5 Writing the Other Fails And How To Avoid Them: A Guest Post
Posted on September 2, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 44 Comments
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.
Lauren Jankowski is an author, the founder of Asexual Artists and co-founder of Pack of Aces . She holds a B.A. in Women and Gender Studies from Beloit College.
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 for Trans and Non-Binary Narratives with Ashley Lauren Rogers – September 11th
Beyond Belief: Writing Plausible Atheist and Religious Characters with Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward – September 27th
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.)
For someone who does this right… I love love love Courtney Milan — she has this great afterword in one of her historical romances about how she was able to more accurately portray a 19th century Indian lawyer in England… basically she read contemporary autobiographies and listened to what Indian lawyers in England during that time were saying in their own words. Her characters come off as real. (I love her so much!)
In contrast, most historical romances/mysteries that have Indians or Egyptians etc. use these racist colonialist stereotypes. The lazy superstitious native. The self-sacrificing native who will do anything for the white heroine. Etc. They read a lot of 19th century white writers, but nothing in native’s own words.
I’ve read Shawl & Ward’s Writing the Other (thank you Cynthia) and if you are willing to engage with this topic, it is a valuable tool with great insight, as I am sure the courses are as well.
““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.”
Damn. I LOVE this quote.
I was somewhat disappointed in that list. I get the Rowling miss, but completely misunderstanding indigenous peoples is a common thing for Europeans to do. My wife does it. Her whole family does it. Pretty much everyone I know in Europe does it. Their perceptions are driven primarily by American media, and all one needs to do is look at how native Americans are portrayed there to get an understanding of how that happens. Hell, ‘Muricans do it, too.
The “atheist” argument seems to be that if an atheist in a fantasy story discovers that there is magic or gods or whatever it is that makes the fantasy fantasy, then that is mistreating the atheist, but if a Christian were portrayed as “being wrong” then that would draw a lot of flack. As if everyone from Dostoyevsky to Steven King haven’t written characters that have done just that. The “preacher that lost his faith” is almost a trope of it’s own. The current AMC show “Preacher” is doing a bang up job of it right now. We can go back to Mulder and Scully if we want to examine that even more and take it out of a religious context and put it into a scientific context. Point is, people changing their minds about stuff is a common thing in literature, and often the entire emphasis of the work.
The “Daredevil doesn’t use his cane as a weapon” argument was particularly bad, I thought. The character, as noted in the argument, isn’t really blind. His other senses provide him a different way to be aware of his surroundings. Daredevil is a serious bad ass and doesn’t need the cane at all, other than to disguise the fact that he’s a serious bad ass. That’s kind of the point of the show. The argument seems to be “Real blind people aren’t kung-fu master superheros.” Which is true of everyone.
What I was hoping to see is how to avoid “Mainstream guy becomes more cultural than the culture and saves the culture” problems. Stories where the white guy shows up and goes native so he can save the natives from whatever dilemma they have found themselves in. “Dances With Wolves,” “The Last Samurai,” “Avatar,” “A Man Called Horse…” They’re everywhere, and they’re terrible in the message the bring. “The Other isn’t capable of rescuing itself until I show up.”
My problem with a lot of this is the difference between writing A CHARACTER and writing ABOUT A GROUP. Much as it grieves me to say so, Reese is absolutely right that Rowling did put her foot in it with her reference to the “Native American community.” That does ascribe to an entire group of people one set of beliefs and values and characteristics, and that was dumb.
But that’s my point: even members of a real group of people (which is NOT the same thing as a “community”) who can be classed together because of some shared characteristic are not going to be homogenous. Writing about one person who is crazed does not mean you are writing about every person who has that particular box checked as if they are all crazed; you’re writing about one person. Pointing to an individual character as representative of an entire group and claiming that the writer is therefore demeaning or shaming or in some way downchecking that entire group is also dumb. The writer may be guilty of bad writing–I would say that was the case, perhaps, with Voodoo–but to criticize the writer because Voodoo was a “traditionally attractive white woman” is ridiculous. What, traditionally attractive white women aren’t allowed to be asexual?
I think the focus needs to be more on writing individual characters well, and less on trying to make individual characters representative of entire populations.
Some previous commenters have implied this, but it should be openly stated: A character is unique, not necessarily representative of the group. I’ll go further: the (insert Other here) you get to inform your work is also not representative of the group, but can truthfully only inform their personal experience.
Granted that stereotypes are usually avoided, unless that is the point of the story, then they are necessary. Does anyone else think it is stereotypical to make absolute rules about stereotypical-ness?
