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.