“Every Single Word Spoken” & Hollywood’s Whitewashing

I recently had a discussion with a friend (and our Easter Orgasm Cookie recipe contributor), Hoshi, about the whitewashing of the summer movies of 2015: Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Pixels, Ant Man, Magic Mike XXL. My girlfriend even joked about the sole POC-voiced character in Inside Out representing the emotion Disgust among an otherwise whitewashed cast representing emotions within whitewashed characters.

For a while, it was easy for us to stop at some point and wonder if we were all nitpicking too hard. After all, there were attempts at some cast diversity. Pitch Perfect 2 had a few PoC characters, but then they also had all those racist jokes. Jurassic World brought back BD Wong! …but he was there for like five minutes and also a villain. And I’ve touched on the whitewashing in MMFR. Strides in the right direction are technically radical changes in Hollywood’s eyes. There is still hope.

The conversation dwindled, the righteous indignation puttered out into vague unease, on the backburner until the next Hollywood hit and impending discussion. And then Hoshi sent me a link to a blog by Dylan Marron entitled Every Single Word Spoken.

Marron is a Venezuelan-American actor, writer, and director, who splices together scenes featuring dialogue spoken by People of Color in mainstream Hollywood movies. For example, from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring:


These videos — 17 so far on Marron’s YouTube channel — illuminate the practice and habit of using white-prominent casts to tell supposedly universal stories (romantic comedies to action adventures to fantasy fare). By offering these succinct looks at the PoC actors and their dialogue only, it becomes very clear that PoC characters are offered very limited roles in mainstream films. Most are side characters, such as best friends or Fake Diversity inserts in larger groups of friends, or background characters with titles like “Airport Man,” “Man on Plane,” “Man On Screen,” or “Hostess” (all the PoC with dialogue in Friends with Benefits).

These hours-long movies generally get boiled down to fractions of a minute (about 43 seconds for Spike Jonze’s critically-acclaimed Her; only one in these characters gets a proper name) to, at most, just over a minute and a half (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

As an actor, Marron has faced casting exclusions due to his race or sexuality. In an interview with the Washington Post, he says, “It feels like no matter how much I’ve done, no matter how much work I have under my belt, no matter how much I have to speak for, the talent just doesn’t matter.” Marron has been using the project to explore this reaction, to show how much mainstream films exclude PoC systematically, perhaps not so much out of malice but out of sheer habit. Says Marron, “I’m not saying that any of these films are racist. I’m not saying that any of these filmmakers are racist. I’m saying that the system that they’re contributing [to] has some deeply racist practices.

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan.Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha.
Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan.
Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha.

Marron is not the first person to call out Hollywood on their whitewashed casts. For some reason, despite public outcry, Rooney Mara remained cast as Native American “princess” Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan — including much of her tribespeople if the trailer is anything to go by — just as Johnny Depp went through with playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger remake. Cameron Crowe recently issued an “apology” for casing Emma Stone as a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian, half-white Allison Ng in Aloha, stating “As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one.”

I think that’s a pretty succinct version of Hollywood’s acceptance of PoC: “You’re welcome in movies, as long as you do not look like a person of color. Or better yet, if you’re not one at all.” As Marron’s ESWS project showcases, PoC are used to populate a background world (what I referred to as Fake Diversity in a previous post). When PoC characters are brought to the foreground, culture becomes a costume (Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story to Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia — or, more egregiously, cultural background is erased entirely (Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo, Analeign Tipton as half-Ethiopian Nora in Warm Bodies).

This erasure of PoC, outside of spaces delegated specifically for PoC actors and directors (historical biopics, Tyler Perry movies, and not much else), is a far cry from realistic storytelling. It is outright silencing. Accordingly, the most telling of Marron’s ESWS videos, are the ones that highlight whitewashing to the post of exclusion, namely Into the Woods and the Biblical retelling of Noah:

Ari Handel, one of the screenwriters for Noah, addressed the lack of PoC by saying, “What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth and, as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people.”

The race of the individuals doesn’t matter, supposedly, but the default is still entirely white. But for every five steps back, there is always a continuing struggle forward. For Marron, it is a new role as popular podcast, Welcome to Night Vale’s scientist, Carlos, after the original voice, Jeffrey Cranor stepped down, saying, “It sucks that there’s a white, straight male (me) playing a gay man of color (Carlos).”

