Sense8, The Oscars, and the Second Diversity Argument

I have a conflicted relationship with Sense8, Netflix and the Wachowskis’ sci-fi/fantasy experiment from last June. On one hand, its writing is absolutely atrocious. It ignores the entire concept of showing over telling, it has no sense of pace or plot, its worldbuilding is all over the place, and its dialogue is filled with some of the most cringe-worthy, didactic, over-the-top schlock I’ve ever heard. I could (and have) spend an entire post’s worth of words ranting about just how awful its scripts are, and how the Wachowskis should just stop trying to write before they complete what, at this point, has to be a deliberate quest to fuse the respective writing styles (to put it kindly) of James Cameron and Michael Bay.

That said, I appreciate Sense8 more than almost any other TV show in recent memory because of its single, massive redeeming value: its characters. In case you’re unfamiliar, it follows a cast of eight “sensates:” a Kenyan matatu driver, an American police officer, an Icelandic DJ, a trans woman living in San Francisco, a Korean businesswoman-cum-kickboxer, a closeted Mexican actor, a college-educated Indian pharmacist, and a German criminal, locksmith, and safe-cracker.

Notice anything interesting about that list? It’s diverse? Yeah, but there’s something else too—something more than just simple racial or ethnic diversity. Let’s give it a moment to stew and, while we’re waiting, take a look at some current events.

The diversity argument made by Chris Rock in his opening monologue at Sunday night’s Oscars more or less matched the thousands floated by various people—actors, celebrities, politicians, academics, lowly bloggers—since the nominations were first announced. Hollywood is, as he put it, “sorority racist.” Or, to omit the jokey metaphor, the film industry remains damagingly exclusionary without indulging in the violence or denigration we’ve been conditioned to conflate with racism. The Oscars this year were a symptom of that exclusionary racism, not the cause, and what the film industry (and the entertainment industry as a whole, but no sector is quite as bad as the film industry) needs now is to provide actors of color (be they black, Latino, Asian, etc.) with roles that go beyond the usual stereotypes people of color are given to play.

You know what I mean—black actresses as maids (The Help), black actors as slaves in historical pieces (12 Years a Slave) or criminals in contemporary ones (Training Day) and so on. The modern film industry already has a serious problem with originality, but the few original roles it does create invariably go to white actors. You’ve heard of typecasting, and Hollywood’s current practice involves what is effectively the typecasting of entire races. This not only reduces opportunities for non-white actors to break from the roles they’ve been limited to in the past, but also shapes popular perception of what people of those races and ethnicities are like in real life. Racism enforces racism.

So in short, the first diversity argument has been this: we need to cast people of color in diverse roles (i.e., roles not based on racial stereotypes) to help eradicate the perceptions that enforce prejudice, and to allow those actors the opportunities long-denied to people of color.

I believe in this argument.  I think it’s valid.  But I think there’s also a second diversity argument that operates in tandem with the first. Rather than an external argument that addresses the entertainment industry’s affect on real people, the second diversity argument concerns stories themselves, and is essentially this:

Diverse casts make better stories.

Yes, that’s a massive generalization. And yes, the phrase “better stories” is completely subjective. But take a look at television. It may have the equivalent of Hollywood’s heavily white prestige pictures, but it also has equally acclaimed shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder that not only draw huge ratings but are recognized by their respective Academy. And even outside of ShondaLand, TV undeniably presents more roles than film for actors of color. Look at The CW, and shows like The Flash, The 100, and Jane the Virgin. All have been about as acclaimed as shows in their respective genres can be, and their casts blow Hollywood’s halfhearted attempts at diversity out of the water.

But if that’s not enough, there is that one shining example of just how much a diverse cast of characters, and the diverse narratives those characters bring, can elevate a show above its many, many flaws. I may never pass up an opportunity to tear Sense8 apart for its awful writing, but I’ll still be watching the second season when its released later this year. And that is entirely, unquestionably, one-hundred percent because of how flat-out different it is from anything else on TV.

Because Sense8 doesn’t just have a “diverse” cast; other shows have racially mixed casts too. No, Sense8 is different because its casting defies the easy stereotypes that too many films and shows use to create their characters. Or, to put it all in one example, Capheus—the Nairobi bus driver obsessed with the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme (and my personal favorite of the eight)—is a character I have never encountered before. Never once, in any medium, ever.

Think about how rare that is with an entertainment industry as derivative as ours. Every character is usually born from some template, some stereotype that, if we’re lucky, gets shaded in just enough to create the illusion of depth. Capheus’s arc may not escape all tropes associated with African characters—his central conflict is the need to get AIDS medicine for his ailing mother, and his main combatants are the men of a local warlord—but his character is so refreshingly free of cliché that his narrative still feels fresh and compelling. Moreover, it invokes reality rather than unsubstantiated stereotypes.

And you know what? There are seven more where that came from, and seven divergent yet complimentary narratives that follow. While there are a few slip-ups, and a couple of their arcs—in particular Riley’s and Wolfgang’s—fall in predictable patterns, Sense8 does an admirable job of avoiding the tired clichés and stereotypes that hound the stories we like to label “diverse,” and the end result is truly, at least at this point in our evolution, one-of-a-kind.

There are of course additional examples I could use to support the second diversity argument, but still none of them carry quite as much heft as Sense8. Why? Because Sense8 is, in both my opinion and seemingly that of the majority of the public, a very good show. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t have gotten renewed.

And to put it bluntly, there is absolutely nothing else in its composition that could possibly deserve that reaction.

In the end, Sense8 is what the entertainment industry should aspire to in terms of diversity, because it uses that diversity not to pander or to tokenize or to advance its own agenda, but to tell stories that have never been told before. And after all, isn’t that the end goal of most original works? No one wants to be derivative, but very few actually succeed as well as Sense8. It is, in my mind, definitive proof that successful diversity just makes for better stories.

If that sounds like an agenda—well, it is. I’m a writer. Stories are my agenda—good stories that have never been told before. Stories like that are how we move forward. In the right circumstances, they are the impetus for growth. Stories like that should be the goal.

It’s a shame it’s taking so long for us to reach it.

 

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