Pop culture and the diversity triangle

Of late, we have seen diversity explode onto the pop culture scene. While the concept of ‘diversity’ has always been a lurking buzzword, the establishment is finally starting to take it seriously in response to consumer pressure — and to be clear here, when I talk about ‘diversity,’ I mean representation across all minorities, not just race. Diversity includes class, disability status, religious faith, gender, sexuality, and other axes of oppression and marginalisation. But as a result of its growing popularity, we’re starting to see some troubling trends that need to be nipped in the bud.

I’m very opposed to the notion that ‘any representation is good representation‘ and I argue not only that bad characterisation is just as harmful as none, but that bad pop culture should be called out for what it is. If a book is badly written, reviewers shouldn’t pull any punches, even if it features diverse characters — the issue here is the bad writing. If diverse characters are painfully and ostentatiously shoehorned into a television series, that should be identified and discussed. If a screenplay is clearly going through the motions in a bid for an audience that wants diversity, that should be a subject of conversation.

But beyond that, when I’m evaluating diverse media — in other words, when I’m examining beyond its basic artistic merit — I search for what I refer of as the ‘diversity triangle,’ three key components that need to be present in any diverse work. Without any one leg, the entire triangle falls apart, and these legs must be viewed in an interconnected way.

  1. Diverse creators
  2. Diverse characters
  3. Diverse characterisation

The first necessary trait is one that media and pop culture are still struggling with. As the conversation about homogeneity in pop culture really started to take off, the impulsive fix was simply to include more works featuring diverse creators, regardless as to who crafted them. White authors were encouraged to write characters of colour, nondisabled showrunners were lauded for having disabled characters, and so forth. Creators praised themselves and each other for ‘featuring diverse characters’ without paying attention to a fundamental part of the equation: Diverse creators are still blocked from many spaces in the media and pop culture establishment, and this is unacceptable.

There’s a tendency to tokenise single creators — the one Black showrunner, that Latino author — as though there can be only one and now the quotient is met. That is not the case. We need more diverse creators representing a variety of lived experiences. A lot more of them. We need people telling their own stories and exploring intersections of oppression. It’s not that people can’t write experiences they don’t know, but rather than they shouldn’t be taking precedence over the people who are living those experiences. I’d rather read a book with an autistic character written by an actual autistic, not one written by an allistic person.

This isn’t just about promoting a more equalised world for creators. It’s also about challenging the dominant gaze. When people write for the nondisabled, the white, the middle class, the Christian gaze, they’re objectifying their subjects. They’re writing with the assumption that the people living these experiences don’t actually consume media. And they’re turning characters into tickpoints on a checklist rather than human beings.

And yes, to speak to the second trait, we need diverse characters. Obviously we can’t have diverse representation if we don’t have the people to do the representing. We need people of a variety of walks of life, we need to avoid checklist approaches, and we need to ensure that a range of experiences are depicted in media and pop culture so that a handful of characters don’t have to bear the load. We can’t have one book about a gay kid. We need lots of gay kids, with totally varied and diverse experiences! Gay people aren’t a monolith! We can’t have one wheelchair user on television. We need lots, encompassing the huge spectrum of the wheelchair using community!

People need to be able to see themselves in the media they consume, and people also need to be able to encounter unfamiliar experiences. It’s important for people to see the lives not just of people who belong to different cultures and societies, but also the lives of their own communities. My life doesn’t encompass the entire disabled experience — I constantly learn new things from works produced by other disabled people, including people who share my disabilities. That’s why I pursue as many representations of disability as I can, and why I am so disappointed that there are so few. It’s not just about wishing people could see more disabled characters period, but about wanting to show people that disability is a spectrum.

The final and key leg of the diversity triangle is another area where people are struggling: Characterisation. It’s not enough for a character to be defined solely by the trait of being a member of a marginalised community. I cannot tell you how irritating and dull it is to be subjected to a montage of characters about whom I learn little other than the fact that they’re [fill in the blank]. I want to know who these people are. What they do. What they’re passionate about. I want to understand what makes them tick.

I don’t want to see a Latina character. I want to see a Latina who loves painting and gets in arguments with her friends and reads mystery novels and wants to be a pilot. I want to see people characterised by who they are, with their identities integrated into the text, but not all-consuming. Many creators seem to be unable to walk the dividing line between defining people wholly by marginalised identities and checking a tickbox only to ignore the issue throughout the book — flagging a character as Black once and then never again.

I want to know how character’s identities intersect with their lives, not how they’re consumed by them. If a character is hard of hearing, how does that affect the way she interacts with hearing people? Does she lip read? Use sign? Maybe she asks people around her to speak up, or requests that people face her when speaking. Maybe her doorbell illuminates a light in her dorm room because she can’t hear it otherwise. These are things that people need to be thinking about and working into the text — without making them into all we know about these characters.

The diversity triangle works as the start of a thumbnail evaluation for me. Maybe it doesn’t for you. That’s okay! I invite you to expand upon it and adjust it to suit your needs, in the spirit of introducing things to the commons. I don’t have all the answers when it comes to diversity, and it’s a subject that’s under constant discussion and revision. Hopefully the triangle can be made better and more thoughtful with input, but it’s important to remember that there’s no neat, simple rubric that can be applied to any work of pop culture to see if it’s sufficiently progressive, okay?

Image: Triangle Tilt Quilt, Sarah Witherby, Flickr