The eternal problem that producers are forced to face: If it’s forced down people’s throats by directions, writers, and producers people often react badly to forced diversity. On the other hand, if it just happens naturally and is treated normal like any other case people can come to accept it far better.
The more common, subtle, and natural the diversity when introducing controversial topics, the better its is for audiences. However, these choices can also arguably be better for those groups who feel marginalized as they get to see realistic portrayals of characters like them and they don’t end up feeling these one-dimensional diversity characters are what’s supposed to represent them. They aren’t tokenized, subtle diversity choices acknowledge that these groups are more than just their gender, sexual orientation, or race.
This dynamic can be seen in the examination of two different media pieces. The first that we’ll look at is the original animated children’s show The Loud House created by Chris Savino for Nickelodeon. The Loud House follows the life of a large family made up of 11-year-old Lincoln Loud and his 10 sisters. This series mostly focus’ on the lives of the female characters but also chooses to portray a vast diversity of progressive themes and characters. For example, one of the sisters, Luna, is lesbian and in a relationship. Lincoln’s best friend Clyde is also a Mulatto boy who’s parents are two married gay men, Lincolns female-friend Ronnie Anne is Hispanic and was so popular they had a successful spin off of her and her family with a cast of primarily all Spanish characters.
Our second example is The Eternals, an upcoming Marvel film which has announced an all gender, race, and sexual orientation swapped casting of the characters from the comics they are presenting, a good example of taking classic, already-established characters and making them ‘diverse’ instead of creating new ones. This take on the so-called “forced diversity route” The Eternals is pushing was touched upon in an article from the online news publication Cosmic Book News by author Matt McGloin. He noted that, “Again, the use of diversification or female representation isn’t the problem, the problem is that Marvel is replacing characters for politically correct, or “SJW,” reasons. Note: Tran, herself, says above, “We have so many characters in the Marvel Universe. “But then why are Disney and Marvel replacing characters? Why not either use existing characters or create new characters?” (McGloin, 2019)
The writing of classically white, straight, and male characters has dominated comic books, television and movies for decades, leaving little to no representation for all the fans of these media who didn’t fit that description. Aside from these main showstoppers, however, there has equally been a huge variety of non het/cis/white characters to rise in the comics over the years. We now have access to a very wide range of characters who fit many diverse worlds of representation, but somehow they’re are never picked to be in films or media. Even classically white character Nick Fury became African-American in all media forms after Samuel L. Jackson’s likeness was taken by Marvel Ultimate artists Mike Millar and Bryan Hitch back in 2002. While this new version is great and not an example of diversification making characters shallow or lame, it does establish a baseline for good writing in my argument.
What I am touching upon when it comes to the forcible hijacking of characters by diversity-agendas is the notion that it tends to be indicative of lazy writing and denotes that writers and artists aren’t willing (or don’t care enough) to create unique and interesting characters that represent marginalized groups positively. It’s like McGloin wrote in his article, “Wouldn’t you want a character to stand on his or her own with its unique identity instead of riding on the coattails of what came before or someone else’s history?” (McGloin, 2019)
People do not enjoy it when characters are one-dimensionally created just to push agendas by studios. This is especially true when those same studios don’t realize that if they want diverse groups of people to watch their film/tv-series, they have to also make the characters entertaining and well-developed, instead of having them exist only to be an affirmative action character who’s sole personality is their gender/race/sexual orientation. I’m not saying this happens often but when it does the producer and/or director cannot blame audiences for not receiving their creation well. For example, we had the bad reaction to the recent Birds of Prey movie, which some have stated had marketing that portrayed it as ‘not for men’ or was ‘overly politicized’. An article from VOX write that, “Despite Birds of Prey, Warner Bros.’s Harley Quinn spinoff, earning great reviews, and despite making an estimated $81 million worldwide in its opening weekend, the film has already been labeled a commercial disappointment in the DC Expanded Universe canon.” (Abad-Santos, 2020)
The pressure to make this movie a feminist landmark or a political statement on the current climate in America may have hurt the film’s appearance to its general audience of comic book movie fans, which is comprised primarily of males. This should not have happened, especially with the film being marketed by the director as more of a break-up flick about Harley trying to find herself in the world– not the overly-political anti-male propaganda piece some online article writers would say it is.