Marron’s response: “I was so touched […] because I was that young Latino queer kid who would look up at movie screens […] and never see a reflection of myself, and, God, it sucks because what you are subconsciously told is that there is not a place for you. It’s like you can try and do what you want, but people who look like you and people who talk like you don’t get to do this stuff.”

Well, now at least one of us gets to do that, for real. Congrats, Dylan Marron. We’re rooting for you!

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It’s OK to Like Problematic Media

TW: Some mentions of rape in media.

Much as OKPOTATO supports diversity in media, the truth is that there are a lot of books, TV shows, and movies that lack quality diverse representation…and we are here to remind you that it is okay to still like these things.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as unemployment has led to a fair share of Netflix-watching. It’s no big secret that there is an unfortunate amount of movies and TV shows out there with white-washed casts, unexpectedly bigoted jokes or storylines, poorly written story arcs and/or dialogue for women and minorities, and, well, the list goes on.

The first thing to acknowledge is that there is no such thing as perfect representation. For all its racial diversity and celebration of female-centric stories, Orange is the New Black contributes to biphobia in its refusal to allow the very word “bisexual” to grace the lips of any of its characters, including main lead Piper Chapman who explains, time and again, that she likes both men and women. Fan-favorite Game of Thrones showcases superb acting amongst a large cast, but continues to degrade most of the women in the show with storylines that focus heavily on violence against women, including graphic depictions of rape (the latest of which has received incredible outcry among viewers.)

Game of Throne's Sansa Stark is at the center of the latest controversy regarding the show's depiction of its female characters.
Game of Throne’s Sansa Stark is at the center of the latest controversy regarding the show’s depiction of its female characters.

Of course, as a viewer, it is up to you to decide where you draw the line in the sand concerning what you will watch or not, based on what the show or movie can provide for you. For instance my latest show of choice, Fringe, is heavy on the kick-ass female protagonist storylines I love, as well as the science fiction freak-outs. However, I am ever aware of the egregious use of the show’s PoC characters — Jasika Nicole as Astrid and Lance Reddick as Broyles in particular (actually, let’s be real, they’re the only PoC characters in the main cast) — and the complete lack of any LGBTQAI characters, religious elements outside of Christian mythology, and its detached exploration of disabilities despite the ROBOTIC PROSTHETICS THAT ARE EVERYWHERE.

But, I am still over-the-moon about this show. I’m halfway through Season 3 of 5 and still enthralled by the mix of humor, detective procedural, and crazy weird science.

Some people don’t like to engage with their media in this way, and I get that, you’re there to be entertained. But these shows and movies do not exist in black holes. What you see on screen is going to affect the way people — including yourself — think, act, and react to various diversity in real life. There’s a reason that depictions of any stereotypes, racial to gender-based, have been perpetuated for so long. Audiences internalize and reiterate what they feel has been normalized: “That blonde joke got a laugh? I’ll say it to get a laugh, too.”

Life imitating art. Art imitating life.
Life imitating art. Art imitating life.

But what are you, as a viewer, to do when I just told you that no perfect media representation exists?

The best thing you can do is acknowledge the problematic elements of these TV shows/movies. While Pitch Perfect 2 dominated the box office this past weekend, showcasing a practically all-female cast, it also was filled with racist and strangely sexist jokes. Praise the things that work — great girl power message — and acknowledge the things that don’t. You don’t have to grab the pitchforks and condemn these things if you don’t want to, but don’t try to cover up these shortcomings either. Namely, don’t deny that these problematic elements exist.

The great thing about media lately is that so many people are eager to discuss the stories they watch and read and engage with. Twitter feeds still go crazy over every new episode of every show on network television. Mainstream news keep up-to-date with the latest controversies and storylines of a pretty damn wide array of movies, video games, music albums, and TV shows. And the even greater thing about all this is that people are catching on to the impact media representation has on its very diverse audiences.

Viewers are no longer willing to accept mediocrity and the occasional crumb thrown their way. They are calling for responsibility from writers, producers, networks, and production companies for not only diverse representation but quality diverse representation.

The main cast of Pitch Perfect 2.Great female representation.
The main cast of Pitch Perfect 2.
Great female representation.

Something even more amazing? It seems that some media is rising to the challenge.

