Friday, 19 August 2011

RETROFRIDAY - WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD

Hi everyone! It's been a strange week over here in Zolah-land. I've spent most of it curled up under a blanket, groaning, and hoping that my brain wouldn't start dripping out of my nose. But some exciting stuff has also happened, and I'm hoping to be able to talk to you about that soon (eeep!). In the meantime, it's RETROFRIDAY again! And, despite a bit of trepidation over the way my last opinion piece Exploded Teh Internetz, I've decided to dredge up (and slightly update) one of my favourite rants:

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD


This post started out one way, and 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 as I sketched out my process for coming up with a textured and diverse fantasy world, I began 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 turned into an essay.

So first, I need to make a confession. I'm white, though from a mixed race family. And I can pass as straight, although I'm actually not (which is kind of a complex issue, and not the topic of this post, so I'll move on). And I can usually pass as able bodied - the chronic health conditions which I suffer from are not visible and during 'good' periods I come very close to normal health. I'm also cis, which means that my biological sex and gender expression match up to ideals of 'femininity' as accepted by 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 depicted, the overwhelming number of stories told, will be of people 'like me'.

For much of my early life, I unconsciously felt that those people were the majority of the world, and that those stories were somehow universal, archetypal, the default.

They are not.

When I slowly began to become aware of this, at first I didn't know what to do about it. It was easy for me to argue that I simply didn't have the experience required to write about people who weren't like me. I'd never walked down the street and seen automatic caution or fear or disgust in someone's eyes just because of how I was born. I'd never experienced racial abuse, had to defend my right to love whoever I wanted, or come up against the assumption that I was a brave little soul or a freak of nature. When I walk down the street people look at me and see an inoffensive white girl and let me be.

I've seen this argument a lot, from writers. That they don't have the experience, that they'll get it wrong, that they don't want to offend anyone - and so it's better if they just write about characters like themselves. And I've 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 feel they're being pressured to make 'all their characters' non-white or non-straight or non-able bodied, or you know, not just like them, and it makes them feel restricted and uncomfortable, like their choices are being taken away.


But here's the thing. White people are not the majority of the world. Totally 100% heterosexual people who fit perfectly within modern Western 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 cis, 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 (but will never get a meaningful relationship of his own)! Aren't we tolerant? Look! We included a sassy black/Chinese/Indian best friend to give the heroine advice on being true to herself (who may get a relationship but it will only be with someone of the same ethnic group)! Aren't we racially aware! Look, we included a sassy boy in a wheelchair to give the heroine advice on understanding what is important in life (who won't even get to express an interest in a life of his own because after all people in wheelchairs are just there to prove a point)! 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, 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 me. Straight, cis, white, able bodied people are such a small 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. 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, cis, white, able bodied people don't deserve to be in books and films, ever. But...come on. With such a startling variety of skin colours, races, ethnicities, cultures, physical traits, sexual and gender identities and preferences available for writers to extrapolate from, I think it's sad that so many writers do unconsciously chose to write books which only feature main characters 'just like them', or even 'just like' all those homogenous white, straight, cis, able bodied people on TV. If nothing else, it's boring.

When I wrote a guest post for another blog which briefly touched on this issue, the response in comments really shocked me (that was before the Mary-Sue thing. After that, I'm not sure I can be shocked anymore).

Some people were defensive, saying that their all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied casts '...just come to me! I don't decide on their race/sexual orientation/physical status! My character are who they ARE!'

Bull. Sorry, but it's bull. You have nothing to do with how your characters turn out? They just magically appear to you, fully formed? Let me tell you what is magically and mysteriously presenting these all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied casts to you: your own unexamined prejudice.

I'll let you in on a secret. Those TV-ready casts of white, straight, cis, able-bodied characters 'just present themselves' to me quite often as well. But when it happens, I stop, remember that I'm the author and I'm in charge of the stories I write, and make a decision that it's not good enough. And I go searching for characters who deflect a more realistic and diverse picture of the world.

