At a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame was informed that a fan wanted to meet her. Having already said she was going to resign from the show, she expected to meet just another Trekkie asking her to stay. When the Trekkie in question turned out to be Martin Luther King Jr, however, she took the request to stay on the show seriously. Black women had been featured across American media before Nichols many times. Characters like Mammy from Gone with the Wind or Mammy Two Shoes from Tom and Jerry show how previous representations had been somewhat typecast. Nichols character, Lieutenant Uhura, was the communications officer for a spaceship, someone with authority and expertise above many of the white men on board.
In 2017, almost 50 years later, there was controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major in Ghost in a Shell. The argument boiled down to whether it was “yellow face” to cast a white woman in a role that had been previously depicted to be Asian. This, however, misses a point made by Mamoru Oshii, director of the earlier Anime adaptation, who pointed out that race isn’t part of the story, and that Major’s ethnicity could be changed without impacting the narrative. It’s not as if Johansson was going to “yellow-up” á la Mickey Rooney. If it wasn’t racist caricature, then, the issue must have been something else?
During discussions about representation, two different arguments are often conflated, leading to a lot of confusion. The first is simply about numbers, which is that minorities need to be represented more than they currently are. The second is that minorities’ stories need to be told. While not unrelated to each other, the distinction is obvious. It’s clearly not the case that Major, a cyborg cop from the future, is an authentic Asian story. In a different world, casting a white person would have been uncontroversial, but Asians are underrepresented in Hollywood, even as a small minority of the American population; the real issue is a lack of representation.
The difficulty with the argument merely for an increase in representation is that it’s an aesthetic solution to a systemic problem. Much like gender quotas in politics or boardrooms, there’s no guarantee that having more representation simply as tokenism is going to change anything. In film and TV, it could mean more roles for the few minority actors who are famous, or even that more people of colour become famous; but it potentially means relatively little for the average person of colour on the street. In literature it could mean the same, with writers simply including more women and minorities in their stories.
A part of the benefit in having more representation is to give young people something to aspire to, or at least the knowledge that they aren’t that different. This is especially for LGBT+ people who don’t, in their youth, have the benefit of being part of their community or the guaranteed support of their parents. Another question is how the stories of minorities are told to the wider culture. It is pivotal to any text that a reader can identify with, or at least understand, the characters, meaning a well written character who is a minority can introduce a wider audience to the struggles and experiences of said group, and, if successful, lead to material and real improvements in the lives of said minorities.