“Real diversity should not be comfortable.” An op-ed challenging diversity initiatives found in popular/television culture…
by: Jonathan Marcantoni
Diversity is often a joke. What I mean by this is, the kind of diversity that values the superficial, while still promoting common narratives, is meaningless. This essay attempts to take aim at diversity movements that are skin deep instead of those that challenge people to change their world-views or overcome their prejudices. If you are reading this you are likely in the United States, or a Western European country. If I am that lucky to reach you, you most likely grew up with a Western worldview that supports Western values, so what I am about to say may piss you off, but I ask you to hear me out.
Take a television show like Fox’sBrooklyn Nine-Nine for example, which has a large ensemble cast including black, Latino, white, gay, and straight characters. While the show does seem to check all the boxes of the diversity movement, the characters could all be switched out for white people without changing anything essential about them or their place in the show. The characters in Brooklyn Nine-Nine fail to challenge any societal norms, world perspectives, or present viewers with scenarios that could challenge their beliefs. The show presents a middle-of the-road artificial progressive narrative that adheres to the traditional views of relationships (all couples in the show are monogamous and value marriage as the natural progression of love), politics, and standard American world-views.
Another example of the problems facing faux-diversity in popular culture can be found within NBC’s hit series This Is Us, which also has a diverse cast, but tells a traditional story. ABC’s Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat are television shows headed by minority casts, yet they depict a traditional view of America, and they do not challenge any societal conventions. They are progressive only in the broad sense of the word. One Day at a Time, the recently cancelled Netflix series with an almost all-Latino cast, which did feature a central LGBTQ storyline, adhered to a standard depiction of Cuban-Americans as being anti-Communist, anti-Castro, and devoutly pro-American. For a series that included accepting a lesbian daughter— and the associated politics — which included a central character who served in Afghanistan after 9/11, it came off as conservative and old fashioned.
Yet all these television shows have been praised for their diversity, as if skin color or gender identity or sexuality was the furthest extent of the phrase. These shows (which I just want to clarify, I love all of them, they are well-written, acted, and directed) practice what I call “universalism through diversity” — which is to say, they are using diversity to show bigots that queer people and people of color are human beings just like them.
While I understand the need to demonstrate one’s humanity when you are a group routinely targeted for violence in many parts of the world, let alone this country, is that not reaching for low hanging fruit? Do bigots, who by their nature are petty, narcissistic, insecure jackasses, really deserve your attention and efforts to change their minds? Will your message even reach such people, or will you just be preaching to the choir?
Real diversity should not be comfortable. It should not be superficial. It should challenge the world you have lived in. It should make you see your world-views as limited and lacking in the kind of empathy your progressivism should be focused on. Diversity should fuck you up.
In 2018, I attended the International Book Festival in Havana, Cuba, and it shook me to the core. There are monuments to the Bay of Pigs invasion that depict it as what it was, a foreign power violating Cuban sovereignty and the right of the Cuban people to choose their own type of government and social priorities. Fidel Castro won the Revolution, with the broad support of the Cuban population, yet a foreign entity, the United States, and white Cubans who had supported the losing side of the war, decided not to respect the will of the Cuban people. The result was a catastrophic mini-war which fortified support for the Castro regime, for better and for worse. This perspective runs counter to the narrative Americans learn in school. It is indicative of the sort of re-framing of history that is truly diverse. Could you imagine if there was an American television show that depicted Castro-supporting Cubans? That portrayed a perspective that runs counter to the American model? After all, we are all students of and victims of propaganda. The Western view is as erroneous and in denial of the problematic narrative tools and historical facts as any other. Why not have a romantic comedy about two Muslims? Muslims are as hilarious as any other group, and you know what else, Evangelical Christians have made comedies, and love stories, and movies for the masses. Why not Muslims? A Muslim romantic comedy that doesn’t pander to Americans, or focus on an immigrant narrative, would be entirely important and eye-opening.
This is why I say diversity is a joke…if it is only skin deep. If you aren’t challenging the very narratives of the society you live in, then you are just performing window dressing.