2016 Representation Scorecard: How the Year’s Movies, TV, Games, Comics, and More Stacked Up
Yeah, we're keeping score.
In looking back on 2016, it’s tempting to just write off the entire year as a loss. After all, as you know from reading our 2016: Year In Misogyny round-up yesterday, 2016 brought us all a lot of pain—and much of that pain will continue in 2017, particularly when it comes to political policies here in the States, where most of The Mary Sue’s staffers live.
Certainly, there were lots of disappointments in the media that came out of 2016, too. But there were also several pieces of media that brought us the joy of recognition this year—pieces of art with the occasional ring of truth to them, even in small ways. So, here’s a list of pieces of 2016 pop culture that stuck with us, either because of their notability in terms of representation, or because they made us think about how much further we have left to go. Once again, this list is not exhaustive and it’s in no particular order.
- Hidden Figures
Usually, biopics end up being about important white men whose stories have been told over and over again. It’s rare to see a biopic that highlights the achievements of three black women, and it shouldn’t be rare to see that. In any case, the story of Katherine Johnson, as well as her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, deserves to be held up as an important piece of American history (and NASA history), and Hidden Figures more than rose to that occasion.
TMSer Keisha Hatchett had the opportunity to speak with several women of color who work in STEM fields about their thoughts on the movie, as well, and here’s what they had to say about it:
We’ve been thrilled to see Ava DuVernay’s star rising this year, what with her upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (featuring a diverse cast), her excellent show Queen Sugar (for which she went out of her way to hire black women behind the camera as well as in front of it), her advocacy work regarding the Flint water crisis, and her many other contributions to sci-fi, such as contributing some of her thoughts to the final editing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But what we really want to highlight from her this year is her chilling documentary 13th, which describes how although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the institutional oppression of the black community has continued in the years after that amendment passed, thanks to the biases that are built into the United States’ prison system. The documentary is on Netflix, and it’s definitely worth a watch, since it highlights a topic about which many Americans remain ignorant.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
We’ve been thrilled to see Rogue One cleaning up at the box office since it came out, since it’s a movie that proves Star Wars doesn’t have to revolve around the Skywalkers. Star Wars can be about other people, too, and it can feature more diverse heroes as well and still convince audiences to care about their stories. I mean, sure, we all love a good Skywalker story, but there are plenty of other rebels that we don’t hear so much about, and it’s great to learn more about the lesser-known areas of that far, far away galaxy.
However, we can’t help but notice that Rogue One’s cast is almost entirely male-dominated. Sure, we love space-husbands Chirrut and Baze (though the romance between them is sadly not canon, as far as we know), we can’t wait to find out more about Saw Gerrera on Rebels, we enjoyed these childhood drawings of Star Wars characters by Riz Ahmed (who played Bodhi), and we’re thrilled that Diego Luna’s role as Cassian has given him a platform to discuss his Mexican heritage and the importance of casting diverse heroes. And, of course, it’s great to see an action movie with a female lead, and Felicity Jones plays a female character that we don’t see often: a jaded, emotionally withdrawn soul who must be convinced to fight, and eventually, to lead her ragtag team to a bittersweet victory.
We really enjoyed all of these actors’ performances, but… it’s undeniable that this movie is almost entirely about men, and the huge disparity there seems odd to us. Why are there so few women among the rebels? We see women in leadership positions—Mon Mothma, Senator Pamlo, and Princess Leia—but where are the women in the rest of the ranks? Shouldn’t they at least exist in the background? We can only hope that future Star Wars stories step it up in that area.
- Doctor Strange
Jessica Lachenal took on the task of both reviewing Doctor Strange and also tackling the movie’s biggest oversight: what it got wrong about Asian representation. To quote her second piece, “I, again, found myself at a loss as to what whitewashing the character was supposed to add to the film. I do not understand what a white Ancient One could do that an Asian Ancient One couldn’t. It felt as if the film didn’t present any compelling argument (or any argument at all) about the decision made by its creators, and that was incredibly disappointing.”
That disappointment continued when we later learned that Tilda Swinton had reached out to Margaret Cho to, essentially, ask why Asian people felt so dismayed about the casting of the Ancient One. Charline Jao explained why it’s important to look past the mask of politeness shown in the email exchange between the two women. It’s clear that Tilda Swinton believed she should do something to absolve herself from criticism, but she didn’t want to reject the role, and she also didn’t entirely understand the problem at hand. She also didn’t seem willing to accept that, perhaps, she’s had more opportunities than her Asian peers in Hollywood.
