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bear by san

March 2017

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criminal minds boom

And now, a post that will probably get me flamed all over the Internet....

Now, the vast majority of people who get offended by stuff are reasonable, helpful people who really would like the world to be a better place for everyone, who are serious about training people to identify stereotypes, and who are a benefit to all of us. And then there's the 3 % who are professionally offended, and by whom you can really never do anything right, and who will use their pet cause as a bludgeon to demonstrate as much drama as possible anywhere.

It seems to me that one of the major problems we find in dealing with racist/sexist/looksist/queerist/classist/ismist assumptions in fiction (assuming for the moment that we are the sort of persons who would care to deal with these issues instead of sweeping them under our privilege) is that in some ways, there is no win. In other words, the accusation of (x)ism is enough. It's indefensible. Because what happens is not generally a statement of "I found x element of y work offensive because I saw it making these common genderist assumptions," but "X element of y work *is* offensive because of--"

And against that, there's nothing one can say. Other than "I'm sorry my work offended you," which is nice and all, but still winds up not making the person who made the accusation any happier, and, in the long term, involves a silencing of the artist. Because she's sure as hell not going to try to write a black vigilante drag queen vampire again after THAT shit. No way!

And the counterproblem is that the people who are set in their bigotry are not going to be put off by outcry. They're bigots. Sexist men do not care what women think. Homophobes do not care what dykes think.

The people who are going to wind up being silenced are the ones who mean well and are trying. Perhaps trying ineffectually, and needing guidance. Perhaps trying hard, and attracting the Professionally Offended. Perhaps just wanting to be told they are good people, which is unfortunately common. (And of course it's not about being Good People, or getting what oyceter calls your gold star for not being a bigot. It's about addressing a systemic problem.)

And I think I have a partial solution.

The clearest example of how this solution could work that I can think of off the top of my head is the so-called magical Negro, which is a phrase used to describe a situation where the (white) protagonist has a (black) mentor figure who is inevitably snuffed in the third reel. (You may substitute the Other of your choice in the magical Negro role, above: Apache shaman, wise old Jew, creepy witch woman, Inuit medicine man, cute nonthreatening gay best friend... you know the character, right?)

And I know exactly how that stereotype/archetype got established. It's because some poor schmuck of a scriptwriter or an author looked at their cast and went "God damn, that's a lot of honkeys. Let's fire one of these crackers and find a sympathetic role for a black character."

And the main sympathetic non-protagonist role is, of course, the mentor.

Who inevitable gets killed off or incapacitated in formula fiction, no matter what color he is, because he hast to be got out of the way so the protagonist can protag for the last half hour of the movie. (If you were a Wesley Snipes movie, you might colorswap your participants.)

In other words, the difference between Ben Kenobi and a magical Negro is that Ben is not Other to everybody else in the film.

And that's also the solution, right there. Because if you only have one of something, it automatically becomes a poster child. You only have one black guy in the movie? Oh, man, we know he's gonna die. Same thing with one queer guy (Heroic gays always die! It's a law! It's how you know they're heroic!). One woman is the love interest, and she will either stand by her man or betray him. And she might also die.

But you know, you start getting enough of those Others into things, and they become People. If the protagonist is also black, somehow that black-mentor-gets-killed thing seems less... well, icky. And more like maybe the author has been watching too many Hollywood films and needs to branch out a little to some new plotlines.

So you have a cop shop in your book. What if you don't look around and go, Hmm, black cop, WASP cop, Polish cop, Latino cop, maybe an Asian woman because everybody knows they're tough. What about two Asian women? What about two Asian women, a black woman, three Latinos (one Cubano and a couple of Mexicans?), a couple of Polacks, and two interchangeable Minnesota blonds that not even the duty sergeant can tell apart? Throw in two queers! Have them not be sleeping together! It happens! It really happens!

Real life, in other words, doesn't look like a "Three guys walk into a bar" joke.

So why does so much fiction?

Comments

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In other words, "diversity works better than tokenism".

(Right? :)
Right.
the people who are set in their bigotry are not going to be put off by outcry. They're bigots. Sexist men do not care what women think. Homophobes do not care what dykes think.

The people who are going to wind up being silenced are the ones who mean well and are trying.


