You may recall YA fantasy author Malinda Lo's statistical breakdown of how many YA books have any LGBTQ characters, out of all YA fiction published in the USA in the last ten years. It turns out that it is a depressing 0.6%.

That 0.6% includes books in which the LGBTQ character is a minor supporting character.

As part her month-long blogging for YA Pride month, Malinda has once again crunched the numbers, this time for 2012, producing her trademark pie charts. The entire post is well worth reading, since she analyzes all sorts of things, but I'm pulling out her extrapolated percentage on YA fiction with LGBTQ characters for the year 2012: 1.6%.

1.6% includes anthologies with a few stories featuring LGBTQ characters, and the vast majority of the stories featuring straight characters. (11 of the total 55 books are anthologies.)

Of the total 1.6% of all YA fiction, 70% is mainstream/realistic, and only 30% fantasy/sf. Someone more mathematically minded than me will have to do a breakdown on what percentage of the total that is.

During the month, Malinda had a number of interviews with authors. The majority of them hadn't had much or any difficulty getting their books published. This was quite different from the experience of the authors who came forward during Yes Gay YA, and I wondered why a) there was such a split, b) why, if so many authors had no trouble, there were still so few books being published.

I have some ideas.

1. Fantasy vs. Mainstream

Most of the authors who came forward during Yes Gay YA to say that editors or agents had required or requested them to change their character's sexual orientation, race, disability, or gender (so the romance would be straight) were authors of fantasy or science fiction. Most of the authors Malinda interviews who had no issues with that were writing realistic fiction.

This is borne out by the statistics: of the tiny percentage of LGBTQ YA fiction being published at all, 70% is realistic.

I think that sf/fantasy YA publishing has more of a problem with LGBTQ characters than does realistic publishing. And I don't think it's because the former is more homophobic.

My theory is that historically in YA publishing, being a member of a minority is seen as a "problem." Characters who are not white, straight, able-bodied, Christian, etc, most commonly turned up in "problem books," in which the story is about how much prejudice you face and how hard it is to non-white, Jewish, disabled, gay, etc.

Fantasy, however, is perceived as escapist fun. Even dark dystopias are seen as an escape from real-world problems. If your identity is itself perceived as a problem, then you cannot be the hero of a fantasy novel.

Hence, the never-ending whitewashing of fantasy novels with protagonists of color. I don't think that's caused by someone thinking, "I hate black people! Make her white!" I think it's a combination of the thought that readers are racist and won't buy the book if the hero is accurately depicted, and the thought that if a person of color is on the cover, readers looking for fantasy will incorrectly perceive it as a novel about how much racism sucks, and not buy it.

Therefore, LGBTQ characters are an easier sell to the mainstream, because they fit into a pre-established genre. (Even if the actual books don't really fit it. Many don't.)

2. Books About Being Gay vs. Books with Gay Protagonists

This is often a matter of focus. You could write a book about a lesbian ballet dancer who faces homophobia, and have it primarily be about the struggle against homophobia, or her slow realization of her sexual orientation, or her romance with another dancer, or her obsessive drive to succeed.

My guess is that books with minority protagonists are the easiest sell if they can be perceived and marketed as primarily about the experience of being a minority. (Even if not about the problem of being a minority.) Lots of people do want to read about that experience, because it's their own experience. You can openly advertise the content, and the people who want to read it will buy it. It's irrelevant if people who don't have that identity ignore the books, because they're not the market.

Books which are not primarily about the experience of being a minority, but have a minority protagonist, are probably a harder sell. In theory, they could appeal to anyone who likes that particular story. Scott Tracey's Witch Eyes, for instance, is a paranormal romance with a gay protagonist, not a novel about the experience of being gay while having paranormal experiences.

However, publishers often believe, correctly or not, that people who like that genre in general but are not specifically interested in gay themes - a larger group than the group of readers specifically looking for a "gay experience" book - will refuse to buy the book if the hero is gay. Then they feel like they're losing most of their potential audience. And so they ask, as Tracey has stated he was asked, for the gender or sexual orientation of the protagonist to be changed.

