Wangaratta Chronicle - North East Regional Extra - - FRONT PAGE - with CHRIS

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.

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