Do Black Lives Only Matter if they are Wakandan? That and Other Thoughts Inspired by Wiscon, the Feminist Sci-Fi Convention

I spent Friday and Saturday at the awesome Wiscon, and have had a bunch of thoughts bouncing around in my head ever since. Some of them may develop into full posts of their own, but for now I’m going to do a bit of a brain dump, highlighting some of the great things I heard and the thoughts they inspired.

 I’m going to try attribute as many of the ideas as I can, but I wasn’t able to catch the names of all the great people I met or heard present, and I don’t want to quote people by name without their specific consent.  Anything in italics came from someone else, and anything I’m claiming as my own was likely more inspired by others than I’m giving credit for. Similarly, most of the italics are paraphrases from memory, so any mistakes or misquotes are my own fault.

 “Wakanda is a powerful, independent nation, that has enough international power to be listened to when it raises hell about the death of its citizens. Do you think anyone cares if it’s another African country whose citizens die as collateral damage from the Avengers?”  From the “Words Taken from Women of Color” panel. 

It’s a sad but powerful reality that it takes a fictional African country with great levels of economic, technological and military power to force the rest of the world to pay attention to the deaths of its citizens.  And even with the power of Wakanda to force a discussion about the deaths of its citizens, we still wind up spending most of the movie talking about the Sokovia Accords, not the Lagos or the Wakandan Accords.

 Or how about the Harlem Accords? The final battle of the MCU’s Hulk movie winds up destroying much of Harlem, but that’s not even mentioned on the list of bad things that the Avengers have done.  You could argue plot reasons given Secretary Ross’ involvement in the Harlem battle, not to mention that many Civil War viewers haven’t seen/don’t remember the Hulk movie, but its absence in a list of superhero abuses that supposedly started with the deaths of Wakandan citizens is rather striking.

Those specific comments came as part of a larger discussion of what it means to view Civil War through the lens of police violence. The panel really tore into the idea of the Avengers as a police force who asks us to trust them and their own ability to hold themselves accountable, at a time when that’s what we’re hearing in our own world from the “blue lives matter” police can do no wrong, movements. They named the civil rights dangers of the government’s plan of DNA registration but were equally skeptical of Cap’s “I know best” attitude.

Most of the panelists said that they rejected both the “I know I’m right” arrogance of Team Cap and the, “government regulation will fix everything” of Team Tony, and were solidly Team T’Chala, since he’s the only one of the three who seems to have learned something and grown by the end of the movie. I can’t say I don’t see their point.

Later in the day, during a conversation about the upcoming Black Panther movie, a friend of mine made a striking point. He reminded me that T’Challa grew up in a world where he was never exposed to the racist narrative of white superiority.  It got me thinking about Wonder Wonder, who has a similar experience of never being exposed to misogynist garbage about male superiority. One more reason to look forward to both of those movies – I hope they spark some needed conversation about how poisonous and pervasive those notions of superiority are, and what it means to be raised outside of them.

“Civil War is a study in Toxic Masculinity.” Said during a conversation over lunch with awesome people I met. 

I’ve written before about how badly my bureaucratic geek heart wants to see Iron Man and Captain America sit down for a few hours of negotiations to come up with a better version of the Sokovia Accords, that recognizes the value in some kind of oversight for the Avengers while also acknowledging how deeply flawed this first attempt at oversight is. But instead, once the two guys realize they disagree, the only option is to fight it out. It likely makes for a better movie then my conference table dream, but it’s a powerful reminder of men are socialized to handle disagreements. All the more interesting since two of the women in the story, Black Widow and Sharron Carter, are both shown having sympathy for both sides and trying to find some common ground rather than conflict.

 “We often see magic or technology build devices that basically ‘fix’ disability.  Hawkeye’s hearing devices, Luke’s prosthetic hand.” From the “Beyond the ‘Ability ex Machina’: Reimagining Disability in SFF” panel.   

This was part of a discussion of how frustrating this trend can be, where instead of seeing heroes who are able to flourish and save people while also being disabled, they instead are able to ‘fix’ the disability. It let me to wonder what it would look like to see a superhero for whom a piece of adaptive technology they used took on the kind of iconic or even mystical link to that character that you see in something like Captain America’s shield or Thor’s hammer.  One of the panelists mentioned Fury Road and Furiosa’s arm as a good example of this, and I’m only sorry I didn’t get a chance to hear more of that at the panel specifically on adaptive tech.

The panel also got me thinking of X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which Charles Xavier’s powers are shown as linked to his disability.  When we first see his 1970’s self, he has lost his powers but regained his ability to walk, and the only way to regain his powers is to go back into the wheelchair.  It presents a decision moment for the character, but it also re-enforces the tired old trope of the inspirational cripple, who finds power in his brokenness. I love Professor X, but I would rather see him as someone for whom disability is simply a fact of his existence that he deals with, rather than something he chooses as the price of his power.

“At first I didn’t like it, but now I love and defend Harry Potter Book 5, because I see it as exploring Harry’s PTSD.” From the same, very thought inspiring, panel on disability.

 This really hit home for me, especially because I connect it to the way the last few MCU movies have explored Tony’s PTSD.  The discussion made me think about Dumbledore as the person who both calls Harry out for his shitty behavior but is also deeply sympathetic and helps Harry explore the root causes.  It’s dangerous to demand people hold that kind of emotional space for others, as I’m sure both Harry and Tony would have been very difficult to be around, and no one should ever feel they have to do so for someone else. But if Tony had had a Dumbledore in his life, maybe he never builds Ultron.

A final, awesome note from that panel- I got to bond with other disability activist geeks who got angry at ninja Yoda. The original movies give us a wonderful example of someone who can wield incredible mental and mystical power while having a body that needs a cane to get around. Having him throw away that cane and go all parkour on the Emperor is mildly entertaining, but also loses an important part of that character. No more ninja Yoda!

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