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Diversity in fandom: How the narrative is changing

October 18, 2019

ASU film and media studies instructor Michelle Martinez talks about the current landscape of minorities in pop culture

African American actress Regina King is the star in an HBO adaptation of D.C.’s “The Watchmen,” premiering Oct. 20; Marvel’s Pakistani American superhero Kamala Khan is getting a standalone series on Disney Plus; “Captain Marvel” became the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark this year.

All three milestones represent a growing Hollywood trend of including more women and minorities in superhero and comic book media. Many fans see steps such as these as both positive and overdue, considering the amount of diversity in fandom. Yet stereotypes around what a “geek,” “nerd” or “fan” looks like still persist — perhaps due to popular shows such as “The Big Bang TheoryAn American television sitcom that stars white male physicists who share geeky and socially awkward tendencies.” or vocal minorities that protest these changes.

ASU Now talked to Arizona State University film and media studies instructor Michelle Martinez about the pervasiveness of these stereotypes and how we can shift the narrative.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: When the general public thinks of a nerd or geek, usually the stereotype of a white, socially awkward teen male comes to mind. Where did this stereotype originate?

Answer: We have a history in the media of the overrepresentation of whiteness and the underrepresentation of non-whiteness. Since the earliest origins of film and television, black, Latinx, indigenous and Asian Americans have been stereotyped, with an absence of nuance. In those limited representations, the nerd was not among the earlier character tropes.

Mary Bucholtz has written about this extensively. In a paper she published in 2001 called “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness,” Bucholtz argues that white nerds are “hyperwhite” because they do not engage in cultural markersMartinez says that cultural markers are signs and word/phrase uses that signify the knowledge of hip-hop music or other aspects of what is seen as cool, which usually is something deriving from black culture. that originate in non-white spaces, particularly language markers. So the stereotype started in high schools and campuses with white kids who either self-identified or were labeled as nerd by cool kids because they possessed a mastery of the English language and rejected performances of the indicators of what is marked as cool.

Q: If you go to any comic or pop culture convention around the country, you’ll find a diverse group of attendees, in both race and gender. So why is the white male nerd stereotype so prevalent in society still? 

Answer: Comicons, gaming conventions and superhero, fantasy and sci-fi film franchise opening nights will certainly draw out nerds of every race, gender and ethnicity. You will also find this diversity in many online spaces containing these interests. My thoughts on why this nerd stereotype still prevails is because there are many real-life examples of white nerds who are highly successful and in the public eye.

It took until the release of the film “Hidden Figures” in 2016 for Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan to be publicly recognized for their superior intellect. So, while this is changing in comic and pop culture venues, we still have a way to go in other spaces.

Q: There are critics who consider the inclusion of POC (people of color) or female superheroes or characters to be tokenism or pandering. Why is this? 

A: Traditionally, the primary comic characters in mainstream media have been white men, and when there is diversity, it feels manufactured.

“Manufactured diversity” is the term I use for media products that have a superficial use of inclusion. Diversity is manufactured if the characters have no nuance or specificity, no relationship to their home communities, are written as caricatures or stereotypes and are portrayed as in need of or dependent on the white main character.

Q: What are some examples of content that are representing diversity well?

A: In the comic books, Marvel’s “X-Men" has had many queer and characters of color. Marvel also gave us Miles MoralesIn the animated feature "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.", an Afro-Latino Spider-Man, and it ended up winning an Oscar for best animated feature. Marvel’s run on Netflix, which produced "Luke Cage," made progress by centering the action in Harlem with nuanced characters that acknowledged the array of black cultures and diaspora.

Looking at DC Comics, they have plans for full-length features for the Cyborg character and have sequels in the works for Aquaman. So as far as male superheroes of color, we’ve got a healthy start. The CW has rebranded themselves as the place to go for DC comic TV. “Riverdale,” “Supergirl,” “Batgirl,” “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow” have women and LGBTQ characters given more visibility. “Black Lightning” is about a family of black superheroes living in an African American community, and the white characters are the supporting characters. CW also produced an animated run of the superhero Vixen, an African American woman. 

HBO has produced a version of DC’s “Watchmen” starring Regina King as Sister Night, so that gives fans another strong female character of color and the potential to translate into cosplay, costumes and merch. King’s Sister Night also lets the world see a black woman as a fully formed superhero who kicks major (expletive), and that kind of representation has been needed for a very long time.

Q: It also seems that some of the more popular “nerd” content has been created by white men. Is that shifting? What are ways to encourage more people of color or women to be content creators?

