Features Published 1 May 2017

Les Miserables So White

From 19th century revolutionary Paris to the Black Lives Matter movements: Nemo Martin explores how Victor Hugo's story of protest is being reimagined by online fans.
Nemo Martin
The London cast of Les Miserables

The London cast of Les Miserables

If you’ve seen Les Misérables on stage recently, you might have noticed that it tends to be… #SoWhite. There are a couple of noticeable examples where this isn’t so: in 2016, not one but two Asian actors starred in the London production (Lea Salonga and Eva Noblezada as Fantine and Éponine). In 2008, Cornell John, a black actor, played Javert, Ramin Karimloo and Kyle Jena-Baptise have played Valjean, neither of them being, you guessed it, white. But, aside from this (almost exhaustive) list, the production suffers from a touch of ‘everyone else is a white person’.

I’d like to get one thing out of the way, first and foremost: the small voice you might be hearing, saying ‘but this is set in 19th century France!’. Even if this wasn’t the theatre, where humans literally dress up as cats, dancing furniture, and cancer cells, suspend your disbelief no longer: Alexandre Dumas, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Raden Saleh were all successful, well-educated contemporaries of Victor Hugo, as well as being people of colour in their spare time.

This is the preface for Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables:

“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, […] so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”

It’s often quoted by those of us attempting to cajole unwilling people into reading the novel because of how ‘relatable’ it is. Because, well, it is. Take a look around us and we see the very things that entice and move us about the Les Mis musical: women’s bodies policed by the men in power, the school-to-prison pipeline for those of a certain social class, groups of students fighting (often dying) for human rights, and the law straining at its seams, tied between what is lawful, and what is just.

And it goes without saying that racial prejudice is often at the heart of these struggles. Black kids shot in the street, black men harassed and demonised, black cisgender and transgender women abused at alarming rates.

There are particular groups of people most vocal about these intersectional injustices and, to say it plainly: it isn’t the white upper-middle class. The leaders of political uprisings are so often whitewashed by the media that it’s almost impossible to discern truth from reality, but even quick research into uprisings that have revolutionised social justice shows the truth. The recent film Stonewall, for example, removed Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson (latinx and black transwomen) from the narrative, and inserted a white male lead instead.

By removing these key people of colour from leadership roles in the media, even in something as arguably insignificant as a musical, you perpetuate the White Male Saviour storyline so often embedded in tales of terror. Recent examples include The Great Wall, Iron Fist and Ghost in the Shell… Where a white hero stomps into an Asian myth and is, through some miracle (their white privilege) able to do what no person of colour ever could. The same can be said about casting cisgender actors for transgender roles, and in not giving LGBTQIA+ characters successful storylines. See this time and time again, and, without realising, you’ve told countless billions of people what they should look for in leaders: to be white, to be of a certain class, to be cisgender and male and heterosexual. 

When you see it like this, a word springs to mind: propaganda. To propagate the idea that those who can be happy and successful are those of a social class, colour and gender. This is where I think fan-created content is so much more valuable to our current society than most original content. The first time I watched Les Mis, I have to admit, I laughed. Almost all the way through. I had to be dragged to the cinema by my musical-loving friends because I had never even heard of it before, and it just didn’t hit very many chords with me. But, somehow, somewhere along the way, I started to love it, and I think this has to do with how the fandom developed.

A still from the 2012 film, Les Miserables.

A protest scene from the 2012 film, Les Miserables.

The Les Misérables fandom (as in fan kingdom, the online community of fans) grew exponentially with the 2012 film, bringing with it a surge of art, fiction, and meta. The film was hugely popular, and sported a great cast. But, if you’re like me, you might have sat through it and counted the two black people (in the chain gang, in the gutter), and zero other people of colour. Even with thirteen young, named, side characters (Éponine, Enjolras, Grantaire, Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Bahorel, Feuilly, Joly, Bossuet, Musichetta, Jehan, Gavroche, Azelma, hereafter named the amis), not one of them is anything but white.