Recently on Twitter a black award winning author tweeted that we should look at another Tweeter’s following and you’ll learn all you need to know about that Tweeter. I found this notion amazingly the same bias many of us despise, including that author. I have followers and don’t understand why anyone would want to follow me, and certainly have personal interaction with only about five of them.
This uninformed story telling or public statements reflecting some bias can and does afflict all of us, and to expect an author to turn them all off is unrealistic. Kudos to us when we notice and call it out, but some humility is well advised.
“You’ll find Native creation stories shelved with folk and fairy tales. They ought to be shelved with World Religions.”
or perhaps World Religions ought to be shelved with folk and fairy tales.
Thank you. I’m buying the books listed on the resource list as soon as my paycheck clears.
Immediately bought “Writing the Other.” (aspirational writer: need to absorb this column and book.) Great status quo puncturing in this thread. (Side note: The mythcreants site has been hitting this topic hard recently, too.)
And now, a request. This topic is similar enough to my quest that I hope John’s readers can help me remember what I have forgotten: I recently read (one, two three? months ago? aargh!) a fantastic short story about the “Magical Negro” — top notch satire, cutting wit, and very on point. And I cannot for the life of me remember the author! The story was free — online, too. Oh where have all my bookmarks gone? (Okay, so I’m over 60: is it the Jamesons or the age?).
Thanks for any help!
Well! This subject certainly won’t wind up becoming a basket full of “not alls” and “my equivalence is truer than your equivalence.” Methinks I shall pour myself into a sturdy bottle and give it a pass. My thresholds have been particularly low lately. Have a lovely holiday weekend, those of you who are holiday-ing.
This rubbed me the wrong way completely.
First of all, I’ve done a lot of travelling and one thing I can say about people, no matter what culture and background is they have the same motivations. People want to succeed in something. People want to be loved and respected. People want their children to have a better life. So much of the rest is details. I reject the concept of “the other” when we’re talking about people. We are them. They are us.
About the Harry Potter/Indigenous North American stuff. I am not a fan of hers and didn’t read the story. It might be completely ignorant and jarring, but my guess is that it’s coherent enough to carry the story along. It’s fantasy and I wouldn’t expect it to be realistic interpretation of Indigenous religions. And the bit about treating them with the same reverence as bible stories? Do bible stories get any special reverence in literature? I don’t think so (nor do I think they should). Do you think the descendants of the Vikings think Marvel’s treatment of their religion is especially reverent?
Ack. I’ll stop foaming at the mouth now.
Icarus says: “or perhaps World Religions ought to be shelved with folk and fairy tales.”
Which is how I see it. This discussion got me put on moderated at File 770 . The discussion there was that native american religions were not given proper respect. I said they should be given about the same amount of respect as Butcher gives ancient religions in the Dresden files – which is as a plot device. And that’s about it. As a matter of fact I don’t know why non theist have to give “respect” to superstitions. I think it just helps perpetuate the superstitions. I think more people should snicker at them.
I live in the US so that bias my thinking. The growing religions in the US are the most extreme right wing at one end and the “Nones” at the other. As organized religion gets ever more rabid and extreme, I think it is good for the country if people start calling BS.
What other opinion would you expect from me? After all, I am zenu.
Paul Cavanaugh, sounds like you’re thinking of “The Magical Negro” by Nnedi Okorafor, which is in Dark Matter 2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Matter_(series)#Book_II_Contents
I was more disappointed when Dr. Brennan on Bones went baby crazy. She had been one of the few female characters I’d ever seen who was outspoken about not wanting children, and wasn’t also presented as evil or needing to be shown that she was wrong.
I don’t think “It’s craft” answers the question “Is it possible to get it right?” Is it possible to get every aspect of craft right? Plus, if I’m having trouble with plot, plot being something that’s an aspect of craft doesn’t immediately make me think “oh, well, that solves that”. Sometimes, reading lots of advice about plot just makes my plot problems worse, if it’s not advice that works with my process, or if I get overwhelmed by all the advice and different ways of doing plot. So maybe the answer is yes, it is possible, but I’m not convinced by the reason given here. It seems to be more focused on the consequences of failure than the possibility of success.
As a writer, I’d like to think it’s possible to get it right, but posts like this don’t really make me hopeful. I’d like to see more examples of getting it right (and thank you, btw, to the first commenter for providing one!)
