The Plausible Diversity of Apples

Posted: September 7, 2016 in Critical Hit, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Come in. Sit down. Pull up a chair. We’re going to play a game.

Here’s how it works: I give you a simple character description, and you tell me which particular character I’m talking about, as well as the one specific TV show they’re from. Your only hint: these are all protagonists or ensemble main characters. Ready? Let’s go:

  • straight white male detective, an abrasive maverick with a tragic past
  • straight white male doctor, an arrogant maverick
  • straight white male conman using his powers for good
  • straight white writer, solves crimes and writes novels about it
  • straight white political aide, snarky but beloved
  • straight white female detective, brilliant with a tragic past
  • straight white lawyer who secretly fights crime
  • straight white maverick lawyer, sketchy past
  • straight white male supernatural creature, tragic past
  • straight white male antihero, drives a signature vehicle

Congratulations! We’ve reached the end of round one. Now that you’ve got your eye in, are you ready for round two? I sure hope so! Let’s give it a try:

  • straight black female detective, tragic past
  • bisexual white female leader, survivor and strategist
  • bisexual white male supernatural creature, antihero
  • straight Latino male supernatural creature, hero
  • straight Asian female doctor, solves crimes
  • gay black male detective, brilliant and untragic
  • bisexual black female lawyer, maverick antiheroine
  • gay Latino male action hero, supernatural issues
  • straight black female political maverick

There will not be a round three.

I mean, I could introduce a bonus round about secondary characters, but hopefully, I’m getting the point across: that whereas there are multiple shows whose protagonists answer to the descriptions given in round one, there’s really only one right answer for the equally simple clues provided in round two. Because for all the furore about how shows these days are nothing but an exercise in forced diversity – for all the fear that straight white guys are somehow being banned from stories forever and ever, amen – they’re still the dominant species, and all you need to do to prove it is ask for multiple examples of any one of the types of person supposedly meant to have ousted them.

One of the more common arguments raised by anti-diversity advocates is the futility of tokenism – the idea that giving a single show a black female lead for the sake of filling a quota is both insulting and unnecessary. And I quite agree: tokenism isn’t the answer. What we want is to reach a point where there are so many black female protagonists – and queer protagonists, and protagonists of every other type and variation listed above and a great many more besides, in every permutation – that none of them could ever again be reasonably viewed as a token anything. Because, in this scenario, when writers are considering who could be the protagonist, they’re giving equal consideration to every type of person, and not just forcing themselves to look, however briefly, beyond the narrow, familiar confines of an historical default.

A quick math problem, before we continue: if you have ten apples, and I have three, and we both start shaking the same, communal tree to get more fruit, and the end result is twenty apples each, have you actually lost anything? No, invisible apple friend: you have not. I might have gained more in the short term, but as the end result is a fairly-earned equality, any assertion on your part that my apples were stolen from you – that you are being deprived, somehow, of the all the apples you might’ve had, if only I hadn’t come along – is kind of insincere. And if your response is to try and burn the tree down out of spite, the better to ensure I go hungry next season? Well, then, you really don’t understand how apples work, do you? The ones I’m holding have just as many seeds as yours, and once I’ve gone and planted them, I’ll have access to even more trees than before, and an even greater incentive to make sure they grow big and healthy. Sure, you could spend all your energy trying to sabotage my fledgling orchard, because destruction is far, far easier than creation, but come the next harvest, I’ll still have a crop of shiny, delicious apples to eat – and if you’ve planted nothing in all that time, then brother, I don’t have to burn down anything in order to watch you starve.

Where was I? Oh, right: diversity in narrative.

See, when anti-diversity advocates start talking about the narrative implausibility of particular characters as a means of explaining why, in their opinion, certain types of people just can’t be heroes, they forget the point of stories. We have, quite literally, an entire genre of films, books, comics, games and TV shows dedicated to showing us how normal, mediocre straight white guys – literal everymen, as proudly proclaimed in their blurbs and trailers and other forms of promotional bumpf – can rise up and save the world and the day and get the girl, even when they’ve had absolutely nothing going for them and no pertinent skills before that point. It might happen through luck or hard work, through outside help or unknown possession of a secret destiny, or sometimes a combination of all four, but it does happen, over and over and over again, with the cosmic regularity of sunset, and do you know what? Regardless of whether we love or hate or meh those individual stories, everyone who watches or reads or plays them understands, at base, that a certain degree of implausibility is the fucking point. The idea isn’t to create a hyper-real explanation as to why John Doe is suddenly the only man standing between Earth and alien annihilation, although it’s always nice when the worldbuilding rises to the occasion: the fundamental point of the everyman as hero is to make us, the everyday audience, feel as if we could be heroes, too.

