Appropriation is a word that gets tossed around a lot in popular culture, and with good reason. Whether regarding dance, speech patterns, or musical riffs, the concept of essentially “stealing” someone’s cultural identity has fast become a wide-spread notion.
Often times, what appropriation comes down to is whether or not someone has the “right” to tell a specific story.
Look at Disney’s Moana, a visually stunning animated film about Polynesian mythology, which many people of Polynesian heritage have critiqued as having a tone-deaf, and white, interpretation of influential and significant figures to their culture.
On one hand, telling a story with more diversity, offering up representation of non-white characters, is hugely important in our current cultural atmosphere. On the other hand, many of the people telling those stories have no understanding of the culture and diversity they are trying to represent.
Even at a more “basic” level, comic characters like Riri Williams, the newly introduced young, black, female Iron-Man, are written (and, to a lesser extent, drawn) by almost exclusively white men. While Riri isn’t explicitly anything culturally but American, she is a black girl who is from Chicago, and that is vastly different from anything most white men will experience in their lifetimes.
Many of these men have “cultural consultants” who review their comic and content with the goal of correcting issues ranging from misuse of slang to black hair being drawn inaccurately (one of a few things that was critiqued a lot when the first cover for Riri’s Invincible Iron-Man #1 was released). Some writers, like Kelly Sue Deconnick in Bitch Planet, make specific efforts to include consultants in their book’s credits, as well as offering up the valuable commodity of page space to people who are not white, not straight, and have meaningful commentary on the topics covered in the comic.
Paul Jenkin’s AfterShock comic Alters, about a trans superheroine, specifically acknowledges its story consultants, and future issues promise to include interviews with some of the people who helped shape the writer’s understanding and research of representing a trans woman. However, many trans women have critiqued Alters for representing early transition inaccurately in the costume, body shape, and attitude of the main character, ultimately saying that the comic is an inaccurate cis telling of a trans narrative. Consultants don’t make something “your story to tell”.
At New York Comic Con, during the Black Mask Studios panel, writer Tini Howard, who’s title, the Skeptics, features black women in the Cold War-era, stated that historical accuracy in historical-specific stories is important, that you can’t ignore what is going on that might effect characters of color, but, as a white woman, she also knows certain aspects of that are “not her story to tell.”
The delineation of what is “your story to tell” is not as fuzzy as what may or may not be appropriation. Ultimately, “your story” has to be something that connects emotionally to you as a human being. While a writer should not limit themselves to only straight, white, male characters if they are a straight, white man, they should also not tell stories that do not belong to them, that they don’t have an emotional, intellectual, intrinsic right to.
For a good example of this, look no further than MTV’s Sweet/Vicious, a dark comedy about rape survivors becoming superheroes. The small writers’ room has a mix of men and women, but they are exceedingly conscious about what aspects of rape culture stories are theirs to tell:
It was very important to us to never take anyone’s story and rip it from the headlines. That is not our story to tell. That is someone’s story of survival that they very bravely shared in whatever medium they shared it. It wasn’t our place nor did we want to go down that road.
I’ve written on writing race and appropriation in comics before, and it’s not a clean cut or easy subject. The truth of the matter is, comics need to represent the cultural atmosphere they are written in; this means they need to have people with a variety of skin colors, sexualities, gender identities, and body types. However, writers and artists also need to be sensitive of how they represent people who they are not like: they need to be aware of differences; they need to think before they act; and, most of all, they need to do their research.