Recently, Stephen King tweeted that he would “never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” He seems to be talking about this year’s Oscars nominations, which the BBC has dubbed “not a good year for diversity in the top categories”.
King later followed up to his statement: “The most important thing we can do as artists and creative people is make sure everyone has the same fair shot, regardless of sex, color, or orientation. Right now such people are badly under-represented, and not only in the arts.” And in another tweet: “You can’t win awards if you’re shut out of the game.”
This incident doesn’t necessarily make Stephen King problematic. I’m not out to criticise him, but to explore the questions that his statements raise.
To me, Stephen King’s initial statement and his follow ups feel contradictory. On one hand, he asserts that quality matters more than concerns of diversity. Yet, he also concedes that it’s critical for everyone, including minority groups, to have an equal playing field — which is the exact purpose of the focus on diversity and inclusion.
Another issue, which several people mentioned in their replies to King’s tweet, is that he seems to create a dichotomy between quality and diversity, looking at them as separate qualities. But you can’t really have one without the other.
Does everything have to be ‘diverse’?
Some people might be tired of the diversity ‘trend’ in media, but there is no such thing. Real life is filled with diversity — you can’t ignore it. And art is based on life. Even the most fantastical stories are rooted in the real world, which is filled with all sorts of unique differences.
This doesn’t mean every story has to be singularly focused on minorities, or address every inequality or injustice. That kind of ‘check the box’ approach is meaningless.
But to create worlds that overlook the existence of minorities, or neglect stories that turn the focus on minorities, is absurd. This only serves to reinforce the limited experiences that society deems the norm. And it is the proliferation of these norms that sets certain groups as the default, the standard option.
This has the implicit suggestion that certain people’s stories are the only ones worth telling, which results in, for example, people being incensed about an actor of colour being cast as the Little Mermaid — because by default, the character has been represented in media as white.
People outside society’s norms exist, and they deserve to have their fair share of representation. This is not a secondary concern after quality; it’s an integral part of quality.
The purpose of art is to expose us to other points of view. That’s when it’s really good quality — when it broadens our minds and exposes us to perspectives that we’re otherwise limited from accessing. Which is why it’s so crucial to ensure that different perspectives and experiences are given their own space in art and media.
“But isn’t it about talent?”
A common question in the diversity debate is, “Should people [read this book/watch this movie/hire this actor/nominate this artist] because of the [character’s/actor’s/artist’s] skin colour? Isn’t it talent that matters?”
To this, I reply: no one is suggesting that minorities be recognised for being minorities. But when it comes to mainstream media, minority groups have a history of being disregarded and excluded. For example, no artists of colour were nominated for any acting awards as recently as 2015 and 2016. The question of talent doesn’t even come up in these situations.
The call for diversity and inclusion asks that everyone be considered without discrimination. This often requires extra effort, because those at the top have gotten there because of certain power structures that are still prevalent in society today. These structures make it easy for some to become visible in media and art, while others struggle to get their voices heard because they don’t fit in the norm.
It is not a coincidence that there has never been an instance of all nominations going to a certain minority group. Nor that people never seem to ask the “talent” question when it comes to privileged groups and their dominance in art and media.
In most cases, it is the privileged who are in the spotlight because of the bias — whether implicit or explicit — of those who hold the authority. Art shouldn’t serve to enforce these structures that perpetuate inequality.
Is diversity in art a requirement?
We can’t expect art to be good quality when it only tells the story of one experience and solidifies that story as the norm. Real quality and diversity are integrated. If you’re looking at media today and seeing quality even when there’s no diversity, it’s likely thanks to a position of privilege.
As Stephen King doesn’t appear to be a part of any minority groups, it’s probably easy for him to disregard things like sex, colour and orientation — to set them aside by saying “regardless” — when these are integral parts of many people’s identities. We can’t afford to put them aside, because those things might be part of who we are. And in some scenarios, including in the world of art, this can work against us.
Talent is everywhere, but we have to actively seek out the talent of some. Centuries of inequality won’t be rectified by indifference. If we keep passively consuming and supporting the art put in front of us as a result of biases and discriminatory structures, we will inadvertently become a part of oppressive forces.
Pay attention to minority voices. Reflect the world as it truly is. Tell, consume and spread the stories of people who deviate from the norm. And if you’re lucky enough to have some privilege, use it to make space for those who have been pushed aside. Use your voice to amplify those that have been silenced.
In short, yes. Good quality art can’t exist without diversity.