Forced diversity primarily occurs in fictional adaptions — works adapting a given medium, usually books, where a character’s basic premises, such as ethnicity, personality, or sexuality, is warped to fit into the modern, American social agenda. A female character suddenly becomes a token feminist in the most stereotypical sense, a character’s homosexuality is highlighted to the point it eclipses the rest of their essence, a white character is black-washed even when the character’s whiteness is an inherent part of who they are.
I am dubbing it “modern, American social agenda” because, it should go without saying, not all nations share in the US’ social dynamics. By virtue of its difficult history, steeped in the near genocide of one ethnic group and the enslavement of another, today’s America clamours for representation long denied throughout the country’s history. The core issue with forced diversity is that, while the idea of increasing diversity in fiction is good, the methods employed to go about it often are not.
Diversity done right
To head straight into it, let’s look at examples of diversity done right.
Christopher Nolan’s latest, ambitious blockbuster, Tenet features a nameless protagonist. The Protagonist, loosely put, represents the idea of being tossed to the whims of fate, only to understand what “fate” does entail, and realize at the end of the journey, he was the actor of his own life all along. As a character, the archetype he incarnates is complex enough to drive the film. Oh, — and he happens to be black.
This is diversity done right. The Protagonist’s personality cannot be surmised or reduced to only his ethnicity — in fact, the film ignores that detail entirely, just as it ignores Neil’s whiteness as well, because it is just that, a detail, especially in the light of a plot as complex as Tenet’s. And that is the point: a story’s message and themes, as well as characterization, should always drive a story. It is the pillars of fiction, and why we create stories in the first place. His character is not a token [x minority] character — he is a character first and foremost, and he also happens to be black, portraying America’s social reality in an organic way. What’s more, his acting is also decent enough to justify the casting decision. It is also not about “how to write a black character,” it is about how to write characters, period. Write your character, make them complex human beings (yes, that goes for white characters, why would it not?), and then assign them what demographic pleases you.
Without elaborating too much, further examples of diversity done right include Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (in fact, I encourage you to look at his entire filmography), period drama Belle (2013), How To Get Away With Murder, and many others.
When we talk about “forced diversity,” we are not talking about an original medium, with characters accurately depicting the given ethnic reality of a country for its period. This is, quite obviously, normal, and is called diversity, not forced diversity. By forced diversity, we are talking about a story with a premise and a creative intent as put forth by its author, changed in its adaptation, but not for the better: not to enhance a character’s core persona, or emotional and spiritual journey, but solely to fit into a mentality, a social reality, that too often, is far removed culturally, geographically, and socially from the original medium.
Forced diversity — “diversity” done wrong
Examples are primarily Netflix’s The Witcher and Wuthering Heights (2011).
In The Witcher, writers took calculated risks by “race-”bending several extras and side characters, while deliberately leaving the main cast untouched — doing so would have caused too much backlash, as the authenticity of those characters would have been grossly lost.
The story, written in the 90s in a period removed from today’s Westernized social reality by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski (let’s not forget Poland used to be under communism until 1989), is inscribed in Slavic mythology. As per the established lore, the bulk of the characters are non-arguably white/light-skinned. As such, several casting decisions inherently clash with basic lore: Fringilla Vigo’s casting, for instance, makes no sense within the narrative. In the show, she is played by Mimi Ndiweni. Except in the books, she is explicitly described as resembling Yennefer, and is related to both Ciri and Anna Henrietta, all three white characters. It is clear as we watch Fringilla that the casting choice was not made to enrich her character or draw on already existing dynamics from the books, but purely because a representation quota had to be fulfilled. Why take a character, remove half of what makes them who they are, and replace them with an inconsistent version that breaks canon? If black characters are needed so badly, why not simply create original black characters instead?