Other commenters on the post took a 'Pshaw! What do YOU know about it, white girl?' stance. It's harder to argue with that one because I'm very aware that I'm making all these statements from a position of privilege. But at the same time, I'm one of the people who is writing works of fiction and putting stories out into the world, changing it - or shoring up its existing systems and structures of prejudice - even if I don't mean to. So don't I have a responsibility to speak out on this subject? Doesn't everyone, really?

Even though it might sound strange, when we're creating fantasy worlds I think it's vital to look at the real world first. The REAL world. Overcoming our own unconscious assumptions and prejudices is an ongoing process for all of us - not just the white, straight, able-bodied ones - 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?

18 comments:

Sarah Nicolas said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately too because of my current WIP. I'm a white girl, but my FMC is a Chinese (4th generation American) girl and my MMC is a new-to-America Ugandan. One of my antagonists is a Japanese woman who pretends to be the German Ambassador's daughter (long story - just trust me).

The reason I've been thinking about this specific topic is: I didn't set out to make them "multicultural." It sprang out of the different dragon mythologies that I wanted to blend to create my "world" and it just sort of happened this way. Now I'll admit that I have lived in many different cultures and went to an international high school while living in a country for two years where white was the minority, so maybe it's not such a mental barrier for me as it may be for other white folks.

But I do still worry about getting something wrong. I'm doing tremendous amounts of research on cultures, but I fear that I'll make one mistake and be accused of being "ignorant" or "insensitive." My FMC is 4th generation American - but is she too Americanized? Too Chinese? My MMC is Christian, like 80% of Ugandans but will I be accused of trying to make him more relatable by mentioning his religion?

These are all real, valid fears I have and I know it's a risk. But for me, for this story, it's a risk I'm willing to take.

I know I'll have to find a publisher to take those risks with me too - and with all the talk of whitewashing covers the past few years, I'm worried.

Sarah Nicolas said...

Sorry for the extra comments, but I forgot to subscribe to comments and this is the easiest way I know how :-)

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Sarah! I often find myself in this position too, of feeling like I'm in a bit over my head, and getting obsessed with getting it 'right'. But I think the thing you have to keep in mind (if you're going to stay sane) is that there's no such thing as a typical Chinese-American girl or a normal Hindu-English boy - 'typical' and 'normal' are polite words for 'stereotype'.

When it comes down to it, characters from any background are just people, with their own quirks, and their own unique family histories, and their own individual troubles. Their ethnicity is an exciting, interesting part of that, which needs to be respectfully explored, but it's just that - a *part* not the whole story. That's what I think people forget, and why they get scared.

So long as you create a three dimensional person that you care about, you can't really get it 'wrong'. I mean, someone might come along afterwards and point out that you put this Festival in the wrong month, or that you used the wrong name for something, but the character themselves will still be a real person. And that's the most important thing.

And your story sounds awesome! :)

moonspinner said...

First, your essay is on-point, very relevant and very necessary right now. Between the Hunger Games casting (Caucasian actresses only need apply, really? really?) and The Last Airbender fiasco, we can never talk enough about racefail in fiction portrayals and how ultimately stupid it is.

Secondly, please can you tell me a little bit more about that really cool map? Are the words in Latin - I spy "Cicero" somewhere. What does that fish creature near the South pole mean?

Zoë Marriott said...

Moonspinner: Thank you :) And it's an image of an archaic map - it is, indeed, in Latin, and the fishy creatures represent the monsters of the deep that the cartographers were convinced lurked at the edges of the world...

Jenni @ Juniper's Jungle said...

Wonderful wonderful post. I agree so strongly with what you say.

I realised recently that I don't see people like me in the books I read and it made me hugely sad. This came shortly after I sat in on a workshop about creating romantic heroes and a participant asking about having a hero who was a wheelchair user and the author running the workshop said no, he couldn't be a hero. That didn't sit well with me at all.

Nonny said...

Oh man. Thoughts, I has them. Apologies in advance if this gets long. ^_^

Firstly, I agree. This is pretty much the way I approach my own work. I've been reading a lot of the social justice content on the web for about the last year and a half now, and some things have really set in and make me think.

