In Defense of Arbitrary Diversity

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:

So what?

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.

I feel this way, quite simply, because of the following video:

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.

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138 Responses to “In Defense of Arbitrary Diversity”

  1. Hardtruth says:

    Your argument relies upon the assumption that video games are art, which is a whole different kettle of fish. Video games can be used to portray a story, and they can have quality artists, but I’d still struggle to admit that video games are art; in a sense they’re more akin to galleries, collections of art arranged for a particular effect, but with a meta-message that often goes far over the intended audience’s heads.

    Regardless of the status of video games as an artistic form, I think that a video game writer (or even any writer in general) taking on the responsibility of changing the world reeks of the same sort of smug self-importance as hybrid car drivers. Sure, it is demonstrably better for the world, but the minute you get up on a soapbox or a blog and brag about it, others can take umbrage with your self-aggrandizing, ultimately doing your cause more harm than good.

    In short: while I personally don’t mind having a male character let slip that he has a husband or a female character doing vice-versa, it’s important that this “side-mission” of making the world a better place doesn’t interfere with the ultimate goal of the writer, telling a compelling story. A poorly handled case of arbitrary diversity can do as much damage to the cause as a well handled case of arbitrary diversity can do good.

    • MegaBadWolf says:

      Yes, but he’s not saying that every piece of art or pop culture needs to indulge in an Important Life Lesson (TM); he’s simply saying we should be more inclusive in our representation, because there are more people out there in the world besides straight white cis people. The representation that he specifically cites is very casual, and not a lecture in any way (“certain female characters mention their wives…certain male characters just happen to have several occasions to mention their boyfriends”). Even if the person’s non-white, non-straight, non-cis, and/or non-male experience is more at the forefront of the story, that doesn’t necessarily make the story any less compelling; it just means that the story may not instantly appeal to the very narrow demographic that people normally aim for. I guess the bottom line is, it’s probably time to stop treating straight-white-cis-men as the status quo, and everyone else as some kind of special interest group.

  2. Costa says:

    Entertaining this argument is perpetuating segregation. I don’t see a controversial rally cry for people with larger noses need better roles or “there isn’t enough brown eyed people.”

    If you wish to UNIFY, you must stop this whole argument of should we or should we not adjust standards to better fit a wider range of people. If someone decided to have everyone wear blue contacts should everyone with green eyes or brown eyes be offended they weren’t considered because of their eye color.

    Where are your handicap hero rally cries, your albino rally cries, your amputee rally cries, where is the ageism rally cries. Also, Since when was the individual expression of telling a story based on meeting a standard beyond that of the individual who wishes to tell a story.

    You want to write a diverse cast. Do it, but do it because you want to. There is no need to respond to the criticism of others saying you just did it because. However, if you did just do it because you thought it would make others happy its no better than doing it because others told someone they should see people differently. All your doing is saying “I am sympathetic towards those who are segregated.” If you wish to make a statement against society’s norms make one that says they shouldn’t matter by being an example of a person who doesn’t dictate their actions on the basis that it does.

    Its no different than the an atheist pushing a belief of no-belief unto others as a counter to the believers pushing theirs. You’re committing the same injustice you’ve identified. A person without a problem doesn’t focus on a problem that doesn’t exist for them. Positive or negative, it reinforces that we should see others differently based on things they have no control over and have limited, if any, bearing on their personality. Saying I love [insert race] people or I love [sexual preference] people is the same as saying I hate [insert race] people or I hate [sexual preference]. You are compartmentalizing a feeling/bias towards a person based on a label versus them as an individual.

    I want to add a gay person because hes gay because gay people don’t get enough attention and they should be treated as equal is saying “I am going to give someone special consideration.” Since when was special considerations a part of equality. It’s just a reward for being classed as a person who is something as a counter towards the punishment others served towards the same group for being who they are. It’s still says WE’RE DIFFERENT. When the truth is, the only not unique thing we can claim about people is that they are ALL individually unique.

