I've been thinking a lot about diversity in fiction recently. There's been a lot going on lately, what with Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice giving us non-gendered characters and picking up just about every award going, Ms Marvel getting praised for giving us a well-realised female Muslim teenager, and Thor causing outrage for daring to have a woman lift the hammer. But it was a thunderstorm a few weeks ago that finally started to crystallise my thoughts into an actual idea.
One argument that comes up again and again when the issue of diversity is raised is the question of numbers. If x percent of people are gay (or whatever), they say, then surely only x percent of fictional characters should be gay (or whatever). And if that percentage is particularly small, why then that would mean the majority of fiction wouldn't (and shouldn't) contain any characters who are gay (or whatever) at all! Too much diversity wouldn't be realistic, they argue.
Now clearly, this argument is bollocks. For one thing, the people who argue that, for example, transgendered characters should make up only a tiny percentage of the whole are suspiciously silent when it comes to the question of having more female characters. I mean, women make up half the population, so why aren't they arguing that half of all characters should be female? But there's more to it than that. I finally realised, during the storm, why it is that I'm in favour of a multitude of diverse characters regardless of their frequency in real life.
You see, Small Girl decided that the best response to this particular thunderstorm was to declare herself Storm from the X-Men, and run around pretending that every flash and bang was her fighting the baddies. Until that moment, I hadn't realised she even knew who Storm was. It turns out she's been playing superheroes with the boys at school, and they'd at some point given her the choice between being Storm or being Elsa from Frozen. And apparently she'd been in the mood to try something different, because she went with Storm. Whodathunk?
What struck me was not the fact that she'd been playing with the boys (that's always been pretty normal for Small Girl), nor the fact that she chose to be Storm, unexpected as that was. What really stood out for me was the idea that she'd been offered a choice. An actual, genuine choice between two characters, either of which would have something to offer in the fighting-the-baddies stakes. Not just "you can be Storm because you're a girl."
For me, this is key when it comes to diversity – the provision of choice. For Cis White Straight Male playing Avengers, there's Iron Man and Captain America and Thor and Hulk. For Cis White Straight Female, there's Black Widow and... well, that's it, unless you're happy playing the girlfriend or Maria Hill (who, admittedly, is gradually acquiring more things to do). And for Trans, or Non-White, or LGBTQ Person of Any Gender? Well, Non-White Male has the option of playing Nick Fury, but that's about it unless we expand out from Avengers to the whole of the Marvel Universe. And even that doesn't gain us anything in Trans, LGBTQ or Female characters.
Obviously I'm not suggesting that anyone should be restricted to only playing as characters from their own demographics. I have no issue with Small Girl playing at being Storm, after all, nor did the question of race stop her dressing up to play Doc McStuffins and give all her toys checkups the other day. But I do think there should be more variety out there, more choice for the kids in the playground, or the cosplayers at the conventions. Were I to cosplay, I wouldn't necessarily want to end up dressed as a male character, but neither would I want to be stuck as a leather-clad kung-fu chick, which is frequently the only option for female characters who aren't wives, mothers or girlfriends.
More characters means more choice. All of the "Mane Six" ponies in My Little Pony are female, and all are different. You can choose to be tough, or sporty, or glamorous, or bouncy (that makes them sound like Spice Girls, but the point remains). The ensemble in Agents of SHIELD has the requisite leather-clad kung-fu chick, but also the smart-mouthed hacker and the nervous scientist. The X-Men have a dizzying array of options, though there are still some gaps there, at least in the films.
I want more. Fiction gives us the opportunity to portray anything we can imagine. I want to be shown things I'd never even considered before. I want characters I can identify with, and I want to see what it's like to be somebody different. I want a full-on, glorious rainbow of possibilities to inspire me. Because it's not just about seeing ourselves in the characters on the screen, or between the pages. It's about seeing other people, and all the different things they might be. Like seeing a black teenager as something other than a threat, as just a kid who's walking in the road because the pavement is for squares.
I have more thoughts, because there are more arguments than just the question of numbers, but I'll marshall those in a separate post in a day or two. This one's gone on quite long enough.