There’s an old cliche about Spider-Man: He’s arguably pop culture’s favorite superhero because his mask covers his whole face. This means, as a great many people like to say, “It could be anyone under that mask.”
Of course, it’s not just anyone. For about 50 years of Marvel Comics history, a White kid from Queens named Peter Parker was doing the webslinging. Well, except for that time when Peter’s even Whiter-looking clone, the blond-haired Ben Reilly, was crawling around New York as the webhead—comics are confusing, just roll with it. But the theory went something like this: Kids of all races could dress up like him and feel themselves empowered, like they could perform heroic feats, crack jokes and save the day.
At least that’s what Spider-Man’s usually White creative teams liked to tell themselves. It sounded nice, but they were still telling exclusively White-centric stories and pretending that was good enough for kids of all races.
But it’s not even close to being good enough.
The Importance of Representation
Lack of representation in children’s literature is a huge reason why bestselling author Jason Reynolds never finished a book until he was 17. He saw no connection to the White stories his teachers assigned, so he never bothered to read them.
When teacher Devin Evans had to read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in high school, he was bored out of his mind because it had no bearing on his life. That’s why he teaches stories to his students that reflect their lived experience. “This purposeful and strategic selection of texts…has led to high levels of engagement in my class and a sense of relatability and connection with the books’ themes, characters and life lessons,” he wrote.
We “live in a country that’s OK with not teaching [students of color] how to read,” as my colleague Tanesha Peeples put it. Something has to change. It can’t be all-White characters, all-White stories, all-White everything all the time.
Lawmaker-Turned-Author Wants To Change That
California Sen. Kamala Harris recognizes these disparities in representation, so she set out to correct it. Her new children’s book, “Superheroes Are Everywhere,” wants kids of all shapes, sizes, genders, colors and creeds to know that they truly are superheroes, and that the people in their lives who make them feel special are as heroic as Spidey punching out Doctor Octopus.
It’s not theoretical or aspirational, like, “Maybe I can truly see myself in Spider-Man one day!” It’s concrete. Kids who look like them are on the page. Adults who look like they will when they grow up are on the page. And they’re heroes. And they’re worth emulating just as much as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
The characters in Harris’ book are inspired by the people she’s known all her life. People who do heroic things daily, without wearing a mask.
“As a kid, I was surrounded by family members, teachers and friends who all had different abilities that made the people around them a little bit happier and made the world around them a little bit better,” she said in her publisher’s video promoting the book.
Culture Has to Keep the Momentum Going—And It Is
Politicians setting a good example is nice and, in this rotten era, refreshing, but let’s face it: Even with a prominent soon-to-announce 2020 presidential candidate espousing these kinds of positive messages, these kids are far more engaged with and influenced by the pop culture they consume daily.
And, thankfully, there’s been good news on that front, too, particularly related to Spider-Man’s most recent big screen adventure, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which just won a Golden Globe this week as the year’s best animated film.
Focusing on a half-Black, half-Puerto Rican teen Spider-Man named Miles Morales, a character introduced earlier this decade in the “Ultimate Spider-Man” series, “Into the Spider-Verse” makes literal the “it could be anyone beneath the mask” cliche through a dimension-hopping storyline in which Miles teams up with a slew of multiracial and multigender—and multispecies—Spider-powered individuals from other universes.
There’s Spider-Woman, aka Gwen Stacy, an alternate version of Peter Parker’s high school girlfriend who got the powers instead of him. There’s Peni Parker, a young Japanese girl who uses anime tropes to fight crime with a Spider-Man-styled robot exo-suit/sidekick. There’s Peter Porker, a pig from a cartoon universe who goes by the alter ego Spider-Ham—this isn’t a point about representation, it’s just delightful.
Many of the kids who see this movie see themselves directly reflected on the screen. They are the ones flying high above the Manhattan skyline. They are the ones getting the good one-liners. They are the ones in charge, saving the day through bravery, teamwork and believing in each other and themselves.
Harris’ book shows how kids can be heroes in real life, but it’s equally important that they get to have heroic moments in their fantasy lives, too. This is the kind of holistic positive reinforcement, across disciplines and institutions, that actually creates the heroes we know these kids can and will be.