Gay Sulu and Black Girl Iron Man: discussing diversifying characters

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In recent media, you may have heard that two established characters have been changed to make them more diverse, that being that Hikaru Sulu of the Star Trek franchise has recently been written as gay for the latest reboot sequel; while comic book Iron Man is giving up his title to a new young black teenage girl.

Naturally, both of these revelations have had mixed reactions. This is nothing new of course. With examples such as female Thor, the new all female ghost busters crew, black Hermione in the Harry Potter play, and Fan4stic’s black human torch, a lot of characters are being diversified, and a lot of this is gaining some backlash.

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Though backlash for this died down when it proved to be the absolute least of Fan4stic’s problems

Now, yes, a lot of this does come from unjustified prejudice and bigotry. There are plenty of white folks out there who consider it a personal insult to change a white character to black in spite of the fact that casting and character design still tends to be heavily biased in favour of white people. Same goes for straight people, able bodied people, male action heroes, the list goes on. Then there are those who simply dislike change of any kind, wanting everything to stay exactly as they picture it, and despising any deviation from this picture.

But there is another argument to all this, and one I think we should talk about given that’s an argument with strong sides to it:

Is it right to diversify existing characters, when you could just as easily create new and original characters?

As I say, this argument is a little trickier as both sides make a good point. On one hand, seeing a popular, pre existing character reveal themselves to belong to some kind of marginalised group can become a good role model and ensure these issues get a lot of attention due to the popularity of the pre existing character. On the other hand, you could also argue that it’s unfair to these marginalised groups that they don’t get their own cool new hero that this character could have been, instead just getting a different version of an already established character who wasn’t part of any minority.

So, which is the best route to take? And what about Sulu and the new Iron Man replacement?

Well, to be honest, I personally think the former falls into the first category, and the latter falls into the second.

Sulu being gay is not only adding diversity, but it doesn’t feel like that much of a change to the original character. Heterosexuality in and of itself is more or less never a major part of a character. Since heterosexuality doesn’t face any prejudice outside the darkest corners of tumblr, it usually doesn’t effect a person’s life outside of who they want to date. Changing a character from heterosexual to any other sexuality as a result may effect their character, but doesn’t go against any real previously established traits. The only thing that makes a difference is if a character previously showed serious romantic interest in an opposite-gendered character, but even then that only suggests being gay isn’t an option, and doesn’t rule out sexualities like bi or pan. Since the change isn’t that major and the character can easily be the same character (that of course depends entirely on your opinions of the reboot), then this could easily be seen as a positive change for the sake of diversity and acknowledgement.

The Iron Man replacement, Riri Williams, on the other hand I feel is a different issue.  A young black female science prodigy is undeniably going to be a different character to Tony Stark. So why make her just “Iron Man’s successor” and not a new character. You could even go as far as making her a character with a different power entirely, given the field of science has all kinds of options for super powers. While this would run the risk of getting less attention due to no longer having Iron Man’s popularity power, it could offer  more creative and imaginative story potential.

But, you ask, if the first character is so popular, then isn’t it right that a marginalised group gets their own version of such a character?

My counter argument would be this: you can have two similar characters with similar powers, morals, and/or backstories,  while still making them different characters. Take, for example, Captain America and Black Panther from the recent movie Captain America Civil War

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When you actually look into it, you’ll realise these two characters are pretty similar. Both have heightened strength and agility, both actively work to be the perfect symbols for their country, both have a strong sense of justice, both fight for the sake of a person they care about (Bucky for Steve, and T’challa’s dead father), and so on. Yet these are two different characters, with very different designs and backstories. Black Panther effectively acts as a perfect parallel to Captain America, while at the same time being a completely different character.

And while I really don’t mean to accuse any writers of anything right now, there is something I think does need to be brought up, and that is the question of whether or not changing a character to make them more diverse is a lazy move in terms of writing. It’s easy to look at a lack of diversity and your writing and just say “er, character X is a woman now or whatever”, rather than introduce a whole new character with an intriguing backstory for such a character. But I will make the argument that laziness can in fact be avoided, provided the change is written well into the story. Sadly there are many writers out there who want to seem up to date with modern equality issue yet don’t  really understand and can’t be bothered to do any research, so they go with whatever route is easiest, and turn the diversity into nothing more than a coat of paint as opposed to a solid core. I have encountered characters who simply exist to say “Look, I’m gay. That means this piece of media supports gay people”. My previous post on how to write strong female characters went into detail about how writers often do this with, well, female characters. Whether or not the writer has chosen the “easy” method of switching or revealing a character’s minority status, what really matters is just how that character is written. Do we see a meaningful romantic relationship form between the newly out gay character and a potential same-gender partner? Or are they just the old character with a new label attached to their forehead and nothing more?

There is of course still going to be backlash against a change in a character for reasons other than potential creative sterility. This has of course been covered time and time again, but my advice to those people would be this: if this is a new character, then the old character still exists, and so do many other characters who fit into the majority-status mold, so getting angry about adding a little more diversity is mostly a waste of time, given the diverse characters are not going to damage or destroy the old characters, and likely aren’t going to overtake the majority characters for some time. Admittedly, in many cases, there will be lazy attempts at diversity, and pitiful displays of tokenism. But, I advise you don’t judge things prematurely, as almost any changes in a character can be done well when in the right hands.

Yes, almost any at all.

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ALMOST.

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