Wednesday, 26 January 2011
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD: DIVERSITY IN FANTASY
This post started out one way, and kind of ended up becoming something else. I sat down with the intention of writing a How To article on the topic of world building, with the bullet points and all that. But I started thinking about a discussion I've been having with some writing friends lately, and some really interesting blog posts that I've recently seen from other writers, and instead, it sort of turned into an essay. No, not an essay. A plea.
I don't know if my little essay on my little rinky-dink blog can actually make any difference. In fact, alone, I'm pretty sure it can't. But fear about not being able to make a difference keeps a lot of people silent, and I don't want to be one of them.
So first, I need to make a confession. I'm white, though from a mixed race family. I can pass as straight, although actually I'm not (that's a whole complicated issue and not the subject of this post). And although I suffer with chronic health conditions which can be disabling, I can often pass as able bodied and, during 'good' periods with my illnesses, I actually *am*, or near as dammit. I'm also cis, which means my biological sex and my gender expression match up with commonly accepted ideals of 'feminity' in the modern Western world. Therefore, I have what is called privilege. This term encompasses a lot, but for the purposes of this essay it means that when I turn on the TV, go to see a film or pick up a book, the overwhelming number of characters will be people 'like me'. There are so many characters 'like me' being depicted that it would be extremely easy for me to unconsciously feel that people 'like me' are the majority of the world, that only the stories of people 'like me' are interesting or important. That stories about people 'like me' are somehow universal, archetypal, the default.
It would also be very easy for me to argue that I simply don't have the experience of being in any kind of repressed minority which is required to write about people who aren't like me. I've seen this one a lot. I've also seen writers who have made that arduous effort to include the odd gay or non-white or not-able bodied character talk about how difficult it is to correctly portray someone who is not like them. And I've seen other writers say that they can't be expected to make 'all their characters' non-white or non-straight or non-able bodied, or you know, not just like them because it would be too tough and too artificial.
But here's the thing. White people are not the majority of the world. 100% straight arrow people who fit neatly within the modern Western world's narrow gender binaries are not the majority of the world. Able bodied people are not the majority of the world. We just think they are because the vast majority of the time, people who are NOT white and straight and able bodied only show up in the media in token roles. Look, we included a sassy gay boy who can give the heroine advice on clothes! Aren't we tolerant? Look! We included a sassy black/Chinese/Indian best friend to give the heroine advice on being true to herself! Aren't we racially aware! Look, we included a boy in a wheelchair to give the heroine advice on understanding what is important in life! Aren't we broadminded!
No, I'm afraid you aren't.
Currently, the media is showing a horribly skewed picture of the real world. Fiction writers, with our limitless power to reinvent the world, to hold a mirror up to it or subvert it, are showing a horribly skewed picture of the world. If you are not white, if you are not straight or passing for straight, if you are not physically perfect (and to some extent, if you are one of the slightly more than 50% of the population who is female) you know how it feels to wonder why no one wants to write about people LIKE YOU for a freaking change.
Why isn't everyone - even the straight white (male) people - bored with straight white (male) characters yet?
The more I force my mind to open, the stranger it seems to write about characters that resemble me. Straight, white, able-bodied people are such a tiny minority in the real world that when you're attempting to create any kind of a realistic fantasy world it's quite *un*realistic to keep putting characters with those traits in the majority of the major roles. Unless you're deliberately writing characters that are similar to you or your family because you want to use your own life experience in your story, why would you LIMIT yourself that way?
I mean, that's not to say that writers with blonde hair can never write blonde heroines. It's not to say that straight, white, able bodied people don't deserve to be in books and films. But...come on. With such a startling variety of skin colours, ethnicities, races, cultures, physical traits, sexual identities and preferences available for writers to extrapolate from, I think it's sad that so many writers do unconsciously chose to write about characters 'just like them'.
For example. I love Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments Books. I do. I think they're fabulous page turners and I own them all and recommend them to my friends. These books are favourites with a lot of people because they depict a gay couple and people from different ethnicities. They are set in modern day NYC, and Ms Clare makes a point of saying that her Shadowhunters don't have any racial prejudices because Shadowhunters randomly spring from all countries in the world.
But ALL her main cast are white.
That's hardly an accurate depiction of modern NYC, let alone a small group of people who apparently come from all nations of the world and have supposedly been breeding mostly within their culture for hundreds of years (logically, waaaay more of them would be mixed race). The one major character who is mixed race is Magnus, and he's an immortal warlock, an outsider. A book that embraced the real NYC and all the varied nationalities and races therein would have been even richer and even more interesting. And I think that Ms Clare knows this, because she has given a main role to a mixed race character in her new series The Infernal Devices. This character also struggles with a long-term, dibilitating illness. This character, for me = LOVE (Herongreystairs 4EVA).
So this is my plea to you, my blog readers, writers of the future. Even though it might sound strange, when you're creating fantasy worlds you need to look at the real world first. The REAL world. Not the version you see in mainstream Hollywood films or on TV. The world as it really is. Overcoming our own unconscious assumptions and prejudices is an ongoing process for all of us, and no one is going to get it right first time or probably all the time, even if they're truly making an effort. But the first step to changing the world of fiction so that it reflects everyone instead of just a tiny, privileged portion, is to think about it and realise that things DO need to change.
What do you guys think?