Whenever we discuss representation and diversity, something strange happens. Someone inevitably shows up to claim that the problem isn’t because of subconscious bias, cultural inertia, or overt bigotry: it’s because storytellers are afraid activists will yell at them.
This gets expressed in many ways, but my personal favorite is the so-called Galbrush Paradox, which is literally an angry YouTube comment that some people pass around as cherished wisdom. It posits – based on nothing – that Monkey Island protagonist Guybrush Threepwood* could never be a girl on account of how he starts at the bottom and has to work his way up to being a skilled pirate.
If you can get past how badly this rant misrepresents the Monkey Island games,* it’s a convenient microcosm of all similar sentiments. The logic goes that because activists’ standards are so high, they’ll attack the creators of any marginalized characters who aren’t perfect. Therefore, it’s really the activists who are at fault for a lack of diversity in fiction. Checkmate! The original rant was talking about women in video games, but you can easily find people making the same argument for any type of marginalized character in any medium.
Is it true? No, not at all.
History Shows Representation Is Getting Better, Not Worse
The most obvious way to disprove the Galbrush Paradox is with a glance at the history books. If modern activism is the reason we have so little diversity in western fiction, then any time before modern activism should be absolutely jam-packed with cosmopolitan casts. To what I’m sure is everyone’s surprise, this isn’t the case!
To be clear, there have always been marginalized characters in western fiction, be they heroes, villains, or comic relief. Some were written by marginalized authors, some by more privileged creators. But for the Galbrush Paradox to be true, there would have to be more diversity in the past, since there was a lot less activism back then. Why, the 1800s must have been an absolutely golden time for diverse stories. Back then, no one cared what you said about women, Jews, or Black people. Even if they did, all tweets had to be sent via telegram, so writers were well insulated from their critics.
And yet, 19th-century books and plays are lean pickings if you’re looking for any variety in gender, race, or sexuality. Unless you were looking for blackface, of course. That was pretty much everywhere. It’s almost like something other than a lack of feminist critique videos on YouTube was responsible.
The difference should be even more stark in the latter half of the 20th century. That time saw numerous pushes for civil rights, gender equality, religious acceptance, and every other social cause you can think of. With progressive ideals on the rise, we should have seen a storm of diverse stories until a hard crash in the late ’90s or early ’00s, when internet connections became more common. In fact, The Secret of Monkey Island came out in 1990, well before those rude activists could easily tell the developers how imperfect their female characters were. So… by the paradox’s logic, shouldn’t it have been Galbrush Threepwood from the start?
Stories are getting more diverse as time goes on, not less. It’s a flawed, halting process, and every fragile inch has to be fought for, but it is happening. Be it YA novels or Hollywood films, fictional diversity is better now than it has ever been. That’s because activists have pushed to make it happen. They made space for marginalized authors to publish their own stories while also making privileged authors realize the importance of representation. To blame these same activists for our remaining problems would be funny if it weren’t so obviously in bad faith.
Removing Privilege Reveals Bad Characters
Guybrush Threepwood is a particularly bizarre character for reactionaries to use as their standard, as he could be a she and most players would barely notice. Instead of an initially unskilled boy who works his way up the pirate ladder, we’d have an initially unskilled girl who works her way up the pirate ladder. Stories like this get published every day, and no one bats an eye.
However, there are two character types that can’t easily be given marginalized traits: the mediocre hero and the over-candied hero. The first is simply too flawed, incapable, or pathetic to make a good protagonist, while the second is a hero who’s just so cool you can’t stand them. Such characters are overwhelmingly white, male, straight, and cis, well beyond the normal prevalence of such traits in fiction.
When we critique these characters, especially if we mention their privileged status, we inevitably see comments about how such characters just have to be that way, since people will get mad otherwise. There is a tiny grain of truth here, but it’s not because the standards for marginalized characters are too high; it’s because the standards for privileged characters are too low.* Being either mediocre or over-candied makes a protagonist far less engaging, to the point that only intense privilege can keep them afloat with the audience.
Consider Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, from Chris’s post on mediocre white men. Scott has no reason to be the main character of his movie. He’s not emotionally connected to the villain and he has no skills that can help him as a shrinking superhero. He doesn’t even have much of a motivation, since for most of the movie, being Ant-Man just makes it more likely that he’ll go back to jail and be unable to see his daughter.
For the opposite extreme, we have Babylon Five’s John Sheridan. Sheridan is the galaxy’s greatest tactician and a beloved war hero, and he’s always right. The show has multiple episodes that set up another main character doubting Sheridan just so Sheridan can be proved right in the end. Often, the writers have to bend the plot in unlikely directions to justify Sheridan being correct. We even have a funeral sequence where the other characters think Sheridan is dead and gush about how cool he is, which is probably the ultimate sign of an over-candied character.
