Critical Geekery: Talking Representation in Pop Culture with the Nerds of Color

Now three years old, pop-culture criticism blog The Nerds of Color is going strong, with a range of contributors writing thought-provoking posts, speaking at major events like San Diego Comic Con, and turning the blog into a successful locus for Twitter activism aimed at increasing representation in pop culture.

Founder and editor-in-chief Keith Chow and writers Valerie ComplexShawn Taylor, and Alice Wong talked to us about their favorite shows, shifts in the media landscape, and how we can all support inclusive entertainment.

When was the first time you saw yourself in popular culture (if at all)?

Keith: One of my favorite comics growing up was G.I. Joe. As much as I loved the cartoon and toys, I loved the comics more. My favorite characters were Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, rival ninjas who were former friends. I didn’t know it at the time, but I subconsciously gravitated to those characters because of their Asianness. (You can imagine how disappointed I was when I learned later in life that Snake Eyes was actually a white dude underneath the mask!)

A Magic: The Gathering card featuring Kaya, the first black woman Planeswalker in the game.

Shawn: Being black, I saw myself all the time in sports and music, and even a few films and television shows. But being Caribbean, never. While the folks looked like me, we didn’t share any cultural traits — aside from the poverty and struggle depicted in Good Times and What’s Happening. What really made me feel like I actually existed was when the movie Wild Style dropped. I was eleven and hip-hop was (and is) a crucial part of my life; this film’s world was familiar and aspirational.

What’s the best thing on TV right now?

Alice: I love Orphan Black and the way it challenges our ideas of family and nature versus nurture.

Keith: Like most folks, Stranger Things on Netflix hit me in all the right nostalgia feels, but The Flash and Elementary are both strong series that have been able to reinterpret their respective source materials in a fresh and modern way that proves diversifying canonically white characters can be a successful approach to storytelling — Jesse L. Martin’s Joe West and Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson are two of the best characters on TV.

Shawn: I love Goldie Vance from Boom! Studios. It stars a young girl detective/drag racer/mischief maker who lives and has adventures in a fictional Florida town that is populated with mostly people of color. It has the energy of Scooby-Doo meets The Goonies.

Is it possible for you to play a game, read a comic, or watch a movie uncritically? 

Valerie: It depends on the activity. If I am watching a film or television show, I don’t know how to be uncritical because I’m so used to it. For books, comics, and games, it’s a little easier to be objective.

Alice: I’ve had issues with Game of Thrones for a long time, both with race and their depiction of women. And yet, I still enjoy the show immensely. It’s nice to be able to enjoy a show without analyzing it through my particular lens.

Keith: Everyone has “problematic faves,” like all those ’80s films that Stranger Things references. But I think it’s important to be aware of when you’re being “uncritical.” If you’re entertained by something, despite its flaws, that’s okay. But I’ve always said that being critical of a show or a comic or a movie is the ultimate proof that you love it. Why else would you care so much?

I’ve always said that being critical of a show or a comic or a movie is the ultimate proof that you love it. Why else would you care so much?

Shawn: I can’t consume uncritically anymore. My social, cultural, and academic training has primed me for seeing beyond the surface, exploring the intersections. It is a wonderfully useful tool and mindset, but it truly limits what I can enjoy. We’re so hypercritical about our food: superfoods, veganism, non-GMO crops. Most of us don’t take the same care with the media we consume. I like to think of myself as a budding pop-culture vegan. I’ll indulge a bit, here and there, but I try to make sure the culture I consume aligns with my values.

Talk to us about Twitter activism and hashtags: How does it help? Where do you see it having the most impact?

A promotional poster for the Great Wall, a film about the construction of the Great Wall of China starring Matt Damon.

Valerie: It’s the quickest way to spread a message to the widest audience, and this type of activism has shown to be effective; look at #Oscarsowhite and the changes it brought about from the Academy.

Keith: Hashtags and social media are megaphones for a message. The overwhelming responses to tags like #AAIronFist or #whitewashedOUT — and the related media attention — were necessary in shifting the way Hollywood perceives Asian Americans, or at least contributed to the conversation about the lack of Asian American representation in media. But hashtags are only a beginning and we can never be satisfied with simply “trending” for a few hours. Once a message has entered the ether, we have to follow it with further action.

Shawn: For it to work well, the people starting the hashtag have to have eyes and attention. They have to tweet at just the right time, or it gets lost in the digital smog. I think it works best when the hashtag forces people outside their homes and into the streets with other people to tackle an issue together, united in the real world.

Aside from supporting the creators that put out more inclusive art with broader representation, what’s the most important thing a gamer/comic fan/cinephile can do to challenge the status quo?

