As we head off into Labor Day weekend, here’s some food for thought from K. Tempest Bradford and a number of other writers, all instructors of the Writing the Other series of online classes, developed to help writers do a better job at writing people whose experiences are not like theirs. In this piece, they’re looking at examples of how writing the other didn’t work, and what you can learn from those.
K. Tempest Bradford:
Writing the “Other” seems like a daunting task to many writers, especially writers who are white, or male, or able-bodied, or are in some other major way part of the mainstream, the majority, and who exist in some part of the “Unmarked State.” There are a ton of pits to fall into, and it feels like there’s always a group of people out there waiting to pounce if you get it wrong.
Is it even possible to get it right?
Yes. Because, as poet Kwame Dawes has said: “Racist writing is… a craft failure.” Any writing steeped in stereotype, prejudice, or bigotry (unintentional, unexamined or not) is a craft failure. And authors should always strive to improve their craft.
But before you can attempt to get it right and do better, it’s important to understand where writers and creators go wrong, as they so often go wrong in some of the exact same ways. To that end, I asked some of the smartest media critics I know to talk about particularly memorable fails around writing the “Other.” Not-coincidentally, these are also the people teaching a series of online seminars to help writers improve their craft in this area.
Debbie Reese on J. K. Rowling’s Magic in North America:
In March of 2016, J.K. Rowling released Magic In North America, which is a series of stories about a school of magic located in North America. Most of her fans were ecstatic. Her Native fans, however, were stunned. Many expressed a sense of betrayal that a much-loved writer had taken–and badly used–spiritual aspects of Native cultures. It was, in short, painful to see Rowling repeating the appropriations and misrepresentations that characterize depictions of Native peoples in children’s and young adult literature.
That body of misrepresentation is the norm in American and British society. In most people, it passes as “knowledge” of Native peoples. The thing is, it isn’t. Native people know it isn’t. But for most people, that “knowledge” of Native peoples is so ingrained in society that it didn’t occur to Rowling (obviously) or her editor (again, obviously), or to most readers (sadly) that what she did in Magic In North America is wrong.
Where, specifically, did she go wrong? We could start with her use of “the Native American community.” Written that way, it suggests there is one community of Native Americans. It may sound OK, but the fact that it sounds OK points to the first problem. There is not one Native American community. At present, there are over 500 federally recognized sovereign nations in the United States. Amongst them, as one might imagine, is tremendous diversity of language, spirituality, history, and material culture. By using the singular, Rowling sets readers up to accept and, indeed, embrace troubling stereotypes that are harmful to the well-being of Native youth and their sovereign nations.
Native spiritualities are not the stuff of folklore, though they’re presented as such. In fact, they deserve the respect accorded to stories rooted in Christianity. Most people recognize those stories as sacred. Ours are, too, but visit your local library. You’ll find Native creation stories shelved with folk and fairy tales. They ought to be shelved with World Religions.
Rowling is far from the only writer that has failed in depictions of Native peoples. Children’s and young adult books are cluttered with failures, and so is film and television! Society is inundated with problematic representations of Native peoples.
Much of this can be interrupted if writers would, for starters, see us and our cultures as we are–in the depth and breadth of our existence–past and present. It may require that you erase what you think you know about us. If you’ve got Native peoples on a pedestal for their noble way of life or some idea that we revere the earth? You need to get rid of that pedestal.
Debbie Reese, founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, is an enrolled member of the Nambé Pueblo Tribe and holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois.
Ashley Lauren Rogers on (Re)Assignment, directed by Walter Hill
It was announced recently that Michelle Rodriguez (Fast and Furious franchise) would be playing a male hitman “who is tricked into undergoing gender reassignment surgery by a “rogue doctor” (Sigourney Weaver) who turns him into a woman. After the apparently violent surgery, the newly female Kitchen goes on a hunt for revenge.” This is the type of story which stigmatizes body confirmation procedures and the people who receive them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were an Adam Sandler flick starring Nicholas Cage, but everyone involved are folks who take their craft seriously.
Let’s start by saying trans people should be playing trans rolls, especially in the case of Rodriguez who has tweeted transphobic crap in the past (Come to think of it, it makes sense Rodriguez is doing this movie…) but from a writing perspective we’ve heard this story before. “Mad scientists,” or “Rogue,” doctors in this case, forcing genital modifications on people that don’t want them because we all know that’s what they mean when they say “turns him into a woman.” This doctor didn’t go rogue to file an official change on Kitchen’s birth certificates. This also frames Rodriguez’s character and their sense of being around their genitalia. Which is a huge misstep when it comes to writing about the trans experience, and in this case the “Body horror, forced feminization,” narrative that this movie is actually peddling.
All of this could have been avoided if, legit, they asked any trans person. If this piece wasn’t focused on “The Surgery,” and was focused on anything else all of this could have been avoided. If it were portrayed by a trans person… it’d still be problematic as hell but, if they also hired the trans person as consultant, they might have found ways to suggest changes that weren’t so “Body horror revenge,” and more “Revenge.” I would have rather heard Laverne Cox was playing a detective who’s partner (Romantic or detective-wise) was murdered while she was recovering from some surgery since it takes some time to do. Admittedly that still frames the plot around the trans woman’s body but it puts the control in her hands and allows for her to have one of those “I can’t blame myself for what I had to do… But I can get my revenge,” type moments.
Ashley Lauren Rogers is an actress and playwright with a Bachelors of English Literature and Theatre degree from Fitchburg State College.
