Diversity for Diversity’s Sake
It’s a song and dance that happens quite often these days. A movie or tv show trailer is released and members of social media immediately denounce it for “lacking diversity.” Most often, the comments are made on the grounds that not enough people of color (POC) were present. Many deeper issues and questions are alluded to by such feedback, but is it possible this way of thinking could actually be a hindrance to deep and meaningful progress?
Is the presence of POC enough to signify diverse representation?
Diverse representation is not achieved simply by including POC in a film or tv show. Their presence must go beyond visual representation and be more than diversity for diversity’s sake. Many viewers can tell when films and shows only seem to be checking boxes.
Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director Jordan Peele is seen by many as a master of authentic representation. His stories aim to explore the complexity of human existence and empower his predominantly black characters in a way that dives deeper than the color of their skin.
An example of criticism on the opposite side is directed at Game of Thrones, one of the most monumental franchises of the past decade. There are only two prominent characters of color (Missandei and Grey Worm). Their presence as regular cast members would seem to convey a sense of diversity, but their portrayal has been noted as problematic for a number of reasons, including:
- Neither has had a particularly well-developed character arc beyond being freed from enslavement by and allying with a character who, one could argue, fits the “white savior” trope.
- Being the only two prominent characters of color, they also (predictably) end up being paired romantically.
- They are forced to carry the weight of POC representation on the show in a way that can lead viewers to feel any tragedy that befalls them is undeserved and constitutes a mishandling of characters of color.
In reality, people can empower one another regardless of the color of their skin, love is not only between those of the same race, and POC are certainly no strangers to adversity.
I do take issue with certain “white savior” arguments. For the unfamiliar, the theme refers to a white character acting to rescue or help a character of color, often in ways perceived to be self-serving or self-righteous. Countless articles and studies have explored the theme throughout the history of storytelling, but there are some inherent contradictions.
In stories involving the oppression of minorities, the support and collaboration of non-minorities can be necessary to effectively subvert the behavior or belief of the majority. In lieu of that, the minority population must either remain complicit and continue to suffer or rise up aggressively, falling victim to other highly-controversial tropes.
It’s a vicious circle that ignores what is realistically necessary to achieve meaningful progress. Let us use the real world as an example. If a white woman sees a POC being berated for not speaking English in public, should she refuse to help to avoid being framed as a white savior? Many would say no, because speaking up is the right thing to do. We cannot hold media to higher standards than reality.
Where the white savior argument has true grit is when a POC legitimately has the means to help or save themself, but is prevented or discouraged from doing so by a white savior figure. In that case, it becomes about dominance and control and is deeply problematic.
All this discussion of POC vs non-POC characters begs the question. Why is skin color so often at the top of the totem pole when it comes to representation?
Is race the best or only way to convey diversity?
Another tweet (which has since been deleted) regarding the same film referenced above denounced the trailer for lacking POC characters. The tweets stood in contrast to one another, as they highlighted completely different angles of representation.
There are countless types of diversity in the world. Gender and gender identity, age, sexual and/or romantic preference, religious and political beliefs, physical and mental ability, and more. One could argue that all types of diversity are as equally deserving of representation as race.
Here’s the reality: Every type of diversity is not critical to every story. Choices should be intentional and have deeper meaning, and specific people are meant to tell specific stories. The goal should be to do stories justice in ways that authentically relate to their intended audiences, not to cram them with so many colors of the rainbow that they lose their significance entirely.
Decrying a lack of diversity and representation in other people’s stories from behind the screen of a smartphone could be quite counterproductive. As Jordan Peele and many others throughout history have demonstrated, perhaps the most impactful way to shift the narrative is to stop asking others to change their stories and, instead, start telling our own.