Friday, January 26, 2018

The Heathers and Hollow Minority Characters

Recently classic film, The Heathers has been rebooted and the first trailers for the new version have been released. And the titular Heathers, the mean girls, have been cast as fat, LGBTQ and POC.

Casting these over-powerful Mean Girls as minorities is just plane bizarre. The idea that any of these girls would have “too much power” in high school is simply almost too bemusing to be offensive. Almost. Throw in the cishet white thin girl fighting violently back against these marginalised oppressors and we have something that turns the stomach.

We need to remember exactly how unpleasant and even damaging some of these portrayals can be. The idea of a highschool terrorism by a coalition of marginalised characters is not only completely alien to reality, but it’s outright offensive compared to the lived experience of actual teens. It’s very much a case of Reverse Oppression: which we’ve condemned before and it is most definitely no less damaging here where we have the most prominent victims of highschool bullying, victims who are driven to suicide in vastly disproportionate numbers, now been presented as the villains deserving of attack. While the ones most often responsible for real marginalised people’s torment are recast as the poor, innocent, persecuted victims deserving of vengeance. People are angry and my gods they have good reason to be.

This reality does not exist. Or it does, in one place - the imagination of entitled privileged people who think marginalised people speaking up or taking steps towards equality are “dangerous” and “oppressive” and need to be - often violently - put back in their place. I bet these people are going to love the new Heathers, they’ll be cheering it on as each one of those terrible minorities is taught a lesson for getting above herself. And likely feel inspired or justified in their own attitudes - or even actions.

I think the core of the problem here is that these are not POC, fat or LGBTQ characters. They are cishet, able bodied, white characters with marginalised labels attached. There has been no attempt to actually create a marginalised character, no examination of what the lives of marginalised characters are like, no concept of differing experiences, different histories, how this may reflect on culture, viewpoint, personality or any other aspect of this character. Instead we have produced 3 marginalised characters who are completely alien to actual marginalised people, 3 marginalised characters who interact with the world in a way actual marginalised people find bemusing, and a world setting that is supposed to be like ours but is completely alien because of these changes.

The problem here is in no way limited to The Heathers – we’ve seen plenty of other, but usually less egregious examples, in several of our shows and books. You can tell when a writer has written a book full of straight people and then decided, belatedly, to declare one of them to be gay – so just decided to call them that. Probably once. Without any real examination of how Gay Fred would be a different person from straight Fred. You can tell when a show has written roles for cishet white people (often they will call this role “open” by which they mean, because of the societal default, it is for cishet white, able bodied people) and then decided at the last minute to cast a Black girl in that role without any real thought as to whether her character would in any way differ from the white girl initially imagined.

The truth is that marginalised people do not generally live identical lives to those who lack marginalisations. Some of this is as benign as differing cultures or subcultures which influence language, food, experience, social life, gathering places and so much more. And a lot is far less, the basic issue of being marginalised of facing prejudice of not feeling safe, of being excluded or unsafe in certain places or around certain people. Of major social institutions being menacing, of having a completely different outlook to government, the police, churches, schools, to growing up being taught different things, seeing people like you in radically different contexts or removed entirely from fiction and history

All of these things can and do leave a mark. They change and build a person.

This doesn’t mean you should create a character who is entirely defined by their marginalisation - and ye gods we’re certainly not calling for more Lesbian Sharks who are incapable of doing anything in their lives that does not entirely revolve around their marginalisation. But do research, do recognise ways in which a marginalised character may approach life differently. There are countless minor ways you can incorporate their marginalisation into their daily lives (without rendering them near invisible) and properly flesh out these characters as more than  just labels on cishet white people. You can see good examples with Peter Grant in Rivers of London, the characters in Dyre, and the Astounding Antagonists and the Rise of Io, The Rayne Whitmore Series, Signal to Noise and Bone Street Rumba. Here we have marginalised characters whose marginalisation informs their character, is part of their character, their experiences, they way they see the world without being the sum total of their character.

And if you can’t do that (and it’s not asking much, so you can. It just involves trying. Just a little bit), at least examine the scenes you’re putting them in and ask if this would be different for a marginalised person so you don’t dump them in a collection of cringeworthy tropes.

The people in Vampire Diaries may love gathering around to celebrate their slave owner founders and watching Gone with the Wind, but is it possible, just possible, that Black woman Bonnie may be less invested in this?

Maybe someone needs to watch Bellamy asking an all white room “DO I LOOK DIFFERENT TO YOU!” without wearing the special Colour-blind-glasses.

Maybe ask whether you need to kill that LGBTQ character and that LGBTQ character and this LGBTQ character and this LGBTQ character and this LGBTQ character, and these LGBTQ characters, and these LGBTQ characters and these LGBTQ characters, and these LGBTQ characters and these LGBTQ characters and for fuck’s sake I’m not drunk enough to continue this list. And I’m not even half done.

Maybe ask yourself if running POC through the grinder to be quickly replaced by equally characterless clones is the choice here?

And before you run to me saying “hey my fictional world has no prejudice” - yeah, this is not a an excuse. You still have to do the work.

 In all, this is another classic example of half-assing diversity. As more and more writers are realising marginalised people have money and really want to see themselves portrayed, and more and more of us are willing to speak up about erasure, we’re seeing a wide range of token tactics to try and get the most praise for doing the very least. Throwing in someone with the appropriate skin tone or who mentions they like the same-sex once every 11 episodes is not sufficient for producing believable, fully developed marginalised characters, It’s not even sufficient to prevent your characters blundering through grossly offensive tropes like a concussed alcoholic rhino. You need to look at marginalised characters as characters, as people, as elements of books and shows that need to be developed and worked on and researched. It takes a bare modicum of effort, not just throwing in some labels.