Yesterday I went to a blog only to find yet another discussion about David Gabriel’s statement on declining sales of Marvel comics. For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, David Gabriel, Marvel’s senior vice president of print, sales, and marketing, in a March 31, 2017 interview on IC2V, attributed the sharp decline in sales to fans not wanting “diversity.” Mr. Gabriel’s comments were not well received, and he did a quick “correction,” but the backlash continues to reverberate among fans and those who find “diversity” by checklist a recipe for fiction that places message first and story second. It’s reached the point where yesterday’s post savaged an online magazine’s take on it, even though the article pretty much agreed with the post’s author. Ah, well. Like the incessant anti-Trump protests, reaction to Mr. Gabriel’s statement has taken on a life of its own while reason is off on a long vacation.
It does raise a question of what is diversity in fiction. What is realistic? We say we want realistic, but do we? This is a more thorny question that it seems. Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God told a story many did not want to hear. On the one hand were racists who could not accept the idea of an all-black community; on the other were leaders of the black community who didn’t think the story presented the image they wanted to convey. The end result was a realistic, diverse, novel was ignored for decades until it was interpreted as a feminist novel in the latter part of the 20th Century. In other words, it became acceptable diversity.
This is more prevalent that we might think. Vladimir Harkonnen, the malevolent villain of Dune, is a homosexual or bisexual. Could Dune be published as-is today, or would an editor be uncomfortable with that aspect in a villain? It’s not an idle question, and it raises another: If a character cannot be certain things or must be some things, can we honestly say fiction is more diverse than in the past? If fiction must adhere to a checklist, how can it be considered diverse? Isn’t it the Their Eyes Were Watching God episode all over again? Does approved diversity cross the line from story telling to propaganda? Isn’t propaganda ultimately message fiction, where the message comes first with the story second?
This, I think, is what turns off most of us readers when we read a story that seems written with a checklist in hand. We know where it’s going; know that certain people will be the heroes/heroines and certain others will be the villains/villainesses; and the message will be told with all the finesse of swatting flies with a sledge hammer. Worse, it simply creates a new stereotypes and panders to new bigotries.
True diversity is like real life. A person may be any race or gender, but that’s typically not the predominate issue. Imagine being saved by first responders: What would be your main concern? Would it be their race or gender or religion or what have you, or whether they can save your life? All the things that Social Justice Warriors dote upon become secondary to the problem at hand, and the same should be the case in fiction.
Does this mean that it never should have a bearing on the character? Of course not, just as it doesn’t in real life. But just as we are not defined only by our differences, neither should be a fictional character. One good example is Disney’s Zootopia, which used animated animals to safely explore issues that otherwise would be too controversial. Without all these differences, contrasted with the stereotypes all the characters believed consciously and unconsciously, the story simply would not work. But, the story came first. Sure, there were several messages in it, but the story was a mystery from start to finish. The messages remained secondary, and were all the more poignant for it.
This was once more or less understood, even at Marvel in the olden days when I read comic books. You can have all sorts of characters doing all sorts of things with all sorts of sub plots and all sorts of angst. You can examine most any issue to your heart’s content and make it as diverse as you please. But if the story doesn’t come first, what you end up is at best a sermon and at worst propaganda. Trying to bully readers or viewers to accept garbage because it’s the “right” message isn’t going to cut it.
How, then, do you do diversity “right?” That’s both easier and harder than it looks. Easier because usually all it takes is to mirror life; harder in that if we have something we want to say, any effort to shoehorn characters into it pushes the message to the forefront and dispels the suspension of disbelief. It’s trite to say that characters determine the story, and yet to a certain extent that’s exactly what happens, or should.
This is why checklist writing quickly goes stale. It’s essentially the same characters with different names behaving in similar manners. Repeat it more than twice and readers go “We got that; can we move on now?” Repeat it a few times more and readers find something else to do. It’s because checklist plots and characters tend to be formulaic and, in turn, tiresome.
Readers don’t want tiresome; they want entertainment. That means surprise. They want to see how these characters handle this situation in a believable (for the characters and the fictional world) manner. None of us want the modern equivalent of “the butler did it.”
If a character, hero or villain, can be any race, sex, politics, or creed, that’s a good step toward diversity. If they act consistent with their character, even more so. But if any writer or publisher says “that character must be/can’t be that” for any reason other than plot, then that’s not diversity. And blaming readers for not liking garbage isn’t going to work at all.