Ironically, the more a book has the perceived potential to appeal to an audience which does not match the identity of the protagonist, the more difficulty the author may have selling it as written.

3. Who Got Interviewed?

Malinda interviewed authors who sold their books. The authors who got so much pushback that they gave up or self-published did not get interviewed, because she never heard of them. The entire publication process selects against books which get the most resistance, and for books which get the least.

(This cuts both ways: Sherwood and I specifically asked for authors who had experienced pushback regarding their characters' identities to come forward, so we were selecting for the people with that experience.)

Many books are rejected for being bad. But I find it very hard to believe that, out of all submissions, the books with LGBTQ characters are so much worse than the books with straight characters that 99% of all published books are the latter.

NOTE: None of this, obviously, applies to publishers who solely or primarily publish LGBTQ books. This is about the rest of the publishers.

Discuss! Argue! Theorize! Go to Malinda's blog and check out her complete list of all LGBTQ YA published this year!
If any of you have time and have been following Yes Gay YA, can you please do me a favor?

1. Go through the comments to the Genreville article, and pull links to particularly notable comments, with a note saying what they are. In particular, we'd like direct links to all the comments from authors who experienced similar problems with agents or editors.

ETA: [personal profile] tool_of_satan did the Genreville comments. Thank you!

2. Link me to particularly notable/interesting articles and blog posts. Again, we're particularly interested in others with similar experiences.

3. Ditto, with Twitter. Any kind of general summary of notable Twitter conversations would be great.

Thanks!

This is for a follow-up article Sherwood and I will be writing, probably next week.
I've been Boing Boinged, and Tweeted, and received a great many wonderful, supportive messages. Thank you, and please forgive me if I'm a little slow to respond to messages over the next few days. I have been deluged.

More importantly, people are speaking out about their experiences and feelings. Please don't let this be a one-time moment of passion, but follow up with substantive action.

I personally commit to making a special point of buying, reading, and reviewing YA sff with protagonists who are LGBTQ and/or people of color and/or disabled, over the next year and into the years to come. (An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with main or major LGBTQ characters is available here, with links to Amazon. An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part I: Author surnames from A – L. An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part II: Author surnames from M – Z.)

What do you plan to do?

ETA: I really like this agent's non-discrimination statement, from Eddie Schneider on the Jabberwocky Literary Agency website:

"Special note:

Since it still needs (and may always need) to be spelled out, please note I will happily consider queries by persons, or featuring protagonists, of any race, color, creed, religion, national citizenship/origin, gender or sexual orientation, disability, age, or physical appearance. Further, I will not attempt to editorially limit the presence of characters in any of the above in order to sell a project, and will support any client who feels discriminated against by a publisher or editor because of such status, in the hopefully unlikely event that this might occur."
[livejournal.com profile] tool_of_satan sent me a few Matthew Scudder novels as part of a giant package, thanks Dan, and after gobbling them down in a sitting, I ran to the library, checked out more, and read those. Then, as if I had eaten too much junk food, I felt vaguely nauseated.

When I was in high school, I enjoyed Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” novels, light-as-a-bubble capers featuring a gentleman jewel thief and a lot of banter. The Matthew Scudder novels are much darker, and I think I only read one or two of those.

Scudder is an alcoholic private eye, first actively drinking and later a sober member of AA. The portrayal of addiction and the work of sobriety is convincing and thoughtful, and that and mortality are the main and best themes of the series. Block’s dialogue is smooth, stylized, and often witty, and the prose and pacing give each book that hard-to-put-down quality.

Unfortunately, after reading a bunch in a row, I became increasingly put-off by the characters, both major and minor: minor characters for being stereotypical, and major characters for being sexist, racist, and smug. I am ninety percent sure that Matt and Elaine are not meant to come across as sexist, racist, and smug, but read enough of the books in a short enough period of time and they do.

