Here’s the thing about women, people of color, and gender queer characters growing closer to the spotlight and taking center stage in entertainment: Most industries, for decades, have been dominated by white men. I’m an artist, I earned my degree in Cartooning, that required I take a history of cartooning class, I sat through lectures on dusty white men for 3 hours once a week. It wasn’t that the subject wasn’t fascinating, but industries such as comics, animation, and video games were once very much “boys club.” But the world is changing and I find that the gatekeepers of the “club” are very often occupying the wide center of a Venn diagram alongside those who say current entertainment is “too political.”
Nearly a decade ago, I observed Call of Duty: World At War’s Nazi Zombies gameplay, a debut hoard mode where your goal is to destroy undead Axis Powers soldiers; Wolfenstein has always been about “what if the Nazis won and took over the world, wouldn’t that suck?” The snarky, beloved Indiana Jones quite regularly thwarted Nazi attempts to obtain dangerously powerful mystic artifacts. So when exactly did people stop noticing the pretty obvious political message (Nazis = bad) in their media and some decide to start marching in the night with torches yelling “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!”
Captain America gets a lot of flack these days, but his history seems to fit the facets of his current mainstream presence. He literally punched Hitler. He expressed disdain at the very idea of deterring students from exercising their right to protest. And yet years later, when Sam Wilson takes up the mantle and faces off with the xenophobic, KKK-esque Sons of the Serpent (who also hold previous malevolent significance in Marvel comic history,) there was uproar. Countless pieces of media have specifically made out the Nazi regime as the truest embodiment of evil in real world history… so when the hell did this change?
Recently, I spoke with a lovely friend who has often discussed with/taught me about the subject of Judaism and representation in media. I asked her what she thought of Markus Meechan’s case in Scotland and having been charged with a hate crime (short version: he made a video joking about how his girlfriend won’t shut up about how cute her pug is, so he’d teach him to be a nazi.) To her, the “hate crime” label is extreme, but there was a much more important issue that Meechan’s comedy steps into: Turning a (very unfortunate and increasingly) real threat such as Nazis into a joke can be a great way to fight that hate and ignorance or a very dangerous benefit for them.
The Holocaust was one of the most indescribably horrific events in history, the Nazi regime systematically murdered millions of not just Jewish people, but anyone who didn’t fit their ideology of what was to be a sole superior race. To turn the Nazis into a joke is not inherently bad and satire is meant to be a clever, magnificent tool to punch up at oppressors. The tricky part is the landing; bad satire can appear to punch down at those being oppressed, such as certain satirical anti-muslim comic strips produced by Charlie Hebdo (side note, to criticize those works is to by no means to advocate for the tragedy that befell those working for the publication.)
My friend and I concluded the following: “the problem isn’t making Nazis the butt of jokes, but there a problem with Nazis being a default fictional villain without really showing /what/ makes them so awful besides what they call themselves to the point where people end up seeing Nazis as something fictional more than as real life evil…If you’re gonna talk about nazis in media, they need to be able to display their evil in at least some context to be understood first before they can be mocked [or fought against] properly.” Furthermore, “It’s like you go through a movie where there’s a bad guy, but the good ones will show you what makes him bad. His methods, his ideology. Loki wanted to subjugate the entire population of Earth on behalf of Thanos, who seeks to achieve peace through randomly selected genocide. Families torn apart, lives destroyed. They explain why Thanos sucks first through Gamora and Nebula, then by his own words. You show Nazis are bad because they slaughtered millions of people in the name of creating a ‘perfect race/populace’… how cold and calculated that was. It’s insidious on its own. X-Men First Class managed to pull that off [concisely] in my opinion with young Erik Lensherr [in Auschwitz]“
So yes, there is a lot of politics in media these days, but those who seem bothered by it either, understandably, are maybe just looking for escapism in general from this stressful reality or, what I’ve been seeing more of, these people aren’t used to having the real-life truth of true human apathy/cruelty. I’d hope the latter will consider that part of their discomfort in such plainly stated true evil is because they see parallels in their own beliefs, thus initiating some healthy self-reflection.
Let’s wrap this up on a lighter note: Have you ever noticed that marginalized groups are almost always entirely focused on inclusion when it comes to entertainment? FlameCon strives for accessibility and love in its diversity, black cosplayers such as Wonder-Woman-4-Hire encourage young children to see the heroes in themselves, Black Panther gives black people of all ages a sense of pride.
Casting Deadpool 2, thus changing Domino’s race and giving her Vitiligo, both gives the character a little extra realism as to her appearance and gives black women another incredible lady of fiction to identify with. By all means criticize the way politics and diversity is handled, no crime in things like saying the fourth powerpuff girl, a black character, had a weak story. Even better if the criticism is constructive! But politics and identity have always had a place in entertainment, especially comics, and the people making them in and around the mainstream aren’t just straight, white guys anymore. If nothing else, the ability to see great characters you can really relate to is a beautiful thing.
Freelance cartoonist, illustrator, & writer
School of Visual Arts Alumna