Yesss. Gods, yes. I've seen this in the LGBT community, here on feminist on LJ, so many places.
Ahhh, the Professionally Offended. Dontcha just want to invade their personal space and give em a big old slobbery kiss - and a sense of humour while you're at it?

Tokens are for slot machines. Characters are for books.
well, it gives me something to shoot for.

I agree completely

I think that the real problem is that too many people want to make money. So they use the tried and used up formulas that everyone seems to think that Americans want instead of following a muse or common sense.
As a Minnesota blond, I'm offended by the idea that we're interchangeable!

...

We have very distinct noses, occasionally.
It's just these *particular* ones that are interchangeable. Not *all* Minnesota blonds.

Ahem.

*adds another one to the supporting cast*
The professionally offended and their guilt hammers also silence legitimate criticism. You're not allowed to be negative, even if justified, without being accused of one of the isms.

Calling that book a piece of crap is sexist.
Calling that actor an asshole is racist.
Saying that character is lame is homophobic.
Saying that priest is wrong is yadayada ...
I love the title 'professionally offended' -- probably because I know so many of them ;)

Very interesting post!
The protag of the novel I'm working on right now is the mentor. In addition to trying to keep the world from falling apart in a million directions, she has taken a 17-year-old swordswoman with hair the color of fire, who rides a spirited ebony mare, under her wing and is trying to keep the kid from getting herself killed while she's out there being such a big damn clueless target.

I don't want to call for a moratorium on young protags -- I love mine, and coming of age tales can be wonderful, of course -- but some variety in the protag's age can help keep people from falling into categories, too.

Also, I started a story awhile ago that starts, "I was tired of being their magical Negro." I fear it's that most dreadful of all things, a novella. But I think it'll be fun when I get to it, and it came about when I realized that Sammy Davis Jr. had more talent in a single frame of the original Ocean's Eleven than the entire cast -- black, white, little-bitty-Chinese-dude, whatever -- of the new one. So hell with it, Josh from O11 with the serial numbers filed off is my protag, driving the garbage truck to save Western Civilization's ungrateful ass.
driving the garbage truck to save Western Civilization's ungrateful ass.

I need an icon.

Hell, that needs to become a catchphrase for "our" brand of SFF.
If you were a Wesley Snipes movie, you might colorswap your participants.

Heh. Funny you should cite that name: a friend of mine was fired from a major role in a major Wesley Snipes movie, by Mr. Snipes himself, a week before principal photography began, because he was white and Mr. Snipes thought there were an insufficient number of black people in his movie. (My friend still got paid in full and spent the next three months vacationing in Tuscany on that money, so it wasn't all bad, but the exposure from that role would have been v. good for his career.)

At one point I was a little worried I might catch flak for my Africa book, because I am after all a white boy writing about Africa, but now that I've actually written it I'm considerably less concerned, for just the reason you mention; when you have a sufficiently diverse crew of [black|gay|female|green-tentacled] characters, it's hard for even the professionally offended to make any one of them into a convincing target.
Yeah. It's when the only fat gay black guy in the book is the villain and everybody else is young, white, and discreetly heterosexual, with a tight ass for blue jeans, that it really starts to stand out as a pattern.

Or, you know, the "What these people need is a honkey" problem, where everybody is (other) except the Svelt White Savior.

Thass an Issue.
I know that we tend to project "ourselves" onto less-described characters, so in writing, without using stereotypical tropes it's difficult to have your character walk into that police station and see all that diversity. It would be just plain bad writing (and boring) to go around the room describing the race/ethnicity/religion of each of the bit characters.

My point being It's Hard. And a lot of authors are lazy about such things.

That's not an excuse, at least it shouldn't be. It's merely an observation.
It would be just plain bad writing (and boring) to go around the room describing the race/ethnicity/religion of each of the bit characters.

It's not bad writing at all to pick a few details that make a character real.

Yes, amen, right on.

You know, I think all authors should, right this minute, stop apologizing to people who are offended by said writer's work. Writers should not apologize for their work. Artists should not apologize for their work. Never.

I think the appropriate response to someone who is offended by your work is (and it takes a bit o guts to say it I think): "If you don't like my work there are many wonderful books out there nothing like my work and you should go find those books. Don't waste your time reading my work if it offends you." No apology. No backing down from what you do.

Anyway bravo for writing this.

Re: Yes, amen, right on.

