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Diversity in popular culture – why it is important and how to do it right

Rikke Ponger

Diversity in popular culture is a hot topic in social and traditional media. The debut of two new, high budget shows about medieval fantasy, The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon, has led some commentators to claim that ‘wokeness betrays the authors work’. The shows’ deliberate attempt to be more inclusive than their respective and illustrious predecessors has meant others have praised the more diverse worldbuilding of the series. What kind of diversity have these shows embraced? And what effects may different kinds of inclusivity have?

Steve Toussaint as Corlys Velaryon in House of the Dragon and Sophia Nomvete as Princess Disa in The Rings of Power.© HBO and IMDb

The importance of diversity and its backlash

The topic is getting more attention. In academia, there have been debates about the good it does in giving role models to minorities and showing how diverse our world is for some time. But diversity in popular culture is also increasingly discussed in media, politics and online, where it is often entangled in wider “culture war” politics. The backlash to more diversity and inclusivity is particularly evident in conservative media. This may obscure that, as the picture shows, diversity in popular culture is not a new phenomenon.

Beyond the vitriolic and openly racist takes, backlash seems to rest on two key facets: mis-adaptation, and a blurring line between reality and fiction.

Firstly, some commentators claim that diversity is ‘shoehorned into’ new adaptations of older material, which goes against the intention of the original author. This would then decrease the authenticity and fundamentally alter the original story. In practice, this argument does not hold up.

Sometimes the author accepts criticisms about lack of diversity in their work. Like A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, who cooperates with the creators of House of the Dragon and praised the creators changes towards more diversity. Other times we simply cannot know what the author may have thought of attempts to diversify original work (because, like Tolkien, they may no longer be alive). Hypothetical original intent, if ever present, could also have changed over time. Even if we believed that Tolkien (for instance) intended his heroes to be white, this should not stop more diversity in adaptations. Adaptations, especially across mediums, involve disputed changes all the time: even Tolkien’s son disliked the highly acclaimed Lord of the Rings films. If we were not to allow this, we could not adopt original work at all after an author’s demise.

Importantly, Tolkien lived two generations ago in a time with different morals. If we allow post-humous adaptation, why should we not update the work’s morals and diversity? Consider Roald Dahl, many of his books are still (rightfully) beloved by millions, but he was openly antisemitic and the part of his oeuvre that we now see as immoral is not reproduced. Evolving and updating a story over time ensures that it can be appreciated by future generation without those elements now considered harmful.

Another part of the backlash has to do with the blurring of lines the line between fiction and the real world. Spectators can no longer ignore the reflection movies and series provide about our world. Diversity means that the heroes we identify with and the characters we feel for can be someone else than white men. It is important that diversity goes beyond stereotypes. This notion highlights the demarcation between viewing and reflecting. If we can easily distance ourselves from the character on screen, for instance because she is ridiculed or stereotyped and not part of ‘our group’, we can see it as an ‘act’ and avoid reflecting upon ourselves and our society. Judith Butler emphasizes this distinction between expression and performativeness: we can detach ourselves from the former by drawing lines between what we see and who we are. In the latter, that which is performed becomes part of our reality. The diversity on screen is no longer something to simply observe, but constitutive of our lives and existence. Diversity shifts from a portrayal on stage to a mirror held up towards society.

A conclusion we may draw is that the conservative backlash against diverse casting is a good thing in the sense that it shows that diversity in popular culture is starting to have an effect. Resistance to it is natural and reflective of the punishment society seeks to deal out to those who defy cultural norms, like the unspoken, but prevalent norm in Western media that the hero of a story is a white man. This is in line with Foucault and Butler’s argument on societal power relations: going against a norm in society is punished by those people and institutions defending this norm.

Two types of diversity: colorblind casting and story-led diversity

The difference between expression of stereotypes and the performativeness of real characters with whom we can empathize is not the only important distinction regarding diversity on screen. Another one is that between colorblind casting and story-led diversity. Colorblind casting means casting actors regardless of their skin color. This is not without impact as, aside from creating jobs for more diverse actors, it can provide viewers, especially people of color, with representation and role models in the story. This is an improvement over stories where diversity is something to be ridiculed, or only occurs in unimportant characters with little agency, likability, or screen time (Harry Potter comes to mind).

