Representation in SciFi & Fantasy

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:
  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.  
  5. 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.  
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.  
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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