I think if we honestly fuck up and do something cluelessly offensive/xist/whatever, an apology is not contraindicated.

And then--there's another thing. Like being aware of breaking ground. Frex: there's a character in W&W who I was very aware of, while writing, because said person is of a type not often seen in literature. And I was really aware in writing that character that somewhere out there in the world was a 14 year old person who would find this character, and never have seen somebody in a book before who was like them.

And that if I fucked that character up, I would be doing a disservice to that 14 year old.

So when I'm writing somebody I know is nearly unique, or very rarely seen, I'm going to take special care because I know they are a poster child whether I want them to be or not. But. I am also going to go out of my way to make them a person.
Now, the vast majority of people who get offended by stuff are reasonable, helpful people who really would like the world to be a better place for everyone, who are serious about training people to identify stereotypes, and who are a benefit to all of us.

I would like for the world to be a better place, but I want people to make the effort to educate their own selves and not rely on others to do the work for them. My interest really is in benefitting myself and my community.

If and when I speak up about something offensive, its because I'm really fed up about it enough to say something-- not because I particularly think I will be heard or understood.

POC are speaking up about a lot of things not just because they suddenly became offensive, but because they feel like speaking up and there are actually forums in which they can do so publically. Me and other people of color in my communities are not saying much that's different from what my parents and their friends said so 30 and 40 years ago. Its just now on the interwebs instead of in their living rooms-- where outsiders may actually have to hear it.
I'm not speaking specifically about people of color, here, as I hope the first half of the entry makes plain. However, Ben-Kenobi-as-magical-Negro was too exact an example of what I was driving at to pass up.

Nor am I saying people who find something offensive shouldn't say "I find this offensive." I'm talking about normalizing minority presence in art. In other words, one way to put an end to Othering is to take away the Other.

*g* I've got a few minority group memberships of my own, and am perfectly capable of getting all het up about stupid shit.

And I think it's an absolute benefit to everybody that we're a hell of a lot more visible than we used to be.
Over via friendsfriends. Thanks for the interesting post--I like the solution you outline a great deal.

I did have some questions about your framing of the problem; I was curious about what type of situation you were addressing, whether you were thinking specifically of a reader directly addressing an author about something that had hurt/angered/offender her, or whether you were speaking of discussions in general? That is, a reader beginning a discussion of something she found problematic in an author's work, in any space where the author might or might not read it, but where the intention was to talk about the work and its effect on the reader, not directly to query the author about her intentions or ask for an apology or persuade her to change her ways in the future or whatever.

Because--tonight, anyway *g*--I apparently have my reader hat on, and my response to some of the initial framing was puzzlement at the idea that my expressing an opinion about a work in question was necessarily *meant* for the author's edification. One of your main concerns seemed to be the possible silencing of artists by...actually, could you clarify? When you say an "accusations of (x)ism" that silences the artist: are you meaning an accusation said by anyone? Only by the people you term "professionally offended"? By people directly addressing the author, or by people speaking in a public space?

Because again, as a reader, my response was that, no, I wouldn't necessarily want to silence an artist. But...neither would I privilege the author's right to speak over mine. If I have a reaction to a work--if I watch the last season of Angel, for example, and write about the way that I'm bugged by the way that women disappear from the show, and post it in an online forum even though I know some of the Angel writers have visited online fora--I'm not so much thinking of whether the author considers it a no-win situation, whether the author will regard this as silencing, whether the author will care. I'm thinking about my response; maybe I want to check with friends and see if something bugged them too; maybe I just want to rant. It's not about the author's feelings. It's about my feelings about the work.
I don't know how many individual artists are cowed out of trying to depict a (***minotiry/ies of your choice***). I can say I *have* heard of committee-assembled entertainment (TV shows, movies...) shy away from doing things they tried to do in the past because people complained. "Oh, we can't make a joke that suggests this person is ***gay/transgendered/non-visually obvious minority***! The last time we did, we got 11 letters of complaint!"
I play that game sometimes--it's pretty easy to make a character another race/orientation, or even switch genders of characters. They're still the same person, they're just a different color, or have an extra set of something... Of course, depending on the change, you have to/can bring in socio-psychological issues, but then, I've never really done it, so *you* should know. (Ha! That's a poem by Catherine Fraga! About rape, either ironically--or not--enough...)
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