How should progressives respond to the recent news that Marvel Comics CEO Ike Perlmutter donated over $1 million to a Donald Trump event intended to draw viewers away from the Republican presidential debate? As a start, they should remember these words of wisdom from one of Marvel’s most iconic superhero franchises:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Comics has become one of the most influential forces in shaping American popular culture today. Unfortunately, Marvel has refused to use this power responsibly; even as their celluloid and pulp characters rake in billions fighting fictional bogeyman, Marvel continues to actively perpetuate many of the racial and gender inequalities that thwart justice in the real world. As such, Perlmutter’s support for the Trump campaign – which has emerged as a potent vehicle for racist and sexist ideologies – cannot simply be dismissed as simply one more occasion of a right-wing plutocrat backing one of his own. On a deeper level, it demonstrates that the reactionary ideals embedded in Trumpism are also promoted in our entertainment products… and that if we are going to oppose the former, we must also recognize and take a stand against the latter.
We can start with the lack of diversity in Marvel Comics itself. “For all the good that seeing traditionally marginalized people fighting crime does though, there are still two pressing matters at hand,” writes Charles Pulliam-Moore of Fusion. “First, for the most part, these characters are still being written by white men. Second, there’s the perception that Marvel’s larger editorial voice and vision are still being guided primarily by white men.” Although these kinds of exclusionary hiring practices are hardly limited to Marvel, they do tie directly into one of the most problematic aspects of the Trump campaign’s mass appeal. “There’s something unique about Trump’s whiteness and his masculinity,” explains Mona Chalabi of The Guardian. “He is distinctly unashamed of either trait, and is unwilling to even pay lip service to the notion that they were beneficial to his success.” Similarly, despite appealing to a very diverse audience, Marvel Comics continues to disproportionately employ white male writers – even as they would no doubt insist that race and gender have nothing to do with it. In fact, considering the positive press that Marvel has received for tapping Ta-Nehisi Coates to write a Black Panther comic and creating the acclaimed Ms. Marvel series, this lack of diversity is even more of a slap in the face.
Needless to say, these attitudes have a direct impact on how Marvel shapes its entertainment products. As the hacked Sony emails revealed, Marvel and Sony signed a contract in September 2011 that explicitly required all cinematic representations of Spider-Man to be Caucasian and straight. A few years later, Perlmutter sent an email to Sony CEO Michael Lynton explaining why he was opposed to creating so-called “female movies” with Marvel characters, citing outdated and critically-panned examples like "Catwoman," "Elektra" and "Supergirl." This mentality even effects Marvel’s merchandise, which has drawn fire for underrepresenting or downright excluding female characters amid leaked reports that Marvel employees secretly acknowledge they want Marvel to appeal only to boys. As a result, despite its global appeal, Marvel continues to churn out movies that disproportionately star white, male, and heterosexual characters, with no end to that trend in sight.
While it’s tempting to defend Marvel by arguing that they’re only operating based on business logic, a study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found that movies with 21 to 30 percent nonwhite diversity and TV shows with casts that were 41 to 50 percent nonwhite were consistently more successful than their exclusionary counterparts. Likewise, a review of box office return from 2013 found female-led movies actually earned 20 percent more than male-led ones, including action franchises like "The Hunger Games." This means that, at best, Marvel is operating mainly on hunches in its conviction that diversity would spell financial doom. In light of Perlmutter’s own words and actions, however, it seems like there may be a sinister ideology at work, too.
Take the Trump event that Perlmutter decided to help sponsor. He didn’t simply write a check and donate it to Trump’s campaign, but actively bankrolled Trump’s attempt to draw ratings from the Republican debates because of their decision to include Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly as one of their moderates. “Trump is boycotting the debate at least in part because it's co-moderated by Megyn Kelly, a Fox News anchor he feels personally slighted him in the first Republican primary debate in August,” explains Emily Arrowood of US News & World Report. “Kelly's crime? She asked Trump to account for his temperament, given his practice of condemning women with whom he disagreed as ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.’” Since then, Trump has engaged in an openly misogynistic campaign to discredit and disempower Kelly, from implying that she asked him harsh questions because she was menstruating to having his campaign manager issue veiled threats against her. Moreover, his supporters are notorious for using misogynistic language in attacking her on Twitter, with insults like “bitch” and “bimbo” being particularly pervasive.
This is the reactionary movement to which Perlmutter, the CEO of Marvel Comics, decided to donate his money. Beyond simply endorsing Trump’s campaign, he is actively backing his efforts to punish Fox News for not capitulating to Trump’s misogynistic demand that Kelly either kowtow to his ego or not be included among the panel’s moderators. Between that and his willingness to help elect a presidential candidate whose campaign has been fueled by bigotry against Mexicans and Muslims, it’s impossible to believe that Perlmutter’s reactionary beliefs aren’t shaping the properties he plays such a major role in helping to craft.
This brings us back to the quote that opened this article: “With great power comes great responsibility.” As consumers, progressives have the power to compel Marvel and its business allies to change its racial and gender attitudes. If they refuse to hire more non-white and non-male writers, we can stop buying their comic books. If their movies and toys continue to omit or underrepresent racial minorities and women, we can refuse to see or purchase them. Because there are a great many fictional properties out there that do respect the diverse spectrum of their audiences, we are not beholden to Marvel or any other single company for quality entertainment. As such, when a consumer chooses to give money to Marvel after being made aware of these racist and sexist tendencies, they are implicitly expressing either sympathy for or indifference toward those problems.
Neither of those attitudes are morally acceptable. Indeed, at a time when racial and gender inequality continues to hold back millions of Americans, there is something rather loathsome in being entertained by fictional heroes triumphing over fictional villains while simultaneously reinforcing the actual injustices suffered by ordinary people. In its own small way, holding Marvel accountable for its Trumpism – not only Perlmutter’s direct support for Trump himself, but also the ideology that permeates its numerous franchises – is an opportunity for each and every one of us to be heroes against the real villains in our own world. What a tragedy it will be if, instead of seizing this opportunity, we continue throwing our money at them… and, in the process, allow the bad guys to win the battle that counts the most.