With the recent announcement of the Oscar nominations, quite a bit of attention has been directed toward the type of stories that get told in movies, on TV and in books. We live in a world where there are many different stories, and to me it gets a bit tiring to see most stories on the screen and page representing such a narrow range of experience and identity. There is tremendous value in diversity in stories. Not only does it give us a chance to see ourselves represented, but it is also a way for us to connect with and learn about those different from us.
Inclusion Doesn’t Mean Exclusion
I have heard the argument that often shows up in Internet comments sections that the call to add more diverse stories is racist. The claim is that by focusing on creating more movies, TV shows and books by black people, for example, we are privileging black stories above all others. This is a false connection. Bringing more stories to the table is not a matter of pushing others out. It is really a matter of bringing more voices to the conversation.
The truth is we need more variety in the stories we read and watch. The U.S. is a nation of people from countless backgrounds, races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders and more. If what gets represented on the page and screen represents only a small percentage of that, we are missing out on a lot of interesting stories. Talking about having more roles for people of color to play in movies or stories that reflect the immigrant experience is not a way to exclude others. Being inclusive is also a good way to break down stereotypes, and stories offer us an excellent way to understand others simply by picking up a book or turning on the TV.
Learning About Others Through Stories
If we only read and watched stories about characters that were exactly like us, things might get a little repetitive after awhile. While it is nice to see people like me represented in stories, I also like to gain a deeper understand of what it is like to live outside of my own identity and worldview.
I recently watched Master of None, a new show available on Netflix starring Aziz Ansari. The show was created by Ansari and Alan Yang. While stories of people in their 20s and early 30s struggling with careers, relationships and identity are nothing new, what makes this show different is that its cast is not all (or mostly) white as we often see in such shows. In addition, the characters on the show are not the one-dimensional versions of people of color often portrayed. Instead we get complex, interesting characters that are more than stereotypes.
Ansari’s character Dev is a first-generation American, but that does not mean that the viewer must also be such to enjoy the show. There are parts of the show that revolve around Dev and his parents (delightfully played by Ansari’s real-life parents) and the life experiences specific to immigrant families. Being a country with a strong history of immigration, there have been stories like this for generations in the U.S., yet we do not get much of a chance to see them represented in mainstream entertainment. With the success of Master of None, I hope we can see more stories like this that truly represent the variety of stories in the American experience.
Seeing Myself in Stories
Up until recently, I did not care much for sports. While everyone else was recently gearing up to watch the Super Bowl, I was the one running around telling everyone how excited I was about Puppy Bowl. But something strange has happened over the last couple years. One of my good friends has helped me cultivate an interest in soccer. He is a lifelong fan of the sport. I started watching games with him and started to enjoy the sport, and I finally got excited about it as we watched the 2015 women’s World Cup, which culminated in a victory for the U.S. I started to learn the names of female soccer players and even went to a recent game where the U.S. played Ireland in San Diego.
While watching the match, I came to the realization that I enjoy watching women’s soccer more than men’s soccer, and I questioned why. And I finally realized that there was something about watching players I could identify with that fueled my interest. Perhaps it is this idea that I could be out there playing. Of course, that’s not a reality. I’m too old for professional sports and I’m not athletic, but it is nice to have that fantasy in the same way that going to a rock concert fills one with the fantasy of being up on stage in front of a sea of screaming fans or reading the Harry Potter books makes readers dream of getting their own Hogwarts letter. We connect to those stories and experiences through sensing some kind of similarity or likeness. Such a connection can serve as a gateway into a story or world we might not have otherwise thought of joining.
I like when I see a bit of myself reflected in the stories I watch and read. As I wrote about in my last post, I have a particular affinity for fictional females who love reading. It is an easy way to imagine myself within the story. This is another reason it is important to see a diversity of stories told on TV, in film and in books. All readers and viewers deserve to see representations of themselves in stories. It is just as valuable as having access to see the stories of others represented.
Be sure to check out what 11-year-old Marley Dias has to say on this subject. She launched #1000BlackGirlBooks. She made a goal of collecting 1,000 books that feature black girl protagonists in response to the fact that most of the books she read in school centered around a white boy and his dog. She distributed the books to schools in the U.S. and Jamaica. Dias’s activism is a reminder of why it is important to have diversity in the books available to children. As I have said, everyone needs to see themselves represented in the stories we read and watch.