Like, I realized that I was not actually telling the stories I wanted to tell. I wasn't writing about people like me, because I didn't think anyone was interested in stories about people like me. And then I thought about it, and dammit, I can't be the only person who feels this way. So I started working on a fantasy project about a woman with rheumatoid arthritis. She gets to have adventures too, dammit!

So there's that.

I think that online social justice essays and incidents like RaceFail have had an interesting effect in the writing community, in some ways. I think that it has made some people more aware that there are people out there who are different that need their stories told. I think that having more resources and information readily available is definitely helpful.

At the same time, there are a lot of differing messages. I have seen it argued that privileged people should not even try to write about underprivileged groups, which I don't agree with. I can understand why people get angry with some representations and plot devices and stereotypes (there are plenty of things that offend ME, ffs; if I have to read another UF where the supposedly tough-as-nails heroine has to screw up in order for Big Strong Alpha Fail, oh, I mean Male ^_^ to save her and show that he's "worthy" of her, I am going to scream). But the reaction I've seen in some places really has taken me aback.

I was actually talking with another writer today about worldbuilding and cultural appropriation. I've read several essays now where it was said that writers should not borrow from other cultures because that's cultural appropriation. I thought maybe I was misreading, but when in comments, the author emphasizes, "No. Do not take anything. It's not yours to take", I'm... well, at a loss, really. Racially, I'm a mutt, like many Americans. What IS mine to take?

There is a lot of focus on what not to do but not as much on what TO do, which I think can make people knee-jerk and hesitate. I have definitely seen people come out of privilege discussions saying, "I obviously can't make people happy so I'm not going to try, I will write what I KNOW since everyone is telling me that's what I should do."

Nonny said...

pt2

And, well, the way I look at it is that you're never going to make anyone happy. I'll take the example of Cameron's Avatar. Ignoring the racial issues in the movie, there was a lot of argument about it within the disability community. Many people felt that the representation of Jake as having a lot of self hatred for his disability and wanting to be abled again was not okay. They wanted to see a hero who was accepting of his disability. And there were a lot of people who, conversely, emhpasized with the movie for just that reason, because they themselves wish that they were abled. Two very different reactions, and both valid.

You can't make everyone happy, and I think that's a trap people fall into, particularly with minority groups. Privileged writers know things from a privileged perspective but when underprivileged people start saying things and even disagreeing, the privileged writers throw up their hands and say "I give up."

And you know, I hate it when privileged writers screw up yet another thing about me and mine and, but I at least appreciate that they're trying (you know, if it's not an obvious token). I certainly don't mean that flawed efforts shouldn't be criticized... but the effort should be recognized, I think. Because, frankly, ALL of us deserve to have stories told. I'd like to be able to read about a disabled lesbian character for once without having to write it myself, seriously.

Isabel said...

I'm very glad you reposted this. This is a wonderful post that has really helped me and probably many others to create a more diverse and realistic world in the books we write. It has also changed the way I view the books I read, and made me a lot more open-minded. You got it completely right! :)

Going away to New Hampshire for the weekend, so I won't be back until Monday... see you then!

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Thank you! That is so, so saddening and disheartening. I'd like to give that author a piece of my mind, I really would. Things are better than they used to be, no doubt - but they're not nearly as good as they *should* be. We'll keep fighting!

Nonny: Considering how much I rant here on the blog about stuff like this, I am in no position to tell anyone else off for going too long! I think you're completely right that there's a huge difference between cultural appropriation and meaningful diversity, and people who genuinuely want to create diverse fantasy need to take that leap at a certain point - and be ready for some people to be furious at you, in the knowledge that others will love you for what you've dared to do :)

Isabel: Thanks, hun. Enjoy your weekend in New Hampshire. I'm hoping I might get to go there next year - cross your fingers for me!

Isabel said...

Zoë: You really should! Maybe we'll bump into each other while you're there. ;-) If you're going in the winter you should go skiing!!

