Rebooting Diversity

I've read a few things about diversity lately, now being a more important time than ever, I think, to make sure that the media we rapidly consume and quote in our pop culture discussions reflects the wider world that we actually live in. Anyone who says media and representations of people in the media aren't important or not worth worrying about as compared to bigger issues around the world we should invest our time and effort in are wrong. They absolutely matter, and a mixture of people shown on screen, in books, on an mp3 etc. can make a difference in the world.

Specifically I want to talk about reboots. Like them or loathe them (generally I'm in the loathe camp) the quality of films is not what I'm here to discuss. It's how they operate on a deeper level, or rather, don't. Reboots/revamps/reimaginings/renegades/repercussions/whatever you want to call them have a unique opportunity that they almost always miss: they can update the source material to reflect the current generation. Even if it feels like sacrilege to reboot something from your childhood, they can at least bring that old marvellous story you love so much to a new audience, a rather noble purpose, but if they still are operating on appealing to the original audience, then what's the point?

Let's look at that Star Trek reboot as a particularly grievous example. Most people seemed to like the '09 film (not sure why). It was cast well, Mr Pine really does a good young Kirk, Karl Urban is a perfect McCoy, if only they actually gave him something to do. As reboots go, they seemed to do their job pretty well, providing a nice shiny update to Trek, turning it more into Star Wars along the way, but hey, we were kind of expecting that to happen. And Star Trek is about hope and optimism and a utopian vision of humanity's future where we've all learnt to get along, as illustrated by the diverse crew. The reboot does the same thing, right?

Well, yes and no. It's got the surface level right, but it ignored what's deeper, and this is something that we all see in modern films. It's the formula of, 'That was successful, do it again but bigger!' leading to lots of same but different sequels and clones. It comes from just copying what's on the surface and ignoring what's going on a bit deeper. One way of looking at it is with this Spargo Three Level Model Analysis™. 

Surface level: diverse cast playing a diverse crew.

Middle level: shows utopian future, a positive message that we can all get along.

Deep level: sends a message to the humans in the real world that we can all get along in the real world.

Basically the diverse cast tells our brains things that affect both the story we're watching as well as how we view the real world. Having a black woman on TV was so important at the time Trek was on that Martin Luther King Jr. told Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show when she was considering quitting. And her presence on the screen showed Whoopi Goldberg that there was a place for black women in entertainment, leading to the enigmatic Guinan once The Next Generation rolled around. Chekov was the other really notable member of the original cast because of the cold war. Having a Russian character on an American show really gave you that message that we will be able to get along, that we would catch up to the Federation.

When the reboot came along, we had...the same thing. Huh? I know there's still tension there, but doing the same thing doesn't reflect the changes in society since the original series. For one thing, as excellent as Trek was, it wasn't great with women. Janeway was a fine step in the right direction and the reboot had the chance to do something interesting with that but no, we end up with Caroline Marcus stripping to camera and all women besides from Uhura being fuck candy for Kirk. YAWN.

 If you examine the deeper level stuff when you do a reboot, you would look at each character represents and try to update that, rather than updating the surface level stuff which is basically just updating the actors and special effects. Looking at what kind of characters we want and need to see in Trek right now, the crew should have had someone from China, someone mixed race, at least one queer character, someone from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria – any country in the Middle East that we need to show friendship to – with a range of genders, with not everyone being cis. That would be a crew that reflects what this current society needs to see on screen in a utopian vision of the future. Not the same straight white guy captaining around while getting his Khan on with every woman in sight.

Now, a reboot that actually did the right thing rolled around. No, wait, two reboots! MY GOD. Whatever you think of the polarising Ghostbusters remake, at least they did something the fuck different and remembered that women exist and are allowed to be shown as being capable and fun busters of ghosts, even if they missed a trick by copying the racial tropes of the original. Having an all-female team visibly in the box office is great and can act as some fine role models to young 'uns everywhere, especially those who are still pissed off that they can't get a Black Widow action figure or even see her on any Avengers marketing.

The other one was Star Wars Episode VII (falling into the 'soft reboot' category). Star Wars doesn't need to include any stories that are allegories for civil rights or anything like that, that's Trek's domain, but by updating the diversity of the new cast sends out a powerful message of positivity that Star Wars is for everyone. In fact, this message of inclusivity is even stronger because it's not particularly acknowledged by any of the characters, nor is it integral to the story. It's just there, in the background of a fun Star Wars adventure, one that can be enjoyed by EVERYONE. A surprisingly subtle message from the franchise that had to have Yoda confirm that Vader was Luke's dad, just in case you didn't believe him in the previous film.

So, what reboots/remakes are coming soon? I have no idea really, I just doubt that many of them will attempt to update diversity in any positive meaningful manner, but we can always hope. Meanwhile Ghost in the Shell and cultural appropriation. Slightly different topic, I've run out of words now and write anything better about this than this excellent piece.

Adieu for now, I hope my ramblings have proven readable/entertaining.