Diversity: Progress or Pandering?

Isaac Newton once said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. As a child with a somewhat large girth about me, I learned this to be true every time I attempted a belly flop. The water always hit me back with just as much force as my Krispy Kreme loving body’s impact had. Getting older, I’ve realized this adage doesn’t just apply to physics lessons at the local pool but to many other areas of life. One social situation I’ve noticed this to be particularly at work in is the response to a lack of diversity in storytelling.

A growing interest for diversity in many forms of media has become a strong focus, increasingly lately. This can be seen in Hollywood, whether it be controversy surrounding award shows or discussions on the issue of whitewashing (the practice of putting Caucasian actors in traditionally minority roles). Rumblings of a slow progression towards diversity, whether that be the inclusion of more female characters, ethnic minorities, or depictions of different sexual lifestyles has begun to take place. So what is the response? The most recent Star Wars film featured a female lead and minorities in almost all the other main roles, while perhaps even more notably Disney’s Beauty and the Beast grabbed headlines for including a gay character.

(Source: Disney) Last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens featured female and minority leads.

(Source: Disney) Last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens featured female and minority leads.

Most everyone heard about the latter, drummed up to be something of a groundbreaking development. This incited a wide degree of response and discussion all across the board. Yet when I saw the film, I realized this was more of a blink and you miss it inclusion. But what about all the talk of its impact on the film? Were all the headlines wrong in unanimously declaring the importance of this aspect of the movie? To answer that question, I’ll reference something I don’t always get to discuss: comic books.

When I tell people I read comic books I am usually met with one of two responses: “They still make those?” or “Do you mean like Archie?” Yes, they do indeed still print comic books and no, they aren’t just the Sunday funnies. These comics feature popular characters like Spider-Man, Batman, and any other hero you could think of. Over the past few years Marvel has made an effort to integrated ethnically diverse, gay, and female characters, sometimes all at the same time. And almost every instance this takes place, much like Beauty and the Beast, plenty of promotional effort goes into stressing the fact that diversity is being represented and spoken for. But in an ironic sense, a recent interview with a Marvel executive stated how their widespread inclusion of minority characters actually had the opposite effect: it alienated their readers.

This then begs a question: did readers feel alienated because they weren’t comfortable with diversity in such prominent roles or could they just sense the strategy Marvel implemented? I believe it was a tactic very similar to what Beauty and the Beast attempted: using diversity to get buzz going for their project. They sought to garner as much attention as possible while putting in the minimum amount of effort. Throwing in a gay side character and making a passing reference or two to their orientation allows the ensuing free press to market your product for you. Often times I’ve found this use of minorities simply blankets a lack of good storytelling in favor of headlines. And this gets hailed as cutting edge.

I don’t believe one type of person should portray prominent characters, but I also don’t think the solution to a perceived lack of diversity is to shoehorn diversity into stories for attention. The answer also doesn’t lie in taking existing characters, modifying them slightly with a different race or gender, and then repackaging them to an audience as if something entirely new. It is indeed true that actions incite equal reactions. But in the fight for diversity in storytelling, it would seem the most widespread solution is that of saturating stories with diversity to the point that it’s painstakingly obvious as to the real intent behind this practice.

People can tell when they are being pandered to. I hope that the general audience, especially those who feel underrepresented, realize the way these kind of stories take social issues and attempt to monetize them. I would hope that the knee jerk reaction of diversity blankets doesn’t win out but instead quality consideration is given to how this should be handled.

 

jlfpw4@mail.umkc.edu

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