This is Why Representation is Important

Last week, Slate published an essay by an 11-year-old reader that illustrates perfectly why I believe in the need for books with diverse characters.  “This is Me” by Audrey Hall was a winner in the New York Public Library’s Summer Reading 2019 Essay Contest.  In her essay, Audrey describes how the book Blended by Sharon Draper expanded her universe.

You can read the full essay here, which is well-written and even includes quotes from the book to support her thesis.

Audrey checked Blended out of the library and it quickly became a favorite.  The book features a multiracial protagonist with divorced parents, which also describes Audrey.  She describes how she related directly to the character’s experiences in the book, moving between households and debating how to describe herself.  It was a revelation for her to know that there might be other kids who shared her own experiences. “This book made me feel like I belong,” she wrote.

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An excerpt from Audrey’s essay

I personally could not have written a better essay to describe why representation is important, especially in children’s and YA literature.  Every child should have the same feeling that Audrey had when reading.

38351370Of course, we will not relate to every character we read about, which also expands our minds.  And of course, we can relate to characters who don’t look like us at all. For example, my pen name Mei-Mei was taken from a Chinese character in a Japanese anime.  But I won’t pretend that I don’t automatically feel a sense of kinship with every redhead character that I meet. Being able to see ourselves so directly in characters is such a valuable thing that I want every child to be able to experience it as I have.

For this reason, I have been a fan of the We Need Diverse Books movement, which started as  a Twitter hashtag and has become a phenomenon. I think we have seen a huge growth of diverse books in YA fantasy (my wheelhouse) over the past ten years, and I hope this trend will continue.  I am personally making an effort to read more books featuring diverse characters and, just as importantly, by diverse authors to support the publishing industry following this trend.

Audrey’s prize for the essay was a trip to a NY Yankees game.  I hope she has a great time!  I also hope she grows up to be a writer of many more characters like herself.

The “right” way to do diversity

The Internet has come as close to agreement as it probably ever will over one point: it’s 2015 and we’re ready for more diversity in our fiction.  No more will we accept straight white males as the default character lens through which to view our movies, comics, video games, and novels.

What no one can agree on now is how to accomplish this.

Don’t let my click-bait title fool you; I don’t have any answers.  How to best reflect our culture’s many facets is an issue that itself is multifaceted.

For example, as comic books are being turned into movies, studios must walk a line between staying “true” to the source material and giving modern audiences the diversity they want.  The only superheroes that have achieved any kind of permanence in mainstream popular culture include a couple of white guys (Batman, Captain America, etc.) and one white woman (Wonder Woman).  So comic books, and the movies based on them, have started adding diversity to their line-ups in two basic ways.

This is a drawing of Batman I did with my eyes closed...
This is a drawing of Batman I did with my eyes closed…clearly the Batman:TAS version.
  • Gender/race/etc. bending

Straight-up changing an established character’s racial/gender/sexual identity is sometimes called “bending,” as in, here are pictures of gender-bent Disney princesses.  For comic book properties, race bending is most common.  Both Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) and Nick Fury were originally drawn as white men, but their most recent movie incarnations are both black.  The new DC Justice League movies have cast an Israeli woman as Wonder Woman and a man of native Hawaiian descent as Aquaman, both of whom generally appear very “Northern European” white in most of their iterations.

Why can’t we do this for all the famous superheroes?  Sometimes, certain (some would say all) aspects of a superhero’s identity are essential to his or her character.  Changing Wonder Woman to a man, for example, would negate the entire idea of her coming from the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons where men are not allowed.  But portraying her as more Mediterranean in complexion makes sense with that traditional, Greek myth-related backstory.  As another example, Captain America’s Aryan features made an interesting statement at the time he was created, considering that he was fighting Nazis in WWII.

But is this statement still culturally relevant?  American society has changed in many ways since WWII.  When Batman was created in 1939, it would have been quite rare for an “old money” family like the Waynes to be anything but white.  But nowadays, the idea of upper-class minorities is not so crazy, and I don’t think an African- or Asian-American Batman would be either.  For Bruce Wayne, I feel his social/economic class is the defining characteristic, more than his race.

Another issue is whether these kind of changes would be too confusing for a large audience.  People who read superhero comic books generally get pretty good at not getting too hung up on continuity.  So Nick Fury was white in the last series, and now he’s black.  Ok.  It’s the same way that Rogue can sometimes fly, and Jubilee is now a vampire.  But for the general public, it might be confusing as to why Bobby “Iceman” Drake was into Rogue and Kitty for 4 movies but now likes boys.

In any case, the corporations who stand to make lots of money from superhero movies are going to be extremely hesitant to make even “superficial” changes to cultural icons, no matter how good it makes the story.  Instead we could try…

  • Making new diverse characters

So, if we can’t mess with cultural icons, whether because we like their stories as-is or because they’re super profitable,  then we’ll just have to make some new superhero characters that are not straight white males.

Comic books have been doing this for decades.  Some of these characters are now being brought into the cinematic universes, such as Falcon, who was the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics when he was created in 1969.  We’ve also seen Warpath, Blink, Bishop, and Sunspot, with varying ethnic backgrounds, appear in X-men: Days of Future Past, and Skye/Daisy, who is arguably the main character of Agents of SHIELD, is a mixed-race woman.  Cyborg, another African-American, will be included in the Justice League movies, despite never having been considered a founding member of the League prior to the New 52.

