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Diversity in Storytelling: We’re Getting There

Posted by on September 20, 2012

Whilst I’m not as big of a consumer of various media these days as I have been in the past, I have noticed there being a trend in the sorts of stories I enjoy. I’m not sure exactly when it started or why, but diversity is a part of the equation. Is it because when there’s a diverse cast, I feel like the writer(s) have paid more attention to bringing interesting characters for me to follow? I don’t know.

Stand-up comedy

As a white girl who grew up in predominantly white schools, I didn’t really have a lot of exposure to other cultures. I suppose getting into stand-up comedy actually, in a way, paved the path for me to start learning about other cultures, such as watching Vietnamese-Australian comedians Hung Le and Anh Do (who were a couple of my early favourites).

Now that I live in Malaysia, watching stand-up comedy here from a huge diversity of races and mixed races is what teaches me about Malaysian culture more than anything else. It’s very rare to see a white comedian get on stage unless you’re attending a show featuring international comedians. In Malaysia I have seen Chinese, Indians, Malays, Filipinos, various Africans, Eurasians, and various mixes of Asian races. I like the diversity. I feel like I learn a lot from listening to them.

Television

The first TV show I really remember watching that had sexuality diversity amongst its core cast was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The second was Australian drama The Secret Life of Us. I know there were others like Will & Grace and Ellen around the same time period, but the point is, it wasn’t all that common back then. A show like Queer As Folk (which I also watched, and enjoyed), was probably marketed more toward the gay audience. Bisexuality was almost never discussed. No, usually, television treats any character who was once attracted to their opposite gender and later becomes attracted to their same-sex as switching sides. It doesn’t matter that Willow used to be very much in love with Oz (a male)… once she became involved with Tara, she suddenly turned into a lesbian. On The Secret Life of Us, Richie had been very much in love with Miranda, but shortly after a drunken encounter with his friend Simon, he began questioning himself, and later ended up gay. Whilst I do appreciate the use of gay characters in television, I don’t really like the erasure of their “straight” history, acting like their previous relationships didn’t mean anything.

I am friends with an assortment of people of varying sexualities. It matters to me to see them represented.

Another thing I liked about The Secret Life of Us is the fact that one of the major characters was Aboriginal – something that, as far as I know, is still rare on Australian TV. And Kelly was one of the most interesting and relatable characters on the show. I loved watching her.

Those aforementioned shows are from about a decade ago now, though, so how are things going today?

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I am finding that the shows I do watch are better at at least trying to represent a diverse population. I’ve heard of people badmouthing Hawaii Five-O for having its two leads as white men, suggesting that it doesn’t represent Hawaii’s culture so well, but I think that’s a flaw with the way the US thinks Americans need to see the “white male” in the lead. Besides, I follow Oil in the Alley, who are an improv rock group based in Hawaii, and they’re white men. To the show’s credit, and one of the things I do love about it, is that they also have Asian supporting leads, and native Hawaiians who feature in the show. I was super excited when earlier this year I spotted a Hawaiian improviser I had met and done a workshop with appear on the show.

Lost, again, whilst still having the lead characters as white people, still also cast Asian and black characters. The Korean couple on the show were amongst my favourites, so of course seeing the male actor from that on Hawaii Five-O is awesome for me.

I don’t recall any sexuality diversity in those shows, though, so I’m going to talk about Glee, The Glee Project, and to a lesser extent, Smash. Is it a product of musical theatre that brings about the ability to have gay people and gay characters? I’m not sure.

Smash‘s sexuality diversity is limited to a gay lead, and his relationships with a couple of men. The racial diversity is on the slim side too, with only one black actor that I recall, in a minor supporting role. Glee is a lot better, with not only multiple gay characters, Asian characters, black characters, and a Latino, but also includes a kid in a wheelchair, and a character who is probably bisexual, though it’s never explicitly discussed. Now, they don’t always get it right. I was saddened in season 3 when some of my favourite “minority” characters started getting less of the spotlight, but at least they still try. And they tackle some of the tough issues, too, like gay bashing leading to attempted suicide (one of the most powerful episodes I watched in season 3).

