It IS Possible to Over-Emphasize Diversity and Equality

James Harrington has a great post today on the issues in over-emphasizing equality issues.  My favorite point is that forcing a writer to include more diverse characters that don’t match his experience can result in one-dimensional caricatures that are more offensive than leaving out that minority group entirely.

This is something I’ve seen, not only in writing, but also movie-making, and comic books. It’s something I can say that I’m guilty of as well. What do I mean when I say we cater to the PC (Politically Correct) crowd? Well… honestly, we spend a lot of time concerned with the ethnicity of our […]

via Why do we cater to Political Correctness in our Writing? — The Creative Works of James Harrington

This also fits alongside another issue with exaggerated political correctness that I’ve mentioned a few times in the past (including at lunch today with university professor friend who is my favorite outlet for some good academic discussion). We seem to have come to a point where the quest for equality and inclusion is actually excluding some characters from certain roles. A woman being kidnapped is a damsel in distress, and that’s sexist. A female sidekick is relegating the girl to a secondary position – also sexist. But if we don’t allow females in these positions because it’s automatically sexist, isn’t that another form of sexism?  Are we saying a woman can never be captured by the bad guy or help her male friend do something amazing? Yes, it’s a problem if it becomes a trope or isn’t part of a larger picture that includes female protagonists as well, but, hey, statistically sometimes even the strong hero (who happens to be female) gets captured – and that’s okay, even if she has to be rescued. It happens to the male heroes, too. And when people mention, for example, that Hermione Granger is a stereotypical female sidekick, I think “What about Ron? And what about the prevalence of strong female protagonists in YA literature these days?” Removing females as a supporting characters and only allowing them to be main characters is the opposite of diversity.

Creating a more diverse cast of characters can be done very well, but it has to be just a part of the story – something that just is, and that’s all. I’m white, so I can’t comment on racial issues with this, but as a woman I can say there are things that feel like pandering. Just putting a female in a male role is fine, and can be done really well. Doing so when it doesn’t fit the project, doesn’t feel like a realistic portrayal, or doesn’t add to the story in some way – in other words, doing it just to do it – is annoying and patronizing. Making it a big deal that the character is now female is also annoying and patronizing. I have friends who feel the same way about issues of gender and sexuality. It only feels inclusive if you don’t make a big deal about having it there. Otherwise, it’s more about the creators saying “Look at how wonderfully inclusive we are!” And trust me, your audience can tell when you’ve added a token black man or made Macbeth a woman just because you thought it would get attention.

There’s also a downside to randomly inserting ethnic characters into Western European fairy tales, such as what James mentioned with Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.  When it’s done well, with well-written characters and without too much emphasis on differences, and with changes that make sense with both the story and real experiences, it’s great. And it’s important that everyone have characters they can identify with and that those characters are included in a shared culture. But is that the best we can do? It sometimes seems like we are honoring the majority’s culture and graciously letting the minorities participate. Instead of only trying to find ways to add diverse characters to Western  European stories, why don’t we actually look at different cultures and embrace some of those stories, too? That would be truly inclusive and create a real cultural dialog. Not to mention it would be fun, and there’s a bountiful array of material to work with.

There was a time where we had to shout that “Yes, we are including this gender/race/religion/sexuality/disability!” We had to include characters of different backgrounds in visible ways, and sometimes that meant adding them just to add them. That attention was important in making the larger point and gaining visibility. But we are starting to move past that and understand that true inclusiveness means accepting all of these things as normal components of our lives. Creating authentic characters and treating them as normal occurrences in our entertainment media is part of that. And that includes not choosing a character’s traits just to add diversity.


5 thoughts on “It IS Possible to Over-Emphasize Diversity and Equality

  1. I’m the same. I’m better at the socializing thing these days, but I need frequent time alone to relax and reset.

    Give me a head’s up when your story is available. I’d love to read about her!

  2. I agree so much! I hate it when a female character is a big deal just because she’s female – it feels like her entire worth is in being female. This is especially true when the character is useless, annoying, or other things that wouldn’t work in real life. I definitely want more strong, female characters but that doesn’t mean every weak one has to be cut out.

    • Thanks! It’s been driving me batty for the last few years. I’m so tired of the “a woman can be just as strong as a man, provided she is ONLY as strong as a man” style of inclusiveness. And that goes for all forms of inclusiveness, not just feminism.

      I’m not a huge fan of the new Supergirl television show, but I think that’s something they’re trying to tackle, and I appreciate that. She’s both a superhero and extremely feminine. And I’ve seen more lately with LGBT characters being just… there. Which is encouraging. I think we need both sides of the coin: the books about the struggles minorities face, which help them feel less alone and help the rest of us try to understand, and the books where minorities are just part of the tapestry of the world, which normalizes inclusion and makes everyone simply human. The real trick is doing this while honoring culture and not creating, for example, white characters with Latino names.

      Have you seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? It did a great job with gender. The male lead is an introverted, socially awkward mess who saves the day, and the female lead is tough, intelligent, and career-driven, but also struggling. Other characters cover a broad spectrum of very feminine women to those in strong, traditionally-male roles, and men who vary from powerful masculinity to almost helpless vulnerability. All of them have strengths and very real weaknesses. There’s exaggeration, of course, but it works. Whether you’re into Harry Potter or not, it’s hard to say that the characterization for the movie isn’t well done.

      • I absolutely loved Fanstastic Beasts! As someone whose very introverted in the way Newt was, I absolutely loved how they handled his characterization! As for Supergirl, I’m not a huge fan either, as Kara Danvers outside of the superhero world comes off as a little annoying (especially in the second season, with the whole journalism plot line) and sometimes the story seems to fall to protagonist-centered morality, where characters are shown as evil because they don’t trust or like Kara… However, a lot of other female characters on the show like Maggie and Alex are a lot more likable, and I am personally working on a very girly character who will very soon be one of the most respected characters in the story….

  3. Pingback: “Diversity” Is A Problem | living with linguaphilia

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