A Little Reminder
You can say you ‘support diverse storytelling’ all you want, but if you ALSO say it’s ‘not bigotry’ to actively prefer white actors to BIPOC or LGBTQ ones?? Guess what: you DON’T support diverse storytelling!
C’mon, this is basic. Sigh.
Another week, yet another casting controversy … This time, it’s about Cleopatra being cast as a black actor in the upcoming Netflix drama in May. If you’re yet to catch up, here are just some of the various takes:
- VARIETY: ‘Queen Cleopatra Director Slams Criticism of Casting Black Cleopatra
- THE SPECTATOR: Why is Netflix Pretending That Cleopatra Was Black?
- ITVX: Netflix Casting Cleopatra As Black Ruler With African Heritage Sparks Outrage In Egypt
Even if Cleopatra was white as THIS ARTICLE insists, it’s important to remember ‘black washing’ is NOT a thing. There have been countless depictions of Cleopatra as white, so why all the outrage over just one that differs??
If ‘disrespect’ is the concern, then as Queen Cleopatra director Tina Gharavi points out, there was apparently NO outrage in Egypt when HBO’s 2005 series Rome depicted her as a drug addict!
Considering ‘disrespect’ further as a motive, we should also consider how Cleopatra has long been reduced to her – let’s just say – ‘feminine wiles’.
The tweet thread below pokes fun, but it’s an important point: powerful women in history have been erased as standard. When their legacy refuses to bow down to patriarchy, they are frequently reduced to mere eye candy. Powerful women are always considered ‘lesser than’ or castigated more for the same mistakes as male rulers. (Click the pic to read the whole thing).
Again, we see very little active pushback against this long-held view of Cleopatra. (Obviously there is nothing wrong with being female, being attractive or having sex appeal/liking sex – but patriarchy uses these as sticks to beat us with, NOT compliments).
Flakerati Clapbacks Through The Ages
But okay, okay – the people who say the shit I mention at the beginning of this blog post probably won’t read the whole thing*. That’s okay. (*And of course if they do, it’s usually to play Dudeflake Bingo™ in the comments section. Needless to say, I can’t be bothered with that nonsense).
For those of you who DO actually care about diverse storytelling, strap yourselves in. Ready? Let’s go …
It’s been 5-6 years since I wrote B2W’s diverse characters book and as ever, I’m seeing shifts in how actual bigots express themselves on this topic. Let’s check them out.
i) The last 40 years up to 2019 (approx)
Before approximately 2020, such Dudeflakes – and their patriarchal princess sympathisers – flat outright rejected diverse leads. Apparently, it was ‘pointless’ & a ‘gimmick’ because diversity should apparently ‘only’ power the PLOT in movies, TV and novels.
Of course, this approach meant that white, straight, able-bodied male characters became the default! Oops.
These white, straight, able-bodied male characters became ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ characters … Whereas everyone else – women and LGBTQ, BIPOC and disabled people became symbolic of ‘issues’. This was because we typically saw …
- Female leads is so-called ‘female’ stories about stuff like periods, childbirth, r*pe etc
- LGBTQ leads in coming out or transition stories
- Black and Asian characters in stories overtly about race or religion, such as slavery or terrorism
- Disabled leads in so-called ‘inspiration porn’ stories about dealing with their disability
However, as diverse leads became more prominent, viewers and readers began to respond.
It turns out target audiences DO want to see women, LGBTQ, BIPOC and disabled leads whose supposed ‘difference’ had absolutely nothing to do with plot. Fancy that!
ii) 2019 – 2021: ‘Go woke, go broke’? Hahaha good luck with that
With audiences responding to diverse leads then, we saw a sea change between 2019 – 2021 in how bigots responded. This was principally by insisting diverse properties made no money. This was summed in the phrase ‘go woke, go broke’.
Though this phrase existed online before 2019, it was consigned to the darkest crank corners of the internet. 2019 brought all the trolls out from under their virtual bridges and you saw it EVERYWHERE all of a sudden. (I suspect this was because of Marvel’s very first female protagonist, Captain Marvel).
Sadly for the Flakerati, this tactic didn’t work out too well for them. With audiences and readers getting behind diverse properties, it was proved that so-called ‘woke’ properties DID make money.
Hell, many diverse blockbusters in particular – like Captain Marvel, in fact – made over a BILLION at the box office!
Despite their best efforts, even the ‘go woke, go broke’ crowd couldn’t argue with this because it happened waaaaaaaay too many times. In short, they looked effin’ stupid. This means I’ve noted in the last year or so, only the most hardcore bigots are still parroting the ‘go woke, go broke’ line.
As any savvy Banger knows, the industry is NOT a patron of the arts. The money moguls don’t want marginalised characters for social justice reasons, any more than they bankroll other stuff simply for the fun of it.
In short, the industry is called show BUSINESS for a reason. As long as diverse leads are popular and make $$$, they will remain in novels, movies and TV. That’s just a fact (and why progressives should seek out such properties wherever possible. Stick it to the Dudeflakes!!!).
3) ‘I’m ALLOWED to prefer white actors! WAAAAAH!’
So, with ‘go woke, go broke’ an obvious failure, the anti-diversity crowd changed their tactics again.
Now they tend to say, ‘OBVIOUSLY I support diversity in film and television but I’m ALLOWED to prefer white/straight actors! I’m not a bigot! WAAAH!’
