by Daniel Montgomery, Special to IWM$2.com
Diversity and representation have been hot topics in the geek community in recent years, thanks in part to recent comic-book characters like Miles Morales as “Spider-Man,” a female “Thor,” and an all-LGBT “Young Avengers” lineup, not to mention the harassment of feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian who dare to question the status quo. Gratefully, this year’s New York Comic Con provided platforms for discussions of this kind of inclusivity, including “#WeNeedDiverse,” “Geeks of Color,” “LGBT in Comics,” and “Geeks, Gaymers, and Crossplay.”
As a gay, mixed-race geek, I grew up at an intersection of cultural invisibility, where even my favorite pop culture entities – I came of age on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The X-Files,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in the 1990s – didn’t feature many characters I recognized. It must be said that “TNG” had a strong black presence in characters like Geordi, Guinan, and Worf, and even before Willow came out, “Buffy” was always at least partly an allegory for the gay experience. Nevertheless, those were the days when a chaste same-sex kiss still made entertainment headlines; cut to 2014, where network dramas like “How to Get Away with Murder” feature not just gay kisses but more matter-of-fact gay love scenes.
Representation matters, but even though characters like me were absent from much of pop culture, I don’t think I was fully conscious of it until I was an adult, when the multimedia revolution of Twitter, YouTube, and the like exposed me to diverse voices calling for diverse characters and themes, while other, less diverse voices complain about violations of “canon” whenever a minority actor is cast in previously white roles. If you follow entertainment closely enough, the need for greater gender, racial, and sexual diversity in our culture is self-evident.
According to Craig Anderson at the “#WeNeedDiverse” panel, “I always feel that comic books have been a little bit progressive … but the stereotypes were really rampant [in the earlier history of the medium].” He described the evolution of racial representation from abject stereotypes to the blaxploitation era, and finally to the superior examples in more modern comics. “So now we come to today,” said Anderson, “and it seemed like when we were putting together this panel of diversity in comic books, we would get a few good examples here, and then Marvel would go, ‘Oh yeah? You think you’ve got enough examples already?’ [and create even more diverse characters like Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, Sam Wilson as Captain America, and a female Thor] … I feel like we’ve definitely progressed. We have a long way left to go, though.”
Video games are where I tend to notice the problem the most, perhaps because, unlike a passive TV or film viewer, a game player is asked to actively participate as the protagonist. These days, I find it difficult to relate to the straight-male machismo and marginalized women of a large number of video-game worlds (I honestly can’t get through a “Grand Theft Auto”). Said Geeks Out president Joey Stern at the “Geeks, Gaymers, and Crossplay” panel, “If television marketed itself the way that games are now, you would see every ad that featured women in it would have them in the lowest of low-cut everything … there’s a lot of body focus when it comes to women.”
I gravitate instead to games like “Halo,” where the protagonist is most a cipher whom you can project any personality onto, or games with customizable lead characters like “Saints Row,” “Mass Effect,” and “Elder Scrolls”; if you want to play a video game as a black woman, for instance, you’ve got to do it yourself.
But even that isn’t enough, according to gay writer Rex Ogle, who made a very important point when he said, “With stuff like ‘The Sims’ or ‘Mass Effect,’ the fact that they allow those [gender and sexuality] choices is cool, but I think the actual progression is when they actually write queer characters into storylines, when they allow them to be playable characters.” It matters for underrepresented populations like the LGBT community and people of color to see themselves in the media they consume, but it’s just as important for straight, white, male gamers to see and accept that we exist too, and it’s easy for them not to if they can simply choose the default white-male Commander Shepard.
Part of bringing new perspectives into our media involves diversifying the privileged few who create that media. Said writer and artist Annie Mok at the “LGBT in Comics” panel, “How many creators are their who are women or [people of color] and who are trans? … That remains to me the way more important issue. Representation is definitely important, but the bigger issue is who’s getting paid, where’s the money going to.”
The “Geeks of Color” panel brought together several minority artists who are on the front lines of content-creation, but even when your foot is in the door, you may still be subject to greater scrutiny. According to author Daniel Jose Older, “I got called racist once because the bad guy in a story was white.”
But I suppose there’s no arguing with people like that. I think Ogle said it best: “Everyone should just be themselves. Fuck the assholes.”