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Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Opinion | Making waves: Diversity in the new Percy Jackson series

Courtesy of Disney+

Criticism of the new Percy Jackson series for its diverse casting is misguided and misinformed. 

Seeing as over 180 million copies of the complete book series have been sold, it’s not surprising that the series was one of the biggest launches for Disney+ in 2023.

As a longtime fan of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, I have a lot of opinions about the new show. These books were what many of us college students today grew up on, and they’ve also helped many of us pass the occasional quiz on Greek mythology. 

Critics have been overwhelmingly positive. “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” has a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to 49% and 42% for the 2010 and 2013 films. However, fans have greeted the new adaptation with a mix of praise and scrutiny.

Some fans praise the show for being a significantly more accurate adaptation of the books than the movies starring Logan Lerman. Don’t get me wrong, the movies were decent films, but they were outright awful adaptations. The actors would have been much better choices to play the older versions of the characters depicted in the sequel series, “Heroes of Olympus,” which I loved more than the original series and hope will be adapted for the screen when the current actors grow into the roles.

The show is faithful to the characters and much of the original material, so why is there controversy?

The movies may also have been guilty of this to a lesser degree, but the casting of the PJO series doesn’t reflect the physical features the characters had in the books, with the casting for heroine Annabeth Chase attracting the most criticism.

In the books, she was described as a blond girl with stormy-gray eyes. Many had assumed that someone like McKenna Grace would be cast to fill the role, but Rick Riordan elected to cast Leah Jeffries, a 14-year-old Black girl. 

Many accused Riordan of colluding with Disney on yet another bout of performative liberalism, arguing that the change was yet another unnecessary effort by Disney to fix their public image.

Between Star Wars, Marvel, ESPN and the Disney and Fox back catalogs, Disney owns most of the media we consume. Similar critiques have been shot at the casting for Ariel in the Little Mermaid, Tinkerbell in Peter Pan and Wendy, and the Rachel Zegler Snow White fiasco

The backlash to Jefferies’ casting as Annabeth subjected the child actress to extreme cyberbullying, prompting Rick Riordan to write a more-than-1,000-word post on his website to respond to the hate she received. Riordan clarifies that his casting of Jeffries was a deliberate choice made with her talent in mind, not an effort to reduce her down to her appearance for clout.

I believe Riordan when he says that this wasn’t a publicity stunt by Disney, but rather a well-thought out choice.

There is, of course, some validity to arguments about how diverse casting can affect faithfulness to the original source material. But despite Percy Jackson being described as having dark hair in the books, internet trolls have focused far more on Jefferies’ brown skin than the blond hair of Percy’s actor, Walker Scobell. 

Subverting the expectations that Annabeth would merely be another blond love interest by contrasting her wit and ferocity with conventional beauty standards added important depth to her character.

It is frustrating that even today, if a blond woman is given an important role, her sexuality is almost always included. In the books, Annabeth served as a good counterexample to this stereotype.

However, as a blond woman, I encourage you as viewers to approach the decision to not cast a blond girl to play Annabeth from a position of empathy. Positive representation is especially important for people who have never had it or only experienced it in small amounts. 

Representation is not about restriction; it’s about inclusion. It goes both ways. 

Some argue that to mitigate drama, casting minorities for presumably white side characters would be more digestible than protagonists.

But this is not the solution. 

If we continue to cast people of color as side characters so we can claim inclusivity, the problem isn’t gone; it has merely been hidden. 

While these criticisms aren’t necessarily rooted in overt racism, much of it is still the product of bias. 

Some people argue that the casting choices are unrealistic because Greek people are white. It’s a show about Greek gods being alive and having children today, it doesn’t have to be realistic. It’s fantasy.

Some even use this point to argue Jefferies’ casting was unnecessary, but I feel the precedent of diversity in Riordan’s literature only makes the show more true to the source and reality. All of the books in Riordan’s universe feature an incredibly diverse cast of characters, from tons of different racial, ethnic and personal backgrounds. 

Nico di Angelo, introduced in “The Titan’s Curse,” was the first gay character I ever read about, which was revolutionary to see as a kid in the 2000s.  With books in school libraries currently being banned for controversial content, it’s noteworthy that for over a decade, Riordan’s books have comparatively evaded scrutiny that many other young adult novels have faced. 

Frankly, I think that Jefferies has done an incredible job holding true to the character of Annabeth, and her talent and chemistry with the other actors are undeniable. 

Fans can respect the original books without slandering a casting choice on the TV adaptation, because at the end of the day, it’s just that. A TV show. Hollywood is changing, and open casting is here to stay. It’s about time people get over it.

If you stop being a fan of Rick Riordan’s work because a Black actress was cast, you learned nothing from the books.

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