Last decade was definitely marked by the sign of inclusivity, diversity and a resurgence of racism in media. It goes beyond the scope of this post (and blog) to try to analyse the phenomenon but some words about how diversity/inclusivity has been changing the portrayal of characters in movies and tv series (especially but not only) and how justified or unjustified is the criticism of the trend is what I want to say.
I believe there’s a fundamental misunderstanding that people calling for more diversity (of races usually) and inclusivity (of sexual orientations mostly) in the media have towards those who criticize it. That happens in the political discussions also but here I will focus only on the media (movies/tv series especially). I believe most SJWs and such, “progressive people” and people belonging to minorities have a real hard time differentiating between racists and genuine critics who want the stories depicted on the screens be better, more congruent, more thought of and without changes made for “political reasons”, whatever that may mean.
I’ll try to shed some lights on the reasons of these critics, because sometimes I have been one myself. As for the racists, I am not going to even remotely attempt to justify them as if you only don’t want a transwoman or a black person in a movie because they’re different than you, you’re wrong and I don’t care about your reasons. End of the disclaimer.
Different views on stories
Different people have different reasons why they want to read or watch a story. It may be because they want to be intrigued by a well written plot or because they like the psychological or general interaction between well thought of characters or because they love to be amazed by strange worldbuildings and mysterious places. Or just love the prose or enjoy the special effects. Or a bit of everything. Some people like the stories to have a meaning and others prefer to enjoy the stories as they are, for the intrinsic value of a well narrated one, with or without hidden meanings. Others would love to watch stories that are similar to the modern world and our current societies while others accept that a book or movie of 50 years ago will have outdated values and will be able to enjoy it nonetheless.
None of these people are “right” or “wrong”. Everybody has their tastes and reasons to watch a movie or read a book and if you don’t like something you should be free to not endure it simply because it’s popular and such.
There are two groups of people though that are pertinent to the discussion about diversity/inclusivity in medias: one are those who can get engaged by a story by identifying with characters in it or with the cultures/societies depicted in the story. Imagine young girls looking for role models in a tv series or people from a different culture that has a hard time understanding the nuances of a different one and would prefer watching something more similar to what they experience day to day in their normal lives. Or simply people who need to have a relationship of similarity with what they’re reading/watching to be really engaged. Just a few examples of this group, among many other possible. For simplicity, I will call this group the “diversity group”.
The other group would be those who are not specifically looking to identify themselves into a character or a culture or society and just want to enjoy a well written story, even if that means having to understand a Japanese movie or an Iranian comic or watching Black Panther as a white person. This group mostly care about how congruent, well written and engaging is a story, regardless of whether they can personally identify with it or not. If they can, it’s a plus but it’s not the first thing they look for.
We can call this second group the “story-driven group”.
My take is that the first group, the diversity one, can’t understand the second, the story-driven one.
Diversity can lower the quality of a story
An unpopular opinion probably. And one that will look incomprehensible to the diversity group.
In the vast majorities of movies and tv series, casting one black actor more or a transwoman in a white woman role or increasing the number of background actors/actresses that come from minorities won’t influence a single bit the story, nor its quality. I’d say a good 80% of the stories that have seen a bigger role for women or people of colour than the original story warranted (think of Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) haven’t suffered at all because of the increased diversity. Mad Max Fury Road is not a better or worse movie than the previous ones because women have bigger roles in it. That Joker of last year was depicted by an hispanic actor instead of a typical white one and it didn’t make absolutely any difference in the quality of the movie. That the all-female Ghostbuster movie wasn’t on par with the original, all-male, one was not due to the actresses but because the movie, plot and dialogue-wise, wasn’t that good.
Diversity is not a one shot to increase or lower the quality of an art piece. It’s just a more modern depiction of stories and directors and screenwriters should be free to embrace it or not. No piece of art is inherently better or worse for being on par with modernity, sometimes a truly good story can be very old fashioned and awesome movies have been filmed that were extremely futuristic (plenty of sci-fi movies fall into this category). Dante, Shakespeare or Dostoevsky aren’t worse because they didn’t write about the LGBTQ+ movement’s rights or because they have hardly a person of colour in their books. There are multiple ways to narrate a story and invent worlds.
