I am a geek. I love TV shows, movies, board games, table top role playing games, video games, comics, and science fiction and fantasy stories. I am also a bear which, for those who may not know, means I am big hairy gay man. At minimum, these two things make diversity in media a very important topic for me.
I’ve wanted to write about this for awhile but have avoided the topic. I occasionally bring it up in my local gaming group and it brings on groans of dismay at the least or statements such as, “Can’t you use your imagination?” This statement is both the reason that I have avoided writing about the subject but finally served as the impetus to actually do it.
When the topic of diversity in media comes up, I often hear two arguments. The first is that there is no value in a diverse media. The second puts forth the idea that it is incumbent upon the population in question to create media for themselves.
“Use your imagination.” This is the rallying cry of those that believe there is nothing of value in creating a diverse media. In the minds of those that espouse this argument, what is out there is good enough, and those of us that don’t fit the mold can just imagine a different protagonist to make a show or book more to our liking.
This overlooks the most powerful aspect of a diverse media. It normalizes our communities. Every day, the media we consume presents us with a few stories. The audience sees these stories over and over and they become accepted as normal. Currently, the story lines that are presented show us a world where a hero saves the day. This hero is most likely to be straight, white, male, and rich. The diversity of the cast will be found in the victims and the villains. The idea of presenting a story where the hero is a female, gay, or a person of color is something that is rarely seen in the big franchises. The Avengers, one of my favorite movies, suffers from this. If you look at the line up, There is only one woman on the team, Black Widow. Her time on the screen pales in comparison to that of Thor, Captain America, or Iron Man. If we broaden our gaze, there is only one person of color to be found and then only as a support character, Nick Fury.
What if these stories started showing us teams that were more balanced in terms of make up? What if a woman saved the day and rescued the man in distress? What if these types of stories were presented more often? Instead of having to be hailed as groundbreaking or ahead of their time, these stories would be normal. These characters would be just as accepted as Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker.
These diverse stories will not just make these things a normal occurrence, but will also become a form of outreach. There are many people out in the world that have limited exposure to those in some of these communities. They form their opinions, to varying extents, based on what they see in the media. If all they see are stories where people of color, the LGBT community, and others are presented as villains or victims, why should they think differently. The more these people are presented in a positive light, as the hero or leader, the more those out in the wider world with minimal exposure will begin to see them in that positive light.
The idea that those not represented in media can just use their imaginations also overlooks the power of seeing yourself in it. I have several friends who are geeks who are parents. They have daughters. When you ask these girls who their favorite hero is, they say Batman, Captain America, or Spider-man. If you ask them about female heroes, the answer you will get is Wonder Woman. These little girls aren’t given many options and they do the best they can. One of them goes around dressed as Captain America with a tutu. So cute! But, what if she had a panoply of female heroes to choose from? What if she was shown stories that didn’t require her to co-opt the narrative to better suit her? Instead of making due, she could excel and love a story that showed her in it.
That would be powerful.
“If you want diverse stories, you should go create them.” This is the other statement made in conversations about diverse media. It reflects a misunderstanding of how things work. Inherent in this statement is the idea that it is a simple thing for people of color, members of the LGBT community, women, and other minorities to get their voices heard. Just looking at the publishing side of science fiction and fantasy, it is easy to see that these voices are even more rare here than they are in the wider community. If one looks further, at things like awards and communities, a systematic bias against allowing these voices to be heard can be seen. This year’s Hugo nominations are a chilling reminder of this.
This argument seems to ignore the fact that, for the most part, those asking for diverse media are minorities. This means there are fewer of us than there are of you. The math is just against us. Our communities are likely to have fewer writers, artists, show-runners than the community at large. We need those in the majority to tell stories about us. Imagine if Neil Gaiman wrote a story like American Gods where the protagonist was gay, a woman, or a person of color? What if Michael Bay made a Wonder Woman movie? This would take our stories from the sidelines and make them centers of attention.
I love my games, movies, and TV shows. I don’t want less of the things I love. I just want more of the things I enjoy to actually care about me and others that are not represented. I want them to show us as heroes and champions. This way we have something to love that is us, and those out there can see us as the hero for once.