Lissa said...

I tend to write about Australian characters because it's the culture I know best. But Australia itself is multicultural. My first book stars a female cyborg, and she's a second-generation immigrant from the Philippines. I don't remember making a decision to cast her as anything other than white, she just came to me as a Philippine woman, and I know nothing of the Philippines culture so I had to research it. Luckily my family are immigrants to Australia as well, so I know what it's like to be descended from immigrants. But in my story, the fact that she's from the Philippines doesn't even matter. She could have been from anywhere.

In my high fantasy, my main character's best friend is a gay man searching for his lost love, and her own love interest is a man of colour while she is as pale as snow. Once again, I don't remember making the decision, the characters just came to me like that. I don't know if it's because my own best friend is gay, or because I actually love seeing inter-racial couples depicted on TV and in movies... maybe these issues are less relevant to me because I come from a culturally diverse city where it's not odd to see Asian and Mediterranean descendent hanging out with Sudan refugees.

Susie Day said...

Great points, well made. Baffles me how often the 'but I just happened to write a bunch of white straight able-bodied people, whoops!' argument is rolled out.

L.Scribe Harris said...

Well, my comments aren't going to be as long, detailed, or thoughtful as the rest, but reading this post was almost like having deja vu. I've had these same discussions with my friends, and these same feelings of "who am I to say anything: just a middle class, American, straight, white girl".

Then I lived in Japan for three years. Now I actually do have the experience of understanding what it's like to be a minority--what it's like to have assumptions made about me by people who have never met me. What it's like to begin to expect that, and to resent other people before they've even had a chance to reform their assumptions. Then to realize how unfair THAT was, and readjust my own thinking. (Don't get me wrong--I loved Japan).

I relish in the opportunity to explore the foreign, and to explore those prejudices within the context of my story. Phenotypical differences are actually a huge factor in the novel I'm currently revising. Luckily, my cast rarely turns out "white-washed", with the exception of one very closed society.

Anyway, very interesting post.

Ammy Belle said...

I have nothing to add but: THank you :)

wandering-dreamer said...

Really agree with this post, especially with the parts about people limiting themselves to only writing about white-straight-able-bodied people (I think we need an acronym for this here, WSAB?) even though their setting doesn't dictate that those characters HAVE to be WSAB and about characters coming "fully formed" as WSABs. I only do a little bit of writing but I do try to stop, think about my characters, and see if I did get the gender/race/sexual orientation write. Authors DO have control over all these things and I do wish that more authors realized this!

NicoleL said...

Hi, this is the first time I'm commenting here, since I just found your blog as a result of the Mary Sue post. BTW, I think you handled the comments on that post very well, while you were still commenting. You did not come across as defensive or angry and managed to stay rational in the face of some angry people.

About this post -- great post! I think one thing we can do when we write characters who are different from us is ask our beta readers to pay attention to the issue. Ask them, Is there anything that sends up a red flag for you about my portrayal of this character? As the commenters mentioned here, many of us have experiences that do not conform to the white, able bodied, straight, majority paradigm and therefore have different sensitivities to what might not work or might be offensive. And finally, I think it's also all in how we respond when we make a mistake, which is inevitable. A lot of RaceFail had to do with people obliviously saying "I did not do something that was offensive to you!" instead of being respectful, acknowledging that we all make mistakes and taking it as a learning experience to do better in the future.

Anonymous said...

I think that post was very thoughtful, inspirational and down right true!
I too am an able-bodied white girl with a who prefers the opposite sex and I try to tread carefully and feel terrible about racism. People are people. And all people are beautiful. I think it's a serious problem that the media doesn't show the diversity of the world. Fairytales, films, books... They all have white, able-bodied straight people playing the heros and heriones.
Why does the beautiful princess always have pale skin, fair hair and big blue eyes and the bad guys always have dair hair and eyes and injuries and are expressed as 'ugly' and 'evil'.
The way western civilization is so imperious and prejudiced is outrageous.
It's good that you use your time and ability to speak up. x

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