Theory

Racebending fandoms and digital futurism

Elizabeth Gilliland

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA

[0.1] Abstract—Online fan art can be a way for communities to celebrate a particular fandom, characters, or relationships; yet though these pieces have been studied for their ability to create community and express identity, one area that has yet to be fully explored in connection to fan art is as a form of activism. The racebending movement on Tumblr suggests an effort by fans to reclaim books, films, and television from the whitewashing that often takes place in the entertainment industry. In particular, this project explores Tumblr art devoted to recasting popular fiction with people of color, and how this activism has ties to movements such as Afrofuturism, as well as relating the history of the term "racebending" itself. I will examine how these recastings are performed to gauge the intention behind them, and to trace how they are being used as a commentary on society. I believe these rewritings of popular fandoms not only indicate a desire by fans to see more portrayals of diversity, but are also in essence creating an ethno-futuristic space. Though for the most part, the television and film industries continue to whitewash their programming, these fans protest that notion through creating their diversified fan art; in essence, rejecting the homogenous entertainment of the past and present in favor of a self-made, heterogeneous future.

[0.2] Keywords—Afrofuturism; Fan works; Fan art; Fan casting; Tumblr

Gilliland, Elizabeth. 2016. "Racebending Fandoms and Digital Futurism." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2016.0702.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The future is white—or so, it seems, Hollywood would have us believe. In most depictions of future societies, whether on a dystopian Earth, an intergalactic spaceship, or even on planets and in solar systems in realities removed entirely removed from our own, the characters are predominantly white, and the stories and ideals they perpetuate are widely Westernized in their depictions. As Malisa Kurtz explains, "SF's emergence as a predominantly white, male tradition is reflected in narratives that excluded women, people of color, and the 'Third World'" (2014, 177). When characters who fall outside this bracket of whiteness are included in the narrative, they are often killed off or exoticized/hyper-sexualized; or they remain in largely supportive roles, seemingly included to act as the token person of color.

[1.2] To elucidate this notion, it would probably be easier to find exceptions than to list the vast amount of science fiction media and literature that falls into this category. The film industry, in particular, seems to shy away from depictions of a non-Westernized, non-whitewashed future, with Hollywood "construct(ing) whiteness as the norm in comparison to which all 'Others' necessarily fail" (Kilgore 2014, 31). Tumblr user browngirlsintherain's poem "White Only" further expounds on this idea:

[1.3] Hollywood has no problem
Finding people of color
To play terrorists, thugs,
And mindless villains

But casting one to be a hero
Sorry,
Those roles are reserved
For the actors and actresses
Who are the best for the part
But why does that always translate to
Sorry
These roles are white only.

[1.4] It is not only Hollywood that chooses to cast in these terms; rather, this seems to be a larger problem, particularly in terms of genre fiction. Ytasha L. Womack elucidates:

[1.5] It's one thing when black people aren't discussed in world history… But when, even in the imaginary future—a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky Way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking apes, and time machines—people can't fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years into the future, a cosmic foot has to be put down. (2013, 7)

[1.6] In some ways, that foot has been put down, but from a rather unexpected source. Various fan communities have embraced online spaces, and Tumblr in particular, as a site to re-envision the future. Users on the site frequently "fan cast" (recast an established book, series, franchise, and so forth, with one's own preferred choices) people of color into markedly white fandoms, and connect these pieces of artwork with the hashtag #racebending to unite across these fandoms into one shared community.

[1.7] The pervasiveness of these fan casting experiments on Tumblr (including hundreds of individual posts, as well as blogs devoted to fan art dealing exclusively with this movement) suggests that a demand for diverse casting exists that Hollywood isn't answering. Even more notable, these pieces of fan art indicate a dissatisfaction with a society in which white is constructed as the unquestionable norm to which all other cultures must conform. Through the diversified reshapings of popular culture touchstones, these fans are creating an online space which rejects the homogenous entertainment of the past and present in favor of a self-made, heterogeneous future.

2. A history of racebending

[2.1] The racebending movement began as a result of the 2010 live-action film of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–8). The characters in the television series are coded as ambiguously Asian. Since they exist in a world outside our own, they do not conform to any specific markers of Asian culture or heritage; but through physical appearance, costuming choices, and folk references, they appear to be embodying a sort of Asian conglomeration. As such, the live film version received major backlash from fans when virtually all white actors were cast in these roles. Though one of the characters was eventually recast with British-Indian actor Dev Patel, and the franchise was taken over by Indian-American director M. Night Shyamalan, fans continued to protest the overwhelmingly white cast.

