An artist by the name of Mikhail Baryshnikov once said, “When a dancer comes onstage, he is not just a blank slate that the choreographer has written on. Behind him he has all the decisions he has made in life. Each time, he has chosen, and in what he is onstage, you see the result of those choices. You are looking at the person he is, and the person who, at this point, he cannot help but be. Exceptional dancers, in my experience, are also exceptional people, people with an attitude toward life, a kind of quest, and an internal quality. They know who they are, and they show this to you, willingly.”

In my experience, I’ve found this to be true about exceptional creators regardless of the medium.

My debut YA novel Hollowstone came as the successful result of my initial participation in the annual NaNoWriMo challenge. While the Southern Gothic thriller revolved around a major mystery, it was the author who would find himself in for a few surprises. One of the biggest for me was the popularity of Neely Daniels. One of the principal players of the novel, Neely isn’t introduced until the second half of the novel, when she transfers to Hollowstone Academy. Proficient in the occult and martial arts, the bisexual teen joins forces with narrator Noah Scott. To this day I’m still thanked by readers because the sobering reality is that LGBTQ protagonists like Neely are immensely rare.

However, Neely almost never came to be; at least not this version. When I envisioned the new transfer student who would aid Noah in his plight, I initially envisioned Neely as a teenage boy. So what happened? I simply asked why. Why does Noah’s new friend have to be male? As I further explored the new character, I inquired as to why does Noah’s new friend have to be straight? Why can’t Noah’s new friend be of an alternative faith? Those simple questions led to the birth of an extraordinary character who made my novel richer as a result.

The issue of diversity and whether or not representation matters continues to be an ongoing debate. This is especially the case in speculative fiction. Even in the 21st century in a genre that requires a suspension of disbelief and is defined in large part by progressive themes and forward thinking, BIPOC and LGBTQ people continue to be met with hatred and discrimination. The treatment of BIPOC actors in the latest entries of the Star Wars franchise, from John Boyega to Kelly Marie Tran and Moses Ingram being some of the most glaring, high-profile examples. I have written about this before when reflecting on my own experiences, which can be found here and here. There is something about the purported history of speculative fiction which gives a certain, usually White heterosexual demographic, a sense of toxic ownership.

Nevertheless, we persist and rise because we’re fighting for a purpose that’s bigger than us. Whenever the issue of diversity is posited, the usual arguments are presented: the greater good. After all, Black and brown audiences need to see superheroes who look like them having epic adventurers in their own narratives and making the world a better one. Just as important, white audiences need to see this too. Case in point: the critical and commercial success of Black Panther and the acclaim garnered by Black Lightning. Financial gain is another reason. How soon do many forget that the wider the target demographic, the wider the bottom line? Fast & Furious 9 was the first pandemic-era film to reach $500 million gross at the worldwide box office; the franchise having centered BIPOC talent since its inception. Marvel’s Luke Cage was such a colossal hit on Netflix that when it appeared, it broke the streaming service. Of course, this is not an honest forgetfulness but a symptom of a society that programs us to believe that cisgender, heterosexual, and Caucasian are the default.

One key reason why diversity is vital is often overlooked: it elevates the artistry. As a culture we often look at elements of identity and how they are handled with respect to marginalized characters. Understandable, given how little representation minorities receive, and the understanding of the power of perception and how it affects us in real life. However, consider how many characters can only exist and function simply because they are white. Because whiteness is the dominant culture, it’s rarely examined or critiqued. Yet, new life is breathed into major franchises when peering through an enlightened lens.

