Throughout December Chebk and I found ourselves at the local library and Barnes & Noble, scouring the shelves for potential new reads. While Chebk tends to stay pretty strictly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi for her picks, I have been on an obsessive hunt for diverse protagonists (and stories showcasing diversity) across genres. There have been a few gems along the way (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe!) but a lot more lackluster stories that seemed to promise more than was actually delivered.
And so, I thought I’d go back to a discussion on media representation by addressing the elephant in the room: Fake Diversity. Fake Diversity makes you believe a story represents diverse characters, but, in reality, still relies heavily on stereotypes and tropes for said fake diverse characters, while giving a white, able-bodied, heterosexual (usually all three) protagonist complexity and main action.
Now, before I get going, I need to address one thing: Yes. All representation matters. Diverse side characters can make an impact and it is very important that readers of all ages, genders, races, physical and mental capabilities etc. are able to pick out diverse characters among a sea of the usual gamut of protagonists and casts. However, how a character is represented, along with their diversity, is important for the future of diverse literature. (See: Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and its many criticisms of Korean-American main character, Park.)
Recently I finally got around to reading James Dashner’s The Maze Runner.
This post-apocalyptic thriller follows a teen named Thomas as he explores The Glade, an agricultural haven in the middle of a gigantic, ever-changing maze filled with deadly monsters. The Glade is home to about 60 boys, ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, until A GIRL arrives, triggering a series of catastrophic events. (We won’t touch on this point today except to say, “What the hell, man?”)
In terms of diversity, on the surface, Maze Runner does kind of an okay job. The Glade’s leader is a black teen named Alby. He keeps order and oversees the different factions as they do their daily jobs. One such faction is the Runners, a group of boys who map out the maze each day, looking for ways out. The Keeper, or leader of the runners, is another PoC (person of color): Minho. Both boys get substantial dialogue, action, and scenes, albeit as seen and heard through Thomas.
I was happy to see both characters initially: Both are leaders, pillars of strength in their community, intelligent and capable. Both have important roles to play throughout the story. The Asian American Minho doesn’t speak with cringe-worthy accent spelled out in dialogue (The Glade’s token Brit falls prey to that unfortunate attribute). Alby isn’t burdened with “ghetto” dialogue. I am even willing to argue that both characters are complex in their own ways, with ample room to grow in the rest of the trilogy.
However, I still feel both characters fall victim to a story that tries to represent Fake Diversity. Because the story is told through Thomas’s limited perspective, we are shown bits and pieces of both Alby and Minho, which mostly serve to build up Thomas’s own narrative. And therein lies the problem. Thomas is set-up as the White Savior from the start. When he magically helps Minho and Alby survive a night in the maze — a feat never accomplished prior to Thomas’s arrival — Minho, tries to give up his position as leader of the Runners to Thomas. Who has been there all of three days.
Alby, the only black kid in The Glade, may be the leader but he also falls prey to the Angry Black Man trope more often than not. He rages and yells, and though other characters occasionally do as well, this seems to be Alby’s defining trait besides being de facto leader for having been in The Glade longest. On his Wiki, he is described as having “a permanent scowl on his face.” To wrap it all up (SPOILER ALERT) Alby is also the only main character to die by the end of the first book, sacrificing himself up to the Grivers rather than going back to the “normal world,” which he believes to be a fate worse than death. (END SPOILER ALERT.)
Again, it’s great that these characters exist in the world! They both had a damn lot to do in driving the story forward. It’s just that the story being pushed along was in the same well-worn tracks as so many before it: White Protagonist stands out and saves the day, gets the girl. The hard part about finding a diverse cast to compare to The Maze Runner’s Fake Diversity is that all the examples I could think of involved PoC characters in their native countries (e.g. a Chinese heroine in a Chinese setting). Perhaps Dashner’s novel could have been a truly diverse novel by replacing Thomas with a character like Alby or Minho, characters who forge their own way instead of propping up a white protagonist’s story.
Which leaves us with the question: If stories like that represent Fake Diversity, what does a truly diverse story look like?
I racked my brain for an exemplar of a diverse cast in literature to compare with The Maze Runner and…failed. Katniss Everdeen is a great POC heroine but the rest of her friends in The Hunger Games are mostly white (i.e. Peeta, Haymitch, Effy, etc.). Harry Potter has background PoC characters that amount to very little in the overall story (except maybe Cho Chang who gets royally screwed over.) So I ended up with an example in a different media that’s gotten a lot of praise for its diverse cast and stories: Orange is the New Black.
Though the show initially follows Piper Chapman (white, straight, able-bodied), as she navigates the ins and outs of the Litchfield women’s prison system, most people agree that the rest of the cast very quickly takes over the main narrative, especially in the second season when Piper’s outright takes a backseat to the rest of the diverse cast. (Who are all women! It’s easy to forget that male narratives dominate popular media.)
Examples: The villainous Vee overtaking the prison hierarchy through manipulation and intimidation, Tasty & Poussey who are allowed complexity both through their backstories and present relationship, and many more including Miss Claudette, a senior Haitian woman, Red, a Russian chef, and a clan of Latina women struggling to hold together families in and out of the prison walls. There is even a trans* POC character, Sophia played by Laverne Cox, an actual transgender woman.
Though the prison system may cluster women by race, these women, as characters, are not defined by their diversity. They are allowed to be complicated, messy, struggling people with compelling stories that move past stereotypes and tropes. Their stories help viewers understand that whiteness (straightness, able-bodied-ness, privilege, etc.) is not a universal experience and that characters with different background have important stories of their own to tell. When a viewer connects with that character, their voices begin to matter.
This has become a special focus of mine as I write my post-apocalyptic, sci-fi story, following six PoC characters (most of which are queer). In the words of YA author Kayla Ancrum:
“Seriously guys, put PoC in your sci-fi movies, books, and tv shows. Seeing a film with none of them at all is actually kind of scary for me. It would be like you sitting down to watch a movie about a dystopian near future and there are absolutely no men and the plot doesn’t address that at all. Like, literally wouldn’t your first thought be that men were at some point eradicated completely by the women? That is what we’re pretty much forced to think about your entirely white fictional society. Maybe y’all herded us into death camps Maybe y’all just shot us all in the streets. All I know is there are none of us left and no one seems to find it suspicious or unusual. If you don’t want people to think that about your work, then for the love of God, include us in your narrative.”
Got any recs for diverse casts? Have a Fake Diversity book, movie, or TV show you’d like to discuss? We’d love to read about it in the comments!
P.S. We will be starting Bout of Books tomorrow and Chebk will be kicking off our first post (once we find out the prompt!) From Jan. 5 – Jan. 11 we will be reading The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women Edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013 Edited by Rich Horton for Chebk (both are short story anthologies), and Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block, The Walled City by Ryan Graudin, and Huntress by Malinda Lo for Cheri.
Lots of diverse stories to read in one week but we’ll do our best and keep you updated throughout! If any of you are joining Bout of Books, leave us a comment so we can follow you too!