It’s a question as old as time, or at least as old as the season finale of Our Flag Means Death: Why like Izzy when there’s characters of color so much better? And what does this reflect in our racial biases?
White villains, white villains, white villains. Fandom is obsessed with white villains, and Izzy Hands is no exception. Kinda.
Unlike Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens or Snape as teased throughout much of the Harry Potter series, Izzy doesn’t exactly fall in neatly with other villains. An antagonist? Absolutely. He’s got a knack for getting in Stede Bonnet’s way, all while having the nerve to be unpleasant about it too! Yet, a large portion of fandom seems hesitant to label him as a true Villain, capital V and everything.
When it comes to the role of an antagonist, that’s a cut and dry position: someone or something that gets in the way of the protagonist. It’s easy to pick through examples of this throughout the show where it seems like everybody gives it a go at having a squabble with Stede. Chauncey Badminton and his relentless pursuit of the man who murdered his dear twin brother. Spanish Jackie who sends Stede to the Spanish navy to get gut-stabbed. Even Calico Jack acts as a romantic rival (and saboteur) during his one episode cameo.
Could Black Pete be considered episode one’s minor antagonist as he vies for the coveted spot of captain? When Mary grabs the skewer and goes for the ear hole we all cheered, but is this not an antagonistic action as well?
Izzy, who lies, manipulates, stabs, betrays, and insults can firmly be placed in an antagonist role with little argument from fandom. From the very beginning he clashes against Stede, instigating hostage snatching (who he technically bought fair and square) and picking bar fights (that he technically wasn’t the one who started it.)
An antagonist, however, doesn’t make a villain. When it comes to defining villainy, there’s a bit more gray area involved within this. Villains require some degree of badness to them. To what extent is up to debate, but a villain can often be thought of as “a character with evil or malicious intentions.”
But what makes someone evil? The most obvious example would be a character like Chauncey, someone who hunts Stede down even after his crimes had been acquitted. But is it really that easy? In another story, a different show, Chauncey could be the mourning admiral, wracked with grief from his brother’s wanton murder, slowly being driven to madness as he watches the confessed murderer evade consequences through a combination of privilege and wealth. When even the king’s blessing isn’t enough to bring Stede Bonnet to justice, what choice remains but to take matters into his own hands? Who else will avenge his brother in a world indifferent to his death if not him?
Chauncey’s also in the British navy and kinda insane though, so labeling him as a villain isn’t too far of a stretch.
Still, when there’s gray area even in the likes of characters like Chauncey, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s hesitancy in labeling Izzy Hands too harshly. Is Izzy a villain, or is he just a depressed housewife in a crumbling marriage? (thread frozen at 33420 comments)
Are Izzy’s crimes even comparable to those like Kylo Ren or Snape, characters who are responsible for genocide, the abuse of children, and were for some time consumed in fascist communities thinnly veiled from their white supremacist allegories?
Who’s to say! Maybe if we reopen the topic for the 100th time and fight about it once again we’ll come to some sort of conclusion. Or maybe we’ll just end up doubling our block lists. Whatever.
The details of villainy, evil, and antagonists dressed in all black aside, it’s an interesting question to consider.
How much does Izzy’s whiteness impact the viewers’ ability to empathize with him over characters of color? Should we be examining our attraction to a white meow meow and whether we’re culturally trained to like him more?
Yeah probably. It’s always good to keep track of your own biases and how this influences the characters you relate to. The empathy gap with characters of color vs white characters is a very real phenomenon. How we engage with characters of color, and what we can do better, is something I’ve written about regarding OFMD as well. We should always be questioning ourselves when it comes to internalized racism. This work is never finished, but is an ongoing process.
“If you primarily create something like angst, fluff, or even PWP, is there a reason why you struggle to view these characters [of color] as possible subjects? Consider why you may find yourself uninterested in exploring a character of color’s traumatic backstory even though angst is your favorite thing to write. Or the way you may find a relationship between POC boring, but in comparison, consider a fluffy white m/m a refreshing change of pace. Is there a reason you might struggle to view a relationship between POC as sexual and shy away from including them in your NSFW art?”
