Representation of minorities and other under-served groups in pop culture has been a rightfully growing issue in recent years. No doubt the clamor for improved representation was part of what led Marvel to plan its upcoming Captain Marvel and Black Panther films, focusing on a woman and a black man respectively. The representation of women in particular has dominated recent conversation in the world of gaming through the work of commentators like Anita Sarkeesian and the much-maligned #GamerGate movement. Meanwhile television, especially if you include Netflix and Amazon, has been making huge headway with shows like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent.
Along with improved representation in the finished product, campaigners have long pushed for more minorities working behind the scenes, with the two ideas often being promoted together. More minority characters are great, proponents argue, and we need more minority creators involved writing, directing, and designing them. But why is it that these two points come together? Of course we should have more women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people working in mainstream pop culture, but for exactly the same reasons more of those same people should be sitting in board rooms, governments, and universities. We need more people from under-represented backgrounds working on our pop culture–but is that really because we specifically need them to write, direct, and design characters from their own under-represented groups?
This question came up in a big way most recently over the lack of transgender women on the writing teams of both Orange Is the New Black and Transparent, both of which feature transgender characters. The shows’ respective creators, Jenji Kohan and Jill Soloway, butted heads at the New Yorker festival over the question, with Soloway pledging to train transgender writers for the second season of Transparent, arguing, “I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me. It’s absolutely necessary, and it’s gonna change the show.” Soloway felt a team of cisgendered writers would always “otherize” the show’s central transgender character, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), and that a transgender writer would simply be able to write the character better.
Kohan disagreed on the issue, arguing instead that “great writers should write great shows, and I have trouble with, like, what you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn’t necessarily translate.” Orange Is the New Black has made a star out of transgender actress Laverne Cox for her portrayal of trans inmate Sophia, despite lacking a single transgendered person on the writing staff. That hasn’t stopped both the show and Cox from receiving countless critical plaudits for the series’ discussion of trans issues.
One of the problems with Soloway’s argument is that it cuts in every direction. If a trans writer can better write trans characters, than a cis writer can better write cis characters. Taken to an extreme, you find yourself needing different writers for every minority group you represent. But what about if you have a black, trans character? Do you need a black, trans writer? Or a black writer and a trans writer? Of course, this is a hyperbolic extreme, but the point is that by arguing the need for writers to write from experience, you risk seriously limiting what they can write, or as Kohan puts it, “I would just never want to be told I can never write male characters.”
You can see a point of view similar to Soloway’s behind the news that Warner Bros. is looking for a female director for the upcoming Wonder Woman film. The last thing I’d ever want to do is complain about an initiative that will result in a visible female director behind a big budget film–there really aren’t very many of them at all–but it’s telling that they haven’t announced the hunt for a female director for any of the other films. If Warner Bros. want to support female directors, they shouldn’t just single out the female-led movie for a female director. Surely it would be just as great if a woman directed The Flash while a man directed Wonder Woman. What is it about Wonder Woman punching bad guys that a female director will be able to carry so much better than a man?
Of course, there are exceptions. Going back to Transparent, it actually makes sense that the show might benefit from a transgender writer, as it specifically deals with challenges around coming out as trans and transitioning to a new gender–the kind of life experience that a trans person is likely to have and that no one else will. But that’s not because a trans writer can better write a trans character, that’s because a trans writer can better write a story that grapples with the challenges trans people often face. So unless Wonder Woman is going to focus heavily on the challenges facing women in the modern world (which it might, but is more likely to pay lip service to at best), it’s not clear that a female director or writer would necessarily do a better job.
I am all in favor of having more writers, directors and other creative figures from minorities and under-represented groups. It’d be amazing if a woman directed Wonder Woman, but no more amazing than if she directed The Flash or Aquaman. And let’s not forget: if you’re going to argue that a woman could better direct Wonder Woman, then you’ve paved the way for admitting that a man can better direct every film with a male lead, which is still pretty much all of them. Does that sound like a great approach to getting more women and minorities in prominent creative positions? Relegating minority writers and directors to minority characters is not the way forward.