When I picked up this book, my first thought was, "Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country?"
Despite being a serious Batman devotee and a comics fan from way back, I was completely underwhelmed by the hype surrounding the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie.
…that is, until I saw the first official publicity image of Jason Momoa as Aquaman.
What first jumped out at me was the sheer sexuality of the image: a shirtless, tattooed, brooding Momoa giving the viewer an intense stare. It’s the most sexualized bit of Batman vs. Superman publicity I’ve seen thus far, which is impressive given that a) Wonder Woman publicity stills have already come out and b) director Zack Snyder is the same guy who did Sucker Punch. Wonder Woman’s costume doesn’t cover a lot of skin, but her cleavage isn’t out; she doesn’t have a T-&-A-accentuating stance; since she’s not even looking at the viewer, her eyes don’t exactly invite you in.
I’m not sure that Snyder meant to sexualize Momoa in the advertising, although he does have a track record of turning machismo into unintentional sexualization: 300 was basically a bunch of hyper-buff guys running around in leather Speedos. Nevertheless, it shows that DC Entertainment is beginning to recognize that the requisite dose of hotness can be provided through male characters because their movie audiences don’t consist purely of straight men.
The Internet picked up on this in a big way. Once the image was out, the hashtag #HotAquaman started spreading across Twitter, along with The Little Mermaid references about things being better down where it’s wetter. That was as tame as it got. When a lot of women are tweeting about a hot guy and oceans, we can get pretty NSFW with the “wetness” jokes.
In fact, as far as I could tell, most of the #HotAquaman tweets came from women enthusiastically supporting Momoa’s casting – a reaction that other blockbuster movie publicity has thus far failed to elicit. Not that women (such as myself) didn’t have very strong opinions about superhero movies before, but this was the first time I’d seen the majority of reactions coming from women.
And we weren’t going to apologize for our girly frames of reference. We wanted to bring Disney princesses from our childhood into our superhero appreciation and, dammit, we did – demonstrating that the division between “guy stuff” and “girl stuff” is only as big as we want it to be, if it even exists at all. #HotAquaman was inviting us into the world of a dark, painfully serious film about people punching other people, not as adjuncts to male audiences but as active consumers.
Even more heartening than this gender inclusivity, though, was the fact that Momoa’s Aquaman marked the first instance of a Pacific Islander actor being placed front and center in the publicity for a blockbuster movie.
I grew up in Hawaii, and while I’m not ethnically Hawaiian or Polynesian myself, the representation of Pacific Islanders in media is an issue close to my heart. Too often, Pacific Islander characters are buffoonish comic relief types or simply there to serve the white protagonists: the bartender in Pearl Harbor, McGarrett’s heavyset friend in the new Hawaii 5-0, whatever the heck Rob Schneider was doing in 50 First Dates.
What makes the sting of these examples even sharper is that they’re all set in Hawaii, one of the few places where you’d expect to see Pacific Islander characters getting a fair shot at the spotlight. (Hawaii 5-0 is perhaps the worst offender, as its almost total lack of Pacific Islander characters is broadcast into our homes every week. Adding insult to, well, insult, Honolulu’s police force has historically consisted of many Hawaiian officers, who seem to have been pushed out of sight in order to give the white and light-skinned Asian protagonists more screen time.)
The alternative to playing the buffoon is to become the bad guy. Again, we’re back to Hawaii 5-0 – there are a few gang members of Hawaiian/Pacific Islander descent on the show – or, if you want to get closer to Aquaman’s comic book origins, the murderous, sexually savage Brother Lono of Vertigo Comics’ 100 Bullets.
Jason Momoa as Aquaman is none of these.
For those not familiar with the character, Aquaman is a native of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis and its ruler, which makes him the king of the seas. He can communicate with and holds authority over all ocean-dwelling organisms, has telepathic abilities, can understand every language on Earth, and has the standard super-speed/super-strength/super-senses issued to most superheroes.
As Aquaman, Momoa is not only the first Pacific Islander to play a superhero in a blockbuster movie, but the first person of color to portray a character who’s a superhero in their own right; the Falcon from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Nick Fury from most of Marvel’s recent output are great characters, but their primary narrative function is to help the white protagonists. Aquaman may not be the main character in Batman vs. Superman -- as you’ve probably guessed from the title -- but he is nobody’s sidekick.
The hardcore-superdude look of the publicity image also reminds us that this is no comic relief character. After too many instances of popular media getting it wrong, Momoa as Aquaman casts a Pacific Islander actor as someone who occupies a position of power and merits respect (Hawaii kids know that the power of the ocean is meant to be honored and feared; the king of the ocean must therefore be a total badass).
It’s a particularly radical casting choice for a Hollywood superhero movie given that Aquaman in the comics is a blond white man who’s often regarded as something of a joke. But there’s no reason for him to be.
The main reason he started out as white was that the vast majority of creators and assumed audiences of comics were also white. There’s nothing in his basic character profile to suggest that Aquaman should look exactly like a white human male – in fact, most people from cultures who attach great ideological significance to the ocean tend to look a lot more like Jason Momoa. If you were creating the character from scratch now, it would make much more sense for him to be darker-skinned.
I’ve never understood why Aquaman is viewed as a joke, though. Evidently this comes from his portrayal as a cheesy C-lister in the 1970s Super Friends cartoon, but hasn’t enough time passed since then for the character to become cool again? The man is king of the entire ocean; therefore, he has jurisdiction over more than 70% of the known world. How can someone with that much power not be awesome?
Maybe it’s because our stories haven’t mattered. Since we’re not part of the majority, our perceptions of the ocean – or, more importantly, of anything at all – don’t need to be taken into account.
This is at the core of why I love Momoa as Aquaman. His casting goes beyond acknowledging that we exist to suggest that we matter and we deserve to be heard. By “we,” I mean women, people with cultural or ethnic ties to the Pacific Islands, indigenous people – people who’ve been ignored by the mainstreams of both mass culture and geekdom for far too long.
Jason Momoa and #HotAquaman are showing everyone what we’ve already known: to paraphrase David Bowie, there’s no reason we can’t be heroes.