A Plea for Reason in Sci-Fi/Fantasy “Discrimination”

Edit: November 2, 2013: Don’t like what’s said on this post? Fine by me. But if you choose to mistake maturity for being “oblivious,” then there’s not much I can do to help you. I could go off on another rant, but I’ll defer to Brad Stine on this one.

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Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few accusations of discrimination being flung around the sci-fi/fantasy community. Mainly, it focuses on the fact that many of the writers are white males portraying white male protagonists.

Sorry, what? I must have forgotten to change my race and/or gender before I embarked on writing sci-fi and fantasy. My bad.

Forget about telling me that my “white privilege” is showing or I’m “mansplaining” things to you. I’m addressing you all as human beings, created as equals in the image of God — no more and no less. Look, can everyone quit the mud-slinging for five minutes and just admit this for what it is? If sci-fi and fantasy have somehow been overwhelmed by white, male protagonists/authors (and to a certain extent, that is true), that doesn’t mean it’s racist or sexist. It’s just boring. Well, it’s boring if skin color and gender of the protagonist(s) are a huge deal and determine the quality of a story.

I’m not arguing to keep things the way they are. By all means, let’s start increasing the variety of characters. But it’s nowhere near as important as crafting a good story and fascinating characters to drive it. Aren’t those the basics?

Honestly, I don’t care what the author or character’s race or sex is. I just want the story and the people it’s about to be interesting. In my experience, the only people who have cared a great deal about things the author and character cannot help, like their melanin content or chromosomes, belong to one of two types:

  • Those not-too-common actual racists or sexists — immature people who try to ruin others’ experience with science fiction and fantasy by belittling their race or gender (though I have hardly met any of them)
  • Equally immature people with notes from their classes in race studies or gender studies constantly on the brain, worrying about different types of humans and whether they are “represented” equally among authors or characters, and who think an under-representation of any group is a miscarriage of justice that MUST be addressed (I have met plenty of these, and would rather hope to not run into them again)

Last time I checked, writing classes and books didn’t have much to say on the subject of race or even gender, though that could easily change in the Age of Political Correctness. I don’t care one bit that Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra hardly have any “white” characters. I don’t care that Korra is a girl. I love both series, because the characters are well-developed, and the stories are amazing. And the fight scenes are mind-bogglingly awesome. That too.

But I also don’t care that many of the other stories I love, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Jurassic Park, happen to have a lot of white, male characters driving the story. Because those are exactly the traits of human beings no one should be making a big deal about. What was that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or the arrangement of their chromosomes, for that matter)?

Female protagonists are supposed to have strength of one kind or another and be proactive, not because they’re female, but because they’re the protagonists. That’s why. There’s nothing in the chief character’s sex that robs him/her of the need to be decisive and proactive. No one except for the aforementioned groups is going to care how light or dark an author’s or character’s skin is. Most of us just want a great story, featuring interesting people and created by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Now can we please get back to having fun, writing the best fiction we can and sharing it with the world? Thanks for your time.

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12 thoughts on “A Plea for Reason in Sci-Fi/Fantasy “Discrimination”

  1. “Female protagonists are supposed to have strength of one kind or another and be proactive, not because they’re female, but because they’re the protagonists. That’s why.” <— love this. Great thoughts, John. I agree. People just look for things to be mad about.

  2. Hoo boy.

    No really. I used to say the same thing. “Who cares what color/gender if the story is good?”

    Look, the reason people call it out, make noise about it, and generally say “hey, this isn’t ok.” is because the story should be good regardless of skin color. That the story is good should be a GIVEN. If the story isn’t good, you shouldn’t be writing it (exception:beginning writers). Period.

    Now, imagine we’re doing an algebra problem.

    (Good story) x (Varied characters) >,<, or = (Good story) x (whitemalecisgender characters)

    Cross out the good story and you're left with deciding, which is better; varied characters, or all whitemalecisgender characters? Does anyone like to see the same thing every single time? No. That's a basic principle of writing. Five word sentences as a constant are lazy, and so are all your characters looking basically the same.

    Here is the other factor; you and I are white bread Americana. When we look at the sci-fi fantasy genre, we look in a mirror. "Oh look! The hero looks like me! The heroine has the same skin as me! I have the same eyes as that cool guy!" You've got your role models and have had them since you were tiny. So have I.

    Now, imagine you are a minority reading mainstream fantasy scifi. "Oh look, that secondary character with two lines looked like me. The first person to die looked like me." Katara and Korra are some of the FIRST of their kind; not only not white, but female and famous as fuck to boot. Let that sink in. First. Number one. In years of television and hundreds of years in writing. That's a big, sad deal. It's different, and though I've never experienced it (because I'm white) it's really gotta suck. You may not care. Fine, you have fun with that. The thing you can't get around is that *your readers* care.