These sorts of crime novels have limited roles for characters: criminals, cops, colorful local color, victims, detectives, friends and associates of the detectives, and people who are interviewed by the detectives. But given that, there’s no reason for, say, women to only appear as hookers but never as hackers.

I read about six in a row, so these links are not exhaustive: Eight Million Ways To Die: A Matthew Scudder Mystery, Everybody Dies (Matthew Scudder Mysteries).

Pimps, hookers, criminals, victims, and white men )

This rant could have so easily been avoided. If Block had even, for instance, thrown in a couple black cops, a tough woman or two, and avoided the "racism = wit" and the horrendous "I will make my female and black characters voice my own sexist and racist opinions" stuff, I would undoubtedly still be reading these books and have even recced them to people who like that kind of thing.

It’s too bad. In many ways Block is a very fine craftsman. I hope that the Burglar books would hold up better – I seem to recall women having more active roles in them – but I’m scared to check.

ETA: Spoilers for latest Burglar book in comments.
I will participate by doing a mini-challenge based on 50 Books POC. For the entire week, every day I will post a new review of a book by a non-white author. If I don't have time for books, I will fill in with manga, manhwa, or other comics. If anyone feels like doing this too, I would be thrilled to read more reviews!

How to participate in IBARW:

Announce the week in your blog.

Post about race and/or racism: in media, in life, in the news, personal experiences, writing characters of color, portrayals of race in fiction, review a book on the subject, etc. (Linking back here is highly appreciated!) The optional theme this year is "global."

Let us know by bookmarking your post on Delicious with "for:ibarw," or comment with a link to your post in one of the link-collecting posts.

See [livejournal.com profile] ibarw for more details.

Writers of Color 50 Book Challenge ([livejournal.com profile] 50books_poc) - "Basically, we just want people to read works by authors of color. We’re pretty open to any degree of participation that furthers that end. We don't even care which books you read, so long as they're written by authors of color. Seriously, you can read fun books. Easy books. Books that make you happy. Books that get your kink on. They just have to be by authors of color."
rachelmanija: (Blog Against Racism: Sakura)
( Jul. 23rd, 2009 11:00 am)
As you're probably all aware, the depiction of characters of color/non-white characters as white on book covers and film adaptations is a pervasive problem in America. (Very likely in other majority-white countries as well, but the USA situation is the one I'm familiar with.)

Just a few of the many examples of this include the film adaptation of the TV show Avatar. In the show, all the characters are Asian. In the movie, the villain is Asian and all the heroes are white.

In Ursula K. LeGuin's book A Wizard of Earthsea, all the characters except for a few minor villains are dark-skinned. In the TV movie, all but one wise mentor are white.

Until quite recently, Octavia Butler's novels, which feature black protagonists, were stuck with white folk on the covers.

Most recently of all, YA fantasy author Justine Larbalestier wrote a book with a black protagonist. The cover depicts a white girl.

Justine has a good explanation of exactly what's wrong with this. But in short, refusing to depict protagonists of color says that people of color are a shameful thing to be hidden and concealed, not heroes to showcase. This is despicable.

Authors do not have any control over the covers of their books. In many cases, they are not even consulted. If they do protest, they are almost always overruled, unless they have the stature of Stephen King.

However, protests can be directed to the publishers, who do control what the covers look like. The publisher of Larbalestier's book is Bloomsbury. They can be contacted here: http://www.bloomsburyusa.com/contact

ETA: Looks like more direct contacts are Deb Shapiro and Melanie Cecka at
deb.shapiro@bloomsburyusa.com and melanie.cecka@bloomsburyusa.com.

It is true that covers are often inaccurate in ways that do not involve race. However, especially in the world of fantasy, the depiction of heroes as color as white people is a pervasive pattern of racism. Can you think of a single example of a white hero depicted as non-white on a book cover? I can't.

I also note that while all of Justine's books have protagonists of color, not a single one of her novel covers depicts a character of color.