The problem with more diversity/inclusivity in media happens, only, when it is forced or not otherwise justified. If the latest Star Wars trilogy has a black actor as one of the main protagonist, there’s nothing strange nor disruptive as the world of Star Wars is huge and it was never said that a single human race prevailed over all the others so it is logical that people of all races would be present in it. But on the other side, putting a “black elf” or an “asian orc” or anything of the likes you may think into Lord of the Rings would need to be explained because in the world Tolkien devised there were none of those. Therefore the “story-driven group” would argue that a black elf in that world without any explanation of how it happened (none were present in the books) would feel odd, if not downright wrong. They would demand at the very least an explanation or accommodating the world to include such a change, as to make it flow with the rest of the story.
This is what the diversity group fails to understand. Adding diversity for the sake of it, without making it part of the world and modifying it in order to justify it, with possibly either positive and negative consequences, is detracting from the quality of the piece of art that is being made. For the story-driven group a black elf in The Witcher series, without any explanation of why a race that is depicted as unite and far from “diverse” in the books, is as much as detrimental to the enjoyment of the show as a plot hole or a character acting illogically. In simpler terms, it’s “bad”.
The diversity group is instead so focused on modernizing stories and their need to identify with the characters in them that they are ignoring, consciously or not, the discrepancies within the world that the stories are based in that such diversity, without a reasonable explanation, is adding.
Which, of course, if you care more about being modern, diverse and being able to identify yourself into a character is all fine. But it can be not fine, at all, for different people without making them racists or with a retrograde way of thinking.
In a way, the diversity group are idealists, willing to sacrifice or compromise the past (our book or story that has been written, sometimes decades ago) to present a better future, one where diversity is accepted and not questioned, as the story-driven group would. A laudable ideal, absolutely. Yet in order to obtain it you have to sacrifice the past, in this case the story you’re adapting for a movie or tv show. If diversity wasn’t there, you add it to follow your ideal world, thus inevitably changing the original world.
There’s nothing racist in trying to defend this past, our beloved stories from books and old movies we loved as children or in our youths. They had qualities of their own even if they weren’t on par, morally, with their times, and surely not on par with today. The story-driven group is thus akin to realists, accepting that stories written 50 or 100 years ago will be naturally influenced by the world they were devised in and cannot reflect a modern society that back then was only a far future. And even if they did, like often in sci-fi, changing the past to usher in a still not reached future is at the very least disrespectful to the opera that the author originally thought of.
Diversity for the sake of it?
I could make this article much longer but I feel that it would become a repeating of the same concepts over and over. The point I wanted to make has been expressed: it’s easy to dismiss as racism or bigotry a different point of view that instead has a logical origin. There are people who want good stories above all, that are fine with a diverse cast or some changes to the original materials but want both to be included in a way that makes sense and seems logical, not “we put a PoC actor in it because it will cater to his minority audience”. That unfortunately happens a lot nowadays. Or the opposite, removing a lesbian or trans character for the fear of “offending” a specific group or country. Removing diversity that should be in is as bad as adding diversity that wasn’t and isn’t properly integrated, rest assured.
I personally don’t want a Tauriel (a female elf warrior in the Hobbit trilogy that was not present in Tolkien’s original story) for the sake of the female audience only. If the presence of a different gender/race/sexual orientation in a character has no world-driven justification, nor explanation, it is detrimental to the overall quality of the opera. It becomes a flaw, when it was meant to be an improvement. One of the qualities of a good story is that is congruent with itself and all characters behave in a logical way in respect to the world building. Diversity may be against this, sometimes. Not all people lamenting against it are racists or bigots. For sure many are and their argument is idiotic and out of place in our society. But not all, not all are.
In any case, it is a complex matter and one I will probably return in future articles. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Let me know in the comments whether you are more in the “diversity-group” or in the “story-driven group”.
Cover photo by Sharon McCutcheon