Want diverse representation? Try books

Want diverse representation? Try books

I’m a geek.

A proud geek, by the way. 🙂

There has been a lot of discussion in the last couple of years about diversity in the geek world.

We’ve seen a real push for and shift towards female superheroes, for example. The latest incarnation of Thor is female (not in the movies, but in the comics)…there is even a female version of the Transformers that has recently appeared in the comics and will be released as toys (yep…robots with breasts).

We’ll be seeing more movies and TV shows with solo superheroes who aren’t white males in the next few years.

Daredevil, of course, on Netflix, represents a Federally protected class…which they define as “disabled”.

Then, there was the huge and ongoing “Gamergate” situation, which involves women and gaming and attitudes and treatment of them.

Catwoman was recently identified as bisexual, and Ice Man, one of the X-Men was “outed” (by a telepathic character) as gay.

Still, it’s not unreasonable to say that movies, TV shows, and games have a ways to go to have their leading characters reflect real world demographics.

I’m not about to argue that books are demographic mirrors. There may particularly be an imbalance in children’s books, and there is a campaign around that:

We Need Diverse Books.org

Still, I have to say…I’d be pretty shocked if you couldn’t find fiction that fits any protected class of which you are a member…and plenty that aren’t protected.

You can probably find a whole sub-genre of romances for any of those groups!

Why is that?

Is it because publishing is more “noble”? I’m not going to argue about that one, it’s awfully subjective.

However, I do think there are some factors.

One is that books are just inherently more complex.

I’ve mentioned the “Bechdel Test” in this blog before. There are a lot of formulations of it (even though we have a specific origin in Alison Bechdel’s comic), but I’ll go with this one. To pass the test a movie (that was the original line) has to have two named female characters in it who have a meaningful conversation about something other than a man.

Yes, that should be a pretty low bar (intentionally), but many movies fail it.

Even with the most generous version of it (“two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man”), a large number of movies and TV shows fail.


However, there just aren’t that many conversation in many movies. When you read a novel, they could have five sub-plots and fifty conversations.

A movie, in maybe two hours and requiring a lot of visual action, has a hard time handling one sub-plot and ten  conversations.

Another issue is that relatively, there aren’t that many movies released in a month.

If you look at wide releases, you are looking at around ten.

The USA Kindle store, on average, adds more than 1,000 books…a day!

Of course, those aren’t all major titles (the vast, vast majority aren’t), but they have an equally wide release (at least within the USA). Just as many people have the option to buy a book from an independent as have the option to buy the latest book from a brand name author. Movie theatres just don’t book that many movies…they can’t. There are times when I might want to see a movie…and the nearest theatre with it is fifty miles away (and I live in a good theatre area). If I want to read a particular book, thanks to the Kindle store, it usually isn’t fifty inches away. 😉

That’s another thing that e-books have made better.

When all you had was the airport bookstore to buy something, you might have had a hundred titles from which to choose.

If you want to most bookstores (I’m a former manager), you might have had tens of thousands, maybe even a 100,000 titles.

Sitting on my couch, though, I have access to millions.

So, I’m not saying that we can’t use more diversity in books, but I am saying that, with a little bit of looking, you can find books that focus on virtually any real world social group.

Is that an issue for you?

I’m trying to figure for myself if it ever has been…if I’ve sought a book because the lead character was “like me”. I’m having a hard time coming up with that.

I have read a book because the characters were interested in something in which I’m interested…that doesn’t seem the same to me, though.

I haven’t cared about reading a book because the character was the same gender, the same religion, the same national origin, the same race, the same sexual preference…hm. I don’t even care if characters have the same philosophies I do…I’ve really enjoyed characters who do things I would never do (for moral reasons), for example.

I will admit to being intrigued by an app that has, as a background,  a stylized version of a city in a country that is part of my heritage…not sure that’s the same. I didn’t know much about the city, so it was kind of fun to see.

Now I’m really taking a tour inside my own head. Would it bother me if every book I read had characters which were demographically identical…if they were intellectually and emotionally different?


The first question for me is, would I notice right away? Maybe not…I often don’t identify people by their inherent characteristics. That includes in “the real world”, by the way, not just online.

Let’s say I’m trying to remember who in a meeting said something. I’ve had people ask me if the person was a particular race…and I didn’t know. Clearly, the person asking me identified that person by that characteristic…I might something like, “They were tall.” That’s an inherent characteristic, but I do notice that one.

I might also identify them by where they were sitting in the room, which seems odd to people. I’ll say, “They were in the back row, third seat in from the door.” That often doesn’t help them.

Let me imagine this a different way. Would it bother me if, when I read books, it wasn’t just that the characters were all the same demographic…it was that they were the same demographic, and I wasn’t that one? For example, let’s say that every single book I could buy had people of a different ethnic origin as me.

I honestly think it wouldn’t bother me.

I suspect some of you are guessing at this point that it is because, you assume, I’m part of the majority or dominant group.

That’s not the case for all of the protected classes.

Here’s a simple one: I walk with a cane.

While I haven’t ever gotten legal disabled status, I think I could…I have a diagnosed condition which qualifies.

So, I’m not in the majority or the “privileged group” based on “disability status”.

That one may not be the same for you as, say, race or religion.

You might assume that people with a shared protected class tend to think the same way, but figure that’s not the case for people with disabilities.

Well, I’m very big on reading a diversity of thought.

I would be very disappointed if every book I read had characters with the same opinions!

That’s a place I do care about diversity!

No conclusions on this one…I’m just thinking in pixels.

I will stick with my original assertion: books have more diverse representation than movies, TV, or games.

What do you think? Is character diversity an issue for you? Do you think it negatively impacts children if none of the books they read have characters which “look like them”? Empathy is easier when there is similarity…but is it too difficult when there isn’t? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


2 Responses to “Want diverse representation? Try books”

  1. Harold Delk Says:

    I have no clue how I feel about this idea: http://gizmodo.com/gps-ereader-lets-the-book-take-place-wherever-the-reade-1701465135

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Harold!

      If it’s for stories written specifically for the device, I think it’s cool. If it converts, say, Tarzan so it takes place in Central Park in New York (because you happen to be reading the book there), that’s a bit different. 😉

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