The Complexity of Representation

It’s been announced over the past couple of weeks that a few Marvel characters are undergoing some major renovations. Thor, bastardized Norse god turned multi-billion dollar Avenger franchise, is being reintroduced into the Marvel comic universe as a woman, and a black man is taking up the mantel—or shield—of Captain America. This is a great step in the realm of comic book diversity. More women and more people of color in comics is a really great thing. However, with greater diversity comes greater responsibility. 

Firstly, I think it’s very dangerous to introduce diversity by injecting them into well-established and well-loved characters. Sure, doing so will in some way ensure that the newly diversified characters have readership and will be well-distributed, as there are die-hard Thor and Captain America fans stretching back to their inception in the 1960s and 1940s, respectively, who will continue reading the series with the refreshed character paradigms. However, it’s somewhat belittling to the struggles of real members of marginalized groups. In life, we can’t insert ourselves into the narrative of a well-established person, can we? I can’t decide today that I’d like to be Bill Gates and become him and gain all of the things that he has at his disposal. If comic book characters were to really reflect struggles faced by marginalized groups, they wouldn’t have that easy pass either.  

A better way of constructing diverse characters is to create diverse, richly-colored, struggle-laden, realistic, and original characters. To arbitrarily stick in a gay, female, or person of color into an established character for the sake of representation minimizes the struggles those people would otherwise have to overcome to reach that position of success or power. Omitting those struggles—be it homophobia, sexism, racism, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, etc.—opens the door for a swath of colorful, diverse tokens. Token characters are not representation, they’re caricatures.

As a writer, I create characters regularly. I often struggle with creating characters with points of diversity that I don’t share and fear that I am marginalizing their struggles by creating a caricature of a race, gender, or socioeconomic class. I can’t just insert diversity for the sake of it, because that’s disrespectful and, quite frankly, irrelevant. The sum and substance of one’s character cannot and does not boil down to how many marginalization markers one has. There is more to me than being trans, bisexual, or mentally ill. I’m far more diverse and complex than the sum of my parts.

However, with that said, it is still important when developing characters to keep in mind what effect those markers have on someone. To write a queer cast of characters in which everyone is always happy and no one wants for anything is just as misleading as a cast with the opposite problem. The most important thing is to find a balance, the way real people do, between all of the facets of a personality and to not let any one of the traits envelop the whole.

Diversity for the sake of diversity is bullshit. All people, regardless of what kind of people they are, are complex. Life is a struggle for everyone; fiction should reflect that for any kind of representation to be meaningful.


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