“Does it matter if it's not ‘historically accurate’ to write a fantasy book about a diverse cast of people?”
I found it hard to believe I was even reading this question.
It was posed in a comment to my most recent blog entry, where I addressed the issue of diversity in the film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the novel upon which it was based.
I was going to respond to the comment there, but then realized I had a bigger point to make.
First things first: my answer to the question. When a story is set in a specific historical time and place, of course it matters.
It matters for the same reason it mattered that Gods of Egypt utilized a nearly all-white cast. That film, like Miss Peregrine, was clearly a fantasy, but it was just as inarguably set in a specific historical place. Depicting the population of ancient Egypt with a cast of European actors was absurd – not because it was politically incorrect, but because it was inaccurate.
It would have been just as absurd to populate the cast of Vikings with Senegalese or Brazilian actors. Or to transport a large number of Asian, black or Native American characters to a Welsh island in 1942, the setting for Miss Peregrine.
If you start rewriting history to conform with your political agenda, how are you different than the Soviet propaganda machine that sought to rewrite history in the mid-20th century? Or the Taliban warlords who destroyed the giant, ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 because they were an “affront to Islam.”
History is important because it links us to our past: the good, the bad and the ugly. Destroy or doctor it, and we forget where we’ve come from. We lose, to some extent, a sense of who we are.
This is precisely why diversity is important. We must, indeed, never forget the Holocaust or the slave trade or racial segregation or the European plunder of the land we call the Americas from dozens of established, sovereign nations.
But we don’t get to cherry-pick history. We don’t get to treat it as some sort of a smorgasbord and skip straight to the dessert – even for the sake of something we believe to be a noble cause in the here and now. The Russian Communists and the Taliban thought they were fighting for noble causes, too. Who decides?
Your political agenda shouldn’t. History should.
And by the same token, your political agenda – whatever it is – shouldn’t determine what a writer or a filmmaker or any other artist gets to create. We tried that once before in reaction to those Russian Communists. They called it McCarthyism, and the result was that everyone who didn’t conform to the prevailing definition of political correctness was either persecuted, blackballed or both.
It might not be typical – and it won’t be popular in some quarters – to characterize McCarthyism as a form of political correctness, but that’s exactly what it was. And in the minds of those who believed America was being infiltrated by “pinkos” and “commies,” it was the noblest of causes.
Today, we’re dealing with a different sort of political correctness, attached to a different cause: diversity. Or at least one definition of it.
Who would argue that diversity isn’t a noble cause? Certainly, I won’t. Then again, I couldn’t have disputed that the Soviet Union was a threat to the United States during the McCarthy era and beyond. There were, without a doubt, Russian spies in the United States during the Cold War, and the Cuban missile crisis really did push us to the brink of nuclear war.
The irony is that many of those championing what they call diversity are, in fact, undermining it.
How? They’ve defined it so narrowly that only their particular standards for diversity will do, and they’re demanding that writers and filmmakers adhere to those standards. The result, if they’re successful, will be precisely the opposite of diversity: It will be a series of books and films that exist within a very narrow spectrum, reducing writers to a paint-by-numbers approach that encourages tokenism at the expense of intellectual honesty.
In my blog on Miss Peregrine, for example, I pointed out that the story was, in fact, built around a persecuted minority (the Jews during World War II, as portrayed both by actual Jewish characters in the story and, allegorically, by the peculiarly gifted children). It also showcases strong female characters, such as Miss Peregrine and Emma.
But that, apparently, isn’t good enough for some folks because it doesn’t fit their definition of diversity.
So how precisely should we define diversity? My wife wrote her Mad World trilogy that featured a Latina protagonist in the first two books and a gay hero in the concluding volume. Is that “good enough”? Or was she remiss not to include a transgender individual, a Native American character and an autistic character in the mix?
The fact is, though, that she didn’t write her books the way she did to meet someone else’s standard of diversity. She did so because she wanted to; because she thought that writing what she did, the way she did, resulted in the best story.
Encourage diversity. Celebrate it. Promote it. But don’t mandate your definition of it in each and every creative work that happens to cross your desk or meet your eyes. If we start mandating that every book or movie include X number of this or that minority, that’s not diversity, it’s conformity.
The ends and the means
Am I proposing that we stop working toward a more diverse world?
Precisely the opposite. I’m suggesting that certain critics are actually impeding diversity trying to micromanage the issue.
We need to take a broader view. True diversity doesn’t demand that every piece of entertainment we create be mashup of Vikings and Roots, any more than it promotes one white suburban retread after another. Instead, it embraces and celebrates a spectrum of creative endeavors ranging from Barbershop to Miss Peregrine to Brokeback Mountain to Pan’s Labyrinth.
Diversity is the lifeblood of the creative process. It’s something that truly artistic people naturally embrace because it is, when it comes right down to it, the wellspring of originality. It’s what sets the creative writer apart from the propagandist, whose narrow visions are built on mandates and agendas, not creative freedom. A world without diversity is a world of repetition, tedium, stagnation.
Awareness and freedom
Critics who see and decry a lack of diversity have a point. They want to change it, and so do I, but in some cases, I believe they’re going about it the wrong way. Awareness is essential, but so is creative freedom.
Artists and authors won’t achieve diversity by fighting among themselves and trying to micromanage one another’s work. We aren’t promoting diversity when we try to shame others into creating the kind of art we deem “acceptable,” any more than we’re doing so when we stack the deck at awards ceremonies to favor “people like us.”
We’re promoting diversity by creating original work, and then by championing that work – not by condemning someone else’s.
If we want to point fingers, we shouldn’t be doing it at one another, because the people at fault for a lack of diversity in the arts aren’t the artists themselves. They’re the money men (and women) who are content with endlessly rehashing the same tired material in one reboot and retread after another because they’re “safe bets,” rather than taking a chance on something original. Safe bets all look alike: no diversity – and no creativity.
The two go hand-in-hand.
Being an artist is challenging enough without having to contend with the sort of squabbling and internecine warfare that, at the end of the day, stifles diversity rather than promoting it. We have better and more important things to do. We have new stories to tell, new characters to invent, new worlds to create – which is precisely what we ought to be doing.