[2.2] One shape this protest took was the formation of a site called Racebending.com (along with a community of the same name on LiveJournal), which is described in further detail by Lori Lopez:

[2.3] The name was a playful riff on the notion of "bending" that was an important part of the universe of The Last Airbender—each tribe is based on a natural element, and individuals known as "Benders" have the ability to manipulate that element…By referencing "bending" the activists mark their fandom and attachment to the world of the franchise, even as they use the same term to articulate their frustration with an industry where roles are systematically taken from Asian Americans and given to white actors. (2012, 433)

[2.4] A major source for this protest, Lopez further explains, is that "'racebending' can be seen as more than simply changing the race of a character: it is changing the race of characters of color to white for reasons of marketability"—a phenomena that remains a fairly common occurrence in the world of filmmaking. For example, in discussing the recasting of the titular role in the popular BBC series Doctor Who, author Chuck Wendig expresses his frustration at the string of white male actors who have filled the role: "Doctor Who is a show about a character whose very flesh is transitive. This character has carried across multiple iterations so far—this role is tailor-made to see actors and actresses who are not white dudes" (2013). Yet as of the current 12 iterations of the doctor, all have been played by white men. A similar frustration can be viewed in actor Donald Glover's campaign to portray Spider-Man in a recent reboot of the franchise (Truitt 2014)—a role that eventually went to a white British actor, Andrew Garfield (note 1).

[2.5] Perhaps as a result of these continuing issues of whitewashing in film, the legacy of Racebending.com continues to live on, despite the fact that six years have passed since the film's release. The site itself, along with the associated LiveJournal community, remained fairly active and influential for quite some time, populated by "daily posts written by a large number of community members and an extremely active base of commenters turning each post into a rousing debate" (Lopez 2012, 437). This debate eventually progressed beyond merely the instance of whitewashing in this one particular franchise, and also began looking closely at other occurrences within the entertainment industry. As the LiveJournal community site explains, its purpose is to be "advocates for artists from underrepresented groups by featuring their talents—and researching why they face discrimination, and how to stop it." Part of this activism included branching out into other mediums to spread the word, accomplished by the use of the hashtag #racebending on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. On Tumblr in particular, this movement has begun to take on a life independent of the original meaning suggested by the Last Airbender fandom, in which "racebending" translated to characters of color being cast as white. Instead, racebending has become the code word for fan casting characters of color into traditionally white franchises. Searching under the hashtag #racebending can begin to offer an idea of just how far this community reaches, and how prevalent this practice has become, with multiple posts being added every day (note 2).

3. Legacies of the past

[3.1] The impetus behind this racebending movement is not unique to online culture, and it would be remiss to not include at least a brief history of similar movements that have been taking place for years in film, literature, and music, most notably Afrofuturism and the subset of other ethno-futurisms (including Chicano-futurism, Asian-futurism, and so forth). For the purposes of streamlining these into a cohesive history that can be used to prefigure the racebending movement, I will address Afrofuturism in particular, and detail how racebending may be seen to follow a similar pattern in its methods.

[3.2] "Afrofuturism" was a term originally used in 1991 by Mark Dery and which soon came to encompass an entire movement of studying literature, film, and music. Yet precisely what it purports to encompass has varied as scholars have delved deeper into its possibilities. In its strictest form, Afrofuturism might be viewed as any text that explores the future of people of African descent, as well as how that future reflects the reality of today and/or the realities of the past. Lisa Yaszek elaborates: "Afrofuturist artists are interested in recovering lost black histories and thinking about how those histories inform a whole range of black cultures today. They also want to think about how these histories and cultures might inspire new visions of tomorrow" (2015).

[3.3] However, Afrofuturism does not stop at merely depicting more colorful futures; another important tenet of the movement is using these depictions of the future as a strong critique of the present, working to make the world we live in better now. By encouraging the reader to challenge these visions of the future—and, in turn, to challenge the society of now that might allow (or prevent) such a future from existing—Afrofuturism does more than just present a diverse future; it works to redress some of the deeply rooted prejudices and biases that exist in society's present. Walidah Imarisha describes this movement as being "vital" for the process of decolonization, "because the decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless" (2015, 4). One of the most important ways in which Afrofuturism does this is to simply make black faces more visible. As Sheree R. Thomas explains, "People have always been frightened by what they cannot see—and the specter of blackness looms large in the white imagination" (2000, 5). With police brutality in the headlines and cases like Michael Brown and Eric Garner proving just how dangerous preconceived notions of the Other can be, the necessity of people from diverse backgrounds to have their voices heard has become even more paramount.