ETA: Except for the hardcover edition of How to Ditch Your Fairy.
rachelmanija: (Default)
( May. 16th, 2009 12:00 pm)
I'm an Old-Skool Trek fan, one of the ones for whom shirtless, sweaty Sulu with a fencing foil was a pivotal moment in my sexual development.

I mostly adored the new movie, and would see it again with great pleasure. Spock was awesome: interestingly different from Nimoy's character, but still convincingly Spock. The movie's main pairing was Spock/Uhura, which I would have never thought of in a million years but which was sweet and hot and mature and awesome. Actually, for me the movie was all about Spock, Spock/Uhura, and Uhura, and all else was gravy.

But I was sad at its demonstration of exactly how far movies haven't come in terms of equality since the original Trek. The original series was progressive for its time in many ways: it had American primetime TV's first interracial kiss (though aliens made them do it), it had Sulu and Uhura on the bridge, and it had a sympathetic Russian character when Russia was America's top enemy.

And, of course, in many ways it wasn't progressive at all: women were love interests, moms, or telephone operators, didn't get to kick ass unless they were evil, and were all stuck in miniskirts. The attempts to deal directly with racism and other social issues were well-meant but also awful and anvillicious.

The new movie preserved virtually all the ways in which the original was sexist and blinkered, and additionally failed to be progressive for our time.

Much as I loved Uhura and her relationship with Spock, every single significant female character in the entire movie was either a mom or a love interest. Women still don't get to command or kick ass. And they're all still stuck in the ridiculous miniskirt uniforms, and mostly looked vastly uncomfortable in them. Every woman on the bridge seemed to be telepathically projecting, "Please God don't let the camera see up my skirt."

The point of Chekhov in the original was not that he had a funny accent. It was that he was a proud citizen of a country that, at time of airing, was America's # 1 enemy. The modern USA equivalent of Chekhov would not be Chekhov, but a crew member from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Gay, bi, lesbian, and/or transsexual crew members would also be progressive for our time. Of course there were none.

I'm sure the writers and director justified all this as being faithful to the original. In fact, it's selectively faithful. Without getting too spoilery, there are textually justified departures from the original, plus more that are there without being explained.

The original series had more female crew members. The movie chose not to include Yeoman Rand or Christine Chapel, let alone Number One. (Since Rand's actual job duties were unclear, at least to me, on the original series, they could have put her in security. Her shirt would still be red!)

The characters aren't identical to the originals. Chekhov looks nothing like Original!Chekhov. Kirk has a very different background. Spock is a different take on Spock. Spock and Uhura weren't romantically involved in the original. Romulans in this movie don't look at all like Original!Romulans. Basically, the filmmakers decided to change the things that they thought would be fun and cool to change, and decided to keep the (mostly sexist) elements that they thought would be fun and cool to keep.

Anyway, like I said, I did enjoy the movie very much. I critique because I love: because I want to imagine myself part of that world. What always bothered me as a kid watching reruns of the original was that a girl like me would have no place on the Enterprise. Forty years later, I still wouldn't.
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Mar. 7th, 2009 12:42 pm)
For those of you who don't see why any of this matters, please read these (heartbreaking, to me) posts: closing a door, softly,
operating in hostile territory.

For those of you either baffled by the calls for sf pros to take a stand or who feel that requests for statements of position are McCarthy-like, there are two things that shed light on that for me, neither of which were part of the current discussion.

One is a beautifully written blog post off LJ: ...white friends who don’t understand race and all it’s implications may hurt you deeply, consciously or unconsciously. It’s not about a friend you’ve hung out with for years one day turning on you and yelling a racial epithet or trying to beat you up or anything of that nature. No, it’s about the smaller things. As my friend and housemate Jackie put it “People can die by a thousand cuts.” and it’s much more painful that way.

The other is that, in my experience, for a woman to discover how her male friends, relatives, and/or significant others define rape is typically not a happy or comforting moment.

In light of those experiences and the societal racism and sexism that cause them, it does not surprise me that some people want to know who considers their experiences and feelings and lives important, and who doesn't.
...my problem with the entire question of tone and courtesy is that it's typically only applied one way: people of color/non-white people who are angry about racism are told to watch their tone and be more polite.

