2017’s entertainment has suggested some marginal progress in diversity, with an increasing trend toward film, TV shows, and anime telling the stories of marginalized groups. There’s growing awareness of how representation affects entertainment, which has lead to, for instance, the whitewashing discussions about Ghost in the Shell and Death Note, or Ed Skrein’s decision to turn down a role in Hellboy, once he learned the character was meant to be of Asian descent. As a celebration of fandom, 2017’s New York Comic Con reflected the year’s trends. It showed the same minute steps being made toward racial and gender equity in entertainment. It also addressed the significant barriers that are left to overcome.
This year’s NYCC had a greater focus on inclusive panels. With titles like “Geeks of Color” and “Cosplay and Disabilities,” they provided spaces for traditionally neglected groups to feel included in a venue packed with Naruto billboards and costumed Game of Thrones characters. And they helped move the conversation forward by bringing social activists into the spotlight. Some of the featured panelists have been involved in the dialog around representation issues for decades, enacting change at the local level. At Comic Con, they delivered their messages to impressionable young kids dressed as Sailor Moon characters and Harry Potter.
During the convention, I sat down with one of these panelists — Tor Books editor Diana Pho, who came to Comic Con dressed as the Chinese-American character Jubilee from X-Men and moderated three panels on diversity this year. She said she first got involved in fandom as a teenager writing fan fiction for Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures series. Eventually, she migrated to the internet through dial-up.
Attending anime conventions felt like a natural extension of Pho’s hobbies, but she noticed how Asian fans, especially Japanese girls, were fetishized by obsessive anime fans who were usually white. Later, her wife introduced her to steampunk and its idealized fantasy version of the Victorian era. But at steampunk panels, Pho kept bringing politics into the discussion. “I’d be the one to be like, ‘Hey, by the way, you know what else happened during the Victorian era? Slavery and child labor and inequality for women.’” Pho felt that raising those issues helped keep steampunk conventions away from extreme romanticization of an era with its own flaws. Later, her interest in activism grew into a steampunk blog, and from there, Tor Books picked her up.
A lot of Pho’s mission to bring social awareness to fandom starts in the small steps, like sharing stories about what it’s like to live and work as a woman of color in the publishing industry. She says, “It’s great that I’m doing these panels. I’m a strong believer in the snowball effect.” Arguably, that snowball effect has led to the increased diversity discussion, which is no longer dependent on ad-hoc comments from the occasional socially aware panelist.
On Saturday evening, Pho ran two back-to-back panels in rooms filled to capacity: “Let’s Talk About Our Problematic Faves: Marginalized Fans and Media,” and “Women of Color Break Out the Books.” In the latter panel, participants discussed how they would ideally remove the obstacles impeding social progress. Pho’s voice cracked several times as she talked about how an academic scholarship let her afford a New York internship that helped her to where she is today. HarperCollins senior book marketing manager Ebony LaDelle agreed that women of color face particular financial constraints and a lack of support structures: “I have colleagues whose parents might help with half their rent. It’s frustrating. You might have to take an unpaid internship, and in order to afford that, you have to be a waitress at night.”
The keyword here is accessibility, says video games editor Jes Negrón. “If it costs you $60 each time to come here and do an interview in New York, as a broke college kid, pretty soon, you’ll stop interviewing.” The applicant pool self-selects for a homogeneous crowd of affluent, predominantly white job-seekers.
These barriers help keep women of color out of white-leaning industries like science fiction and fantasy publishing. According to a Lee & Low Books diversity survey published in 2016, 78 percent of the people working in publishing are women and 79 percent are white. At the executive level, the number drops and only 59 percent of employees are women. “Some would argue that we’re rising toward gender equality. Well, no, if you don’t see a lot of women of color in equal numbers,” Pho said. “If all these white women are still publishing books that appeal to white men the most, or other white audiences, it’s not as progressive as you’d think.”
The struggle of entering a majority-white industry also takes a psychological toll on people of color because of the lack of cultural connections and the constant sensation of looking and feeling different. LaDelle elaborated, “You’re wondering if someone is treating you differently because of the color of your skin. There is this subconscious bias they don’t even realize they have about you.”
Since the leadership at the top tiers are mostly white men, the business decisions that trickle down can be be non-inclusive. For instance, there are quotas imposed on how many books featuring mainly people of color can be promoted or picked up at a particular time, according to LaDelle and Regina Flath, a book cover artist who’s half-Filipina. “It’s like they have one book about people with color, so they don’t want to have another,” queer author K. Arsenault Rivera said at the panel.
There are still initiatives working to turn the tide and signs that things might take a turn for the better. A mentorship program called Representation Matters, started earlier in 2017, has gotten several people of color entry-level jobs in publishing. Literary agent Beth Phelan started the DVpit Twitter event because she wanted pitches written by marginalized people. The hashtag has led to several authors of color getting discovered and landing book deals.
All these visibility efforts, including the panels at Comic Con, are contributing to the diversity cause. As Pho puts it, “It’s not just me, it’s you, the person next to you, neighbors, and coworkers.” That decentralization of responsibility means the onus is on everyone to promote social change. “That relieves the pressure. We don’t have to have one leader, this one figurehead who will guide the way to save us all,” she says.