But make that hero queer or female and something other than white, and the same guy who moments ago was cheering on every single everyman ever played by Shia LaBeouf in Transformers and Eagle Eye and Indiana Jones and Constantine is spewing rage on the internet because of the Ghostbusters reboot and Star Wars and who knows what else, because women aren’t funny or interesting and why would you ever try to make them the protagonist? Listen, fucknuts: the only real joke attributable to Adam Sandler is his own career, but I didn’t see you weeping on Reddit when he was inexplicably greenlit for another two hours of cinematic dickslapping in the Year of Our Lord 2016. Leslie Jones could do nothing but read the entirety of Pride and Prejudice aloud on camera while cracking improvised jokes about the characters and drinking champagne, and it would still be a million times funnier than anything that’s ever starred Rob Schneider. Granted, that particular comedic bar is so damn low, you could use it to drag the Marianas Trench, but the point is that the plausibility police were nowhere to be found when James McAvoy learned to be an assassin with the help of a massive sentient loom, a tank full of wax and Angeline Jolie’s collarbones, but are suddenly screeching the heavens down at the prospect of there being More Than One Girl in Star Wars.

I mean, look: it says a whole fucking lot about this debate that the many female characters displaced by Trinity Syndrome – which is to say, female characters who are demonstrably strong and skilled and unique enough to merit protagonist status, but who ultimately play second fiddle to whichever lucky everyman they’ve trained/fallen for – are never subjected to the same level of plausibility-scrutiny as actual female protagonists. Nobody objected to the fact that Trinity was an awesome hacker-leader-fighter in The Matrix, because she was also Neo’s love interest, and hot: they could safely view her through the lens of his success, and thereby rest easy in the knowledge that the story wasn’t really about her. The kind of man who objects to Rey, but not Trinity, isn’t bothered by the contextual implausibility of female competence, no matter what he says: he just wants to know that, whatever prowess the female characters have, they’re still going to come in second to a white guy they later bone down with, or at least kiss. Female exceptionalism therefore becomes allowable only in a context where the various impressive skills a woman has acquired over a lifetime can be first mastered and then improved upon by any moderately talented white guy in a matter of days. But if you take that guy away – or worse still, make him a less adept sidekick or enemy – then suddenly it’s the end of the goddamn world and a blight on plausible storytelling.

So let’s just set the record straight, once and for all: we don’t want an end to stories with straight white male protagonists; we do want to boost the number of stories starring other types of person, and maybe – given the massive historical imbalance between those genres – give them a bit of time in the spotlight, too. We don’t want to promote bad stories over good for the sake of diversity, though we do want them to be judged fairly, which here means allowing us the freedom to create a range of diverse stories without that diversity being automatically dismissed as either tokenism or a pandering irrelevance, or else used as an excuse to put the narrative under a microscope, the results to be read as a harsh pass/fail on the viability of any such future stories. We do want to openly celebrate diversity, in much the same way that farmers celebrate rain after a long drought: we’ve had so little for so long, can you blame us for wanting to shout about it?

Well, I mean. Obviously, if you’re an anti-diversity advocate, you can and will. You’re just not going to have much in the way of moral highground to support you, and maybe – just maybe – it behoves you to consider what you’re really fighting against. If rebooting a franchise with someone other than a straight white guy in the leading role is a purely cosmetic – and therefore, in your estimation, meaningless – change, then why do you feel so personally threatened by the prospect of someone doing it? If your real objection is to tokenism, and not to well-crafted characters from diverse backgrounds, then why aren’t you advocating that writers include more of them, not less? If your selection process for worthy stories is truly wide-ranging and meritocratic, then why does it skew so heavily to only one type of writer and one type of protagonist? Why do you find it so hard to believe that stories can be both diverse and worthy? Why are you so resistant to the idea that well-executed diversity is itself a form of good storytelling?

