“Diversity” is the buzz-phrase of the age. Given the rise of fascism and intolerance, the universe has had to balance itself with an equal rise of libertarian ideals. However, and with any social and political force, diversity can become as much an empty notion as the continued infighting over identity politics. I believe every voice and permutation of humanity has value to contribute to the dialog on being human. Which is why, I believe, when we add diversity into our work, it should be done in the same messy, and often unpleasant way that it’s experienced in real life.
It’s easy to tag an artistic creation as diverse by garnishing it with the fundamentals of diversity: a woman, a person of color, a gay man, a person with a physical or mental infirmity. That’s not a character of depth, however, it’s a template at best, a caricature at worst. The guiltiest parties of this kind of tokenism can be found in the video game industry, where works are lauded as progressive by virtue of having a female lead—full stop, the end. Let’s disregard that this character is built as a sexual or power fantasy for men, she’s got ginormous boobs (I put this point first, since it’s like, the most defining trait for this character), she knows how to use a gun, she talks all deep and sultry, and she gets sprayed in viscera like a frat girl at a wet t-shirt contest. What’s more empowering than that? Pretty much anything else, really. Likewise do the new digital icons of empowerment represent a shift from traditional fetishism (purely sexual) to fetishized violence: The Last of Us, or the new Laura Croft stand as shining examples of torture-porn. In that industry, we still haven’t moved away from the notion that a ‘powerful’ woman must be surrounded by and comfortable with sex, violence or both.
Books and comic books, have shown better growth across the spectrum of representation. Smart women. Black women. Asian women (there’s a segment that regularly get passed over in diversity round-tables). People of gender non-conformity and varied sexual assignments and orientations. Heroines and heroes that get their hands dirty, but who want them to be clean. They want real change to themselves and their society; they see a bigger picture even if that vision of the future is murky at times. They have hope. I find those aspects to be the biggest distinctions, especially as someone who writes their cast into hostile and dangerous situations: my characters are never comfortable with what is occurring. That abrasion, and knowledge of their discomfort (and by proxy: the reader’s/ viewer’s discomfort) is essential to fleshing out a truly diverse character.
My childhood is a pastiche of burning cross imagery (on our lawn when I was barely able to walk), snaggletoothed bigots hissing “nigger,” “faggot” or insert-your-epithet at me. My grandparents were the poster children of racial harmony and strife: my grandmother coming from an affluent white family, my grandfather coming from Southern USA. She was severed of all ties to the family purse when they married, and while I would like to say that love triumphed over all, that wasn’t the case and their relationship was an explosive battlefield of arguments, occasional physical confrontations and plenty of rage at a world that wouldn’t let them love. They weren’t horrible people. In fact, I’d say they were quite brave. Although, bravery can be chipped away into a more jagged-edged armor. The world and peoples’ judgments harden us.
So, too, should characters of authenticity and diversity struggle with identity on a day-to-day basis. So, too, should their struggles be real and visceral. I am a survivor of sexual violence and I’ve written rape scenes a few times. Believe me, this is a task I am loathe to do, and yet I do it by tapping into the horrid memories that lurk in that pit in my mind. Art that has a message is going to be divisive by nature. It’s going to rub some people the wrong way, as it should. One of my favorite quotes is by the late, great Terry Prachett, and it goes something like: “It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing it.”
The day you read about rape, a lynching or someone experiencing a beating and don’t flinch is the day you should either check yourself into a monastery or toss in the bin whatever media you’ve been consuming.
“What about the children? Think of the children!” Well, I write for adults, but even if I were to write YA, I would say the N word where it applied. Because believe me: your children will hear it. Situations of violence, objectification and power and politics need more attention in YA fiction than the love-triangles that are so often the focus. We should be preparing young adults for the reality of the world, a world in which we have child soldiers, genocides, even girls who were shot in the head for going to school (Malala). “How dark!”, you decry. In order to appreciate the Light of humankind, in order to show heroism and diversity, the adversarial forces of the world—the Darkness—need a spotlight. Heroes are not made in absence of antagonism, but in the presence of it. That’s Writing 101. And simply having a world that’s hostile but that doesn’t interact or conflict with its character isn’t enough, and, in my opinion, is just boring storytelling.
We need stories that—at points—make our skin crawl, make us relate, chillingly, with events happening outside the fantasy world we’re reading or watching. Because for me, the best escapism isn’t blissful ignorance, but shrewd commentary hidden inside beautifully crafted story: wisdom and insightfulness I can take with me when I close the page.