A: This is absolutely shifting, slowly, but shifting. Since the various movements like #metoo, #oscarsowhite and #blacklivesmatter, call-out culture and the shifting of power happening in Hollywood, the gatekeepers are either being replaced or eliminated. Also, many content creators who major in film anymore have studied representation in film and are more dedicated to inclusion. Many studios have created internships and fellowship programs to boost diversity.

I think the biggest impact are all of the tutorials on YouTube of how to draw, how to make comics and how to animate. This gets young kids and people of all ages started on making their own (content). Comic culture and fandom has always been linked to DIY and making. From cosplay to zines and comics themselves, this is a fan-run and fan-centered industry, so it is just a matter of time before more truly inclusive content emerges. 

Q: What do you think it will take to ultimately change the narrative surrounding nerd or geek culture to be more inclusive? 

A: There are several online communities and cons/expos dedicated to more inclusive nerd culture. Here are a few of the ones I know of:

And there are an increasing number of panels at some of the major fan/comic fests that are dedicating space and conversations to this issue. 

If you are interested in checking out some media created by women or people of color, here are some personally recommended by Martinez that you can access at the ASU Library:

Top image: Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani American superhero. Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

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Dancing atoms reveal potential capabilities of materials

October 18, 2019

Energy generation, environmental science, electronics, manufacturing and more would benefit from exploring materials’ innermost architecture

An important part of Peter Crozier’s job involves watching dances. He views these intricate performances through state-of-the-art, high-powered microscopes because the dancers are atoms.

Crozier (pictured above left) is a materials scientist at Arizona State University who studies how the underlying principles of nature can be applied to pursuits in materials science and engineering.

To do that, he examines the choreographed ways in which materials form at the atomic level and how those materials develop various functionalities.

“Think of graphite and diamonds, two very different materials. Diamonds are hard and transparent. Graphite is soft and black. Yet they are both pure carbon,” said Crozier, a professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“The only difference between diamonds and graphite is the way their atoms are arranged in their most basic structures, how they are stacked together in those crystalline patterns,” he said.

Deeper understanding of the ways atoms assemble and bond in materials promises to provide insights into a vast array of chemical and biological systems, energy engineering, environmental sciences and even the complex realm of emerging quantum information technologies.

Progress toward that goal has earned Crozier and his colleagues a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation award. It provides more than $1.8 million to fund the acquisition of a direct electron detector, a technology that will boost the team’s work in advanced transmission electron microscopy.

The new equipment — described by the NSF as an Energy-Filtering, Direct Electron Detector for Advanced Soft and Hard Materials Research — will give researchers a sharper view of “atomic positions and dynamics,” Crozier said. Or, in other words, it will allow him to see the so-called dances of the atoms.

Learning new ways to use catalytic materials

The detector will enable researchers to examine advanced real-time, atomic-level identification and characterization of the structures of soft and hard materials in situ, or in their natural working environments.

In situ studies also allow a closer look at how materials at the atomic level perform as catalysts, or substances that can trigger and speed up chemical reactions.

This is important because catalytic materials are used to manufacture about 80% of the world’s industrial products, including pharmaceuticals, agricultural materials and most other chemical-based commercial products, Crozier said.

These processes are at the core of the investigations of the Crozier Research Group @ ASU, which focuses on microscopy to help reveal how catalysts can be used to develop more sustainable, renewable clean-energy technologies.

The research is also essential to re-engineering conventional energy sources such as fossil fuels to work more efficiently and to significantly mitigate their harmful environmental impacts.

Accomplishments are attracting support for myriad projects

four students in a lab

Professor Peter Crozier credits efforts of his student lab assistants for helping him achieve important steps in advancing materials science and engineering research. Pictured in Crozier’s lab space are (from left) doctoral students Tara Boland, Diane Haiber, Kartik Venkatraman and post-doctoral research fellow Barnaby Levin. Photo by Connor McKee/ASU

Crozier’s team of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers performs most of its work at the Southwest Center for Aberration Corrected Electron Microscopy on ASU’s Tempe campus. The team is starting to see the payoff for the important steps in materials science that the facility has enabled the group to make in recent years.

In addition to the funding for the direct electron detector, in recent months Crozier has also won the NSF’s support for two other research endeavors.

For one project, Crozier is the lead investigator for a team of researchers at six universities that will use advanced machine learning to study the atomic level structural dynamics of catalysts.