    • Ael says:

      Thing is, that sort of “special treatment” is necessary if we’re ever going to achieve actual equality. The alternative is to do nothing and let imbalances and injustices continue. The status quo won’t change if we don’t make a big deal of diversity and inclusiveness. Yes, positive discrimination is still discrimination but increased social awareness and acceptance doesn’t happen on it’s own. In a perfect world, “arbitrary inclusion” of minority characters wouldn’t be necessary but that isn’t the world we live in. Positive actions must be taken to counteract the negative until we no longer have to. By your logic, Martin Luther King should have done nothing at all but hope that one day his dream of unity for blacks and white would magically come to fruition on its own.

      I also take issue with your comparisons of ethnic/sexual minority characters with amputees, the elderly, etc… Such characters with physical/mental impairments are obviously a lot more difficult to toss into the narrative of your average game, given the demands of the setting (unless we include the likes of Adam Jensen and his augmented prosthetic body). Most games are action focused and people with such handicaps would be hard pressed to meet the demands of such circumstances. Not to say there isn’t plenty of opportunity for their inclusion in other types of games; however, to compare race/sexuality, a feature more akin to eye colors as you mentioned, to physical/mental disabilities/abnormalities is a pretty ludicrous notion.

  3. Halie Fox says:

    I know this is probably really really late to be replying to this, but as a transgender female I completely agree with you. Life’s a bitch. I want one badass trans character that isn’t a total slut that i can relate to. Then again, I relate to Tiny Tina on a ridiculous amount of levels which is probably why I quote her way too often and just watched seasons 1-4 of HAWP. Excellent series. Loved all of it. Borderlands 2 is the shit. Saints Row is badass, glad you guys could be thrown into that world. Oh, and I added you and Ash on Steam. Oh, and for Ash… Titties.

  4. Marauscar says:

    I agree that it shouldn’t matter to randomly assign different ethnicities and sexual orientations to entertainment mediums, as long as it doesn’t break canon. I believe, however, it shouldn’t be used in a way that breaks canon. For example, Heimdall in the Thor movies. It seems they randomly picked a Norse god to be played my Elba for the sole purpose of having an ethnically diverse cast. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor. He kicked ass in Pacific Rim and The Losers. But it doesn’t work and is just distracting to have a black Norse deity. If they were to have made a few Spartans in 300 black, it would have been stupid and wouldn’t work. It would have been as bad as John Wayne as Genghis Kahn. I guess my argument boils down to this: If there’s a real person or accepted canon a game or movie is based on, it doesn’t add anything to the story and only serves to distract from the story.

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  6. Taigen says:

    I am rather of the opinion that problems with racism/sexism/*ism will not go away until we can ‘completely ignore’ it. That includes special treatment for either side. This sort of forced inclusion in every form of media can do more harm them good. I don’t happen to have any homosexual friends, not by any choice of mine but just because noone I have had the opportunity to associate with at that level has publically come forward. However in the media, tv/movies/and now even games whenever 7 or more people get in a room at least one of them is homosexual, often flamboyantly and stereotypically so. Its often their whole character, and thus it feels forced and arbitrary. It misrepresents them both in the frequency within the population and in attitude. This is more harm then good.

    • MegaBadWolf says:

      Forced inclusion isn’t really a thing; someone asking you to do something isn’t the same thing as someone forcing you to do something. Forced exclusion, however, is a real thing, when you have people steadfastly refusing to include (or producers explicitly telling you to leave out) PoC or LGBTQ characters with very flimsy excuses, like “it will detract from the story!” or “it will feel forced!” or even “it’s wrong!” Why? Why does someone’s race or their sexual preference detract from the story? Because they’re not white and straight? And how is an author supposed to decide what is and is not “distracting”? Some people will think it’s distracting to see two men kiss; others still will think it’s distracting to even have a hint of “other” (like, seriously, there are people saying you shouldn’t watch “Frozen” because Elsa, whose sexuality is never so much as hinted at, is “a clear allegory for homosexuality”). Where do people draw the line?

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