Mad Max: Fury Road has been making major waves lately as viewers have become aware that, despite the title and the trailer’s focus on the eponymous hero, the real focus of the movie is none other than a band of empowered women, led by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. To add fuel to the fire, it was revealed that Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler was one of the movie’s major consultants. She helped the cast understand the perspective, history and current issues surrounding violence against women:

“I read the script and was blown away. One out of three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime—it’s a central issue of our time, and that violence against women relates to racial and economic injustice. This movie takes those issues head-on. I think George Miller is a feminist, and he made a feminist action film. It was really amazing of him to know that he needed a woman to come in who had experience with this.”

While the quality of this feminist representation is being debated (“Actually, Mad Max: Fury Road Isn’t That Feminist”), the wide discussion over the now infamous Men’s Rights Activists’ call to boycott what they view as “feminist propaganda” is a good start for a wider discussion on problematic media and the problematic media that we can like while acknowledging it as problematic.

Have a different view on the topic of liking problematic media? Let us know in the comments! Chebk will be back on Thursday with a new post!

Writing Diversely: Disabilities

REMINDER: Don’t forget to join our April Giveaway to win a copy of The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard or None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio! Just leave a comment here.


Netflix recently released their original series, Daredevil, which chronicles a Marvel superhero who becomes blind following an unusual accident. A blind protagonist is unusual enough, but the superhero status takes representation of disabilities to a new level.

It is therefore appropriate that the website is making changes to accommodate vision-impaired viewers by adding audio description features that will describe “”what is happening on-screen, including physical actions, facial expressions, costumes, settings and scene changes.” Other Netflix original series, such as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, will also be getting audio description tracks in the near future.

Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil.
Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil.

Disabled characters in TV shows, films, and books are generally viewed as more accessible protagonists than other diversity we’ve discussed (sexuality, race), but the truth is that a lot of that relies on the types of stories these characters are allowed to portray. Most representation relies on showing these characters overcoming or adjusting to their impairment (a la Quasimodo in Hunchback of Notre Dame or Jake Sully in Avatar).  As this article mentions, historically disabled characters are often used as plot devices to prop up able-bodied main characters (Tiny Tim redeems Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, deaf and mute Chief Bromden and stuttering Billy Bibbit bolster Randle’s heroism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

The best representation of disabilities, from visual or hearing impairments to paraplegia, seem to have one thing in common: Letting these characters be complex people first. Their disabilities are included and integral but not all-encompassing. For example, Toph from Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, a girl who is hilarious, loyal, a frankly frighteningly-skilled fighter, and also blind.

Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Some things to keep in mind when writing a disabled character is that you are writing from an able-bodied point of view. Without meaning to, you may be establishing an ableist perspective that your reader can then perpetuate, no matter how well-told or beautiful your story.

  1. A disability is not a flaw.
    Nor is it something to be overcome. Most people with disabilities will spend the rest of their lives with said disabilities and — here’s the shocker — odds are they are not going to spend every second of every day wishing they were “normal.” The disability becomes the norm for them. There are obviously still going to be difficult moments, difficult days, even difficult months, but it does not make these characters weak or any lesser than able-bodied characters.That said, your character is allowed to have more flaws than just their disability. They are allowed to be more than the Noble Suffering Hero(ine). Any character who tells your protagonist that they are awesome, beautiful, and incredible despite being [insert disability here] should be deleted immediately.
  2. A disability does not have to be an entire storyline in and of itself.
    Fleshing out the background of a disabled character will inevitably involve the origin of said disability (born with an impairment, involved in an accident, etc.). It is part of understanding your character, their motivations, and their arc. However, storylines that follow a character “overcoming” a disability generally tends to cater towards an able-bodied audience: it shows how they navigate the world and how they “suffer” and their frustrations, until a catalyst occurs that forces them to work at being somehow “better” than their disability.The main problem with these storylines is that it invites pity from able-bodied audiences. It either intentionally or unintentionally makes them think, “Thank God that I’m not [insert disability here].” It also gives them the feel-good ending of “Well, those people are going to be fine because they worked hard.” Applying this attitude towards actual disabled people results in sentiments such as, “Well, if you just change the way you think about your disability…” or “If you just tried harder…” which does nothing to alleviate ableism in society.

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White Man in Foreign Lands: Xenophobia and Racism in Movies

Every few years, it happens.

Innocently sitting in a theater — desperate for redemption for our now empty wallets — the house lights dim and the string of trailers begins. It’s the usual mishmash of ill-fated comedies and muscled-man-big-explosion adventures…until there it is. It’s happened again.

