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Black Childhood Deferred: The Sexualization and Decolorization of Riri Williams

I gotta be honest with y’all: I’m still basking in the afterglow of Luke Cage. So much so that I’m not only planning on a re-watch so I can finally review it as promised but as you saw, I’ve written at least 3 pieces on it already. And you know…I probably would have written more if there weren’t already 36282826829494 other thinkpieces on the internet and I wasn’t out here like Julius with eleventeen jobs.

Still, because Black women in particular to be happy about something for more than 30 seconds (it upsets the balance) before the universe comes through and kicks our shit in like a schoolyard bully, it finally happened.

After being celebrated in Luke Cage, we are back to being shitted on.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, peep these receipts:

Can you spot the difference?

Can you? CAN YOU?

Can you? CAN YOU?

If you guessed a. Riri looks hella lighter and b. Riri don’t look like no teenager no mo, then bitch, by golly, you guessed it!

Congratulations! You win the lifetime oppression of Black women if you’re feeling lucky!

While I want to say that I’m shocked by these recent developments, I’m really not. While part of me was semi-hype for Riri’s debut, I expected this. I mean, after all, the team that is bringing us Riri is the same team that brought us–wait for it–#TeamFullGay.

But you know what? I was cautiously optimistic anyways. Because like my colleague @Dualityman81, I too wanted to see Black girls win. And because I wanted to see us win, that allotted Marvel yet another opportunity to let us down.

Again.

Imagine me saying

Imagine me saying “Bendis” like this.

Of course, even though I’m not shocked, I am tired. And my tiredness compels me to talk about why this Riri Williams brouhaha has me fucked up.

Granted, the sexualization of female characters in comics is not new. It predates me even. And on the surface, Riri appears to just be its latest victim.

Simple enough?

Well, not quite.

This instance of pandering to the male gaze is much more complicated and here’s why:

1. Riri’s sexualization represents a long-standing history of not only denying Black children their youth, but also hypersexualizing Black girls.

When Riri was first created, I knew I was going to have to talk about this at some point. I knew it. Even though she was supposed to be based on Skye Jackson. And this is not just because of the multitude of asinine headlines I saw about her being a Black “woman” (a 15-year-old woman? Girl I guess…) but because of another really huge reason:

White men–men in general–and White supremacy at-large can never pass up the opportunity to either grossly desexualize or aggressively hypersexualize young and old Black femmes (Black girls in this case).

While both scenarios have their own unique ramifications, both make it so that our sexual agency is stripped from us in favor of Chet’s™ sexual fantasies begin projected onto us.

And like I alluded to earlier, hypersexualization happens to other female characters in comics as well. The grossest example I ever came across was Magik. You wanna see some nasty, detestable shit? Read her Darkchylde/limbo arc. Because in that arc, they took someone who should have been a child (she was about 6 or 7 when she was initially abducted) and gave her the body of a 30-year-old woman.

Power Girl’s infamous asinine boob window is another example. So is that infamous ass pose by Spider-Woman. And let us not forget about the MCU’s Black Widow. Every time you see this heaux on a poster, it’s ass first. The only posters that weren’t as bad were the Winter Soldier (and even then…her “dream girl” pose on this poster was ridiculous) and the Age of Ultron posters.

It happens to all women. This is true. But ours–Black femmes (including Riri)–is a case complicated by race, gender, AND history. To deny such specificity would be to deny this very history.

Said history includes being aged up sexually and being denied our due childhoods.

And this projection of assumed age, sexuality, and promiscuousness is always used against us as a weapon.

Always .

Just like White supremacy will age up young Black boys (Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown) as a way of
justifying their murders at the hands of the police, White supremacy does a similar thing to Black girls in that we are aged up in order to justify any ounce of rape culture-related violence that is carried out against us.

This includes cat-calling. The unwanted gropings. The “fuck you too then, bitch”-es that are lobbed at us when we run away from sexual advances. Our murders at the hands of men who possess masculinity more fragile than a spiderweb.

All of that.

To put it simply, we don’t get to be children (not for long anyway). Because if we did? That would mean that White supremacy would have to treat us with kid gloves. With some ounce of care.

And we can’t have that, now can we?

2. Riri’s sexualization proves that having female talent behind female superheroes is not only crucial but necessary.

I’ve always been a believer that if you’re going to write about or feature people who are fundamentally different than you in some way, then you need people of that culture and/or heritage behind you 200%. Otherwise, your “art” is invalid.

And illegitimate.

You wanna write about people of color? They better be on your writer’s team in abundance. You wanna talk about queer folx? You better be plugged into their community and doing less talking and more listening. You wanna write about women and trans folx? They better be leading the goddamn project.