And in parallel, I’m noticing another aspect of authorial authenticity lost during the adaption process, which I find hard to believe is unrelated. Fringilla’s involvement in the story as well as her personality have been noticeably altered in the series, to the point she is almost a separate character from her book counterpart. Both versions are not yet dissociable, but the differences are obvious. A lack of understanding of the original story is palpable in the production process, and it reflects both in the writing and casting: the writers paid special attention to the main trio not to disappoint fans, that much is obvious, but beyond, the focus on the story’s core themes and its characters’ journey is disregarded in favour of more non-fictional, unrelated priorities. The story, the lore and the author all have precious little to do with America’s harsh history and resulting social dynamics, so why should they suffer from it? To shoe-horn derivatives of it into a story with a different social context is what forced diversity is about. In this blundering quest to do good, authors’ creative intents are brushed aside by the entertainment industry.
The problem is not that a black actress was picked for the role: the problem is what motivated that decision in the first place. And the problem is that this decision brings nothing to the narrative. If anything, it muddles the established lore and character dynamics and relations. The result is incoherent, the disconnect from the original medium is glaring — it breaks immersion and serves no artistic purpose. It does not in any way preserve the authenticity of creative fiction. Are adaptations not created because writers were touched by the original medium and want to bring it to life visually? What good are adaptations if half of it ultimately does not respect that original medium?
My second example, Wuthering Heights (2011) faced similar issues. Squeezed through the modern social mould, this recent take on Bronte’s Wuthering Heights twists the book’ original themes. Having read the book (or hell, even prior adaptations will get the message across), it was clear at once that the story touched upon social hierarchy, which was based not on ethnicity, but nationality and rank. When placed in its historical context, the story presents strikingly different social issues from today’s America. It is a story steeped in its own epoque, and it shows.
By making Heathcliff a black character, the story has switched from being about social disparities, to be about “racial” tensions. This incredibly biased and modern interpretation has little to do with the original work, does not add to it, and betrays some of its core aspects.
And note, that, Heathcliff is described as Romani in the book, and thus still as European. What set him apart, more so than his origin, was the “lowness” of his birth, which had everything to do with his social standing. If anything, the discrimination he faces can also be interpretated as xenophobic. Not as racist.
These actors are not necessarily chosen for their talent — that is not to say they have none — they are chosen for their ethnicity. And they are chosen for their ethnicity to fit in with the latest social fluctuations. In this sense, it is no different than choosing a white actor for their ethnicity.
When we talk about pandering, we are not talking about the entertainment industry being progressive, and calling that a flaw: we’re talking about the industry mindlessly catering to the latest trend to cash in, regardless of creative intent, and with no genuine wish for representation. We’re talking about producers and sponsors becoming aware of a social media trend, and using it to define their latest block buster, regardless of the genuine, artistic wish to tell a story. There are plenty of stories out there that are diverse and are artistic and creative at the same time, and more of them should emerge. But what needs to stop is forced diversity, a tendency that encompasses everything I have just explained.
The growing taboo of casting white actors to play white parts
We’ve come to a point that, pointing out a casting inconsistency can get you tremendous backlash, a lot of social pressure and extreme harassment — simply because the idea put forth does not correspond to what is socially acceptable of late, and so without ever actually voicing or feeling racist thoughts.
And so, to justify illogical casting decisions, fans often try to rationalise by claiming characters were never explicitly described as white in their original medium. That argument was used, for instance, with Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. The argument is of course baseless, and once again, does not consider the social reality of other countries. Hermione is never explicitly described as white (she is specifically called white once, if you must know) because it is obvious from context. The United Kingdoms are ethnically and predominantly white. Yes, diversity does exist in the country, and that is why Harry Potter does include that diversity: the Patil twins are reflective of Great Britain’s colonial history. We also have Dean Thomas, Angelina Johnson, and Cho Chang. HP’s ethnic reality corresponds to the times in which JKR conceived and wrote the story. That is why these characters’ ethnic groups are deliberately described, whereas the main trio’s is not — it is not needed: the inherently British setting gives it away.
Since when is being respectful of the original medium taboo? If a book describes a character as chestnut haired and freckled skinned, this is what I expect an adaptation to show me. I will use We Need to Talk about Kevin’s Eva Khatchadourian as an example, who, in the book, is quite attached to and mentions her Armenian ancestry quite often. This is not something I would want erased. The film adaptation condensed the story, but they kept Eva’s surname, as well as other traits which defined her as a character. This is exactly what we should see. A character’s essence should carry over to the screen, otherwise, it is no longer the same character, and the author’s creativity is lost in the adaption process.
