I was, like most people my age, a huge fan of The Powerpuff Girls growing up. It was rare to see female cartoon characters who got to run around, fight villains, and save the day as they navigated girlhood. For me, it was a really big deal to see such representation. But I’m white, so I never really felt that I couldn’t be like them, nor did I lack cartoon characters who look like me. So for all her faults, it is something that a major kid’s cartoon is choosing to include a dark-skinned black girl who will also run around, fight villains, and save the day, even if her portrayal is a bit problematic.
I think now, more so than before, creators of children’s cartoons have realized the importance of diversity and inclusion. Representation is especially important for kids, as they start to form their sense of self, and especially for kids who aren’t white, who are disabled, who aren’t straight and/or cisgender, or are otherwise marginalized.
Take a show like Steven Universe. The show revolves around its titular character, Steven (voiced by Zach Callison), who is being raised by three female humanoid jewels (known as the Crystal Gems), and spends his time saving the world and subverting masculinity. There are numerous characters of color, and the show has been widely recognized for its multiple portrayals of queer characters and relationships, non-binary characters, and its ability to frankly discuss consent, gender roles, masculinity, maturation, and anxiety. And yet, the show never really veers into the territory of tokenism, instead letting the identities of its characters simply be a fact of the show. It’s one of the few shows on TV for children that has multiple queer characters, and doesn’t bother with the same tired tropes that most adult shows still haven’t stopped using.
For even younger audiences, there are also shows like Doc McStuffins. The show premiered in 2012 and has been going strong ever since. The premise is that the main character, a young African-American girl named Dottie McStuffins (currently voiced by Laya DeLeon Hayes), who hopes to be a doctor like her mother and practices on her toys that come to life from her magic stethoscope, and who she treats injuries and illnesses each week.
That’s why all this representation matters. It’s not for me to write about it (although that’s a nice bonus), or for people to argue about political correctness or identity politics. Diversity isn’t just some grand idea or social justice buzzword. It’s a real and important way to ensure that young children get to see themselves in media, in positive portrayals, even if they aren’t always part of the majority.
If you’re a science fiction geek like I am, you’ve probably noticed that there’s two types of fans. First there’s those who want it to be totally apolitical. If it were up to these guys (and it’s almost overwhelmingly guys, but not always), sci-fi would be composed mainly of spaceships, explosions, cool technology, and a whole lot of straight white cis guys and sexy aliens/robots. Then there’s fans who see sci-fi for the tool that it can be: the ability to show us more futures and possibilities, or to point to our own problems and shortcomings, and some solutions.
No offense to the former kind, but Star Trek, throughout its many TV series and movies, has always been political and meaningful in the best way possible. Sure, there have been plotlines that focused more on the cool futuristic technology and gadgets, or battles with Klingons or Romulans. And yes, there have been more than a few missteps, from the short skirt uniforms on female members of Starfleet in the first series to an almost complete lack of LGBT representation. But mostly, Star Trek has always been about giving us a different possibility, one where bigotry and prejudice were outdated, and has always been about addressing modern issues with a thoughtful, nuanced perspective. Star Trek has touched on race, gender, identity, humanity, truth, justice, war, and diplomacy.
On September 24th, the first two episodes of the latest Star Trek incarnation, Star Trek: Discoverywere released to the world. In many ways, Discoveryis quite unlike previous series. For starters, the main character is not a captain, but instead First Officer Michael Burnham (played terrifically by Sonequa Martin-Green). Michael is human, but she was raised as a Vulcan by Sarek (played in this version by James Frain), and her struggle between her human emotions and the Vulcan adherence to strict logic makes for a unique acting challenge, one where Martin-Green shines. Instead of using an episodic format for storytelling, the story will play out in a serialized narrative. And, perhaps most intriguingly, the show will depart most from other versions of Star Trek by allowing for more conflict between people on the ship. I should say here: spoiler for the beginning of Star Trek: Discovery.