Going back to The Loud House for a moment, the character Luna Loud was well-developed and it took quite a while for her to reveal her sexual-orientation. It was only in season 2 episode 29 of The Loud House entitled L is for Love that finally touched upon the sexuality of Luna Loud and in a very quick and subtle fashion. This also gave us another openly gay character, Sam, who became Luna’s girlfriend going forward. Ronnie-Anne Santiago was also in the show for a long time and several episodes in the show focused on her and her extended family before pushing the spin-off. She first appeared in episode 15 of season 1 entitled Save the Date back in 2016 and didn’t get her spin-off until 2019 after the creators realized how popular she was.
Sometimes it is a better move to ease fans into things instead of dropping them off proverbial ledges. In order to make political points, consider instead slowly boiling the lobster, before it knows what’s happening.
Writers and Directors should not try to pull a J.K. Rowling and randomly drop bombs about the ‘politics’ of their work, years after a story is over. Case in point, according to Rowling, two very important characters in Harry Potter, Grindelwald and Dumbledore, shared an “intense sexual relationship behind the scenes.” The sheer audacity to pander in this way so late after the story ended is an example of forcing representation in stories just to be seen as controversial and diverse.
Because, really, it only creates major backlash.
This brings me this topic in my argument: Normalization vs. Spectacularization.
Trying to make films into statements about the current political or social climate is a bold move that will obviously divide people and make fans of source material or general audiences apprehensive about going to see it. Making diversity and progressiveness the focal point of your plot will almost always turn large groups off who are tired of having these issues forced down their throats. As a result, when a film or television series tackles issues such as diversity, the message can and will be hijacked by critics and spun into some-kind of anti-(insert privileged group here) message.
Other times directors and writers will create bland one-dimensional characters in media under the premise of diversity that really are just another harmful stereotype that hurts the group it is trying to represent. Do you regularly interact with people who walk around announcing their gender, politics, sexuality etc, as if it were their only redeeming quality? The answer is most probably not. People who are queer, feminist, or racialized usually have more to them than that one aspect. Characters in media should also have more depth to them than just being a mouthpiece for the rhetoric of an issue. They should be there to show how just like everyone else, these diverse groups are can help promote equality and give those who are underrepresented a decent character to be proud of.
The advertising of films and comics lately seems to be hurting the content it tries to promote. It presents it like the announcer at a freak show trying to draw people in with crazy comments and shocking/surprising information instead of presenting it like just another film for people to enjoy. This is not what Birds of Prey tried to do; all it wanted was for there to be another comic book film out there that took a stand for representation of strong-female characters like the well-received Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.
Santos also wrote in his article on Vox that, “Viewers, in turn, want both someone to cheer for and a movement to cheer about. It’s why these women-led movies are framed and sold in a way that champions female empowerment.” People want a character that is representative, well-rounded and a positive example everyone can enjoy. Is Harley Quinn really a good example of that though? She kills, beats people up, steals and commits horrible acts, she is practically a female Joker except less chaotic and more self-serving in her actions. Is this someone we want women and girls to look up to? This is the reverse of arguments that action moves led by male characters present a bad example to boys of how to act in society.
The loudest voices on Twitter demanding for representation and diversity are ironically not ‘representative’ of the actual will of fans and audiences. People demanded for the Bird of Prey movie to be made. Cctor Ewan McGregor even raved about his character Black Mask being an example of the misogynistic male we need to fight against and he was also going to be in a hinted ‘homosexual relationship’ with his partner Victor Zsasz. In a recent article from IndieWire.com, a quote from an interview Ewan McGregor did in France was translated by CinemaBlend. The quote stated, ““What interested me with ‘Birds of Prey’ is that it’s a feminist film. It is very finely written. There is in the script a real look on misogyny, and I think we need that. We need to be more aware of how we behave with the opposite sex. We need to be taught to change.” (Lattanzio, 2019)
In this interview McGregor publicly announced the movie as ‘feminist’ and ‘tackling’ misogyny, which sadly stuck with it forever, creating a chasm to those comic book fans who don’t enjoy political messages in their film and who sadly do still hold some inherent misogyny within them. The articles and marketing of this film had been forever intertwined with political feminist rhetoric. Birds of Prey originally wanted to simply progress the field of female directors and comic book films. Unfortunately, the marketing of films as progressive are often seen as disingenuous by people who wonder if the executive producers and directors really care about the issues they try and present in their films. This is contrasted with the long run of film and television that do present a progressive message in a positive way while also giving us great characters: Onward 2020, Brokeback Mountain 2005, Grey’s Anatomy 2005, Do the Right Thing 1989, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 1967, Last Man Standing 2011, and Modern Family 2009; the list goes on.
