Illustration by Baraa Al Jorf

The Problem With ‘Inclusive’ Media

Inclusion in media for its own sake can be harmful to those being ‘included’. The practice not only ignores the complexity of the identity it portrays but also perpetuates stereotypes.

It’s not a secret that Western media tends to favor specific groups of people when writing or casting characters. There’s been a lot of backlash against such latent discriminatory practices and in response, showrunners and filmmakers have increasingly sought to write characters and cast actors belonging to minority groups. We as an audience tend to be quick to acknowledge such moves as being “inclusive” and “reflective of the diversity that exists in society.” I, however, think we should raise our standards and be cautious of accepting any such ‘inclusion’.
You see, as someone belonging to many underrepresented groups in Western media — female, Indian and Muslim — I take issue with the fact that producers often tend to do the bare minimum to showcase diversity. They write one-dimensional characters whose personalities revolve around their underrepresented identities — like Raj from The Big Bang Theory. Or they cast an actor belonging to an underrepresented group in a role that was not written with their identity in mind, take for instance the all-female cast of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. Or, more offensively, they write minority characters so they can make jokes at their expense and use the stereotypes associated with them for a comedic effect like what has been done with Apu from The Simpsons.. They then wrap up this half-hearted portrayal of identity in a neat little package labeled ‘inclusive’ for all of us to consume and celebrate. Often they are rewarded for such inaction solely because most minorities are used to being represented so little that audiences will accept just about anything.
Inclusion in fiction solely for the sake of inclusion, without any context, is harmful to those being ‘included’. The practice not only tends to ignore the complexity of the identity it portrays but also encourages stereotypes while doing so, all under a thin veneer of ‘inclusivity’. In my own experience, these characters not only tend to be defined by the very stereotypes I try so hard to shed, but they are also superficial and not at all representative of me or the people I know. This kind of catering is insulting because it claims to represent parts of my identity but doesn’t do an accurate job of it.
It bugs me when companies like Warner Bros. deviate from the source material just so they can appease certain groups and keep criticisms at bay — I’m looking at you, Ocean’s 8. While it’s okay to deviate from source material — and can result in refreshing portrayals like that of MJ in the Spider-Man reboot — it is important that the story and its context be taken into account. Simply swapping out one actor for another and making no changes to the character, hoping that the work will be carried on the back of its ‘inclusive’ nature, is nothing but pandering. These diverse characters are forced to relive the originals stories instead of fashioning their own. They exist as representatives of diversity and serve the sole purpose of undoing the politically incorrect portrayals of their predecessors.
Diversity, for its own sake, makes a spectacle of the identities it portrays. Take the example of the ‘Female Heroes vs. Thanos’ scene from Avengers: Endgame. It serves to establish nothing but the fact that Marvel, which has faced criticism for its lack of diversity, is trying to be ‘representative’. But each of those characters has far less depth and individual screen time than their male counterparts. It’s clear that the scene is a show of corporate feminism. Marvel views their female identity as a gimmick that allows them to dodge criticism and sell the movie.
The good news is that we don’t have to settle for such shallow and thoughtless representation. We can speak out as well as consume and promote work that does a much better job. Take the leads of NBC’s Brooklyn Nine Nine, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s portrayal of Captain Sisko or any of the movies or television shows you don’t specifically remember for their depiction of an underrepresented group even though those characters were portrayed honestly and effectively. None of these characters’ backgrounds define them entirely and no stereotypes associated with these groups are constantly emphasized and used to cultivate their personality.
True diversity stems from writing characters who are defined by far more than just the features that make them a minority and then casting actors who fit the roles best. Rather than altering history to make works more representative, Western media must create works that focus on diverse histories.
If an underrepresented identity is just another personality trait to us, they will be seen as optional and used as such. It’s up to us to carefully judge the media we consume and be reserved in our applause so that creators can stop patting themselves on the back for doing a terrible job of representing us in their work.
Naeema Sageer is a contributing writer. Email him at
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