Confused by the title of this post? Let me explain.
My late, beloved grandfather was a man with a delightful, dry wit. The best example of his wit (that I know of) comes from a conversation he had with my beloved grandmother. He used to call her “Mother,” and one day she told him, “Don’t call me ‘Mother.’ I’m not your mother and it makes me feel old.” So he started calling her “Mothra” after the giant moth monster from Japanese cinema. Like I said, he was a funny, funny man.
Anyway, he had a favorite joke related to political correctness. During conversations about diversity and more representation for different groups of people, he would joke, “Don’t forget the left-handed Lithuanians!” The joke was commenting on the rigid nature of political correctness and pointing out that, essentially, someone, somewhere is going to offended by what you say, no matter what it is.
Flash to the present day. A few months ago, I had a conversation on Facebook about the lack of diversity in television shows that take place in New York City. Many television shows lack diversity, but shows that take place in New York City – one of the most diverse cities in the United States – strike me as particularly egregious. We talked about how shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and (to a lesser extent) Seinfeld have a diversity problem. Someone else made a sarcastic, jokey comment about creating a “checklist” of nationalities and religious backgrounds that should be included in forms of entertainment to ensure that a work of art is properly diverse.
That’s when I realized why so many conversations about diversity go so wrong, and why the “left-handed Lithuanian” approach to talking about diversity and political correctness goes awry (with all due respect to my wonderful Grandpa).
Diversity isn’t about ensuring that every character in a book, or a television program, or a movie, or a play comes from a different background, and that every single one of these characters is fully-developed and completely without stereotypes. A show like Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t fail some kind of straw diversity test because you can look at the cast of characters and say, “It has more than one black person, a few gay characters, an Asian character, a Mexican-American woman, and more than one fat person, but whoops, no disabled characters or Arab-Americans! YOU FAIL AT DIVERSITY!”
Diversity is about taking a step back from your own experiences and considering NOT making your cast filled with just white people.
Diversity isn’t about blaming one or two shows like Friends or How I Met Your Mother for all the white people on television. Pretending that Friends and How I Met Your Mother caused the lack-of-diversity problem doesn’t help (and for the record, neither of the people I talked to about those shows tried to make that argument).
Diversity is about looking at the way shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother may unintentionally perpetuate an existing stereotype or offensive trope, and how those examples fit into a larger systemic problem.
Diversity isn’t about calling up Carter Bays and Craig Thomas (creators of How I Met Your Mother) and informing them that they must be racist because they don’t have any regular characters who aren’t white. After all, their show is loosely autobiographical and based on their own experiences as two straight white guys; they’re writing about what they know.
Diversity is about leveling the playing field, about movie and television executives having a little more imagination and hiring more actors, producers, and writers who aren’t straight white guys, so that more people who are not straight white guys have the opportunities to tell their stories as well.
(Also, just for the record: I’m using “straight white guy” as a catch-all term for “privileged,” not trying to imply that homophobia, racism, and sexism are the only types of systemic prejudices out there. I haven’t even gotten into transphobia, fat hatred, ableism, classism, anti-Semitism, etc.)
If all of this still doesn’t make sense, or makes you want to respond with a “Yeah, but…”, consider this. I give Glee a lot of well-deserved shit, but the “Mash-Off” episode included a scene between Mercedes and Santana where they had a brief confrontation over leadership of the Troubletones singing group before reaching an agreement. I sat there and thought, “I am watching a scene between two women of color, one of whom is gay. These two women of color – one of whom is gay – are the main contenders for group leader, and are considered the two most talented members of this singing group.”
It was rather remarkable.
You know why it was remarkable? Because it was rare.
I look forward to a day where such scenes are not remarkable, where a scene on television between two women of color – one of whom is gay – is so ordinary and commonplace that it doesn’t even occur to me to comment on it.
And yes, I’m sure this can be accomplished even without completely ruining the career opportunities of straight white guys.