Friday, February 8, 2013

Marginalized Characters Do Not Define The Story

'Books' photo (c) 2008, Joe Shlabotnik - license:
With every one of our reviews - be they recaps of TV series, reviews of books or even computer games, we usually include some kind of reference to what it is actually about, it is after all, the most basic element of whether someone would want to read or watch something.

The Dresden Files, is about a wizard in Chicago facing down all kinds of problems and breaking all the rules. The Iron Druid Chronicles, is about a millennia year old Druid getting by in a world full of deities that often wish him harm. The Elemental Assassin Series, is about a lethal magical assassin fighting the good fight in a corrupt city. The Morganville Vampires Series, is about a girl trying to live in a town completely controlled by vampires.

Basic, simple descriptions of what a book series is about. And you would think that the only way to change these descriptions would be to radically rewrite the entire series. But no, according to many people, I can completely change all of these series with one simple adjustment.

I can make the protagonist a minority. Or I can introduce a non-tokened major character who is a minority. Or I can introduce - horror of horrors - several minorities!

If Harry Dresden were gay, then suddenly The Dresden Files is a series about sexuality. If Claire were Black, then The Morganville Vampires would morph into a book about race. If Gin Blanco were followed around by several GBLT friends, then they may even be books that are trying to play politics or make a point!

Of course, people forget that being straight is a sexuality, or that being White is a race. Harry Dresden is definitely straight, we see several of his love interests (and he hardly sees any woman without wanting to have sex with her) yet, no-one would characterise this series as some kind of treatise on straightness or straight sexuality. But include a major gay character and suddenly it’s making a statement. Now it’s a commentary on all gay sexuality, now it has an agenda.

This is the power of the societal default - the default that allows a privileged race, sexuality, gender, gender identity, etc to stand in as the assumed. You can see this very clearly in the number of books that don’t bother to describe skin tone - unless describing a POC (I once read the line a “a girl was playing with an Asian boy” who can tell me what race the girl was? If your answer was anything but White, you’re deluding yourself).

The most privileged state is considered the generic, it is automatic. You don’t need a reason for your protagonist to be a cis, able bodied, straight, white man. This is the base assumption. You actually need a reason to make a character anything BUT a cis, able bodied, straight, white man. So you can have a cast of 4 or 6 or 10 or even more - and only have one woman because the straight protagonist needs to have a love interest. Or maybe you have a Native American character to provide some woo-woo, or a Black or gay side-kick to provide some sassy one liners.

Or, most commonly, you have a marginalised side character so you can tick-box your inclusion bingo squares and give yourself a pat on the back for being so very very progressive.

This is part of the reason why so many marginalised characters are so hollow and lacking any kind of depth or characterisation because they have been inserted as a purpose - be that love interest, side-kick, or token insert who stands around being Black (Hi T-Dog!) rather than as a character in their own right. This is also why the character’s marginalised trait (race, sexuality etc) is often ridiculously over-saturated like the Lesbian Shark - because that’s literally all the character is, it’s their only defining trait. It’s also, equally, why the character may not have any markers of their marginalisation at all (no culture, no love interest or relationship history etc) because they haven’t been developed as a full character - they’re a label, a cut out, a one sentence description there to serve a basic purpose.

And it’s why when you actually do include a fully fledged minority character (and especially a protagonist) people assume you’re making a point because you must have a reason. You can’t just be including a character, they can’t just be a character as valid as a straight, cis, able bodied white man - you must have had some nefarious motive for changing the default.

For many simply commenting on the fact that a series of books is completely erased is enough to cause offense.This in part is because of a desire to label a text niche should it happen to include a marginalised person in a prominent role. This can lead to books as diverse as romance, sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, historical and even non-fiction all shelved together because they have a Black or gay etc protagonist. Their genre is completely overwhelmed by having minority characters.

This is not something we can blame on authors and, in fact, much of the responsibility belongs to publishers and a public who refuses to even attempt to identify with someone isn’t exactly like them. It doesn’t seem to matter that gay people consume all sorts of media which is overwhelmingly straight and still manage to identify with heterosexual characters; or that people of colour consume texts in which they are routinely reduced to sidekicks but still manage to identify and at times even empathise with a White protagonists. Merely mentioning that a series is highly erased is enough to have some claiming that there is no need for inclusion or that said inclusion would magically shift the story.  Such claims of course are little more than privileged blather.

The truth of the matter is that erasure is normalised and status quo for such texts to be considered mainstream. This is why it seen as shocking to some when we take the time to mention in our review whether or not the text we are examining is erased. Though we have been charged with politicising our review, in truth, everything we do is political to some degree, so why the forms of entertainment we choose to consume should be free of such influence is beyond me.  Going with the status quo (read: erasure or tokenism)  is absolutely a political choice because it supports our dissonance in worth and value, even as it upholds the idea that only a certain group of people deserve to be seen or heard.  Unless you have a vested interest in preserving your privilege, simply saying that there are no marginalised people in a text should not be enough to cause denials and protestations. Marginalised people are human and should be recognised as such. If a story can include vampires, fae, werewolves and shit dancing elves, it should not be such a hardship to include one or two fully realised marginalised characters. It won’t change the world, or the nature of publishing industry but it will acknowledge that othering, no matter what form it takes, is oppression.

Ultimately, if we continue to maintain the default of straight, cis, white, able bodied men with other characters only included to tick boxes or for a specific purpose, then we are accepting marginalised people as Other. We are accepting marginalised people as not full people, not full members of society and only tools to use for specific needs; they are never REAL people in the way that the straight, cis, able bodied white man is.

Marginalised people are people. We are members of society and we are part of our society’s stories, culture and life. We do not have to have a reason to exist, we do not have to justify our presence in a straight, cis, white, able-bodied man’s story. We have our own stories, our own lives and are, much as many privileged folks may resent it, a part of your stories as well. You don’t need a reason to include us - because there’s no reason why we can’t - why we aren’t - everywhere and in every story.

Rather than question why a story has to include us, ask why a world, a story, a setting has mysteriously excluded people who actually exist - people who should be there.