Thursday, August 15, 2013

Literary Segregation

Hal Duncan wrote an awesome post on segregation in our fictional culture, and everyone who writes or reads (or watches TV or movies, or makes or consumes any other kind of fictional media) should read it. Powerful stuff.

The status quo in the media, in our narratives, is segregation. It’s a state in which members of abject groups--black, queer, whatever--are deemed to not belong as main characters. This is the segregation of not being able to sit at the front of the bus. The abject may be allowed in as an exception if this "serves the plot" if there's a reason for the character’s gayness. This is the segregation of being stopped in a white neighborhood and challenged on your purpose in being there. The abject may be allowed in as Gay Best Friends or Magic Negros in service of the straight, white protagonist. This is the segregation of travelling into a white neighbourhood to work as a cleaner in someone’s house.

Yes, this. This is what's going on whenever someone says they don't want to read a story about a woman, because they're not into all that shoes-dating-mommy stuff, as if any narrative about a woman must be about "woman things." Or when someone else says they don't want to watch a movie about a black character, because "I don't want someone preaching at me about racism." As if any narrative about a black character must feature racism as the driving force of the plot.* Or when someone protests watching a TV show about a gay character, because "homophobia, blah-blah-blah, and besides I don't wanna see two guys doing it." As though every narrative about gay people has to be blatantly sexual, and must focus on homophobia.**

Those stereotyped cliches are the uniforms Duncan talks about, the special roles people who aren't white/straight/able-bodied/male/Christian/and-so-on have to wear to justify their place in a "normal" narrative. A story can have a black protag only if the story is about Black Problems. A story can have a gay protag only if the plot is centered on Gay Issues. A story can have a female protag only if it focuses on Women's Stuff. The idea that a mystery could have a black detective, or that a war story could have be about a female officer, or that a thriller could be about a gay spy -- without the protag's blackness or femaleness or gayness being a key to the situation or conflict -- well, that just doesn't occur to very many people. The default protag is the straight, able-bodied, Christian white man, and it takes deliberate thought for most writers to reach for someone else, unless they're writing that Black Story, or Woman's Story, or Gay Story, or Blind Story, or Autistic Story, or Jewish Story, or whatever other "special" narrative they're crafting, aimed at a "special" (meaning small, niche, specialty) audience.

Only by recognising that system for what it is can we deal with it, as we must and as we can. If we can desegregate the buses, we can desegregate narrative. When it comes to fictional representation of the abject, if we can understand what we are striving for as desegregation, articulate it as such, there is no argument against this. Otherwise? Simply demand better treatment for queer characters, and they'll say we're demanding special treatment; they'll call it political correctness. They'll say we want leather armchairs at the back of the bus. Simply demand more queer protagonists, and they'll say we're demanding quotas. They'll say we want seats set aside for us at the front, even at the expense of some poor old white fart called Art.

Demand desegregation, and all this straw man bullshit is exposed for what it is.

This. It's not about quotas or "special rights" or political correctness. It's about being allowed to sit in front of the bus, about being allowed to be the protagonist, to save the world and solve the mystery and find love and win the competition, and anything else that straight white guys have been doing in fiction for centuries.

Read the whole thing, because Hal Duncan has a powerful voice, and a clear perspective that sees past the crap that's been there so long it's become invisible.


*I won't even get into how someone who reacts that strongly against hearing about racism is probably the exact sort of person who needs to hear about it.

**See previous note about people who recoil from hearing about bigotry being the ones who need to hear about it.


Charles Gramlich said...

I watch some shows that don't seem to fall into these categories. Will and Grace when it was on. Cagney and Lacy, and now Rizzoli and Isles.

I understand about people saying they "won't" read such and such by a woman because it must be about shopping. But some of it comes from the fact that folks don't have the time to read everything and make quick decisions on what they might like. Unfortunately, sometimes they sample one particular kind of thing and it meets the characteristics that they hold as stereotypes. this reinforces their prejudices. The first couple of urban fantasies I read were all about tough, leather clad 'chicks' having sex with vampires and werewolves. I became leery of the whole genre. I'm sure there are many works in the genre I'd enjoy, but I don't have any idea how to find them unfortunately. And there are so many other books that I know will give me what I want that I go there first.

Angie said...

Charles -- sure, there are a few. But it's like promoting one or two black peeople in a corporation so you have someone to point to when people ask why the other 99% of your black workers are all on the bottom couple of rungs. What I've heard from people who've worked in Hollywood, the big studios and networks very much have a, "We can't make this new show because we already have a female cop show," or whatever kind featuring "other" people, ignoring the fact that the same network might have five "white guy cop shows."

