TECH & SCIENCE
WHO are your favourite popular culture characters, and why?
For enthusiasts of all forms of popular media out there, this is a big question guaranteed to spark debate and discussion.
And you’d have to be living under a rock not to notice that a huge chunk of that discussion recently centres around diversity and representation.
From Doctor Who, Star Wars and Star Trek, to Thor and Spiderman and many others, the popular trend has been to change the characters race, gender or orientation, or add a more diverse cast, to better represent the growing audience for such media, which has traditionally been dominated by males like myself.
As a general rule, I’m all for this sort of change up.
Changing characters, or adding new characters means more stories and more content to enjoy, with the added benefit of being able to converse with a greater variety of people (being a nerd or geek has historically been a pretty lonely road for many of us).
But you would also have to be remiss not to notice that along with a great many of these changes, there has been a significant and often visceral backlash from long standing fans of all the tv series, movies and literature in question - with Star Wars being one of the most prominent examples.
As someone who has grown up with all the aforementioned characters and stories, along with a laundry list of others, as well as being the type of person who enjoys writing and creating my own stories, the question of why many people have had such strong reactions to this shift - both positive and negative - has been of great interest to me.
For me personally, I’ve found I’ve had a very mixed bag of reactions - ranging from excitement to great disappointment.
But it wasn’t until quite recently, when I began playing through some of the new content of World or Warcraft (yeah, I’m a Blizzard fan, sue me) that I felt I’d settled on why I felt this way.
‘Stay awhile and listen’ the art of good storytelling.
Without spoiling the story of Warcraft, or boring those who have no idea what I’d talking about, suffice to say that the writers at Blizzard have embarked on their own version of a Game of Thrones-esque narrative, chock full of betrayals, plot twists, and grand cinematic battles for dominion over the world of Azeroth.
It’s engaging stuff, and the two most prominent and interesting characters vying for power happen to be strong, very complex, interesting female characters - namely Sylvanas Windrunner and Jaina Proudmoore.
And ‘happen to be’ is the operative phrase here.
Unlike many other examples in this push for diversity in popular culture, both characters have a rich and storied history in the fictional universe that has been developed over more than a decade. Their rise to a prominent position in the narrative makes complete sense, and is congruent with the larger story arc.
Contrast this with Laura Dern’s character Admiral Holdo in the Star Wars: The Last Jedi, who was plucked out of nowhere and made leader of the Resistance in the same scene that she’s introduced to the audience.
Add to this the many lines of dialog that slam home the fact that she’s female via her criticism of her bumbling male subordinate, and is it truly unfair to criticise the writing of the new Star Wars films as being contrived and overly focussed on diversity virtue signalling at the expense of good storytelling?
This, I think, has been the primary sin in the diversification of popular media. It’s not enough to have diverse characters.
They have to be interesting and engaging diverse characters, or else you’re doing a disservice to the people you’re trying to represent.
Which is a good segue into the other point I’d like to make.
It’s time to r-e-p-r-e-s-e-n-t.
The general wisdom surrounding diversity in popular media is that there need to be a greater numbers of characters from a variety of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds in order to make audiences feel like they are being represented.
If the discussions surrounding this subject are anything to go by I may be in the minority, but I don’t ever recall being a fan of any particular character solely because they ticked my ‘identity’ boxes. To put it another way, during my formative years I didn’t identify with Peter Parker/ Spiderman because he was a straight white guy.
I identified with him because the virtues he stood for in the face of the struggles and trials he faced were allegorical to my own life.
And I know this is true because there were many other characters - from all kinds of backgrounds and identities - that I identified with in the same manner.
If we have truly reached a point in time where we require a character to be of the same race, gender, or orientation as ourselves in order to empathise or identify with them, I worry what that means for our multicultural, diverse society.
STRONG FEMALE LEADS: Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo and Sylvanas Windrunner (voiced by Patty Mattson) are two examples of diverse characters who have received very different reactions from fans of their respective fictional universes.