At the beginning of 2012, it was understandable that fan-made artwork tended to portray the characters how they looked in the film: Tveit!Enjolras (where the exclamation mark denotes ‘version’,) Crowe!Vert, Hathaway!Fantine, etc., all in their period era dress. But, as the eager new fans started to read the brick, and to realise that the fandom had existed since the very beginning, fanart begun to shift. These background cast members, the barricade boys, the amis came to reflect those who were part of the protest culture that is so reminiscent of the musical’s rebellion: led by queer people of colour.

This is when ‘Alternate Universes’, (where the original characters are placed in different genres or contexts – the BBC’s Sherlock, for example, is a ‘modern AU’,) begun to become more popular than ‘original’ or ‘canonical’ material. Just like any art, it is almost startlingly easy to ‘read’ fanart for an artist’s interests, for their political beliefs. Those of high school age make the amis high schoolers, stressing about exams, about relationships, about being a teenager. Classics students, or those interested in Homer’s Iliad (likely influenced by Hugo’s own love) portray Enjolras and Grantaire as their epithetical Apollo and Dionysus. People horrified with what was happening at Standing Rock released their hopelessness and despair through the amis.

Since 2012, the fandom has grown and evolved in tandem with the political movements of our time. Slowly it has become almost canonical for Bahorel to be portrayed as a dreadlock-and-vest wearing black guy, reminiscent of Edward Crawford, the man most known for throwing back the teargas in the iconic photo of the Ferguson protests. Jehan is portrayed as a black, non-binary (neither male or female) poet, embodying attempts to decriminalise and soften the black identity. Cosette, too, undergoes transformation into a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, treated unkindly by a world unsympathetic to the idea of ‘foreign’. The fandom, interested more now with what the amis stood for than for 19th century French turmoil, is exactly what makes Les Misérables so timeless.

Les Miserables, reimagined for the present day. Art by BATCII

Les Miserables, reimagined for the present day. Art by BATCII

This process has been far from smooth.  As one artist told me when discussing her work, what makes the fandom interesting is that it is ‘constantly grappling with sticking to its roots and evolving through adaptation’. The artist, batcii, is well known in the fandom, and in some ways provides a great visual representation of the changes the fandom has undergone. When discussing her work,  she was the first to admit that she was guilty, and very much self-deprecating about how her initial depictions of Enjolras were of the idealised golden boy: white, blond and blue-eyed. Like many, batcii realised over the years that to have a group of people of colour heavily rooted in the BLM protests be led by a white male was harmful in all the ways fandom was trying to prevent.

She, like some of the other artists I spoke to, were incredibly hesitant to be used as examples of the progression of the fandom because, even in our first messages, they highlighted the fact that they were not people of colour themselves, and felt like they were stepping out in front of artists of colour who were doing a much better job of putting their own narratives into those of the amis’. One artist pointed me to kannibal, a Filipino artist who is known for her Bisaya!Enjolras – a modern AU where the rebel leader is proud to be of an ethnicity not portrayed in the Western media. While black amis are now commonplace, Asian ones tend to be less visible, and in roles that are still relatively problematic: though black identities have undergone significant de-stabilisations, Asian amis tend to be those with more ‘submissive’ character traits. Joly, a happy-go-lucky hypochondriac, usually shown as a doctor, and Cosette, who tends to be a lot more radical, but still pretty-in-pink, both tend to be East Asian, for example.

What kannibal does, therefore, in giving Enjolras an East Asian background, is to give the character a complexity: there are power politics integral to being East Asian, often including being underestimated or stereotyped as weak. To be Fillipino too is to be underrepresented: often darker skinned (and thus less ‘attractive’ when compared to Eurocentric ideals of beauty), and not a country that has elicited the fetishisation as countries like Japan, Korea or China have endured.  