There should be no controversy around a white actor playing a white character, and there should be no controversy around complaints with inorganic casting decisions, just as it is only right a black actor plays a black character, and it is only natural we call out the inconsistencies of white-washing.
None of this is to say diversity should not be present in fiction. It absolutely should. But there’s a noticeably clear American centric intent behind this movement. We want humane and complex portrayal of black characters in fiction because historically, black people were too often oppressed and slandered, whether in fiction or the real world (although, as I keep noticing, Native Americans are always oddly left out of these debates), and because racism was favoured over creativity. And it should happen as the country would greatly benefit from it. But how does that history relate to the history of other countries? To use my previous example, how does that relate to the social and historical reality experienced by a Polish author? How does that relate to Slavic Europe? Indeed, how does that relate to any other country in the world but the US, as this specific chapter of history belongs to the US alone, since Europe, for instance, played a different part in the transatlantic slave trade, and had no hand in massacring Native Americans, or pushing back the Spanish to South America?
When forced diversity bleeds into the fictional works of authors hailing from other nations, it reeks of Americanisation. Let me be blunt: can America cease to project for a millisecond and understand they are not alone in the world, and other countries have different histories and resulting social dynamics? To give but one example, France has had several immigration waves in the last century, but the largest minority in the country are not blacks, but Maghrebians (and yes, we do include our own social reality in movies, thank you). It would be entitled and unfair of the French film industry to push those dynamics onto the rest of the world. Why is it alright for the US to do it?
And what’s more, the US has a brand of its own when it comes to racism, and it all boils down to the country’s toxic, dehumanising and wildly inaccurate perception of “race.” I’m speaking primarily as a European who has also studied other cultures, and most of the countries I’ve studied do not distinguish based on “race” the way America does. It is important to understand the geographical reality of Europe: in comparison to the EU, the US is massive. You could drive for hours and still be in the US. But drive for hours in Central Europe and you’ve travelled across almost four countries, all with their own distinct history, national sense of identity, traditions and resulting social dynamics. This diversity is inherent part of our reality and shapes the way we perceive peoples and ‘differences.’ As such, we do not and have never in recent memory distinguished based on “race,” but rather on nationality and ‘origin.’ In France, unless obvious, you could be asked “what is your origin?” (literal translation). Yes, white (and by that, I mean light-skinned) people can also be asked this question.
Our perception does not stop at the globalised “whites” and “blacks” stereotypes Americans have come to use, as there is no such thing in Europe. Instead, you would distinguish peoples by their nationality — an Irish person, someone of German descent, a Croatian, etc.
And so, I ask again: what business do these dynamics exclusive to the US have impacting the rest of the world with such obnoxious intensity? Every time a character’s ethnicity is bent to suit America’s social reality, hyperawareness of “race” is created, and it leads to the divisions tearing the US apart. Excuse me for wanting no part in that. Most importantly, no one should want part in that, whatever corner of the planet you hail from.
Most importantly, what matters most, as I keep repeating, is intent. Namely, in this context, authorial intent. Fiction is always representative to some degree of the author’s frame of mind and emotional complexities; an artist’s creation always carries something valuable within it, and we, as consumers, as human beings, value these stories in turn because they bring something to the world. An artist’s work is their psychological footprint, if you will. And it only seems natural to me that we should respect that. Picture Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings’, and picture Gandalf turning evil like Saruman, instead of being a guiding figure. How is that sensible or faithful to Tolkien’s character? That would have been a misinterpretation of his character, just like “race-” bending is, and that is what complaints are about. Not about diversity itself, but changes applied for no sensible reason, with clear intents to racialize stories that certainly need not contain a racial context (unless the story does contain an actual racial subtext, of course). The intent to racialise characters comes through the screen, clashes with the author’s own artistic intents, and sticks out like a sore thumb as result.
It should also be noted that, actual discriminating individuals misusing the term “forced diversity” to justify their racist views does not, in any way, changes the reality behind the term. It simply blurs the line and makes this debate that much harder to have.