It reminds me of how women angry about sexism are told that they're being shrill and strident, and men would listen to them if they were more polite and phrased it better. I say that not to compare oppressions, but to say that the mechanisms of socialization work in some eerily similar ways to maintain oppressive power structures: Speaking up for your rights is rude. Telling people who are being kicked from corner to post that it's their own fault nobody's listening, because they're not saying it right, is normal and polite.

The question of "personal attacks" is also applied and seen in a similarly skewed manner. When a person of color says, "Hey, so-and-so said a racist thing," they're seen as making a personal attack. When a white person says, "You're not smart enough for your opinion to count," they're seen as arguing the issues.

The burden of being polite and impersonal - in a matter that affects people's everyday lives on a profoundly personal level - is placed on the backs of the people who have to cope with the oppression in real life. And the people who are at the top of the power structure are the ones who get to be perceived as being polite and nice, when the substance of what they're actually saying - your opinions don't count, you're not educated enough to have a valid opinion, you're too educated to have a valid opinion, we don't want you - is neither nice nor polite.

These are not my original ideas, just my phrasing. I have seen this argument made many, many times by people of color. And also by white women. And also by GLBT people. A much more detailed explanation here, including the point that no tone is ever good enough.
If you've missed the huge conversation/imbroglio on LJ right now, [livejournal.com profile] rydra_wong has an excellent compilation of links.

In that but also in similar conversations and imbroglios in the past, online, offline, and in print, I have noticed several catch-phrases which invariably offend. Sometimes they seem to be used with that intent. I also realize that people may hear a phrase and repeat it without realizing its connotations and that it will make people go supernova.

For instance, I did not realize until this election cycle that the word "articulate," which sounds complimentary, has a history of being used as a descriptor for African-American men to imply, among other insulting things, that it's shocking and amazing that they can articulate words at all. So it's not a good word to describe how impressed you are with Barack Obama's excellent speech-making skills.

Personally, I would rather know about that sort of thing than not know. If I am going to insult someone, I want to do it on purpose rather than accidentally. So here are some specific phrases which, once you've finished reading this post, you will know are insulting, whether always or in certain contexts.

Note: I am not attempting to speak for people of color (POC), but only for myself, a white woman. Please feel free to let me know if there's anything in here you'd like to correct because, seriously? I'd rather know than continue in ignorance.

Also, please note that I did not originate any of this. Everything I'm pointing out was pointed out to me or in my presence, generally by people of color. The only reason I'm not citing is because I've heard it so many times, including offline, that I can't recall specific instances.

Cut for probable lack of interest by POC in topics they probably already know extremely well, such as the obnoxiousness of the invocation of purple people and damned writers )
I realize that there are very serious issues going on here. But the sight of William Sanders digging himself in deeper and deeper has reached the point now, with his attempt at extorting money for the privelege of getting stories off his website, that it's also quite hilarious. He doesn't seem to have hit fandom wank yet, but he really should. Fandom wank was made for William Sanders.

PS. For the benefit of those not following the story, William Sanders edits an sf magazine called "Helix." He recently rejected a story in a letter which fulminated against Muslims in a crazy, offensive, bigoted, and totally unprofessional and also rabidly nutty manner. The author posted it. Outraged ensued. Several writers asked to remove their stories from the website. Sanders responded by writing them crazy, offensive, bigoted, and totally unprofessional and also rabidly nutty letters. (Paraphrase: "Your story sucked! I only published it because you're Asian-American! Neener neener dumpling!")

Then he demanded that they all pay him $ 40 if they wanted their stories gone. Context can be found via [livejournal.com profile] yhlee, [livejournal.com profile] ktempest, [livejournal.com profile] coffeeandink, and many more.

