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bear by san

March 2017



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jarts: internet lawn defense league

is my malfunction so surprising 'cause I always seem so stable and bright?

So I want to talk about diversity, and representation, and why I think these things are so damned important. And it's really, really simple, but I think some people don't get it simply because they don't have the personal context to get it.

Representation is important because everybody needs to see themselves reflected in art. It's validating. It tells us we have a right to exist. And more than that, it tells other people we have a right to exist. And the important thing is not that any one artistic version of a member of an under-represented or habitually erased group is perfect, because it's impossible for any single character to adequately reflect the experiences of an entire group of people.

See, the funny thing is, it turns out that people of color and queer people and women and genderqueer people and disabled people... we're not types. We're not categories. We're individuals with certain characteristics and we may have very different attitudes and philosophies and relationships with those characteristics.

So, saturation matters. We need a lot of stories with different kinds of people in them, and not just a token stereotype, one per book or movie or TV show.

And actually, finally seeing yourself as a protagonist or a significant character in art is a tremendously empowering experience. Seeing yourself reflected makes you feel real and noticed, and it's important.

Finding yourself in a story for the first time is like looking into a mirror and seeing that, at last, you exist. You take up space and you are real. It's incredibly exhilarating just to know you're not alone. Not the only one. And that other people see you and acknowledge that you are real.

I think a lot of straight white guys don't understand this because they have never not seen themselves. They have no experience with being marginalized, pushed out of the frame, unpersoned. There's five or ten white guys to every black guy or woman, and let's not even talk about the representation of queer, trans, Asian, Latino, or disabled characters... or any other even more vanished groups.

And if you haven't never seen yourself, it's very hard to understand how disempowering it is for other people not to see themselves in art.

So they don't get why people get excited to find a character they identify with, and might like a book or a movie just for that reason. It's not political correctness; it's not pushing an agenda; it's not judging a story by whether it reflects one's politics. It's being happy to find a place where you feel welcome and understood.

And that's part of what everybody looks for in art. It's just harder for some of us to find it, so when we do, we get even more excited.

Black people are not used to seeing futures on TV where they just exist. Women are not used to seeing worlds where we make up 51% of the fictional population. (We make up 51% of the real world population, so why is there exactly one woman with speaking role in some entire galaxies?)

And those men who are very used to not just seeing themselves, but dominating entire narratives--well, some of them are really great about it, once they notice what's going on. Some try to fix it and make room for everybody.

But some react defensively, angrily: some see it as chipping away at their space when other people get some too. Rather than realizing, "Hey, this feeling of there not being a place for me hurts. Maybe I shouldn't do it to others!" or thinking, "Hmmm, maybe this thing isn't for me, but there's stuff over here that is for me!" they angrily oppose the existence of the thing that challenges what they perceive as their right to exist.

It's just that for the rest of us, it feels like they are insisting on their right to dominate the conversation. Even in corners where nobody asked for their opinion. because we were making our own fun.

The thing is, art is a big tent, and it expands to include everybody. It's not a zero-sum game, especially in the current era of easy content flow around the traditional gatekeepers. The existence and success of Karen Memory does not mean fewer sales for Pat Rothfuss (and Pat knows this: he's enormously supportive of other writers.) It means, rather, that fantasy appeals to a wider range of readers--and a lot of them will like both.

It's also an unfair burden on the marginalized to expect them (us) to carry all the water of representation. I believe in reading widely, challenging my own default narratives, and reading stories by writers who are not necessarily speaking to or from my comfort zone. I believe in supporting writers who have come to science fiction through nontraditional routes or from nontraditional backgrounds. But I also believe in presenting diversity in my own writing. Because the world is diverse, and in writing that I am just writing the world I experience.

The true world.

So if you're feeling nervous that you might never get to be in the spotlight because somebody else is, don't be. At the very worst, you'll have to share it, perhaps. Or we can set up a lot of spotlights and shine them around.

I believe the future has a lot of different kinds of people in it, and it will expand to make room for us all.


Oh my!

Well said.
So I'm guessing you're a BIG Heinlein fan, then?
Dunno about Bear, but I am a big Heinlein fan, and have been since I was fourteen. And I think that his representation of women and minorities is sometimes problematic, sometimes genuinely terrible, and I still found empowering messages embedded. Possibly not the messages that Heinlein intended.

One of the things that we do, when we're not represented, is look for ourselves, anyway. It's probably one of the reasons why fanfic is so heavily dominated by female voices, people who need to transform the art to fit them a little better.
Lots of stories is important, I like that you point that out. There are a lot of ways of being in the world. And one of the problems with tokenism is that it restricts the story. Not only is there just that one representation, but that representation tends to happen over and over again, if you only have one person with those characteristics. Over and over again, you see the sassy black girl, the physically disabled person who overcomes their disability, the smart Asian kid, but all the other ways of living in the world are missing from the narrative. A lot of people have pointed out that Mad Max: Fury Road was not restricted to a single version of femininity because it had so many women in it, so on one character had to stand in for her entire gender.
This is it exactly. If there are 11 men and one woman, then there are 11 ways of being a man and one way of being a woman presented.