So yes, it is worth asking ourselves why we might relate to Izzy more. Asking ourselves, “Is there a reason why fans can extend empathy to him and his struggles so easily? Is there a reason why we might be more willing to dig past the surface details and construct theories and backstories explaining his behavior?”
But what happens next? When we’ve done our introspection and examined our biases?
Something I’m curious about is how easily does fandom find it to relate to Izzy Hands?
Izzy Likers sound off! Who was obsessed with Izzy Hands from their first watch?
Who kinda hated his fucking guts?
How many rewatches did it take before you began to truly stan him?
How many fanworks and meta did it take before you began to feel as if you understood his character?
I’m not convinced that liking Izzy is as natural as people assume.
There’s definitely many fans who fell in love with him upon first glance, wracked with confusion and lust as he tore apart Stede’s shirt for seemingly no reason.
On the other hand, there does seem to be a not small amount of people who experienced more of a slowburn approach to stanning Izzy.
Perhaps this is just my experience, but I always found Izzy funny from the very beginning, but it took several rewatches of me becoming increasingly inconsolable of piecing together bits and pieces of his characterization to complete the mosaic of whatever the fuck is wrong with that strange little man.
Stanning Izzy wasn’t a choice, it was an attack that left me kicking and screaming as I was dragged into his cringe-fail clutches.
There was no immediate process, unlike when it came to characters like Edward who I was already printing “FREE EDWARCH! TEACH INNOCENT!” t-shirts two minutes into episode 4 and haven’t stopped crying over him yet.
The comparison between the two makes itself. Of the characters in the show, Edward and Izzy are the two who stand out the most on having to peel back layer after layer to understand who they are. Edward, and his constantly shifting masks, lies of omission, and insecurity of who he is as a person. Izzy, and the complex amount of loyalty, pain, and slow spiraling insanity etched into the minute details of Con o’Neill’s micro expressive acting.
At least for me, loving Ed was never even a question. Izzy though, with his abrasive personality and tendencies towards dipshit decisions, was a bit tougher to swallow down.
I guess I’m just not convinced that liking Izzy was a given where I’m an easily swayed fool who’s immediately drawn to pink dick? Maybe this is me being too assured of myself and preferences, but I consistently navigate towards characters of color who I love. Gimme a brown boy, pump him full of trauma, and let him go, and oh, baby I am yours.
And when it comes to excusing actions of characters and making allowances for their bad behavior, I always feel as if it’s less that fans writing meta are justifying every dipshit choice Izzy makes, and more so teasing out the reasons why he might exhibit dipshit behavior. Izzy, you see, has this spectacular ability to have very normal and justified emotional responses to situations, and then immediately jumps into making the worst possible decision.
In comparison to Ed, who has never done a single thing wrong in his entire life; where I know about the atrocities and I’ve decided that not only are they funny, but also extremely sexually attractive and also righteous and also––
Well. Izzy’s no Ed, but who can truly compare themself to a saint babygirl?
Of the characters of color, Ed’s really the only one where Izzy has something to gain by exaggerating Ed’s flaws, or by “woobifying” Izzy.
Where to draw the line between acknowledging the complex and multifaceted nature of Ed/Izzy’s relationship, and unfairly victimizing Izzy is harder to pinpoint. What happens if someone has reviewed the text, checked their biases, and still has come to the conclusion of “Ed has contributed no small amount to the toxicity of their relationship?” Not that Ed is an abuser, not that Izzy is a hapless innocent, or that this is a problem entirely manufactured by one side. But Ed, who is in a position of power over Izzy, is an active participant in whatever the fuck is wrong with those two.
Is it possible to thoroughly examine your relationship to white favoritism and still come out liking the character?
Oftentimes, these conversations begin and end with a call of bringing awareness to the hidden prejudices within our media consumption. For many of us, this isn’t a new concept, and although the work is always ongoing, this is already a habit ingrained in our behavior.
The problem with “really think about why you like Izzy so much” is that the conclusion has already been preordained. It’s not a push for honest reflection, it’s a helping hand meant to guide fans through social justice 101 and “correct” our misplaced affection for a character onto someone more worthy.
