Pardon me while I talk about zombies again.
I’ve had several variations on the same conversation recently–re: diversity and inclusion in fiction–and I feel like the next step in working through my thoughts is to put them to writing. (If you’re among the people with whom I’ve had this conversation–and to be fair, if you’re reading this, you probably are–well…here we go again.)
The catalyst for these recent conversations was this tweet by The New Yorker‘s TV critic, Emily Nussbaum:
Now, I haven’t seen Killing Eve and I could be taking this concept in a slightly different direction than she intended (the woman has a Pulitzer, after all, and I’m over here all trying to earn my Junior Critic’s Art Awareness badge), but “baked-in inclusivity” seems to be a great way of expressing a thing I’ve been trying to articulate for a while: namely, as she put it, including underrepresented characters without making diversity an “explicit factor.”
This is a thing that I tried to express while chatting with Thing 1 and Thing 2 about Zombies, Run! on their podcast. (There are other examples of this, of course, but this one has become my go-to.) When I first got into that story of post-apocalyptic England (back in early 2013, mind), one of the things that struck me was not that a main character is gay, but that we jump right into a rather heart-wrenching story about her and her lover without ever even doffing a cap to the “revelation” of a non-heterosexual character. Here’s Maxine, an American doctor and vital member of the team. Ten episodes later, here’s a recording of Maxine’s girlfriend’s (possible) final moments. This is going to sting a bit. Zombies detected, moving on.
Obviously, there’s long been a push for more diversity in storytelling, and I’m all for that. But what I realized with the Maxine experience (and then going back and taking note of what a range of genders, ethnicities and other human experiences are represented in ZR–something I hadn’t been conscious of at first because, again, they don’t stop to point it out) was that I’m accustomed to a level of self-consciousness accompanying diverse storytelling. As I said on the podcast, a non-heterosexual (or non-male, or non-white, etc.) character usually comes with some kind of doff of the cap, or self-congratulatory pat on the back, or some other nudge-nudge, wink-wink acknowledgement of this “other” quality, all, “see what we did there?”
Or, as Nussbaum pinpointed much better than I could, an Asian (or gay, etc.) character’s inclusion is often made “explicit to the story.”
The result of that explicitness is that diverse storytelling tends to feel like a PSA, like an after-school special about diversity…
…which make diverse stories feel less like nuanced artwork and more like tedious homework through which the audience is educated about the experiences of these “other” people…
…which is to assume the audience requires this kind of explanation in order to accept the presence of these characters…
…which is to assume the story is speaking to an explicitly straight/white/cis/male audience…
…which is to assume that that straight/white/cis/male is the baseline for human existence.
When an explanation is used to justify the presence of non-white, non-straight, nonbinary characters, even diverse stories are still, to use a jingo-y verb, “othering” them.
That kind of self-consciousness bleeds through to the audience experience, I think. You can feel it. The implicit assumption is that straight/white/cis/male is the standard baseline, the “correct” or “normal” experience that’s reflected between audience and art. If you happen to be a person who deviates from that baseline, it’s great to see a character you can identify with, but you can still sense the character’s other-ness, and you still feel excluded. (I’m thinking back to the token tomboys in kids’ sports movies whose self-conscious backstory only underscored that I was an oddity. Of course the boys play sports; we need to explain why the girl is here.)
Yours are qualities that need explaining, that need justification. The “normal” characters just get to exist.
Thankfully, I think this kind of self-conscious inclusion is on the decline, and probably has been for a long while, especially in the better corners of the storytelling world. (In fact, let’s just acknowledge right now that the stuff that feels profound to me is very basic and old-hat to all of the folks who are smarter than I am. Plenty of people have had this shit figured out for a while now.)
That being said, my own slow epiphany tells me how vital it is to have these diverse stories charging forward without slowing down to explain themselves, to have this baked-in inclusivity. To have an apocalyptic landscape where female soldiers lead the way while sensitive young men tell you about their feelings, with a stable of athletes of all genders and ages and backgrounds (as well as a one-legged, bisexual Canadian dude), with romantic storylines for gay doctors and straight runners and trans scientists and a family with two moms and one dad, to have nonbinary heroes and pansexual foils, where the whole point of everything is really just to stick together and avoid being eaten by zombies.