First things first, if your favourite character is white, that does NOT automatically mean you’re a bigot. Some of my favourite characters are white. I’ve also written white characters and I’m white myself. So wind yer neck in.
But note the Flakerati’s phrasing: they want white actors to play their favourite characters. A subtle, but crucial difference. These are the ones who say shit like …
- The Little Mermaid ‘can’t’ be black because it’s ‘not accurate’
- That David Copperfield ‘shouldn’t’ be played by Dev Patel
- That gender-flipping protagonists from male to female ‘denies boys role models and drives them to crime’ (!!!)
Aaaand plenty more where the above comes from. It seems like barely a week goes by without a casting controversy.
When they don’t get their way then, they throw down. These are also the types that now say white and straight characters ‘need’ more representation because they are now in short supply.
LGBTQ Invasion?? Hardly
Yup, you read that right … Apparently diverse storytelling has gone ‘too far’ and white, straight characters are in short supply! (Ooooh, the mirth).
Of course, this claim doesn’t stand up to even the vaguest of scrutiny.
The GLAAD organisation releases its report on LGBTQ characters every February. Last year, of 775 series regular characters scheduled to appear on scripted broadcast primetime programming for the 2021-2022 season, 92 characters (that’s 11.9 percent) were LGBTQ.
That means – for any maths-challenged Flakes – approximately 88% of characters were NOT LGBTQ.
In 2021, GLAAD also reports 1 in 5 studio films had an LGBTQ character. Whilst an improvement on days gone by when representation was typically zero, that still means 4 out of 5 studio films do NOT have one. That’s a huge majority again.
For the uninitiated, BIPOC stands for ‘Black, Indigenous, People of Colour’. Feedback from BIPOC Bangers tell me they largely prefer this acronym to ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) when talking about groups of characters or writers who are not white.
In the post-BLM protests era, there has been some inevitable gains for black characters. This is because agents, producers and filmmakers have made some effort to correct systemic bias towards both black characters and black writers. (Whether this has been a) good enough and b) ‘enough’ black characters are written by black writers is a topic for another time).
Somewhat inevitably, other groups – such as East Asian and South Asian representations – are lagging behind, according to Variety.
As ever, diversity in film and TV falls victim to the either/or mentality. The industry has a long history of concentrating on one group at the expense of another, rather ensuring it is intersectional. (Don’t know what intersectional means? CLICK HERE).
The Highlander Effect: ‘There Can Be Only One!’
Despite the gains – not to mention the inevitable oversights and general bullshittery – there has been some progress.
We appear to be moving away from what B2W calls The Highlander Effect – ‘There can be only one!’ – when it comes to any nod towards diverse storytelling.
In the past, it was common in action thrillers to see a differentiated cast of white, straight, able-bodied male characters and just ONE female member for example.
Sometimes there would be a single BIPOC character in the group (who would almost always perform the ‘comic relief’ or Jester function, by the way. Like many role functions, tropes and archetypes, it’s not a problem by itself … Instead it’s about a) what the writer does with it and b) who gets cast in them as standard).
In horrors and thrillers before the noughties, the black member of the group would frequently die first. Thankfully this trope more or less died off around the year 2000 thanks to various parodies like the Scream franchise.
In other genres – such as romantic comedy – there would be a single LGBTQ character (usually a white, gay male).
Two or more diverse characters
When two LGBTQ characters appeared, they’d often be separated by death via a toxic trope known as ‘Bury Your Gays’. This is thankfully VERY unpopular in the 2020s with audiences and writers have finally got the memo.
In the past, when there was a BIPOC-majority cast and one white member, typically the latter will be the protagonist. This is a trope known as ‘white saviour’. Again, this is now deeply unpopular with audiences and writers have more or less adjusted accordingly, even when the source material WAS a white saviour piece.
Sadly, disability is still shockingly absent from diverse storytelling as standard
That said, there is some great work being done by screenwriters such as Jack Thorne in spotlighting this.
I’ve also noted that screenwriters who DO write about disability are moving away from ‘typical’, ableist tropes such as the suicidal wheelchair user.
Screenwriters are also exploring a greater variety of disabilities, such as deafness and autism, as well as mental health problems like anxiety, psychosis and bipolar disorder.
Also, for the first time ever, this year the Oscar-qualifying Tribeca festival reported 68% of its selected films were by female filmmakers. These were not just white either, but BIPOC filmmakers too. CLICK HERE to read more.
Want a go at diverse storytelling yourself?
But if you’re writing characters UNlike yourself, this means doing your research PROPERLY. So read about the communities, issues, problems etc … but do it WIDELY.
One of the biggest mistakes I see when writers attempt diverse characters is they rely on ONE person they know to ‘inform’ their character. Whilst this can be a great start, people are not a monolith.
So do webinars, read nonfiction, discover which tropes are unpopular or toxic, find conversations on social media about most-loved/hated diverse characters, watch old movies and TV (and figure what they did right AND wrong) and so on.
In other words, engage thoughtfully and critically and you can’t go wrong! (Yes, people may hate your character anyway and may accuse you unfairly, but guess what … they may do this anyway with your characters who ARE just like you! There’s always someone online ready to point the finger at writers, no matter what we do).
For more on this topic, check out the B2W book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, Film Or TV.