If narrative representation is such a paltry, meaningless thing ask for, then why are you so terrified of losing it?

We know why, is the thing. The real question is: do you?

 

Comments
  1. Having just finished Netflix’ Stranger Things, I wonder if kidvid like this doesn’t prove your point even more than the everyman character (though I think you’re spot on about that). Nobody objects that a bunch of kids can go up against “demogorgon” whatever it was exactly; nobody objects that most movies like this are targeted specifically at one demographic, children (I think Stranger Things was more about adult nostalgia). But if you had a group of women, or black protagonists …

  2. If rebooting a franchise with someone other than a straight white guy in the leading role is a purely cosmetic – and therefore, in your estimation, meaningless – change, then why do you feel so personally threatened by the prospect of someone doing it?

    This this this. Spot on, Foz.

  3. Jean Lamb says:

    I would really love to see a movie with Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon–they were the two funniest people on the new Ghostbusters. I could see Ms. Jones playing a relatively sane person who just wants to do her job, while Ms. McKinnon plays the crazy person sucking Jones into her level pf insanity, and Ms. Jones decides this is fun after all. (This is the basic plot of HOUSESITTER, but could easily be revamped for other locales). ‘Scuse me while I make some notes…

  4. lkeke35 says:

    Reblogged this on Geeking Out about It and commented:
    Foz Meadows is one of my favorite writers and here she lays the smackdown on opponents of diversity and inclusion in the scifi/fantasy genre. She, along with a whole host of others, are tackling every single argument against it, head-on, and taking them down, one by one.

    The bottom line is if you are opposed to representation of marginalized people as the main protagonists in the genre, you need to examine yourself, not the media.

  5. Pangolin says:

    Great article!

    Jean Lamb – that sounds like the setup for Lethal Weapon, also, and I would watch Jones and McKinnon in a remake of that!

  6. sorcharei says:

    One of the real issues is that straight white ablebodied cis guys have no, and I mean NO, practice relating to protagonists who aren’t just like them. The rest of us have spent our lives reading about protagonists who are unlike us in at least one way, and because, like everyone else, we want to see ourselves in stories, we learned to imagine ourselves in stories where the actual protagonist was not us. So I can watch Angelina Jolie in Salt and relate even though I am not straight, and I can read about Frodo and relate even though I am not male. But I also have more than half a century of practice.

    I’ve imagned myself as all kinds of people who are not like me because there wasn’t much I wanted to read that featured people like me (and I’m cis and white, and I was ablebodied as a child — it could have been even harder to find heroes who looked like me). So if I wanted to read and imagine myself into those worlds, I had to learn to relate to heroes who were not me.

    I learned this in second grade, with the Danny Dunn books. I didn’t want to be Irene, so I just let myself imagine myself in a slightly different world where Danny was short for Daniela.

    But guys who have been reading about themselves their whole lives do not know how to do this.

    They should learn.

    • As someone old enough to have read Danny Dunn that example really drives home your point–Irene seemed neat to me, it wouldn’t have occurred to me she didn’t work for female readers the same way.
      A Danielle Dunn series would have been cool.

    • lkeke35 says:

      If not identifying with the characters, at the very least, we have a lot of practice mining whatever we could get, out of narratives that were never aimed at us. Learning to see whatever abstract ideas, or philosophies, that we might have in common with the protagonists.

      This is not a skill they ever had to develop.

  7. CeeV says:

    Excellent essay as regards diversity in fiction. Very well said!

    You got the part about apples a bit wrong, though. Apples are heterozygotes, which means that apple trees grown from seeds inherit very few of their parents’ traits and are typically of substandard quality. If you want delicious apples, you’ll need to graft them rather than plant them.

  8. […] Foz Meadows answers eight questions at Tor.com. At her own blog, Meadows wrote a great post this week about the plausibility of diversity. […]

  9. […] her blog, Foz Meadows looks at the anti-diversity argument that giving women/gays/minorities a leading character they can identify with is just tokenism or […]

  10. […] The Plausible Diversity of Apples By Foz Meadows […]

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