Friday, September 14, 2012

There's Always an Excuse for Prejudice, Erasure and Tropes

'No Excuses' photo (c) 2012, Gary Cooper - license:

One of the things we’ve found in our many reviews of the genre from a social justice perspective is how many times people will make up various excuses for the problems we talk about. There is no limit to the different excuses people raise, but often it can feel like we’re responding to the same script since we see the same points raised again and again. Since, we assume, they are widely believed we’re going to poke a few of these:

The Protagonist doesn’t hate them because they’re a minority - it’s because they’re horrible people.

This normally becomes an issue when we point out, for example, that a character has no female friends and strikes sparks with every woman around them. Or the protagonist hates every single POC in the book/TV series. Or that the only GBLT characters in a book have been the protagonist’s enemies.

Now these protagonists rarely turn round and say “I hate women!” or “she’s my enemy because she’s a lesbian, evil lesbian!” because most authors aren’t that ridiculous. Usually, the protagonist does have a very legitimate reason to hate these people. Yes, every woman they met was mean to them. Yes, all the POC around them were cruel and rude. Yes, that evil GBLT villain is indeed evil. There were big story reasons for the character to hate all of these people. This is true.

But this a work of fiction, not a report of real people. The writer is an author, not a journalist. The cruel POC, the evil GBLT villain, the mean women - they don’t exist. They’re all creations of the author. And if the author has created a book where all the women/POC/GBLT/etc are set up to be awful and hateable then it is because the author chose them to be so.

If the marginalised people in a series are all hateful people that the protagonist loathes - for good in story reasons - then the author has created that scenario. And, yes, that’s problematic.

It’s just who they are! I see them as people not POC/GBLT/etc

So you’ve written your story and it turns out you have a sexually predatory GBLT person, or a loud, angry, sassy black woman side-kick (bonus points if she has magic to help the protagonist) or some equally tired, stereotyped trope. Naturally we’re not impressed but the protest is “they’re not a sassy, magical side-kick because they’re black, it’s just who they are!” In other words, you assert that their adherence to an extremely tired trope is just coincidence.

Now it’s vaguely possible, I guess, that you are somehow packed into the Mars Rover and are actually beaming you books or scripts from there and your intended audience is actually aliens from the planet Zog. In which case I applaud you for being able to write under such difficult conditions and being our ambassador for the Zoggi with books about vampires.

Assuming that this is not actually the case, you are writing on Earth, for an Earth audience. Which means you can’t really divorce your work from our cultures, societies and the gazillion works of media that have come before yours. This means you are still affected by the stereotypes, tropes and prejudices that so saturate our society. It is hard to believe that when writing such a classic stereotype, it wasn’t in any way related to the prejudice that is so prevalent in our media and has been part of all of our social consciousness since we were old enough to understand.

But assuming you managed to dodge the bullet of societal prejudice, just because you didn’t write a stereotyped portrayal because of the stereotype, doesn’t mean that your portrayal won’t add to it. Narrow, repetitive portrayals and stereotypes are damaging to marginalised people. They repeatedly tell us that there’s only one way to be a certain group, they deny the diversity and the humanity of that marginalised group by reducing them to a homogenous, and narrowly defined, whole. And they’re often damaging as well - portraying us as less, as servants, as villains or often in other, similar, negative lights. Just because you didn’t intend to produce a stereotype, doesn’t mean your stereotype will not perpetuate the damage of these narrow, repetitive tropes. It’s often said in social justice circles that “intent is not magical” and that certainly applies here. You may not have intended your (for example) tragic story of pain, suffering and suicide to have perpetuated the tragic doomed GBLT person trope - but your intent will not strip it of all those unfortunate messages or stop it echoing all the same depictions that have come before.

But they exist!

Yes there are muslim terrorists out there. There are women who are delicate and fragile and silly and vapid. GBLT people do commit suicide, there are Lesbians who hate men and Bisexual people who aren’t happy without multiple partners and Gay men who will be more concerned about blood on the interior decor than anything else when the vampires break down the door. There are same-sex couples that perfectly mimic 1950s gender roles. There are angry Black criminal gang members and extremely sexualised Latinas and furious, enraged Black women who managed to be both furious and sassy and inscrutable Asian mystics and martial artists and scientists. Yes there are disabled people who “rise up” above their disability in an inspiring manner and yes there are miserly Jewish people and thieving Romany people who even tell fortunes.

Yes, these people all exist. And?

That doesn’t mean representing these extremely tired and endlessly repeated stereotypes isn’t problematic. The problem isn’t that these characters are represented, it’s that they’re represented over and over and over and over and over and over again - either in their entirety or elements of them, we see these portrayals presented repeatedly.

It’s not that there aren’t marginalised people who represent these tropes, it’s that this is presented as all marginalised people are allowed to be. It’s that these representations, or elements of them, overwhelm other portrayals. This is why they are tropes. This is why they are stereotypes. This is why they are damaging. And this is why yet another depiction of these tropes - especially without a counter, non-troped example (and not just a different trope) - is so damaging.

But there’s nothing wrong with being X!

Let’s take an example - take our complaint about how Falling Skies puts women in support roles rather than combat roles. Now, Ann is a doctor - and there can be certainly no doubt that a doctor is a valued role. Similarly, when we see an Asian martial artist - well, martial artists are extremely skilled and dedicated, due a great deal of praise. There is nothing inherently wrong with, say, a flamboyant gay hairdresser. As was raised in the Q&A with Laura Mennel, there are different types of strength. But marginalised people are repeatedly limited to what kind of strength they’re allowed to show especially when juxtaposed to a privileged person who are allowed a much wider spectrum of strengths portrayed.

There are a lot of stereotyped, trope laden portrayals of minorities that aren’t negative. But they’re still stereotyped and they’re still trope laden - the problem here isn’t that the portrayal is negative, it’s that it’s narrow. It’s that this portrayal follows a thousand other portrayals of exactly the same thing - it’s that we’re narrowly pigeonholed into a set number of acceptable roles. It’s because we constantly handed rules from society on how to be “x marginalised group” properly. It’s because we’re handed the message that these are only things we can be.

There’s nothing wrong with women rolling bandages while the men go to war - but why do we so rarely see it the other way round? Why are women repeatedly only allowed to roll bandages? The problem with these stereotypes is their overwhelming repetition.

These excuses come up time and again as regular as clockwork. We wish there’d be as much effort pushing for inclusion as there is making excuses for its lack. It is important to critique this and it’s not going to get better if we make excuses for it, especially since writers seem to be going out of their way to make the weakest attempts at inclusion - tokenism, extras, word-of-god, and an inordinate amount of stereotypes and tropes. It won’t get better if we make excuses for it.