And even when they feature different kinds of people, it's often as objects rather than agents. The recent 42 was a fun movie and I enjoyed it a lot, but the real protagonist -- the person taking action to make change happen -- was Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford's character. Jackie Robinson was shown as just being caught up in circumstances, reacting instead of acting. He reacted very well, and handled a lot of crap better than most people would, and definitely deserves to be called a hero. But as portrayed in the movie, he had very little agency. He didn't protag enough to be a protagonist.

From the reader's (or watcher's) point of view, friends' recommendations and good reviews (with meat in them, not just a star rating, or thumbs up or down with no explanation) are the way to branch out. I totally get not being willing to waste your reading time kissing twenty frogs before you come across a princess.

For urban fantasy, I'd recommend the old-school stuff. Charles de Lint's Jacky Rowan stories are a great place to start. They're about a girl, but she's not a tough, leather-clad chick with a tattoo and a gun. (And yeah, I'm not really into that kind either.)

Ignore the cover, BTW; it's pretty but has nothing to do with the story. [squint]

Also some of Mercedes Lackey's stuff, the early SERRAted Edged books.

SERRA stands for South Eastern Road Racing Association -- the protag is a human, but there's also a racing team of elves. Looking back at the legends of elves on horseback, waiting at the crossroads to challenge a mortal to a race, Lackey updated it to elves in fast cars, which of course are magical. I'm not at all into cars or racing, but thought it was fun. :)

I thought they went downhill with Chrome Circle, so I'm only recommending the first three; number one is the link above.


G. B. Miller said...

So I guess that makes my first book that features a black woman wrestling with her conscience and family as she explores the adult movie industry a bit of an anomaly, eh?

Angie said...

GB -- quite possibly. :) At the very least, it's not on the main literary highway.


Suzan Harden said...

*shakes head* Yeah, I'm tired of reading about the same character (whether it be WSM or tough chick with a gun) over and over again. I think deep down that's one of the reasons I started writing in the first place.

I wrote one story where the Chinese-American heroine, who was a star baseball player in high school, takes a bat to a kiang shi that after her. My editor at the time, who is Hispanic, threw a hissy fit, saying that Asians did not play sports.

When I finally stopped laughing, I said, "Oh, my god, that is so racist." She denied it. I said, "Really, go tell what you just said to me to your Chinese husband." Total silence on the other end of the phone. I don't she ever said a word to him.

Angie said...

Suzan -- oh, good grief! Right, the entire Chinese and Japanese and (both) Korean Olympic teams every other year are actually a bunch of white people in makeup. [eyeroll]

But I'll bet she honestly believed it, that she'd just internalized it unconsciously and never thought about it until you called her on it. That's how 90% of racism works -- the unconscious crap that gets stuck in our heads, rather than the deliberate viciousness people think of when you say "racist" and they picture skinheads and Klan guys in white sheets. That's why it's so insidious, and why it's so hard to fight, because all the Nice People whose heads have this kind of crap lodged in nooks and crannies don't believe it's there until you scrape some of it out and wave it under their nose, like you did with your editor.


Martin Rose said...

I enjoyed this post. I spend a lot of time internally debating whether it's a systemic problem where people making decisions on content are promoting this kind of segregation, or worse yet -- and my private fear -- does the general public at large share these same values? That, to quote Duncan's freakin' awesome line "This is what happens when you blithely dismiss the import of bigoted clich├ęs in fiction because that fiction pleasures you like a ten dollar hustler."

That's a critical point. I have a stack of rejections whose sole basis was "I didn't identify with/like the protag." I realize most don't share my viewpoint, but I've always held the belief that a reader needs to be able to recognize that their entertainment should not serve a mindless, passive function. You should think about the subject matter. And when the subject matter forces the reader to examine difficult dissonances, psychological issues, cultural, racial, ethnic, sexual truths, the reader should have the integrity of character to realize the universe as they know it isn't constructed with the explicit purpose of pleasing them and stroking one's narcissistic ego -- and one should realize considering the world from an alternate viewpoint isn't an attack on one's personal self.

There's also a lot of layers to the issue too big for the scope of a comment; but it's nice to see others validate things I'd quietly observed . . .

Angie said...

Martin -- I think it's both, with the institutional racism running on momentum, and the individual consumers of media preferring what they've always seen and are used to. Both sides have to change to fix it.

On the one hand, creators like us need to start showing that different kinds of people can play other roles in our mass culture, but on the other hand the consumers (readers, viewers, listeners) have to meet us halfway by being open to identifying with people who aren't like them.

Both sides need to move, but the creators have to move first. If there's nothing new to consume, the consumers can't change. Once we give them a variety of choices, it's up to them to step out of their comfort zones, at least occasionally.