On that same note, Matt Damon has continued to be utterly clueless with regard to this topic in his response to criticism of The Great Wall. That movie hasn’t come out yet, but the ongoing conversation surrounding that movie, as well as the issue of whitewashing, came up time and time again in 2016. Ghost in the Shell served as another example of the problem, which Jessica Lachenal has covered for us several times this year.
The conversation about whitewashing has also come up on Supergirl, particularly with regard to the casting of Floriana Lima as Maggie Sawyer. TMSer Teresa Jusino had “conflicting feelings” about the casting, and she wrote about her own heritage and thoughts about the casting choice in this widely-read essay.
Teresa has also been handling Supergirl recaps all year, detailing the show’s many successes and failures, from Alex’s coming-out story to James and Kara’s break-up storyline. Meanwhile, the ongoing storylines with J’onn J’onzz and M’gann M’orzz have given David Harewood and Sharon Leal opportunities to shine, but while we’ve always liked Mehcad Brooks’ take on James Olsen, we wish the show would give the character more to do. Although Supergirl‘s line-up could stand to be more diverse, we’ve got to give a hat-tip to them when it comes to those casting choices, as well as the inclusion of Alex’s coming-out story that has resonated with many viewers and fans. Plus, Lynda Carter is the president on Supergirl, and that’s a form of escapist fantasy we can all get behind.
Speaking of coming-out stories, this year Blizzard surprised us all by revealing that the character Tracer is a lesbian. It’s pretty significant, since Tracer’s on the front of the box and she’s featured prominently in the game’s tutorial mode. However, it’s also undeniable that this reveal didn’t appear as part of the actual game, but rather in a short comic. So, it’s not exactly front-row-center-stage when it comes to reveals, and it’s definitely something that bigoted fans of the game have chosen to ignore (but, not before getting angry about it online).
Although Overwatch certainly has some jerks in its fanbase, the game’s still notable for its diverse line-up of characters as well as its compelling extended-universe animated shorts and comics. It may be a team-based multiplayer shooter, but it’s got a surprisingly widespread fandom that goes beyond just the “hardcore gamer” crowd you’d expect. Why did that happen? Who knows. But it might have something to do with the diverse fighter line-up. Turns out having a diverse cast in your game might make more people interested in playing it.
- Yuri!! On Ice
This anime about figure skating and romance has taken the internet by storm, capturing the hearts of professional figure skaters and resulting in a total fan-art takeover of Twitter and Tumblr. The biggest controversy revolves around the fact that its two lead characters don’t display as much physical affection as fans hoped to see… but that’s complicated, as I wrote in this story about Overwatch, Yuri!! On Ice, Legend of Korra, and more. It turns out we still have a long way to go when it comes to depicting queer romances in media, particularly when it comes to actually depicting a kiss.
Here’s one for the “disappointment” category: Morgan looked so good. And it was so disappointing. We had such high hopes for women-led science fiction movies this year, and based on the trailers, Morgan looked like it might be a beloved spooky epic along the lines of Ex Machina or Alien. Instead, it ended up on Teresa’s List of Media from 2016 We Wish We Could Unsee. It’s particularly disappointing to us because it was billed as a woman-led sci-fi action movie, and goodness knows we love that sort of thing.
We’ll watch Viola Davis do just about anything, including do her best at saving Suicide Squad (yet another one of the entries on our “Media We Wish We Could Unsee” list), but it’s also a joy to see her in a movie that deserves her time and energy. Fences, a silver screen adaptation of the August Wilson play, is definitely that movie. It also stars Denzel Washington and Jovan Adepo. If you’ve never seen the play before, the movie serves as a haunting adaptation of the source material that hews pretty closely with the original text.
Did you know that Janelle Monáe appeared in not one but two movies in 2016? She was in Hidden Figures, which was already at the top of this list, and she also played Teresa in Moonlight. Basically, 2016 showed us that Janelle Monáe is a triple threat, and she’s incredible and a joy to behold… which we already knew anyway, but, still. It’s worth celebrating.
Anyway, Moonlight isn’t about Janelle Monáe’s awesomeness, although she does appear in it. It’s a queer coming-of-age story about a gay black man, set in in Florida in the ’90s and 2000s, and spanning several chapters in the male lead’s life. It’s a story that isn’t often told, yet it’s also an accessible story, if not necessarily a universal one. James McConnaughy wrote about this movie in comparison to The Handmaiden, which is another queer romance that’s worth highlighting from 2016.
