I’ve been reading the news a lot. There’s been a lot of it coming out after the smash-hit that was San Diego ComiCon 2018. Since the con has wrapped up, there are plenty of trailers that I need to sit down with and really start to sort out my watching/reading schedule for the Fall and Winter season. And in all of that watching of news, I saw the DC panel as it happened online.
When the Teen Titans live action television series trailer dropped a recently at SDCC, I had many thoughts. I’ve been following the show for a while now since the leaked and untouched photos from the set were shared online and I had…lots of opinions, to say the least. Immediately, I was struck by how casual everyone looked and it was strange seeing Beast Boy not be green.
But most of the ire seemed directed at Starfire. Starfire in the comics has been around for longer than most assume, but she really only got popular as a character when the Teen Titans animated series came out in the 2000s. There she was very much a departure from her more curvaceous design in the comics, leaning towards more of a orange lamp post with huge anime eyes. The live action show takes Starfire in a different direction, and one that many have been unhappy with, this writer included. But instead of commenting on her clothes, the way her powers are illustrated or anything like that, many have simply taken umbrage with the face that this version of Starfire is a black woman with red curly red hair, a fur coat, purple latex outfit and played by African-born actress, Anna Diop.
I have many issues with the way this Starfire is depicted and none of them revolve around the actress Diop, her blackness, or her curly hair (which I think is fab). Any and all of my criticisms about her role fall upon the writers, directors, and designers or the show. And with this actress now being one of several fans have chased off the internet with their awfulness, I wanted to take a moment as one semi-professional critic, for sure professional writer, and fan human being to provide some wisdom to you all on how to actually critique a piece of media and how to express your opinions in a way that encourages thoughtful and respectful conversation.
Step 1: Know The Source Material
One of the most tragic but ironic parts of the whole Starfire debate seems to be around her hair and the race of the actress playing her. The live action show chooses to use a black woman’s more natural in appearance curly hair and many are angry about it. We could honestly have an entire blog post just on double-standards with ethnic hair, but we’re here to talk about comics and not race relations in America. The thing is, since the inception of the character, Starfire has always had huge hair. Her hair was always big and curly and if you look at the current live action version, I can see it as one interpretation: not exactly one I’m personally crazy about, but I can see how someone can get to that conclusion based on actually knowing the source material. The other big lob thrown at the live action show is choosing to use an African woman to play Starfire. Now, for those of you that have forgotten: Starfire is an orange alien who comes from space to flirt with Dick Grayson. It’s okay to make her a black woman. We don’t need a repeat of the Jennifer Lawrence situation where you have a woman who is tired of being painted daily, complains and then spends little of the series as her character’s defining color. This is just one interpretation of the source material and is honestly the least offensive part of the whole thing: but we’re gonna put a pin here to discuss the only logical reason someone may have an issue with this interpretation.
Step 2: Give The Thing Time
I had slightly fewer negative things to say about Starfire’s design once I saw her with the special effects added in. Still not sold, but it for sure did a better job of bringing the character to life. When working on a piece I always try to give a television show at least 3 episodes and a book at least a 5 chapters. It’s almost impossible to judge something entirely based on just trailers. On trailers alone, I’d never see a single movie and there have been plenty of times trailers have betrayed me (lookin’ at you, Kingsman 2.). So while, no, I’m probably not going to give Titans a chance (mostly because it’s on a streaming service and Netflix, Hulu, and I are in a complicated but loving marriage) I’d encourage anyone willing to at least give this a shot. If it isn’t for you, you’ll probably know almost immediately.
Step 3: DO NOT ATTACK ACTORS/ACTRESSES ONLINE
I can’t believe I have to say this again after the whole Kelly Marie Tran thing but guys, don’t attack actresses and actors online. Anna Diop didn’t look to the directors and say “Dress me like I’m going to Coachella with a bunch of my college friends.” Diop is just doing her job and she’s doing all she can to sell this role. That doesn’t mean go after the directors either, but actors are the absolute last person you should be blaming for a stale or not to your liking performance. Think of Hayden Christensen from the Star Wars prequels: he was just following orders. George Lucas asked him to deliver every single like as if he was trying to emote through a boba tea straw: it isn’t his fault the movie is bad. Better acting wasn’t going to save Star Wars Episode II: The Clone Wars. This is also a time to bring up a pin that I’ve been holding from the start of this whole discussion: racism and sexism. Much like with Kelly Marie Tran, many people online have taken this Teen Titans conflama as an excuse to attack Diop’s race and womanhood. This is not good. This will never help you get your point across. I can give you a well-drawn out list of the things I have issue with when it comes to this depiction of Starfire, and none of them come down to race and none of them merit me attacking someone online. Social media is a place where directors, actors, and fans can all share a dialogue and it has never been a better time to be a fan of anything. You may hate the way a beloved character is portrayed, but that should never, ever, justify you being cruel to the real person playing that character.
Step 4: Engage With People With Other Perspectives
One thing I love about working with the fine ladies of Fangirl Nation is that many of us have differing opinions and levels of fandom. Some of us geek out more for cosplay and tabletop gaming, while others of us game and love on television series and movies. I am constantly surrounded by people who may not always agree with me, but being able to have serious and respectful conversations about what they like and don’t like about a piece of media helps me be a better fan. Understanding why some may find The Killing Joke’s glamorization of sexualized violence to be gross and misogynistic (which it is) despite the fact that it’s one of my favorite graphic novels ever is important to the discourse. I understand their criticism, even if I don’t agree with it. Having the maturity and empathy to listen to others is vital to being a fan. We’ve never all agreed on one thing. For every one person who is angry at Dick Grayson’s use of rough language (me included) there’s someone who thinks this is the exact kick in the pants DC fans have needed for years. And when you do engage with someone who doesn’t agree with you: LISTEN. Be nice. They’ve had to defend their point just as much as you’ve had to defend yours. Let them have the floor. And if you throw out loaded terms like: racist, sexist, homophobic or the like to shut down a person who disagrees with you without them actually being so, know in your heart that personally I am disappointed in you.
This has been a tiring but important conversation to have yet again. Knowing how to better explain your opinions on the things you love is a vital part of being a fan. Fan communities are rooted in friendly conflict. We argue about ships and canon and more: we’ve always been about differing opinions. But one thing we never did back in my day (when dinosaurs roamed freely) was attack those that made the thing we loved so much. Sure, we still had plenty of criticisms but we never went to the person that criticism was rooted in. We didn’t throw tomatoes at voice actors or threaten the lives of directors: we had our opinions, discussed them and moved on.
I think we can all stand to return to that model if we hope to continue to flourish in this ever-growing and ever-changing cultural landscape.
Editor’s Note: Here’s the trailer that spawned the conversation. It contains strong language, as referenced in this article: