Entertainment and progress are often two words that often feel mutually exclusive. Sure, we make progress — just look at some of the things on this list to see some great examples — but at the same time, sometimes it just feels like the old Temple of the Dog song. Sometimes it just feels like we’re pushing forward back. But for me, this past year has shed light on some entirely new and fascinating experiences with progressive thinking and entertainment. As a result of a relatively new aspect of my life (becoming a father a couple of years ago) and my semi-obsessive hobby (video games), I’ve learned that, intriguingly, progressiveness and open-mindedness can come from the strangest — and best — places.
This was the year that my son discovered television, something that most parents will agree is a blessing and a curse. A curse because, you know, television rots your brain and what-not. And a blessing because my god, I can drink a cup of coffee in peace all of a sudden. My kid’s tastes are OK enough — mostly Youtube videos of Mighty Machines and old episodes of a delightfully wacky show about a family of British pigs, and not much more. But then somewhere along the line he discovered Doc McStuffins, which sounds like a parental nightmare but is absolutely wonderful programming. I was initially staunchly opposed because, you know, Disney. But then I started paying attention and it’s wholly fascinating how they’ve seamlessly and rather artfully created an incredibly progressive, surprisingly nuanced and very sweet show.
The show is basically is about a little girl, named Dottie “Doc” McStuffins who has an army of toys that she can bring to life when grownups aren’t around (a la Calvin & Hobbes). Doc spends her days doctoring the sick and broken toys, be they her own, or belonging to her friends and family. What makes it great is that it doesn’t have any of the silly focus on appearance or fashion, but rather just on helping others. Doc is African-American, and her mother is a doctor and the family breadwinner while her father is a stay-at-home dad (click here for to read an excellent and insightful interview with the show’s creator). It was hard not to fall in love with the show a little bit — in the real world, my wife is a veterinarian and my son is wholly fascinated by every story she has when she comes home from work.
And yes, of course, it comes with the pitfalls that all Disnified things do — the character has been marketed relentlessly, and there are a billion toys and dolls and outfits (despite Doc only wearing two or three outfits on the show, ever). There are tiny doctor kits and books, usually in bright pastels with massive amounts of pink (which my son does not care about and he adores his pink Doc kit so you can screw right off). But who cares? Because despite all of that, we have a show about a young black girl who aspires to be like her physician mother and also has great admiration for her stay-at-home dad. She spends her time helping others, which often includes a diverse cast of friends. It’s remarkable, and equally so because of how simple it is. It doesn’t make a big deal of any of those things, it simply presents them as an elementary aspect of every day life. It’s full of sweet little life lessons, and it does it all while casually yet prominently promoting diversity and progressive values.
Then there’s one of 2014’s biggest video game releases, the fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s the third title in a series by developer Bioware, a company renowned for (and oft-criticized for by the useless Gamergate meatsacks of the world) its aggressive work at providing a greater diversity of gender, sexual preference, and race in its games. This has been prevalent in its two biggest properties, the Mass Effect space opera trilogy, and the Dragon Age games. Inquisition is a fantasy nerd’s paradise — a sprawling world filled with strange and terrifying creatures, a deep, deep history and lore, and a massively complex, wel-written story (the game will easily take over 100 hours to complete). You create your main character using a comprehensive creation system allowing for unparalleled choices in gender, race, facial structure, skin tone, and complexion, down to the size of your earlobes and the flare of your nostrils. Inquisition brought the options even more into the open by giving both men and women (you can pick either gender for your character) the same hairstyle, tattoo, and makeup choices. Outside of actually making your character trans, it has more options than any other game before it, including those in Bioware’s own stable, allowing for you to try to recreate your own image, or be someone or something completely different.
Bioware’s games are also renowned for their realistic and intense relationships between characters, and Inquisition is no exception. Some companion characters will be straight, some will be gay, some will be somewhere in-between. Some will prefer humans, some prefer elves, or the horned Qunari race.
Perhaps most impressive for this most recent game is the addition of a character called Cremisius Aclassi, aka Krem, the transgender mercenary who serves as second-in-command to one of the game’s best characters, the hulking soldier known as The Iron Bull (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr., and shown in the hilarious clip above). It’s a complex bit of writing with surprising depth given that he (Krem) is a non-playable side character, but his history is cleanly and perfectly integrated into the storyline. It presents no agenda other than to tell the story of someone who has struggled with being different, and those who helped him find a place where he could feel at home.
We’ve come to expect an increasing amount of progressive and intelligent thinking from film and television — and perhaps that’s why we’re so disappointed when it doesn’t manifest itself as much as we’d like. But film and television are always changing, always evolving. While the summers are still dominated by big, dumb action, there are more and more scripts and roles out there for minorities, for women, for trans actors and featuring trans characters. And more importantly, there are more and more opportunities for those parts without it being about those characteristics. That’s the sign of progress in film and television, as has been said before — when you have a detective who happens to be gay, instead of having A GAY DETECTIVE ALL CAPS.
What makes these examples so important is that they’re not movies or television shows. That’s the key. We should begin to expect more from all aspects of entertainment. We should want it to reflect the ever-changing, complicated and diverse world around us. We should want to see these changes in our movies and television, in our books and comic books, in our children’s shows and video games and every other medium out there. No more should we think that kids aren’t ready for it, or that there’s no audience for it in video games, or that any one medium should be designed specifically for only one group. We should strive for it everywhere. And that means that if I want to be an elf dude who throws lightning and kills dragons while falling in love with another dude, then so help me god that’s what I’m going to do.