The Trouble With Being The Default
In a recent interview, Marvel VP of Sales David Gabriel dropped an odd statement regarding audience reactions to their recent pushes for diversity:
But is this really the case? It’s true, for all the praise that’s been given Marvel’s diversifying, from their Islamic Ms. Marvel to their Jane Foster Thor, there’s also been a vocal backlash against the changes. To take the complaints at face value, there is a concern among some audiences that white, straight, male characters currently suffer a lack of storytelling in comparison to more diverse characters.
And in those terms, well, I actually think they have kind of a point. To me, the issue lies not with diversity, it actually all comes down to commercial media and its habit of working with a default. Let’s start at the beginning.
A Vicious Circle
Let’s be real here: history is written by the victors, and for a good long while, most of the victors have been straight, white men. This plays out in a number of areas, obviously, but to focus in on the realm of fiction, this has meant that the entertainment industry has worked its way into a vicious cycle where fiction is made by and for white dudes. A decent part of this is a business thing; in the early days of entertainment as a business, white men were frequently the main creators because the racism and sexism of the time periods kept women and people of color out of the creator roles, and even when it became more acceptable to employ other demographics, the biggest successes were usually from established sources (the already working white guys). When it comes to trying to recreate success, big businesses tend to be a superstitious and cowardly lot, so they’re more likely to seek out new talent in pools that are similar to the last big thing; thus the industry got into a habit of being easier to break into for white guys than for anyone else.
When it comes to writing fiction, one of the most common axioms is to write what you know; even when you explore further genre territories and tell stories about time travel or super powers, you’re going to need some kind of narrative grounding rod that keeps a sense of normalcy and relatability for your audience to latch onto. This means that if you’re already writing about genre fare that you likely have no real hands on experience with, that normalcy is going to end up being the part that you draw on the familiar in order to write. This is just Writing 101, and in a vacuum, it doesn’t present a problem; the problem arises when you look at the numbers. If a vast majority of writers are white men, and a majority of them are drawing on their own experiences as white men to serve as the basis for their characters’ personal worlds, then you’re going to end up with a majority of characters that are white men with white men experiences.
Much of this logic applies to the critics and audiences that help shape fiction in their own ways, too. Art critics are also part of a business, and in a for-profit competitive creative field, all the same issues of inclusivity are going to arise. A majority of critics being white men means that they judge works based on how it relates back to their experiences, and this creates an echo chamber that encourages the creation of work that follows this pattern. It’s similar when you look at the audience. People tend to seek out stories that they can relate to, and when a majority of works are being created with one particular experience in mind, the people who relate to that experience are going to be the ones most satisfied and looking for more. When this cycle is taken to its conclusion, you have a company that sees white men as their primary audience because white men are the demographic who are paying to read stories that resemble their world.
And this is not to say that this happens 100% of the time. There always have been individuals involved in the creative processes that aren’t straight, white men (even if they don’t represent the same levels of diversity that exist in the real world) and they bring their own unique experiences to the table. Even if you’re just focusing on the white men themselves, not every author is going to have the exact same experiences, not every writer is going to only write about their own demographic, not every critic is going to judge exclusively based on their worldview, and not every reader is going to limit themselves to worlds that reflect their own. But when you break it down by numbers, it still ends up being a world dominated caucasian dudes. If every white writer only centered every other story they told around a protagonist who looked like their own demographic, and 90% of writers were white guys, you still end up in a situation where white guys make up about 45% of the protagonists, leaving 55% of the protagonists to be split up between women and the various other ethnicities. All of this has led us to a situation where straight, white, cis, able-bodied men have turned themselves into The Default.
Niches Get Stitches
Quick history lesson; in the 1940’s, Pepsi-Cola hired an African-American man to create a series of advertisements portraying black families enjoying Pepsi. This appealed to a whole group of consumers that were almost entirely left out of the loop when it came to having advertisements directed towards them, even if they were just as likely to drink soda pop as white people. The ad campaign was a huge success, owing to the fact that black peoples’ money is just as good as white peoples’ money, and it’s considered a pioneering effort in the concept of niche marketing.
And that’s where fiction finds itself now.
As much as there might be a cyclical illusion that white men are the top buyers of fiction, the fact remains that the search for entertainment is not exclusive to any particular demographic, and if you’re seeing a whole lot of white guys buying but smaller amounts of everyone else, that represents untapped markets, oil fields just waiting to be drilled. The runaway popularity of the multimedia Hunger Games franchise proves that women lead in dramatic and action settings are financially viable, and the record-breaking box office numbers of Jordan Peele’s Get Out prove that black people like horror movies, too. To satisfy these consumers, fiction can’t just find new ways to sell the same package the way soda makers can, they need to reach out to diverse audiences and offer an experience that resembles their own.
Now, the reliance on familiarity and past successes continue to be a thing. When people point at box office marquees and see Power Rangers, Beauty and the Beast, and Ghost in the Shell and jokingly ask, “what year is it?”, they’re observing the fact that successful pieces of media tend to stick around. But this isn’t a new observation. Most of the fiction relies on a collection of similar premises anyway, similar stories told in new ways; to tell new versions of the same stories again or even new stories about old characters are just the next logical step, and these options offer their own advantages and opportunities in storytelling. This logic is the reason why the James Bond movie Dr. No got 24 sequels, and it’s the backbone of the comic universes published by DC and Marvel. And this leads to a bit of a problem: how do you go about appealing to new audiences while also maintaining established characters?
