To many men and women of color, as well as many white women, meaningful diversity occurs when the actual presence of different-looking bodies appears on screen. For them, this diversity serves as an indicator of progress as well as an aspirational frame for younger generations who are told that the visual signifiers they can identify with carry a great amount of symbolic weight. As a consequence, the degree of diversity became synonymous with the quantity of difference rather than with the dimensionality of those performances. Moreover, a paradoxical condition emerges whereby people of color have become more media savvy yet are still, if not more, reliant on overdetermined and overly reductive notions of so-called “positive” and “negative” representation. Such measures yield a set of dueling consequences: first, that any representation that includes a person of color is automatically a sign of success and progress; second, that such paltry gains generate an easy workaround for the executive suites whereby hiring racially diverse actors becomes an easy substitute for developing new complex characters. The results of such choices can feel—in an affective sense—artificial, or more to the point, like plastic.
Black representation, as it's been understood in a popular sense, has been dominated by the circulation of mediated imagery yielding deleterious effects for the groups depicted. The fear of the effects of such “poor” representation has resulted in a set of binary, nonscientific, underdeveloped metrics—positive and negative—that constitute a nebulous catch-all system wherein the characteristics that define each pole on the spectrum shift depending on the era and the expectations of the audience. What marks a representation as “positive” or “negative”? Responses are often aligned with class (good job, education, community minded), behavior (hypersexual, well-spoken, “woke”), or with characterizations of character that either successfully assimilate into normative culture or fail to do so. However, such a scale oversimplifies the complexities of black identity that require audiences, pop culture critics, and scholars to invest in screen characters through experiencing nuances developed over time and ironically reinforces the stereotypes that operate as industry shorthand. The rationale for solely demanding plastic representation is understandable as a sanity-preserving tactic that can also build esteem and confidence, but it is not nearly enough. Meaningful, resonant diversity is a more difficult, underdeveloped approach that requires all stakeholders to think harder about what on-screen difference looks and feels like. But if representation truly matters, then it is an approach worthy of pursuit.