of “fitting in,” a stress that I thought would have left me once I graduated from high school years ago. Unfortunately, Prince’s death taught me that I have yet to own my masters, because the master—my fear—was owning me big time. I learned that I honestly don’t need to worry about what anyone else thinks of me, as long as I have belief and love for myself. If I work on becoming the version of Monique I want to be, then the stress of “fitting in” will go away. I will be me, and everyone else can be them, whether that’s them being their best selves or not. Like Prince, I can find my own Paisley Park and happily live there in my heart. Once I discover that, I’ll be able to attract others to me, others who want to know what my mystery is. That’s a lesson we can all learn. To quote Janelle Monaé (who was also one of the people Prince called “friend”), “Categorize me, I defy every label.” Prince challenged us to not just define ourselves, but to defy the labels people put on us and the ones we put on ourselves. He wanted us to challenge others to try to put us in boxes, and he wanted those who tried to categorize to fail. We should try to learn from his example and try to truly accept what makes us unique; if anyone tried to play us, they’d soon learn they were only playing themselves. His name was Prince. My name is Monique. Who are you?

Like Prince, I can find my own Paisley Park and happily live there in my heart. Once I discover that, I’ll be able to attract others to me, others who want to know what my mystery is. That’s a lesson we can all learn.


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