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The Best Diversity of 2014

by Gabriel Valdez

A Japanese hero. African-American, Latina, Korean, and Caucasian teammates. And a robot. Yet…diversity isn’t about checking off boxes. It’s also a way of looking at the world. The cast of Big Hero 6 doesn’t act in any way stereotypical or feel the need to point out its diversity. It simply demonstrates characters from different backgrounds getting along and solving problems through teamwork. Their personalities are informed by their ethnic backgrounds, sure, but they aren’t restricted to them.

Furthermore, the women of Big Hero 6 never feel any need to talk about the men. They talk about science and math, the tactics they’ll use in battle, the technology they’re developing, or how to deal with loss. The characters are all given a level playing field, meet through the great equalizer – education – and are treated as intelligent, creative, and fully capable in and of themselves.

The film’s villain isn’t even that evil at his core. It is his way of looking at the world that’s evil, informed by his need to avenge the tragic loss of a woman even as this narcissistic reaction causes him to completely overlook the option of finding her a way back home. (If you had problems with the way The LEGO Movie treated women, Big Hero 6 is your answer.)

When the other writers and I talked about this category, we didn’t just want to award the movie that has the most minorities or female characters. We wanted to award the movie that assumes diversity is a given, an advantage, a feature of a successful team, and then moves forward from there. Big Hero 6 does all these things. It never says our team of heroes is strong because they’re diverse, it just brings them together and lets the characters show it themselves. There’s no too-clever message here for kids, just an assumption that kids are smart enough to recognize what’s in front of them.

Big Hero 6 does take source material featuring mostly Japanese characters and vary the ethnicities to better reflect those of the movie’s chief audience, the United States, but to hold this against it would be to hold every culture’s storytelling against that culture. We all do this. When Japanese artists adapt American stories, the characters inside these tales are often shifted to Japanese analogues. It’s a device every culture uses to tell stories so that its people can better identify with them, but the problem with Hollywood has long been that this means making every character Caucasian, which is not a true reflection of American culture.

This isn’t an award for taking Japanese source material and not being dumb enough to fall into the Hollywood trap of totally whitewashing it. Neither is this an award for multiculturalism. This is an award for the attitude of a story and how it internalizes diversity as a way of looking at the world. Big Hero 6 doesn’t treat diversity as a goal to be achieved. Instead, it treats diversity as an assumption, as a very happy and supportive way of living life.

Assuming this kind of diversity in fantasy and science-fiction also does a lot to shape more complete worlds. Create a homogenized genre universe and viewers notice. When viewers notice, you have to start explaining inside the film why you made it that way, which creates extra work for you and keeps you from getting to the plot.

On the other hand, create a universe composed of different ethnicities working together, and you’ve already suggested history without even mentioning a word about it. People assume this history exists because to get from here to there is going to be far tougher than making robots and spaceships. You save yourself that much more work when viewers are already crafting possibilities for you in their own heads. The universe you’ve made feels more populated and real. You can get to the plot that much faster.

(It’s also worth noting that all of the voice actors are appropriately cast for the ethnicity they’re portraying, which seldom happens in animated films. This also contributes to shaping a fuller world.)

Diversity is what comes after the struggle. It comes after civil rights and voting rights and equal pay and immigration reform and not getting shot in the street for the color of your skin. True, honest, daily diversity in our lives is an American science-fiction, yet it’s a science-fiction we need to tell because every dream we dream, the next generation takes as its challenge.

Diversity isn’t at the core of Big Hero 6‘s story, yet it’s reflected as a source of strength and resilience. Each hero is stronger for relying upon people different from them: in personality, in ethnicity, in gender, in socioeconomic background.

Even if its plot internalizes some of the big arguments about diversity, Big Hero 6 doesn’t have to make all of those arguments outright. It presents a world where all those big arguments have already been won, and it’s an astonishing world. It’s most fantastical not because of flying robots or nano-machines or portals to other dimensions. Its most envious quality is a world that feels meshed from different cultures, yet still offers space for everyone to enjoy and value their own individual identities.

(Read the review)