Allowing for conflict between officers plays out quite well in the series’ first episode, “The Vulcan Hello”. Michael, recalling a prior Klingon attack that killed her parents, urges her Captain, Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) to fire at Klingon vessels first, believing they are gearing up for war. When Philippa dismisses this, Michael attacks her with a Vulcan nerve pinch and assumes command of the ship briefly so she can order the attack, however Philippa comes to just in time to stop the attack. The damage is already done, however, and the series makes it clear that one of the main focuses of this season will be the profound affect that causing a war will have on Michael, and how she will handle the enormous brunt of trauma and guilt. And since this is a serialized narrative, we will get to see how these choices play out, instead of discarding them by the next episode.
It’s also worth noting that this is a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, even more so than other Star Trek worlds. Our main character is a black woman. Another character, Lieutenant Ash Tyler, is played by British actor Shazad Latif, who is partly Pakistani. Anthony Rapp, who is also gay in real life, plays openly gay Science Officer Paul Stamets. And while it’s incredibly disappointing that Michelle Yeoh’s character is (spoiler!) killed off in the second episode, it’s still worth something that the show chose to portray a ship captain as a Chinese Malaysian woman, with Yeoh keeping her own accent and her character shown as having Malaysian artifacts in her ready room.
There’s a lot we’re still waiting to see about this version of Star Trek, but based on the show’s beginning, I think we’re in for all the best parts of Star Trek, from the hopeful vision of humanity’s future without racism, sexism, or homophobia and the penchant for asking the deep questions, along with some new and exciting elements and possibilities for storytelling.
Warning: this article is going to be chock-full of spoilers, and probably won’t make sense if you’ve never seen Game of Thrones.
If you only saw the first episode, or even just the first couple of seasons of Game of Thrones, you might be surprised to hear me call it a feminist show. After all, episode one gives us Daenerys Targaryen (played by Emilia Clarke) being abused by her older brother Viserys (played by Harry Lloyd) and forcibly married to warlord Khal Drago. Seasons one and two included plotlines of domestic abuse, rape, and general brutality toward the women on the show, not to mention a great deal of gratuitous nudity and the show’s infamous sexposition.
However, the show has changed gears recently. Daenerys has gone from being a scared, meek young woman with little agency to being one of the most powerful characters with three dragons and a very large army. Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner) went from being a spoiled, naïve girl, to being a victim of cruelty from King Joffrey (played by Jack Gleeson) and Ramsay Bolton (played by Iwan Rheon), to becoming a powerful young woman with agency and intelligence.
That’s not to say the show isn’t still experiencing issues.Game of Thrones has been roundly criticized for its lack of diversity. As it stands, there are very few people of color with speaking roles whose characters are still around at the start of season seven. Off the top of my head, I can mainly think of Missandei (played by Nathalie Emmanuel), Grey Worm (played by Jacob Anderson), Ellaria Sand (played by Indria Varma), and some of the Sand Snakes, Obara Sand and Nymeria Sand (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes and Jessica Henwick, respectively). Considering that the cast is well into the hundreds, this is a pretty unimpressive list. Not to mention, there are precious few LGBT characters or storylines, with notable exceptions like the love story between Renly Baratheon (played by Gethin Anthony) and Loras Tyrell (played by Finn Jones).
Also, I do wish that the show could figure out how to deal with sexual violence. In the first episode, Daenerys is raped by her new husband Khal Drogo (played by Jason Momoa), but their marriage morphs into some kind of a love story. Queen Cersei (played by Lena Heady) is raped by her lover/brother Jaime Lannister in season four, but this event is never mentioned again nor does it seem to have any effect on the plot or characters. And while the most recent episode, Stormborn, did a good job showing Theon Greyjoy’s (played by Alfie Allen) trauma from his time being tortured by Ramsay, they’ve given no such indication that they’ll show the trauma that a character like Sansa would likely suffer from after being in two separate abusive relationships from what are quite possibly the two most evil characters Game of Thrones has ever had. Which isn’t to say that I want to see Sansa merely crying and feeling bad about it, but I think there could be space here for a deeper dive into the effects of sex trauma, but the show has yet to do so.
