Part 2 of 3. Content notice for racial slurs.
The criticism of the idea that you can criticize fictional works tends to run along one or more of three veins, from most to least flimsy:
- It’s just fiction and exists merely to entertain. There is no need to take it so seriously.
- The adaptation of this fiction cannot be blamed for elements that are true to its source material.
- It’s fiction and is not meant to be a political statement / politically correct.
The second isn’t as flimsy as the first, but still doesn’t manage to delegimitize the practice of the criticism of fiction. The best recent example with which I have some familiarity comes from the new Constantine TV show. I found the second episode’s treatment of the Rroma/Romani/Rrom/Sinti peoples to be very much in line with the horrific oppression with which they are treated by society. Alex, as someone of Romany descent, has something to say about that. I will turn my focus to episode three, which addresses so-called “voodoo.” In the case of “voodoo”, as with “gypsies”, so far, I’ve found that Constantine punches down in a way that cannot be explained away via loyalty to the source material.
What most people know as “voodoo” is a religion that arose out of oppression. People of African descent who were brought to the Americas against their wills used their religious practices and beliefs as a way of resisting oppression. Unless you are a Christian hell-bent on characterizing all non-Christian faiths as demonic and Satanic, you have no reason other than the racism you have been fed to consider the religious practices that came from enslaved African peoples to be more inherently evil than those of any other religion.
And how so many of us have been fed. From theme parks to Disney films to music videos, negative and Othering fictional depictions are all most people know about so-called “voodoo”. Constantine feeds into this narrative by putting forth the claim that “voodoo priests” epitomize the worst traits of humanity.
The “it’s canon!” defenses of the racism are either than Constantine is an asshole that hates everyone or that the creators of the show are bound to the negative depictions found in the comics. In either case, the excuse is that the show is merely adhering to the comics and therefore cannot be criticized for its depictions.
Although the character of Constantine is a canonical asshole, he is the main character and framed by the show to be the expert in the supernatural. It is through him that we learn about the universe depicted in the show. Not a shred of his unreliability in personal matters is to be found in his spiritual ones. We have no reason to think that he might be lying or exaggerating when he says what he does about “voodoo priests” being the scum of the earth.
As for sticking to the canon, the show deviates from it in at least one significant way: it erases John Constantine’s well-documented, explicitly-stated bisexual behavior (if not outright bisexuality). Bi erasure aside, there is no way that some aspects of the comics were downplayed or played up in the creation of the TV show. Comics and television are distinct enough formats that choices have to be made in order to adapt from one to the other.
Adaptation always requires choices; there is no such thing as a fully-faithful adaptation from one medium to another. I’m guessing that the comics have more material than could be adapted into a few short episodes of a TV show. Why choose to not only adapt the most problematic depictions of the most oppressed people, but also to thoughtlessly mirror the oppression and begin the show with those depictions? That the show’s creators made those choices falls neatly into line with the racism in society.
Adhering to canon is not an excuse for adaptations to perpetuate the oppression found in society and mirrored in the source material. Creators can and should do better, but they only will if they hear from consumers about what we want to see. I personally am tired of seeing fantasy worlds serving up the same tired oppression that can be found in ours.