I’ve had a few conversations as of late about random things — Doctor Who, Borderlands, James Bond — that have all revolved around some version of the following argument/counterargument pair:
ARGUMENT: You know, it’d be great if more mainstream media had ethnically or sexually diverse casts.
COUNTERARGUMENT: Yes, that would be great, but one must not forget that one shouldn’t just throw in minorities for for no reason. Doctor Who/Borderlands/James Bond/whatever comes off phony when they arbitrarily start throwing minorities around just to show how progressive they are. It feels condescending and arbitrary.
I’d like to make an argument to the counterargument:
I’ve been told once or twice that the bisexual or gay characters I wrote for Borderlands 2 were arbitrary and forced. This is one hundred percent true. I did not have any particular stories to tell about human sexuality — I just randomly chose a few characters and decided that they weren’t heterosexual. I had no “reason” to do so other than the belief that a cast of sexually diverse characters is better than a sexually homogenous one.
Did it hurt the story? Maybe. Maybe it feels arbitrary that certain female characters mention their wives, or that certain male characters just happen to have several occasions to mention their boyfriends. I’d like to think that I knew this might have been a problem when I wrote the characters in the first place — that by making the cast more diverse and drawing attention to it, I’d be making the story worse.
On the upside, though — and this is going to sound tremendously arrogant, but stick with me for a few more paragraphs – while arbitrarily diverse casts might make the story worse, they make world better. Not the in-fiction world, either; I mean, you know, the world. The actual one. The one you and I are in. Real life.
Diversity is important not just so the groups you represent through characters can have someone to identify with (though that’s also pretty great), but also so the majority can see them in a positive light. It was important that black people could see Uhura and identify with her, but it was just as important that white people saw her as an equally talented, intelligent, important member of the crew. Pop culture is an incredibly ubiquitous and powerful tool that artists can use to shape their audience’s perception of the world in ways both bad (many parents think children are kidnapped and murdered with alarming frequency, when in reality your kid is more likely to be struck by lightning)* and good.
If you believe as I do that art can change the way people look at the world, then arbitrary diversity can only be a good thing (assuming the minority characters you write are positive and interesting in their own ways, of course, but that’s a different challenge). If a writer arbitrarily makes a particular character a transgender, homosexual woman rather than a cisgender, heterosexual man, and if that character has a positive effect on an audience’s perception of transgender women — no matter how small the effect — then that writer has made the world a slightly better place.
So what if it’s arbitrary? So what if you make your audience acknowledge that a character is black, or gay, or transgender? No one ever complains about the other 99.9% of media “forcing” heterosexual male whiteness down anyone’s throats, so why should a black Doctor Who be considered arbitrary and forced whereas another white Doctor wouldn’t be? Arguments like this imply that there are only two reasonable courses of action. One: make your story about meaningful diversity — build everything around the experiences of whatever minority group you’ve chosen and explore it fully. Two: don’t include any underrepresented groups and make all your characters “normal”, because to do otherwise would be distracting and forced.
To which I say: bullshit. I’d rather be arbitrary than maintain the status quo through inaction.
Now, non-arbitrary diversity is obviously way better than arbitrary diversity on the whole making-the-world-a-better-place front (I imagine it’s pretty hard to come away from Gone Home or Mainichi without a more coherent, specific, and empathetic view of lesbians and transgender women, respectively) , but Nichelle Nichols’ anecdote tells me that every little bit helps. Uhura’s role could have easily been filled by a white male — there’s nothing quintessentially black or feminine about the role she plays on the ship — but because it wasn’t, the world got a little bit better.
UPDATE: A few commenters have pointed out that Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel in space, specifically cited Uhura as a personal inspiration for her decision to become an astronaut. Which is cool.
*Commenter Blaze has pointed out this is false. My bad.