This seems like an excellent time to drop this link in! http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/2016/08/on-white-fragility-by-guest-blogger.html
I think most of this could be boiled down to “if you write the other as if they are all wrong, then you failed as a writer”
Most stereotypes are nothing but lies told to portray some group as a strawman version of themselves. See Birth of a Nation. It would also include many terrible portrayals of atheists by deist writers, as well as atheist writers portraying deists as blindly ignorant cave dwellers who are afraid of everything. Asexual people must have something wrong with them. Bisexuals need to make up their minds. And so on.
If we let the sauce reduce further, we get the corollary that “if you write the other as if they are all moral, right, and just, then you have also failed as a writer.”
This gives things like the magical negro trope, or the Noble Savage type.
If we then take this reduction sauce and pour it over a bon mot for desert, it might say: if you dont understand something, you certainly have no right writing about it.
I havent read Rowling’s latest, but given what I have read of hers, I would guess she wouldnt write a category of Other as all bad or all good, so I would guess if she did a poor job of Native Americans, it was through ignorance. If its a major part of her new book, thats a major problem. If its a passing comment, then still a problem but not “Birth of a Nation” level screwup.
As for atheists, this one sums it up well:
Kind of a combination of not understanding something and demonizing them at the same time.
As for appropriation, I dont know. Everything gets appropriated. Watch The Hidden Fortress and The Searchers and then Star Wars Ep. 4-6, and I am amazed a copyright suit didnt take out all of lucasworks. Did Marvel appropriate Norse culture with Thor? Is Constantine an appropriation of Christianity? I think one can look at Ben Affleck’s Dogma and understand that it didnt break box office records because it put Christianity in a not-exactly-good light and much of the American audience is christian. But appropriation? People dont mind appropriation, so long as it makes them look good. Christopher Reeves 1978 Superman appropriatef some Christ like metaphors and it was a hit. Neo in the Matrix movies turned into a Christ figure wih blatant cross imagery in the final sequel, and people didnt mind that appropriation. (No one likes to talk about the sequels, but not because viewers were christians who didnt appreciate the appropriation, more because they just didnt make sense.)
If Rowling had shown Native American beliefs in a positive and more three dimensional light, I dont think anyone would be bandying about the accusation of appropriation, even though the charge would still be valid for using a religion that isnt hers. Her crime seems more about using Native American religion in a one-dimensional way, possibly brushing into the Noble Savage trope. But had she appropriated someone elses religion while showing it in a rich, complex, fully developed light, I dont think folks would be raising appropriation as an issue.
Great article @tinytempest. I really enjoyed “Writing the Other”. The new classes look to be a great expansion. Thanks for sharing. I’m a bit surprised by the reception your getting. Scalzi’s commenters are usually more balanced.
If you write an atheist correctly, then wouldn’t they have to disparage non-Western belief systems as completely as they do Western ones? If you wrote them to be more sensitive on that score, then wouldn’t you be betraying the atheist community? At some point, if the conflict is between two disadvantaged groups, you are almost inevitably going to pick sides. In any particular story, one group is going to come off at least marginally better or better looking than the other.
The critique on Daredevil boils down to Daredevil should not have been made, if sensitivity to the blind community was the primary consideration. If one altered Daredevil along the suggested lines, you would basically have an unrecognizable character.* It would be a valid choice to write a character that way, but it would not be Daredevil. He could be called something other than Daredevil, except I assume people would want to cash in on Daredevil’s brand recognition. A brand that was built on all the stereotypes and misconceptions you are struggling against.
Some of the tension here is between realism and superheroes. Nobody can do the stuff super heroes do. Quite frankly, nobody can do what Hit Girl does in Kick Ass and she was the closest thing I have seen to a realistic take on making an “ordinary” person a superhero, despite an obvious disadvantage (age and size in this case.) Can a “realistic” comic character with a major physical disability do much more than Barbara Gordon does as Oracle?
At the very least, I think Daredevil would have to be a lot more dependent on support staff in order to meet Sjunneson-Henry’s standards. Instead of being the lone wolf operative and investigator, he would basically need to be deployed in the field as a weapon rather than gliding along the rooftops and crossing the city in minutes on his own.
*For instance, the reason Daredevil has sonar vision is because his origin is primarily as a riff on Batman and the people making the TV show continue this tradition self consciously, posing Daredevil in iconic Batman poses with similar musical cues, etc.
I’m looking forward to the New JKR movie, but not filtering it too finely. Preston & Child used the NA ‘skinwalker’ thing to good effect in ‘Thunderhead’. Couldn’t say with certainty how well researched it is but probably closer to what is actually known.
Rowling isn’t a very good writer – period. She’s a good story-teller, but all her characters are pretty one- or at best two-dimensional. It’s comical to even think of her attempting something like Native American characters.
