If there’s one thing we do with frequency here at Tosche Station, it’s discuss the importance of diversity and representation in media. Hell, we did just that yesterday. It’s something I do pretty regularly.
I haven’t always, though.
At some point I’m going to have to write the column discussing how the Star Wars fandom made me a feminist and much more socially aware than I used to be. The younger me was often flat-out dismissive of the need for better representation in fiction and fandom, and I went to some pretty great lengths to try and argue that those asking for more diversity in characters and better representation for other demographics were off-base.
I’m not particularly proud of the arguments my teenage self made to try and support what I firmly believe now was an erroneous belief. Again, there could eventually be another post as to why and how fandom changed my thinking about this particular subject. Suffice to say, I’ve learned that diversity and representation for people that don’t fit traditional character types is extremely important.
As I learned just how important the call for diversity was, I realized just how wrong the arguments I used against it were. Four in particular stand out. Four arguments that I was guilty of using thanks largely to how frequently others around me said the same thing. The one thing all of these arguments have in common is that, on the surface, they seem generally positive and fair and in no way designed to personally offend or attack those asking for better representation and diversity in media.
I would learn in time that they were anything but fair and were incredibly offensive.
Argument One: As [x], I’ve never felt like an outsider or underrepresented.
Part of understanding and accepting the need for diversity is coming to terms with the fact that as an individual, your personal experiences are not representative of everyone else’s. I was fortunate that I was a person of mixed race* that grew up in an upper-middle class family and was immersed in what was essentially mainstream U.S. culture through virtually all of my formative years. Perhaps because of that, I spent a lot of my teenage and college years being rather dismissive of calls for greater and more diverse representation in media.
*This of course presents its own unique bag of issues, but that’s another topic entirely.
Why was this? I think it was because of my background, gender, and the environment in which I was raised. I was, and still am, able to identify with the typical heterosexual, white, male lead with relative ease. Because of that, I’d created an unconscious false equivalency in my head that if I wasn’t having a problem identifying with characters, other minorities shouldn’t have an issue either.
Of course looking back at it now, it’s absurd I ever thought that way. I know now that it’s extremely presumptuous to assume that my experience and my filters on the world are identical to someone else just because I’m also a minority. There are so many other factors at work. Socioeconomic status, our home environments, who our parents were. That doesn’t even get into things like gender and sexual identity, which creates an even bigger call for diversity.
Because I’ve never felt like an outsider even though I’m a minority doesn’t mean that other underrepresented groups should feel exactly like I do. My experience isn’t representative of everyone.
Argument Two: Well, I like reading about/watching characters that aren’t like me.
On the surface, this sounds like a solid and commendable sentiment. I certainly thought it was when I said it to others. It felt like I was being incredibly open minded to occasionally read about a character that wasn’t a male action lead. It’s once you dig deeper you start finding the problematic issues with this argument. Why problematic? This argument comes with some heavy subtext baggage.
“Since I tolerate reading about characters that aren’t like me, so should you.”
Is that the intention when making this argument? I suspect more often than not, the answer is “absolutely not,” but that bit of subtext comes along for the ride when this argument is deployed. It turns into a morality judgment of someone else rather quickly. When this argument is made, you’re essentially projecting your value system onto someone else and judging them for not having the same rule set as you.
Likewise, saying that “my favorite character is a woman, so everything is fine” doesn’t cut it either. Just because one white male likes a female character doesn’t mean that attitude is representative of everyone. Again, we come back to the notion that you’re not representative of everyone.
But let’s dig deeper still.
This argument gets even more problematic when it’s being directed towards the underrepresented minority that is asking for more diversity in media. When this is the response it’s incredibly condescending and, frankly, hurtful. It’s such a dismissive thing to say, because when you’re someone that’s so readily and frequently represented in media it comes off as telling someone to simply deal with the lack of representation. Here’s what you’re really saying with all of the unfortunate subtext thrown in:
“Because I can tolerate characters that aren’t like me sometimes, you should do it almost all the time. And if these characters that have nothing in common with you don’t resonate with you, you’re the one with the problem.”
