Inclusion Riders and Vicarious Contact: Improving Representation and Inclusion in Media

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

At the Oscars this year, Frances McDormand (one of my all-time favorite actresses) gave a rousing speech about diversity in filmmaking, encouraging women nominees to stand and be recognized, and ending with two words most of us have never heard: inclusion riders.

An inclusion rider is a clause that A-list actors (well, presumably, any actor, but the A-list have the clout to pull it off) can add to their contracts requiring that the film they’re working on hire diverse people both on and off camera. Its intent is to level the playing field, to give all people, regardless of gender, race, culture, or sexual orientation, the same opportunity to work in film and to be represented in film.

I cannot stress enough the importance of representation in media, and the past few years have given us a remarkable shift in representation: black female mathematicians in Hidden Figures, black, Hispanic, and female protagonists in the recent Star Wars films, powerful superheroine Wonder Woman, and the magnificent, box-office-smashing Black Panther. For me, Rogue One was particularly powerful, in which the protagonist are a woman and a Hispanic man, possibly the first time since Spy Kids that I’ve seen a Hispanic person in a leadership role in film, and my reaction was not unique.

Note that every example I’ve given is a work of speculative fiction (with the possible exception of Hidden Figures, and that has sufficient geek points to be worthy of mention). That’s because speculative fiction has the room to imagine things as they could be, not as they are. Or even as they are but are not yet represented.

There’s been a recent trend to recast traditionally white, male roles with underrepresented minorities: the all-female Ghostbusters, Hamilton, and the recent bold casting for A Wrinkle in Time. While that helps improve representation, it would be even better if the representation were already there, in the source material. That’s our job, as writers and content creators. It’s up to us to create the world we want to live in.

Fortunately, we have a tool available to us that counteracts stereotyping, prejudice, and racism. It’s called vicarious contact.

“In a study investigating how kids respond to cross-racial depictions in picture books, [Krista Maywalt] Aronson and her colleagues randomly assigned children to two groups. The first group was read books that depicted children from different races playing together and having fun. The second group was read similar books, but with children from only one racial group.

“After six weeks, they found that children in the first group reported greater comfort and interest in playing across difference than children in the second group. Perhaps even more importantly, the first group reported that these positive attitudes remained three months after the study was completed.”

— Krista Maywalt Aronson and Anne Sibley O’Brien, “How Cross-Racial Scenes in Picture Books Build Acceptance,” School Library Journal, May 12, 2014

It turns out that when we see other people doing something, we become more comfortable doing it ourselves. When we see others acting with tolerance and acceptance, we are more inclined to act that way ourselves. And “seeing” includes viewing images of tolerance and reading stories that include tolerance. Of these, the best are stories in which inclusion is not the point of the story but rather a given, a backdrop against which the story plays out.

We’ve seen this in science fiction, from the original Star Trek series to James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series. A diverse cast, with members representing many human races, ethnicities, and cultures, work together toward a common goal. Vicarious contact is less present in fantasy, particularly high fantasy, but urban fantasy such as Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper is gradually beginning to change that narrative as well. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The oldest, first purpose of storytelling is to instruct, to pass on tribal knowledge from generation to generation. As writers, we can instruct our readers. Those of us who live in large metropolitan areas probably have friends of many races, ethnicities, religions, and genders, but this may not be true in rural areas or in places with largely homogenous populations. I’m not just talking about Iowa or Sweden, I also mean segregated urban neighborhoods and gated communities. We can reach into these places and grant our readers vicarious contact, the experience of seeing a diverse group, not just tolerating each other, but working together, enjoying each other’s company, and accepting each other as ordinary human beings.

Children can perceive race as early as three months old. By three or four years old, children’s racial context is more or less set. But we can change that. We can give children and adults the experience and the context they lack. Here’s how:

  1. Show diverse characters in relationships between equals.
  2. The characters must be recognizably different.
  3. The characters must do something positive together. Children have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Older children go adventuring together. Adults work together to resolve problems for mutual benefit.
  4. Emphasize what the characters have in common, whether it’s a common interest such as dinosaurs or a common threat such as alien invasion.
  5. Point out the characters’ differences in ways that show how those differences combine to make the group stronger. For example, in the all-female Ghostbusters remake, Patty Tolan is the sole black member of the team. She’s poorly educated, a subway employee, but she brings to the team a deep understanding of the geography and culture of New York City ( It would have been even better to have a black female scientist on the team.
  6. Impress upon your readers the characters’ friendship, despite their differences. They should mutually respect and rely upon each other.

This being Women’s History Month, it’s important to point out that vicarious contact also works for showing the inclusion of women in traditionally male roles. I love the Avengers films, I truly do, but it galls me that every female Avenger’s primary role is as girlfriend to another Avenger (Black Widow and the Hulk, Scarlet Witch and the Vision). Compare this to Jessica Jones in the Defenders: she’s physically the strongest member, acerbic, no-nonsense, and a full, valued member of the team. Consider Wonder Woman in Justice League. Progress, yes.

And yet, only 25% of the Defenders are female, 20% of the Justice League. The Expanse? 20%. The Avengers? 20-25%, depending on the film (the ratio worsens over time as more male superheroes such as Spiderman, Ant-Man, and Black Panther join on). Really, it should not be harder to have equal representation in film than at MIT, where the overall undergraduate population is 46% female.

Among these, Black Panther stands out as a film with an astonishing number of powerful, confident women, making up 60% of the protagonists. We haven’t seen that level of strong, female representation since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Magicians also has a great ratio of male to female protagonists, and they are strong, complex female protagonists.

Again, it’s important not to just show women as protagonists. We need to show women interacting with men as equals, demonstrating leadership, solving mutual problems, and working towards common goals. And as with other underrepresented minorities, we need them proportionately represented, which means that half of the protagonists should be female.

Will vicarious contact in your fiction make a difference in our society? Well, let me put it this way: it can’t possibly make things worse, and it has the potential to do a lot of good.

Okay, folks. Go out and save the world.

Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI and NESW, and a former editor of New Myths magazine. Aside from 18 years as a technical/science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. A Latina geek originally from Albuquerque, NM, she now resides near Boston, MA with her husband and two daughters. You can find her short fiction in the 2017 and 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guides. A Pixie’s Promise, sequel to Her debut novel, A Witch’s Kitchen, is forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2018. Visit her website, or follow her on Facebook.