Confronting the racial stereotypes of Cloak & Dagger (plus the trailer)

Tandy Bowen (Dagger) and Tyrone Johnson (Cloak) in a piece by (I think) Jae Lee)

Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson were teen runaways who–individually–left their hometowns for the streets of New York. Encountering one another by chance, Bowen’s purse was stolen by a thief, and was recovered by Johnson. Bonding over this encounter, the two were captured soon after their arrival and subjected to your typical scientific experiment carried out by a morally deficient scientist. The experiment granted the pair “light” and “dark” powers, which I’ll get into in a minute. For much of their young career, the pair specifically fought drug dealers and worked to ensure the safety of other teen runaways.

Now, about those powers…

I don’t have confirmation on this, but my gut says that their creator, Bill Mantlo, may have been influenced by societal perceptions of African-Americans and white folks. After all,  there are cultural influences all around us. Sometimes they are overt. Many times they are subtle. Regarding his creation of the pair, he said:

“They came in the night, when all was silent and my mind was blank. They came completely conceived as to their powers and attributes, their origin and motivation. They embodied between them all that fear and misery, hunger and longing that had haunted me on Ellis Island.”

 

They came completely conceived.

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.

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In a mind that grew up within a culture that is permeated with racial stereotypes.  He gave Cloak (the black guy) powers involving the Darkforce Dimension. His powers included teleportation, intangibility, and the ability to create an aperture into the Darkforce Dimension which he could use to teleport himself or others. He could also suck people into the dimension, with a catch. The darkness of the dimension created a constant hunger for life energies. A hunger which could threaten to overwhelm him. He could bring people into his cloak and never release them, which would lead to the fairly rapid absorption of their life energies and eventually death. If not sated with life energies, his hunger that could make him fall prey to animalistic urges, thus making him a danger to villains, heroes, allies, and even his partner Dagger.  A white woman. Hmm, where have we heard of the idea of a dangerous black man consumed by animalistic urges?

Speaking of Dagger, her powers were psychic in nature. She gained the ability to project ‘light daggers’ which would travel wherever she desired and could drain the life energy out of living creatures. They could also eliminate dependency in drug addicts. Additionally, her light could satiate the hunger within Cloak. The black guy. So we have a white woman who is literally able to save a black guy from being consumed by his hunger (not to mention she’s able to literally save the life of drug users).  That strikes me as very much the White Savior Trope.

Now, this subtext is there, whether some want to see it or not (and there’s always folks who whine about nothing being there–y’all just have no clue what signs to look for; you’re still sleeping). It’s not something made up out of whole cloth. The society I live in (and in which most other USAmerican citizens live in) contains these stereotypes. I didn’t create them, and I hardly needed to look deeply to find them. Heck, I’m not the only person to have seen the text that is sub ( Michael Campochiaro of Sequart wrote a piece last year that discusses the same subtext). So in thinking about how their race impacts their character as well as ways to deal with the racial stereotypes, I can see 3 paths for the creators of Freeform’s upcoming 2018 Cloak & Dagger tv show:

  1. They could decide to keep the racial subtext of both characters, but not address it.
  2. They could jettison all the subtext by making conceptual alterations to the characters. Cloak might not be consumed by hunger and Dagger might not able to cure drug users, for instance.
  3. They could directly or indirectly address the subtext, perhaps by bringing it to the surface and making it part of the story in some way.

Out of the three (and I’m sure there’s more than these options…they were just the ones that immediately came to mind), choice #1 is not even the least preferable for me. It’s one that shouldn’t even be on the table. It’s 2017–black people are becoming more and more woke, and people of other races (white folks the least, sadly), are similarly becoming more and more socially aware of issues of race and racism. I think the show would do a disservice to the young viewers it seeks to capture by not addressing the racial subtext of the characters. The United States is still a country that has yet to address the anti-black racism that lurks just below the surface (surfacing on a somewhat regular occasion, such as the time a Nazi spoke at Auburn University). Part of dealing with the history of racism and working to seriously overcome the white supremacist ideals that lay at the core of our culture means addressing racism in all its forms. The show doesn’t have to hamfistedly preach racial equality to get the point across that racial stereotypes are harmful and antithetical to our notions of equality of all homo sapiens. They can do so in a way that is natural to the show and does not impede the story telling. To do so, however, they must address (not ignore) them.

