The Problems with Peni Parker
(This essay was originally written before I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. After seeing the movie, I still believe my critique of the stylistic choices largely holds up. Great movie, but like many great movies, there may be some issues worth considering. I’ve added notes throughout to strengthen some of the initial points. Last edits were made 01/23/2019-DJF)
I normally write for websites like BlackYouthProject and Racebaitr, but after I realized the problems with Peni Parker, I thought it was important to share what I know to a more general audience. I haven’t seen Enter The Spider-Verse, but I think it’s safe to make some inferences based on the advertisements alone.
The story of how I figured out the problems with Peni Parker began with a news story about how the Spider-Verse sequel would focus on a budding romance between the Black Latino Spider-Man, Miles Morales and the White Spider-Gwen, Gwen Stacy. Cue eye roll: This kind of pairing is overdone. Not only that, Black women have consistently been underrepresented in both the superhero genre and in being depicted as desirable in a humanizing way by men of both their own race or any race. There was a chance to correct this in Spider-Verse, but that’s not something I would expect them to think to do. Both in terms of Black women superheroes and Black women as romantic interests. Hell, I’m still waiting for Funko to make a Misty Knight pop.
But in the absence of this, they could at least refrain from electing white women to be the vanguards of “girl power” relative to women of color, or not once again depicting them as the epitome of beauty, desirability, and/or normalcy relative to women of color. In fact, it’s particularly timely to do otherwise, right? Right now it’s in vogue to positively represent Asian Americans, right? So I thought, “ugh, why can’t they have a Miles/Peni romance? They’re both in high school, right?” CNET tells me that Peni is 14 in the movie, and Cinemablend tells me that Miles is also 13 while Gwen is 16.
When I dug further into the advertisements and surrounding material of Spider-Verse, I realized that Peni Parker (voiced by Kimiko Glenn) is a Japanese American girl who had basically been turned into a 2-D anime Toon from Who Framed Roger Rabbit while everyone else except her and Spider-Ham is Human™, or rather… American. They’ll try to justify that the anime influence is because of the character’s Japanese, anime-inspired heritage, but this argument falls flat for at least three reasons.
First, Peni Parker’s anime stylistic heritage in the comics is that of the films like Akira and shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, not this “kawaii” style that in context, singles out and infantilizes her relative to the more Western, “serious,” Human™, American heroes.
Second, the character is Japanese American, not a girl living in Japan. There’s literally no reason she has to be wearing a Japanese schoolgirl uniform throughout, and if there was a character-driven reason for her behavior and dress, none was given. (Definitely no reason to initially introduce herself as though she stepped out of an undubbed anime. -DJF) But here she is, being an otaku fever dream. Even now, depraved corners of the internet have dubbed her “Spider-Loli.” No, I’m not going to provide a link. You’re just going to have to take my word for it.
(The infantalizing, Othering design and characterization choices were specifically conducive to this.
I recognized both versions of the character wear a uniform, but the film version’s uniform was designed to compliment a specific infantalizing archetype, unlike the comic book version.
I also recognized other characters in the movie wore uniforms. However, those characters were otherwise Human, 3-D characters who happened to wear school uniforms during school hours. Their uniforms didn’t set them apart. Her school uniform, on the other hand, sets her apart from the other Spider-Heroes.)
Film Peni’s uniform is part of the whole character, the whole “costume.” It’s supposed to support and emphasize Peni’s infantalizing “cuteness” relative to the other heroic characters. -DJF)
But this isn’t surprising because Yellow Asian women and girls are de/hypersexualized in such a way that frames them as inherently rapeable-children, regardless of actual age. Conversely, Black African women and girls are de/hypersexualized in such a way that frames them as inherently unrapeable-adults, regardless of actual age. Both of these result in rape/sexual assault of WoC, but for different and related reasons.