However, colorblind casting is often superficial in terms of diversity and inclusivity. Consider The Rings of Power, set in the world of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Different (still predominantly white) societies of elves, dwarves, hobbits, and humans have people of color in their midst that are important characters to the story. If we look at the people in the story like we look at our own society, this makes little sense: how did isolated communities become and stay so diverse? From a story-line perspective one might reason that, since we are talking about high fantasy worlds which differ greatly from our own, this is not an issue. However, Butler’s distinction between expression and performativeness does not only play a role for the kind of diverse character (i.e. their importance to the story and how seriously we take them), but also when considering the role of diversity itself in the fictional world. If we accept that the rules of the world on screen are simply different from ours regarding diversity, the diversity itself becomes less interesting as a reflection of our own. As argued above, diversity on screen can act as a mirror towards society and encourage us to think differently about it. But if the world on screen functions completely differently regarding diversity, we are back at an expression of diversity that we can safely distance ourselves from. We can draw lines between the expression and real life: diversity is simply a part of the ‘play’ we watch, not a challenge to how we view it in our own society.

Colorblind casting also runs the risk of leading to colorblind racism: the notion that when we simply deny or ignore differences between racial minorities and the cultural majority, we create a supposedly post-racial society. Critical Race Theory (another hot topic in US discourse) describes the different racist frames of colorblind racism, of which two are important here: abstract liberalism and minimization of racism. The first one focuses on choices and individualism, leading us to ignore systemic differences in society. Colorblind casting implies that people of color can easily participate in society (even though it is fictional), and that having a few people of color within a community is representative of a diverse place (all the while communities like those depicted in The Rings of Power stay mostly white). Sprinkling people of color in your story in important places might support a sense that people experiencing racism are overreacting and that racism is no longer significant in today’s society, minimizing the issue of racism. It seems to imply that when people of color do not find success in society, it is their own fault, and not a result of discrimination and systemic differences.  After all, in these fictional stories people of color face no discrimination or systemic inequality whatsoever. Colorblind casting can thus end up nullifying (parts of) the positive contribution of more diverse actors and characters in a story. The world becomes more abstract and distant, and can more easily be dismissed as fiction. It can even reinforce harmful ideas regarding the denial of the systemic side of racism through a misguided notion of color blindness.

Story-led diversity is different. In House of the Dragon, the main driver of diversity is the important Velaryon family. They are not native to the main continent (medieval-Europe-based Westeros), so their distinct skin color makes sense. Moreover, it is not denied or unaddressed in the story: when the white wife of a Velaryon man gives birth to white children, their skin color is highlighted as proof of their mother’s infidelity. Why is this important? Because this is an example of performing diversity that is more reflective of real life, in a way that we can understand looking at our own society. In House of the Dragon, the diversity of the cast is a performance that adds to how we see diversity in our world. It is consciously constituting diversity on and off screen.

One might simply state that The Rings of Power handles diversity better because in total there are more people of color in it, but diversity on screen is about more than counting the non-white characters. This way, diversity can be performed beyond a colorblind notion and be more reflective of actual society and the role and experiences of people of color in it.

Diversity behind the screen

Finally, diversity in popular culture goes further than the screen. If diversity is limited to the acting cast, it is empty and meaningless. When we let people of color tell their own story, and how they experience it, it becomes more reflective of diversity in our society, and thus harder to distance ourselves from. Alison Jaggar argues that people in an oppressed social position (in her case women), are better equipped to have a more reliable worldview and story than white men because of their experiences. An example of this may be found in House of the Dragon: Emma D’Arcy’s experiences as a non-binary person makes them better equipped to explore and show their character Rhaenyra’s struggle with the role and expectations of her gender. Importantly, diversity behind the screen also makes for a safer work environment for actors of color, as this example shows.

When portraying diversity on screen, we need to go past a simplistic notion of colorblindness and hold up a real mirror to society, which includes letting people of color tell their own story. This way, diversity can be more genuine and by extension more impactful; for the actors and other people involved, for the people who finally see themselves represented in a positive light, for society as a whole, and for the incredible stories told to us.