Are “Diversified Reboots” a Bad Thing?

Star Wars, X-Men, Godzilla, Terminator, The Mummy, Star Trek, even Planet of the Apes — you name it, and it’s probably been brought back sometime in the last ten years. Disney alone has no less than fourteen live-action remakes of their classic animated films on the way.

It’s not just the big screen, either. We’ve got reworked versions of 24, Shooter, Baywatch, and, most recently and most controversially, Fox’s reintroduction of beloved cult classic, Buffy the Vampire SlayerEven animated series haven’t been left alone, with early 2000s cartoon classics like Hey Arnold! and Invader Zim finding new life again in some shape or form.

Reboots and remakes certainly aren’t a new concept, but the rate at which seemingly completed TV and film products are being excavated for resurrection potential is spiking at a remarkable rate. These days, it feels like hardly a week goes by without Hollywood attempting to revive some beloved TV show or film franchise. With the neverending onslaught of media resurrections, it’s probably safe to say we’re all more or less over the reboot hype by now.

The thing is, film studios and television networks aren’t.

Now, the big problem here is the obvious fear of déjà vu overkill. How many times can audiences see the same movie play out over and over before getting severely bored? How many will continue to pay to see humans make the predictable mistake of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction all over again, even if it is the universally likeable Andy Dwyer/Peter Quill taking centre stage?

However, there is a far more prevalent motivation being exercised by Hollywood decision-makers via these countless reboots and remakes. One need only look at the biggest, most widespread responses to all media revival news of the last few years to identify this pattern: A Black stormtrooper! A lesbian Power Ranger! Women can be Ghostbusters?! What’s next, Latina sister witches?!

L-R: John Boyega as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Becky G as Trini in Power Rangers (2017), and the cast of Ghostbusters (2016)

The conversation on diversity and representation has never been more passionate and cacophonous than it is now — on the Internet, at least. Hollywood is starting to listen to public opinion in a way it never has before, with Ed Skrein dropping out of the Hellboy reboot (in which he was cast for an Asian character) and Scarlett Johansson removing herself from the upcoming Rub & Tugwhere she was set to play real life transgender gangster Dante “Tex” Gill (but not before a largely disastrous initial response). Actors and celebrities, at the very least, are starting to worry about perpetuating misrepresentation. Whether it’s on a basis of striving to uphold sincerely-held morals and values or simply out of a desire to protect their careers and reputations is another conversation altogether.

Despite all the progress Hollywood has appeared to make, there remains a prevalent insipidness about the way projects are being conceptualised and produced that continues to provoke vastly mixed reactions from netizens, and it boils down to this: minorities are rapidly realising that they’re never going to be happy with just leftovers.

No matter how much of classic media gets remade, there will always be people from marginalised communities who continue to get excited about each project, usually because it means that they’re finally getting to see themselves reflected in the stories that they grew up loving, the movies and TV shows that helped shape their lives but were always dominated by able-bodied, straight, cis white people. Imagine what the scrapped Xena: Warrior Princess reboot could have meant to WLW (women-loving women) everywhere if Xena were outwardly queer, instead of just subtextually so.

A still from Xena: Warrior Princess (1995 to 2001). The show drew a dedicated cult following, with many fans interpreting Xena as gay and her relationship with her sidekick Gabrielle to be coded as romantic rather than platonic, a sentiment that was echoed by both the cast and the writers long after the show has concluded its run. In 2003, star Lucy Lawless famously told Lesbian News “they’re married, man.”

This isn’t meant to be hate on “diversified” reboots of established media. It is however, meant to be criticism towards the idea that the entire concept and responsibility of representation is just that — studios and executives inserting “diverse” characters into resurrected media and expecting praise and recognition for “Being An Ally” when most of the time, all they really did was try to increase their profits like a superstore branch manager by bringing out retired stock from the back, splashing some colour over and slapping a new price tag on.

Some can call Joss Whedon an ally for giving the world a Black Buffy, but in doing so, they fail to consider that all he’s really doing here is bringing arguably his most successful franchise back to the screen. Yes, he hired a Black woman to run the Buffy remake (Monica Owusu-Breen), but as long as he remains in a position of executive control and continues to collect the bulk of the profits, technically speaking, he is nothing more than a semi-washed-out businessman updating his product for a contemporary audience in a bid to revive his brand, his reputation, or worse, his bank account. It’s especially telling that despite Whedon’s near 30-year career in Hollywood in which he’s done very little towards including people of colour in his works, his seemingly out-of-the-blue decision to create a Black Buffy comes on the heels of the notable successes of Luke Cage, Black Lightning and, most recently, Black Panther.