[3.4] To claim that racebending accomplishes the same work as Afro- and other ethno-futurisms would not only be false, but a disservice to the history and struggle behind these movements. Rather, racebending might be seen as one of the results of these movements, and a reflection that the work performed by the authors and artists involved has begun to make a ripple effect into pop culture, fandoms, and online communities. As such, it may be helpful to look at ways in which other results of these movements have proven to be problematic, and sometimes even detrimental toward the cause which they purport to promote. For instance, one of the major difficulties of the Afrofuturist movement centers around the debate about what actually constitutes an Afrofuturist text. As Eshun writes, "Afrofuturism does not stop at correcting the history of the future. Nor is it a simple matter of inserting more black actors into science-fiction narratives" (2003, 298). The 2004 movie I, Robot, starring Will Smith, for example, has been resisted by many as being termed as an Afrofuturist text, as it does not address the status of African Americans in the future world, but merely features a black lead (who could have easily been written as a white man) in a futuristic setting. As troubling as a whitewashed future may be, plugging in characters of color at random to add some flavor and diversity to the lineup can be just as problematic an alternative. Kurtz describes this as "an evolutionary white or color-blind future, marginalizing people of color and depicting race as a matter of little importance" (2014, 180). The problem of this kind of "color-blind future"—which some might arguably and perhaps rightfully claim is what the racebending movement actually promotes—is that it "erases the history of racial struggle and the material conditions that perpetuate racist ideologies" (Kurtz 2014, 180).

[3.5] This idea provided much of the basis for a series of LiveJournal debates that have been termed "RaceFail '09." The issue began when white author Elizabeth Bear wrote a blog post instructing other writers as to how to integrate characters of color into a story. The post generated hundreds of comments, as well as response blog posts that questioned Bear's advice, as well as her authority on writing these allegedly diversified stories, which many felt to be appropriations of black culture. In the aftermath of the back and forth posts and comments (which lasted over many months), it is difficult to know what the original blog post which sparked the debates actually contained, as it has since been altered by Bear. However, one aspect of her advice that seemed to draw particular vitriol was the idea that "othered" characters' identities should not be formed around their cultures.

[3.6] For example, Bear writes of one of her characters, "She wasn't DROPPED FROM MARS TO BE CHINESE. She's an FBI agent who happens to have that cultural background" (Bear 2009). One of Bear's most outspoken critics, blogger Avalon's Willow, retaliated with the following response:

[3.7] I despise the phrase happens to have. Do you happen to be white? Do people happen to be straight? No. You hear "He or she happens to be Chinese/Indian/Gay/An Immigrant/Etc…" …I do not happen to be black or gay or have a Caribbean culture background. I'm not a straight white woman who just happens to have on these "accessories." Who I am, the facets that make up me cannot be picked up somewhere for $3.95, no matter how well you think you shop in exotic locations for true bits of said exotic culture. I am not white down deep beneath my brown and my dreads and my accent and SGL. (Avalon's Willow 2009)

[3.8] Ridding a character of the important cultural facets that have shaped her essentially erases the importance of her individual story; it is not envisioning a world where racism doesn't exist, but creating a world where racial identity doesn't matter because it has been conformed to a white ideal. As Lavender elucidates, "Even if race and the color line are the work of humans, they are political realities…To transcend various repetitions of the color line—black, red, and brown—we must be conscious of these repetitions" (2014, 6).

[3.9] Tobias Van Veen, in providing his explanation of what Afrofuturism can do, offers one potential avenue to begin envisioning "alternate identities, timelines and counterrealities" that will "challenge whitewashed futures and colonialist histories with Africentric and futurist revisionings" (2013, 10). More specifically, Van Veen continues, this may include "alternate timelines and other worlds as allegories capable of representing but also transforming the coordinates of the present," which will "allow us to think through Afrofuturism's temporal effects—how it challenges the reality of certain histories, and the history of certain realities" (2013, 12). These transformations, Lavender agrees, might help to "reconfigure our sense of viable political futures in which people of color determine human destiny" (2014, 8). If it is, in fact, the case as Yaszek suggests that Afrofuturism is "not only a subgenre of science fiction" but rather "a larger aesthetic mode that encompasses a diverse range of artists working in different genres and media who are united by their shared interest in projecting black futures" (2006, 42), then perhaps—although these racebending projects are operating on a much smaller scale than Afrofuturism—they can at least be recognized as evidence that their creators have been influenced by Afro- and other ethno-futurisms. Thus, rather than labeling racebending as Afrofuturist, or even ethno-futurist, I will heretofore term the movement as "ethno-futuristic" to indicate that, while it may not be accomplishing quite the same work, it can be viewed as a 21st-century, cyber-inspired descendent of these other efforts.

