Friday, July 27, 2018

Marginalised People Cannot be Confined to Niches

We’ve spoken repeatedly about the paucity of marginalised people being represented in all forms of media. We’ve seen show after show, book after book and game after game with no marginalised people. Or, at best, limited tokens clinging to the side of some privileged people’s stories. We tag those books that have POC, disabled or LGBTQ protagonists - they are by far the minority of the books we read and generally (albeit not always) far lower profile and not part of greater series. Often, they’re pushed aside or shuffled into their own side or niche genre

This can be seen very much in the trend of long paranormal romance series: The Black DaggerBrotherhood, Dark Hunter Series, Argeneu Series and so many others feature long chains of romances, a new romance with each book, constantly showcasing more straight and primarily white romances. While the excellent Guildhunter Series and Psy Changeling series feature many POC, they, again, show a chain of straight romances. LGBTQ people, when they appear, are confined to bit characters, usually supportive (or terribly terribly represented) and not given close to the same representation as the straight couples. And when you have a series of 15+ straight couples, the comparison becomes glaring

It’s not, of course, that romance with gay characters doesn’t exist - but it is very much a separate, (and heavily colonised and problematic) genre. The idea that these romances should be blended into mainstream romance seems almost… alien. These are niche stories that belong in their niche subset

We see this pressure for pushing marginalised characters into niche genres very much with the assumption Societal Default - that every time a marginalised character is present it must be for an agenda or a reason (and, the implication being, that with that reason it should then be a specialty “niche” show again). Our society is far more comfortable with a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or even the L Word and Queer as Folk than it is with a gay superhero show (you’ll not my conspicuous lack of giving an example here). The former all have concepts where the LGBTQness is “justified” and has a “reason” and, as such, fits its appropriate “niche”.

 We see this as well in the powerful backlash we get when these characters and stories step outside their niche. Star Wars “fandom” has driven marginalised actors off social media for the terrible crime of bringing POC to the franchise. Star Trek discovery faced a similar racist outrage, Black Lightning, and Luke Cage had a wave of outrage and protest and the epic shitfits pitched about Black Panther was the stuff of legend. One of those terrible legends where the world ends and we’re all eaten by giant wolves.

This definitely extends to women with both typical backlash against Wonderwoman and the mere fact that Batman and Superman have both had a mindboggling number of films made about them - but Wonderwoman’s has only just been released despite being a contemporary. And Jodie Whittaker’s new role as the Doctor has not only prompted a backlash but also prompted her excellent comeback: Women Shouldn’t Be a Genre

In all these cases we had marginalised characters and stories stepping outside their niche; their specific defined genres to tell their specific, permissible stories. I actually participated in one especially annoying comment thread where a pouting man was upset that Star Wars was abandoning its concept and reason for existing. He compared including marginalised characters in Star Wars to having men control NOW and NARAL - he sees marginalised characters mere existence as pursuing an agenda that is antithetical to the genre itself.

This mentality, this idea that marginalised characters may only exist - or only be important - in certain niche genres, telling certain permitted stories greatly limits how marginalised people see themselves - and it also greatly limits marginalised writers. It has taken far too long for Octavia Butler to be recognised as a pillar of the sci-fi community and I can’t even imagine how many of her contemporaries deserve to be recognised but are not because sci-fi isn’t their appropriate “niche”. N.K. Jemisin has even written an excellent piece on why she doesn’t want her books shelved in an African American section of the book store.

Let’s be clear, I’m not saying these niches can’t have value. There is value in having marginalised media produced by marginalised people for the consumption of said marginalised people (there is a reason why #Ownvoices is so important). There is value in marginalised people being able to explore, represent and embrace issues which are specific to themselves without having to explain them to people who don’t experience them. Kind of like being able to tell an in-joke without having to explain the context to random passers by. Or not having non-marginalised people leap into family discussions to Give Their Important Opinions.

But niches are great places for marginalised people to visit and use - but they can’t be prisons; they can’t be an excuse to drive marginalised people away from everywhere else

Similarly, marginalised people are obviously going to understand and connect to elements of a television show, book or computer game with marginalised characters that none-marginalised people do not. Black Panther is going to have more impact and meaning when raising issues of colonialism, Black Lightning touched on issues like police violence against Black people, just about every LGBTQ show has included both the closet and coming out (sometimes there seems to be no other LGBTQ themes ever). These are obviously going to be more meaningful to marginalised people to whom these are very relevant to and part of their daily lives and cultural experiences

But even here, part of the reason why these issues lack resonance with non-marginalised people is not just personal experience but also this habit of forcing marginalised work into these niches. Marginalised people are commonly expected to be able to connect with and identify with media that has nothing but privileged characters. And we do. And we can. We can because even if the experiences depicted are radically different from our own or our own experiences are (repeatedly) excised from the narrative, we can identify it because we’re still immersed in these issues - because they dominate our culture completely and they dominate our media. Marginalised people have grown up consuming media that constantly immersed them in the lives of cishet white men - the idea that women, POC, disabled people or LGBTQ people, cannot connect to these stories and these characters is never considered because of this immersion.

The flip side of that is we reinforce the distance cishet, white, able bodied people maintain between themselves and the lives of marginalised people. These issues continue to be “the other”, or “niche interest” and we passively give non-marginalised people a pass on caring about these issues, considering these issues real or even knowing these issues exist.

This deliberate separation of marginalised characters, marginalised issues and marginalised stories to “niche” or “separate” genres damages marginalised people by constantly casting us as Other, as unsuitable for mainstream consumption and generally making them less accessible - and less profitable and less numerous and with less diverse stories. But it also removes marginalised people from the vision of the “mainstream” - in fact, it creates a “mainstream”, a “normal” that doesn’t include marginalised people, their lives or their issues at all. It allows privileged people to look away, to dismiss, to ignore and - as we see time and again - throw epic tantrums when marginalised issues arise. It allows them to live in a bubble where these issues, these people, are rarely relevant, never important or even allowed to exist. At best it fosters a terrible ignorance and lack of empathy and at worst and outright hostility

This, thankfully, is changing, but the very resistance to this greater inclusion is proof why it needs to happen and why privileged people continuing to exist in these bubbles needs to stop.