Doing Diversity Right

Let’s talk about one of my absolute favorite shows: BoJack Horse­man. If you haven’t watched it pull it up on Net­flix and watch it. All of it. Seri­ous­ly, this post is going to be filled with spoil­ers. I’ll wait.

I bring up BoJack Horse­man because it’s one of the shin­ing exam­ples when it comes to diver­si­ty. Now that you’ve watched all thir­ty-six episodes, you’re aware that the show has a diverse cast of char­ac­ters. Some of the main char­ac­ters are ani­mals (Todd and Diane being the only main char­ac­ters who aren’t ani­mals) but we also have gay char­ac­ters (Karen and Tanisha’s wed­ding in sea­son 3), Viet­namese (Diane), black (Cor­duroy), and even an asex­u­al (Todd).

In most shows these would be major defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of these char­ac­ters but In BoJack none of these sur­face-lev­el things mat­ter. For exam­ple, fans spec­u­lat­ed for three sea­sons over Todd’s sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion before the show con­firmed he was asex­u­al. How­ev­er, the only time the show ever explic­it­ly touched on Todd’s sex­u­al­i­ty was a throw­away line in the first episode when BoJack says he thought Todd’s par­ents kicked him out for being gay (as opposed to the actu­al rea­son, kick­ing him out for being a los­er). Char­ac­ters don’t ques­tion Todd or try to see who he has sex with and Todd doesn’t spend time play­ing the vic­tim because of his ori­en­ta­tion; nobody in the show real­ly cares. Instead, the show gives Todd actu­al char­ac­ter devel­op­ment (most­ly as a vic­tim of BoJack’s self­ish­ness but he’s had sig­nif­i­cant arcs in all three sea­sons) and he gets the sole use of “fuck” in sea­son 3 (since you’ve seen the show you know each “fuck” is a big deal).  Even when they final­ly reveal Todd’s asex­u­al it comes out with­out any flair or dra­mat­ic music (okay, there’s dra­mat­ic music but that’s because it’s the end of the sea­son and there’s a lot going on).

Not only does that style make Todd more inter­est­ing as a char­ac­ter, it’s a way to actu­al­ly show diver­si­ty in a respect­ful way. If every Todd sto­ry was about his sex­u­al­i­ty it’d get bor­ing but instead he’s a fan favorite. His rock opera was awe­some and who didn’t laugh when Cabra­cadabra start­ed accept­ing male cus­tomers (the entire pur­pose of the com­pa­ny was a ride-shar­ing app that pro­tects women from pervs).

It’s not just Todd though. The only ref­er­ence to Diane’s Viet­namese ances­try is BoJack’s inabil­i­ty to pro­nounce “Nguyen.” Half the char­ac­ters are ani­mals and Princess Car­olyn being is a pink cat is the least inter­est­ing thing about her. Mr. Peanut­but­ter starts as a stereo­typ­i­cal Gold­en Labrador but he reveals deep depres­sion and jeal­ousy as we get to know him bet­ter (seri­ous­ly, watch the pre­mier episode of Hol­ly­woo Stars and Celebri­ties: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out! and tell me he’s not a deep char­ac­ter). Every char­ac­ter mat­ters, even throw­away ones like The Closer.

The char­ac­ters aren’t defined by obvi­ous stereo­types and tropes that pro­lif­er­ate through shows/books/movies that come out today where they make sure the main cast includes every diver­si­ty group the cre­ators can think of.

Now if you’re writ­ing a sto­ry about a plan­ta­tion in South Car­oli­na set in 1800 it’s obvi­ous­ly fine to focus on the fact racism is ram­pant and show being black is a big deal. Even still, make sure the char­ac­ters have actu­al arcs and aren’t just tokens to hit a check­box in diver­si­ty bin­go. Diver­si­ty bin­go not only cheap­ens your work, it cheap­ens the very peo­ple you’re try­ing to represent.