I often have the same reaction to portrayals of Hinduism that people are having to Rowling’s version of Native Americans—a modern religion with millions of worshippers gets lumped in with “mythology,” (maybe because the polytheist makes it look closer to Greek Gods than to Christianity or Judaism). Though there’s a chicklit book “Goddess for Hire” from the 1990s, written by an Indian American that I thought did it well (and works in its own right).
“Pointing to an individual character as representative of an entire group and claiming that the writer is therefore demeaning or shaming or in some way downchecking that entire group is also dumb. The writer may be guilty of bad writing–I would say that was the case, perhaps, with Voodoo–but to criticize the writer because Voodoo was a “traditionally attractive white woman” is ridiculous. What, traditionally attractive white women aren’t allowed to be asexual? ”
A post on the Hathor Legacy blog responded to this kind of argument way back when. It’s not that you can’t have an asex white woman or a Latino gang banger, but if there’s a stock representation (black street thug, Latina sexpot, whatever) AND you use it in your story AND it’s the primary or only character … As the late Dwayne McDuffie pointed out, it is unreasonable to have one character represent an entire minority group, but the only way not to have people react that way is to have a lot more representation.
Regarding Daredevil, he doesn’t need his cane or any tech due to his advanced senses—his disability really isn’t part of him the way it is an ordinary person. But again, when there’s so few blind characters out there, I can understand why that’s annoying. Especially as the blind character who really doesn’t need his eyes is a stock trope (I Ching from late-sixties Wonder Woman, TV’s Longstreet from the 1970s, 1940s Dr. Midnite, Marvel’s the Shroud). I wonder if having a couple more blind characters would help (someone pointed out to me that people with disabilities often hang out or form support groups or play sports together, but most of the time Matt seems to be the only blind person in NYC).
K Tempest Bradford — Thank you! Added her story to my reading list. I also found, finally, after spending too many hours this morning, the story I’d read: by Maurice Broaddus, “Super Duper Fly,” ( http://www.apex-magazine.com/super-duper-fly/). Well worth reading. Thanks again.
So, to summarize:
Playing and twisting mythologies, a typical trope in fantasy, is entirely unacceptable when it comes to one specific set of beliefs. Also, “There is not one Native American community”, but then “Her Native fans, however, were stunned”—in short, no one is allowed to speak for all Native people except Debbie Reese. His Dark Materials, or the countless stories based on angels and other facets of Christian mythology, or just stories where the Christians portrayed are fundamentalist abusive bigots don’t exist at all.
Asexual people cannot be in romantic relationships with other people. Also, they are all slovenly and unkempt; an attractive asexual person is offensive.
A blind person who compensates for their lack of vision, aided by superpowers, is offensive. Because blind people can’t compensate for their lack of vision in real life. Blind people are not allowed to enjoy a hero who can defy the limits of ordinary blind people, just like how ordinary people who can’t fly can’t enjoy Superman. Also, realism must be applied to a show where the very premise of “superhero” establishes that it is not a “realistic” show in the slightest.
All atheists must be firmly unbelieving of any “unnatural” phenomenon. The belief that God does not exist and the suspicion of the existence of psychic powers are entirely incompatible, despite the fact that B has absolutely nothing to do with A or the title “atheist” in the slightest.
Also, give us money to hear us talk about how you should consider people who aren’t exactly like you as “the other” whom we declare ourselves to be the expert authority on how all such people are in real life, as opposed to considering people who aren’t exactly like you as “people”.
fix a couple typos in the copy/paste from Ashley Rogers? roll->role and who’s->whose. or maybe there are trans rolls (what are the battenburg buns getting up to?)
I think it’s good to see trans issues in particular addressed; too often trans* folk have to deal with abuse and harassment, and then have the abuse and harassment forgiven because they are simply deemed not as important or not as human as the predators who target them. They are the trope – or the person acted upon by someone who’s deemed to be more fully human, and thus more fully worthy of understanding or respect. An excellent reason to applaud KTB’s post here.
I think the focus on Native American culture here is quite needed. One, the number of different beliefs herded into a catch all is staggering, the pre-Contact world had systems of belief and cultural metaphors in profusion and complexity that can be mind-blowing to someone who’s expecting either primitives or noble savages. And two, as other posters have brought up with regards to Islam or Hinduism, there’s the new acceptable of slagging it all as being mindlessly primitive.
