Diversity has been a big deal with audiences lately. It seems that no matter where you look, you’ll find readers talking about how there’s not enough diversity in one story, or that a film has some great diversity in it. For a lot of people, this seems to have come out of nowhere! I mean, not long ago, we weren’t really spending much time talking about diverse casts and representation. So why does everyone suddenly care now? What’s changed? And what should you do about it?
There is nothing wrong with asking these questions. I know that it can sometimes seem like people want to scream at you whenever you ask the most simple of things. That’s an awful way to react, but it doesn’t come from nowhere. There is a very small but very vocal group of people on the internet who hate the thought of writers adding minority characters to their stories. The trolls and the racists don’t make up even a small minority of the people asking questions, but they do speak the most and the loudest. It means a lot of minority people out there are on the edge already.
But I’m not here to tell you not to ask questions. I’m here to answer any serious ones that you might have. I’m here to not treat you as evil just because you don’t understand yet. So as long as you’re willing to keep your mind open and keep a rational head, I’ll help you to understand what’s going on here.
What is Diversity?
In short, Webster defines diversity as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements”. But what does that mean for your story? Well, if you have a diverse story, that means there are lots of different people from different walks of life. That means that you can’t have diverse people. Only diverse casts. People are not diverse, but when they all join together, they can make a diverse group. That’s a small but important distinction to make because it stops you from thinking that you’re going to add diversity to a story like a cherry on top or a little set dressing. It’s not like that at all! Instead, you’ll start to see it as part of making your cast to start with. That’s a lot healthier!
There is no all-inclusive list of things that count as diversity in a story. It depends! If all of your characters are American, having people from other parts of the world might help with diversity. If you have lots of black characters (like Black Panther), you could even add a white character or two to diversify the cast a little! It’s much more of a matter of context.
That being said, here is a short list of things that count towards diversity. It is by no means the be all and end all, but it should help you get a good idea:
- Sexual Orientation
- Sexual identity
These points are a good place to start, but I’m sure you can come up with some more for yourself!
Why Does Diversity Matter?
For a long time, most of the stories we read, the films we watch and the media we consume were all told from only a few points of view. Most main characters were white. Most cool, badass people were men. Almost all were straight and able-bodied. And don’t even get me started on transgender characters! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with straight, white, male, able-bodied and cisgender characters. In fact, the protagonists of most of my favourite stories fit into all of those boxes! But why should they be the only people who star in stories? Why not some other people, too?
The call for diversity isn’t trying to take away all of the old characters we love. Most people just want to add some new points of view into the mix. Your straight white favourites aren’t going to go away, but why should they be the only people to get their stories told? I’d love to read about a disabled character going on a journey as well as the usual Frodos and Harry Potters of the world.
But the most important reason is to normalise minorities. For too long, we’ve been treated like the other: like a weird group of people that the “in group” can’t understand, empathise with or relate to. That makes it harder for us to integrate and live in peace. If we can show a new generation of people that we can all have interesting stories and be empathetic people, it will help us to treat each other equally. And if little boys and girls see people who look like them being both good and bad on TV, they’ll know that they can do anything and they’re responsible for their actions. That’s why diversity matters.
Why Do People Care Now?
Well, we’ve always cared. We have been trying to make the media more diverse for at least 50 years now. One of the main differences is the fact that we had so many other things to take care of before. In places like the US and UK, women, LGBTQ members and people of different races had to fight for legal rights first. It’s a step-by-step process that started a long time ago, but now that we (mostly) have the law sorted out, we can turn our attention to the media and showing the world through loads of different people’s eyes.
The other big difference is the internet. Before, most people’s concerns didn’t really reach the masses. After all, if there’s no diversity in the media, who’s going to report that there is a huge call for diversity? Sure, some people went to the streets and tried to do what they could, but it didn’t have the same reach as the internet can.
But that doesn’t mean people didn’t notice or care back then. Whoopi Goldberg talks about how excited she was when she saw Uhura on Star Trek as a kid. And that was in the 1960s! Even back then, people were noticing the lack of diversity in the media and were happy when things changed. Goldberg was inspired by seeing a black woman on TV who wasn’t just a maid. That made her feel like she could do anything in a time when prospects weren’t great for women in general, let alone women of colour! And if that’s the kind of reaction a good minority character can have on children, diversity matters way more than you’d think.
Don’t People Use Diversity for Some Political Point?
That’s a dangerous way to look at it. If you see diversity as something you “add” to a story, you can get drawn into a very bad mindset. You see, minorities aren’t just paints that you can colour onto “normal” characters. Straight, white, cis and able-bodied isn’t some sort of “default” state that people come to this world into. I mean, it’s not like a black person is born white and then their race is “added” to them afterwards. So why would we look at stories like that? A black person on a story is black because they are. The same goes for any minority person in a story. They are what they are.