A far more complex iteration of Robert McCall, government agent turned secret vigilante, was brought to the big screen by his excellency Denzel Washington when The Equalizer was rebooted in 2014. Robert McCall became Robyn McCall, a single mother, former CIA operative turned underground crimefighter, and brought to life by the tour de force Queen Latifah, in the eponymous televised counterpart in 2021 on CBS. Running concurrently both versions of The Equalizer have been monumental successes on the big and the small screen. The changes to Robert McCall over these iterations allowed questions to be asked that didn’t exist before. Questions about what it means for a Black person in America, engaging in trying to right a justice system after having been an agent of the state. Or inquiry about why seeing a single mother and Black woman triumph in these ways is more exciting than the original Robert McCall. When the Charmed series was rebooted in 2018 on the CW network, with Afro-Latinx and LGBTQ leads, not only was it able to tell more engaging stories about a trio of witches and sisters who use the Power of Three to protect the world from demonic forces, but the subjects of race, orientation, heritage and the related complications and complexities could be addressed tastefully and magically. The diversifying of both properties led to inherently better art because there was more and richer material for an audience to engage with.

This is why narratives with marginalized leads tend to be far more nuanced and compelling. It forces creators to flex their muscles and not rely on the derivative cliches and tropes of the straight White formula. Hollowstone was proof of this to me on an individual level. The embracing of diverse characters, stories, and ways of telling stories presents whole new worlds for audiences, and isn’t that the purpose of speculative fiction?

However, visibility alone does not equal progress. This is why when Hollywood utilizes tokenism, it may work for a season, but it ultimately doesn’t take. As evidenced with major failures like the 2016 Ghostbusters flop. That isn’t progress. Not even close. Audiences are able to perceive corporate pandering and answer with indifference or scorn, but always with their wallets.

Real progress are shows like Syfy’s Dark Matter and Killjoys where infamous multiethnic space crews are led by powerful queer women of color who kick ass, take names, and look flawless doing it. It’s space crews that showcase PoC as multifaceted and compelling characters. Progress is MTV’s Teen Wolf where the lead is a teenage Mexican American boy on a show that not only celebrates other PoC and LGBTQ people, but showcased Black girl magic on the regular. Progress is Freedom Fighters: The Ray, a white gay superhero, who not only fights homophobia but racism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry and fights to make his Earth and ours Nazi free. Progress is Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer Emotion Picture, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. All of which are a love letter to the Afrodiasporic experience.

Progress is inevitable and it makes mediocrity irrelevant. This is why gatekeepers and other bigots are afraid. Slowly but surely white privilege isn’t what it once was as the showrunners of Game of Thrones learned. These are omens to those in power within the creative industry, that spent their days coasting through life on privilege, should be worried and the oppression they invoked and enabled is coming back to haunt them. Diversity and the discussion thereof are paramount, no doubt. The problem however is that the focus is often misplaced and the wrong questions are usually posed.

Are fantasy films with Black leads profitable? Is the public ready for a TV series featuring a trans superheroine? Can an ethereal African visual album achieve mainstream crossover appeal? The questions that should be asked are: Is this better for being diverse? Would everyone being the same help or harm the art being made? Is there any case whatsoever, that can be made in good faith, for refusing diversity in this work that does not amount to bigotry? When at its best, not only does speculative media entertain but it also empowers and enlightens minds. It shows us the possibilities including how we can be better and do better. The truth is that diversity is not just an exercise in representation or financial gain, but a powerful tool for elevating the art being made. While progress may be delayed, it inevitably can’t be denied.

In the immortal words of Stan Lee, a lifelong champion of diversity, Excelsior true believers! Excelsior!!!!

Dennis R. Upkins is a speculative fiction author, digital artist, model, activist, journalist, and a lifelong comic book geek. His first two YA novels, Hollowstone and West of Sunset, were released through Parker Publishing. Both Upkins and his previous work have been featured in Harvard Political Law, Bitch Media, MTV News, Mental Health Matters, Nerds of Color, Prism Comics, Comicbookdotcom, Geeks OUT, Black Power: The Superhero Anthology, The Connect Magazine, OUTvoices, Yoppvoices, Sniplits, and Spyfunk: Anthology. When he isn’t busy working (which is almost never) he enjoys raising money and donating to notable charities such as the St. Jude’s Hospital, the Wounded Warrior Project, Black Lives Matter, and Youth PRIDE. A compulsive high performing overachiever, The personal mantra for Upkins can be summed up in four simple words: Be Your Own Superhero.

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