Halloween is my favorite holiday! Always has been. Lately, I've started a tradition of creating fantasy-themed pumpkins. Let me know in the comments what you think! I'm hoping it's pretty evident who they are intended to be.
He shines over us!
To compliment last year's pumpkins.
My girlfriend actually carved this one.
I hope some of you out there find these enjoyable!
I come from a privileged position, bring that I am a white guy from a middle-class background. Like anyone, I can think of moments in my life where I've been judged based upon the way I look or talk. But without living with the daily experience, it's hard to imagine what it must be like to have an onslaught of stereotypes hit you from all directions--from friends or strangers, books or movies, and billboards or ads. So, with that said, here's my attempt to outline several reasons why representation is important in Science Fiction and Fantasy:
Media shapes cultural ideologies. Unless challenged, we are socialized to make assumptions about race, gender, culture, or ethnicity based upon our experience. When lacking actual exposure and experience, more often than not, media shapes our biases. Artists of all stripes have a responsibility when we create art. Do we really want to influence and shape culture for the worse? I, for one, don't want to help create the next generation of bigots.
When 50% of the population are women and a large and growing percentage of the population are people of color (POC), then failure to include characters of color is a poor reflection of reality. If you fail to recognize this, then ask yourself why you chose segregation. Unless doing a narrowly focused historical piece, there's no good reason not to desegregate your writing and assign character arcs to POC characters.
Token inclusion is not true representation. If you've seen a movie and think to yourself, "there's the token black dude," then you know what I mean. The token character is there just to claim representation, without making the character central to the story, or giving her/him a character arc. Backstory alone doesn't cut it. This is where we get the trope of African American characters getting killed off first in horror films.
Stereotypical portrayals also do not count as true representation. The very word "represent," suggests your art should accurately portray the people who belong to a group. This means that your average Asian doesn't dispense fortune-cookie wisdom for white characters, your average African American is not a druggie, and the typical Arab/Persian/Muslim is not a terrorist.
The opposite extreme also does not count as true representation. You may say to yourself, "okay, I'll avoid the stereotype by making this minority character all-powerful!" But this misses the point too. Humans have flaws and weaknesses. Making a POC character all-poweful robs him/her from having any personal growth or character development, especially if the character's only purpose is to help a the white character further in his/her own development.
Consider your audience. This should really go at the top, but my goal was to ease in here. You know that large segment of the population that is flooded with a deluge of white male characters doing exciting or heroic things while simultaneously excluding minorities or women from the action? Well, it must suck to put up with that continuously. So, rather than writing a book that someone will fling across the room, why not create something more accessible? Something that anyone can read and enjoy, regardless of gender, sexual identity, race, or culture? How would someone consider your work if a woman? LGBT? Atheist? African American? Hindu? Worth considering.
If your art will be offensive to a minority group, that's not something to shrug off and ignore. See my previous post dissecting the "it serves the story" fallacy. There's no excuse for offensive writing. There are always ways to avoid it.
Ignorance is no excuse. We are responsible for our failure in consideration. Artists must educate themselves to determine the difference between positive and negative representation. Do your research! And don't rely on your POC or feminist friends or acquaintances to tell you what is right or wrong. It's not their job to educate you.
Consider the Bechdel test. This simple test helps determine whether a story meets the absolute minimum requirements for gender representation. In short: 1) Does your story include at least two women? 2) Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? You would think this wouldn't be hard, but you'd be surprised how few movies or books meet this small requirement. It's truly sad. Of course, you could consider the race equivalent: are there two black people who have a conversation together about something other than a white character? I have to actively seek books that meet this bare minimum test of inclusivity.
Is there a positive portrayal of your POC characters? Bearing in mind points 4, 5, and 6 above, it deserves repeating that there aren't enough positive portrayals of POC in fiction. This means not victimizing POC characters all the time. It means giving them opportunities to be agents of change in their own lives and circumstances. It means creating art that everyone can enjoy.
This is by no means a complete list. It's my first stab at the topic, pieced together from what I've learned over the years. I want to add that I am still learning, myself. Awareness of LGBT, gender, race, or religious issues is something that must be learned. And it should be a lifelong pursuit to continue learning.
I have often heard friends and fellow writers excuse stereotypes in their writing by saying "it serves the story." It perplexes me when I hear someone say this. Why? Stories are incredibly malleable. There's never an excuse to fix a bad stereotype because you feel the story is constraining you.
The stereotypes sometimes fall along gender lines. More often than not, it falls along a racial line. We've all heard casual conversations or seen internet comments where someone tears down a woman because of she's being hysterical or emotional. Or a lazy piece of writing that includes only a single character who is a person of color (POC), only to make that character a drug lord, car jacker, thief, etc. Or the "magical negro" to the opposite extreme--a character who is all powerful, but who lacks his/her own character development and only exists to assist the white protagonist. The stereotypes are too numerous to list: the Indian doctor, the Asian computer tech, the Hispanic maid, the gay hair dresser... And of course, in fantasy literature, there's the dark-skinned savages accustomed to rape and violence. The point is... these are all cultural stereotypes, and it's not just lazy writing. It's bad writing.
But to come back to the point: why is it wrong to say "it serves the story"? In short, the story is what you make it. Unwillingness to change a stereotypical feature of a story shows a lack of imagination. If you or a beta reader of your manuscript discovers a stereotype, why not brainstorm ways in which it can be altered? Treat it like a writing exercise.
Here's an example:
In my current writing project, I had a character become part of an illicit drug trade in order to spy upon a military camp. He was an educated man, a naturalist by profession, and he came from a wealthy and stable family. It fit the story well. That's why I wrote it! But then I realized I unwittingly described a stereotype. Why? He's a central character to the novel, but he's also black-skinned. I just made my character into the "Black drug dealer." In my defense, I would have written this the same if he were a white character. But having discovered the stereotype, I thought it best to change it. When some of my alpha readers found out I planned to change it, they begged me not to do so, arguing that "it serves the story." But in the end, it's just as easy to make him a medical professional to gain access to a military camp. This change results in different moral quandaries, but I argue it's a necessary change. But why?
My alpha readers argued avoiding a stereotype is just PC garbage. But I argue, saying something is politically correct is just a lazy way of refuting something without giving it consideration. It's really no more than an ad hominem attack of sorts. I want to create art that will be accessible to a wide range of people, rather than just WASPS. If I promulgate racial, cultural, or gender stereotypes, I'm basically telling readers that pick up my writing: this book is not for you.
In my next post, I'll talk about representation in fiction, and why it's important for authors to consider.