So why would it always have to be some political point? Why can’t we just leave minorities be in stories? If they’re good characters and their stories make sense, why would it offend you if they’re not white? Or straight? Cis? Able-bodied? This is why diversity matters so much. If we see minorities as things to add, paints to colour our stories in, it shows that we don’t really see them as humans in the same way as the usual straight white characters. And if that’s true, we need diversity more than ever.
But I’ve Never Cared!
Well, are you a minority? If you are, good for you! You might not care, but a lot of people do. If you aren’t, let me ask you a question: have you ever lived in a world where you weren’t represented in the media? Have you ever been in a place where most of the media around you is of people who don’t look anything like you? Or where all of the people who look or act like you are written as villains or thugs? And I don’t mean someone who looks just like you. I mean people who belong to the same identity group as you. People who are similar to you. If you’ve never lived in a world without that, of course you’re not going to care! You have nothing to care about! You’ve never had to deal with a lack of representation.
And that’s not your fault at all. No one should ever blame you for the media around you. No one should ever make you seem like a bad guy because you’ve had the privilege of growing up with media that represents you. But you shouldn’t dismiss it either. If you don’t know what it feels like, you don’t really have a reality to compare to. So at the very least, don’t mock the minorities out there who do have an issue with it.
And to the people out there who think that minorities need to see themselves in every scene of every film: that’s not the point. What matters is that there is enough diversity in Hollywood as a whole that we can all see people who are similar to us from time to time. But also people who are different! That’s just as important!
I Shouldn’t Have to Apologise for Being White!
Of course, you shouldn’t! No good activist will ever tell you that. Don’t ever apologise for being white. Just be aware of the fact that you might not understand the experiences of people who aren’t white and make sure you don’t dismiss those experiences. You aren’t responsible for what the white slave owners did centuries ago. But there are some things about being white that make your life easier than being, say, black in America. Don’t throw those away or feel guilty for them. Just don’t take them for granted. And try to help and understand people who don’t have the privileges you do.
Calls for diversity aren’t about making you feel guilty or taking away all of your favourite white characters. They’ll still exist, even if some awful people out there don’t want them to. Making casts more diverse from now on doesn’t change the past, so you can keep on loving Han Solo and Jon Snow and Legolas. It also doesn’t mean that white characters are suddenly a bad thing. As I said before, white characters can add to diversity if they aren’t the only characters in the scene.
Even if there was a new version of The Lord of the Rings made with a more diverse cast, it wouldn’t make the original film go away. You can still watch it and love it and own the Blu-ray. All the power to you! You can still love the original more than the new version — although it would look kinda racist if you only loved the old version because all of the characters were white. If you have other reasons, by all means! Go for it! Diversity matters now, but it isn’t here to take the fun out of all of the old stuff.
But People Are Criticising the Old Stories!
Yes, because they want to do better in the future! No matter how much you love a story from your past, it’s not going to be perfect. No story ever is. Sure, I think that Tolkien could have done a little better with his diversity. The war he fought in made him allies with people from all over the British Empire. The British Empire was very diverse! But he is a product of his time — a time when there wasn’t much integration at all. Does that make him a bad person? Nope! Does it make his stories bad? Of course not! But I point that out because I want us to move on from here! Tolkien may not have thought much about diversity, but writers that are inspired by his work now should hear the criticism so that they can be more conscious of the choices they make.
And it is important that we have this discussion. I love the books, but does it really matter if the hobbits in Peter Jackson’s adaptation have some diversity? I mean, they’re only extras! The books never said that all hobbits are white, yet a casting director took it upon themselves to refuse anyone they thought was “too dark” to play a hobbit. If we spend some time talking about what race means in Tolkien’s work, we can be more aware of these choices we make. If we don’t talk about it, we’ll never learn and we’ll never change.
So I can still love all of the old stories out there. I can still love them even though they have almost all-white casts. Each time that we critique old work, we’re giving new writers a chance to be different. And why wouldn’t we want different? We already have the originals!
So Diversity Matters — Now What?
So hopefully you’ll understand why diversity matters now and what that means for you. It doesn’t have to mean anything bad at all! It’s up to you what you take from this article. If you make your casts more diverse, that would be awesome! If it’s just made you think a little more about what the activists want and understand them a little better, I’m happy my job is done.
But if you do want to make your stories more diverse, I’ve written a blog post on how you can do it the proper way. Have a read through that and remember that the most important thing is to treat minorities like people — people who deserve to be seen as normal and have stories told about them just like anyone else. If you can treat minorities like people, you’ll be doing diversity the good way.
Whether you choose to make your stories diverse or not, I wish you the best of luck with everything you write. Just remember that people are entitled to their criticism and it’s their free speech to say that they didn’t think there was enough diversity. I can’t force you to make your stories more diverse, but why would it be a problem? Why wouldn’t you do something that sells and represents the truth of the world we live in now? What would stop you from having people who are from all kinds of different backgrounds? Good diversity might not make a good story, but those are the only kinds of new stories I want to read. You don’t have the same excuse that Tolkien had. Not anymore!