Woman looking at what it means to be diverse.

Has Woke Culture Become Too Much?

I have been thinking about this for quite some time, trying to understand why film, television, and books seem to be filled with stories that want to push some form of political correctness agenda. They push into the foreground sexual relationships and gender identity issues that seem to have no context or relevance to the story. For me, this is a problem.

Before I get too far, I need to highlight that I deliberated for a long time about whether I should say anything about this on public channels or not. In the end, I decided that this push for diversity has created a gap within storytelling that is harmful to the industry as a whole. As a developmental editor and writing coach, I can't let it go by without it being addressed.

I have zero issue with LGBT+ stories, as long as that sexual orientation is just a part of the character. I adore reading stories about characters from other cultures and different backgrounds, as long as those cultures are put into context. And as far as I'm concerned, the physical appearance of a character almost has no place in written stories, unless there is something significant that has an impact on the way the characters interact (or impacts on the plot). Everything that is on the page (or on the screen) needs to have context.

And in my opinion, that is the heart of the problem. In many stories being produced today (enough to be noticed), the push for diversity is without context within the storytelling.

If you are willing to humor me for a moment, I will explain why context is vital when it comes to diversity in stories.

Binge-watching Bridgerton

My daughter recently turned 19, and for her birthday, she wanted mommy-and-me time. Her activity of choice: binge-watch the new season of Bridgerton. She warned me that this would be the case, so I had plenty of time to watch the first 2 seasons for character context. She didn't want me constantly asking questions about the world-building stuff that has already been established in the first 2 seasons. She wanted me to have context.

(See, even my daughter recognizes that context is important.)

When I sat down to watch the first season of this popular series, I got irritated with the historical inaccuracies. As a writer, I know that there will always be some changes that will deviate from historical accuracy needed to help with the readability (or view-ability) for today's audiences. For one, the way the characters speak needs to be modernized. But I was struggling to accept that the Queen of England was black and that many of the Ladies and Lords were also black. The interactions between the characters were completely off given the racial disparity that existed in the era that Bridgerton is set.

My daughter then suggested that I watch the spin-off series of Queen Charlotte. And suddenly the world made sense. I suddenly had context.

Quick Spoiler Alert

In Queen Charlotte, the English monarchy insists that the King marries. To find his bride, they go to a far-off land, finding the future queen in a province of Germany. And it just so happens that the princess is black. When Charlotte arrives in England, the King Mother is taken back by this fact. But instead of making it seem like a surprise, she has titles granted to many of the successful black businessman (all in the name of the King). And throughout the series, this title-granting exercise is called an experiment.

This little detail was completely missing from the first season of Bridgerton. Had it been there, even as a throwaway comment, the world would have made sense.

BTW, the technique in question is known as hanging a lantern on it. There is some detail about the world that doesn't meet the expected norms. The writer deliberately draws attention to that deviation with some small throwaway comment, and the reader (or viewer) becomes willing to suspend disbelief long enough to just enjoy the story. By hanging a lantern on it, the writer is telling the reader (or viewer) that they know they have deviated from expected norms, but they are also asking that the reader (or viewer) to just trust the writer for a moment—that there is a reason for those deviations.

In the case of Bridgerton, the writers could have used the character Lady Danbury to hang a lantern on the deviations from historical records. She could have said something about how society wasn't always accepting of someone like her. "But Queen Charlotte changed all that when she married the King. It wasn't easy, but the world is better for it."

(Seriously, how hard would that have been?)

It turns out that the series Bridgerton is actually an alternate history series, but none of that was made clear in the original season of the show. It was missing context, context that was provided by the spin-off series.

Other context was provided by the series Queen Charlotte too, like how the King wasn't always coo-coo, and why Queen Charlotte rules the country without the King by her side.

My point here is that for readers (and viewers) to properly accept the diversity that you've added to your world, then you need to give that diversity context, particularly if that diversity is a deviation from societal norms or historical records.

Star Trek going boldly where no one wants to go

Star Trek has always been a franchise that pushed the boundaries of society.

The first interracial kiss on television. Having an Asian at the helm. The tactical officer was Russian. And let's not forget the emotional arguments with Spock.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9 was met with some heated reactions when it first aired, because a black man took the command. Personally, I loved it. And I loved it even more when that whole argument about how a black man could command a space station was challenged in the episode entitled Far Beyond the Stars (Season 6, Episode 13). In that episode, Benjamin Sisko (the station's commander) is hallucinating and believes that he is in 1953. In his hallucination, Sisko believes that he's a science fiction writer, and that everything that is happening on Deep Space 9 is just a story in his head. But it's a story that he fights for.

"I'm a human being, dammit! You can deny me all you want, but you cannot deny Ben Sisko. He exists. That future, that space station, all those people. They exist in here, in my mind."

Seriously, that is one of my favorite episodes. In part, because it also shows how female writers were treated at the time too.

But everything that is found on the screen in the original series, in The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager, all had context for why those characters were there. And the diversity found in the world was just a function of the world.

But when Star Trek: Discovery first aired, the attitudes to the way the diversity of the world was portrayed changed. Instead of it being a function of the world, it became a political statement thrown in your face. The context was missing. Why did it matter that the lead scientist of the spore drive (Paul Stamets, played by Anthony Rapp) was homosexual? Sure, it made sense later in the series when the doctor's life was on the line, but in that first episode, who cared? And why did the conversation that Adira is non-binary have to be an awkward conversation—something that got repeated multiple times for reasons that I still don't understand? Did it really matter? Other characters have been non-binary before in the Star Trek universe. Granted, they weren't human, but why did the writers feel the need to make a big deal of Adira’s non-binary identity? Where is the context that demanded that repeated awkward conversation?

On a side note: I am totally in love with Philippa Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh. Such a complex character that is so much fun to watch on the screen. (Seriously, Michelle Yeoh is an amazing actress. Incredibly beautiful and so talented! Every part she has ever played has been so much fun to watch.)

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds seems to have corrected this issue. In the first season, the chief engineer wasn't just an Andorian. He was blind. And the way the writers chose to play into that piece of information when Uhura was trying to understand how he could do his job was so cool! Knives being thrown across the room will always appeal to me. (I think that my dark thriller writer side is leaking through.) And the genetic modification of Number One (aka Una Chin-Riley) eventually became a plot point, adding another layer of context and complexity to the lore that is Star Trek.

Play with the world but give me context!

For me, the boundary that defines how much diversity is added into a story is a contextual line. I don't care if a character is homosexual or not. I don't care if they identify as male, female, non-binary, or a cat. And the color of a character's skin has almost no relevance… Unless you have context!

Throwing diversity into someone's face without context or meaning is wasted effort. It just comes across as trying to push a political agenda. But if the context of the story warrants those homophobic or racial conversations, then do it! But only if the context warrants it.

I know that considerations regarding gender identification and sexual orientation need to be considered within modern storytelling. But I also feel that story is more important. Political statements need to come second.

With the huge push for diverse stories, it is hard to know how to push forward as a writer. For me, the solution is easy. I will always think of the people around me (and my main characters) as human. But when it comes to classifications, I won't put people into a categorized box.

We are the sum of our experiences, and it's our individual experiences that make us unique. And it's our uniqueness that creates the diversity in the world. But our uniqueness still has context, because our experiences give our uniqueness that context.

Copyright © 2024 Judy L Mohr. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared on judylmohr.com

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