Why are so many people completely missing the point of diversity in media?

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Sorry, guys. I’m going esoteric again. Something has been irritating the hell out of me, and I have to complain about it, because, like so many other things in the world, people are getting it totally wrong.

There’s been a lot of talk lately of introducing more diverse characters into fiction, with a variety of media outlets calling for greater racial and gender diversity in books, movies, TV shows, and so on. I don’t find anything explicitly wrong with this, as the world is simply a more interesting place if people are able to experience more of it. This is why I like to go places.

But the demands for greater minority representation in media rarely have anything to do with this. It’s not really about broadening one’s horizons. It’s about providing heroes.

This boiled over recently when Marvel decided to cast a white actor as a white character in an upcoming superhero TV series. Yes, you read that right. People were upset that a white actor was chosen to play a white character.

If this all sounds perfectly acceptable to you, then congratulations, you’re a normal person! But a lot of people out there were hoping that Marvel would take the opportunity to change the ethnicity of Iron Fist from white to Asian, making him the first Asian-American superhero to be portrayed in TV or movies.

This effort attracted enough attention that it inspired a petition with thousands of signatures, and endless commentary on the “missed opportunity” that Marvel had with this particular character when it was finally revealed that they would leave him the way he was.

Now, ordinarily, I don’t really care about superheroes. In fact I find it astonishingly weird that spandex-clad crime fighters have somehow ascended to the pinnacle of the pop cultural hierarchy for some reason, and I expect it will collapse in on itself at some point or another. But this is such a perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with the diversity-in-media debate that it might as well come wrapped in a little bow.

Granted, there were some partially-legitimate objections to the original character, who is a white person who goes to a fictional Asian country to learn martial arts, and brings it home to be a crime-fighting superhero. Several commentators have pointed out how frustrating it is that a white person would upstage Asian people at their own game, and it makes a certain kind of sense.

But on the other hand, you could just view it as a timeless lesson regarding how important it is to learn as much as you can from other cultures, because they might have something of value to offer…something that could make you, and your homeland, stronger for it.

See how that works? You can learn just about any lesson you want, whether positive or negative, from a work of art. The way you choose to interpret it often says more about you than it does about the work itself.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that if Marvel had made the ethnicity switch, then the first Asian superhero would have been a perfect “all Asians know martial arts” Kung Fu stereotype. And how constructive is that?

Rock and hard place road sign
Artist’s rendering of Marvel’s decision process.

Quite a few people have suggested that Marvel could instead develop a TV show or movie starring one of the existing Asian superheroes, instead of modifying an existing character and annoying the hell out of everyone, because nobody likes it when someone tampers with a beloved character. Besides, if it’s wrong to white-wash, why isn’t it wrong to white-erase?

But you know what would have been even better? Realizing that superheroes are stupid, and that you don’t need imaginary crime fighters in spandex to inspire kids to do something great. If you’re worried about your Asian kid not having Asian role models who are absolutely amazing, allow me to introduce you to someone who was pretty much a superhero in real life.

Bruce Lee was so goddamn good at what he did that the videocameras at the time allegedly couldn’t capture his movements, so the directors told him to slow down so people could see. And you’d rather get a fake superhero to inspire your children?! Over Bruce Lee?!?

Bruce Lee graffiti
I mean come on.

But this still misses the point entirely. What bothers me the most about all this is that the Outrage Industrial Complex seems to have no understanding of the purpose of racial diversity in the first place.

They’ll keep telling you that black, Asian, hispanic, transgender and other people need characters just like them, or they won’t be able to relate. Clearly black people need black characters, or they just won’t care.

If this sounds stupid to you, that’s because it is. And we need only look to the wisdom of the Wu-Tang Clan to see why.

Wu-Tang Clan 36 Chambers
Parental Advisory: May contain wisdom.

They are literally called the Wu-Tang Clan, because they adore and took inspiration from Kung Fu movies, which, as you may know, have a lot of non-black characters in them. And did they say they didn’t care about the non-black characters, simply because they were of a different race? No, you silly people, because you shouldn’t need a character to be of the same race as you to relate! In fact, if you do need a character to be of the same race, gender, sexuality, body type, blood type, hair color, and nationality as you to relate, then you are a terrible person.

“Ah, but wait,” they say. “What about the children? Surely small children need superheroes and other role models that look like them, so they can look up to those characters and be inspired by their actions, so they may someday follow in their footsteps and achieve great things, just like their favorite childhood characters!”

This is such a stupid argument that I’m literally going to use cartoon characters to show how wrong it is.

Take a look at the most beloved childhood heroes of the 1980s, in all their reptilian glory:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1987 series
I bet you’re humming the theme song right now.

That’s right, my friends and loved ones. Everyone’s favorite childhood hero of the era was a goddamn turtle.

It wasn’t a white person. It wasn’t a black person. It wasn’t a Laotian, or a Peruvian, or an Uzbek, or a Greek. It was a goddamn turtle. And you know why? Because humans are capable of boundless empathy, you ignorant weirdos!

This is why this is so infuriating to me. All these “we need more characters of Ethnicity X so people of Ethnicity X can relate” people are saying we need diversity because they lack the empathy to care equally about other people. And not only do they not care, but they want to infect their children with the same failure of human compassion so their children won’t care equally about other racial groups either. They think it’s because their kids are incapable of being inspired by a hero of a different racial group, but their kids already have the capacity to be inspired by a goddamn turtle. They don’t even need to be the same species, much less the same skin color, and that is a beautiful thing that should not be ruined!

I mean, have you seen Beauty and the Beast? The movie with characters who were candlesticks and teapots?!? Or an ottoman?! Did you care any less about them because they “didn’t look like you?” Well, your kids sure didn’t! So why should you?

And has anyone seen The Secret of NIMH? That movie about a single mother who’s just trying her best to raise her children after the death of her husband? Because that is a really goddamn good movie for kids, and kids aren’t even single mothers! Do they need to be single mothers to relate to a character who is also a single mother? No, of course not! Oh, and did I mention the main character is also a mouse?! No? Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot! And you know why? Because it doesn’t matter! People should be capable of caring about other people, especially if they don’t look like them, because that is objectively better than only caring about people who look like you!

And this actually gets to the crux of the argument for why diversity in media is actually a good thing, because it’s clearly not for the “we should encourage children to care only for their own racial group” nonsense. The reason we should encourage diversity in media is because it encourages people of one group to care about other people from a different group. You know, empathy? Which is the root of literally all morally commendable behavior in the history of human civilization?!?

That’s why we need diversity in media. Because when you have a movie like Slumdog Millionaire, or Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Gods Must Be Crazy––a well-written movie, with well-written characters––you can actually get people to care about other people, who aren’t like them at all.

At least, not on the outside. Because it’s not what’s on the outside that matters. Remember that? From kindergarten? It’s a good life lesson. One you might want to teach your kids.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch Shaolin Soccer, which is a goddamn gift from heaven. I suggest you do the same.

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