You know what I’m talking about, one of those run-of-the-mill Man Must Save His Family gamuts, but set in a Foreign Country (capital letters because it really doesn’t matter where; more on this later), and that’s where the problems begin.

This is the trailer I saw for Owen Wilson’s new action flick, No Escape, in theaters this past weekend:

Highlights:

  • Opens with the usual juxtaposition between West and East, highlighting the “foreignness” of this new country. The exotification is mostly used to “other” this place, placing the characters and viewers out of their comfort zone. The small white child asks, “What if we don’t like it here?” The assumption is that 1) They will not like it here and 2) Why would they? The movie then proceeds to show us why they will not.
  • The line that most people seem to be criticizing the most — for good reason — is Pierce Brosnan’s  “Welcome to Asia.” The criticism focuses on the writers not bothering to pick a single country out of the entire continent, which is fair criticism, but I still hear, “Welcome to Malaysia,” which would make sense in the context of the 2011 Malaysian riots over electoral reforms.  We will discuss this later, too.
  • Here’s where things get (even more) sketchy: The image of Owen Wilson as single white man in between crowds of rioters and police. He is the outsider caught between a rock and a hard place: both groups of local people are dangerous. Even as we see other local civilians fleeing the scene, the audience is focused on the single foreigner amidst brown bodies.
  • We are also privy to the fact that the rioters (terrorists? No one really cares to distinguish why they are doing what they are doing in this trailer. As far as anyone cares it is violence for violence’s sake. This is seen namely in the murder of foreigners (white tourists) both in the streets and as the terrorists hunt out tourists to kill in the hotels.
  • Our protagonist’s goal becomes clear: He has to get his family to the American embassy. America = safety. Unlike the rest of these heathen streets. The last line of the trailer is Wilson’s daughter tearfully saying, “I wanna go home.” Wilson promises her, “We’re gonna get there.” This place is not home. It could never be to people like us. Of course.

Where to begin with this mess?

To start, I suppose we can acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to get a clear-cut answer about the name of the country in which this story takes place. It seems to be a toss up between Thailand (where filming actually takes place) and Malaysia, although I have seen some articles calling it a fictional Southeast Asian country, (which, what?!) This may explain the “Welcome to Asia” line. The writers simply don’t care to acknowledge a specific place with a specific history and culture and peoples.

A lot of people have been touching on the xenophobia inherent in this sort of film premise: White family must escape from a backdrop of a crowd of faceless Asian people (“The trailer is framed exactly like a zombie movie” says one review and this is true. The movie is directed by the man who brought us Quarantine, a shot-by-shot remake of the Spanish film, Rec, made especially for the Western world to avoid reading subtitles). But no one really seems to be explaining outright why this movie is both racist and xenophobic, leaving room for a lot of naysayers who don’t understand why we don’t want them to just have a good time at the movies and watch Owen Wilson in his triumphant(?) return to action cinema.

Owen Wilson taking up arms for his loved ones in No Escape.He will have to go to extremes in this foreign country as he wouldn't have to in America. Supposedly.
Owen Wilson taking up arms for his loved ones in No Escape.
He will have to go to extremes in this foreign country as he wouldn’t have to in America. Supposedly.


So, what’s wrong with the scenario set up in
No Escape?

From a writing standpoint, the plot probably makes a fair amount of sense: A new environment confuses and disorients both protagonist and audience. An unknown enemy adds to the elements of violence and danger; anything can happen to the protagonist and his family when neither audience nor hero knows the enemy’s limits or capabilities. The list can go on.

However. The story draws from real events that affected real people in a real country. Having filmed in Thailand, surely someone was bound to have heard of the mass rallies in Bangkok in 2013-2014 that eventually ended in a coup (No Escape was originally named The Coup) and the establishment of a military leadership. (I’ve already mentioned the possibility that the film may also draw from Malaysian protests in 2011, as I hold to the hope that Brosnan’s character says “Welcome to Malaysia” because the alternative is horrifyingly racist).

Calling the movie No Escape implies that this foreign country is a place to be escaped, populated with peoples that are more suited for the unsuitability of said environment, i.e. nowhere any “civilized” Western family should inhabit for longer than at all possible

More on problematic representation behind the cut.