I’m currently in the midst of watching season 2 of The Glee Project, and with that, they had the best minority casting yet. I don’t think I’ve seen any other show include all of the following: A trans person, a blind person (who is also black), a person in a wheelchair, a Muslim, and someone with ADD. Even though most of those people have already left the show now, they have been the most interesting people for me to watch.

Because really, how much easier is it to teach kids that they can grow up and be anything they want when the TV actually shows that to be true? And what about teaching people that no matter what our background, we are all, essentially, the same? We all have fears, and goals. Strengths and weaknesses. We might look different or believe different things, but our similarities should overpower that. Focus first on what makes us the same, then learn about what makes us different, and the important third point, don’t let the differences alter your opinion of their worth as a person.


Where this leads, in crowdfunding

Since shows like Glee are still few and far between, and Hollywood kind of ignores the fact there might actually be some demand for these diverse characters, it is time that we turn to other places to find these stories.

Recently I pledged to support Retcon on Indiegogo, an upcoming web series with a female Japanese lead. Check out their page, they’re still accepting donations. They describe it as a cross between Bridget Jones’s Diary and Alias.

Edited 26th Sept: Today I also came across a couple of other projects on Indiegogo which also fit the bill of what I’ve been looking for, so I wanted to add them here while their campaigns are still open to funding, in the hope of promoting them as well.

The Flight is a lesbian steampunk short film, and Whispers of Life is a magical realism short film highlighting the gay suicide issue. Both of these films have contributor levels that will allow you to see the finished product.

In the past, I’ve also supported:
* The Right to Love: An American Family, a documentary on the value of marriage equality;
* Mist of the Perfume River:Vietnam’s lost Artist, a documentary about comedian Hung Le’s father, who was a famous artist in Vietnam before the Vietnam War; and
* My Life in China, a documentary about the filmmaker’s father’s journey through China to make a better home for his family in the US.


How I’ve approached diversity in my own creative endeavours

I don’t feel like it’s enough for me to just consume this media. Just because I’m a white woman doesn’t mean I have to stick to stereotypical white woman stories. However, branching out in diversity is something that’s only slowly been growing on me in recent years.

Before I left Australia, I co-wrote a one act play with my friend Ellen Jurik, and I think this was probably my first major step in that direction. We had four characters, and they were all gay or bisexual (though one claimed to be straight, because it does seem to be harder for bisexual men to be accepted for what they are). It was performed during Dramafest, and though the judge(s) didn’t seem to appreciate it, it still holds a happy place in my heart. I really liked what we created.

Since then my diversity writing has come out most often in short film screenplays I’ve written but not filmed, more often in racial diversity due to having moved to Malaysia and met a lot more different Asians than I ever knew back home.

My novel, Adrift, extends on both of these experiences. I don’t have any gay or bisexual men, but I do have lesbian and bisexual women. The racial diversity is also quite vast, with a few Chinese Malaysian characters, a Korean woman, an African American, and an African from the Igbo tribe, which I created myself. In addition to those, I have borrowed a couple of characters from my editor, Jeremiah Murphy, one of which is from a Mexican background, and the other is half-Japanese, half-white. Each of these characters has a varying level of importance.

Though all of my lead characters are white, very early on the story evolved to the protagonist not being straight, and in any case, I still see people complaining about the lack of quality female protagonists.

In the future I would like to add even more diversity to my lead characters. I’m not perfect at it either, but I am trying, and that’s better than nothing. The world is far too interesting to whitewash it with stereotypes and generalisations from the Western world.

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Dominica has a strong interest in exploring diversity in media, seeing people subverting corporate control of creativity through crowdfunding and indie publishing, and spending as much time as she can travelling the world and discovering culture. This is what she most regularly blogs about. In her spare time, Dominica is primarily focused on long-form improv theatre, and writing and publishing speculative fiction. You can find links to some of her free and published stories and screenplays on her writing page, or check out her pirate time-travel novel Adrift. Though born and raised in Australia to American parents, Dominica lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2008-2014, until she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She also has a background in web programming, filmmaking, and stand-up comedy. For more information, check out her about page, or any of the specific pages about her various creative pursuits in the links at the top of the page.

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