Third, they’ll also justify by saying that the film needed even more comic relief, but that seems to imply that you can’t have a supporting character be funny, Japanese-American, anime influenced, and 3-D at the same time. This isn’t a Japanese character being humorous. This is a character’s Japanese-ness as the source of humor. (Unlike Noir, whose ultra-violent source material HAD to made more kid-friendly with humor, or Spider-Pig that’s pure absurdism.-DJF)
This is definitely a kind of Orientalism, but does this mean that Miles and by extension, Black Americans are the beneficiaries of Orientalism? To the untrained eye, it might seem as though Black Americans have a kind of “privilege” over Asian Americans in that we’re not racialized as “foreign” in the same way Brown and Yellow Asians are, but think about how it probably never entered your or the director’s minds to use animation influences from classic Black cartoons in influence Mile’s animation style. There’s a whole host of stylic influences they could have chosen from to visually represent Mile’s heritage in that he’s part of a line of Black people in animation that we’d all know, recognize, and connect with going all the way back to Fat Albert. This claim also ignores Black/Afro Asians who would be subject to anti-Blackness, colorism, and Orientalism at the same time. The failure to “other” us represents another kind of disrespect. Black people aren’t Western or American in the same way white people are.
The only way they can imagine being comfortable with us is if they treat as a extensions of them, creations of them, loyal to them, having no worthwhile past independently of them. Extensions of their political projects and political projections, and everything we create as something they basically created and subject to their taking ownership, literally and/or figuratively. If they seriously considered that we, in any significant way, don’t belong to them, then they’d be more than happy to use Black animation influences, but do so in such a way that reminds us that Whiteness/Westernness/Americanness (The Occident) is the path to being seen as more/fully/properly Human™ and that Blackness is the bottom of the barrel. (I use the term “Occidental” to encompass both Western and Eastern White people such as Russians who, like their White American counterparts, gave smallpox to Indigenous Asian peoples of Siberia.) Not only would Blackness be the bottom of the barrel, it would be nakedly evident that Blackness/Africanness is the bottom of the barrel that makes the whole barrel workable as a container for the proverbial “crabs in a barrel”. With this understanding, the key to escape is freeing the bottom of the barrel. Everything else will tumble out. But that involves proper differentiation, workable appreciation for how we’re other to each other and to Whiteness.
Being othered by Occidentals wouldn’t be a problem if they, as a people, weren’t so invested in commanding, conquering or consuming “The Other.” That’s why we dread being “othered” by them. That’s why Liberals tie their minds in pretzels to turn us all into “Americans” and tell themselves we’re just like them. Or argue about our utility to the U.S. economy. When you’re “other” to White people, you’re a person or free entity they’re afraid of. If you’re not “other” to Occidentals, you’re someone who is, on some axis, safe to them because of your relative unfreedom.
Black Americans (Akata) are not property of or extensions of White Americans, so why not also give Miles a radically different animation style that would make it logistically and thematically weird for any romance between him and Gwen to happen? Why does the affirmation of Gwen’s Humanity and beauty and grace depend on the contrast between her and a literally two-dimensional, de/hyper-sexualized Peni Parker who was VERY different in the comics? Why not a equal friendship between the two characters? Especially now of all times?