And of course she's going to be a love interest for one of the men. Because reasons.

She has no identity, no agenda, no purpose of her own.

Real women have missions in life.

:: praise hands ::

That sense of recognition, so powerful!

I hadn't realized just how powerful it was until I read Chimamanda Adichie's Americanah and understood that, before then, I'd never felt it. As a first-generation Nigerian-American, it was mind-blowing to see my experience and the experience of my family and so many loved ones so lovingly and accurately depicted. I reckon I'd heard about 85% of the dialogue in real life at one point or another. It was remarkable in exactly the inclusionary way you allude to, looking into the mirror and seeing that, yes, I do exist. It also reminded me of how remarkable a story such an immigration tale can be. Being surrounded by it in real life, it is an easy thing to take for granted. But when married to this craft that i love so much, it all blanketed me in nearly overwhelming gratitude.

Representation is something that came up a lot late last year with the campus protests that swept through South Africa and the US, and with the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments on the Fisher case. On one hand, affirmative action (along the racial stratum) as "diversity" is meant to be an enriching experience, but captured in that parenthetical is that it is meant to enrich the academic lives of the majority population, namely the white students. On the other hand, to recast affirmative action as an attempt at righting, with however blunt and awkward and unwieldy a tool as this, past injustices, to see it as more a reparative tool, is to view it as something that enriches the (academic) lives of everyone else.

I was joking with a friend (black female law school friend) not long ago about kids who'll be coming of age now for whom this next president will be their first white one. Later on in that conversation, one of us remarked on how startling it must have been for some people to come home from a long day's work, turn on the TV, and suddenly see a TV show with a majority black cast about the music industry that's apparently doing boffo numbers and sweeps Twitter in its embrace every Wednesday night. A friend likened it to those school experiments where teachers tracked how often the female students raised their hands and were allowed to speak versus their male counterparts, and in those instances where the male students felt the female students had dominated the discussion, the truth was that there had actually only been parity. Yet another friend (black guy from college) joked about all the trouble he'd have gotten into were he Don Draper back in the day.

In conversation with a film school buddy of mine (white brother from Boston), we both pined for a version of Boardwalk Empire that was Chalky White's show instead of Nucky Thompson's.

Occasionally, I'll come across photos of this or that convention and see kids of color cosplaying as their favorite anime or manga characters and my heart bursts open with joy because as much fun as they must be having, there has to have been a bit of courage underneath that act. "This is mine too."

At work, my South Asian colleagues rave over Aziz Ansari's Master of None. And there was a point last year where not a single purse that walked past me on a New York City sidewalk didn't hold a Ferrante book in it.

My own struggle with this has entailed trying to chip away at my own privilege. I'm black, but I'm still a dude. A hetero cis dude at that. And books/movies/tv shows outside of that box, because of how so many things are currently structured (society, publishing industry, friend circles, etc.), won't all of a sudden leap out and fall into my lap. So I've made a conscious effort to seek them out. And that has perhaps been the biggest surprise; that, as woke as I'd figured myself, coming across these stories still took effort. Still took searching

I can say unequivocally that my life is richer for having the work of Saladin Ahmed, Nnedi Okorafor, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, Laila Lalami, and Ken Liu in it. And my own writing as well. But what also enriches this life is the other side of that coin, what it may mean for the Moroccan, the Dominican, the Native American, to see themselves, their experience, reflected back at them, even to look into some imagined future where an alien spacecraft crash-lands in Lagos and say "this is mine too."

Edited at 2016-02-20 05:33 am (UTC)

Re: :: praise hands ::

Every time there's a fat woman on TV who is not there to be the butt of a joke. Every time there is a geeky woman, a queer woman, a woman with PTSD who is still a person with agency.

Every fucking time.

I hear a lot of praise of "Fresh Off The Boat," and it sounds like me talking about "Jessica Jones."

We're all so fucking hungry we're happy with a crumb.
Why are these people (those dismissive of diversity) even bothering to read science fiction? I can't understand how they can read about aliens when they can't even cope with the concept of someone who lives down the road.
That's a really good question, and one that I think needs to be dropped into conversations here and there. Mind if I borrow it?
Blogging this, thanx
"I think a lot of straight white guys don't understand this because they have never not seen themselves."

Maybe the reason I'm sympathetic to the kind of concerns you describe is that, though I'm a straight white guy, I rarely saw myself depicted in fiction in my youth because I was also an introverted nerd, and those were not common in fiction. It's a little better today. But I don't feel any more Not-Me'd by a black lesbian protagonist than I do by the traditional macho guy. So that must be why they don't bother me.
Yeah, and there are certainly guys who are happy to put themselves in the shoes of a middle-aged Quebecois metis woman with disabilities, and many of them write me fan mail.

