Marvel placing blame for its declining sales on its push for characters outside of the white, male archeype has provided the latest arena for critics and fans to come out for and against diversity in entertainment. Looking at the online discourse, however, I find that there are many championing diversity who have difficulty seeing why anyone would resist. A major part of the problem, I believe, is that there’s a failure to understand that the two sides are coming from unique points of view built on very different foundations.
The Story of Trans Fats
Here’s a food analogy (because I love food analogies).
For years in restaurants across the US, frying oil was reused over and over by default. Then it was discovered that this process produced what came to be called trans fats, and that these fats were more harmful to health than just frying in general. Because of this, every place began changing their practices and eliminating or minimizing the presence of trans fats.
In addition to the added expense of having to rethink how food is prepared, this transition came at arguably another cost: flavor. Fried food just tastes different when old oil isn’t being reused. If the reason for eating at, say, your favorite fried chicken joint was because of what that reused oil imparts to the meat and skin, it could have felt like an unnecessary sacrifice for “health.” Even though having food be healthier is unarguably a good thing (if people could eat versions of the food they do now that tasted the same but was better for the body, they would), health benefits are not necessarily what any given person will prioritize.
The Establishment of Critical Values Among Fans
This is where I think some of the contention over diversity in comics and media lies. While the notion of “I don’t mind diversity in my entertainment, I just won’t want it to turn into some SJW hugfest,” is an argument borne out of certain biases and blindness towards privilege, it’s also on some level based in the standards established in a given circle of media consumers. In this environment, there are criteria by which a comic or television show is judged as “good” or “bad,” e.g. narrative consistency. To a different audience, narrative consistency could be important too yet still take a backseat to something accepted as a “higher priority,” such as a visceral feel to romantic interactions. Personally speaking, different groups of fans I’ve interacted with can have wildly different elements they value, to the point that it can seem as if two groups are watching completely different things despite it being actually the same product.
In other words, the push-back against diversity isn’t only about right and wrong, but about what people are accustomed to—what they’ve accepted as truisms of the medium. When a given community is built and reinforced over time, certain values become stronger in turn. If the specific reason you ate fried foods was for the savoriness that trans fats provide, then no amount of “it can increase the risk of heart attack!” will placate you.
Old vs. New Criticism
To move this away from deep frying and towards actual examples from comics and entertainment, I present two examples. The first is the changing reception over British comics writers such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. The second is the increasing prominence of character-over-story manga series from around the early to mid 2000s.
In years past, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison were praised by comics fans as writing incredibly intelligent and mature comics. Works such as Watchmen (Moore) and Seven Soldiers (Morrison) are genre-defying/defining creations that present complex and cerebral arguments that challenge comics readers. However, a lot of their works involve anywhere from minor to heavy doses of misogyny, so if your priority is the positive portrayal of women above all else, then it might not matter how “smart” Moore and Morrison’s comics are. On the other side, if you’re from a community space that believes the intellectual elements of their comics are what define good comics, then misogyny might be viewed as a lesser complaint or a non-issue.
Somewhat similarly, manga scholar Ito Go has written that manga criticism was historically biased against manga that emphasize character over story. When manga began coming out in the late 90s/early 2000s that focused on the stylization of its characters above all else, these were considered “bad manga” by established critics. Ito, on the other hand, argues that this because of the values that have been built and reinforced around the cult of Tezuka Osamu (the most celebrated manga artist ever), and that the visual “realness” of characters (kyara, as Ito calls it) has been just as much a part of manga all along. Essentially, the idea is that the only reason why kyara-heavy manga is considered inferior is because of the ossification of the criteria for “good” manga. Yet, for those who still want strong story above all else, Ito’s point of view holds little weight.
Whether the contention is based specifically in diversity or not, the general tendency for a group of like-minded individuals is to assume certain truths and then build around them. Disagreement can happen within these parameters, and sometimes those boundaries can even be stretched or broken, but in time certain truisms develop. Attacking that structure or praxis from the outside can appear to an insider as if you’re saying “1 + 1 = 3,” even if what you’re expressing merits consideration.
Noticing the Problem
On a certain level, I believe that the resistance against diversity in comics and other forms of entertainment is because we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. Where once comics fandom and criticism was built on a long established marketing focus on white, male, and straight readers, other groups are making their voices heard in ways that the entrenched fanbase can’t help but take notice. The reason that they didn’t notice in the past is because they were unaffected by it, plain and simple. Many likely didn’t even know there was a problem, and this is because the values emphasized and prioritized in that community left little room for diversity to be brought up except in very broad strokes. The sand is shifting underneath them, and it’s not surprising that some would double down on what they’ve learned to be true.