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Writing Diversely: LGBTQAI Characters

Hey, readers! In the second installment of OKPotato’s Guide to Writing Diversely we will be discussing representations of LGBTQAI characters in media. You can find the first part on Character and Culture here. (Note: I personally identify as a lesbian, but that does not make me an expert in the subject by any means. I have pulled from other resources for some parts of this post and welcome any corrections or comments.)

I guess the first thing to start with is deconstructing that terrifying acronym. LGBTQAI is a catch-all for minority sexualities:

  • Lesbian: Romantic, physical, or emotional attraction between female-identified people.
  • Gay: Romantic, physical, or emotional attraction between male-identified people.
  • Bisexual: Romantic, physical, or emotional attraction for both male and female-identified people.
  • Transgender: A person whose gender identity or gender expression does not match one’s birth sex.
  • Queer (or Questioning): The former is an umbrella term for anyone who does not fit heteronormativity or the gender binary (including pansexual, polyamorous, etc.) The latter is for anyone who may be unsure of their current sexuality.
  • Asexual: A spectrum of sexuality defined by lack of sexual attraction (may also include romantic attraction). Includes demisexuals, gray asexuals, etc.
  • Intersexual: Physical sex characteristics that are not categorized as exclusively male or exclusively female.
Black and white illustrations by Christian Robinson from Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens, © 2011 Zest Books. Source.
Black and white illustrations by Christian Robinson from Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens, © 2011 Zest Books. Source.

Whew. But don’t be intimidated! As with writing culturally-diverse characters, it’s a good rule of thumb not to make a queer character’s entire existence and plotline about their sexuality. However, it doesn’t mean that you should treat them entirely like a straight character save for the gender of their romantic interest. Living as a queer person involves not only casual and overt homophobia (e.g. everything from too-long glances when you walk down the street with your partner, to being called “sir” or “ma’am” despite or because of your gender presentation, to outright bullying and violence), but also shifts in all interpersonal relationships as friends, family, coworkers, and others become aware of a character’s sexuality.

As with any other minority character whose diversity you may not be familiar with, research is generally a good idea. Unfortunately, a lot of LGBTQAI media out there is fraught with tropes writers should generally avoid. These stereotypes are often used as an easy way out of exploring the complexities of queer lives, or to use for humor to a heteronormative audience. Understanding the spectrum of human sexuality (and its fluidity) will take a lot more space than I can cover in one post, but here are some bad queer tropes that are way too overplayed:

  • Tragic Gays in Love: Though I’m sure this can be applied across the sexuality spectrum, it happens the most in gay or lesbian love stories. Generally, the plot follows the same progression: Unexpected queer love blossoms; one or both parties resist (futilely); opposition from family or society; the break-up; attempts at reconciliation only for the death of one partner to follow. We end on the heartbreak of the remaining partner. How strong, we are left to think; if only society were not so cruel.

    brokeback
    Yes, society is cruel and that is a good message to send to heteronormative societies who have no idea what queer people go through on a daily basis. However, killing off LGBTQAI characters does nothing but reinforce images of violence against queer characters, while also impeding any actual queer relationships from continuing by the end of the story.

    Examples in books: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Golden Compass, The Book of Lost Things, Sword of Truth, The Bell Jar, the Divergent trilogy (to be discussed later on this blog’s hate-read of the series, pt.1 and pt.2 thus far).

    Examples in movies: Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, Boys Don’t Cry, Lost and Delirious, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc.

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Top Five PoC Author Recs

Hey, readers. If you’ve been following OKP for a bit, you’ll notice we’re constantly promoting or discussing diversity in media, particularly books (and especially Young Adult books, where diversity can be especially hard to find at first glance). Wandering the bookstore recently, it occurred to me how daunting it can be to start reading diversely for the uninitiated — and soI’ve put together some recs to help!

These are mostly not Young Adult, but rather contemporary PoC (People of Color) authors I would like to personally promote:

  1. Helen Oyeyemi
    Writing Style: Experimental, whimsical. Explores race and gender issues with heavy use of fairy tale structures and conventions.
    Start With: Mr. Fox (2011). The eponymous Mr. Fox is a writer who kills off his heroines story after story, until his muse, Mary, comes to life and places Mr. Fox into a story himself. Dialogue-heavy and a bit slow to begin with, but it’s fun to watch Oyeyemi play with both her characters and words.