    In conclusion, no, you're right, it's not sexist or racist to fail to write other cultures and colors into your works, but it *is* lazy and ridiculous now that you have this wonderful thing called the internet to which you can say "Gee, I don't know how to research writing characters of color tastefully" http://missturdle.tumblr.com/post/52757340887/gee-i-dont-know-how-to-research-writing-characters-of

    and read up on why I used to think the same EXACT THINGS and turned it around. http://kaitlinandmichaelbranch.com/2012/09/02/why-diversity-in-fiction-matters/

  3. How many stories actually tell you the color of the protagonist’s skin? I know that I’ve been reading and developed a mental picture of the character and then realized halfway through the book that it doesn’t match. I wonder if there’s any cases of people making a big stink about it and then having it turn out to be their own biases that they read into the character.

    Also, I agree, there are too many people worrying about equal representation and offending “someone” when there wasn’t an issue in the first place. You can’t please everyone, and some people are going to be offended no matter how careful you are. As long as you treat everyone with respect and don’t overtly attack someone/some group then it shouldn’t matter. /gripe

    • I don’t want to jump right back into this, but wanted to add a little observation.

      Another thing I’m noticing is that more and more people are starting to treat the open-ended worldbuilding unique to sci-fi and fantasy as if it burdens you with some kind of “moral obligation” to make your cast of characters more diverse. “Hey, great, you get to make your own world. NOW REMEMBER, YOU MUST INCLUDE MORE CHARACTERS THAT AREN’T WHITE MALES!!!”

      The option is obviously a very viable one, and authors should be encouraged to take the melting-pot approach to give their worlds more texture and flavor. But what I cannot abide is the mindset that just because an author is making their own world, they must tailor it to pander to the screaming ranks of the politically correct. I hope those people will one day realize the author does not answer to them, and they are not entitled to make demands of the author (especially when they threaten to brand the author a bigot and pitch him/her off the train). Many of them could write their own books that have their diversity quotas just the way they like, but instead they choose to go after other authors who are not living up to their standards.

  4. “The thing you can’t get around is that *your readers* care.”

    So you claim. Can you back up that claim? Did you do some reader surveys? What evidence do you have besides “received wisdom”?

    I’m not a short Dutchman, like Nicholas van Rijn. My brain isn’t encased in a metal body, like Professor Jameson. I’m not a woman, like Honor Harrington or Rydra Wong or Friday Baldwin. I”m not 3 feet tall with hairy bare feet. I don’t look Scotch, like Nathan MacKinnie. Yet I enjoyed all of their stories.

    When I read SF, I do so (mostly) to be entertained – to go “wow”. I don’t think “ooh … that’s me taking the ring to Mount Doom”. My only requirement for characters is that I care about them (which is why “Shakespeare In Love” left me cold, in spite of the protagonist being a white male who speaks English, yet strangely I really enjoyed a movie which featured only one actor of the “wrong” color for most of its length (“I Am Legend”)).

    I suspect that most SF readers are the same way. In the absence of evidence, I declare that my take is just a valid as Kaitlin’s.

  5. Kaitlin, he actually addresses your point. He says it can affect it as being boring and by all means that we should increase the number of types of characters. But that’s not his point.

    The point is, political correctness can not only get in the way of a good story, but, as I would like to add, it can actually be insulting in and of itself. He brought up how characters, like people, should not be judged by the color of their skin– and that includes white characters. My own story has three distinct races– humans, judehre, and zahkirr, all part of the same species (due to the world and genetics working a bit differently, the other two races are furred races of sorts but they act just like any human, with culture and personality having a bigger impact on who they are than their race or coloring). That said, you’ll often see culture playing a MUCH bigger role in character flavor than you will their race, because to segregate them by race is, well, downright racist. Sure, there are a couple of subraces that all typically come from a single culture, but even with them, individual personality and culture means a lot more than, in this case, the effective heterochromia iridum of their eyes or in the other case their genetic defect that stunts their magical capability, as some characters from those subraces still came from a different culture or rebelled against it in this way or that, and thus it affected them differently.

  6. I was linked to this post from somewhere else, so I don’t normally comment here or anything, but… Representation is a really important thing. It’s more than being ‘politically correct,’ and it’s not JUST that all-white all-cis all-male casts all the time are boring (though that’s true, too). As Kaitlin has pointed out, it’s about letting /everyone/ see characters like themselves in fiction.

    Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut in space, was inspired to reach that goal when she saw Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek. I’m white, so I KNOW I’m privileged when it comes to seeing many protagonists the same race as me. But I’m also bi, and I know when I was young and struggling with coming out, I would have loved to see more non-hetero characters in the books I was reading & shows I was watching. That would have really helped me.