Chloe Bennet as the mixed-race hacker Skye in Agents of SHIELD (abc.com)

Carol Danvers (formerly Ms. Marvel, now Captain Marvel) will be getting her own movie in a few years, the first of the MCU to feature a solo female superhero.  Though she’s been around under various aliases since the late 70s, Carol has really been leading the way for female superheros recently with a new (fully-clothed) look and very popular comic series as Captain Marvel.  We can see why Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, looks up to her.

But the truth is, no matter how many Captain Marvel movies they make, I don’t really believe that Captain Marvel will ever be as popular or well-known as Superman.  I guess time will tell.

  • Door Number 3: A little bit of both

The strategy that DC and Marvel have both been using quite successfully lately combines these first two ideas:  having a new character take up the mantle of a famous superhero.  (It doesn’t seem too crazy considering the frequency with which comic book heroes get killed off.)  Marvel’s new Avengers line-up includes Sam Wilson (Falcon) as Captain America, Jane Foster as Thor, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, and Miles Morales as Spider-man.  Kamala and Miles specifically have been a huge hit, being brand new characters featured in well-received solo series titles who are now being incorporated into Marvel’s headliner team.

Although Ms. Marvel is not a particularly well-known superhero persona in the general public, Kamala has received huge amounts of press for being a Pakistani-American Muslim girl who deals with typical teenage problems (like strict parents) as well as dealing with criminals and saving citizens of Jersey City.  Her solo series has been selling very well.  Having just read the first collected volume of Ms. Marvel, I liked the way Kamala’s religion was represented: it is an essential part of her life (she would be a slightly different person if she hadn’t been raised Muslim), but at the same time it is only one part of her character, and neither the plot nor her superpowers revolve around it.

Miles has even more visibility, as Spider-man is one of Marvel’s signature heroes and was ranked 3rd behind Batman and Superman on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heros of All Time.  In fact, many fans have suggested that Miles be the Spider-man of the MCU (because, do we really need a 3rd teenage Peter Parker rendition?), but the actors rumored to be in contention for the role look decidedly like young Peter Parker, so the powers-that-be at least feel that the general public is not ready for Miles as Spider-man.

First appearance of Miles Morales in Ultimate Fallout #4 (wikipedia)

In the DC universe, the Green Lantern Corps is a perfect opportunity to introduce various characters and still call them “Green Lantern,” including an African-American (John Stewart), a gay man (Alan Scott), and several women.  I was very happy with the choice to use John Stewart as the Green Lantern of the DCAU Justice League cartoon (despite the fact that Kyle Rayner had already been introduced to the DCAU in Superman:TAS).  Why they made the (terrible) Green Lantern feature film about Hal Jordan instead, I’ll never know, but I still hold out hope for John Stewart to be the Green Lantern of the new Justice League movies.

In conclusion, it’s clear that the only “right” way to increase diversity in comic book fiction is in a way that tells an interesting story with compelling characters.  Character traits shouldn’t be simply boxes checked on a list; they should be used to tell a story that reflects the experiences of audience members.  As both creators and consumers of fiction, we must think carefully about character diversity both on an individual level and as a whole.  The answers are not simple, but we continue to work towards a goal of inclusiveness.

Here are a few more thoughtful discussions on this and related topics; feel free to add your own suggested links in the comments below:

Diversity in the Nerd Mythos

Everyone and their mother has an opinion on the recently-announced casting of Star Wars Episode VII.  We nerds are masters of over-analysis, aren’t we!

Naturally I have an opinion, as well…many opinions, many hopes and fears for the next step in my favorite fandom.  I couldn’t help but comment yesterday…only one new female main role has been cast (with another supporting role potentially on the way).  Annalee Newitz of io9 has offered her opinion on this here.

We all know that scifi and fantasy tend to over-represent white men as characters.  The Hobbit had to *make up a new character* to get some estrogen on-screen, for heaven’s sake.  So as I pondered this issue today, I asked myself: What am I doing to address this problem?

I thought about my own writing and the statements I make with my own (unpublished) words.  After all, I am a woman and I typically write female main characters.  I have 4 fantasy novels floating around in my head at the moment:

    1. Male and female duo of main characters, with another female narrator; Native American influences–not bad so far
    2. Male and female duo of main characters, but set in an alternate Roman Empire, so pretty Caucasian
    3. Female main character, race unspecified, but the setting is medieval Europe-style war, so not much room for other female characters–definitely needs some work in the diversity area
    4. And here’s the kicker: X-men-style cast of young magic-users, consisting of 3 males, 1 female, plus the main character (also male) and their teacher (also male).  And while I hadn’t thought about race, they must all be the same, and one has red hair and another has white hair.  Sooooo they probably are not black, Asian etc.

Oh my.  In my own stories, from my own feminist brain, I have a cast a group of white superhumans with a 5:1 m:f ratio.  And to think, just last night I was laughing at how the new Justice League has added Cyborg just to get some real-world diversity.

This is a problem.  We writers of the next generation of nerds need to lead by example, and I am not pulling my weight.

I ran through my cast to see which characters had potential for some changes.  I had made 3 purposefully male to begin with.  The other two?  But but but…that would change the group dynamic!  Teenage hormones are so messy and complicated to write.

I can’t believe I’m still fighting myself on this.  I’m proving myself a hypocrite and a lazy writer to boot.

In the end, I’ve at least decided to genderswap the white-haired character, Starbuck-style.  So this character is now a girl…she can keep the short, white hairstyle.  She can keep the rough-and-tumble with her brothers.  Maybe she’ll have a romantic interest, and maybe she won’t.  This character had literally no reason to be male, except as a default.

And I refuse to let my default be exclusionary.  The more people that can also find themselves in the things I love, the better.

This is clearly going to be an on-going process in my writing.  But I know that in the end, my stories will be the better for it.