Representation can be meaningless and downright harmful to marginalized people when not executed with care and consideration.
There’s a constant and nuanced conversation surrounding representation and diversity in media these days. Movies, books, and video games often consider ‘straight, white, and male’ to be the default, and the further away you get from that demographic, the less likely you are to see people like you as well-rounded characters within media.
As a non-binary queer Latinx, I’m far from that center ring and the media I consume often reminds me of that fact. Growing up, the Latinx characters I most often saw in American media were drug lords and maids — criminals at worst, stereotypes at best. And the darker the skin color of the character, the worse the stereotypes were.
Children’s media sometimes included characters like Emmy and Max from Dragon Tales who, although light in skin color, showcased their Latinx heritage without stereotypes. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that characters like America Chavez and Elena of Avalor appeared with more frequency as corporations realized that diverse media brings in much wider audiences and more money.
In the past decade, we’ve had shows like Sense8 and One Day At a Time feature diverse casts, both ethnically and in terms of sexualities. We’ve had movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Moonlight kill it in the box office, and video games have become more inclusive, attracting new players to games like Fortnight and Apex Legends. Shows like Voltron: Legendary Defender re-imagine characters who were white, like Hunk and Lance, as being of Polynesian and Latinx descent. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power saw many of the princesses redesigned to better reflect the diverse audience the show attracted. And more recently, Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego tried to breathe new life into an old franchise through wider representation, to mixed results.
In previous incarnations of the character, Carmen Sandiego is a supervillain master thief voiced by Rita Moreno, with incredible hair and a sharp outfit. This latest iteration transforms her into a Robin Hood-esque thief who steals from the supervillain organization, V.I.L.E., to return the items to the museums and cultural centers they belong to. Her origin story has her as a promising V.I.L.E. operative who betrays the organization after she realizes they will sacrifice lives for their goals, and sets about thwarting them however she can.
Voiced by Gina Rodriguez, Carmen Sandiego travels the world with her pals, Zack, Ivy, and Player, and is a welcome addition to the roster of Latinx heroes children can look up to. But while shifting Carmen herself to the protagonist’s side is a definite win for representation, the show doesn’t understand that representation can be meaningless and downright harmful to marginalized people when not executed with care and consideration.
The problem becomes obvious as soon as the show introduces the leaders of the V.I.L.E. organization. The organization is led by villainous instructors who teach the next generation how to be world-class thieves and criminals, and it’s a diverse group that’s prominent in several episodes. You have the stern, Katana-wielding Shadowsan, the enigmatic mad scientist Saira Bellum, and the posh Countess Cleo, all characters of different ethnicities and races.
Their criminal — and sometimes murderous — pupils are also equally diverse; El Topo and Le Chevre are Latinx and Black men, and strongly implied to be in a relationship. There’s also Paper Star, a chaotically violent East Asian operative, and Graham, an ambiguously brown resident of Australia. This level of diversity would be fantastic if they only mirrored it in equal part on the protagonist’s side.
Carmen and Chief, a Black woman who spearheads the ACME organization, are the only characters of color who regularly appear on the side of the good guys. People of color come and go throughout the series as helpful forces for Carmen, but they never appear a second time and aren’t as heavily featured as those on the V.I.L.E. team. Not only that, but characters like Paper Star and Shadowsan are steeped in stereotypes that are uncomfortable to watch. Although Shadowsan turns out to be a defector of V.I.L.E., it doesn’t change that it only happens in the last episode of the series and brings the protagonist’s diversity count to a whopping three characters.
It’s unfortunate that the development team didn’t consider re-imagining Zack and Ivy, two white twins from Boston who help Carmen on her adventures, as something other than white just to balance the amount of diversity present in V.I.L.E.. In a world where many marginalized identities are struggling to not only be seen but to be seen in a positive light, balance is incredibly important.
Take, for instance, the multi-player online game Overwatch. Although Overwatch boasts a wide range of skin tones and ethnic backgrounds among its characters, its two Latinx characters, Reaper and Sombra, work for Talon, the evil organization within the game. Although I love the characters themselves, it doesn’t feel great to be Latinx and only see yourself depicted on the side of villains. It’s like being handed food on a dirty plate. Yeah, I could eat, but I’ll have a real bad time of it and I’d just rather not. Carmen Sandiego gives me that same feeling.
LGBT+ representation is also very thin in Carmen Sandiego. Although El Topo and Le Chevre are close, with blatant references to their relationship being made, these are characters who work for the villains. Considering the countless amount of ‘Evil Gay’ tropes found in media across decades, the optics of this aren’t great. As far as I could tell, there were no LGBT+ characters on the protagonist’s side, either.
Representation needs to be more than just ticking off boxes so your audience will watch your show and buy your merchandise. It needs to be considerate and balanced to do the least amount of harm possible and the greatest amount of good. But the problem only continues to occur because marginalized groups are still having trouble breaking into the higher levels of the entertainment industry. As more and more people of color enter Hollywood as writers and producers, the content they make will show a more thoughtful form of representation than we’ve had until now. A work reflects its creators, and with the gradual increase of diversity in writers’ and production rooms, one day it might reflect its audience, too.