Diversity seems to be a buzzword of late. People are asking for it more and more. I think that’s a natural outgrowth of our country becoming a truly representative melting pot. But as is also natural with our country, what is different is often met with harsh resistance. For those who oppose varied races, sexuality, religions etc. appearing in our multiple forms of media, they often see diversity as some creeping disease. Something that is going to infect their childhood dreams or corrode concepts/ideas they consider to be pure. To them, increasing diversity is like some apocalyptic trumpet being sound from Revelation, signaling the end to what they know. That view is precisely why diversity in the media is needed.
The examples are both old and new. When Joss Whedon first introduced believable lesbians into Buffy the Vampire Slayer he was bombarded for it. Donald Glover recently bringing up the idea of being a black Spider-Man created a torrent of negative comments on the internet. Andrew Garfield, the man currently playing the character, suggested that Spider-Man could be bisexual and still work. By the reaction he received, you would have thought he suggested the Pope liked to cross dress on the weekends. More recently, you had the name of Idris Elba being floated around as a possible 007. Prompting an obviously racist admission from Rush Limbaugh that he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of there being a black 007.
But it hasn’t all been gloom and doom. Shonda Rhimes has made it a point to show believable gay characters in her primetime shows and has vigorously defended their presence. She also has consistently shown strong black females throughout her shows and Fox (of all stations) actually has some pretty impressive black women in their cable line-up. Marvel Comics has a Muslim teenage girl carrying the name of Ms. Marvel and they’ve given many fans the long anticipated announcement of a Black Panther movie. The record smashing show Modern Family has probably allowed blended families across the nation to feel a little more normal. And while there has been some controversy about casting a black 007, would that have even been a possibility two decades ago? So we’re making strides, but there is so much more to conquer.
What do we have to conquer? Fear and ignorance. Those are the emotions that is at the heart of all the resistance to showing the full breadth of America in media. Straight people uncomfortable with their sexuality or driven by religious mores can’t understand or want to understand gay people. White people, comfortable in their privilege, pull back from racial diversity because it is a challenge to the privilege that subconsciously they know they have. Christians frown at the idea of showing other religious beliefs because they fear it chips at their own values and morals. The list goes on and on, but ultimately people recoil from diversity because they either don’t understand it, are afraid of it or walk around with some combination of the two.
Despite today’s increasing number of ways to connect with one another, there have been some unintended consequences which help exacerbate some of this fear and ignorance. Media, in all its forms, is now so plentiful that people can read, watch, and talk with people who think and act just like them without ever having to be exposed to other thoughts and ideas. This is dangerous because people who do this tend to think that their views are majority and therefore they feel entirely in the right when resisting efforts at diversity. You can feel justified in saying Captain America shouldn’t be black when your entire timeline on Facebook agrees with you. You can feel justified in saying that Rue from Hunger Games shouldn’t have been black when everyone you associate with is as ill-informed as you.
So it can seem like a bit of a hopeless battle to combat diversity, but this where people who champion diversity must not fall into the same trap. You cannot just associate with people who believe in diversity as much as you do and want to see it flourish. That’s not going to create the kind of landscape we need. People who want to see diversity have to be unafraid in fighting for it. Writers, directors, artists and other creators have to be willing to take their work where it may not necessarily be wanted at first. But I think if nothing else is certain in this country it’s that great work will rise to the top no matter the source. Black directors can’t be afraid to go white audiences and ask them to watch their film. Hispanic novelists can’t be afraid to go to Asian communities and connect their work with them. The gay rapper (yes they do exist) can’t be afraid to go to straight audiences and show them their music matters too. Bringing about true diversity requires courage.
How does diversity benefit us? In this point I am reminded of Adiche’s speech about the danger of the “one story”. It was a powerful speech and in it she points out the dangers of diluting people, cultures, religions etc. down into a singular story. She said “the danger in stereotypes is not whether they are true or not, but in that they do not tell the whole story”. How amazing and powerful is that? This is why we need diversity in media. It allows us to see people from all their angles. We get to see that gay men aren’t just promiscuous party animals. We get to see that black men can be fathers and aren’t always some hyper masculine figure. We get to see that Africa is not a wasteland of poverty and that not all Muslims are walking around with a bomb strapped to their chest. Diversity is as powerful as any education.
J. Cole said on his most recent album that Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the only father figure he grew up with. I found that both sad and powerful. Powerful because it speaks to the strength of a creator and what a writer, musician, filmmaker, actor etc. can do. They can fill voids in people’s lives. How many black youths might strive for better if they had a show like A Different World on? How many Chinese families might find catharsis and truth if there were more novels like The Joy Luck Club? How many transgender youth might avoid the tragedy of suicide if there were more actresses like Laverne Cox to show them that life gets better? A diverse media is an engine for hope and healing. It allows people who feel miserably different to see that their lives can be full of promise. People who need to know that their lives do matter can find it in stories that speak to their worth.
Simply, diversity in media allows everyone in society to see themselves as equally worthy. And all the best friendships come from a place where you respect one another as such.
Founder R.R.A.P. (Race Relations in the Arts and Politics)