4. What racebending does

[4.1] The racebending movement currently taking place on Tumblr generally consists of a user fan casting an already existing text with significant race reversals. These fan castings seem to be in direct conversation with the predominance of white males in pop culture, pursuing in particular those fandoms that are known for their white male Westernness. Common targets for these fan casts include Batman, Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Harry Potter, all of which feature traditionally white, American/British, male protagonists who are generally surrounded by similarly white supporting casts (note 3). Some users create fan work that looks at individual characters within these fandoms, now recast to reflect a more diverse identity. British actress Antonia Thomas often recurs as the top choice to play a fan cast Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series, appearing in multiple posts, including the photoset (figure 1) created by Tumblr user ronanschainsaw, which received over 4,750 notes in response. Naomi Harris has similarly proved to be a highly popular choice for a fan cast of the Twelfth Doctor in Doctor Who; a fan blog by user naomieharrisfor12 bears the tagline, "The Doctor is a woman of color. Deal with it." The Twelfth Doctor was, in actuality, cast as white male actor Peter Capaldi, yet fan casting women of color into this space continues to happen regularly, including actress Angel Coulby as the Doctor (by Naomiharrisfor12), and Indian actress Parminder Nagra as the doctor's companion (by Tinyattacksquid).

Hermione Granger fan cast (based on the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling), featuring actress Antonia Thomas.

Figure 1. Hermione Granger fan cast (based on the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling), featuring actress Antonia Thomas. Created by Tumblr user ronanschainsaw.

[4.2] Other fan casts are more ambitious in scope, repopulating familiar media narratives with not only one or two notable actors of color, but entire casts. In a post titled "Racebending the Bat family," user ubiestcaelum fan casts the Batman universe entirely with black actors, as follows in figure 2. Other posts attempt similar feats, but with even more multicultural casts. For example, user thatcupofjo's post, "Racebent:: Star Wars—Part 1" (figure 3) received over 2,500 notes; it includes black actors Michael B. Jordan and Jasika Nicole as Luke and Leia, as well as actors Daniel Henney as Han Solo and Edward James Olmos as Ben Kenobi, who are of Korean and Hispanic descent, respectively.

Batman fan cast, featuring actress Amerie Rogers.

Figure 2. Batman fan cast (based on the series by Bob Kane and Bill Finger), featuring actress Amerie Rogers. Created by Tumblr user ubiestcaelum.

Star Wars fan cast, featuring actors Michael B. Jordan, Jasika Nicole, Daniel Henney, and Edward James Olmos.

Figure 3. Star Wars fan cast (based on the series by George Lucas), featuring actors Michael B. Jordan, Jasika Nicole, Daniel Henney, and Edward James Olmos. Created by Tumblr user thatcupofjo.

[4.3] User s4karuna takes this one step farther; her mixed-race retelling of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice includes multiple black actresses filling the roles of the Bennet daughters, including Angel Coulby as Jane, Lenora Crichlow as Elizabeth, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Mary, Antonia Thomas as Kitty, and Jessica Sula as Lydia. In addition, she has a Hispanic Darcy (Chilean-born actor Santiago Cabrera), an Indian Bingley (Aditya Roy Kapur), and an Asian Charlotte Lucas (Chinese-American actress Constance Wu). Such a multicultural recasting is certainly ambitious in scope, yet it is problematic in that it mimics some of the problems found in Afrofuturism and other alternate-future movements—namely, the exoticization of these diversified characters as figures to be inserted into popular mediums at will, but without carrying any of the racial insight or history that would allow these fan art pieces to be truly futuristic in scope.

Pride and Prejudice fan cast.

Figure 4. Pride and Prejudice fan cast (based on the book by Jane Austen), featuring actors Angel Coulby, Lenora Crichlow, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Antonia Thomas, Jessica Sula, Colin Salmon, Alex Kingston, Santiago Cabrera, Adita Roy Kapur, Karen David, Constance Wu, Richard Ayoade, Godfrey Gao, Pedro Pascal, Seychelle Gabriel, and Rita Moreno. Created by Tumblr user s4karuna.

[4.4] One essential element of online culture is the anonymity of its users, which can be a helpful backdrop to allow the openness that can lead to the kind of discussions these platforms engage in on gender, race, and sexuality. However, this can also be problematic in that it is impossible to know the actual background of these users. Even if they identify online as being African American, female, bisexual, and so forth, there is no real way to verify this; they must be taken at their word. While people of any color, gender, and sexual orientation are certainly welcome to create fan art celebrating diversified backgrounds, it may not truly be deemed as an ethno-futuristic movement once it shifts away from people of color attempting to continue their narrative in a new format and in a new way. The nature of a Tumblr poster creating an alternate space where a black woman can portray Ariel from The Little Mermaid changes dramatically if that poster is a woman of color who grew up longing to see someone like herself in the Disney princesses she grew up watching, rather than a white man who likes to photoshop pictures of "exotic" women into seashell bikini tops. The racebending experience is not mutually exclusive to people of color, but the platform does take on new meaning if code words like "color" and "diversity" are merely being used, as Avalon's Willow suggests, as a sort of easily assimilated commodity. To do so would, again, suggest less of a futuristic space and more a cut and paste free-for-all where people of color, like paper dolls, can be glued into any fandom to see how they look in this hat or that outfit.