It’s all defended as just what rational people do – and it’s pure co-incidence most of the people doing the slagging are white folks viewing a cultural other with different features. Must be totally unrelated, as they are of course very rational people, who could never be near-sighted about other cultures. They’re indeed doing these people a favor, by pointing out their primitive superstitions and inviting them to the Western World, which I’m sure no-one has ever said before to justify any actions down a power differential.
Edit: KTB associated with such a sentiment, rather.
Rowling actually refers to the “Native American MAGICAL community”, not simply the “Native American community.” She does this in the context of describing a world in which members of *all* magical communities have been in contact with each other, centuries earlier than these societies at large, and compares the “Native American magical community” to the “magical communities of Europe and Africa.”
Now, there’s obviously a long-standing problem in media, and with people in general, conflating all Aboriginal communities on given continents as if they were unitary societies and ignoring diversity. Rowling, herself, may well have done this in other instances. But this doesn’t seem like a very good example.
Here, Rowling is obviously asserting that these broader, fictional communities of wizards existed in her world, in contrast to the real world. And that’s not just a retroactive justification, either. Whatever (possibly many) misconceptions Rowling may have about Indigenous cultures, she clearly knows that *Europe* is not/was not a unitary “community” in the 14th to 17th centuries. Rowling is quite clearly claiming that in Europe and Africa there were a larger magical communities that transcended national boundaries. If those are the contrasting examples she offers, then it’s only logical to assume she sees the Native American magical community as being structured in much the same way. Asserting that there were distinct Native American and European “magical communities” is like asserting, today, that there are distinct North American and European sporting communities – it doesn’t negate that both North America and Europe are made up of many nations, and, in fact, many different sports.
This particular reference (acknowledging Rowling may well have screwed up in many other areas), seems like trying to shoehorn Rowling’s work into the a common pre-existing criticism by ignoring parts of what Rowling actually wrote, rather than criticizing Rowling’s work on its own merits.
I must admit to surprise at finding such a blizzard of whatabouttery here. Would any of the commenters really disagree that the writer’s skill should be great enough to portray all characters as more than a “defining” adjective, to convincingly show each of them as an individual and not either a caricature or the embodiment of a group?
Willow: “Playing and twisting mythologies, a typical trope in fantasy, is entirely unacceptable when it comes to one specific set of beliefs…. His Dark Materials, or the countless stories based on angels and other facets of Christian mythology, or just stories where the Christians portrayed are fundamentalist abusive bigots don’t exist at all.”
The obvious difference is that Christians in the US (despite the protests of conservatives to the contrary) haven’t endured centuries of seeing the dominant culture try to stamp out their faith. And the issue was misrepresentation of faith so the portrayal of Christians as “abusive bigots” isn’t the same thing.
I honestly don’t understand why (Re)Assignment is getting the “they got being trans wrong!” hate. It’s – judging by the summary presented here – explicitly NOT about being trans. It’s about a cis person forced into gender dysphoria. Why should (s)he act like a trans person?
Want to make a note here for folks coming in and reading the comments.
Of the people who say “well this isn’t a problem because…” and “I don’t see why…” and in general arguing with and dismissing the concerns brought up by the contributors to this post, take note how many of them actually belong to the communities and identities actually affected by the media and problems under discussion. Are they trans? Native American? Blind or deaf?
If not, then evaluate whether the fact that they don’t experience the consequences of what’s being discussed has any effect on how they perceive it.
Oh, and also wanted to drop in a couple of links that might answer some questions raised. First is this roundup of Native people responding to Rowling: https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2016/03/native-people-respond-to-rowling.html Might clear up some of the specifics around why there is anger.
And someone was asking about appropriation upthread. This may be of use: https://medium.com/@tempest/the-cultural-appropriation-primer-91f1101dae1d#.5q4iozxhn I very strongly suggest that if you click and read, that you click through each link and read the whole article and not just the excerpts. Any question/objection you may have is answered in the full posts.
“I honestly don’t understand why (Re)Assignment is getting the “they got being trans wrong!” hate. It’s – judging by the summary presented here – explicitly NOT about being trans.”
The “it gets trans wrong” criticism, specifically, is problematic, but I think there’s a larger issue: Using forced gender reassignment surgery as a “clever, edgy device” for a standard, off-the-shelf shoot ’em up, trivializes the difficult realities trans people face and exploits the same prurient interest at the heart of so much ridicule and hate. It’s kinda like building a comedy around a sexual assault just for the shock value.
