VRV Blog

How Fandoms Fail Black Protagonists

I’ve been in and out of fan spaces for movies, books, and TV shows since I was in high school. I love fandoms because of the a shared sense of community and creativity that enhances the enjoyment of any story, and I’ve also met many wonderful people in these spaces. Unfortunately, over the years I’ve noticed that all fandoms I’ve been in also have one negative thing in common—an unacknowledged undercurrent of racism.

Racism within fandom isn’t surprising, given how hard it is to find representation for marginalized groups in media. It’s a subject no one likes to address because no one likes to admit that racism is insidious, pervasive, and has to be constantly confronted and challenged even if we don’t think of ourselves as prejudiced . And I get it—nobody likes to think of themselves as bad people. But racism isn’t just about cartoon bigots, it’s part of the fabric of society.

The Case of Go Onizuka

The problem is especially evident in fandom’s treatment of black characters. For instance, Finn, one of the protagonists in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is often neglected in favor of side characters and villains with lighter skin—one of the biggest pairings in fanfiction is between antagonist Kylo Ren and minor villain General Hux. It’s something I’ve witnessed over and over in every fandom I’ve been a part of: heroes of color don’t get the same appreciation or leniency that white heroes and antagonists do. And I’m seeing this happen in real time in the Yu-Gi-Oh: VRAINS fandom with Go Onizuka.

Yu-Gi-Oh: VRAINS is the latest installment in the Yu-Gi-Oh series, a multimedia franchise spanning television shows, comics, and a real-life card game with which the characters duel in the show. VRAINS centers around a group of teenagers who duel inside a virtual reality world called Link VRAINS, as they try to uncover the conspiracy surrounding the digital world.

Go Onizuka—a 19-year old duelist and one of a very few Black protagonists in the Yu-Gi-Oh series—is a nuanced and multifaceted character. Neglected and dismissed by society as a child, he’s an orphan who built his whole life and identity around being a “Charisma Duelist,” a dueling superstar who entertains the public. The winnings from his duels go to help the orphanage that raised him, and he visits the children there throughout the show to bring them gifts.

Although he’s classified as a rival to Playmaker, the protagonist of VRAINS, he becomes part of the team of duelists who risk their lives to save the world from the Knights of Hanoi, who want to destroy the Ignis—a powerful AI created through a sinister project ten years before the show begins. He values strength and the ability to survive and grow even in the face of loss, and other characters respect and look up to him throughout the show.

During the second season, Go returns to his role as antagonist after he’s cast aside by the public who have turned their attention and adoration to Playmaker. Go grows resentful of the way his contributions to the defeat of Hanoi are ignored by the media after how he’s worked hard to become a popular and beloved duelist.

Go’s low self-esteem leads to him centering his identity around dueling. Because of this, his desire to stay in the spotlight and prove himself to the world causes him to seek Playmaker out to convince him to duel him one last time to get his “revenge”.

Draco in Leather Pants

If this character arc sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the narrative of another infamous Yu-Gi-Oh antagonist: Seto Kaiba. Kaiba is one of the first villains in the Yu-Gi-Oh franchise, and throughout the show he develops into a grudging ally to the protagonists—much like Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z. Orphaned at a young age, he centers his self-worth and identity around being the strongest duelist in the world, and falls apart emotionally after his first loss to the main character. Over the course of the series, he learns the importance of forging bonds with others, and although he never gets over his need to be the strongest duelist, it stops being the most important facet of his personality by the end of the series.

But while the Yu-Gi-Oh: Duel Monsters fandom grew to love Kaiba on his journey from villain to antihero and eventual protagonist, reviews on Go remain mixed at best and hateful at worst. I’ve read posts declaring his motives “petty,” remarking that they knew “all along” that he would become a “villain” in spite of the fact that Go’s main goal is to beat Playmaker in a low-stakes card game. Meanwhile, the general treatment of the actual villain in Yu-Gi-Oh: VRAINS, Spectre, is more sympathetic and forgiving despite the scale of his criminally violent actions.

Spectre reveals himself as a ruthless villain within his first few appearances. He’s cold, sadistic, and despises everyone in the world who isn’t Revolver, the leader of the Knights of the Hanoi. Early in the show, he manipulates 16-year old Blue Angel, another Charisma Duelist, into playing a card that seals her within the Link VRAINS virtual world and renders her comatose.

Like Go, Spectre was also abandoned, neglected, and alone as a child. But unlike Go, he becomes an unrepentant terrorist who doesn’t ask for sympathy—yet the fandom affords him plenty in meta-analyses, fanart, and fanfics that soften his personality and shortcomings, a phenomenon that’s so common it even has a name: Draco in Leather Pants.

Who Gets Sympathy?

Revolver—the main villain of the show—receives sympathetic treatment from the fandom as well, regardless of the many people he’s harmed. It’s not rare to find attempts to justify his antagonistic behavior with headcanons about how tragic his childhood might have been, without textual evidence to back it up. Meanwhile, Go, who does actually have a tragic backstory, is treated with suspicion and prejudice from the start.

A glance through fandom spaces will show that Go Onizuka doesn’t receive the same level of attention as other side characters in the series do, and the attention that he does receive is often negative. There’s a lack of fanart, fanfic, and positive character examinations in his underpopulated tag on Tumblr. Archive of Our Own, the most popular hub for fanfiction, has around 33 fanfics that include Go at all, and only five of those are actually about him. By comparison, Spectre is in 53 fics, with 29 of those being about him. There’s also more fanart of Spectre on Tumblr than I’ve ever seen of Go—and most, if not all, have him painted as a soft-eyed pretty-boy who just needs more care and understanding to stop putting people in comas.

It would be easy to dismiss these numbers as a result of the number of appearances of each character in the show. However, Go plays six duels across ten episodes, while Spectre only plays a mere three duels over six episodes—and his isn’t counting the many prominent appearances Go makes where he isn’t dueling. Outside of his own duels, Spectre usually appears only as a background lackey to Revolver.

On Twitter, Daniel J. Edwards, the voice actor for Go, has voiced his annoyance at the number of fans who put down Go Onizuka on a regular basis, citing the character’s many positive qualities.

Go has been treated with suspicion from the start, with fans wondering when he would “flip” and become a villain. Yet his worst sin is wanting to beat a fellow teenager in a children’s card game to regain the attention of the people he’s been working so hard to please and entertain.

Doing Better

Racism in fandom isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it’s hiding in the way minority characters are neglected and demonized, while characters with light skin—even villains—are elevated and treated with more sympathy. This isn’t to say that all of the fandom is racist, but enough of it is loud enough to drown out the rest. Fans can like or dislike characters for various reasons, but sometimes the disdain is disproportionate to a character’s minor textual flaws.

For this to change, we have to examine our own thought patterns and behavior, and realize that racism doesn’t end with a simple declaration of “I’m not racist!” It’s built into American culture, so it’s something that we have to work against whenever we engage with media.

Ironically, the media’s treatment of Go within the show, where he’s cast aside in favor of the lighter-skinned protagonist, mirrors the behavior of the VRAINS fandom itself. But unlike Go’s fictional public, we can grow and change. If we work to confront our biases, we can learn to appreciate all of a story’s characters, not just its white ones.