Hello and welcome to a new episode of Do your research. This time we’ll take a look at something mainstream media is painfully guilty of. A blatant lack of diversity.
Out of the last five Hollywood productions you’ve seen, how many featured women in the main role? How many had people who were not white, not straight, not cis or disabled?
Maybe you say all five did feature a minority, at the very least in a side role. Almost every cast consisting of more than three people has at least one woman and one poc. Sometimes compressed into the same person. In an effort to bring more diversity into their story, writers like to take the easy way, leading to the token girl and/or the token black guy, who are just there to make the cast look more colourful. This is not how representation works. But how does it work?
The short version
Avoid tokenism and stereotypes. Every character has to drive the plot forward.
The time for the reckoning has come. Woodrow and Gustav are united once again ready to face anything thrown in their way. The Big Bad doesn’t come unprepared however. He brings a robot army (oh, come on. You knew there would be robots at some point.) and the two alone do not have the strength to go against this force. So they gather a team, from all around the world. Edmund, the Educated Englishman. Fabien, the Fabulous Frenchman. And Laquisha, a wise shaman from an African tribe, who functions as healer of the team.
So now we have four white dudes and one black girl, acting as the resident minority representation. But this character will never represent anything. She is a handy excuse for writers to appear political correct, without actually changing anything. It is a way to avoid confrontation, from both sides. Every movie that has a setup like this – three to four white men and one minority – would likely work without that minority character. They add nothing to the plot and have little to none character development. Short, if you cut them out, hardly anyone would notice. That’s what people mean when they speak of tokenism. Adding a character for the sake of variety without them actually adding anything meaningful to the story.
And to top it all of, just about anything about Laquisha is stereotypical. I used the overused trope of the Magical Negro, and googled ‘stereotypical black girl names’ to come up with a name. If I were to go any further into her backstory, the likeliest course would be to think of the first African tribe name that sounds appealing to white ears and add some voodoo lore. I would have a character that is a horrendous mashup of different cultures that may or may not actually belong to the person for whom I am choosing the backstory. No black person nor any woman is ever going to identify with her.
To understand why all this is a problem we need to look at the reason you should write diverse in the first place.
If every book, movie or video game we ever consumed would center only around a white, straight, cis man, then we would limit ourselves to the perspective of a very narrow demographic. Ultimately we can gain, in terms of entertainment and moral growth, more from having a vast array of different backgrounds. Each group of people face different struggles, see the world out of different eyes.
A story is the closest approximation to living another’s life. As a white person you will never know how it is to be of colour. But watching a movie about a person of colour gives us understanding. Mostly by seeing how many things aren’t any different. The same goes for sexuality and gender.
Reading and watching diverse stories broadens our horizons. Without ever having been more than one person, we understand the minds of a million people. Which ultimately makes us understand the world better, because we have looked at it from other angles.
That is why stereotypes are such a bad thing. A stereotype prevents understanding. It’s a wall that keeps us from stepping into another’s shoes. If all white, straight men were ever doing on TV was make crude jokes and repair cars, all the people who aren’t straight, white and male would have no idea that there is a whole person behind that. We’d assume that this was all this demographic was there to do.
The second problem is, of course, tokenism. Adding a character without having them contribute anything to the story. They have no development and no layers.
What this says is: Any minority in a story is useless. They can not be heroes.
Especially in children’s literature we see hardly any diversity. Considering how few of the population are straight, white and male, there are an overwhelming amount of children growing up believing that their stories don’t matter. The only role models they have are nothing like them.
And if they are featured in a stereotypical way, they learn they have to act in a certain way to have any significance. Girls seeing girls in fiction only doing ever traditionally feminine tasks – caring for others, cooking, etc – will assume this is what they are supposed to do. Unless they are reading diverse and well represented books, they will shy away from ever doing the heavy lifting, since there is no example they could be acting from. No one would put the idea in their heads that they can be more than cooks and mothers.
For these reasons – putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and giving every person the validation of their own existence – it is also important not to have minorities only as distant side characters. They need to have strong roles. They need to be the main character or at least a strong side character. In a story, these main roles are the only ones we ever hear about in detail. It’s the only place where a character is portrayed three dimensionally, faces struggles and overcomes them. Putting a minority somewhere in the background and giving them one or two lines will never make anyone empathise with them.
To diversify Harry Potter, for example, it wouldn’t do to have some of the students in the background be non white, straight, male. It would need to be Harry, Ron or Hermione, the characters who are featured dominantly throughout the story. Hermione is a good example of representation of women being done right. She has good character development, contributes to the overall plot and drives it forward, and has complex emotional and moral foundings.
Dumbledore being announced as gay is a bad example. He is not a dominant side character. He is needed for the plot to function, but at no point in the books is his homosexuality ever called out. There is little to non development and little to no personal struggle. We don’t identify with Dumbledore. He is a much liked character but nothing more. For queer representation to work, a character would have to be openly queer who features much more heavily. Even someone like Draco would have done, since we follow his character arc from Book One, and see how he grows emotionally.
Here is one thing that may seem crass but really isn’t hard to implement in your storytelling.
Stop using the straight, white, cis man as a main character.
This is a narrow demographic, so overrepresented that excluding it from the pool of available main characters will hardly limit your options at all. That isn’t to mean you have to go to the other extreme and only write about black transgender lesbians. We have limited ourselves to one very specific type of character for so long that it does take a while to see the possibilities when forsaking it. You don’t have to change everything at once. A straight, white trans man is already something we see very little of in mainstream media. A straight, asian, cis man is often subjected to stereotypes, so we obviously need more proper representation. You don’t even have to switch the gender to have access to such a vast array of demographics that you couldn’t write about them all in one lifetime.
You don’t have to belong to a particular minority to write about it. Part of being a writer is to change our point of views. It takes a lot of research to write about someone other than ourselves. But that doesn’t go only for minorities. You will have to research writing about a trans person just as much as you will have to research writing about an astronaut (unless you are a transgender astronaut obviously).
Finally, if you choose to write about a certain minority, even if you do belong to that minority, I’d advise you to pull up a list of stereotypes regarding your topic, so that you can avoid them.
In the comming months this series will go into the representation of specific minorities, how to write them and how not to write them, so hopefully you will find some pointers here. But there are a lot of sources in books, on the internet and your social circle where you can find out about the people you want to write about.
To avoid tokenism, make your minority character an integral part of the story. The main character or a strong side character. Make them Harry, Ron or Hermione. They have to drive the plot, have their own subplots and strong character development.
One last bit of advice before we wrap things up: Writing diverse is never easy. We have repeated the same old stories for so long that they have made deep trenches into our minds. It’s hard to recognise sitting in such a trench, since it is all we’ve ever seen. Even harder it is to climb out and make a new pattern. But in the end, when you have a story that is truly new and not just the chewed again material of the last centuries, it will be worth it.