Of course, none of us has seen (Re)Assignment yet. We don’t know if it’s a standard, off-the-shelf shoot ’em up. It may have some intelligent commentary on the matter. It occurs to me, off the bat, this character actually switches from being cis to trans because of the surgery itself – their assigned sex not matching their, in this case, pre-existing gender. If the film were to explore that idea – the trans experience through the eyes of a cisgendered person – even in the context of an action movie, it seems to me that would be intriguing. Of course, we have no way to know whether that will be the approach, or not.
I’m intrigued by this topic, partly because I’m a gay man and these issues have often come up in writing by and about us. I was glad to see other people expressing my own first reaction, that individual characters are individuals, not their cultures. But there’s a problem with this, because characters are not people, nor individuals: they are abstractions who stand for all kind of things beyond themselves. So this problem can’t be brushed aside too lightly.
The whole issue of “representation” is very messy. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak did a fascinating discussion in her much cited (but, I suspect, seldom-read) “Can the Subaltern Speak?” There’s no agreement about what is an acceptable or positive depiction of gay men, to stick to my own People. What one gay man considers positive will be a very bad, negative representation for another. This came up, for example, in the movie “Cruising.” The gay leathermen who appeared as extras said it was great, and about time, that Real, Masculine gay role models were being shown in a Hollywood film. Other gay men were outraged that these filthy degenerates were being depicted at all, instead of the respectable suburban Homo-Americans that none of them actually were, but wanted to see in Hollywood movies anyway. (The controversy also involved other issues, but this was an important part of it.) And some of the best, most-popular-among-gay-men, gay male characters have been created by straight and gay women. And most gay people are so ignorant about the variety of real gay lives that I don’t think “accuracy” really comes into it all that much; I think “wish fulfilment” plays a major role — we should be depicted as we think we would like to be. We certainly are no authorities on what is accurate or realistic — but then, who wants fiction to be realistic anyway?
Then someone commented, “Rowling isn’t a very good writer – period. She’s a good story-teller, but all her characters are pretty one- or at best two-dimensional. It’s comical to even think of her attempting something like Native American characters.”
I semi-agree with this, though I’m not sure that a good storyteller isn’t a good writer. She may be a poor stylist, with poor characterization, but if she’s a good storyteller, she’s got that strength and it’s a major part of what she is as a writer. But that’s less important than the larger issue, which is: given this commenter’s assumptions, why isn’t it comical to even think of Rowling attempting something like English characters? Why hold her to a higher standard of characterization for “Native American” characters than for those of her own nation? I’m not being snarky here. I see no reason to suppose that most readers really care about complexity of characterization. And I’m sure that much of the appeal of the Harry Potter series, esp. outside of England, has to do with its using exoticising and unrealistic stereotypes about English life and in particular, about English boarding schools. If accuracy really were a criterion, the whole series should be pulped and the films withdrawn – but it isn’t. Maybe Native American readers who loved the series are shocked now because they’re seeing themselves through the same distorting lens, because they believed that Rowling’s depiction of England was accurate.
Incidentally, I loved Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, which was effectively a Harry Potter novel in Nigerian-American drag. But it had the same qualities that had disturbed me about the Potter books, mainly that its wizards were just as creepy and unpleasant as Rowling’s wizards. Not that Okorafor or Rowling unfairly or inaccurately stereotyped wizards, of course, since wizards don’t exist. The stereotypes are part of the appeal for most readers.
Here are a couple of longer, more complete – and, I found, more incisive – critiques of the portrayal of asexuality on House and disability on Daredevil that I came across after reading this post…
Ian: thanks for the links. That was an interesting round up of the first season of Daredevil, which gave me some insight into some of the issues around the show which would not be readily apparent to the typically-abled.
Branching from K. Tempest’s link above, Adrienne Reese at Native Appropriations followed her post cited at American Indians in Children’s Literature with an analysis of the first part of “Magic In North America”, from her perspectives as an anthropologist and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
PrivateIron:”If you write an atheist correctly, then wouldn’t they have to disparage non-Western belief systems as completely as they do Western ones? If you wrote them to be more sensitive on that score, then wouldn’t you be betraying the atheist community? At some point, if the conflict is between two disadvantaged groups, you are almost inevitably going to pick sides. In any particular story, one group is going to come off at least marginally better or better looking than the other.”
Disbelieving in something is not automatically the same as disparaging it (or even refusing to participate in rituals associated with it).
For example I do not believe that people need to prove that they are unarmed in order for me to have a civilised conversation and yet I’m perfectly content to shake hands as part of a day to day social ritual.
Likewise I don’t believe either in transubstantiation or in the Māori concepts of tapu and noa, but I wouldn’t go barging into Catholic or Māori cultural spaces to tell them so (and in public places I practice basic courtesy because all of New Zealand is pretty much a Māori cultural space).
