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Women of color in the DC Universe talk casting backlash and importance of representation

During the DC FanDome virtual event, women of color in the DC universe gathered to discuss their experiences in their roles and why representation is so important and impactful in today’s world.

Moderated by Estelle and D-Nice, the panel consisted of Meagan Good, Darla in “Shazam!”; Candice Patton, Iris West-Allen in “The Flash;” Nafessa Williams, Thunder in “Black Lightning;” Chantal Thuy, Grace Choi in “Black Lightning;” Anna Diop, Starfire on “Titans;” Damaris Lewis, Blackfire on “Titans;” Tala Ashe, Zari Tarazi from “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” and Javicia Leslie, who was recently announced as the titular character in the second season of “Batwoman.”

When asked how being cast as Starfire in “Titans” has changed her life, Diop mentioned the amount of backlash she received for being cast in the role.

“There was a lot of backlash because some people were upset that it was a Black woman that they cast. And I had to lean into my friends and my family and my faith in a way that I haven’t really had to do before,” Diop said. “But, it’s incredible to see what that meant for a lot of people, a lot of marginalized people reached out to me, be it Black or gay or trans or whatever, and it’s incredible to be even some small inspiration for them.”

Many of the women on the panel had similar stories, but ultimately found that standing for representation was much more important to them than being liked by everyone. Patton hopes that her character on “The Flash” can serve as a role model for Black girls who may not see themselves on screen often.

“Shortly after we aired, I remember getting a tweet from a mom and she was saying that her and her daughter were watching ‘The Flash’ and her daughter was like, ‘Mommy, Iris West is so beautiful, she looks just like me. Does that mean that I’m beautiful too?’” Patton said. “I get teary-eyed to this day thinking about it. And I tweeted back saying, ‘Yes, tell your daughter we are beautiful. Remind her that we are all beautiful.’”

Williams’ character Thunder on “Black Lightning” also represents the LGBTQ community, another group that often lacks representation in the superhero world.

“I’m really honored to play this role of the first Black lesbian superhero. Because when I think of that, I think of all the Black lesbians who have not been able to visually see themselves when they go to the cinema or they watch their favorite TV shows,” Williams said. “And for me, it’s one thing knowing that there is a role for it, but when you’re in that role and you’re getting feedback, you realize the importance of it and how much it is necessary and how much you need it.”

Ashe, whose character Zari Tarazi is the first Muslim American superhero on television, also finds it just as important to make sure writers’ rooms are diverse. When the character of Zari was created for “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” they also hired a writer who could speak to her background.

“When I found out that she was the first Muslim American superhero, I felt the weight of that. I think the really smart thing that my show did which every show should do, is when they hired me, they hired a Muslim American writer,” Ashe said. “Representation matters so much. It’s so important that little Brown children all over the world are seeing someone like me and being like, ‘Oh, that opens my mind to that possibility.’ But also people that are in parts of our country who will never be exposed to a Muslim-American, if they can connect to the character, I feel like we’ve done our job.”

Lewis, who plays Blackfire on “Titans,” now sees her diversity as something that makes her special.

“The pivot for me was when I started getting booked for being different. That’s when I realized that being different was my superpower,” Lewis said.

The women also shared which of their characters’ superpowers they would like to use to help solve issues of social justice.

“I would use my super strength to arrest the police officers who took the life of Breonna Taylor and countless others,” Williams said, while Thuy revealed she would “use shape-shifting powers to swap some people out of the office.”

Leslie, who will take on the role of Batwoman in the show’s second season, explained that she would use her character’s mask to her advantage.

“Batwoman doesn’t necessarily have a superpower, but I do have the ability to put a mask on and do things that I feel other citizens are too scared to do based off of it ruining their reputation or it putting their family in danger,” Leslie said.

Beyond standing for diversity in race and ethnicity, Good explained that she hopes her character of Darla on “Shazam!” can portray a more holistic view of Black women than is usually shown in the entertainment industry.

“It’s about humanizing whatever character you are now living and breathing and finding the things about them that are human and real that people can relate to that are not just an idea of ‘That looks great and that’s awesome,’” Good said. “Who is this person at the core that makes her not just relatable to other people, but especially as a Black woman? Because that experience is unique. No matter what the experience is as a woman, you’re Black first.”

Patton also spoke to the importance of standing up for all representation — not just that of Black women or women of color, but any marginalized group.

“I’ve learned as I get older to not to be afraid as a Black woman to speak up, because I’ve been taught so much in my life to be quiet, be grateful, don’t say too much, don’t ask for too much, don’t disturb too much, just go with the flow,” Patton said. “And in the last several years of my life, I have been able to find my strength in being able to stand up for myself and for others.”

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