Lauren Jankowski on Sirens, USA Network
Whenever someone thinks of a failure of the portrayal of asexuality, most times they’re expecting to hear about the now notorious episode of House, which will probably go down in history as the most offensive and damaging portrayal of asexuality ever committed to celluloid. However, it was so genuinely terrible that it’s just a little too easy to point at it and declare, “But at least I didn’t do that!”
No, no, no, let’s try something a little more tricky to spot: Sirens, the short-lived USA series that featured a supposedly openly asexual character who went by the nickname Voodoo. I write supposedly because the only thing that distinguished this character as asexual was that she referred to herself as such. Even when on screen, she was basically just another love interest.
Putting aside the fact that Voodoo was a traditionally attractive cis white woman (which the media seems convinced is the only sort of asexual out there), Voodoo was never shown with her friends. The only relationships in her life that were shown on screen were her romantic ones, always with men. Her asexual identity was played up as a joke among the other characters or as an obstacle that Brian, a heterosexual cis-man coworker who was in love with her, needed to overcome. Voodoo basically existed almost solely to show what a great guy Brian was.
All of this could have been avoided if there had actually been an openly asexual writer in the writers room. Or at least someone who knew what the heck asexuality actually is. There is nothing wrong with portraying an asexual person in a romantic relationship, but when it’s written as the only or most important relationship in his/her/their life, then it becomes a huge problem. Voodoo must have had some friends, some platonic relationships in her life–why didn’t they write her having a girls night out? It would have been amazing to show an asexual woman with strong platonic relationships that were just as important as the on-off romantic relationship she had. Instead, Voodoo was a flat one-dimensional character who could have been replaced with a sexy lamp.
This show made no attempt to humanize Voodoo. Instead, it put her through the “how asexual is she” test, including an episode where Brian asks where whether or not she masturbated. Hey, allos, don’t freaking do that! It’s super gross. If you’re putting a character through a “okay, he/she/they say they’re [X], but really, how [X] are they?” test, you’re doing a really poor job of writing.
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry on Daredevil, Netflix
In multiple episodes of the television show Daredevil, Matt Murdock is seen flinging his white cane – an important tool for blind people – away from himself so that he can go fight. The writers don’t use the cane as a weapon (which it can be adapted into), and they don’t bring his adaptive tech into the 21st century. The whole series relies on the idea that Daredevil’s powers basically make him not really blind, even while pretending to be. Blindness becomes the Clark Kent glasses of Matthew Murdock, and that’s not acceptable. It gets so bad that fans of the show will tell blind people that he isn’t “really blind” in defense of the show.
All of this could have been avoided if the writers treated disability as part of a person, and not as a personality quirk or a costume people can take off.
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a half-blind, half-deaf, half-Scandinavian horror & SFF writer, editor, historian and theatre professional with a BA in Theater & History and an MA in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College.
Cynthia Ward on Bones, FOX Network
I have seen so few specifically identified-as-atheist (as opposed to coded-atheist or generically secular) characters that the fail is more in our absence than in our misrepresentation. I’ve only seen a few episodes of House, whom I gather is our Poster Boy, and Bones, which I guess has our Poster Girl. However, in the episode of Bones I saw I did note one of the common tropes associated with atheists and skeptics.
The episode, “Harbingers in a Fountain,” shows a skeptical scientist and self-proclaimed atheist developing a credulity-snappingly quick acceptance of purported psychic powers on remarkably thin evidence. While not all atheists would be familiar with probability or science, a skeptical atheist scientist would be familiar with how common “unlikely” coincidences are (cf. Littlewood’s Law, not to mention be familiar with reproducibility and the rest of the scientific method. Given she’s a skeptical atheist scientist (forensic anthropologist and kinesiologist), Temperance “Bones” Brennan is neither a likely nor a believable atheist character in this episode.
To my experience, when an explicitly atheist or skeptic character turns up in fantasy literature, it’s in a story where the atheist/skeptic discovers s/he’s wrong, the end.
I would guess that a non-religious publisher presenting stories in which a Christian or Jewish character discovers s/he’s wrong, the end, would receive a lot of flak (and deserve it), but do this to an atheist or skeptic character and it usually goes not only uncriticized, but unremarked.
I’m not saying no one should ever write such fiction about atheists or skeptics – I have, myself. I’m saying such an experience for an atheist or skeptic isn’t the end of the story. It’s the beginning.
It’s also not the only role or plot available to the overtly atheist character. Atheists have full lives, we have families, friends, morals, ethics, loves, hates, hopes, dreams, fears, and everything else other humans have. We can fill every character role available to the believer and to the agnostic. And if you’re thinking “Well, except for man/woman of God,” can I introduce you to my partner, the atheist minister?
Cynthia Ward [http://www.cynthiaward.com/] is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and, with author Nisi Shawl, developed and has taught the Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction seminar for over fifteen years.
K. Tempest Bradford:
Want to avoid falling in the many Failholes outlined above? Want some specific help learning how to do that? Then you’re in luck, because this is happening:
Writing Deaf and Blind Characters with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry – September 10th, 2016
Writing the Other: Comics and Graphic Novels with Sara Ryan – September 10th, 2016
More than Eunuchs and Extraterrestrials: Writing Positive Portrayals of Asexual Characters with Lauren Jankowski – September 11th
Writing Native American Characters: How Not To Do A Rowling taught by Debbie Reese (this seminar already happened, but the video and resources will be available to purchase soon).
All the classes but one still have spaces available right this second. You’ll not only get a chance to learn more about what not to do and what you should do, instead, but you also get to ask each of these smart, talented people specific questions. You then improve your craft, get better at writing, and create art that doesn’t contribute to cultural toxicity. Isn’t that worth striving for? (Spoiler alert: Yes.)