I mean, ideally, these people should be telling their own stories. But if that’s not possible for whatever reason, then the very least YOU could do, as a Middle Man in this situation, is create space for them and have them in the room.

In the case of Riri Williams, it is painfully obvious that this did not happen. From where I’m standing, I can see that Marvel was willing to do the very least and create a prominent Black girl character. But when it came time to do the legwork to ensure that Black women would be in the room as she was created, drawn, and presumably written, suddenly, Marvel was like: “New phone, who dis?”

Of course, this is unsurprising, considering that Marvel didn’t hire their first Black female writer until this year (if I’m not counting the writer’s team for Luke Cage).

Marvel. Like?

Marvel. Like?

Still…this makes me irate, especially when compared to the amazing character we got in Ms. Marvel.

In her case, it’s clear that there were women in the room (who no doubt fought to get there) and women of that culture who were committed to making Kamala Khan the best hero she could be.

Kamala looks like a teenager. Hell, she even acts like one. She is dynamic, resourceful, smart, and tenacious. Her Pakistani heritage is intertwined perfectly with her character and she has a healthy relationship with her parents (something that is unheard of in comics).

And you know what? That’s rare. So rare.

But that’s what happens when you let [Black] women–and marginalized folx in general–in the room. You get richer stories. Compelling stories. And stories that make some goddamn sense.

3. Riri’s decolorization represents how White supremacy fuels the self-hating beast that is colorism.

Now, I fully expected Marvel to gradually lighten Riri’s skin.

I just didn’t think it would happen this fast.

WHY DID I EVEN HOPE? WHY

WHY DID I EVEN HOPE? WHY

Seriously. It could have predicted it…especially if we consider the series of events that occurred after Riri’s announcement.

Outlets like Entertainment Weekly started off by fancasting Riri as a light-skinned Black woman (once again, bypassing the fact that she was supposed to be a teenage girl). And on this list, I saw the usual suspects. Nathalie Emmanuel. Zoe Kravitz. Kiersey Clemons. Amandla Stenberg. Zendaya. Their names appeared at the top of this list before they threw Tika Sumpter and Teyonah Parris at us in a “Girl I Guess” fashion so that The Darkskinneds™ wouldn’t get [as] mad. I rolled my eyes at this article and prayed to Black Jesus™ that Riri would retain her melanin.

So imagine my ire when J. Scott Campbell dropped his wack ass variant cover that featured Riri being 3-5 shades lighter. Like it was all hunky-dory and shit.

Spoiler alert, Chet Campbell™: It’s not.

It’s not okay.

But as part of the [White] default–the top dogs in the oppressive food chain–I assume that you either didn’t know that or didn’t care to know that. But it doesn’t change the impact that this cover has had on Black folx [and other similarly dark-skinned people of color] with extra melanin.

Cancelled or not.

To elaborate, since Whiteness is simultaneously set-up as the goal, the prize, and the standard, sometimes–in these intra-communities–all beauty standards and definitions of “success” will attempt to align themselves with Whiteness as well.

Hence…colorism.

And in colorism, dark-skinned Black women are coded as aggressive, uncouth, and unlovable and left by the wayside to perish. Light-skinned Black women are coded as meek and gentle and seen as prizes (and prizes only), which feeds into their fetishization. And Brown-skinned women? Well, they’re left out of the colorism discussion entirely. They fall through the cracks. On both sides.

These are the obstacles that we, Black women, are made to face every day. In work. At school. In our dating lives. With our families. It’s pervasive. And damn near inescapable.

So when things like colorism find their way into the media we consume?

Make no mistake: we’re going to say something.

I mean, why wouldn’t we? After the gross colorism we’ve seen play out in the superhero sphere?

For example, consider the decolorization of both Storm and Vixen.

Storm herself is a pretty gross example because she morphed from a composed, yet domineering dark-skinned Black woman who was a force of nature into that of a meek, light-skinned woman who barely had any lines in the original X-Men trilogy and hardly fared better in the new X-Men movies.

Vixen, however, is perhaps the grossest example in recent history. As pointed out by @Fangirlsmash, Vixen was richly melanated (re: Justice League Unlimited) until about 2007. Since then? Well, she could probably pass the Paper Bag Test now, especially with her being portrayed by Megalyn Echikunwoke on CW…aka the channel that believes that hot Black folx only come in one shade.

With both of these examples, notice that these characters being decolorized in the comics made it so that it was much easier to cast these characters as light-skinned women…versus underrepresented dark-skinned women. Because if anyone had a problem with these women being cast, White directors could literally point to these de-melanated characters and claim that they were only following “canon”.

