We at Tosche Station haven’t been shy with asking for more racial and gender diversity in entertainment. One of the arguments we often hear is that the gender and race of characters shouldn’t matter. The most important thing should be the story. The rest should be inconsequential. The best actor for the part should be cast in that role.
That would be all fine and dandy, if most entertainment already portrayed a diverse cast of characters. But it doesn’t. Western mainstream entertainment doesn’t portray many LGBT characters, either, or people with different body types. Half the people in the world are female, so why shouldn’t half the characters in a movie be female? The United States is an incredibly diverse nation, so why shouldn’t television shows set in that country feature a diverse cast of characters?
Remember the complaints (and even outrage) when people speculated that characters like Spider-Man or The Human Torch would be played by black actors in future films? Remember people asserting that Nick Fury or Heimdall should never be played by black actors because the characters were white in the comics? We’ve seen those characters in several Marvel movies now–does anybody still complain about their race? If so, they’re idiots, because those characters are awesome bad-asses. It could be argued that there wasn’t any reason story-wise to make those characters black, and that would be true. But there weren’t any reasons not to make those characters black. The movies were still great, and they offered a more diverse cast. A win-win situation if you ask me.
Making a character black, or gay, or a woman, isn’t going to make the story inherently better, nor will it cause the rest of the story to suck. It doesn’t mean that the creators don’t care about the quality of the entertainment and are just trying to appease the “PC crowd.” (Does anybody still use the term PC anymore?) I feel exactly the opposite whenever I hear rumors of female characters in Rebels, or racially diverse actors up for roles in Episode VII. In my experience, creators who are more sensitive to diversity issues are more likely to create well-rounded, relatable pieces of entertainment. Look at Gene Roddenberry, who wanted the cast of Star Trek to be diverse because that’s what the future would turn out to be. In that case, diversity made sense according to the story, but he still had to fight his battles to get his way.
Diversity for diversity’s sake makes sense according to the world we live in right now. Just look around you, either at school or work or in your neighborhoods. So why do some people still not see it as one solution to the problem?
Let’s look at an example from the 1990s. Disney’s The Lion King was the highest grossing animated film of all time. Disney decided to adapt it into a Broadway musical. Julie Taymor was the director. She disliked the fact that the movie only had two female characters with speaking roles, and wanted to give them greater representation in the play. One way to do that was to increase Nala’s role, and make her more important to the overall story.
The second method? Genderswap Rafiki, the wise old baboon who encourages Simba to go home and take his place as king.
I can hear the groans now. “But why does Rafiki have to be a girl? Rafiki was a male in the movie! Changing his gender is stupid and doesn’t add anything to the story! It’s just diversity for diversity’s sake!”
To which I respond–so what?
I love gender-swapped Rafiki. It is one of the many reasons I love the musical more than the film (and the film is still my favorite Disney movie of all time). The story is deeper, the music is fuller, the characters have more motivation. And something about the female Rafiki resonates with me. The character seems much more sympathetic in the musical version, but still just as playful, and commands respect from both the audience and the other cast members. So much so that I always have a negative reaction to the animated Rafiki.
Changing Rafiki’s gender didn’t change the overall plot of The Lion King. But somehow it made the story even better. And that’s why diversity for diversity’s sake isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
This is why creators should take a look at their creations and ask, “can any of these characters be female? Gay? Black?” etc. etc. Whenever I make this argument, I always come back to The Phantom Menace and the idea of Qui-Gon Jinn being a woman. That little change might not have greatly altered the plot of the Star Wars prequels, but just imagine Anakin developing an attachment to another female character after leaving his mother, and then having that character die, leaving him in Obi-Wan’s care. That would have created a whole ‘nother set of issues for Anakin’s character, and given the prequels a second female Jedi with a speaking role (besides Jocasta Nu), and a second major female character next to Padme.
And, who knows. Maybe, like The Lion King, the movie would have been better. We’ll never know.
But we do have three more Star Wars films to look forward to, as well as standalone films and television shows. We can only hope that J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy and everyone involved with the films will strive to increase the diversity of the characters.
To those who say that creators should focus on building well-rounded characters and storytelling, not necessarily going out of their way for more diversity, I say this: Good storytelling should and does include diverse characters. A diverse cast has never made a bad story a great one, but it has made good stories even better. Also, a lack of diversity has marred otherwise great stories. Many people have criticized early Whedonverse projects for their lack of racial diversity, something Joss Whedon himself has commented on and, thankfully, improved on. (Although it’s still odd that none of the main Firefly cast is Asian, considering the Asian influence on that culture.)
So, with all that said–why not default on the side of diversity?