An excellent post popped up over at Writer Unboxed last week: The Problem with Female Protagonists. I suggest you read that one first, then come back.
Read it? Good.
We seem to be having a problem lately with the perception of diversity in media. Diverse characters (including female characters, which is ridiculous, but we will get to that in a moment) are often dismissed either as token characters, or the whole piece is dismissed as pandering to a high-up leftist cabal that apparently wants white men never to be characters in anything again.
In my entire life, I have seen precisely one person say that men aren’t good for anything, and this is as close as anyone has ever come to saying, “let’s never have white men involved in anything ever again.” Granted, my experience is anecdotal. It’s possible that I’ve simply never met any members of the cabal, and they have, in fact, infiltrated all of the media.
There is, however, a simpler explanation: we’ve gotten so used to everything from our protagonists to our crowd shots being white and male that when someone comes along who isn’t, it grabs our attention. Never mind the statistics – our brains are change-detectors, not fact detectors. We’re seeing that all of a sudden, something is changing. Suddenly, there are women in our books and TV shows. Suddenly, there are people of different ethnicities. LGBTQ people. Genderqueer people. People tackling issues from perspectives we haven’t seen. It feels weird – and, sometimes, uncomfortable.
But the point of writing diverse characters isn’t to show a skewed vision of the world. Not at all. It’s to show the world as it actually is. The world isn’t 83% male (as per crowd shots), or even 75% male (as per main characters). The world isn’t 73% white, either.
All I’m asking of my white and/or male counterparts is this: when we look at a movie and think, “wow, there are no people like me here and I’m uncomfortable,” remember that this is just the smallest taste of what it means not to be represented in media. (It isn’t even really a taste, since we’re so over-represented, but that’s the automatic response our brain has.) And imagine what it feels like not to see yourself anywhere. Imagine what it feels like always to see yourself as the caricature if you’re even included at all.
The point of writing diverse characters, and of featuring works by diverse authors, is not to skew our media toward something artificial. It’s to return media to showing the world as it is.
P.S. Ready to take this one step farther? Check out “We need a decolonized, not a ‘diverse,’ education”