Alice: Buy the books, rave about them online, share their work with others who haven’t been exposed to diverse representation in pop culture. Use whatever platform you have to geek out with passion.

Keith: Supporting creators who are making more inclusive content is always the best approach; however, participating in the conversation around representation is also important. Raise your voice. Be heard. Also, don’t be ashamed to question the properties you love: it’s okay to be critical about your favorite things.

I’d urge people to dig. If you are unfamiliar with anime, pick something up. Don’t read any reviews beforehand. Just grab it and try to have a pure experience, without the Talmud-level of in-the-margins commentary.

ValerieThe most important thing fans can do is be vocal, acknowledge there is privilege, and speak out about the injustices that come up. Visibility is the most important thing when you speak up about diversity and inequality.

Shawn: Dig. Back in the day we had record stores. You’d go there for one thing, but then come out with other things because someone said you should get it. It was about pro-social passion. In our current digital space, everyone is a curator and a critic. But the criticism and passion is anti-social. It is all about being iconoclastic. I’d urge people to dig. If you are unfamiliar with anime, pick something up. Don’t read any reviews beforehand. Just grab it and try to have a pure experience, without the Talmud-level of in-the-margins commentary.

There’s often vociferous pushback to claims of isms — racism, sexism, ableism — in pop culture, especially games. How does this inform the way you write and analyze pop culture, if at all?

Keith: I don’t think those voices should ever inform how you analyze media. Someone debating in good faith is one thing, but often the commenter who refuses to acknowledge racism or sexism or ableism in their favorite media is actually trying to shut down debate, not argue in good faith.

Valerie: Whenever possible, my writing includes social commentary. The entertainment industry is discriminatory as a whole, and that needs to be addressed.

Shawn: I think there is some degree of “what about us?” in so much pop culture criticism. Many of us on-the-margins folks feel left out, so some of the critique can come off as more tempestuous and, frankly, whiny and combative than good analysis. I have to sit with something for a while before writing about it because I want to write something good, not just dictate my tantrum because I felt left out or slighted.

NoC has been around for three-plus years now (congrats!). What changes have you seen in the pop culture landscape?

Keith: When the site kicked off, there were already spaces that advocated for better representation in media — maybe not specifically dedicated to nerd culture, but there have always been voices in those spaces as well. Over the last few years, though, those voices have increased and are no longer being relegated to the margins. And it seems like the publishers and studios are finally starting to listen and acknowledge the problem. Whether they’re actually doing anything about it is another thing, and that’s why it’s important to keep bringing these topics up. Progress is slow.

Valerie: People of color seemed to have carved out a bigger space for themselves in the nerdsphere, but the acceptance is coming more slowly from the typical demographic.

Actor Daniel Wu
Daniel Wu as Sunny in the AMC television series Into the Badlands. (Photo: James Dimmock/AMC)

Alice: More reporters are relying on reactions from Twitter for the latest trends or critiques. It’s great to see tweets quoted in articles about diversity in media that are incisive and full of truthbombs on what sucks and what doesn’t. I love the fan anticipation of Black Panther on Twitter — I am sure Marvel and other people in the industry are paying attention. Looking at race and culture (the representation and appropriation of both) critically is not as unusual anymore. That’s a good thing.

Shawn: There are more and more reimaginings of things I’ve seen decades ago, and better special effects that allow superhero films to be visually closer to what is presented in comics. TV and film are still not the most diverse spaces, but comics have gotten better because of the lower barrier to entry and funding tools like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. This has been my favorite thing: indie creators actually getting their work out there because we can financially support creators with their creating, and then we can buy directly from them.

Want to dig deeper? Check out some of the Nerds’ favorite posts:

Keith: “My favorite thing I ever wrote was my plea to The CW to do a musical crossover of their DC superhero shows. And now that it’s actually happening, I feel like I had a small part in making that happen!”

Alice: “I have a soft spot for my personal origin story: “A Mutant from Planet Cripton.” Everyone should be able to share their origin story and how they became a Nerd of Color!”

Shawn: “It’s a three-way tie between “My Grandfather was My Dealer,” “A Comic Fueled Thought Experiment,” and “The Dark Side of Star Wars.”

Valerie: “This piece on lack of proper representation in regards to X-Men: Apocalypse is the most heartfelt piece I have written.”

For more, follow Keith ChowValerie Complex, and Shawn Taylor on Twitter, or explore other great entertainment and criticism blogs in the pop culture and race topics.

August 30, 2016Comics, Film, Popular Culture, Race, , , , ,