L-R: Joss Whedon, the creator and showrunner of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, and Monica Owusu-Breen, showrunner for the proposed reboot. Owusu-Breen’s credits include Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Fringe, and Lost.

But Whedon is hardly the only culpable one. Frankly, the more studios continue to put out “diversified” reboots, the more glaringly it highlights the severe lack of original content from minorities, for minorities. For example, The CW would rather recreate Charmed with three Latina women than channel those resources towards new, original Latinx stories, despite the fact that nearly two months before the Charmed reboot was given a greenlight, Brujas, a show about Afro-Latina witches was already announced.

This particular situation brings us to yet another issue with the current trend of “diversified reboots”. Brujas is helmed by Tanya Saracho, a Mexico-born Latina also known for Starz series Vida. The CW’s Charmed remake is helmed by Jennie Snyder Urman, a white woman best known for bringing us the critically acclaimed U.S. remake of Venezuelan telenovela Jane the Virgin, starring Gina RodriguezBecause of Urman’s work with Jane the Virgin (and now Charmed), she gets interviewed by the likes of TV Guide and BuzzFeed to speak on topics like representation for people of colour and U.S. immigration reform.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a white person speaking on these issues, especially when it’s in a “socially responsible” way (according to Rodriguez) in which he or she makes an effort to listen to those directly affected by them in the process of creating their art. However, there has to be something said for the perplexing way in which a white person like Urman is paid more heed on these issues for adapting a Latinx story to English-language TV instead of an actual Latina like Saracho, who is doing the same but with fresh, original Latinx-centred stories based on her knowledge and experience of her own culture. Plain and simple, Hollywood is more willing to give credit to white folks telling minorities’ stories than minorities wanting to tell their own stories.

L-R: The cast of the original Charmed series (Holly Marie Combs, Rose McGowan, and Alyssa Milano), and the cast of the 2018 reboot (Madeleine Mantock, Sarah Jeffery, and Melonie Diaz)

What’s wrong with that? Isn’t representation representation, whether it’s a white person at the wheel or not? Well, if a person of Asian descent had had any say in the casting process of Hellboy, there’s a significantly diminished chance that someone like Ed Skrein would ever have been approached or considered in the first place. If a trans person had been in the room when the powers that be were discussing who should play Dante “Tex” Gill, it’s rather unlikely that Scarlett Johansson would have been even able to get her foot in that door when it had opened. Ocean’s 8 did reasonably well both with critics and at the box office, but did a women-led heist film absolutely need to be an Ocean’s film for studios and investors to believe it would find success?

This is exactly where the trend of “diversified reboots” seems to be hurting representation instead of helping it. As Candice Frederick from SlashFilm writes, it perpetuates the belief that “minority content cannot succeed without the foundation of whiteness” (or, in Ocean’s 8’s case, maleness). What’s even more frustrating is that even on that foundation, minorities can’t always get a win, no matter how faithless. Case in point? Sony’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2014 best-seller Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which was quickly abandoned literally because the people behind it weren’t allowed to whitewash one of the main characters, who is Japanese-Canadian. Apparently, Sony felt it was flat-out “impossible […] to make a movie with an Asian lead.”

When representation is “allowed” ONLY in front of the camera, it’s not sustainable simply because it’s not substantial enough. The door needs to be opened much more widely for people from marginalised communities to become directors, and producers, and writers, and studio executives etc. The door needs to be opened for non-straight, non-white folks to occupy positions of CREATIVE CONTROL, not just execution.

People of colour have original stories waiting to be told now. LGBT+ and disabled folk have original stories waiting to be told now. Women of all colours, shapes and sizes have original stories waiting to be told now. Constantly giving minorities and underrepresented groups a shot at being seen and heard ONLY when the script is already written by predominantly white minds and the camera operated by predominantly white hands only makes your media about as diverse as every generic college brochure stock image out there.

Diversified reboots aren’t a bad thing, if they’re overseen by the minorities they’re being revamped to include.

Diversified reboots aren’t a bad thing, if they’re accompanied by original stories and works by minorities being funded and produced and released alongside them.

Diversified reboots IN THEMSELVES aren’t a bad thing.

They are a bad thing, however, when they’re the ONLY avenue of representation that minorities are being allowed and afforded.

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