The lead stars of Sam Bailey and Fatimah Asghar’s webseries Brown Girls
In a world where everything mainstream is chock full of white, cisgender, heterosexual creators, many have grown tired. Audiences who don’t identify with those three titles want and deserve to hear multiple perspectives, voices, and creators in television, film, literature and more who are of color, part of the LGBTQ+ community, have disabilities and more. As social media users big and small promote and create campaigns and movements such as #PraisinTheAsian, #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, #DisabledAndCute, #DropThePlus, #Blackout and so forth, society has clearly taken bigger steps than imaginable to represent and include those normally excluded from mainstream media on their own terms. But this fight for diversity isn’t limited to social media. Diversity deserves to be portrayed, but not lazily or halfheartedly, which tragically is a reality, especially in literature and television. As it's being consumed by the same audience who create these methods of inclusion and representation for all types of minorities online, it’s time to put to rest the faulty definition of diversity thought up within television and literature today and realize the work needed to truly represent diversity.
Like most mediums, in literature white, able-bodied, cishet characters are at the center of most genres. It's difficult to find stories that have more than one character of color and on top of that, to have them characterized as well. Quite often, these writers place a token character of color to seemingly save the day and please readers. This can be seen in plenty of popular YA series and novels such as Paper Towns by John Green and the Throne Of Glass series by S.J Mass. All characters of color found within these novels serve only to bump the diversity points by one, befriend or already be the white protagonist’s best friend and/or contribute to nothing but a plot point for the said character, all depending on the effort put into their characterization. In Paper Towns, we have Radar, who does point out the tokenism he feels within the novel but doesn’t seem to bring much other to the table but a few laughs and a girlfriend, who adds another person of color in the midst of an otherwise white-centric novel. This tokenization is also present within the Throne of Glass series, as the only prominent black character, Nehemiah, is killed brutally (later revealed by her own will) that only furthers the development of the white main character of the series Celenia who spends the latter of the book (along with its sequel) mourning her death. But what makes the tokenization of people of color worse is when they are written out to be ashamed and embarrassed by their identity. Both white authors Maggie Stiefvater and Rainbow Rowell have written half-Korean characters within their YA novels, yet disappoint readers of color as they illustrate their struggles with internalized racism and biracial identities but without putting in the effort of showing a resolution. As Stiefvater’s Henry Cheng makes fun of Koreans to cope and deals with distasteful biracial jokes, Rowell’s Park doesn't seem to grasp what it means to be half-Korean and wishes to be white instead of half white. This can also be seen for characters who don't identify as straight. In the Scott Pilgrim series, the protagonist’s girlfriend is bisexual and two prominent characters are gay, but the graphic novel series diminishes this inclusion by sprinkling casual homophobic and biphobic remarks directed to these characters. Unlearning internalizations while living in oppression is lengthy work, and not making the effort to dispute or help characters move past these troubles is lazy and ignorant on the writer's part and troubling for readers, as they're taught this is an ordinary occurrence that should be normalized instead of wrong and oppressive.
Not exempt of poor attempts at diversity is the TV industry, as they most often than not wrongfully showcase minorities through stereotypical lenses. An obvious example of this would be the TV series Glee, that introduced the world to LGBTQ+ characters, characters of color, characters with disabilities and more. But this representation was disappointing as many were written two-dimensionally, with horrible treatment and little development. A character that stuck a chord with me when watching Glee was their trans character of color, Unique. She was the first trans character I’ve ever seen and sadly suffered catastrophic plotlines, the most prominent example of this is showcased Glee’s The End of Twerk. Within the episode, Unique is conflicted on where to go to the bathroom, as neither the girl nor the boy's bathroom provides safety. She later decides to go to the girl's bathroom which leads to the girls and boys of McKinley switching bathrooms. The gist of The End of Twerk is nothing but a slippery slope as it ignores that all trans people want is to be able to go do their business in the bathroom they feel most comfortable in. What Glee does instead is contributing to the voices that oppose trans rights, which is highly disappointing for a TV show that is praised for its work on representation. A more recent example would be Netflix’s Sense8, written and created by J. Michael Straczynski as well as Lilly and Lana Wachowski. Within the show, there are eight protagonists, four who are natives of South Korea, India, Mexico, and Kenya. Sadly, the other four characters, an Icelandic DJ, a German locksmith, a trans woman hacktivist and blogger from San Francisco and a Chicagoan cop (who doubles as a white savior), are all white, prominent characters and receive plotlines far better than the other four. Not only do these characters of color receive less screen time, which results in a lack of characterization and has them dwell in a two-dimensional state for the entire first season, their personalities and sometimes even plotlines lean heavily on stereotypes. Capheus from Kenya is poor and has a mom who suffers from AIDS, Kala from India endures a modern take on an arranged marriage, Sun from South Korea is skilled in martial arts and the forever dramatic Lito from Mexico (played by a white actor) stars in a telenovela. Instead of bringing something new to the table and bringing to life people of color as well as their countries of origin, the audience is proven once again that people of color are unworthy of rich and three-dimensional characterization as they are incapable of being anything else than a recycled stereotype.
Diversity today is incredibly important, and for that, we shouldn't have to settle. We shouldn't have to settle for representation and inclusion that is done lazily, instead of genuinely and realistically. Creating characters who belong to a minority group while showcasing messages that sheds them in a poor, stereotypical light doesn't help. Creating characters who belong to a minority group who are treated like plots or tokens doesn't help. Acknowledge their identity and develop them further beyond a mere stereotype and troubling internalizations. And make the effort to have them grow from that if they do face internalizations. And it doesn't stop at that. While generic TV shows and books receive popularity, celebrating the works of creators who are also minorities becomes a necessity. Promote web series like Brown Girls, created by two women of color and starring exclusively people of color, with a qu*er girl as one of the leads and books like Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe with two Mexican boys at the center. Promote work that represents minorities well and works created by minorities. All we want is genuine, truthful diversity on television and books, and being critical of the few attempts today will do nothing but improve it. And that’s all we want. To bring an end to the diversity that sets us back, and to bring to light the experiences and realities of minorities who have never had the chance.