The past two years have been significant for representations of diversity in Hollywood. Wonder Woman, Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have all generated discussion — and succeeded at the box office — for commercially focused films centred on women and people of colour. While Aquaman has been a surprise hit financially, it is also ground-breaking for its depictions of a mixed race superhero, Arthur Curry aka Aquaman, played by the real life mixed race actor Jason Momoa, and what this means for both mixed race representation and the fantasy industry.
Characters of mixed ancestry in fantasy and science fiction works are not new. In fact, this is a trope with a long history. Both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter feature heroes of mixed human and superhuman descent — Aragorn and Harry Potter respectively — who use their heritage to bring unique bridging and conciliatory leadership to their worlds. In more recent examples, the Netflix TV Series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has also involved a titular character whose parents married across cultural boundaries, with her father being a warlock and her mother a regular human woman. In all cases, the characters have been marked as ‘special’ or ‘chosen’ due to their mixed heritages, and this fantasy of the old colonial concept of hybrid vigour has been indulged in to depict super-human characters who can save the world.
What is significant about all of these examples, however, is that the characters, and the actors who portray them, have been racialised as white, even as very real-world racial slurs regarding mixed race people are directed at them. As a woman of mixed race, I felt incredibly uncomfortable watching the character of Sabrina, depicted as a white blonde teenager, being called a “Half-Breed” for her mortal and magical heritage by two actresses of colour who portray ‘pure’ witches. In a similar way, Harry Potter is a half-blood in a prejudiced wizarding world, while being depicted as a white English boy. The problem with these portrayals is that, while they position themselves as against discrimination, they nevertheless appropriate the experiences of mixed race people for whiteness. The fantasy allows the white body to both claim hybridity and experience the victimisation of racism, as well as occupying the role of multiple and ‘special,’ while those with actual racialised bodies and a lived experience of mixed race heritage are excluded from representation. This is especially evident in the Harry Potter Universe, with its fixation on magical racism, and its questionable treatment of actual actors and characters of colour.
Aquaman is notable for its explicit links between the fantasies of hybridity and the lived experience of mixed race people. It is also the first to feature a mixed race actor as the titular superhero, with appropriate casting for his parents. Much like other examples of mixed heritage superheroes, Aquaman, named Arthur Curry, is the child of a human man and the Queen of Atlantis, a mythical underwater kingdom. Significantly, his human father is played by Temuera Morrison, while his mother is played by Nicole Kidman. The real-world interracial aspect of their relationship mirrors the ethnic divide of the fantasy-world, as does the casting of Jason Momoa, an actor of Hawaiian, European and Native American ancestry who identifies as being mixed race. Significantly, however, Arthur Curry’s Polynesian and Caucasian heritage is presented as part of who he is without tokenism. It is clear in Arthur’s tattoos, jewellery and physical behaviour that Polynesian culture plays a large role in his life, however this is not a site of clumsy stereotype or curiosity. Arthur Curry is multiracial in the human world and is accepted as such, which is a positive undercurrent to the film’s fantasy racism.
Like many science fiction and fantasy films, Aquaman engages with two historic mixed race stereotypes: that of hybrid vigour, and that of tragedy. Mera and Queen Atlanna see Arthur as the “bridge between land and sea,” whose mixed heritage makes him uniquely placed to lead Atlantis and restore peace between two worlds. King Orm, many other Atlanteans, and even the supernatural beast the Karathen, see Arthur as a “half-breed,” a “mongrel” and a “drunk” who has tainted blood. To them, Arthur is torn between two worlds, belonging nowhere. He is a creature who should not have been born into existence, a sentiment that Arthur, especially as a child, internalises.
During the height of race science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the idea that a mixed race person was stronger, culturally adept and more beautiful, while simultaneously destined for treachery, exclusion, alchoholism and tragedy, was a common one. This idea still haunts dominant conversations about mixed race identity today. Mixed race people are seen as — and often unduly pressured to be — attractive physical specimens who hail the end of racism and bridge cultural divides. They are perceived as being born in what Zadie Smith calls “Dream City,” and as embodying racial and cultural harmony. At the same time, they are also seen as being prone to identity crises, as being torn between two worlds, and as being untrustworthy and potentially betraying ‘their kind’ (the suspicions directed at Barack Obama and, more recently, Meghan Markle, are prime examples of this).
Aquaman delves into these stereotypes and pressures. While the Atlanteans revile and reject Arthur for his mixed race background, they nevertheless claim him enough to call him a traitor for turning against his own kind, demonstrating the unpredictable nature of conditional inclusion and exclusion that mixed race people often experience. Similarly, Mera and Vulko pressure Arthur to take the crown of Atlantis, believing his heritage makes him special and uniquely placed to diffuse inter-ethnic conflict.
While Aquaman cannot wholly resist the allure of Dream City and the celebratory idea of mixedness in its conclusion of Arthur as mixed heritage King, Arthur’s choice to pursue the Trident of King Atlan has different motivations. He remains ambivalent towards his heritage and the obligations placed upon him, and his final choice to take up the trident occurs after his mother allays concerns over his guilt at having been born, and tells him to be a hero who “fights for everyone.”
Significantly, in his conflict with the beast guarding Atlan’s trident, Arthur claims his identity as a ‘half-breed mongrel,’ re-appropriating historic racial slurs against mixed race people. He then emphasises both his ambivalence towards Atlantis and his ability to accept this ambivalence without letting it rule him, while making his decision to take on the kingship in order to defend his family and his emotional connections across national and racial borders.
As a woman of mixed race, I was prepared for, at best, for a clumsy handling of mixed race identity — one that was sanitised for comfortable audience consumption, one that was overwhelming in its portrayal of a celebratory, ‘post-racial’ experience. At worst, I expected something potentially offensive, or the complete erasure of the complexities of mixed race experience. Instead, while Aquaman may be a formula-film where the ‘good guys’ are pre-destined to win, it nevertheless has something to say about the mixed race experience and it goes some way to redressing the balance in the depiction of mixed heritages in fantasy and science fiction. In watching Aquaman I winced, as I always do, to hear the racial slurs of “half-breed” and “mongrel,” but for the first time I saw them being levied at an actor and character who knew and understood their weight. And, equally for the first time, when that same actor re-claimed those slurs as a positive part of his identity, and took one step further than the hopes that he would merely unite “land and sea” to make the decision to fight “for everyone,” I felt identification, empathy and pride.
This pride is, of course, tempered by the same ambivalence Arthur demonstrates at the close of the film, when, upon taking up the kingship, he ruefully asks, “What now?” The ability to walk between worlds and hold multiple voices in your throat, while loving your multiracial self and leading a nation in ethno-centric times, is difficult. As is continuing to hold an “ambivalent view of human selves,” while headlining a blockbuster Comic-book sequel. Let’s hope James Wan, Jason Momoa and the DC Universe, can continue to depict a hero who fights for “everyone.”