A good question I and many famous scholars have asked is, ‘has marketing and representation of/to marginalized groups really ended up only hurting the acceptance of those groups?’ There is much evidence that would say yes. Academics have written many a thesis on the power of television and film to disseminate harmful portrayals of minorities to impressionable viewers, like children, wrapping their ideas of how these groups act, or should act, further hurting the progress those groups try to make in breaking out of their stereotypical mold. A recent example is the famous documentary The Problem With Apu by Hari Kondabolu that tackled the negative stereotypes towards East Indians the popular character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons presented viewers. The problematic nature of an East Indian man acting as a fool for millions to see, especially East Indian children, is that these children then think this is how they ought to be.
Back in 1999 there was an EDGE Seminar that tackled this question, conducted by scholars Yurii Horton, Raagen Price and Eric Brown. It began with a discussion on how the portrayal of African-American characters has been conducted thought the existence of media. “The media sets the tone for the morals, values, and images of our culture. Many people in this country, some of whom have never encountered black people, believe that the degrading stereotypes of blacks are based on reality and not fiction. Everything they believe about blacks is determined by what they see on television. After over a century of movie making, these horrible stereotypes continue to plague us today, and until negative images of blacks are extinguished from the media, blacks will be regarded as second-class citizens.” (Horton, Y, Price, R, Brown, E., 1999)
Later in part 2 of the seminar they discuss the recent progress in television and the obstacles still faced in the medium. They touch upon what I was discussing about Harley-Quinn being a possibly bad role-model for girls to look up to and how affirmative-action characters are the worst way to present diverse characters to audiences, “Considerable public concern has arisen over the issue of media diversity, as it is generally accepted that mass media has strong social and psychological effects on viewers. Film and television, for example, provide many children with their first exposure to people of other races, ethnicity, religions and cultures. What they see onscreen, therefore, can impact their attitudes about the treatment of others.” A bland character, or even a harmful character, that is being presented as a spectacularized example of a minority group will only create one more case of a person identifying with a harmful stereotype and applying it to real life. Sadly, some people don’t realize it is just a piece of fictional media, even if this belief doesn’t hold water.
It’s almost impossible to have full representation of all the intersections of religion, race, gender etc. without creating a cluttered mess of a story, especially in film. Stories are about specific topics and people, and a writer is not obligated to include a reference to every group in existence. The vocal minority is just that, a minority. All we can hope for is more original and innovative media garnered towards minority and marginalized groups to give them the representation they deserve. Everyone should have their own Iron Man, Yoda, Dante, and Naruto that they can look up to and connect with.
But then why do we have this recurring theme of “Two Steps Forward One Step back”? Media that may work to be progressive in one respect can be end up being regressive in others. And yet despite being regressive in some degree these media work to pave the way for more progressively-diverse works later on. Overall there is this question of the ‘burden of representation’, do media have to actively try and be as diverse as possible? Do we as a collective audience have to demand creators to work progressiveness into their media?
My final statement in conjunction with my previous sentence is this, make more new media for representation and diversity; don’t go about forcibly changing pre-existing stories and characters. Be inspired and create something new, that’s what stories and media are all about, representation and inspiration.
Abad-Santos, A. (2020, February 17). The unfair pressure for Birds of Prey to be a great feminist superhero movie. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2020/2/17/21128048/harley-quinn-birds-of-prey-feminist-joker
Horton, Y, Price, R, Brown, E. (1999, June, 1). Portrayal of Minorities in the Film, Media and Entertainment Industries: Ethics of Development in a Global Environment (EDGE) | Poverty & Prejudice | Media and Race [Online Text]. Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/mediarace/portrayal.htm
Lattanzio, R. (2019, October 10). ‘Birds of Prey’ Star Ewan McGregor Says ‘Feminist’ Harley Quinn Film Takes a Hard Look at Misogyny. IndieWire. Retrieved from https://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/birds-of-prey-ewan-mcgregor-harley-quinn-1202180655/
McGloin, M. (2019, August 9). DIVERSITY IS DESTROYING THE MCU; MARVEL PRODUCER CONFIRMS IT’S THE FUTURE. Cosmic Book News. Retrieved from https://cosmicbook.news/diversity-destroying-mcu-marvel-producer-future
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Nickelodeon. (2016, August 4). Save the Date . The Loud House. Burbank , CA.
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