As a mild fan of the show Bones, I would just like to say for the record that that particular episode happens to be one of only a handful that I actually hate! So I’m certainly not going to complain about someone calling it out. In fact, I’m going to say that the review is on the nose, or possibly even understated.
The show varies wildly in quality from episode to episode. Some give a really good, well-balanced portrayal of both Bones (the atheist) and Booth (her Catholic partner), and treat both positions with respect. But others turn one or the other (and sometimes both) into straw. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that different people wrote different episodes. :D
Rowling’s understanding of the spiritual beliefs of the various cultures thrown into the “Native American” pot is about as complete as my understanding of the inner workings of Ayn Rand’s psyche when she wrote the impenetrable mass that is “Atlas Shrugged”. If Rowling had bothered to do any research at all, she’d have found that various Native American cultures have spiritual beliefs that run the gamut from Arthurian-style heroic figures fighting for their people in a world full of magic but low on supreme beings, to the beliefs of the Nahuatl-speaking Triple Alliance centered around Tenochtitlan in Mexico, which involve (as near as I, an atheist, can actually wrap my head around them) deities as aspects of the magical forces of the world, in a pantheistic system vaguely similar to Graeco-Roman religion. Basically, the Americas are just as culturally diverse as Eurasia (and don’t even get me started on the diversity nexus that is Africa, or on the hundreds of isolated languages and belief systems in New Guinea), and for Rowling to just handwave them all as a bunch of spirit-worshipping medicine men is hugely simplistic and racist.
It’s like Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager, who is presented as a Maya from South America who was born in a tepee, has a medicine bag that contains G-rated space hallucinogens that he uses to get in touch with his spirit animal, gives dream catchers as gifts to a woman he’s trying to screw, has a tattoo that looks like a Maori design from New Zealand, and even before I get to the part about Chakotay’s ancestors being half-animal savages until magic space white men taught them how to be human I should note that not one of those things goes together*. This is what happens when white people try to write Native Americans and don’t do any research.
Rowling is basically going from a hodgepodge of Twilight and New Age spirituality–the sort of stuff that talks about friendly spirits and magical Native Americans, where historically those cultures that believed in a world permeated by discrete spirits almost universally considered such beings to be capricious, dangerous, and easily-upset creatures that had to be pacified by a shaman, usually one born into the role and selected by the previous shaman. This is also a major dichotomy between traditional shamanism and neoshamanism/New Age thought in general, and is not restricted to Native American shamanic traditions–many northern European and Asian cultures such as the Finns, Khanty, and other steppe tribes have had their ancient religious traditions mangled beyond recognition by New Age woo-meisters, as well. And again, many Native religions were not shamanic in structure–some Plains tribes believe in a world permeated by a form of magic with “spirits” being a largely alien concept, placing spiritual significance on unusual things like albino bison skins or unusually-shaped escarpments, while Nahuatl-speaking cultures actually have a very organized, Graeco-Roman style religious tradition.
Further, as an atheist I have to say that nobody ever gets atheists right on TV. We’re always either the Token Skeptic who must be convinced of the Truth ™ Scully-style, or we’re strawmen who loudly deny any existence of a deity even as angels come down from heaven all around (an event that would get any atheist with a working brain to at least question their conclusions about the world). Atheists, as a rule, have a view of the world rooted in rationality**, and most schools of thought encourage taking one’s time and using evidence to draw conclusions about the world. If we see people being carried off to heaven by angels, we’re going to consider the possibility that we were wrong about divinity, although of course we’re going to ask a few questions about our recent food intake as well.
As for “Re-assignment”…the central problem, from my (cis) point of view, seems to be not that they got the experience of being transgender wrong, but that they used gender reassignment surgery–something that is an extremely personal major life choice that many trans people consider and/or undergo–as a cheap plot gimmick. This, in my experience, is a really bad idea. The last bit of media I saw using that gimmick was the Deep Space Nine episode “Profit and Lace”–a disgustingly sexist piece of trash that is widely considered to be that show’s single worst episode. It’s demeaning to trans people because it implies that gender reassignment is a quick and easy thing and cheapens a major life decision into slapstick.