It’s because of White Feminism, which is ultimately a Liberal arm of White Supremacy. Liberal White Supremacy is the maintenance of White Supremacy via pacification and diplomacy instead of through brute force alone, the “Good Cop” to the Conservative “Bad Cop.” They’re trying to seduce us into White Feminism. They’re literally trying seduce us into White Feminism using Miles as wish fulfillment for Black boys. Their hope is that we’d be too in love with the movie and with Rose, I mean… Gwen, to want to overthrow them. But even this calculated concession is painful to so many white people. They hate losing. They hate having to work so hard to pacify Black people, and they REALLY hate having to pacify all of us different racial/ethnic groups at the same time. They hate not being the hegemony. They’ll always find ways to reassert themselves. Always. Gwen is their re-assertion, so Peni had to be the armrest. (We would immediately notice and cry foul if Gwen was turned into a ‘Disney Princessified’ 2-D character regardless of how entertaining the final product was, and the excuses they roll out for Peni’s depiction would immediately fall flat and for good reason.-DJF)
That’s why interracial romances in mainstream media always have to involve White people. The way Peni is drawn and depicted, someone would have to be some perverted, pedophilic incel loser to be attracted to her, right? And that’s just being attracted to her, but to actually be IN LOVE her? She’s not even *real* like the *more American* characters are. Not like Gwen is. She’s not framed as a respectable potential option by the narrative or animation style. Not like Gwen is. It would be bizarre visually and thematically for this Toon to be with a non-Toon. But Miles and Gwen? They’re both *Americans*. They’re both *real*. But I’m like, “Ew. Don’t touch me.” The only “realness” they recognize is the borrowed institution they’ve wrapped us in, but then it’s not really us they recognize as “real,” is it? And they only wrap us in said institution when it’s convenient or useful for the maintenance of their power and hegemony. Now is one of those times.
Blackness is un-Human by itself, so they need to wrap us in some borrowed institution to even fathom granting us any kind of rights or privileges in this system. Here, Americanism is the borrowed institution. Law enforcement or military membership are popular borrowed institutions. (In the context of the movie, “Spider-Man” is but another borrowed institution.-DJF) Relationships with non-Black people, particularly White people, can also act as a borrowed institution. I call it a “Pinocchio Complex” when we’ve internalized a sense of inHumanity™ or lessened Humanity™ that only love from an Occidental or non-Black person or institution (his or her “Blue Fairy”) can assuage.
But for a Black man with misogynoiristic hang-ups and a “Pinocchio Complex” looking for his “Blue Fairy,” a non-Black woman of color could represent freedom from both his own inHumanity™ as well as from captivity to Whiteness. That’s right, despite cosmetic similarities, Black men and White men’s fetishization of Asian women or Asianness have VERY different histories and drives behind them. I don’t condone either, but this is another example of how we’re not essentially extensions of Whiteness. Black problematicness is essentially different from White problematicness because we are essentially “other” than them and should be treated as such.
So with this in mind, I’d rather Miles be animated in a style that would make it thematically and visually bizarre to make him a potential love interest for Gwen, because at least then he’s free from Whiteness. Too bizarre to neatly fit in with the White characters. At least then, they’re acknowledging we don’t belong to them. If this is what it is to be a “real boy,” then turn me back into wood. I’ll embrace what I am, what I’m made of, and exert my autonomy within my capacity as puppet. And then I will win.
This failure to recognize OUR otherness is but another form of deeply entrenched anti-Blackness. Our protests and our anger are regularly framed as primarily the result of Jewish machinations or Russian machinations. And to Asians, it’s hard for some of you to imagine we might have issues with you indepently of White xenophobic propaganda. But surely you can recognize that free Black men might have had anxieties about Irish newcomers indepently of Anglo anxieties about Irish newcomers. Initially they weren’t considered White, but with enough dedication, they collectively became White as they didn’t JUST get here. Looking back, any such Black anxieties would have been more than justified and this has happened to us many times over the course of centuries. And even if you can never fully become White, maybe you can hope to integrate alongside Whiteness, hope to be considered separate but equal to Whiteness and this can be just as bad if not worse in its own way. Imagine: Equality to Emperor Palpatine within the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. If any such Black anxieties are misdirected or misguided, I think some burden lies on newcomers to pro-actively demonstrate that they don’t have the same or similar ambitions and drives as Irish Americans. But many of you can’t do that because you DO have the same ambitions and drives as Irish Americans. I hope this can change, though. The truth is that we’re under captivity here and we need refuge from the place that you’re going to as a place of refuge. We all need refuge, though. We all need escape. But Whiteness can’t be that for anyone, ultimately.