The other project is aiming for more extensive understanding of electroceramics, a class of materials with strong electrical properties that are proving to be valuable in technologies for energy conversion and storage, electronics and catalysis.

Earlier this year, Crozier also earned funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the use of photocatalytic materials to make solar energy-based fuels. That involves developing materials to perform photocatalysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen will be the fuel.

The new direct electron detector will benefit each of those additional projects.

Expanding the boundaries of electron microscopy’s possibilities

With the detector, Crozier’s team will get images recorded up to a thousand times per second to show how atoms rearrange during catalytic reactions, allowing for the precise measurements of the chemical identities and the bonding of the atoms.

“We are going to be able to more closely probe a material to see how the atoms on nanoparticles change bonding and position,” Crozier said.

He hopes to also see the research produce ideas for enhancing the abilities of microscopy technology.

“We do more than simply use our microscopy tools,” he said. “We develop new hardware and software for them and come up with new ways of using them.”

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Chemical engineering graduate student Joshua Vincent, one of Crozier’s research assistants, operates a transmission electron microscope at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It’s the same type of microscope Crozier and his team use to study the movements of atoms in the presence of stimuli such as heat, gas and light. This “dance” performed by atoms depends on the types of stimuli. Photo courtesy of Joshua Vincent

Colleagues in Crozier’s field are anticipating interesting and useful results from his current projects.

“I am constantly impressed by Peter’s ability to squeeze valuable information out of the microscope that is essential for designing new catalysts and improving the performance of existing ones,” said Frances Ross, a professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who uses transmission electron microscopy to gain knowledge about the physics and growth mechanisms of nanoscale materials.

Ross said Crozier’s work to develop specialized microscopy equipment is having a significant impact on the research community by expanding the possibilities of what the technology could do, which is encouraging others to attempt more complex experimentation.

Jingyue Liu, a professor in the Department of Physics at ASU, foresees Crozier’s research answering fundamental questions about the development of low-cost and sustainable catalysts for energy conversion, environmental remediation methods, preventing corrosion of materials, improving detection of toxic chemicals and upgrading water-cleaning systems.

Projects are also bolstering student opportunities and public outreach

Additional benefits of the research are coming from the efforts of students beyond their labors in the lab, said Crozier, who is chair of the graduate program for the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools.

He encourages his student research assistants to broaden their impacts by engaging in activities that provide opportunities for them to develop their managerial and leadership skills. 

Many of the group of about a dozen doctoral and undergraduate students are involved in science and engineering organizations, community service projects and educational outreach.

Some have taken leadership roles in the Microscopy Society of America. Recent graduates Will Bowman and Ethan Lawrence were part of a group of six students who established a student council within the national organization. They also chaired a pre-meeting congress at one of the society’s national meetings. 

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Materials science and engineering doctoral student Piyush Haluai prepares a nanoparticle catalyst sample to insert into an electron microscope. Haluai is aiding Professor Peter Crozier’s work on the use of nanoparticles in photocatalytic processes to generate solar fuel. Photo by Connor McKee/ASU

Lawrence is now an engineer with Intel, while Bowman is now an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

Current students Kartik Venkatraman, Joshua Vincent and Piyush Haluai are involved in organizing student and professional activities in the Microscopy Society of America. 

Crozier has created a Leadership Circle for materials science and engineering graduate students at ASU aimed at getting them involved in management and leadership of the graduate program.

As part of these efforts, doctoral student Diane Haiber has developed and organized two seminar series to provide other graduate students opportunities to connect with academic, research and industry leaders in the microscopy and materials science and engineering fields.

In the announcement of Crozier’s Major Research Instrumentation grant, the NSF noted the “strong commitment” of Crozier and his team to participate in outreach at and beyond ASU. Those efforts include educational programs targeted to rural and underprivileged K-12 communities through the Fulton Schools and ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and an annual Electron Microscopy Winter School at ASU, which draws graduate students from across the U.S. and the globe.

Soon a new generation of researchers will understand atoms’ most intricate dances.

Top photo: Professor Peter Crozier (left) applies his expertise in electron microscopy in research to improve materials used to expand and enhance the capabilities of numerous advanced technologies, especially those employed in energy and environmental fields. Crozier is pictured with postdoctoral research fellow Barnaby Levin (sitting) and doctoral student Kartik Venkatraman in the Southwest Center for Aberration Corrected Electron Microscopy on Arizona State University's Tempe campus. Photo by Connor McKee/ASU

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering