“Your fave is problematic”: why are we so bad at talking about diversity in pop culture?

Dylan Marron, creator of the “Every Single Word” series that highlights the whiteness of modern and classic films, talks about the conversations his work has sparked – and how difficult it got once he mentioned Harry Potter.

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There is a collection of YouTube videos that speaks volumes with silence. Some of them are thirty or forty seconds long and feature men and women delivering inconsequential dialogue: “I’ll show you to your table”, or, “Excuse me, sir: the mayor is on line one”. Some are shorter, maybe ten seconds or so, and when you see that timestamp, you know that they’ll contain no dialogue at all: the title appears, the music swells, and then the credits roll.

The videos are part of a project called “Every Single Word”. For the past few months, actor and writer Dylan Marron has been editing well-known films down to supercuts featuring only the lines delivered by actors of colour. These films, modern and classic, indies and blockbusters alike, are all full of dialogue, thousands upon thousands of lines, but only a handful of words – if that – come from non-white actors. The clips are somehow both surprising and deeply unsurprising, and remarkably powerful in their straightforwardness. Most films these days seem to depict an alternate reality to our own – one in which white voices are the only ones that exist.

Marron, who plays Carlos in the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale, came up with the idea for “Every Single Word” after watching Enough Said, the 2013 romantic comedy starring Julia Louis Dreyfus and James Gandolfini. He was struck by the only person of colour with lines in the whole film, a maid whose entire (ancillary) story arc was about how bad she was at her job. “I found the script,” he told me. “And I was like, ‘Wow, if you look at just the lines that this woman has, it’s nothing. It amounts to truly nothing.’” Marron is part of the New York Neo-Futurists, a theatre company that regularly performs a play made up of thirty two-minute segments. He turned the maid’s lines into one of those short plays, and the project was born.

“It was such a direct way to talk about this stuff,” Marron said. “I could totally get on a soapbox and deliver an impassioned monologue about why I didn’t like this, but I think people respond so much more to just facts.” Growing up Marron was acutely aware of difference: he was biracial in a largely white community, with a Venezuelan father and a white mother, and he didn’t see many faces like his in films or television. “Every Single Word” highlights the media landscape in which he raised and in which we still live: the idea of whiteness as default. “This is about how dangerous that is to tell universal stories with only one type of person,” he told me. “What does that say to viewers? What does that say to young kids who are trying to reconcile their racial identity in a world whose stories are kind of telling them they don’t really exist?”

When Marron launched the project in July, word spread rapidly: with thousands of views racking up on YouTube, it was clear people were listening to those silences. The supercuts are full of pointless solo lines or cringe-worthy racial stereotypes, played for a quick laugh. And people seemed grateful that something that so many people could feel was really being quantified. The response was overwhelmingly positive – and then Marron turned his attention to Hogwarts.

***

The central conflict in Harry Potter is a political one: our heroes spend seven books trying to avoid getting killed by a bunch of wizards who put a lot of stock in the purity of your blood. It’s easy to map this fantasy world’s rhetoric of intolerance to our own: when people talk about the Death Eaters, they mention white supremacy, or narratives of colonisation. Dumbledore’s fight with Voldemort’s predecessor, Grindewald, alludes to (and falls in step with) the Second World War. And the wizarding world is much like our own: beyond the really evil bad guys who want to commit genocide, daily life is full of discrimination and division. Rowling makes a point to undercut this: the most naturally talented person in Harry’s life – Hermione – has Muggle parents. He is told that his mother, also the child of Muggles, was deeply gifted, too.

Countless pixels have been spilled over these ideas, and they’ve surely been the subject of plenty of academic dissertations, too. But when the magic is removed, issues of diversity in the series become more complicated. Some characters are specifically coded as people of colour, usually by a description of physical appearance or ethnic background. But few characters are assigned enough identifying details to indicate any single race, and plenty are open to interpretation – many people read Hermione, with her “bushy” brown hair, as a woman of colour.

Rowling, in her post-book-seven afterlife, has held a curious line on diversity in the books. No character is explicitly described as openly queer on her pages, but in 2007, just a few months after Deathly Hallows was released, she announced that Dumbledore was gay. Late last year a fan asked her on Twitter if there were any Jewish students at Hogwarts; she named one. The tweet let off a firestorm of questions about who actually attends the magical school. Rowling wrote, “To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts: the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans.”

But you can’t blame someone for reading the books and wondering: if I didn’t see myself there, was there anyone like me? Why would it be any more inclusive than the rest of our media? Rowling is a progressive champion, and I don’t doubt that the Hogwarts in her mind was a diverse place. But then why wasn’t it that way on the page – or on the screen?

***

A few months into “Every Single Word,” Marron began to work his way through the eight Harry Potter films. When he compiled each individual cut into a single video, it was 5 minutes and 40 seconds long – out of 1,207 total minutes of run-time. Of the twelve characters of colour in the whole film series, two are CGI (one is that shrunken head on the Knight Bus, do not get me started). Lavender Brown, one of Harry’s fellow Gryffindors, is portrayed by a black actress (several, in fact) in the early films – until the sixth, when she has a pivotal role in the plot, and is suddenly a blonde woman. As the series progressed, more actors of colour appeared in the background – but none of them had any lines. Marron posted the clip with the words:

J K Rowling created a truly incredible world. The story of Harry Potter deals with universal themes like honor, destiny, love, friendship, self-actualisation, and empowerment through education. These themes are not intrinsically white. Albus Dumbledore beautifully says that ‘Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.’ If this is true – and I believe it is – why does one racial group seem to have the right to wield this magic so disproportionately?

If you spend any time on the anger-fuelled internet, you can imagine what kind of reaction this caused. Start by reading the comments beneath the post. Some commenters applauded the project, but people unhappy with Marron’s methods – or mission – employed all the tried-and-true tactics: pointing out exceptions (because it is true that certain characters of colour, namely Cho Chang and the Patil twins, play important roles in the series, though perhaps not always flattering ones), bringing up demographical statistics, bringing up completely un-demographical feelings about what people assume the UK population looks like, and, of course, flat-out insults.

The arguments slotted into the often-murky transcultural conversation we’re having right now about diversity on our screens (see: the ongoing saga of Idris Elba and James Bond, or the black British actors playing Americans in high-profile films the past few years, and the way that the media on both sides of the Atlantic talks about it). The Harry Potter films were a confluence of British casting and production with a major Hollywood studio at the helm. Americans often have trouble visualising what racial diversity and politics look like outside the context of our own, and this was on full display as people scrambled to defend the whitewashed films. And what people didn’t seem to be able to grasp was exact demographic breakdowns don’t matter here: this is another example of whiteness as the default setting, even though, in Marron’s words, “There’s nothing about whiteness in the central characters. They’re just ‘normal’.”

The reaction to the Harry Potter supercut revealed one thing, Marron observed: that we, collectively, don’t know how to talk about this stuff. “A lot of people got so defensive because they were like, ‘Are you calling J K Rowling racist?’” he said. “And I was like, ‘No! I’m not. I’m not at all.’ But if that’s the only reaction that you can give me to this thing that I’m bringing up, then we’re kind of reaching an impasse here.” He continued:

We love labelling people as racist. We love saying, ‘Oh, that is a racist person’. And then we love ganging up on them and excommunicating them. But we’re not sharpening our tools to talk about systemic racism. We just feel really good about ourselves when we identify a racist and we all rally against them, but the thing is, they were created by the system that we’re all living in.

The knee-jerk labeling cuts both ways: we are as quick to call someone or something racist – or sexist, or homophobic, or any other expression of intolerance – as we are to get defensive when we think someone else is hurling that insult towards us, or maybe even worse, towards something that we hold deep in our hearts. Blanket labels stifle more than they reveal. Perhaps the real question is how do we keep them away from the cultural discourse – and how do we keep loving the things we love while still acknowledging that they can do much, much better?

***

“Your Fave is Problematic”: a Tumblr whose title has become ubiquitous in the fannish world. Each entry is a laundry list of, well, problematic things that a celebrity has said or done, from insensitive remarks to flat-out bigotry. The Tumblr appears fairly dormant now, but scrolling down through its pages, you can see the anger there, and if you spend much time on Tumblr, you can see its rhetoric echoing across the platform. We grapple with the bad ways media portrays difference (or, more often, just shows us a bunch of a white guys and foregoes difference entirely) while still devouring the media we love. Our fictions turn political, but then, fictions are always at least partly political: what we see on the screens reflects the imbalances of power in the world.

Anyone who has been mired in an argument about a “problematic” piece of media knows how reductive the conversation can be. Marron isn’t a fan of the word, and the way it flattens the conversation. “That’s suggesting that the world is so black-and-white that we are good or bad,” he says. “There is no such thing as purely good or bad. Even take the Harry Potter series itself: Harry has a bit of Voldemort in him and that is ultimately what he uses to defeat him. To say that something is problematic completely negates any sort of nuance. Is J K Rowling problematic? Is the Harry Potter film series problematic? No, because I don’t even want to use that word. Is mass media that is aimed a global market incredibly skewed towards presenting white people to tell universal stories? Yeah, it is! But let’s talk about why, and let’s talk about how we can change it, rather than being so scared of what that means that we actually don’t talk about it.”

Why are we scared of that conversation? What’s so threatening about being confronted with the reality that Marron is showing in his videos: that if we go to the cinema, we’ll invariably see entire movies made up of only white voices, produced by nations not solely occupied by white people? (And for every jerk who commented on the videos saying that they should make a version of Harry Potter set in an African country…actually, that’s a great suggestion, can we please do that next?) People eager to dismiss what the clips show say things like, “Stop – it’s just a movie” undercut their own point: if it’s just a movie, why do these clips matter to you? We need to be able to question the things we love, to challenge them to do better.  

“What we all love about Harry Potter is the incredible story, and we really have J K Rowling to thank for that,” Marron said. “The story always wins out. So continue loving it. You should totally, unabashedly, openly love it. But we should always be aware of how the stories we love are being told, and what affect that has. We’ll continue to love Harry Potter. We’ll continue to love all of these things that speak to us and make us understand ourselves and other humans better. I believe there’s actually nothing more beautiful in this entire world than that.”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.