Although I’ve never watched the show The Walking Dead, it recently became the subject of lengthy conversation in my writers’ group.
The discussion had to do with two specific characters: Michonne (whom I’m told I should consider cosplaying for Halloween) and Glenn, who is Korean-American.
That is to say, the discussion had to do with diverse characters.
Personally, I think it’s great that ethnically diverse characters are present both on The Walking Dead and a number of other TV shows in general.
I’ve written previously about the importance of characters who show diversity not just in race/ethnicity, but also sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, religion, age, and ability level because this is the natural variation that occurs in the real world.
Not everyone (or even most people) are white, middle-aged, straight men, but these are the main characters we disproportionately see in modern media, both its stars and the creators whose work is allowed to be shown.
The discussion in my writers’ group, however, took what to me seemed an odd turn.
Speaking of Glenn specifically, some people argued that his presence in the show didn’t actually make it more diverse because his being Asian doesn’t somehow feature in the plot – that because the show is written with a North American sensibility, Glenn is essentially an Asian-looking stand-in for a white guy.
They went on to say if an Asian (or in some other way diverse) character is cast without the story somehow focusing upon that character’s diversity (and here the Korean couple from TV’s Lost was put forward as a more preferably example), this is no better than having an all-white cast with respect to the show’s overall contribution to diversity in storytelling and society.
Wow – so much to disagree with in that argument.
But before I do, I’ll first make a concession.
For a modern story set in a contemporary setting, the experience of diverse characters – particularly those who are main characters – probably should acknowledge the ways that they differ from the types of people considered dominant in society.
I’ve argued this point before and stand by it still: one can’t just substitute (as an example) a black character for a white character and expect their experiences to be the same.
The difference between the two needn’t be a blatant show of constant violent racism; indeed, the microaggressions that diverse people frequently endure are often the most realistic.
But in a society where someone as wealthy and well-known as Oprah Winfrey can be told she wouldn’t be able to afford a handbag in Switzerland, I agree that it would seem bizarre to not to incorporate a character’s diversity into the story’s narrative.
In a real-world setting.
But in a fantasy setting like The Walking Dead (zombies aren’t real, folks) or in a story set in the future where there’s no obligation to adhere to the practices, beliefs, and development history of modern society, a character’s diversity doesn’t have to be the object of his/her story at all.
To suggest otherwise is to ignore three important points about diverse characters and the real-life diverse people they represent.
1) Diversity needn’t be a constant source of conflict
I don’t know about other diverse people, but I’m not constantly aware of and engaged with the fact that I’m black.
It’s not that I forget or think that I’m some other colour. It’s just that there’s only so many thoughts a person can hold in their head at one time – only so many things one can be cognizant of at once.
Since my blackness isn’t an issue with everyone and every situation I encounter, I’m regularly able to instead just focus on other things, such as my job, the weather, what I’m going to eat for supper, that hot new song on the radio, my writing, the fact that my mom didn’t call when she said she would, what I’m going to do on the weekend, and most recently, my having to move house.
All this to say that to make a story in which a diverse character’s diverseness is the main thrust of the story ignores the many facets of his/her life when s/he gets to be not just a diverse person, but a person in general.
2) Diverse people take on dominant cultural influences (i.e. we live here too)
It’s all but impossible for diverse people living amongst a dominant culture to remain completely uninfluenced by it, especially with the passage of time and the succession of generations.
(So too, incidentally, do dominant cultures often embrace/subsume/appropriate elements of the subcultures and diasporas among them, e.g. the powerful influence of black music and dance on white entertainers; the widespread practice of yoga on North America’s west coast; the trend of “metrosexual” men.)
According to the Walking Dead wiki, Glenn was born in Michigan to Korean immigrants.
Again, I haven’t watched the show, but I imagine that Glenn’s pre-zombie apocalypse life was a dynamic mix of some Korean traditions at home and mainstream North American customs at school, at work, and among friends, the latter of which (e.g. his knowledge of shortcuts in Atlanta from a past job delivering pizzas) is proving more immediately useful in the business of surviving the zombies.
Many children of immigrants go on to marry North American-born/North Americanized partners and start a families of their own – families that might practice even more North American customs than the children did with their parents.
Several more generations down the line, these families mightn’t have many – if any at all – foreign traditions left. This doesn’t make them stand-ins for white families; it makes them immigrant families that have evolved.
The history of that evolution just mightn’t be relevant to zombies.
Diversity comes in many different forms and is everywhere among us. A story doesn’t have to come out of a completely different culture or be written to a non-North American, overtly “Other” sensibility to be important and enlightening, especially for those not used to seeing diverse characters featured in popular culture.
3) Diverse people want to be the hero too
All people consume media for one or more of the same basic reasons: to gain a new perspective; to escape the mundane; to vicariously live out an experience; to feel the cathartic release that comes from assuming the role of hero in a world where so few true heroes exists.
To see people who resemble us doing heroic things to help us understand the full extent of what we’re capable of.
White, middle-age men like those in my writers’ group may never completely understand this last point – may never comprehend what makes (non-stereotyped) demographic characteristics so important, particularly in a story where a character’s race/gender/orientation/etc. isn’t core to the plot.
But then, no one ever says a white, straight, able-bodied character’s whiteness, straightness, or ability has to be central to the plot. As well, white, straight, able-bodied people can literally consult any media format and function and see themselves represented, portrayed in any heroic role you can imagine.
This normalization of society’s elevated classes comes at the expense and invisiblization of everyone else, who is necessarily left feeling like something not normal.
Diverse people regularly fed the message that “all people are the same”, and why can’t they just relate themselves to characters who different from them? As if diverse people don’t already spend most of their lives trying to find themselves among what’s available in mainstream media.
If people are to ever truly be considered all the same in society, seeing all sorts of different people in all sorts of situations in the media without their differences being of any consequence is an important first step.
The documentary Miss Representation sums it up best:
You can’t be what you can’t see.
What are your thoughts on the role of diverse character’s on a story’s plot? Let me know in the comments.