The narratives we surround ourselves with inform our world-view, self-view, an our perception of others. If I didn’t believe narratives were important, powerful things, I wouldn’t be writing. Stories change us. Books, comics, film, video games… they reinforce or challenge what we see in our daily lives. They have the power to normalize just as they have the power to criticize and raise questions.
It should easily follow then that representation is important. It’s hard to build confidence when you’re invisible, or worse, constantly depicted as a shallow, stereotypical trope. It’s hard to understand the world you live in, to empathize with the variety of people around you, when you’re always fed the same watered down, censored version of that world. And yet, the demand for representation is constantly dismissed, ignored, or called into question.
Today, I want to talk about one of the arguments I’ve personally encountered and one that I find incredibly flimsy and contradictory. That demanding fair representation is detrimental to creativity.
I’ve had a number of people reassure me that by demanding more female/non-white/LGBTQ+/disabled characters, we create a perceived quota and therefore impede the “creative process” by altering the creator’s original vision. As if making a creator feel like they need to include a diverse cast somehow makes their work contrived and less valuable. Apparently, if a story is not exactly what the creator perceived in a moment of stream-of-consciousness it will be less “creative” than it would otherwise have been.
This logic makes me very, very frustrated. First of all… BECAUSE THAT’S NOT HOW CREATIVITY WORKS.
As any writer worth his or her salt will tell you… first drafts/ concept work are very different than the finished result. Because the creative process is exactly that. A process. Asking questions, picking out inconsistencies, switching out/combining characters… these are all necessary in taking the a rough skeleton of a story and making it something believable and immersive.
In essence, the skills needed to make our work more diverse are the same ones that we need to hone a bunch of ideas into a well-formatted story.
If you believe that asking yourself, “What would happen if this character were a woman?” or “Is there a reason this character NEEDS to be white?” will somehow destroy your narrative, then you are doing yourself a disservice. Unique, compelling stories come from our ability to ask questions. What if…? Why not…? If it frightens or frustrates you when people ask you why Character A is white, or if the love interest could have been the same sex, then either your arrogance or your personal biases (e.g. racial) are inhibiting your creativity.
You don’t always have to have a main character who is a trans POC, or a queer romantic interest, but if you refuse to consider these things as possibilities on a regular basis, you are restricting your creative possibilities. (Not to mention missing a crucial opportunity to introspect on your personal prejudices and biases – hint: we all have them). Cliches and predictable plot devices can mean the death of a story, but they are all too common when you refuse to do anything different. When you refuse to make your characters different than the ones you’ve seen your whole life, how can you be surprised when people complain that your work is formulaic?
Disney movies are an excellent example of this. Most Disney princess films follow the same formula again and again and again. Girl is in trouble. (Evil stepmother, locked in a tower, trapped with a beast, forced to marry, enchanted slumber). Girl meets boy and they fall in love. Boy helps save girl (or just straight up rescues her depending how far back we’re going). There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.
I hardly think it’s a coincidence that both Frozen and Moana — stories that break the mold in multiple ways (aromantic plotlines, sympathetic villains, self-saving heroines) — both met with critical acclaim. Not only did they speak to the members of the audience who could finally see themselves reflected on the big screen, but they were different. Unpredictable. Exciting.
And can we please talk about the hypocrisy of saying that diverse media is somehow “contrived” or “forced”?
A video game/book/film with an all-woman or all-POC cast is announced and people shout that it has an agenda. But an all white male cast doesn’t? Why not? If you have an answer to that question… then congratulations! You also have an agenda. Which isn’t surprising because we all do; we all have intricate and pervasive opinions and experiences that seep into our art. Since all media is inherently human and therefore expressive of opinions and biases, when people bemoan “agendas” and “politics” in media, their actual complaint is with the specific intent of the agenda. The media of which they approve isn’t free of social commentary so a rejection of the “goals” of a diverse work signals their rejection of perspectives that differ from their own.
This emphasizes the importance of demanding equal representation in terms of CREATORS and not just characters. One movie, book, or game with a majority white-male cast is not contrived but does speak to the perspective and intent of the creators. A majority white-male cast in a sea of other majority white-male casts tells us something about who is being given a voice. Not only in the sense that we tend to create stories about people like ourselves… but that we are influenced by the environment we immerse ourselves in. An environment that up until now has seen little diversity in its media and fiction. If we want to break free of that mold, if we want to discover new stories about never-before-seen characters, then we need to be actively conscious of representation in our work and we need to embrace creators whose experiences and perspectives differ from our own.
So please. If you’re writing, ask yourself questions. Ask yourself WHY. Ask yourself WHAT IF and WHY NOT. Be receptive to criticism and acknowledge the legitimacy of people’s personal experiences. And as a viewer, a reader, a gamer… demand MORE. Don’t just be content with watching familiar narratives, seek out something new. Narratives that may not relate to your life personally, but relate to your relationship with a growing, global community. Support creators that may have been marginalized. Listen to their stories. You might just be surprised with what you find.
What do you think? What are some diverse pieces of media (books, games, movies, shows) that you wish more people would read? How do you handle diversity in your own work? Do you find yourself falling into stereotypes or tropes without realizing? Let me know in the comments!