Chitra Ramaswamy: Cultural diversity is good, it shows us who we are

People of all races, genders and creeds deserve the right to believe they can be cool, writes Chitra Ramaswamy.
Jane Foster is the Goddess of Thunder who has replaced the male Mighty Thor in Marvel comics.Jane Foster is the Goddess of Thunder who has replaced the male Mighty Thor in Marvel comics.
Jane Foster is the Goddess of Thunder who has replaced the male Mighty Thor in Marvel comics.

When I was a girl my heroes were, in no particular order, Anne of Green Gables, Madonna, Penelope Pitstop, Snoopy, The Bangles and that cartoon girl on the Trio advert screaming for a biscuit.

A disparate bunch but they had one thing in common: none had the same skin colour as me. Moira Stuart reading the BBC news and Floella Benjamin on Play School was about as close to an experience of self-identification as I came in those years when mainstream culture was almost exclusively white. Growing up, I don’t recall ever seeing an Asian face on telly. Not a single one.

Did it matter?

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Well, those were also the years when I wept nightly about the size of my Indian nose and wrote shame-soaked diary entries about the secret wish I harboured to be white.

The years when I routinely experienced racism, from adults and children, most of which calcified into shame and self-loathing.

The years when at some deep-seated and unspoken level I thought, or rather unconsciously accepted, that Indian girls could be clever.

They could be good cooks. They could, at a push, be doctors. But they could not be funny. They could not be pretty. They could not be artists, pop stars, superheroes, or plucky heroines in books. They could not be cool. And regardless of race, gender, class, or sexuality being cool is pretty much what every young person yearns to be.

It is the great childhood leveller until at some point in life, if you’re lucky and you work hard at it, it dawns on you that the one true way to coolness is to be yourself.

Fast forward three decades and we have Marvel’s vice president of sales, David Gabriel, blaming diversity for driving down comic book sales.

“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” he said, which makes the presence of different kinds of people in books sound about as optional (and necessary) as having cheese on your burger.

“They didn’t want female characters out there.

That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.”

Readers, he continued of a company that’s seen sales fall since October 2016, are “turning their noses up” at diversity. So ever since Marvel introduced a female Thor, a mixed-race Spider-Man, a Muslim Ms Marvel, and sales have slumped.

Iceman coming out, in other words, is bad for business.

It is true that Marvel comics haven’t been doing so well.

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In February 2017 only two of the ten best-selling monthly comics were Marvel titles.

And perhaps for the core readership – which is broadly white and male – some of this is down to the depressing fact that although they have no problem accepting the world being saved by some intergalactic muscled superhero with lasers for eyes they can’t get their heads around her being a woman.

Inclusion is the scapegoat here, not the culprit and Gabriel certainly wouldn’t be the first (white male) executive to blame diversity for dwindling sales.

Meanwhile fans on social media are putting it down to bad writing, a lack of imagination, and comics costing too much. Others argue that the company’s stab at diversity has been half-hearted: instead of established characters being replaced by more diverse versions, minorities deserve their own superheroes.

And this, by the way, will only happen when more diverse writers and illustrators are hired to work on titles.

In all honesty I’m no comic book fan, no doubt because it’s a genre that until recently hasn’t been geared towards me (and now I’m too old). But I sincerely doubt that any woman, person of colour or LGBT fan would be put off by seeing a kickass version of themselves in a Marvel comic.

In fact The Mighty Thor, featuring the Goddess of Thunder, is Marvel’s second highest selling superhero title.

So it’s clear that if diversity really is to blame (which is a seriously dodgy moral argument) for a decline in sales, it’s Marvel’s core readership who have a problem with change.

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This is roughly the same demographic who had a breakdown at the very thought of a black actor playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

It just goes to show the power of the default assumption of whiteness: even in the wildest and most expansive realms of our imaginations, whether superhero, wizard, or muggle you are white unless explicitly stated to be otherwise.

Cultural diversity is good for everyone, not because it ticks boxes or augments sales, but because it holds a mirror up to who we are and who we imagine we could be.

Change takes time – especially major cultural shifts – and the knee-jerk responses of the majority should never be the yardstick by which to measure success. Basically there will always be a disgruntled white man who feels threatened by any steps, however incremental and long overdue, taken to redress the balance.

Just look at Tesco chairman John Allan, who last month referred to white men as “endangered species” in UK boardrooms.

This despite the fact that there are no full-time female executives on Tesco’s board.

The comeback is usually something along the lines of… it’s about sales, not political correctness. We’re just giving people what they want.

And so on. It’s the age-old classic Hollywood argument used to justify a profoundly biased industry in which male characters outnumber female in family films by a ratio of three to one, a figure that hasn’t changed since the 1940s. Indeed at the same summit where Gabriel made his comments Marvel’s editor-in-chief reportedly said: “There’s been this massive discussion about inclusion and diversity… but Marvel is not about politics.

“We are about telling stories about the world.”

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Yet to separate politics and culture is as disingenuous and pointless as saying sci-fi and fantasy have no bearing on or relationship to the real world. If these “stories about the world” fail to represent that world accurately, humanely, and wholly, if entire communities are erased in the name of sales or appeasement of the majority, it is fundamentally a political issue. We all deserve the right to believe we can be cool.

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