Still, the show has recently made a point of giving its female characters ever-increasing agency and power and more ways to exert this power. We have female warriors like Brienne of Tarth (played by Gwendoline Christie) and Arya Stark (played by Maisie Williams), just Queens like Daenerys, villainous ones like Cersei, and everyone’s favorite little badass, Lyanna Mormont (played by Bella Ramsey), who had one of my favorite lines in last week’s episode when she let the men of the North know that she wasn’t going to be knitting by the fire when the white walkers come. With Jon Snow (played by Kit Harrington) off to Dragonstone, this season is poised to have women in control over much of Westeros, from Sansa in the north, Daenerys in the south (ish), and Cersei in King’s Landing.
Plus, while watching Jon attack creepy pedophile Petyr Baelish (played by Aiden Gillan) for preying on Sansa was quite satisfying, I’m more excited to see the women of Westeros protecting each other and supporting each other, especially Arya now that she’s headed back to Winterfell to hopefully, along with Brienne, protect Sansa (not that she can’t protect herself), and Daenerys’s newfound alliance with Olenna Tyrell (played by Diana Rigg), who lets her in on the secret to surviving and outliving men: ignore them. Also, it’s worth noting that so far this season has been light on the sex and nudity, with the one exception being the sweet and romantic encounter between Missandei and Grey Worm.
We’ve only just finished the second episode of season seven, but if the season continues on this track, I think it’s poised to be the most feminist seasons on Game of Thrones, and prove itself a far cry away from its initial ways of portraying women.
One aspect of fashion that is always open for discussion is its relationship with society. The two entities coexist and function by challenging, as well as reflecting one another. For example, runway models at Paris Fashion Week are notably taller and thinner than at other fashion weeks because the city’s majority is that way as well; it makes sense. Runway shows, magazine/editorial coverage, and advertising campaigns in West fashion markets i.e. Paris and London predominantly use Caucasian (white) models because their respective populations are largely white, and people are instinctively drawn to what they relate to.
Let’s take this notion and apply it to a pressing issue: the apparent lack of ethnic diversity in Toronto’s fashion market, a city known for its diversity. If fashion is supposed to reflect society, then why is the gap between runway and consumer steadily increasing? In this particular aspect, our fashion market disappoints us.
The lack of diversity in Toronto’s fashion market, not only carries social consequences, but sets notable challenges for working models of colour. Sadiq Desh (Elmer Olsen Models) is a Toronto-based model originally from Nigeria. He believes that working as a black model can either “work to your advantage or your disadvantage”. Clients and casting directors decide which models are right for their particular project and essentially “have their pick” says Desh. If they have previously worked with a model before, they will most likely hire that same model again – a rational practice, but one that involves advantages for some and disadvantages for others. There are “token-black models” says Desh, and that’s where the most prominent advantages lie; a (racially-specific) token model becomes a selected favourite amongst numerous other racially diverse models. In a notoriously competitive profession, it seems that dark-skinned models, as well as other racially diverse models compete against one another in ways lighter-skinned models do not have to.
Photo by Mark Binks
Nathaniel Luu (Spot6 Management), who comes from a Chinese and Vietnamese ethnic background, finds that he compares himself “to all the other Caucasian models”. He often expects clients to choose them; “I’m just there in case they need a more diverse group” he says. Luu’s comments suggest that non-Caucasian (non-white) models are predominantly used as accessories to compliment the overall image of a project, and less as forefront necessities. The lack of racial diversity in fashion is not a new discussion: “everyone’s aware, but nobody’s talking about it” says Sadiq, and he’s right. There should be no fear in having conversation; if discussion cannot be done publicly, then there must be something inherently wrong within the industry.
Back in 2013, Naomi Campbell and Iman (who are part of fashion’s diversity coalition) took an unprecedented step in publicly acknowledging the lack of racial diversity on the New York runway shows that year. Fashion’s diversity coalition, led by fashion-activist Bethann Hardison, penned four letters to organizations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) that addressed the lack of racial diversity on the runways and called out several high-profile designers i.e. Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Marc Jacobs who contributed to it.
Since then, things have shifted. Preceding runway presentations at New York Fashion Week have increased the number of non-Caucasian models, but only slightly. This past August, Details magazine released their fashion fall issue; its cover, photographed by Mark Seliger, showcased 31 of the current top male models sporting looks from the Calvin Klein Fall/Winter 2015 collection. Amongst the 31 men, only four models of colour were present.