[4.5] However, a closer look at some of these blogs may indicate that more is going on in terms of social discourse than initially meets the eye. The above-mentioned blogger s4karuna identifies herself as, "Autistic Sri Lankan Canadian. She/her pronouns. Aspiring librarian focusing on representation in media. Taking over the racebending tag one fan cast at a time." Something that particularly distinguishes her original artwork is that she not only recasts popular fandoms with diverse characters, but also constructs a new historical and social narrative within her fan art. Her fan castings not only include a token person of color, but also often say something important about that character's newly ethnicized background, and how it changes the familiar story now that this background has been included. This may, perhaps, be in response to criticism received for earlier pieces of fan art that did not do the same, such as multi-ethnic recasting of Pride and Prejudice, featuring black, Hispanic, and Asian actors in the traditional roles. Later, she did another post (figure 5) featuring the same black actresses portraying the Bennet sisters, this time with an explanation attached:

Pride and Prejudice fan cast.

Figure 5. Pride and Prejudice fan cast (based on the book by Jane Austen), featuring actresses Angel Coulby, Lenora Crichlow, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Antonia Thomas, and Jessica Sula. Created by Tumblr user s4karuna.

[4.6] Note: Before anyone says that this casting is historically inaccurate…there actually has been a history of mixed race people in England during the Regency era, including a certain Dido Elizabeth Belle. So this was a great opportunity to do something a little more diverse with Pride and Prejudice since all film adaptations I've seen are a little too white for my taste. In keeping with the Bennet sisters' mixed heritage, I even cast Colin Salmon and Alex Kingston as Mr and Mrs Bennet.

[4.7] This move—though again, perhaps made as a reaction against earlier criticism received—begins to transcend this fan work as something done for the novelty of pairing together dark faces and begins to place it into an historical storyline that could be plausible, if retold with this particular lens.

[4.8] S4karuna does something similar in her fan casting of the Harry Potter movies with Indian actor Suraj Sharma in the titular role (figure 6). Again, she writes a note of explanation about her choices:

Harry Potter fan cast.

Figure 6. Harry Potter fan cast (based on the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling), featuring actors Suraj Sharma and unnamed. Created by Tumblr user s4karuna.

[4.9] I know that Suraj isn't mixed race, but I needed someone who could convincingly look the part… The fact that Harry's resemblance to his dad is constantly reinforced made me realize that the Potter men can be read as Anglo-Indian in the text. Being the child of an Indian father and a white mother would give additional meaning to Petunia's dislike for James as well as Harry being considered "half-blood" by the wizard world. Anyways, I'm savvy enough to know that people are going to say that Harry can't have green eyes if he's Indian, but actually it's not uncommon for South Asian actors like Aishwarya Rai, Hrithik Roshan, and Lisa Ray to have green eyes. Genetics are complicated that way so there's no reason that a mixed race Harry couldn't have inherited Lily's eyes. (note 4)

[4.10] Here, she makes similar moves to establish cultural background within her neo-narrative; although, instead of basing this in historical evidence, she uses genetic evidence, as well as context clues from the text that never definitively code Harry as being white. These notes do more than merely offer a defense by the artist; they also suggests that in this self-made community of racebending fan art, users are holding each other accountable. As the wariness of the note suggests, this may sometimes be perceived (and, indeed, intended) as harsh criticism, but perhaps it also serves to encourage artists to truly create a narrative that engages in the culture of the minorities being represented instead of just appropriating their faces.

[4.11] With these pieces of artwork, s4karuna and other users performing similar moves may not be providing a vision of the future, as one might expect an ethno-futuristic text to do; instead, they offer a re-envisioned conception of the past that challenges what the future of film, television, and theatrical adaptations could do with similar types of literature. As such, the process may not be identical to a more traditionally futuristic text, but rather works inversely, working toward similar end goals while approaching from the opposite direction.