Both of these characters remain beloved because the standards for them are so much lower than for other characters. On some level, most authors know this and are far less likely to write women or characters of color the same way. In the rare instances where they do it anyway, such characters immediately crash and burn. Voyager’s Captain Janeway is over-candied in exactly the same way Sheridan is, right down to the gushing funeral, and she’s widely ridiculed for it. From the same show, Commander Chakotay is a rare example of a non-white character with problems similar to Scott’s. Chakotay has few, if any, skills that another character can’t do better, and his motivation is either nonexistent or tied up in the writers’ poor understanding of Native American culture. Naturally, you can’t swing a phaser without hitting a critique essay about how bland and boring he is.
The takeaway isn’t that we need more marginalized heroes who are mediocre or over-candied; it’s that we need to stop depending on privilege to shore up weak characters. If enough authors make that choice, we might just get audiences to give up some of their double standards. From a more self-serving angle, authors who continue to rely on privilege may find themselves high and dry if expectations change anyway.
Context Matters to Representation
Once we get past bad-faith arguments like the Galbrush Paradox, there are actually a few instances where advocates have asked privileged writers not to use marginalized characters, or at least to exercise caution, because the alternatives are worse. It all depends on context.
In many cases, privileged heroes can easily be swapped out for marginalized ones. This is especially true in high fantasy and far-future scifi. Those stories take place in worlds completely different from our own, and authors have nearly unlimited freedom in crafting their social contexts. There’s no particular reason The Expanse’s Jim Holden or Wheel of Time’s Rand al’Thor need to be white. They could easily be characters of color without changing the story at all, and Rand is only locked into being a dude because of WoT’s badly gendered magic system. Likewise, Monkey Island’s pirate world is so heavily stylized that it’s basically fantasy, even before the ghosts show up. We could change Guybrush’s gender, race, ability, and so much more before we ever hit a problem.
However, this isn’t always the case, particularly in stories that take place in the real world. You couldn’t make Steve Rogers a Japanese American woman in Captain America: The First Avenger without serious changes to the story, on account of the anti-Japanese hysteria and rampant sexism that were all the rage in 1942 America. Of course, you could still write a story in which a Japanese American woman gets injected with supersoldier serum and punches Nazis, but it would be a very different movie. Heck, it’s highly debatable to what extent billionaire playboy Tony Stark could be Black, given that racism is still very much all the rage.
Finally, we have characters that are difficult or impossible to write well because of stereotypes. In reality, Black people get angry exactly the same way everyone else does, but the Angry Black Person stereotype is powerful, and it motivates discrimination every day. For that reason, non-Black authors need to be extremely careful about writing a Black character with anger issues, even though that could be a perfectly good arc in a vacuum.
Likewise, while Jewish and queer villains* aren’t inherently a problem, they shouldn’t prey on children. Both antisemitic and queerphobic stereotypes portray their subjects as dangerous to (Christian and straight) children, and such false beliefs are more than capable of fomenting violence. Authors who don’t keep this in mind are playing with fire, and it’ll probably be someone else who gets burned.
So there are situations where activism can restrict a character’s identity, but that’s because the alternative is worse. It’s better to write a straight, gentile villain than to perpetuate queerphobic and antisemitic tropes. The Captain America example is more complicated, as there is a lot of debate over the question of erasing bigotry in historical fiction, particularly around shows like Bridgerton that pitch themselves as feel-good fantasy. If Steve Rogers were instead Chizuko Shinagawa, should Captain America have to confront anti-Japanese racism and misogyny, or would it be better to imagine a world without them?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that authors must at least be aware of the debate. If that awareness leads to some hesitancy, it’s still better than authors plowing into dangerous waters with no idea of what they’re doing.
What Really Prevents Diverse Casts
So if it’s not social justice advocacy that’s behind a lack of diverse characters, what is causing it? Lots of things, and they all come back to prejudice and bigotry, much of it unconscious. Agents, editors, and producers tend to favor projects with more privileged characters, sometimes out of an incorrect belief that it’ll sell better, sometimes without any awareness of what they’re doing. Meanwhile, more privileged actors are more likely to be given starring roles, which boosts their marketability, which means they get more starring roles, and so on.
Authors also tend to write characters who are like themselves, and most people who can afford to be authors are quite privileged. Technically anyone can write a novel, but doing so requires energy and free time, two things that are hard to come by if you’re working two jobs and getting home completely exhausted. Poverty statistics being what they are in the US, it’s not hard to see who is more likely to have time for writing. This is before you even get into issues like access to education or even a laptop that’s not constantly crashing.
Solving this problem is not easy or simple. It will require a more just distribution of wealth, the confrontation of unconscious bias, and also for privileged authors to include diverse characters when they can. One thing that won’t help is whining in YouTube comments about how activists are too mean to video game publishers.
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