This is something that really only happens with Izzy too. Why isn’t there the same call to analyze our behavior when it comes to liking Stede Bonnet? White protagonists are so often given the benefit of the doubt, allowed to make mistakes and hurt their loved ones from their own selfish actions, and still be viewed favorably.
It’s not even that the fandom woobifies Stede really. This is built into his character, where the audience’s ability to like him hinges on the child-like quality to his behavior. It’s hard to hate a man who cries in a robe and hides in his room when under attack. Stede is allowed the benefit of the doubt. He’s the embodiment of main character syndrome, yet we still afford him complexity. We still empathize for his trauma, his desire to be better, his love for his crew.
And this isn’t a bad thing by any means. This is good writing, as well as an absolute bang up job on Rhys Darby’s part of somehow managing to make the character not only likable, but truly loveable.
How often are we allowed to see that same empathy extended to flawed protagonists of color though? Or characters who are women? What biases are we playing into when we relate to Stede Bonnet without hesitation?
I assume the answers are “it’s because he’s neurodivergent like me” or “it’s important to see elder queer men on screen” or “but did you see his tits, man?”
All valid and true and yes, I have seen his boobs. But why should he be exempt from the conversation?
This isn’t a “whataboutism” to distract from being critical of Izzy. This is me drawing attention to the fact that Izzy takes up an unequal portion of this critique, and how this can lead to white fans excusing themselves from their own turn at reflection, and how they might not be as quick to relate to narratives of queerness, neurodivergency, or trauma if a character isn’t white.
There’s a real tendency in fandom for people to pat themselves on the back for liking the “right” white boy when it’s like no? These are both white men? One just yells more and the other owns more land-of-dubious-acquistion.
In the end, it’s always going to be a circular conversation asking people to figure out why they like a white character so much. More often than not the answer is “because they’re neat!”
Because what is the expectation here? To like the character less?
It’s a mistake to continuously center these talks around white characters, and therefore once again, erasing characters of color. It’s not just “why like this white character so much?” it’s “why do you like this white character so much for his flaws, but lambast this character of color for doing the same?”
Why are you willing to put effort into fleshing out a backstory for a white character, but call this character of color flat and not worth your time?
How much effort are you putting into seeking out diverse media and their stories? Are you only gravitating towards the ships that feature white characters?
This is a “yes, and” type of thing. You keep stanning your white meow meow if that sparks joy, but you also look around and see if there’s other characters you may be ignoring. It’s not something that only one section of the fandom is tasked with either.
Part of the frustration that some Izzy fans may feel is that people rarely take the time to see what content is actually being made. Which, to be fair, is often porn so maybe that’s on us, but still.
You know, there’s a not insignificant amount of fic written for Roach/Izzy and Frenchie/Izzy, right? Not just because people are horny about Izzy, but because they like them, and are invested enough to write 50k long fics about these characters who have hardly interacted. And as a poc who regularly is trying to find content for Roach and Frenchie, who goes into the tags and makes an effort to support creators, I really do just appreciate that there’s anyone in fandom who cares enough about the side characters of color to regularly make content for them.
I want to read 50k fics written from Frenchie’s perspective about him getting to be cute and date someone, and I appreciate the fact that Izzy fans will not just make this content, but actively support and hype it up too. I also appreciate the fact that I don’t have to follow many white people who annoy me because I can just follow Izzy stans of color instead. That there’s a large amount of poc who are also tired of being told to unpack our racist biases from white folks with Stede icons who’s education on antiracism extends as far as reblogging “share if you’re not racist!” posts on Tumblr circa-2016.
I’ve analyzed why I like Izzy Hands so much. I’ve taken into consideration his whiteness, my biases, the types of narratives that mainstream media pushes, and what kinds of characters are deserving of our empathy. And I still like him. I still think he’s neat. I still want him to get better and maybe get a nice boyfriend in s3 who will blow his back out on the reg and hopefully that’ll calm him down.
How many more times am I going to have to be told to do this work? And why does it feel like Izzy fans are the only ones in this fandom putting in the effort to decenter whiteness?