Besides the fact that I’m all about saying “fuck canon” (especially racist, colorist, sexist, femmephobic, queerphobic, and transphobic canon), I’m not about to let White folx off the hook for perpetuating these dangerous standards.

Sure. Colorism is a specific problem in Black and POC communities.

But racism is its mother and White supremacy is the baby daddy.

And you know, if we are going to talk about the place that White folx have in this clashing of race, gender, and comics, we have to be real about White folx and “color”:

Maybe you, White denizens of the Earth, are used to your skin tone being portrayed as the interchangeable colors of Pale Apricot™, Scary Ivory™, Angel Soft Toilet Paper™ and Ripened Peach™ in print. And maybe because of this, you don’t get the “big deal” behind all this talk of skin tone.

But here’s the thing:

That’s not how Black skin works. At all. Be this in print or in real-life.

Every slight gradient in Black skin means something. And that’s because you made it mean something.

So you don’t suddenly get to ignore that or opt out of portraying the potential vastness of Black skin now that Black folx are reclaiming and re-defining the derogatory meanings you gave our skin.

Absolutely not.

Absolutely not.

So to Campbell, White (and Black) fanboys, and all other creators, artists, and writers who would seek to ignore the historical and cultural significance and ramifications of a lighter, “sexier” Riri Williams:

Fuck you.

Black girls, like everyone else, should get to be kids and remain kids for as long as is possible for them. With their skin color intact.

And for artists especially, if you can’t find a way to properly portray that, you should reconsider calling yourself an artist. Because you are not only a shame to your trade, but you are also a failure in your craft.

You are a boil on the pristine face of your field. Unwanted and unneeded.

And you should be ashamed.

Images From: Giphy, Marvel, Tumblr, Tenor.co, Comicsvine,
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19 thoughts on “Black Childhood Deferred: The Sexualization and Decolorization of Riri Williams

  1. I noted Riri’s coming out but I didn’t get too het up about her once I found out that the team writing her was all White and male. I’ve always hated Campbell’s artistic style anyway, as all his women tend to look exactly alike, so as soon as I heard he’d had anything to do with this project, my hope deflated.

    When we don’t write our own stories all we end up with is our stories filtered through a White person’s lens.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Can I just marry this ENTIRE piece? This gave me my life, and I thank you from the bottom of my black girl soul for speaking about this with the humor and eloquence I’ve come to expect from Sublime Zoo.

    So glad I found this site. So. Glad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 😭😭😭

      Thank you very much! I appreciate this so much. We all do our best here to make this a place for Black femmes to discuss all these things. They’re aren’t enough spaces in this world for us.

      So tbh it’s the least we could do ❤

      Like

  3. they are gonna keep her lightskon but her look is getting a makeover. I personally had no issue with the look and i figured that is because in the 90’s majority all female celebs was rocking the crop top even is they were teens and were sexualized from britney spears to destiny child

    Like

    • Them keeping her lightskin only reinforces my point about colorism. That said, good on Marvel for cleaning up their fuckshit mess…even tho they shouldn’t have made it in the first place.

      And if we are being blunt here, I’m not mad about her clothes. I was mad at her proportions.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Damn. This article was everything. I’m a black man, and Iron Man’s my favorite superhero. I know there’s been deep issues with racism in Marvel and comic books as a whole, but I didn’t quite realize how that it’s not just racism, but also misgynoir, and colorism, queerphobia, etc. I wasn’t following keenly on Riri to realize how insidiously this was happening before most people will even know who she is. It’s really obvious now after reading this, and I wish (and hope) that the men making these decisions will just listen and do better, and ultimately give space to black women to write their own stories Anyway, thank you for laying things out so well and making it really clear that having a black girl on the cover isn’t enough. I hope more black femmes have a chance to write their own stories and have their voices heard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I could clue everyone in on what’s going on. If we’re going to be honest, we are all accustomed to our own privileges and, yes, we won’t know better unless we’re listening to people who don’t have the luxury of having our privileges.

      But yeah, Marvel (and comics in general really) has deep-seated problems with all these areas you mentioned, but I’m hoping it gets better as Black women and other marginalized folx continue to demand to be let into this “boy’s club”. I’m still pretty pessimistic about Riri because of the shit that has been going on but hopefully with how quick Marvel pulled that cover, they are doing less lip service and actually listening for once.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Cover Girl: Why Doesn't Riri Williams Look 15? - Women Write About Comics

  6. Campbell is a misoginystic jackass of course he did that too her. I used to like his art when he did some Disney stuff thst was not slutty. Then I saw how all he usually did was draw women/girls so overly sexualized it was gross.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Yeah, But Is It Art?: On Riri Williams and J. Scott Campbell

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