Moreover, Valentino’s Summer/Spring 2016 collection presented at Paris Fashion Week earlier this fall used motifs inspired by images and representations of “African” culture. Despite strikingly beautiful and diverse designs, the most striking aspect of the presentation was the designer’s dominant use of white models. The collection showcased a total of 90 different looks, but only 10 of them were worn by dark-skinned female models.
Still, to say no change has occurred is deniable. Swedish retail-clothing company H&M recently partnered with Paris designer Balmain for a fashion collaboration to be released later this month. The campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti, features high-profile models Jourdan Dunn, Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Dudley O’Shaughnessy, and Hao Yun Xiang – a racially diverse group of models by any standard.
“I think that now, many international companies within and outside of fashion are really trying to make a huge effort in diversity within their campaigns and brands” says Myles Sexton (B&M Models). The Toronto-based model has been modeling for nearly 7 years. “When I started modeling, I did more womenswear than menswear”, which was “before the time of ‘androgynous’ models or gender fluidity” Sexton explains. “I think it was generally hard for myself at castings, trying to book work and make others understand what I represented” he says. Models like Kirsten Owen and Andreja Pejic (represented by PUSH management) have helped pave the way for gender-ambiguous fashion, and with androgynous models like Seth Atwell (managed by Peggi Lepage) on the rise, the increasing amount of androgyny will only continue to diversify fashion.
Speaking about his earlier years of work, Sexton remembers walking “into a casting and [having] the room go silent; there would always be this awkward pause before someone would speak and realize that I was a man and not a woman”. This made Sexton feel “uncomfortable”, but for him, “you can’t create change if you feel comfortable.” Myles makes a crucial distinction regarding real change. Although change is difficult, his comments insinuate that challenging boundaries and pushing past them is the only way to implement any kind of positive change towards diversity.
This past season at World MasterCard Fashion Week (WMCFW) saw some designers cast a variety of different models. Most notably, Hayley Elsaesser who returned this season with a strikingly colourful collection of womens/menswear presented by a very diverse selection of models.
I wanted to know how many non-white models were used throughout WMCFW, and more specifically, if that number changed among the different runway shows. Keeping track of each individual model was difficult, especially when some were recycled within a show and used again for another. Instead, I decided to keep track of how many looks were presented and kept a tally of looks worn by white and non-white models. Below are my findings. The last column denotes the percentage of looks worn by non-white models against the total number of looks in that particular show.
Caucasian worn “Looks”
Non-Caucasian worn “Looks”
Total # of Looks
NO99 WAYNE GRETZKY
Calculations reveal that 36% of the runway presentations had less than 15% looks worn by non-Caucasian models and that 86% of them had less than30% looks worn by non-Caucasian models. There is a dramatically unequal rapport between white and non-white models on the runway. Moreover, amongst a total of 23 runway shows only 3 of them used non-Caucasian models to either open or close a show; not one presentation saw the use of non-white models do both, that is, open and close the same show. The two tables below involve the same type of tallies for the RED Emerging Designer Showcase and Mercedes-Benz Start Up runway presentation. The numbers here seem better, but only because no collection exceeded 8 looks.
Red Emerging Designer Showcase
Total # of Looks
JI AXIN XU
BLUE COLLAR TRIBE
Caucasian worn “Looks”
Non-Caucasian worn “Looks”
Total # of Looks
The predominant use of white models over models of colour is problematic – especially in Toronto, Canada’s largest city distinguished for its ethnic and multicultural diversity. The choices made to use white models perpetuates a very specific type of beauty as an ideal; more importantly, it places social value on that ideal. The perpetuation of such an ideal establishes a social hierarchy based solely on phenotype. The lack of racially diverse models being used within and outside of fashion socially segregates individuals based on their skin colour and/or their ethnic features – and this has tremendously negative consequences; what does it say to people who fit that ideal and to those that do not? Naomi Campbell said it best: “it doesn’t matter what colour you are. If you’ve got the right talent, you should be up there having the opportunity to do the job.”