Things on the big screen might seem to be diverse now. Or at least, getting more so. But it wasn’t always like that. Hard to imagine, but just 20 or so years ago, seeing Brown representation in films were few and far between. Well, unless you were the bad guys and not the heroes. 

Famed director Robert Rodriguez had to push for Latin representation when he made the first Spy Kids film. 

“That had just never been done before,” he said at the Directors on Directing panel for Comic Con at Home. “When you’re doing anything that’s new — this just happens to be about diversity — but it when you’re doing anything that’s new, you’re going to get a question. And you have to have a good answer.”

At the time, in 1999, that kind of Latin representation just wasn’t happening. There weren’t any major roles being written for Latin characters. But it was important to him that the family in Spy Kids be inspired by his own family.

(Photo credit: Dimension Films / Troublemaker Studios)

As Rodriguez described it, the studio heads he talked to weren’t hostile to the idea of having non-white characters. They were just genuinely confused by his insistence at doing something that could conceivably hurt the movie’s bottom line. They were operating under the misguided belief that having a Latin cast would make the audience smaller, because, as they thought, only that demographic would watch it.

Rodriguez didn’t believe this was true, but his initial attempts at persuasion were unsuccessful. Because the issue mattered to him personally, he was determined not to let it go. But he realized he’d need more than raw persistence to make this happen. He had to help his colleagues see things from a new perspective.

What ultimately convinced them was a simple sentence: 

“You don’t have to be British to enjoy James Bond.”

With that argument, they agreed to go along with it. And of course, Rodriguez ultimately got to prove he was right. Spy Kids became a major, 4-movie franchise. After the movies’ success, it became undeniably clear that making the main characters Latin had no limit on the audience, or on the movie’s bottom line.

The Power of Representation

While having a cast of Latin characters had no impact on the films’ universal appeal, it was very meaningful for one subset of its audience: Latin.

“You see that any kid can watch that movie and enjoy that movie,” Rodriguez said. “For those who are Latin in particular, it means so much to them. It changes their whole future about what is possible.”

(Photo credit: Dimension Films / Troublemaker Studios)

He described how some kids watching the film noticed his name in the credits, and how much it blew their minds that even the creator was Latin. When kids see that kind of representation, it can change their whole conception of what’s possible. 

“That’s the real hope of entertainment: You can create a character that can do all the things that reality isn’t doing for them, and give them something that they’ll watch over and over again, just because it’s fun. And they’ll come away with food for thought on how they can change the world in the future.”

A Lesson for Creators

As a writer and director myself, I found Rodriguez’s story so inspiring and insightful. Too often, I think the efforts to increase on-screen representation come in the form of demands, with an assumption of ill-intent behind those with decision-making power.

While it is definitely true that the entertainment industry has problems with bigotry that create obstacles for greater diversity and representation, that isn’t always the cause or the motive. Often, there is no malice. Often, people just haven’t thought of it before. What they need is to see things from a new perspective.

And while persistence is important — Rodriguez’s story made that much clear — simply demanding change isn’t always effective. A much better strategy is to “work on your argument,” as he said.

You’ll need to put your foot down, but explain your view in a way that makes sense to your listeners. Persuasion, in these situations, will always be superior to militancy.

(Photo credit: Dimension Films / Troublemaker Studios)

What Makes a Story Universal?

Part of the obstacle that Rodriguez encountered while pushing for Latin representation stems from a deeper problem. There is a common assumption that only certain kinds of stories and perspectives can have massive or universal appeal.

The truth, though, is that any story about human beings can be universal. What allows us to connect with a character has little to do with the color of his skin, the language he speaks, or the culture he hails from.

We all experience the same core emotions. We all have goals, hopes, fears, and motivations. These are the elements that make for great characters, and they’re the ingredients that allow us to connect with characters, too. A well-written character will be universal just by her very nature.

Navigating the Barren Wasteland

This problem of perceived universality is something I think about a lot as a butch lesbian. I feel like the representation for people like me is currently a barren wasteland — perhaps comparable to the representation for Latins in the late 90s. Though I’m white, and have no need for more people on screen who “look” like me, (dear God, we have plenty), I am hungry for the representation of people who are internally oriented like me.

It’s frustrating, however, to think about all the baggage that comes when you’re in the early stages of creating representation. If I were to direct an action movie with a butch lesbian lead, for example, there are all sorts of questions and obstacles that might come up.

“Won’t it limit the audience?” I can imagine some people saying. “Won’t only queer women want to see it?”

And then there is the anger of certain male movie-goers who complain when female characters aren’t physically appealing to them, or who feel like having queerness at the front and center of a story is some kind of “agenda,” when in fact it’s just the daily, lived experience for people like me.

The recent video game The Last of Us II received huge backlash from a vocal minority of fans, who were upset with a number of the game’s features, including its queer representation and a major female character who has a buff, masculine physique. And yet, the game received high critical reviews and sold 4 million copies in 3 days, making it the fastest-selling PS4 exclusive ever. Despite criticism and review-bombing from offended fans, it was a major success. (Photo credit: Naughty Dog)

Equally annoying is the way any story I might tell would be interpreted in ways I do not intend, simply on account of the character being queer. It becomes a “lesbian” story rather than just a story that happens to center a lesbian, with an entire minefield of tropes and connotations I am obligated to carefully steer clear of. 

For example, simple decisions like whether or not to kill off a character are charged and complicated by a history of “burying the gays” — that is, giving gay characters tragic endings disproportionate to straight characters. While I don’t want to reinforce an old, harmful trope, I also don’t want to be hemmed in with the kinds of stories I can write, just because I changed a simple, surface-level attribute of my character.

I look forward to the day when all of this is not the case, when I can just write a character and make her a lesbian, and it doesn’t have to mean anything. I long for stories about people like me to be seen as universal, too. I know they can, because people like me are human beings, and it’s worth saying again: Any story about human beings can be universal.

After learning from Robert Rodriguez, at least I have an idea of how I’ll make this happen. I’ll be persistent, but not militant. I’ll make arguments, not demands. And hopefully, step by step, I’ll start to see changes.