Note: The above picture for this article is, in fact, a snapshot of my own Angel Shephard (Femshep for the Liara shippers out there) from Mass Effect 3. I realize the picture is awesome, but if you share this image, please credit blacknerdproblems.com when doing so. Thanks. Heathens.
I have a friend who is basically a tech genius. He also happens to be white. A few years back he fixed an issue I was having with my computer (it wasn’t porn). When he gave it back to me, he commented that my desktop background surprised him. It surprised me that it surprised him, but I guess it shouldn’t have. I had taken a screencap from my Mass Effect game and used it as a background, never really intending for anyone to see it. My friend had seen a Black and Female Commander (Angel) Shepard on my desktop and it couldn’t have appeared more different than the stock, white male Commander Shepard he had spent probably close to 100 hours with so far. This explained how great Bioware’s customization was and how completely necessary it is for the purposes of representation.
Mass Effect for those unfamiliar is a Sci-Fi role-playing game that takes place a few hundred years in the future where intergalactic travel has been discovered bringing humans into contact with a large number of alien species that all have their own sets of politics within their own species. All these alien races have been given their own cultures and personality types with their own biases or prejudices just like humans. In a way, it might have seemed a bit insensitive to see such a breath of races, species and cultures as only being a white male tramping through the galaxy telling everybody what’s best for them. Regardless, over the course of three games and about 120+ hours of gameplay, Bioware lets you sculpt the aesthetic of your character in a dizzying number of ways. Let’s be clear, if you make a “Black looking” character, there is no acknowledgment of consequence for this that happens in the game. It is purely aesthetic, but let’s not act like that counts for nothing. Whether you’re two years old or thirty, the possibility of seeing someone that looks like you or someone that could represent you in the starring role of something has effects that can’t be pushed aside.
And while Bioware (who had done this well before Mass Effect in Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, etc) deserves a ton of credit for allowing that type of diversity in how your character looks, we should acknowledge something pretty fundamental. Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction are the easiest avenues to create diverse characters and representation. What is often called race-bending in how some characters have their races changed from original source material (gender-bending for male-female swapping of course) is a popular topic these days. It’s always a crash course when you take the sensibilities, awareness (and let’s be honest, marketability) of diversifying the color palette in 2014 to the storied history of and ingrained fandom of predominantly characters created between forty and sixty years ago. I addressed this before in my write up concerning the casting of Michael B Jordan in the Fantastic Four reboot. And while I don’t mean to undercut an attachment to iconic characters as I am a fanboy for a great many mediums, it is important to remember that these characters are fiction. Even so, there are obviously levels of fiction that differ in how diversity should be treated. I can’t fault Mad Men per se, for the cast being 90% white when the setting is 1960s New York upper-class advertising compared to a dystopian world set 100 years in the future with elves and magic.
What is important is that there are still so many worlds created today with so few minorities in them. You can give The Hobbit’s movie adaptation a pass and say that Tolkein wrote the story in the 30s where representation be damned, but the reality is, the movie being made in 2013 AND creating so many places and events that don’t even take place in the film is just lazy to keep the cast so monochromatic. My wife (in a tweet that ended up getting quite a bit of circulation on Tumblr) remarked during The Desolation of Smaug that it took till halfway through the film to see one person of color.
We’re talking about a damn near three-hour film that must have upward of a 100 different humanoid characters that see the screen at some time. It’s lazy and just insulting at this point to have this conversation so often about why most people of consequence in completely manufactured fiction are white. You can skim here and there for characters which typically have their interesting story (like Samuel L. Jackson approaching Lucas to be in Star Wars, not the other way around), but largely, minorities are left being background or sidekicks.
The story I mentioned earlier of my friend being taken aback by my version of Commander Shepard speaks to how foreign the narrative of a black person (let alone a female) saving the day. Usually, when they are, they’re saving other black people, not white people too. If so, we are usually talking movies or television with an actor that transcends how their race is viewed such as Denzel Washington or Will Smith (for the record, those two leading men could not be more different as black actors, but that’s a conversation for another day as they both fit for THIS argument). But it’s important to distinguish character from actor. And we need more minority characters. The most common complaint about diversifying casts from their original form is that it’s catering to minorities. Yeah, it is. Of course, this is said as a negative in the mouths of those complaining, but the reality is that those complaining are speaking from a position of privilege where they have rarely had to be catered to. As ridiculous to some as the whole Megyn Kelly / Santa Claus debacle may have seemed, there is real damage in the prospect of a person staring into the camera and saying, ‘Santa is white, kids, get over it. Jesus is too by the way.’
Most that oppose that damage forget that they haven’t been kids for quite a long time, while seeing the image of popular (read: good) characters as only white when they are not. Also, let’s not hide behind the idea of representation only being important for children when L’Oreal and BMW still run commercials during primetime.
Even if we concede that source material that originated in the 1930s (a friendly reminder for those that complain about changing source: that was 30 years BEFORE a black person could get their head beat in for trying to vote, so it may not have been birthed in the most diverse environment) is sometimes difficult to alter because of fan expectation, the fact that it is completely fiction levels just how beholden adapters should be to the material. Even we can suspend disbelief that a man can fly, possess laser vision and has never aged over the 60+ years of his existence, I think we can imagine him being something other than white.
Or, at least one can hope.