Choice two is a slightly better choice sort of. Rather than dealing with the racial subtext at the core of the characters, they could just decide to not include it at all. After all, these stereotypes aren’t the only racial issues this show will deal with (what’s that? Oh, just the interracial relationship elephant in the room?).  Maybe they’ll think that’s too much mention of race in their stories. And this is supposed to be a love story too. And catered to a younger audience. Maybe they don’t want to weigh their audience down with heavy stuff. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. For all that it’s better than not addressing the subtext, I’m not really a fan of this approach. Audiences, even younger ones, are sophisticated enough to handle discussions of multiple issues surrounding race. And again, we really need people to think about and confront racial stereotypes. There’s science fiction elements to these characters (like most superheroes, I daresay), and doesn’t that genre often grapple with real world issues by way of fantastical or improbable settings?*

As for the third option, that’s the ideal one in my book. Accept and embrace the stereotypes, perhaps even turning them on their head in some way. I’m not a writer, but I know capable writers can make full use of those stereotypes without further perpetuating them. One way I could see them dealing with these racial stereotypes is by Lampshading them. Or they could have the characters themselves acknowledge and address the issues within the series. This could be an educational discussion between Tyrone and Tandy, as he attempts to school her on racial stereotypes and how their powers remind him of them. There are any number of ways to deftly address these racist tropes.

I just hope the creators are courageous enough to tackle them and creative enough to do so without making it look like an Afterschool Special. Subtle education. Not browbeating.

 

Oh, yeah, almost forgot the trailer.
Enjoy!

I don’t think this series is for me. From the trailer, it’s too high in teen angst. I’m fine with that up to a point, but I want more superheroic action. Although I will say this–if they grapple with the racial tropes in considerate, thoughtful manner, I may take a look at it.

 

*I was going to add another reason not to jettison the subtext, but changed my mind mid-post–that doing so would alter the characters too far from their core. But then I thought about it–I don’t know that Cloak has to have his hunger. I don’t know that Dagger has to be the white savior. Stripped to the core, it could just be a series about two teens who, upon running from home, become test subjects and acquire superpowers which they use to fight drug dealers and help runaway youth. The nature of those powers–for all that I’d like to see them address the racial stereotypes–do not need to fully reflect those of the comics.

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Confronting the racial stereotypes of Cloak & Dagger (plus the trailer)

3 thoughts on “Confronting the racial stereotypes of Cloak & Dagger (plus the trailer)

  1. 1

    Incidentally, the nature of this post was such that I only dealt with one problematic aspect of Cloak and Dagger: race.
    There are other issues, such as Dagger’s male-gaze focuse costume which I *dearly* hope they ditch for the tv show.
    Additionally, the idea that someone can be cured by Dagger’s powers needs to be fleshed out quite a bit. Even if they don’t explain how it works (and that’s probably too technical for the teen drama), they do need to explore the ramifications. I’d also like to see them show the teens confronting the complexities of drug use, rather than hammering a Drugs Are Bad message.

  2. 2

    The characters were supposed to be teens but Dagger’s costume was very sexualized. Bad shit. The fact they made the characters very young in this, to where no one except monsters in the audience should be thinking of them sexually, was I think a pretty cool move. See some babies having hard times, be like, Aww! Desexing also helps defuse a big element of the racial eehhhh.

    Your article is super on point. I especially like the part about addressing a creator who was blindly following inspiration. I’m an artist and writer, and in my life I’ve had to learn that not every inspiration is good or worth following. Even when it’s solid stuff, you do not want to present it without appropriate self-reflection and craft.

    Aside from leaving the door wide open to revealing embarrassing unconscious bias, it’s a quick way to make other writing mistakes like plot holes or being written into a corner.

  3. 3

    Yeah, Dagger’s costume is, like so many costumes of women comic characters, very clearly designed with the male gaze in mind.
    I hate that too, bc there’s something I *like* about it, even as I realize the sexist nature of it.

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