Finally, fiction already faces enough problems: throughout history, there have always been people keen on policing and censoring what fiction can or can’t explore, even though all subjects in existence are for everyone to explore. Let’s not add extra problems on top of the pile and injure a perfectly good method of human self-expression.
We rightly find it inauthentic when non-white characters are white-washed. I’m thinking of Netflix’s Death Note or The Avatar live-action, which were all utter catastrophes, as neither adaptations respected their original medium, including their characters’ ethnicity. These movies are very organic in their diversity: The Avatar mirrors Asia, and so its characters are all predominantly Asian. Death Note is a Japanese story, featuring Japanese characters, written and drawn by Japanese authors, and taking place in Japan. A perfect window to introduce the much-needed diversity America clamours for in fictional mediums, waving an amicable hand at the country’s Japanese diaspora, while being respectful of the story’s core theme. And yet that opportunity was squandered to maintain the status quo, with no regard to what made these stories so successful or resonate with fans. As mentioned above, I am once again seeing a correlation between poor writing and poor casting decisions — the casting was not faithful to the original medium, and in parallel, the writing suffered as well. That goes both ways. What matters most in this instance is, once again, intent: the decision behind this casting decision is not made with creativity in mind: it was made to make the movies more palatable to local audiences and ensure commercial success by picking the cast from an already existing pool of successful, bankable actors. As such, it did not work, and fans were understandably upset.
It is only fair that when black characters are white-washed, as was predominant in the industry until recently, we frown upon it and are upset. And yet black-washing a character is socially acceptable, or even encouraged? These doubles standards highlight we have learned nothing and are still far from fixing the problem: to begin with, it perpetuates the idea of “race,” as it puts too strong an emphasis on it. Secondly, stigmatisation based on ethnicity is frowned upon, yet when the issue is reversed, it is seemingly condoned. How is it that we have come to practice exactly what we used to and still denounce? How is that fixing anything?
The root of this issue was the racist practices pervasive in North America’s entertainment industry: not only were blacks, Native Americans, etc, absent from the silver screen, but when they were present, their portrayal was derogatory, caricatural. This approach highlighted three major problems: 1) the horrendous waste of talent it provoked and the chance to convey something of meaning to audiences, something that individuality and uniqueness alone can achieve. 2) It dehumanised these demographics, created divisions, and erased from our collective memory the fact that we are all equal, we are all complex and inherently worthy of respect. 3) It made people ignorant of humanity’s history as a whole and made accessing it difficult.
It is this ignorance that today powers the decisions to recycle stories and “race-”bend characters instead of fixing the problem for good. After decades of favouritism and racist practices, people are especially scarred. But how is flipping the problem on its head fixing anything?
It seems obvious to me that the natural solution to this problem is to finally recognise human beings as people and remove dividing factors from our social realities, and in turn, that awareness shall influence fictional works we create.
How about we simply learn to respect authorial intent and all that it can offer? People do not read or watch stories for their characters’ ethnicity but for their emotional and psychological make-up, and what it can bring to the reader’s life (ain’t that a thought). If a character exists solely to check boxes, instead of being coherent and credible, it does not work. Fiction 101.
And finally, how about waving ignorance goodbye and replacing it with historical knowledge? Why not branch out beyond the borders of the Western world? As, if there is yet another thing the tendency to black-wash characters highlights, it is the glaring ignorance America has of the rest of the world’s history, and how limited and centric the American point of view is. Why not cease to view the world through American lenses, and instead educate both the viewers and the entertainment industry on the extraordinarily rich and intercultural history humanity shares? Human history is rich in stories that complex, unique souls have shaped. If black people need representation, then why not simply look at Africa and its different ethnic groups and nations?Any period drama would thrive on exploring that wealth. Any historian could give more than a decent overview on prominent black historical figures. These potential stories, when done right, would enrich humanitarian heritage.
And why not encourage more and more authors of colours to write and publish their own works? Talent is found everywhere, and a timeless, gripping story can be born from of that.
And on a final note, for God’s sake, stop using the term “race.” The concept is inaccurate, spiritually and scientifically, and by its inherent quality to highlight differences, it automatically creates divisions that need not exist.