Bless every such guy!

I remember my joy as a child in reading All of a Kind Family. For the first time, there was a story about Jewish children.
I liked THE MARTIAN a lot because I love technical problem stories. And it ALSO made me very happy that while the protagonist was a white guy, there was a wide range of other characters who were there TO DO THEIR JOBS AND BE AWESOME AT THEM.

Tony Scott's final movie, UNSTOPPABLE, is a fabulous cascading disaster movie whose protagonists are: a young white guy and a middle aged black guy, and whose secondary protagonists are: a middle aged white guy redneck and a thirtyish Latina. And they're all just DOING THEIR JOBS.

My god, how often is the tension in a story maintained by The Chick Isn't Very Good At Her Job?

Less often now than it was, but... when you crumple a piece of paper, the creases don't go away because you kind of smoothed it out.
My little 12-year-old first cousin twice removed (!) is a reader -- alas all too rare nowadays. She likes fantasy and I have very deliberately been sending her books with strong female characters who have agency. There was a very noticeable lack of same in the books I read growing up (Andre Norton, some Heinlein, Zelazy's Amber books) She's not quite old enough for Cherryh's Morgaine books or the Chanur books, but I've sent her some Wrede and some Wynn Jones. She's about to be old enough for some of McKillip's

I recently read a collection of short stories by Alfred Bester, and I was appalled at how 1950's white America the mindset was, especially toward women. It was glaring, and almost gagging.

It's pernicious and toxic how you absorb mindset from stories where women are marginalized and minorities of all stripes are nonexistent, and you internalize it. It's a very subtle form of brainwashing. It was not until I left home that I could access a wider range of SF & Fantasy. I discovered Cherryh, and de Lint. Tanith Lee's Birthgrave had a profound effect on me. I caught myself thinking at the time I started reading the Morgaine trilogy how strange that a woman (and one who had agency in spades!) was the main character.

Owing to space limitations, I only keep the books I plan to reread, and women authors outnumber men 2 shelving units to 1.

My first cousin removed x2, is going to be getting Lee and Miller's Fledgling this year, and Scouts Progress next year, both books with some very thought provoking issues raised. I'm afraid she's going to have to be a bit older before she's ready for your books, except maybe Bone and Jewel Creatures, which is a personal favorite.

In order to serve one of it's most important function, fiction in general and SF&Fantasy in particular needs to have it's roots in the real world, and the real world is full of a great deal of diversity. Books help mold our mindset and our thinking, and that thinking needs to be diverse and broad based. If we're going to survive and prosper as a planet, we need to be able to access all the creative thinkers, all the talent, all the ability of the human race, regardless of how it comes packaged.
Try your young relative on James Schmitz. They're old books, but with only one or two exceptions they hold up amazingly well. Schmitz had female protagnists with agency, who weren't there to be someone's Bad Conduct Prize or because he needed a mother character, in many of his stories. He was a trope-breaker before "trope" was a word! In the introduction to The Best of James H. Schmitz, the closest the author can come is "default setting". In a time when the default setting was 25-to-45, white, and male, Schmitz took delight in messing with it.
Given the amount of pushback we've seen when women/POC/queer writers who write marginalized characters win a few awards, I think that the guys do get it, on some level. The fact that instead of welcoming more voices to the field, they complain that people just voted for these great stories to be "PC" or "SJW", that they assume that just because those stories aren't their stories they're somehow not great stories--well, that makes me wonder if in their hearts they see people who aren't like them as not as real or not as valid as their group. That's sad.

And the fact that they don't realize we've been here all along? That makes me mad. I don't like being made invisible, and so many narratives about speculative fiction and about fandom and about scientists and about, well, almost everything but child rearing--all of them show evidence of men telling stories and taking actions that make women, POC, queer people, etc. invisible.

Edited at 2016-02-20 07:47 pm (UTC)


labels labels labels. You see everyone with a tag over their head, as though what you see is what you get, and all you get.

Re: labels

I think you've missed the entire point of this post, which is that people are diverse and complicated and don't fit neatly into categories, and they find it encouraging to encounter people like themselves in art, especially when they are used to being ignored.

So, no. It's about the opposite of labels.
Just look at the fucking Nebula nominations.

I see men, women, queer people, PoC, and lots of all of them.

I feel hopeful allofasudden.
It's a list full of really excellent stories, by a diverse group of writers. I think that's very promising.

(too much time on tumblr lately; was looking for the like and reblog buttons)

[gratuitous re-use of your icon, unrelated to content of remark :-) ]
A friend linked to this post and I'm very glad they did. You very eloquently said what I've been thinking lately.
Amen. Just...amen.

I can tick off a lot of the "privileged class" boxes after my name, but still. Amen.