Why Making Characters “Aracial” is Not Progressive
As our culture evolves, our media evolves with it. Just look at the wildly popular trends on the internet and other fandom spaces in the last few years and you’ll see that cult followings are no longer being limited to media like television, movies, and books. The first big fandom of an unconventional storytelling medium I can recall coming in contact with on the internet was Homestuck. This webcomic, launched in 2009 and ending in 2016 with an impending epilogue as of the date this article is published, is when I could really see the tides turning in regards to what could be considered a genre/medium worthy of a fandom.
Shortly after I was exposed to Homestuck, a webcomic that I still have not read though I am familiar with its fans, I came across Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast that you’ve almost certainly heard of. In case you haven’t, Welcome to Night Vale is a surrealist cosmic horror comedy podcast created by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink starring Cecil Baldwin as the voice of the main character, a radio show host in a small town in the United States named Cecil Palmer who gives accounts of the day to day occurrences of the town that, to the listeners, is a mix of terrifying and funny but to the citizens of the town is just normal. The podcast was started in 2012 and is still going at the time of this articles publish date and has brought such an interesting question to the table in terms of fandom: what qualifies media worth a fandom?
As the show grew in popularity, so did the rise in podcasts as a mainstream form of entertainment. In fact, almost all of my friends, both internet and real life, listen to podcasts as a form of entertainment. This brings me to the subject at hand. Welcome to Night Vale, a show told entirely through audio with no visual aid has no canon descriptions of the characters in the podcast itself. In fact on the shows website under FAQs, the creators answer the question of what does X character look like with “what do YOU think they look like?”
This is not as progressive an answer as it might be heralded to be. While the creators of the show have confirmed the race of certain characters and made it a priority to cast voice actors of the appropriate race of said characters, most notably Carlos the Scientist played by Dylan Marron, because there is no canonical appearance white fans will, and do, interpret all the characters as white or light-skinned. As fact, if you google “Cecil Palmer fanart”, the resulting pages are saturated with the image of a thin, conventionally attractive, white, blonde man with glass. This is something that I have seen some fans of color refer to as the Wheatley Effect, which comes from the character from the video game Portal 2 who is literally a sphere but is anthropomorphized as a thin white blonde man with glasses (seriously, just google human Wheatley and you’ll see what I’m talking about). Now, the creators of Welcome to Night Vale are very politically and socially active, if you look at their twitters you’ll see their advocacy, but by effectively making a majority of their characters aracial, what they have done is made it easier for white fans to make their white headcanons the most popular in the fandom. Any criticism of these designs are met with cries of “but there’s no canon description, I can draw/envision them however I want!” and “people like you are the reason why fandom spaces are so toxic!”
I brought up Homestuck earlier and that wasn’t a mistake either. Homestuck is just as guilty of this as any other fandom but the added problem is that the characters do have canon appearances and they all look like this:
Unlike Welcome to Night Vale, the fans see these characters all the time and they all have white skin. Now this has apparently been countered by creator Andrew Hussie who has said that all the characters are aracial, however if you try to find the original post where Hussie states this in order to add evidence but it has been deleted off of all of his social media. I’ve been looking for screencaps but all I can find are reactions to the post and not the original post itself. Despite this weird erasure of his own answer, the kids from Homestuck were confirmed in the past to be aracial, Hussie even going as far as to change any reference to characters race that he published before his statement. There has been statements that Hussie apparently said that the characters could be interpreted as any race but black but as I have not found any evidence in my search for this claim I can not state whether or not it is true but I did want to address it as it has been a major problem in the fandom. Because of Hussie’s past statements and the canon appearance of the characters in the comic with white skin, many racist fans have used this as an opportunity to attack fans of color who draw the kids as anything other than white, claiming that it’s not canonical or that they’re pandering their designs to fit the “PC”, “SJW” views of representation and inclusion. Even drawing any of the characters as fat can garner this response. Lady Geek Girl on Wordpress have written a very eloquent article on this subject already which I’ll post the link to here:
Positive racial representation is so, so important in our popular media. This is not news-it's something we talk about…ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com
Another show that suffers from this is the popular Dungeons and Dragons podcast The Adventure Zone. I’m personally a huge fan of The Adventure Zone and the rest of the McElroy family of products and have found their humor to be very refreshing in a time where most internet comedians rely on offensive jokes. The Adventure Zone is very unique because by nature of it being a long running game of Dungeons and Dragons, that means almost the entire story is improvised. While Griffin McElroy, the Dungeon Master for The Adventure Zone’s 2+ year long run, is writing a story, the narrative is essentially at the mercy of the 3 players’ actions creating a truly unique storyline that has managed to strike the balance between goofy and heart wrenching. However, as a podcast the show suffers from the same problems as Welcome to Night Vale, perhaps even more so due the choices made by the players in the campaign, Justin, Travis, and Clint. Justin McElroy’s character is an elf wizard named Taako, pronounced like taco, who early in the series had a subplot to the main campaign to invent the taco. Many fans, especially Latinx fans, decided to interpret Taako as Mexican so that their cultural food would remain theirs. Anything else would be a hijacking of Mexican culture, having a similar feeling to Marty Mcfly writing “Johnny B. Goode”, or Forrest Gump teaching Elvis to dance. The white majority of the fandom frequently opted for white or, strangely/offensively, green interpretations of the character. This is baffling because nowhere in the entire Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook does it describe elves as being green, the only “non human” colored elves being drow, or dark elves, but even they are not green, only black, gray, or purple. In fact, Taako’s character sheet has him listed as a High Elf which comes in 2 variations, sun elves and moon elves. Actually, anyone who has a D&D Starter Set has a copy of Taako’s level 1 character sheet, as Justin and Clint chose premade characters and just added names and personalities. Anyway, I digress; here is a screencap of the Player’s Handbook’s description of High Elves (yes I have a copy of this on my computer):
What is interesting about this passage on High Elves is that one of the actual canon skin colors that High Elves have is bronze, meaning brown Taako is perfectly within the reasonable spectrum of designs. Perhaps what the problem here is white fans not wanting to be seen as racist by drawing all of the main characters of the podcast as white but not wanting to draw Taako, who was canonically described as a “feminine, ethereal beauty”, as being a person of color due to unconscious, or just hidden, prejudice so instead they opt for the “safe” option of making a Taako with an unnatural skin color. Fans of color, myself included, have expressed their distaste for these designs as a way to dodge drawing a Latinx Taako, even forming blogs and spaces just for sharing our designs and spreading positivity for those of us who do depict Taako as a brown Mexican man. The creators of the show, the McElroys, have expressed how they were uneasy to confirm any sort of image when it comes to their main characters, especially when it comes to Taako because in their words, they thought that 4 white men from West Virgina making a Mexican character called Taako was problematic.
