Recently I was looking at responses to a discussion about books or authors a reader used to like but had soured on since, and one of the responses puzzled me. This particular reader had multiple issues with the Harry Potter series, but the main one was supposed lack of diversity, and that they felt J. K. Rowling was being something of a jerk in response to questions about it. This puzzled me, because I remember the cast as being pretty diverse for its setting, and it seems like, racially at least, it fits Britain pretty well. The reader responded with some statistics about how the cast breaks down racially vs. Britain. It wasn’t all about race either, but about disabilities and LGBT characters.
A couple issues before I get to my main point: The reader was obviously using newer stats instead of comparing the books to their actual setting, 1991-1997; and they also failed to understand that statistically, with as small a sample size as even Harry Potter’s large cast represents, everything came out pretty solid. Generally I think if you’re going to get upset enough about something to look up data to prove your case, you should have a better handle on how the margin of error works.
But the main thing troubling me was that this reader, like quite a few others it seems—and this is more of an issue for TV and movies than for books, but it’s getting worse everywhere—was so hung up on diversity to the point where it seemed like that should matter above the story.
I like diversity. I like all kinds of diversity, including and especially diversity of the mind and spirit. I think it can add real dimension to stories, in whatever medium they’re told. It should never, ever matter more than the story itself.
Judging a book harshly because it doesn’t tick off enough boxes, in your opinion, on a particular representation bingo card, is petty and poisonous. Nobody can ever fill everyone’s bingo card and still tell a coherent story, nor should that ever take precedence over the story. Pushing authors to try to do this will only constrain them unduly and limit what stories they can tell. I can completely understand saying “Gosh, I wish there were more characters like ____ in this medium/genre”, but lambasting an individual work or an author for failing to forward that agenda on your behalf? No. Go screw yourself, Slappy. If you want more inclusion for X or Y or Z then you go ahead and write a good story of your own with them. You go ahead and praise works that stand out for this, and encourage others to read them. But don’t go throwing shade on books and movies and TV shows that don’t, in your opinion, go far enough. It’s up to the author to decide what characters they want, and if they don’t include Z that doesn’t mean the book is bad.
I say it’s poisonous to foist this “responsibility” on authors because no other word will do. Do you want pointless tokenism? Because that’s how you get tokenism. Each person, every individual is so much more than their race, their sexuality, their gender, their anything else. Yet the more we (I don’t mean we) demand authors try to include every possible group, the more we’ll see characters created just for the sake of said inclusion and nothing more—or else harping on that aspect of their identity to the detriment of their worth as a character.
One of the reader’s issues was with a complete lack of characters who had a non-magical disability. In the Harry Potter universe. Is this really surprising? We don’t see much of the muggle world because it’s a world we already know; there’s no point rehashing it. In the magical world, you have to assume they can cure a lot of ailments except those caused by curses. Heck, Harry gets all the bones in his arm removed in book 2 and grown back with a potion. When one of the Weasley twins loses an ear to a curse, the book explicitly says the ear can’t be restored because it was cursed off—implying if not for the lingering magic at the wound site, restoring it would be doable. (Although it makes you wonder why they couldn’t cut further back and try then.)
And then of course there’s the LGBT issue. Yes Dumbledore’s gay, but it isn’t stated outright in the books. It is hinted at in broad strokes in book 7, showing the depth of his friendship with Grindelwald, but that’s all. But would it have been worth making that more demonstrative? Would that have served any purpose in the story? Because if you told the exact same story but tried to make it obvious Dumbledore was gay, you’re right back to tokenism.
Also, this is aimed at younger audiences. That is not to say that there’s any reason adolescents or even kids shouldn’t be aware of the notion of sexual orientations other than straight, but it doesn’t need to be brought up in every story, either, and it’s far better to stick to the story when dealing with a younger audience. And there’s quite enough else going on with the onset of puberty as Harry and his friends have hormones running amuck, crushing on whomever catches their eye. We see mostly through Harry’s perspective and he’s straight; we see some of what his friends go through and most of them are straight too, which statistically they would be. But a lot of the adults are opaque to him, to some degree, and Dumbledore in particular always kept a great deal to himself.
Here’s a head-scratcher for you: Is it possible that the reason there aren’t more, or apparently any, openly gay characters in the series because there’s more going on than meets the eye? Not only does the series begin in the early ’90s, when there was still less acceptance of homosexuality, but we’re also dealing with a completely different society that has in many ways evolved much more slowly than the world around it. Think about that! Maybe in the magical community, there’s still a huge lingering stigma on it. Isn’t that an interesting thing to wonder about? And isn’t it amazing that Rowling created such an expansive world that there are deep things to ponder?
Besides which, Dumbledore began his relationship with Grindelwald in the early 1900s. Being gay (or rather, acting on it) was outright illegal in Britain then even in the muggle world. You can well imagine that he’d keep mum about it for many years, the need for which his great fame would have only exacerbated, and once he reached old age and was apparently past the point of seeking romantic companionship, he might well have thought there was no point even bringing it up anymore. Doesn’t this make Dumbledore’s story so much more poignant? Isn’t this a lot more meaningful than simply tokenizing him? Dumbledore’s sexuality isn’t something Rowling simply made up post-hoc, because it comes out between the lines in book 7; and the fact that it’s all between the lines gives it a depth that wouldn’t have been there had he or another character simply blurted out the truth.
You see, when the author is free to explore diversity in their own way—or even leave it alone in any or all of its forms, as suits the story they want to tell—it’s a million times better than trying to dominate them into creating exactly the right mix of characters and interactions. When so dominated, they may satisfy one person yet disaffect others whose subjective standards are totally different. Because the voices screaming loudest for diversity above story will never be possible to satisfy; they will always find a new criticism to lob.
Petty, and poisonous.
As I said I like diversity; I value it. I value it far too much to let it be turned into something hideous by foaming cultists, pushed onto every creative work as an obligation—impossible to fulfill to everyone’s complete satisfaction even though they demand no less—when it should be no more or less than another well-loved tool in the chest. I look to include it in my works wherever it will make the story more interesting or feel more real. But I will never fill quotas to appease those who treat it as the end-all-be-all.