    You need to try to take the point of view of others in this scenario, I think… Just because it doesn’t seem important to you doesn’t mean it’s objectively unimportant, you know? And discourse about how to make books better is NOT a bad thing. Anytime we try to STOP those conversations, that’s more damaging, I think.

  7. Sorry to go on & on, but minutes later I found this really relevant quote! I hope this sort of puts a different spin on things for anyone who feels uneasy about the representation debate:

    “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
    — Junot Diaz – on cultural representation in our world

    • Hey, C. Thank you for stopping by!

      I agree with you wholeheartedly that there should be characters like ourselves in fiction, to serve as reflections or give us ideals that seem within reach, or some other purpose. Where I must respectfully disagree is in *how* that person is like you or me, and whether the depiction of more diversity in race is part of what makes a book necessarily “better.” If skin color or something similar is the point of connection between reader or character…isn’t that the same superficiality that gives racism its teeth?

      In general, human beings do indeed come with their sets of privileges, prejudices, upbringings, preconceptions, and ingrained modes of thinking. But at the risk of echoing Calvin’s comment above, there’s no good reason why skin color prevents readers (unless they’re in the KKK or something) from connecting profoundly with well-rounded SF characters who are superficially different, even when they are elves, androids, hobbits, Martians, or conscious computers.

      Thanks again for your time. Kindest regards,

      John

      • I’m happy that you’re willing to discuss this, anyway! Though I have to say I still see some things I disagree with…

        1) The “How”: We can’t really say that race isn’t an important way to connect to a character, because we don’t have that perspective (there are so many white characters for us to choose from, it’s invisible to us). All we can do is look at what other people, like Junot Diaz and Mae Jemison, are saying. Then it comes down to whether or not you accept or reject their experience as valid… And I don’t consider myself qualified to reject their experience.

        I mean… Do you think, as an in-the-closet bi kid, I should have just gotten over my want to see chars with my sexual orientation? :/ And accepted other similarities as good enough instead? I DID connect with straight chars. But it would have helped me feel less shame if I’d had non-het chars to connect with, too. Do you see what I’m saying?

        2) I guess I shouldn’t have used the word “better” in the way I did. I don’t believe in objectively good books… There’s technically good writing, yes. But a book with a diverse cast IS “better” for some READER of that book. Whether or not it’s “better” as a piece of literature in general isn’t a conversation I personally find productive, because I think the experience of lit is subjective.

        3) Skin colour definitely doesn’t prevent us from connecting with character. People of colour have been connecting with white characters for years. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to seeing someone of your own race in a text.

        I hope I’ve articulated myself well here!

      • You have articulated yourself *very* well! I do appreciate your willingness to discuss this as well.

        I definitely realize that not everyone is going to share my viewpoints about skin color, or gender, or cultural upbringing, or religion, etc. when it came to whether or not a reader could connect and sympathize with a character. I just thought there were much bigger fish to fry to make a character compelling.

        For honesty’s sake, I do notice when a character is in some visible way different from me, such as color (Djimon Hounsou’s character in “Blood Diamond,” say, or Katara in “Avatar”). But that’s all that happens — noticing. I file it away as a “fact,” and connect to a character for other reasons, like heroism, or kindness, or fighting to protect their loved ones, or wisdom, or street smarts, or witty retorts. Stuff like that. Stuff that comes from the inside, that doesn’t belong to any particular people group, but to individuals. I guess that’s why I thought of MLK’s content-of-character phrase. It meshes very well with storytelling’s need for a three-dimensional character.

        (Forgive me if I sound like I’m pontificating here — really don’t mean to)

        I think I can see what you’re saying regarding sexual orientation, but confess myself still unsure how to address that particular issue in fiction. Wish there was something of value I could add. Sorry.

        Hopefully that adds something.

  8. Wouldn’t allow me to reply to the original post, and I suppose I’m dragging this out, but just to sum up…

    I completely agree that race is not ALL that matters. Race alone doesn’t make a char compelling. But I think the point is that it’s helpful for someone to see GOOD (well-developed) characters like themselves. They can act as role models, or just prove that the literary world doesn’t completely ignore their existence. And I think it’s just what you’re saying that makes this issue of representation important… We don’t just need characters of colour ‘thrown in’ for diversity’s sake. We need characters of colour that are well-developed and well-written.

    To clarify about sexual orientation: If I’d seen non-het characters brave enough to be honest about their sexual orientation, I would have felt less hesitant to come out of the closet. 🙂 And that is a struggle a lot of youth face.

    As writers, I just think we should want to make the reading experience more enjoyable for everyone. And if we don’t understand a perspective? Ask! It’s research (which, let’s be honest, is a hella fun part of writing).

    Anyway, it’s unfortunate we couldn’t reach a solid agreement here, and I’m so sorry for clogging up your blog, but it was good to talk about it. Thanks.

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