It’s a wonderful time to be a nerd on the internet, more or less. There are inclusive spaces almost everywhere, and many of these inclusive communities are doing a great job holding gatekeepers and tastemakers responsible for the chronic lack of diversity in mainstream media properties. Nerds have become the best kind of pop/geek culture critics by fighting for representation and not putting up with people’s crap. It brings a tear to my eye, it does.
Still, the internet is full of opinions, and whenever someone says something critical of a particular property or company, tempers can flare. I spend a lot of time in nerdy spaces, and one of the most common rebuttals to criticism of big-budget, mainstream media properties and companies is:
See, that’s why we need to make our own/tell our own stories/do it ourselves!
If you don’t like how the big corporations do it, stop complaining and make your own!
First, a disclaimer: I wouldn’t dare try to minimize the impact of indie creators who have set out to make their own inclusive, diverse, and representative properties. That’s a huge struggle and a lot of people are finding success striking out in their own directions. Still, I can’t help but feel that on some level, when people throw this out into debate threads, they are using it as an “Aha! Gotcha! Moral High Ground Victor” card, as if a slew of independent properties is somehow going to make people punt their 28 year relationship with Marvel Comics or Bioware games into the gutter. (Not to say that doesn’t happen, though…)
“We Should Make Our Own” is a great rallying cry. Yell it to the skies, or from the top of a mountain, because it’s true. That kind of individual achievement in the face of corporate terrorism (yes, it is terrorism) really speaks to that spark of American individualism and work ethic buried deep down in the squishy places between my organs. Still it is, at best, a lazy rebuttal to criticism of established properties and their regressive practices.
For one, there are PLENTY of people divorcing themselves from the mainstream and making their own stories, comics, animation, film or video game properties. To some extent, there always has been, and the internet age has made publicizing your own property (relatively) easier than ever. There are Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns for anything imaginable. People are using these tools to the fullest extent possible. In fact, (spoiler alert: bias incoming) one of the most amazing anthologies of speculative fiction released in the past few years was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Your faves are using kickstarter to buck the system. It can’t get any better than that, and people are doing it every day, every hour. More people than ever are seeking out these properties, supporting them, and pushing them into the mainstream.
Furthermore, to think that people’s commitment to mainstream properties will somehow hinder them in their support of independent properties is flawed. This post doesn’t even begin to explore the massive amount of communities that are fully committed to sharing interesting independent properties with groups who may not have known about them otherwise. The foundations are there: People are making their own stuff, and crowds of other people are supporting them.
Besides, what people really mean when they toss out the MAKE YOUR OWN argument is: “You don’t have a right to criticize what the mainstream is doing when you’re supporting it financially,” which is completely ridiculous. It is a guaranteed right of consumers to criticize things that they financially support. Imagine walking into a restaurant and being served a crummy meal, and when you complain to the manager, the manager replies with, “Well, you could have eaten at home tonight.”
We all know that mainstream media leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to diversity. Still, even if every single person who desires to see diversity and thoughtfulness in comics, literature, film, or video games decided to support independent ventures, the mainstream has an obligation as self-appointed peddlers of culture to fairly and thoughtfully represent said culture. We don’t want diversity in these properties because we’re selfish. We want diversity in these properties because it’s the right thing for them to do. We, as consumers of this media, want the folks who tell these stories to tell our stories fairly whether our eyes are on them or not. The only way that we can get these lunkheads to pay any attention to us and our desires is to keep the criticism coming in strong and fast. It’s rather Pavlovian, when you stop to think about it.
The idea for this rant came to me while I was listening to the Nerdgasm Noire Network discuss #INeedDiverseGames with @CypherOfTyr. On the cast, there were about 5 minutes dedicated to a rant directed at #/Gamergaters who use this exact same derailment tactic with women and other marginalized groups who have really only just asked to be fairly represented in video games. Apparently, diverse representation and thoughtful storytelling will destroy video games or something, which is disappointing.
Anyway, the rant began with this very important point: Not everyone can make their own. Resources are hard to come by, even when you use a crowdfunding campaign. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account how difficult resources are to get for some groups of creators. Of course, the mainstream would face a lot less flack if they would just hire more candidates who weren’t (here I go being racist) straight white guys, but hey. That’s about as difficult as animating women properly.
Additionally, some people DON’T WANT to make their own stuff. I’m a writer. I write short stories, and I hope to finish a novel one day. I’ve written a story for a webcomic. I’d like to write more comics in the future, if I could. But I also like video games. I’ve been playing them for twenty plus years, and I’ve never, ever, not even once, felt the desire to make my own video game. The struggle to acquire enough resources to make the perfect game notwitstanding, my passion isn’t in that area. I only want to consume them. And, since I’m a consumer of video games who would like to be able to see myself in them, I push to see more diverse casts and thoughtful storytelling in the medium. On a personal level, I make that happen both criticizing the current state of the industry AND supporting developers who make games that I want to play. Do you see how this works?
A last bit: I was talking with a friend, and my wife, and they helped me to dig deeper into this and consider another reason why it’s both important that we give people space to make their own stuff AND why we keep the pressure on the mainstream. We’ve gotta do it for the children, who can’t find things on their own, or whose parents, for whatever reason, aren’t able to expose them to independent properties. There are kids all over the world who would love to be able to see themselves in superheroes or fairy tales, but don’t have access to the awesome things that exist outside of the mainstream. They only see Iron Man on their TV, so they close their eyes and imagine that Iron Man is brown, or a woman, or they disidentify in other ways. If we keep up the pressure and support the properties who exist to challenge this status quo, these children might seek out these properties when they grow up–then make their own stories.
Here’s a thought: Instead of tossing out “JUST MAKE YOUR OWN, NOOB!” when someone laments, support them and support someone else at the same time. It’s not hard to say, “here’s something that’s exactly like you’ve been consuming, in case there’s a time where you get tired of blasting away the pasty alabaster veneer of All White Man Everything.” And then let them go on about their business. Stop derailing and be effective.