Is Diversity in Art a Requirement?

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.

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Stephen King | Source: pinguino k, licensed via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

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Is this what diversity looks like? | Source: Candace Lindemann, licensed via CC BY 2.0

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.

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Talent isn’t always the only qualification | Source: Walt Disney Television, licensed via CC BY-ND 2.0

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.

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Stephen King’s tweets

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.


Header image: Illustration by E. Stuart Hardy for The Book of Gnomes by Fred. E. Weatherly. | Source: Sofi, licensed via CC BY-NC 2.0, modified to add text and graphics.

5 thoughts on “Is Diversity in Art a Requirement?

  1. Diana

    Good quality art cannot exist without talent, it is only in the level of opportunity that diversity should be recognised. It is appalling that such books as The Miniaturist should be lauded and praised – there is no merit in them, oh, yes, apart from it being a diversity ticking the box tool – strong female lead, box ticked, gay representation – box ticked, gay injustice corrected – tick the box yet again. Just because a story does not have diverse characters it does not mean it purposely IGNORES them, it means that are NOT essential to the story – why include and force the hand of the artist? What we have now are historical figures in historical fiction that act completely like our contemporaries with liberal views – this is REWRITING history – and this practice is as dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sohini

      Thank you for your comment! You raise some important points.

      1) The Miniaturist: As I say in the post, the ‘check the box’ approach to diversity is meaningless. The diversity I speak of is not token diversity — putting in diverse characters just for the sake of it — but integrating it into the story to represent different viewpoints. I haven’t read this particular book, but if any story includes diversity in such a superficial way, I agree that it shouldn’t be lauded because of it.

      2) Just because a story doesn’t have diverse characters doesn’t mean it ignores them: Maybe not purposefully, but when the vast majority of mainstream media focuses on one set of experiences, one set of characteristics, and sets them as a universal standard that not everyone can live up to, this contributes to a collective ‘ignoring’ of minorities. While it might be dangerous to rewrite history, minorities have existed throughout history. Yet, their existence has been erased or misrepresented in most mainstream stories. In my eyes, that’s what constitutes as rewriting history.

      Diverse characters may not seem “essential” to any given story, but showing their presence in everyday scenarios, in positive narratives, is essential in deconstructing inequalities that still exist in society. Giving minority creators an equal opportunity is important, but not enough; it’s also crucial to make diversity the norm, in order to break the unfair limitations society places on us today. (E.g., creating a ‘foreign films’ category in the Oscars creates a space for diverse creators, but still treats them as different from the established norm rather than meaningfully integrating and interacting with them.)

      And if creators don’t feel comfortable writing diverse characters, there’s always the chance to actively consume the content of others who do. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Diana

    “Integrating minotirites into the story to represent different viewpoints” and “putting them for the sake of them being in the story” are virtually undisguisable actions since it is only for the author it is clear what is essential as they create their content in their mind. If an author does not have experience of such integration (and most of them do not) they can damage minorities even more by including them and misrepresenting them in the story than ignoring them completely.

    You say “minorities existence has been erased or misrepresented in most mainstream stories”. Authors from minority backgrounds should be given the same opportunity to showcase their stories and there should be more stories with minority characters, I agree, but when the so-called white and “privileged” male authors are forced now to write their stories with minority characters in them and present them always in a good light, it could be problematic in a long term – these authors are trying to please the “diversity” trend and portray themselves and their books in a certain way irrespective of how they in fact feel deep inside.

    Showing a strong-willed female heroine with liberal views living in the sixteenth century may get you millions of readers, but hey, that is a very exceptional case since women simply did not possess that mentality back then (most people assume they did – but that is wrong) and even me saying this is now criminal and I will be accused of all things under the sun now. One may not like what is going on in “Gone with the Wind” re slavery, but that is how people thought back then. If one denounces this book or Tom Sawyer or any such book as “racist” now, one does not want to acknowledge that this history happened. I know it sounds racist, bad and very wrong but the minority voice was not in faction for so long because it did not matter – these people had no power back then – if historical fiction, for example, gives them this power now – it is a good fairy tale but it is also rewriting history – unfortunately. Even I sound horrible to myself.