    3A black British novelist and playwright, Oyeyemi focuses on women of color battling what it means to be both female and black in contemporary contexts. In that sense, she reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison, but, unlike Morrison, she does not focus on the historical so much as subverting literary traditions, most often in fairy tale settings, as in Boy Snow Bird which is told from the stepmother’s perspective as she raises Snow, her stepdaughter, and Bird, her new daughter, who is born a light-skinned African American (a trait taken from her father who passes as white.)I’ll be reviewing Oyeyemi’s White is For Witching later this month; the book is a weird cross between Shirley Jackson subtle horror and Toni Morrison slice-of-life magical realism.

 

  1. Junot Diaz
    Writing Style: Somehow incorporates an entire cultural environment in the way his characters move and talk within the prose. Uses slang and bilingual language with a focus on movement and rhythm in the text so it sounds like natural thought or dialogue. Lots of asides and footnotes.
    Start With: This is How You Lose Her (2012). This is a short story collection but all the vignettes are interconnected by character (a boy named Yunior who shows up in Diaz’s other works) and themes (loss, identity, love and relationships, especially infidelity).2You may have seen a few of Diaz’s quotes on media representation floating around Tumblr and the like, and if not, it’s something everyone should see:

    “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

    Diaz is a Dominican American writer whose work generally focuses on the immigrant experience in America. His protagonists are young men of color who struggle with their native roots (i.e. Dominican Republic) and living in modern America which isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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Writing Diversely: Character + Culture

Greetings, readers. Let’s get right down to it: Where are all the culturally diverse, quality characters across media? One of the biggest problems with diversity in media is representation of various races in meaningful ways. The “standard” hero story still focuses on the White (Straight) Male Protagonist and the “standard” romance on the White Heterosexual Couple. Mainstream audiences are used to People of Color in movies about overcoming racial hardships and little else (e.g. 12 Years A Slave, Selma, and 42), or exotified cultural mysticism (e.g. 47 Ronin, Last Samurai, etc.)  which is not to say that these are not good movies or good representation, only that PoC are still not acceptable in broader stories and roles. Those visionaries trying to bring racial representation to the forefront definitely exist, but there is still a problem getting the viewers and producers to support what the Powers That Be still deem “a risk.”

No Asians allowed in this cartoon about Asian cultures. Via Colorlines.
No Asians allowed in this cartoon about Asian cultures. Via Colorlines.

While representation or lack thereof is easy to spot in movies and television due to visuals, the whitewashing of casts in literature is equally problematic. So, let’s say you’re a writer who wants to ensure you have a culturally diverse cast or main character. Where should you begin?

Well, let’s start with the definite DON’Ts:

  • Do NOT make a character’s race their main focal point (unless it drives their arc/story) or a justification for their existence, even (or especially) for background characters. In other words, if you ask someone to describe your character to you and they can’t go very far past, “They’re black/Asian/Mexican/whatever,” then you’re doing something wrong. Ideally your PoC characters should be allowed the same amount of complexity as any other main character. Don’t get hung up on making sure they are [insert culture here] enough.

    Good Example: Ari and Dante in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (read my review here). Their Mexican heritage is mentioned and important to establish both their physical appearance and their family background. Their diversity (as queer people of color) informs their conflict but is not as all-caps descriptors of who each character is. They are Ari and Dante, but they are also Mexican and LGBTQ.

    Bad Example: Some characters that can’t be described very far past their race: Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles and Mickey Rooney’s yellowface character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Think that no longer happens any more? Try BBC Sherlock’s The Blind Banker episode and its China Doll/Lotus Blossom Soo Lin, the Dragon Lady boss of a Chinese smuggling ring, and Orientalism everywhere.

    soolin2
    Literally every time we see Soo Lin she is surrounded by tea pots.

    soolin3
    Exhibit B.
  • Do NOT base your knowledge or representation of a culture off of already existing stereotypes or tropes. This goes hand-in-hand with the above DON’T. If your diversity decisions are based on thoughts like, “This character is going to be smart and shy, so it’s easiest to write them as Asian,” or “I want this character to be a gang leader, so he’s going to be black,” you may need to start reframing or rethinking how you will diversify your cast, lest you fall into the Fake Diversity cast. Your Asian character can be smart and shy, but hopefully that won’t be the only thing your reader will take away from your story about them. Just like any other character, you want to move away from 2-D simplicity.

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