5. A space of one's own

[5.1] Luckily, even though diverse stories may still be few and far between in mainstream pop culture, the Internet has ushered in a new era of possibilities. As Womack points out, "The storytelling gatekeepers vanished with the high-speed modem, and for the first time in history, people of color have a greater ability to project their own stories" (2013, 10). Perhaps one of the places where this becomes most readily visible is on Tumblr. The workability of Tumblr as a site hinges on its visuals—or, as Alexander Cho describes it, "the felt register of suggestive imagery, one of intimation, assemblage, intensity, and aesthetic" (2015, 44). This creates a space in which users like s4karuna may choose to provide historical context for images, but where this is not required or even necessary, since the power of a visual piece is automatic, visceral, and deeply impactful, often instantaneously. Users can connect to the visual for its aesthetic pleasure, but also for the strong emotional response that it garners—or, in Tumblr speak, the "feels" it generates (Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter 2014, 7). Cho explains that Tumblr offers a "unique opportunity to trace the lines of intensity and affinity that connect people through affect" (2015, 45). As a living stream of constantly rebirthing images, Tumblr creates a space in which people can be connected by ideas, by emotions, and by a network that allows users to restructure their own sense of identity while also building conceptualizations of a possible future. Individually, these pieces of fan art may seem comparatively insignificant in the efforts to create social change, particularly with the high turnover rate of these images; however, if one takes into account the reported 60 hours a week that some high-frequency users have estimated spending on the site (Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter 2014, 5), then the potential impact of these kinds of images and the messages they promote may begin to take clearer shape.

[5.2] The importance of having an online space to explore identity is perhaps not as clearly defined as seeing, say, a blockbuster superhero film helmed by a black actor, or a post-apocalyptic society populated by more than one or two token people of color; however, these spaces still allow unparalleled explorations of self, as well as how that self is defined, in ways that we perhaps do not yet fully understand. Karen Hellekson notes that sites such as Tumblr permit "performance of gendered, alternative, queered identity" (2009, 116); increasingly, conversations about race are emerging with just as much emphasis. In addition to aligning themselves with particular fandoms and ships (romantic pairings), many Tumblr users identify themselves based on their gender, their sexuality, their nationality, and their ethnicity. As such, these online spaces often become a place for people of color to use technology to discuss issues of their cultures. Serena Hillman, Jason Procyk, and Carman Neustaedter find that these kinds of "social justice" issues are often paired with discussions centering around a fandom, which extend their reach beyond those who identify themselves by a particular race, gender, sexual identity, and so forth. Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter quote one user, who notes, "There is a sense of learning there, like I've learned so much about sexism, feminism, and other social issues that I didn't learn anywhere else, people critique media as well as view and discuss it, so it is a really interesting mix of art and discussion in a pretty easy blogging site" (2014, 8). Though not explicitly named in their study, as charted above, racebending can easily fall into this category of ideological questioning of a metatext. These pieces of fan art can inform discussions that may cause users to identify their own beliefs about the current whitewashing not only in film, television, books, and so forth, but also in their own practices, which traditionally tend to favor white characters in fan-generated blogs, fiction, and art. As such, these users can begin to challenge not only the norm of media, but also their complacency toward it and efforts in perpetuating it.

[5.3] Furthermore, racebending posts can allow users—ostensibly from all different backgrounds, but with a common interest in this sort of social justice activity—to come together as an online community. Rhiannon Bury defines contributors to these types of movements as "active producers of their own texts" (2005, 1), who become united by common interests, desires, and goals. Though they may have started with a shared interest in a particular fandom (or in this case, movement), these interactions can gain an increased importance as users move away from the initial source of inspiration and begin to form their own set of language, visual cues, rules, and behaviors—in essence, as they begin to create their own community (Sims and Stephens 2011, 30–31). Hellekson further discusses the sense of community engendered by fan practices, writing, "When the fan work is proffered, it is taken into the metatext. The individuality of that piece is lost; it becomes a part of something greater" (2009, 115). Individually, these fan castings may not seem to be saying anything of great importance; observed as a collective, some distinct patterns begin to emerge that indicate the kind of future these users are attempting to build for themselves within these digital communities. Even if the fan art being created by these users does not predict a future society, the community that is being built around them is working toward this future by putting these ideals into practice.

[5.4] Take, for instance, blogs like user racebentdisney's, which are devoted to not only promoting these fan works, but also to calling attention to Hollywood productions that whitewash their casts, such as the 2015 Pan film, which features a white actress in the Tiger Lily role. They also celebrate productions that racebend in their casting choices, like the Broadway production of Cinderella (featuring the black lead actress Keke Palmer) and the Berkeley production of Mary Poppins (featuring Black actress Taylor Jones as Mary Poppins and Hispanic actor Alex Rodriguez as Bert). Such a specific focus within a blog indicates an interest not only at playing with diverse casting, but also in promoting opportunities for actors and artists of diverse ethnic backgrounds, making clear that there is an eager audience for such productions; furthermore, blogs such as these may act to prove to users that this kind of "fantasy" casting can become an actuality.

[5.5] For the most part, reception of these fan casting pages seems to be predominantly positive, but some users have resisted the racebending movement, including poster cryingcrowgirl, who writes:

[5.6] I try really hard to imagine characters as the AUTHOR has written them…It bothers me more when an author's description of a character is thrown entirely out of the window by the fan because "OMG, SHE SHOULDN'T BE ___ BECAUSE THAT'S RACIST, SO I'LL MAKE HER ____ INSTEAD." The author wrote this character a particular way for a reason, not just because they lacked any imagination… Stop ruining things for the rest of us that just want to be around other people that enjoy the same books we do.