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    • Sohini

      1) “they can damage minorities even more by including them and misrepresenting them in the story than ignoring them completely”

      The difference between token diversity and actual diversity are very obvious. You identified it yourself, when referring to ‘The Miniaturist’. If the author doesn’t truly consider diverse elements as important to the story, it will show. And while it’s true that authors who are not minorities run the risk of misrepresenting them, there are so many ways to avoid this. Of course, they should let minorities speak for themselves. But writing characters who are different from you, and doing it respectfully, is necessary and possible, firstly by doing research. Not only is Google a wealth of information, but even better is speaking to people who’ve had these experiences. Getting sensitivity readers. Speaking to other authors who have done this well. Reading inclusive books and minority authors.

      And I’m not sure what you mean by not having the “experience” of integration — like I said in the post, real life is full of diversity. No one lives surrounded by people same as them. So if someone is writing worlds where, say, only straight white people exist, I’d wager that that’s more unnatural than creating diverse stories and characters. Rick Riordan is a great example of an author who (as far as I know) is not part of a minority group, but has written books that are inclusive in a respectful way. So it is possible, if writers put work into it. Misrepresenting minorities is harmful, but so is ignoring them. It’s an author’s responsibility to avoid both risks and try to pave the way to a better world through their work.

      2) “these authors are trying to please the “diversity” trend and portray themselves and their books in a certain way irrespective of how they in fact feel deep inside”

      Once again, there is no such thing as a diversity trend. Diversity is a part of life. And if people treat it as a trend and try to “please” it, that will be blatantly obvious. This is not the kind of inclusivity I am asking for; I am asking for authors to be sincere in their efforts, to understand that so many people have been excluded from the narrative so far, and to use their powers to correct this — not only by making space for minority authors, but also by creating worlds and characters where minorities exist and are not represented negatively, as they have been for centuries.

      Excusing privileged authors from being inclusive because “they might feel differently deep inside” seems akin to excusing discriminatory and prejudiced beliefs. Many people don’t protest about the fact that privileged people have represented minorities in a bad light for centuries. In fact, the stories that do that are often hailed as classics and must-reads. Now we’re asking that stereotypes be broken, that discrimination be stopped — and if someone is against this, they need to examine their biases, whether deliberate or unconscious.

      3) “that is how people thought back then” / “the minority voice was not in faction for so long because it did not matter”

      Yes, conservative views may have been more prevalent in the 16th century. But liberal thoughts existed then, too — those weren’t newly invented in the 21st century. Alongside those who thought women should be subservient, there were surely also feminists who advocated for women’s rights. Yes, there were people who thought people of colour were inferior — but also others who denounced racist views. Who decided these voices don’t matter? People who were in power because of their gender/race/etc.

      But their perceptions of value were based on discriminatory beliefs. Their ideas of what “matters” shouldn’t be upheld today — that would be the same as upholding those same discriminatory beliefs. Instead, literature should shine the light on voices that, because of centuries of prejudice, were deemed not important enough. It’s possible to do this while still being accurate to history. No one will read historical fiction that put the attention on minority voices and suddenly believe that gender discrimination or slavery didn’t happen.

      4) “If one denounces this book or Tom Sawyer or any such book as “racist” now, one does not want to acknowledge that this history happened”

      I acknowledge that ‘Tom Sawyer’, ‘Gone With the Wind’, etc. were products of their times. My issue is, why are so many books today not the product of today’s times? Why do prejudices and inequalities still exist that exclude certain people from being seen? Why are published authors and protagonists predominantly a certain gender/race/etc.? Narratives of the past have widely been written and perpetuated by those who have been in power for centuries. With historical fiction, and fiction in general, we have the opportunity to turn the focus on those whose voices have been silenced for so long.

      This does’t mean historical fiction should make up things or deny history, but why should people of colour always be represented as slaves or antagonists? That’s not the only narrative to tell about their lives, yet it’s been the dominant narrative in the past. Representing minorities in a different light won’t prevent us from knowing what happened in history because we have plenty of resources to teach us about that — history classes, countless history books.

      And so, we have an opportunity in literature. History has been filled with inequalities — we don’t need literature to continue to reflect that. It’s horrifying that those inequalities still exist today — and we need literature to reflect THAT, to draw attention to the fact that some people are still far more privileged than others, and to examine why, and to help dismantle those power structures. That’s the only way literature will move us forward, not pull us towards the past.

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