Fox and Major League Baseball teamed up together to create this unusual piece of speculative fiction: a TV show about the first female baseball player in the major leagues. Obviously, that hasn’t yet happened in our world, but it doesn’t seem so far off, and Pitch grounds its story in reality as much as possible. What’s more, baseball higher-ups have been in total support of the show, devoted to making it as accurate as possible. Even if you aren’t into sports at all, this one’s worth checking out.
Here’s our counterpart to Morgan, 2016’s biggest sci-fi disappointment. Arrival is the woman-led sci-fi movie that we deserve, managing to straddle that impossible line between being heart-wrenchingly tragic and also uplifting. Jessica Lachenal gave Arrival 4.5. out of 5 stars in her glowing review, and contributor Sarah Rowe penned a beautiful piece about how Arrival serves as a blueprint for overcoming trauma. But, really, this is one of those movies that’s more enjoyable the less you know about it, so if you haven’t yet, head to a cinema and get ready for a haunting but hopeful journey.
Oh–and also, bonus points for having Jeremy Renner play the sidelined love interest role. Usually, this type of movie would have gender-swapped that, with Amy Adams getting relegated to the side character. Instead, she’s the protagonist and the clear hero of the movie.
Disney’s Moana also earned a 4.5. out of 5 star review from us this year, along with Arrival and Rogue One. It’s not a live-action sci-fi epic, or anything–it’s a Disney princess movie, but it’s very different from other Disney princess movies we’ve seen before. Teresa Jusino put it this way in her review of the film: “I wasn’t expecting Moana to be a film at which I cried. It didn’t seem like that kind of movie, and yet I found myself in tears every two or three scenes or so… A lot of it had to do with personal experience. I, too, am a brown girl from an island culture who grew up wanting more from her life and choosing a path for herself that didn’t seem to make sense to the rest of my immediate community. As the youngest in my family, I’m also the furthest away from my own culture and want desperately to know it better, and must take it upon myself to acquire that knowledge. I’m not Polynesian, but I identified with Moana’s journey, because in many ways, it reflects my own.”
I’ve been a fan of Issa Rae’s work since the Awkward Black Girl days on YouTube, so it’s been a real joy to see her rising through the ranks and getting a successful show on HBO. Plus, her show Insecure has already gotten renewed for a second season. As for why this show’s worth your time, TMS contributor Afiya Augustine-Cox wrote “Why Issa Rae’s Insecure Is the Representation I’ve Been Waiting For,” in which she explains how Issa Rae’s humanizing sense of humor makes the show work so well: “It’s seeing everyone’s insecurities in the different points of their lives that makes this show relatable, and so important to me. For the first time in years, we’re getting a narrative of POC that doesn’t include the typical tropes we’ve seen over and over with facelifts. I’m actually seeing my lifelong friends, my exes, my husband, my sisters as I see them—and this is representation I can get behind.”
- Saturday Night Live
We’ve got mixed feelings about the usefulness of parody in these post-Trump times–take, for example, Vivian Kane’s analysis of Kate McKinnon’s famous impersonation of Kellyanne Conway. The real Kellyanne isn’t nearly so likeable. Still, it’s worth pointing out that SNL’s host lineup for its 42nd season has had more gender parity than previous seasons (also, wow, 42 seasons? Yowza). The show could stand to step it up when it comes to racial parity in terms of who they ask to host the show, however. What’s more, Casey Affleck was their most recent host right before the end of 2016, and that’s a disappointment to us. We hope you step it up in 2017, SNL. We need you to keep it real.
- Riri Williams as Ironheart
Last but certainly not least, we watched Riri Williams take on the mantle of Iron Man this past fall, following in the footsteps of other young women in Marvel Comics who’ve taken on notable heroic mantles (e.g. X-23 taking on Wolverine’s mantle, Kamala Khan becoming Ms. Marvel). However, we also can’t help but notice that many of these stories are still often told by white male writers. We love seeing diversity on the comic book page, but it’s also great to see it behind the scenes as well, whenever possible. On that note, shout-out to Marvel editor Sana Amanat and to writer G. Willow Wilson with regard to Ms. Marvel, whose stories have continued to charm us and give us hope for the future of comic book storytelling.
So, all in all, 2016 has been a year full of compelling conversations about the media we consume and what we hope to see in the future. We’ve enjoyed having all of those conversations with you here at The Mary Sue–even when those conversations are complicated and don’t have neat, easily-packaged conclusions. You can bet we’ll keep on talking about all of this and more in 2017!
(image via YouTube screencap)
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