[5.7] User irresistible-revolution points out another potential infringement on this ethno-futuristic space in a Tumblr post, writing, "Yo white ppl u do realize that racebendinng refers specifically to changing white characters into POC, right? cos I'm seeing a disturbing number of folks citing 'race bending' to turn POC characters white there's already a word for that it's called WHITEWASHING." This quote refers back to the issue of potential appropriation noted above, which some users do not seem to find problematic. User petit soleil, for example, responded to irresistible-revolution's post with the following:

[5.8] I'm gettin real tired of this double standard shit…If you're okay with all of them cool; if you think 'racebending' ANY character is wrong, cool. But don't pick and choose, because they are, in fact, doing the same exact thing…I Draw Elsa of Arendelle as an Indian character (because traditional clothes from India are amazing)… I draw Tiana how I imagine she'd look if she were from a Russian family, or a Filipino family.

[5.9] To which irresistible-revolution responded by pointing out the difference being that "mainstream media is not actually lacking white representation at the moment."

[5.10] Another potential problem of the racebending movement is the prevalence of using mixed-race—and thus, usually lighter-skinned—people of color, rather than allowing for a range of individuals. In addition, there tend to be a recurrence of standard actors of color fan cast into all the roles of a certain racial background—that is, Idris Elba as the go-to for black male characters and Dev Patel as the go-to Indian male. Arguably, both issues could be attributed to representations in the film industry, which tends to use a small bank of actors of color in all its "ethnic" roles, and further tends to favor those who are lighter-skinned; thus, the pool of actors available for the images created for racebending would necessarily reflect this. One could also attribute another common problem found in racebending to a practice often performed in Hollywood in particular, in which subtleties in race are often overlooked; for instance, a Chinese woman may be cast as a Korean character because she looks "Asian," or an Indian actor like Patel may be fan cast as a Middle-Eastern character because he looks "Arab." However, to dismiss these problematic moves entirely just because they may be modeling similar practices in the entertainment industry would be negligent, just as it would negate a history of narrative and visual preference to a certain kind of ethnic representation that privileges some peoples of color over others.

[5.11] Though these gaps may seem less than favorable in creating a potentially ethno-futuristic space, the conversation remains an important—albeit, flawed—one, and will perhaps encourage even those not belonging to the racebending movement to begin challenging their own acceptance of a whitewashed future. With each new post potentially reaching more and more people who may have never thought about the lack of colored faces in films and television, more and more people in turn may begin to question every time they turn on the television and begin to see this lack in practice. As Hellekson notes, "The metatext…created has something to say, sometimes critical things, about the media source, but for those of us who engage in it, it has even more to say about ourselves" (2009, 114). Eshun discusses the possibilities of what this enlightening process can mean, writing, "A subtle oscillation between prediction and control is being engineered in which successful or powerful descriptions of the future have an increasing ability to draw us towards them, to command us to make them flesh" (2003, 290–91). If the racebending movement can encourage more and more users to question the present reality of media, then perhaps we will be closer to creating a different kind of future.

6. A better future, now

[6.1] Instead of a far-distant timeline with robots and alien life forms, racebending presents a near future in which diverse faces populate films and television as readily as Afrofuturist black characters populate planets and spaceships. Indeed, this interest in racebending may have acted as the impetus for a recent set of videos created by Todrick Hall, including one reposted on racebentdisney's blog called "Cinderonce," in which the story of Cinderella is told entirely through Beyoncé's music. Although this video is not exclusive to the Tumblr universe, it was heavily reblogged, gif-ed, and commented upon in that sphere, which I believe makes it pertinent to this discussion. Furthermore, it puts into living, breathing reality what some of these fan casting experiments still deem as wishful thinking: an entire cast of a fairytale composed entirely of black actors, using the narrative structure of familiar stories with familiar characters in a way that celebrates some popular touchstones of cultural heritage (not just in the inclusion of Beyoncé's songs, but also in the dance styles and in the inclusion of drag queen Shangela Laquifa Wadley) (Nichols 2013). This is not the first of Hall's fairytale reimaginings; he also produced "Beauty and the Beat" and "Cinderfella," which have earned him an impressive online following. "Cinderonce" itself has amassed over three million views since its premiere (Hall 2013).

