2014 will go down as a banner year for proponents of change in social tolerance. Minus the nastiness that is Gamergate (something we've purposefully avoided talking about because of the hate mongering it leads to), there has been a lot of forward movement in popular culture this year. From the final episode of Legend of Korra to the announcement of a potential new James Bond to a 'first of its kind' character in Dragon Age: Inquisition, we have borne witness to often overlooked segments of the larger society taking center stage in our television shows, movies and games. While many celebrate these momentous events, some also have a slightly different hope for 2015.
For those who may have missed news of the above, here is a brief recap of the three examples listed. Note that there be spoilers ahead.
Korra's Final Moments
Nickelodeon's Legend of Korra, the second in the Avatar series of cartoons, came to an end this year after four years. Korra, while shown on a primarily children's network, spent years taking on some hot social issues including war, inequality and depression, yet none have been so roundly discussed as this month's conclusion where in the final two minutes of the episode, the series star, Korra, walks off into the 'sunset' with her girlfriend, Asami.
"Just because two characters of the same sex appear in the same story, it should not preclude the possibility of a romance between them. No, not everyone is queer, but the other side of that coin is that not everyone is straight. The more Korra and Asami’s relationship progressed, the more the idea of a romance between them organically blossomed for us.So we alluded to it throughout the second half of the series, working in the idea that their trajectory could be heading towards a romance."
It is not the purpose of this article to dissect the series, the finale or the writers' statements about the characters. Rather it is to support the point that change is coming. If something as grand as this, where the heroine of the entire series gets the girl and rides off into the sunset, can happen in the U.S.A. on a children's network in a cartoon, it is a huge step forward for tolerance, though not without loud disapproval from some quarters.
A Black James Bond
2014 contained other examples of how the tide is turning in other avenues of entertainment. Earlier in December, leaked emails from Sony Pictures indicated that some were advocating for the next James Bond, most notably portrayed by Scottish actor Sean Connery, to be a black actor, Idris Elba. Predictably, a kerfuffle started in the less-tolerant side of media to reject the idea that a black man could portray the iconic spy.
Most media, and most in the worldwide community, responded to this type of hate speech with resounding support for the idea. And in what has to be the classiest moment in movie history, Idris Elba gave the perfect response:
"“Isn’t 007 supposed to handsome? Glad you think I’ve got a shot! Happy New year people,” he wrote."
Even if the rumors eventually prove untrue, the support for the idea is encouraging and is yet another sign that the time is right for inclusion in all aspects of entertainment. Again, however, not always the popular road, but a road less taken.
Dragon Age's Dorian
As a final example, look no further than BioWare's inclusion of a gay man in Dragon Age: Inquisition. While BioWare has long been supportive of and included bisexual characters of both sexes in games like Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic and the earlier Dragon Age games, DAI represents the first time a singularly gay male has been included. Given BioWare's history with same-sex relationships, developers obviously wanted to go one step further, in fact to the next logical step.
Principle writer David Gaider said in his blog:
"Not every story involving a gay character needs to be about them being gay, but I think it’s a missed opportunity to declare that none of them should be…and, in this case, I felt it underlined parts of Dorian’s makeup which, up to that point, had been left to inference. Dorian’s life is one of rebellion, and while being gay in and of itself doesn’t dictate his personality, the conflict that arose from it is certainly a big part of it…and I think that kind of conflict is important when talking about the gay experience."
The reaction from the gaming community, while largely supportive of BioWare's decision, is also split with those who loudly proclaim their disgust.
But that's OK because all of these things, Korra's bisexuality, a black James Bond and a gay game character, are intended to be divisive, to make us think and to help us see our own biases. At the same time, all of the discussion swirling around each helps us realize that these characters are ordinary people moving through the world in TV, movies and games and they are doing the very best that they can under often times wildly difficult circumstances. These specific three are heroes (among several this year) in their own right and that is an amazing fact.
Yet as we sit on the cusp of 2015, there is another hope, one that perhaps is more subtle but in the end, equally, if not more, important than these characters and their attendant social identifications. Simply stated, many wish for the day when identifying with a social minority of any sort will shrink into the background and play second fiddle to the overarching character --- the motives and actions they display. Rather than having to loudly proclaim that "XXX is GAY", how nice it will be to one day have that fact relegated to secondary or tertiary status to the fact that this is the game's (or TV show's or movie's) hero and to have the audience think instead, "DAMN! That guy/gal is BAD ASS!"
It is probably too early to hope that the above can happen at the dawn of 2015, but if 2014 has taught us anything, it is that change can happen, is happening and will continue to happen. People who represent a wide variety of minority groups will finally see heroes they can identify with and celebrate. At the same time, it's likely that many within these same communities understand how awesome it will be someday when celebration of inclusion in a social group becomes less important than the quality of the writing that portrays these characters.
For now, we can all exult the inclusive nature of entertainment with the arrival of Korra, Bond and Dorian as actors on the center stage of their media. It is a worthy and important moment in our history to be there to witness the tides of change. Let each have their time in the spotlight and let more marginalized and overlooked groups find their hero or heroine as time moves forward. Everyone deserves to see their group recognized and heralded.
Yet in the midst of that festive spirit, however, let us all hope that social identification ends up playing a smaller and smaller role in entertainment in deference to well-written, well-rounded, appealing characters that move us, inspire us, and that give us pause to admire who they are not solely based on their color or sexual orientation or nationality or size or any one of a hundred other ways we divide ourselves. We deserve heroes that represent us all, not because of social identification, but simply because we all need a hero in this life.