Diversity is about more than just representing different skin colors: it’s about representing experiences

Coco, Black Panther, and Crazy Rich Asians are hailed as the most successful recent “diverse” films. I’m here to note the irony that they are not diverse at all in the usual understanding of the word. The first is a movie set in Mexico with only Hispanics (specifically mestizaje Mexicans, ignoring the actual diversity in Mexico). The second is set in a fictional country in Africa with a primarily black cast (although there is diversity in the nationalities of the cast members). The third is set in Singapore among people of Chinese descent. There are only a few, if any, characters of ethnicities other than the one in focus. These movies are seen as “diverse” films because they add diversity to the entire slate of Hollywood fare, which has historically been overwhelmingly white.

Now that Hollywood is waking up to the fact that audiences like diversity, they like to inject diversity everywhere. They want to include “diversity” as a checklist item on all of their movies without trying to understand WHY diverse films are successful in the first place. This is similar to the heavy use of the “token black” or the “token gay” characters throughout much of the ’90s and early 2000s, and even today.

I don’t think audiences simply want to see their skin color represented on-screen. I think, rather, they want to see their experiences and perspectives represented on-screen. As a South Asian, I’ve watched plenty of movies with South Asian token characters. I’ve never liked these characters, not because of limited screen time or limited relevance to plot, but because of a lack of relatability. I’m looking for characters to relate to beyond simply the skin color. I don’t need characters who can be swapped out with someone from any ethnicity. I want characters for whom their ethnicity or race is a part of their identity.

That’s what Coco, Black Panther, and Crazy Rich Asians got right. These aren’t stories about people who just happen to be Mexican, or black, or East Asian. These are stories about Mexicans, black people, East Asians and their experiences as Mexicans, black, and East Asians.

When I see diversity in movies like the recent live-action Disney movies (CinderellaBeauty and the Beast), I don’t care for it, and it feels disingenuous. There is nothing about their diversity reflected in those characters. They happen to have a different skin color and they are treated no differently because of it. Which absolutely did not happen anywhere ever.

I understand that these films don’t want to exclude people from non-white backgrounds in the name of historical accuracy and they feel that Fantasy films give them more leeway for artistic liberties with respect to casting. But in doing so, I think they are sanitizing history, pretending racism wasn’t a real thing.

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I had written about this topic. There, I talked about how people want the current reality to be “post-racial” and so they want to portray their media, even those set in the past, as “post-racial”.

Another problem with simply swapping out a character that could have been white with a character of color is that this character still remains white on the inside. I wrote about this in response to an Indian toothfairy in the Guardians of Childhood book series (on which Dreamwork’s The Rise of the Guardians is based). By making the tooth fairy Indian, the author is ignoring Indian legends about what happens to teeth when it falls out and replacing it with the Western legends. So the price of being represented in Western media is having our culture replaced with a Western one? (You can argue that Indian American children likely believe in the toothfairy and maybe children in South Asia also do due to rise of global media. But it is still the case that one heritage is pushing out another one.)

When studios today are creating a Fantasy story set in the past (CinderellaBeauty and the Beast), or Fantasy stories with ancient immortal characters (Rise of the Guardians), they are trying to appeal to the modern American audience. That’s why they try to sanitize the past to reflect the values of today and they try to be inclusive of the non-white audience who are not reflected in Western legends and fairy-tales. But trying to fit these non-white characters into Western legends don’t work as well and seem disingenuous (at least to me). That’s probably why Disney has now decided to focus on remaking those stories that are set in other parts of the world (Mulan, Aladdin), but the representation of those legends is through an American lens and not their own…that’s a whole other can of worms.

I do honestly think that if the media really wants to tell diverse stories, it should focus on telling the stories of different peoples that reflects their actual experiences, and not the idealized experience you wish they had. And if you do want to dream about idealized experiences, then stop sanitizing the past and instead start looking towards a hopeful future.

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