[6.2] Hall's videos have begun the movement of fan casting away from the realm of hypothetical and into that of reality, encouraged by support from similarly minded online users, who have helped to make them a viral success. This also allows new audiences to be reached who may not be familiar with the racebending movement, and who may be introduced to this idea of a discrepancy in casting choices for the first time with media such as this. YouTube comments are notoriously a hotbed for politically charged arguments, yet many for "Cinderonce" not only laud the video's achievements (user AdventureTimeLover28: "I like this version of Cinderella much better!") but also call for similar moves to be made in other forms of media (user Renaldo Holder, Jr.: "Cinderonce on Broadway!!! Please make this happen!" and user hash tag Awesome: "They need more black princesses"). Many of these viewers may have had no previous conception of what an alternate future for entertainment media could hold, but with examples such as "Cinderonce" perhaps illustrating the way, other genres—such as superhero films, detective novels, and supernatural television programs—could follow suit.

[6.3] Unfortunately, projects such as Hall's remain the exception, not the rule. Indeed, though works such as the musical Hamilton, the television series Merlin, and, perhaps most controversially (note 5), Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, have shown the potential success of diverse casting in the film, television, and theater industries, we continue to live in an era where a respected black actor can still be deemed too "street" to play James Bond (note 6). The racebending reflected in these pieces of fan art, then, are not projections of a present reality, but a speculative future in which this sort of media will not be a rare event, but rather a common practice.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] This racebending movement has created a unique, potentially ethno-futurist space for those who do not see themselves depicted in the mainstream media—or at least, not in representations that they recognize in themselves. Instead of accepting that they must always, as browngirlsintherain writes, be portrayed as "terrorists, thugs, and mindless villains," they can create themselves as starship captains, mermaids, goddesses, and whatever else can be imagined. These spaces unfortunately do not reflect the reality of now, but they provide a vision for what the future of media and literature could be. Furthermore, they challenge our view of what society can be, not only in the future, but also in the present. If we as a society can learn to embrace a future in which black women pilot starships and brown faces are as indispensable as white in intergalactic wars, then perhaps we can move a step closer to a reality in which young black men do not inspire a "shoot first, ask questions later" policy. And if mainstream pop culture refuses to broadcast the kinds of stories that could inspire this kind of change, we can still ensure that diverse voices are heard and broadcasted through online platforms.

[7.2] That is not to say that the creators of films, books, and music should not still endeavor to incorporate these elements. Whether these and other similar works continue to be the exception or the rule, the racebending movement and all of its ethno-futuristic efforts are still happening, and can provide an empowering example. Technology, and Tumblr in particular, have helped to perpetuate an alternative in which the future does not have to be framed in black and white, but rather in whatever color—or colors—its creators choose to make it.

8. Notes

1. Though Glover was unsuccessful in his campaign to portray Spider-Man onscreen, he inspired Brian Michael Bendis, a comic-book writer who was rebooting the comic franchise after Peter Parker's death with a new Spider-Man named Miles Morales, a teenager who is both black and Hispanic. Bendis attributes his conception of Morales to both Glover and to President Barack Obama, saying of Glover in particular, "I saw him in the costume and thought, 'I would like to read that book.' So I was glad I was writing that book." (Truitt 2011). Glover has also gone on to voice Morales in Disney XD's animated series Ultimate Spider-Man: Web Warriors (Truitt 2014), though as of the writing of this paper there are no confirmed plans to release a live-action depiction of Morales's story.

2. I very quickly learned the danger of not saving individual posts of note, since waiting even a week to return to Tumblr and attempting to find them again resulted in scrolling through hundreds of newer posts that had taken their place in the lineup.

3. It should be noted that the Doctor is an alien from Gallifrey, so technically not codified as white or British, though the actors playing the role have always belonged to this category.

4. After this post was published, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, made headlines when she defended the casting choice of a black actress in the role of Hermione in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a continuation of the book series penned by Rowling herself. In response to some negative backlash on social media, Rowling tweeted, "Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair, and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione"—thus validating s4karuna's earlier argument about the possibility of an Indian recasting of Harry.

5. An early trailer for the film sparked some controversy, with fans complaining about the casting of John Boyega as a black stormtrooper. Some fans claim that the outrage had more to do with continuity—Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones revealed that all stormtroopers were clones of Jango Fett, played by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, who is of Maori, Scottish, and Irish descent—than with any kind of racism (Anderson 2015). Director J. J. Abrams seems to imply the same, quoted as saying that those "who are complaining about that probably have bigger problems than there's a black Stormtrooper" (Dowd 2015), though various others—including fans, academics, and performers/filmmakers—spoke out about the racist undertones of such a complaint. Boyega addressed the implied racism, stating, "I'm not saying get used to the future, but what is already happening. People of color and women are increasingly being shown on-screen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn't make sense" (Renshaw 2015).

6. In discussing his casting choices for the upcoming reboot of the James Bond film franchise, James Bond novel writer Anthony Horowitz is quoted as saying, "For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part. It's not a colour issue. I think he is probably a bit too 'street' for Bond. Is it a question of being suave? Yeah" (Opam 2015).

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