It’s rather unfair when you look at it that way. Was that my intention when I would make this argument? No, it wasn’t. But that was the message I was relaying.
Argument Three: But [insert content creator name here] said that diversity checklists are bad!
Ah, appeal to authority fallacy. The go-to fallacy for so many arguments.
Within the context of Star Wars, there’s one quote I see that gets twisted an awful lot. Expanded Universe author Aaron Allston said at Dragon*Con one year something along the lines of “diversity checklists are bad.” That is, going down and making sure you have diverse elements X, Y, and Z present in your story. There was a point in time I’d cite quotes like this from various creative types as a counter to requests for diversity. Somewhere along the way, this argument got twisted from “don’t use token characters” to “don’t worry about/bother with diversity” in my head.
Let’s be clear, the latter sentiment most definitely is not what authors like Aaron Allston were getting after. Creative types advising against tokenism are (hopefully) not saying we shouldn’t sweat diverse representation. They’re saying effort needs to be put into inserting well conceived and executed diversity into stories, which is absolutely correct (and which is what I suspect Allston was trying to say).
This of course opens a sort of corollary argument that I’ve also been guilty of using: because it’s hard to get diversity right, it’s better to just play it safe and hold back.
Well, first off writing and creating anything you don’t have first-hand experience with is hard. A lot of research has to go into so many different elements, so why not devote some of that research into diverse representation while you’re at it? A lack of direct knowledge doesn’t stop writers without military experience from writing military stories. Research supplements the lack of knowledge.
Second, there’s only one thing worse than “playing it safe” so you don’t mess up diversity: it’s not even bothering to try because it might not be done right. The people asking for more diversity understand that it’s a long process and that things may not be done exactly right the first time around. But attempts at better representation are better than nothing. Attempts at better representation may just open dialogue to improve stories and characters moving forward. Better yet, it may draw more diverse content creators to fandoms and genres.
So, why not at least try?
Argument Four: The only thing that matters are good characters and stories.
What does this even mean? I don’t think I really knew what I was trying to say when I used this argument. This is sort of the Godwin’s Law of these diversity and representation discussions. The knee-jerk, I’m-sick-of-talking-about-this response to end the argument and paint the other side as someone more worried about political correctness than they are compelling stories.
Of all the arguments I made when I was younger to try and deflect whatever insecurities I had about underrepresented groups trying to be more represented in Star Wars or whatever fandom, this was the worst. This argument was the biggest load of bullshit, the most destructive, the most unfair, and most insidious one I used. It’s the one that I feel worst about ever using.
Look at how utterly loaded that argument is. It sets up God knows how many false equivalencies, straw men, appeals to [insert fallacy here]. Here’s some awful ways this argument can be interpreted:
- Good characters and diverse characters are mutually exclusive.
- If you want more diverse character representation, you’re not interested in good characters and stories.
- Diverse representation and your need for it are unimportant and counter productive to creating good stories.
If there’s one thing we hammer hard on this blog and on the podcasts, it’s that good stories and diverse representation are not mutually exclusive. This argument pretty much draws a line in the sand: either you want good stories and characters, or you want diverse stories and characters. Those in the majority essentially become the arbiters of what is quality and what isn’t.
This was a hard lesson to learn, but it’s an important one. The line in the sand created by this bogus argument is completely and utterly arbitrary. It’s also the most hurtful argument you can possibly use because it projects many unfair motives on those asking for diversity.
For those that are in the majority or identify with the majority (like I did growing up), it’s difficult to comprehend just how important representation is to the minority. It’s a very powerful thing, and something that can draw so many people into something like a fandom. If you’ve never had to worry about being represented, it can seem like a trivial and needless concept.
I certainly thought it was. But I was wrong. My arguments were misguided, fallacious, and exceedingly hurtful. Representation is far more important than I realized, and I was wrong for trying to argue otherwise.