To White people, the kind of facilitation of our escape that Asianness could represent to their Livestock is too much of a loss of control for them to handle. So they’ll try to keep us all happy and pacified, but never all at once, never without them, and never without their puppet strings.
If you were to bring these things up to them, they’ll find the most entertaining ways to deflect. For example, the man who directed the The Birth of a Nation also directed a film called Broken Blossoms with a sympathetic Chinese male lead (played by a white guy) to prove that he wasn’t racist. Yes. This literally happened. And it was perfectly fine to them. It’s all PR. It’s all damage control. It’s all image maintenance. Sometimes their image matters more to some groups of people more than others. What seems like greater care and concern for Black suffering compared to less visible groups is them working overtime to pacify us because they know we’ll blow this whole American project wide open if they drop the ball too badly and take alot of them (and their accomplices) down with us in the process if we died trying to tear it down. We know scientifically and from firsthand deadly medical racism they don’t care about our pain unless they’re forced to care.
After the release of Spider-Verse, the Korean American Spider-person “Silk” is getting her own movie and will be featured in another. She’ll probably be featured in a more humanizing, 3-D way, but this means nothing. If they can’t use all kinds of Asians as an Orientalist armrest, they’ll find a group that they can use. Whether it be along racial lines (Brown vs Yellow), linguistic lines (speakers of Chinglish vs speakers of more “proper” English), or national and ethnic lines (Japanese vs Korean vs Chinese). This is the role Peni serves here: The Orientalist armrest. This is how in Xiaolin Showdown, we had a Chinese boy (Omi) who was essentially a Yellowface caricature fighting alongside a more human-looking Japanese girl (Kimiko). Few, if any parents or advocacy groups thought to make a fuss about it. Or if they did, little if any media attention was given to it.
That being said, Xiaolin Showdown WAS created by Han Chinese woman, Christy Hui. Y’all definitely reserve the right to self-Orientalize/minstrel it up for Occidental audiences. Condescend to them. Get that bread. That’s how we did it. I said in my previously linked essay that all Black performance to Occidental audiences is some degree of Black minstrelsy. Similarly could be argued of Asian performance to White audiences in regard to self-Orientalism. But I think it’s nonetheless important to comment on the kinds of images they’re most eager to consume, pay for, and what it says about them. (Same could be said of any PoC involvement in Enter the Spider-Verse.-DJF)
I’ve learned alot about white people and how they operate over the course of more intently studying the range of experiences Asian Americans have with them. And the reason I care is because, more and more, I’m understanding that how you guys are racialized is inextricably tied to how we’re racialized, and vice-versa. Unless, between all of us, we gain the insights necessary to see through and shut down their machinations.
So to all of us, regardless of how great Spider-Verse is as a whole:
Stay ungrateful to them. Stay unpacified by them. Stay complaining to them.
Don’t keep Quiet about them.
The movie has done pretty well for itself, and many Afro-Latino children feel well-represented and happy right now because of how the movie handled Miles Morales. I’m glad for them, but I can simultaneously be mistrustful of whatever project they’re harvesting our happiness for. I can be simultaneously feel empathy for any Asians who felt slighted by the problems with Peni Parker and now feel they have to keep a lid on it for our sake. You don’t.
I haven’t seen the movie in theaters, but it’s done pretty well for itself regardless. If you want to enjoy it despite the problems with Peni Parker (and you owe it to yourself to siphon whatever enjoyment you can from these people), then see if you can see it outside of theaters, if you catch my drift. It doesn’t need any more of our support at this point.
We’re all free to speak up about the problems with Peni Parker.
#YouAreNotMyEnemy …As long as we stay “other” from them while committing to hard, complicated understanding, caring, sharing, and solidarity. (And don’t use the n-word.)
(And to twist a quote from Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker… It’s not Spider-Man that makes you worthwhile, it’s the other way around. Don’t tell yourselves or your children anything different.-DJF)