Today’s episode of Reading Revenant is brought to you by Catcher in the Rye. Take a look, it’s in a book, and now everyone is dead…
Now that Ghost in the Shell has tanked, and the point about whitewashing has been made, I kind of want to see it. In truth, it only looks visually interesting. My interest comes from the fact that it’s Hollywood’s largest budget adaptation of an anime property to date, which may start seeing new life when the superhero fad runs its course. But something interesting about this whole whitewashing controversy seems in a lack of understanding of what people want. If I had to boil this down to a single sentence, it’s this.
Diversity isn’t a checklist.
In this case I’m talking about race, but you can also sub in gender, nationality, creed, and so on and still understand what I’m saying. I once saw a movie where a fictitious kingdom with its own unique history and its own non-human population had token black and Asian warriors. And I do mean token. The insertion of American ideas of race was glaring and strange. Did this culture, too, have a dark history of slavery and racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia? Why? Where did the slaves and immigrants even come from when this is supposed to be the only place these creatures live? And don’t get me started on how it handled gender. Look – any story can be a place for any kind of person. But weaving them in as a natural part of the narrative requires an understanding of who they are and why they’re there. That happens pretty seamlessly with characters who look like me. Everyone else has a harder time.
In defense of the Hollywood monster, it’s a huge industry, people’s jobs are on the line, and going with proven star power is an understandable choice, even when it doesn’t actually work when you crunch the numbers (yeah, that happens). It feels nice and safe. It is also understandable that people used to seeing themselves reflected exactly and universally might feel slighted when that starts happening less. If you’ve always been assured that the whole pie was yours, every slice you have to give up is a letdown, even if you know it’s right.
So what is the grand solution, if it’s not just swapping in a pre-determined proportion of minorities? Well, I’d venture to say that both the question and the answer are wrong. It’s not about literal representation (or at least not only that). It’s about the larger sense of inclusion in society, both in the movies and in the culture that makes them.
A little anecdote: not long ago, I went to the theater to see Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection of F. I was excited, this being the first time I’d seen Dragon Ball on the big screen (we don’t talk about Evolution. We never talk about Evolution…). The theater was packed with fans, and a large majority were black. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen Dragonball Z, but most characters are Asian and white, with a few colorfully-complected aliens for variety (and Mr. Popo… but we also don’t talk about him). This obviously didn’t deter my fellow audience members; somehow, this stupid flick about a guy with blue hair fighting a lizard didn’t just transcend race, it appealed directly to another. Why? I posited this question to a friend of mine, previously the only black DBZ fan I knew, and without hesitation he answered.
“Because Goku and Vegeta are minorities.”
The concepts represented by these two characters, he said, was rich with themes important to African Americans, even if they didn’t realize it. Both separated forever from their true home, one embraces this new culture and becomes its protector and champion. The other, royalty in his own land but his circumstances now reduced, bitterly holds onto the pride of his culture, refusing to let it die, even though he suffers for it. And through willpower, through perseverance, they not only survive, but come together and succeed – not as humans, but as Saiyans.
Dragon Ball Z is by no means a model for how not to be racist, and telling stories that resonate with minority audiences is not a substitute for diversity. But it is important. I know this is a tricky issue to navigate, but ultimately it’s about a sense of inclusion. An acknowledgement that everyone’s part of the party, and everyone’s gifts are valuable, and maybe taking someone else’s gift and claiming it as your own because it’s a “send-up” and you “improved it” is a bad idea. You can set numbers for how many people in your cast will represent every race and nationality, but it’s just lip service until you invest your time in their unique story. And in the end, you’ll probably realize that their world is your world, their path looks a lot like your own; it’s just that the constellations at that parallel are a little different.
Diversity is not a checklist. It is the clipboard that holds the checklist. It is a foundation.
But without that support, your pen is going to punch a hole into your hand.