Amongst jokey laughs about being ‘the whitest white bread’, there was a sense of real humility among the white artists: I hasten to add that batcii, and artists like her, were hesitant to say yes, and it is probably unfair of me to have named one, but not the others as per the others’ requests, but I would argue that without her (and those like her,) the shifts in fandom would not have happened so fast. For a large group of people to shift their views (even on something as small as whether a Les Misérables character is black or white,) the first people to change must be those who have garnered the popularity in the first place.

The fandom, mostly hosted on tumblr, is intrinsically linked with the political climate because the website itself is intersectional in its function: more similar to twitter than to facebook or instagram, tumblr works as both a personal blogging website, a forum, and a place to get angry (rarely a healthy combination when dealing with, predominantly, depressed teenagers). The nature of Les Misérables attracts certain types of similar-thinking people (liberal, revolutionary), which keeps the fandom almost homogenously positive (towards the liberal), the circular motion constantly fuelled by an almost WWED (What Would Enjolras Do) level of thinking.

Fandom often tends to be as problematic as the rest of the world, but I also think that it at least tends towards trying to be better, trying to make something out of the world given to them. Fandom is, after all, a primarily reactionary state: creators using, and bettering, original content. What I would like to see, therefore, is the original content rising to the standards of its audience.

I have saved talking about Les Mis Dallas for last, to prove that representation of race on stage is not only entirely possible, but constantly relevant, compelling, and above all, makes for great entertainment. Dallas Les Mis was, essentially, a near-future, dystopian AU; retaining the same songs, the same tone, and the same emotions, but transported into a world where an authoritarian regime reigned, people of colour were those forced into manual labour, and the barricade boys were not, entirely, white.

Dallas was not perfect: it too, had a white!Enjolras, and an Asian!Cosette, but when a white!Javert ordered the slaughter of the black boys, fighting for freedom, who could not think of police brutality? With a brown!Valjean, who could not think of mass incarceration? With a black!Fantine, who could not think of budget cuts, abortion laws, and Trump’s ‘pussy-grabbing’ government?

I love Les Mis, and I have seen the stage production perhaps more time than is healthy, but the more times I see it, the more I realise how problematic it is for the production to remain as it is, telling audiences that injustice is survived only by the white, the young, and the straight. When, instead, you are presented with an alternative: that an interracial (Asian-American & black) couple are the ones to survive, mourning over their adopted father,  we are presented with a far more hard-hitting reality.

Eponine and Cosette reimagined. Art by SONGSABOUTSALAD

Eponine and Cosette reimagined. Art by SONGSABOUTSALAD

In the end, it’s also nice seeing art of people of colour that is positive. Another artist, songsaboutsalad, is known for his bright, happy portraits of the amis, in domestic settings. Combeferre, taking a selfie with his cat, Éponine and Cosette in a blooming relationship, and Grantaire and Courfeyrac complaining about their exams. There is a kind of tumblr self-care to these images, and images like it, where sometimes the constant vilification of people of colour is an uphill battle.  While it is incredible to see people of colour in leadership roles, it is also important to see these leaders as human: which is why Hugo dedicated so much time to Valjean, to Marius, to Javert. Their struggles would mean so little without knowing that Valjean’s last meal before the barricade was a chicken wing, that Marius once kissed Valjean’s handkerchief thinking it was Cosette’s, that Javert had a flair for the dramatic. Songsaboutsalad embodies this in his work: able to think of Les Misérables’ characters as complex beings who died, and left so much potential, for a common cause.

With an all-white cast, it is easy to place these injustices in the past; to sit back, to relax, and to enjoy the show. But that is not why Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables. The man himself might have been racist (as his muddied relationship with Rromani people, shown in his characterisation of Javert, suggests), but what he stood for was to show institutionalised injustice against his people. To show ‘hell on earth’ created by those in power. When that message is watered down, breezed over as a musical about ‘the French Revolution’ fought by rich white boys, the show ceases to be relevant, or important.