Friday, February 3, 2012

Existence is not Entitlement, Erasure is not Acceptable

'Right Through The Invisible Man' photo (c) 2011, Matthew - license:

As we have often made note of in this space, Urban Fantasy, Dystopian, Horror, and Steampunk is often filled with the erasure of GLBT people (note: a universal erasure applies to trans people) disabled people and people of colour.  The default as with all forms of media is to fall back on the most privileged bodies at all times. And it’s wall to wall - not only will the protagonist always be as privileged as possible, but so will most of the people who surround them as well.

And in the few cases were marginalised characters do exist, all is not rosy. It’s very rare for us to get more than a single token character; in fact, sometimes we’re lucky to get that - often we will see the odd marginalised face in a crowd scene, or someone referred to in passing without any real ‘screen’ time at all. When we do have them, the characters are often hollow. They have no real traits or personalities, no goals, no personhood - they’re just a placeholder for the necessary inclusion cookies. And, were that not problematic enough, usually they exist to serve the privileged protagonists - side-kicks, best friends, entourage, never people in their own right.

Of course, in the few occasions when they do have some traits, they normally fall into ridiculous, stereotyped tropes that are hardly progressive and serve to further “other” them while maintaining the supremacy of privileged people.

As we have mentioned in the past, gatekeepers do effect the ability of writers to include historically marginalized characters; however, they are not solely responsible for the dearth of representation.  Just like everyone else, writers are born into a discourse that privileges certain bodies and unless they have made a conscious effort to decolonize their minds and consider a world which may be outside of their lived experience, the tendency to repeat dominant social narratives becomes normalised. Even with writers who are aware of this phenomenon, they often fall into the trap of hunting for inclusion points by introducing the gay uncle or a wise negro to fulfill what they deem to be a quota rather than investing in these marginalized characters to the same degree that they invest in characters that come from a dominant sub group.

And this erasure costs. Our children grow up forever seeing themselves as not worth talking about, their stories not worth telling. And when they see themselves? They see themselves as less, or they see some caricature that’s supposed to be them but is barely human. This is why even today when Black children are asked to take the “doll test” they routinely invest the White doll with all positive traits and the Black doll with negative traits. Children learn at an early age to internalize the negative images and messages created by media, and this inevitably follows them all the days of their lives.

For GLBT youth it is equally as perilous.  This erasure teaches them that who they are is filthy and inhuman.  It also feeds into a culture of homophobia, which encourages bullying -- which we have seen has lead to a high rate of GLBT suicide, depression and self harm. It further encourages a closeted existence because erasure teaches that GLBT are not to be visible or part of society in any way, shape or form.

Even as adults - we are constantly reminded that we are the Other. We’re the outsider. Even in our moments of escapism we end up escaping to worlds where we don’t exist. Even when trying to relax we can’t escape the idea that we don’t belong or that we’re unworthy or less important. We’re reminded that our society is more comfortable with vampires, elves and sorcerers than it is with our actual existence. We’re constantly faced with the wretched choice of fiction where we don’t exist at all or a portrayal that will annoy and offend us.

And, yes, this all affects our society as well. How can it not? How can vastly popular works of fiction read by thousands, even millions, not shape people’s attitudes and ideals? Our society shapes our culture - but our culture shapes societies as well. Can we really expect a world to treat us as equals when every piece of media says that we’re not? Are the privileged people who dominate the world really going to acknowledge marginalised people as equally important and worthy, when every story every read, every show ever watched, and every game ever played, says this isn’t the case? How can we expect to be respected when we train every generation not to do so?

This lack and the cost of it is one of the main reasons why we started Fangs for the Fantasy. It’s why we do what we do - we love this genre and respect it enough to realise the effect it has on our culture and society. It’s why we challenge stereotypes and tropes and why we call out erasure. And yet, we see some similar challenges every time - we’re PC (ignoring the cost of erasure), that we’re reading too much into things, that it’s only fiction and, of course, that we’re entitled for wanting to see characters like us represented.

And this idea of entitlement annoys me because it completely misses the greatest entitlement of them all. The publishing industry (and, for that matter, all media) has an idea that to be marketable, a book has to have a privileged protagonist. Because straight, white, cis, able-bodied men cannot possibly, possibly be expected to identify with a character who is not exactly like them. And yet marginalized people gasping for some crumbs are the entitled ones, really? We’re lucky if we even get to play side-kick to the privileged protag’s heroics. Whenever we try to take centre stage, the Gatekeepers try to push us back into the wings to make room for a maximally privileged protagonist - because that’s “what’s marketable”. Or, in other words, because the straight/white/cis/able-bodied men are perceived to be utterly unwilling to tolerate a character who is not as much like them as possible.

So I’m going to say it - we’re entitled to portrayals. Entitled as members of our to be part of our culture and lore. We’re entitled to have our stories told as well. We’re entitled to see ourselves. We’re entitled to be able to identify with heroes and heroines who are like us. We’re entitled to have what the most privileged have taken for granted for so long (and which they often defend most fiercely). If it’s this important to privileged folk that they must resist any encroachment tooth and nail, then how important is it for marginalised people, who have been denied it for so long.