The answer many have come up with is the gender and race swap. New characters are great, don’t get me wrong, but they aren’t as guaranteed a success as a character who’s got a foot in the door already. This happens in media adaptations, where a traditionally white or male character is cast to belong to a different demographic; it happens in the form of reboots where existing characters stick around with similar personalities, but just look different; a version of this practice even happens when passing on the mantle, where long-running characters die or retire, leaving their title to a plucky minority. This is the point where we reach a backlash with (white, male) established fans who feel like ‘their’ characters are being taken away, and that’s partly true but it’s not the whole story. For starters, anyone can be a fan of anything, regardless of the demographic being represented; due to numbers, that’s long been a sentiment essentially forced on non-white, straight, male audiences already, and it has resulted in white characters that are beloved across the spectrum of demographics. Secondly, white men have had more characters to call their own in mainstream pop culture for a good long while now; if we’re appealing to fairness here, the fact that focus is being diverted to other, less represented genders and ethnicities is not a great place to start. But above all, this is a necessary business decision more than anything. These pieces of media are part of an industry, and the old format is one that leaves money on the table by appealing nearly exclusively to one demographic. Big businesses just can’t operate that way.
And if it seems unfair to white guys that their characters can be changed, but you don’t usually see it happening in the other direction, well, that’s where we get back to the problem with white guys being the default. Because for all the representation and opportunity that it’s afforded them…
Being the Default Still Kind of Sucks
As straight, white men became the default, it put them in an odd situation where their representation doesn’t actually represent them specifically. Think about racebending. If you tried to take Wally West as The Flash and say, “this guy, but he’s been black this whole time”, there’s not a lot of contexts there to directly prevent that idea from working. He grew up in Central City, his aunt married the Flash, he got superpowers and eventually took over the role; there’s nothing there that says he has to specifically be white. But just try it with Luke Cage. Right away, you get ‘born and raised in Harlem’, with a backstory that very specifically involves his growing up as a minority. To try and make him white is fundamentally going to change his situation and environment. And this is a pretty common theme; the racial identity of white characters is frequently incidental to their story, while the racial identity of non-white characters usually isn’t. Even when you look at the white characters who have decent arguments against racebending, like ‘born into old money’ Bruce Wayne, most major problems go away if you just say they’re mixed race.
The reason for this is because white men are the default. When a commercial character is created, they’re designed for as broad an appeal as possible, and companies have gotten in the habit of using this reasoning to make characters vague and non-specific whenever possible, so as to let audiences breathe life into them on their own. At the same time that white and male is often considered the default base for most new characters, they also start with an aggressive form of neutrality, then graft on some common power fantasies (ie: he’s rich, he’s charismatic) and common emotional issues (ie: daddy issues, he’s an outcast) and call it a day. Up until the 60’s, when a new character was made, rarely did a writer set out to tell the specific experiences of a white man, rather the race and gender were common, assumed starting point. But the rarity of a lead character who was a woman or another race or (much later, and mostly hidden under layers of subtext) anything other than straight meant that the character was already breaking the default and was settling more into a niche audience role, therefore it was in their best interest to write that character with a greater level of specificity. White men characters were written as the default, to appeal to non-niche audiences, which meant they didn’t require that specificity.
And the pervasiveness of this neutrality goes far beyond just demographic appeal, it affects huge amounts of character and story development. Have you heard some black people say they’re sick of slave movies? The reason they keep getting made is because Hollywood keeps returning to the same wells in terms of appealing to what it considers niche audiences. When I mentioned that non-niche audience characters are stuck in the role of everymen, the frustrating reverse is also true; there aren’t that many ‘everyman’ characters who aren’t white, and ethnic characters frequently end up stuck in a loop of stories about discrimination.
It even comes down to character personalities and politics. Conservative comics writer Chuck Dixon has complained before in a 2014 editorial for the Wall Street Journal that there is far more of a liberal voice and not enough conservative representation in comics, but think about that for a second. One of the most famously liberal characters in comics is Green Arrow, but he didn’t start that way. At his beginning in 1955, he was merely a character created in the mold of Batman, with not a lot of real personality differences and no consistent political opinions to speak of. The liberal version we might be more familiar with didn’t rise until Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ redesign of the character in 1969, and even his liberalism was paired with a more conservative interpretation of Green Lantern Hal Jordan, so as to balance their personalities out. When the character finally got his own live-action adaptation of the CW’s 2012 series Arrow, that liberalism (and most hints of political opinion at all) were gone, all in an effort of making him a lead character open for the masses. In a recent episode where the show dealt with the subject of gun control, his character was adamantly neutral, taking a stance that wanted to protect people while also not stepping on the rights of gun owners. While there might be off situations and side characters who manage to represent unique voices, and while the arts, in general, might have a leftist lean to them, for characters to succeed in the mainstream, companies still treat them like they need to be aggressively neutral.
And this is where a greater push for diversity can help everyone. Not just in demographic representation (which is still necessary, by the way), but in moving away from this trend of having characters strive for default in the first place. If characters created with niche audience appeal like Luke Cage can reach mainstream popularity (the Netflix Luke Cage series has a 96% critical approval and an 80% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, after all), then we should be able to have more characters that are less neutral and more specific across the board. Everyman characters with broad appeal have their place, for sure, but it doesn’t have to be the go-to design feature. And when we have strong, undiluted representation for some markets, we can have it for others too. We don’t just have Conservative characters, we also don’t have as many Liberal characters who are allowed to hold their stances as people like Chuck Dixon think we do; but if we had more of one, we could also have more of the other. We could even get some straight, white, male characters who actually deal with the specific experiences of straight, white, male audiences.
For a second, forget about the ethical concerns of representation and think about it purely in terms of pop culture criticism. When a story is too familiar, it gets boring; when a character is too archetypical, they get boring. The bottom line is that homogeny is the enemy of good, interesting storytelling, while diversity and newness are its saviors. It's a quality that counts, not quantity, and giving up some space in the fictional character department can help change the way stories are written and allow for stronger, more unique character writing. Because no one really wants to be the default.