Now, there are ways to do forced gender reassignment right–especially interesting would be a transphobic character to undergo such a procedure and come to realize that the feeling of essential wrongness in their body is how trans people feel every day, I actually read a webcomic with a similar premise that works pretty well–but you have to be careful not to turn it into a joke, and it doesn’t look like the writers or directing/producing team of “re-assignment” have done so. On the contrary, they seem to have treated the entire affair as a combination joke, gimmick, and a bit of shock porn. Think of it like a movie about a white man being hit with some chemicals and having his skin dyed dark brown, with the actor spending the rest of the movie in blackface. Sounds pretty racist, right? That’s how this movie appears to treat trans people***.
In general, I agree with the article that if you’re going to write people of groups other than your own, you should do the damn research. I’d also advise writing characters as people first and ethnic/cultural/religious group members second, but that’s not the topic of this article.
Obligatory caveat: I’m a cishet white upper-class**** socialist dude going to college outside of Philly.
* Mayans are an ethnolinguistic group from the Yucatan peninsula at the southern end of Mexico, who are treated kind of incredibly poorly by the Spanish-speaking authorities, tepees were used only by some Great Plains tribes, dream catchers are Ojibwe artifacts used only over childrens’ cribs, hallucinogens from certain lysergic acid-containing mushrooms are only used by some Southwestern US tribes in religious ceremonies, medicine bundles (more properly referred to as sacred bundles) are used by some Plains and Mesoamerican cultures (in different ways, but the artifacts themselves are IIRC basically as important as sacred books are to Abrahamic religions), spirit animals are primarily a New Age neo-shamanistic invention, and no, magic space white men never taught any Native cultures how to be human.
** Of course, there are plenty of irrational atheists, atheists are as human as the next fellow after all, it’s just that the atheistic belief system is rooted in doubt rather than belief.
*** Technically since I haven’t seen it I can’t pass judgement on the finished product. I have, however, seen some very discouraging trailers.
**** Technically speaking. My family’s the “nice house with about three bedrooms and three bathrooms, two cars and a LCD HDTV with a modest pool” kind of rich, not the “McMansion” rich.
TL;DR: Good article, Rowling’s a moron who should have at least tried to do research, the movie “Re-assignment” is transphobic as hell because it cheapens the experiences of trans people, and nobody currently on TV can write a good atheist.
the ridger: ” I honestly don’t understand why (Re)Assignment is getting the …hate.”
Imagine a movie where the white villian has a ray gun that turns white people’s skin black, and then the villian uses this on his arch enemy.
He is a villian, so he isnt doing it to force white people clueless about racism to get a taste of what its like being black in racist america and have an epiphany about their own racism. So, the only interpretation left is he is doing it because the villian thinks black people are inferior to white people, so he just made his enemy inferior by making him black. Cue evil laugh.
At which point, the villian is a massive racist, but is the movie going to spend screen time explaining why the villian is racist? If its a simple revenge plot, probably not.
I’ve ordered WRITING THE OTHER (but haven’t read it yet). I’m teaching a course to illustration majors this fall called COMICS AND IDENTITY, and I want to explore cartooning the other (as well as cartooning the self) in a considered and well-researched way. Can’t wait!
What you are describing was used back in the days as a “Lessons Learned” done by the protagonist to the local bigot. And by ‘back in the days’, I mean when people still went by the “one drop” rule to determine racial divides and believed that receiving a blood transfusion from an African-American changed Caucasians into Africans. Seriously, M.A.S.H. used this as a plot device.
As for Gender Dhysphoria, it is bad enough when the natal ward doctor can arbitrarily decide your genitalia when born. It can be even freakier when gene signalling comes into play. This is shown in developmental biology textbooks with the picture of what appears to be a young girl.. The picture’s cation states this is a young XY boy whose genes did not provide the needed signals for development.
One interesting depiction of a trans character (at least MTF) involves Carrabelle Miller, “The Princess”, in Seanan McGuire’s “Velveteen Vs.” series. She is the avatar of the ideal fairy tale princess as imagined by all the young girls in the world. (Current place of residence is the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle.) There is a line in “Velveteen Vs The Multiverse” where she has a line (Can’t find it right now) where she says as an aside, “It’s cruel to name a girl Scott.”
This is explored two chapters in the next book, “Velveteen Vs The Seasons.” One, where she gives again (part ::inf::) how she got her super powers. (Involves a musical number that swelled to include 90% of theme parks guests and employees.) The other in the chapter where the reader finds that the media narrative is transforming her from nice princess to bad step-mom queen. Captain Clueless (Velveteen’s old boyfriend, not actually his real super-name) asks her why she does not just give up being “The Princess” if she does not like what she is becoming. Carrabelle does not ‘quite’ wish him into the cornfield, but it was close.
Aside to super-villeins, if the story’s Disney Corporation analog is the good guy, rethink your life choices.