Big surprise: It turns out you can write diversity into genre fiction and people will love it.
The cult-hit podcast Welcome to Night Vale owes its success to a number of factors. But one of them is definitely the show’s habit of representing a diverse range of characters.
On a superficial level, Night Vale is charming and smart. But one of the reasons for its meme-like spread across online fandom is the fact that it includes characters of many races, genders and sexual orientations. When you look at the other media sources that have reached this level of popularity in fandom, Night Vale is very nearly alone in a sea of TV shows movies that represent a far narrower view of humankind.
On Sunday, Night Vale co-creator Jeffrey Cranor made a low-key announcement about a new voice actor for the recurring character Carlos The Scientist. Although most of the show’s narrative takes place purely from the perspective of radio host Cecil, there have been occasional guest appearances from other characters. Cecil’s boyfriend Carlos is one of them, and was previously voiced by Cranor himself. Here’s Cranor’s explanation for why they decided to hire a fresh voice-actor.
“It sucks that there’s a white straight male (me), playing a gay man of color (Carlos). Look, I know it’s a voiceover, but it’s not just that. We do live stage shows, and that’s a visible role for a PoC. Plus, fans often google the actors who play each character, and what does a Latino/Latina teen think when my face might pop up (or worse, no image pops up) as the actor playing Carlos? What am I doing voicing this major character when there are so many talented, gay, Latino or Hispanic men who can/should be doing it? Why didn’t I think of all of this before ep 16? I don’t know.”
If you’re at all familiar with the controversy surrounding “racebent” or “whitewashed” casting (for example, Benedict Cumberbatch being cast as the previously East-Asian Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek), you’ll know that this is a pretty rare statement to hear from the writer of a popular media source.
In online fandom, the most popular TV shows and movies tend to focus on straight, white male characters. Similarly, most “geek royalty” writers and directors (Joss Whedon, Steven Moffat, J.J. Abrams…) are in that same demographic. The thing is, if you look at the way fan communities discuss Supernatural or Sherlock or Game of Thrones, you’re constantly presented with a strange combination of reactions: passionate love for the basic concept of the show, plus bitter disappointment that the writers or creators fail to include more female, LGBT or PoC characters.
Blockbuster franchises like Star Trek and The Avengers are constantly beset with fan backlash for scaling down female characters or whitewashing characters of color, to the extent that any new fandom-friendly media source with a diverse cast is instantly praised for being a breath of fresh air. Just look at Sleepy Hollow and Pacific Rim this year.
As an indie production run by just a handful of people, Welcome to Night Vale has a lot of freedom to do whatever the creators want. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are not governed by pressure to hit certain audience ratings, and they don’t have a movie studio making editorial notes about catering to the male 18-30 demographic (one of the most common explanations for the gender disparity in TV and movies). As a result, Fink and Cranor not only created an unusually diverse cast of characters, but they also showed those characters reacting to their various differences in an unusually thoughtful way.
One recent episode, for instance, focused on the problems faced by Meghan, an elementary school-aged girl who was born in the form of an adult male human hand. Obviously the concept is absurd, but the message behind it is not. Everyone in Night Vale accepts Meghan’s gender identity without question, and the school installs an artificially intelligent supercomputer to allow her to communicate more easily with her peers. It’s a relatable story about gender and isolation and disability, told through an Addams Family-esque lens of weirdness and horror.
Aside from the mysteriously loathed Steve Carlsberg, the most vocally disliked character in Night Vale was the Apache Tracker, a white man who habitually dressed up in a Native American headdress. It’s a running joke that Night Valeians all find the Apache Tracker to be embarrassing and racist, while simultaneously being totally unperturbed by things like rains of frogs or children going missing in the middle of the night. Weird and terrifying stuff happens in Night Vale all the time, but that doesn’t mean people can’t be sensitive to things like gender nonconformity and racism.
Storylines like this are proof that Night Vale’s writers put a lot of conscious thought into how they deal with minority representation within their writing. It’s also proof that acknowledging “difficult” issues like race, gender and sexuality does not detract from sci-fi, horror or fantasy genre writing. Considering the existence of the Apache Tracker, it’s really not all that surprising that Carlos is being recast with a more appropriate voice actor.
Fink and Cranor did not set out to court a fandom audience, but somehow, they managed to tap into exactly what many fans have been yearning for for decades: representative casting, sensitive writing, and an intelligent attitude toward the fact of human diversity.
Art by chilicurry/Tumblr
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