While I can understand their hesitancy, as a Latinx person in the fandom who follows and engages in conversation about the show with other Latinx fans, I have never seen anyone take offense to this. In fact, due to how conceited Taako himself can be, it makes perfect sense that if he created this revolutionary dish that he would not waste one second naming it after himself. Yes, calling a Mexican character Taako could be a potentially disastrous thing if the entire narrative made fun of him or made him into a joke because of his Mexican-ness but it doesn’t. Taako is a complex multidimensional character who is very interesting and unique and manages to feel genuine in a story that does not take itself too seriously. He can be aloof and self-centered but also generous and kind in a way that doesn’t feel contradictory. Taako is also important to many fans because he is canonically gay and gender non-conforming. His character is very important to me personally because of this. I am a gay, Latinx, gender non-conforming person who has never seen a character in any media at all who I feel represents me and then while listening to a goofy, heartfelt D&D podcast written by 3 brothers and their father I immediately connect. Not only that, but the lore of the game even supports me in my claims, for the first time ever. I was overjoyed, and maybe that’s why the events that took place about almost 1 month ago, on June 1, 2017, hurt me so much.
For a while, the McElroys have been planning to team up with an artist and graphic novel publisher to create a comic of the first arc of The Adventure Zone podcast. Me and other fans were naturally very excited to the designs and when they were first revealed in December 2016, we were all quite disappointed. All the characters were white. Like, all of them. The fans were so disappointed that we expressed our stance to the McElroys themselves who responded with “We’ll do better” and went to go fix the designs. On June 1st, the year of our Lord 2017, they posted these as the final designs:
Yikes. Just. Yikes. This was the nightmare scenario me and every other fan of color was hoping wouldn’t happen. Personally, the biggest bone I have to pick is with Carey Pietsch, the artist. She hasn’t drawn a single person of color in her entire history as a fan artist of this show. She just hasn’t. In fact, I think that Merle is the first black person I’ve ever seen her draw. I remember a while ago scrolling through her art tumblr and just being blinded by how white all the art was. I think the only time I’ve seen her draw a character on this show as anything darker than Magnus in this picture was Kravitz but he was shoved almost “Where’s Waldo” style into a large crowd scene. Not to mention her idea of fixing Taako’s skin color was to change it to something that historically has been associated with antisemitism. I’ve never really been a fan of hers and I’m certainly not alone in that opinion. Many times fans of color have tried to call out Carey but been met people saying that calling her out is somehow misogynistic or homophobic because she’s a gay woman, as though those things can absolve someone of racism. Next on my list is the McElroys themselves. One person of color is not representation, it’s tokenism. Merle has now become the token black man. They expressed on their blog why making Merle black made sense to them and I’m not even mad at that, Merle canonically being someone who grew up on a beach and thus being of color makes sense. What I do have a problem with is that this all could be solved by making at least one more character here of color. A Magnus of color would have been great, his backstory being that of a man who fought a tyrannical leader and is a folk hero would have been amazing. You all know how I feel about a Taako of color, so I won’t expand any further here. There is a huge difference between representation and tokenism. The McElroys put out a great t-shirt with a brown Taako on it but as other fans noted, because the graphic novel is so much easier to market than a podcast, the designs in the comic are going to become popular, more popular than the t-shirt design.
Ultimately, the problem here is ambiguous representation. When creators are reluctant to confirm or deny that their characters are a part of a marginalized identity it doesn’t matter how progressive your media is, it will always be saturated by interpretations that are not progressive. If you keep your character aracial, white fans are going to read that as white. If you refuse to say a character is LGBT+, straight/cis fans are going to read that as straight/cis. Any other interpretation will be seen as fringe or trying to force diversity or projecting. A lot of creators, especially white creators, worry too much about alienating white fans by adding characters of color but I can assure you, if you market it, people will consume it. I’m a Maximum Fun donor, meaning I donate money that helps The Adventure Zone get made and I chose to do this because I felt like the community was one where I could belong. The McElroys emphasize a community where no one is left out but by choosing the designs for these characters, what they have told me is that their white anxiety is more important than me feeling accepted. I’m not saying that every single content creator has to bend to my will but what I am saying is throw me a bone here. I’m still a fan of the show because I’m so invested in the story at this point but I do not at all fault fans of color who have jumped ship because of this. I’ve seen fans of this show branch off to create their own D&D podcasts in order to see representation and to give that to others. I know that no one is going to get it right every single time but that doesn’t mean that marginalized fans don’t have the right to inform creators, especially self-proclaimed progressive creators, when they get it wrong.