PPS. I shouldn't even have to say this, but don't even bother saying that Sanders was referring to terrorists, not Muslims in general. "Sheetheads" is an offensive religious and/or racial epithet even if he was referring specifically to terrorists (a defense which Nick Mamatas neatly debunks somewhere which I've lost.) For example, if you refer to Jews as "kikes," it is not a defense to say, "But I only meant that one Jew who held up a bank!" Even in that context, it is still a bigoted slur.
It seems that yet again, a major sf anthology is coming out in which all but one contributor is male, and all are white.

Arguments over market forces, subconscious and unconscious racism and sexism, affirmative action, the personal guilt of any given person vs the collective guilt of society, and the vagaries of fate as they pertain to putting together an anthology may be made elsewhere; there are lots of venues! If you wish to argue those issues, here or here would be good places.

What I would like to do here is a little different. I am not sure whether some editors really are unaware of the existence of many female writers and/or writers of color, or whether they merely claim to be. But let's make it easy for them, shall we?

Here is a convenient post listing current authors of gender and/or color who have been known to write sf and/or fantasy and/or magic realism short stories. Editors, should be uncertain whom to solicit to get fantastic stories that are not by white guys (sorry, white guys!), just check the post and comments here, and then feed the names into google. I am certain that many of the authors will be pleased to hear from you.

One could also email the list to any editors whom one happens to know are putting together anthologies. Just a thought.

Off the top of my head: Sherman Alexie, Steven Barnes, Elizabeth Bear, Holly Black, Lois McMaster Bujold, Emma Bull, Pat Cadigan, Suzy McKee Charnas, C. J. Cherryh, Ted Chiang, Susannah Clarke, Pamela Dean, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Diane Duane, Tananarive Due, Doris Egan, Jewelle Gomez, Barbara Hambly, Nalo Hopkinson, Nicola Griffith, Diana Wynne Jones, Nancy Kress, Ellen Kushner, Tanith Lee, Yoon Ha Lee, Ursula K. LeGuin, Megan Lindholm, Kelly Link, Marjorie Liu, Sarah Monette, Elizabeth Moon, Haruki Murakami, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Tamora Pierce, Nisi Shawl, janni Lee Simner, Vandana Singh, Sherwood Smith, Megan Whalen Turner, Jo Walton, Leslie What, Connie Willis, Jane Yolen, Banana Yoshimoto.

(Yeah, yeah, good luck getting Yoshimoto or Murakami, but what a coup if you did!)

Please check my list before you suggest more, so we don't overlap.
Found in Mariposa on the counter of a general store; I have no idea where the deli is, but presumably elsewhere in Mariposa.)

[Poll #881926]
This is Part II of a post on casting. Please take a look at Part I if you haven't read it already, as I will refer back to it.

Today I’m looking at the different types of stories, and how the type of story interacts with the type of casting. Again, I am specifically discussing visual media, though some of the issues are applicable to the written word as well.

I am assuming here that a multiracial cast is a desirable outcome. This does not mean that a monoracial cast is necessarily bad. Some types of stories and settings demand them: most of August Wilson’s gorgeous black history cycle, for instance, or a movie set somewhere where absolutely everyone is white, perhaps a small town in Utah. However, for the purposes of the discussion, I’m going to assume that we’re talking about works that don’t fall into those categories. (If the race of every character is essential to the story and written into the script, there are no race-related casting decisions to discuss.)

I am also not going to attempt to cover every possible type of story, just a few that highlight particular issues in casting.

Remember what I wrote about choice? That every single tiny detail in a TV show, play, or movie was the result of someone's (usually the director's) conscious choice to put it there? That every detail has a reason for existing, and is supposed to convey something to the audience?

That goes for casting too. Actors are cast very deliberately, to convey qualities that the director wants to be conveyed. The way they look is a big part of that, as is the way they speak and the audience's prior knowledge of them. (Some roles play off of a star's existing image; some roles are cast with an unknown so the audience will have no preconceived notions about the actor, but will only see the role.) So when you see a movie that is entirely white when nothing in the script demands that, it's because someone decided to make it that way. If you see a movie that is multiracial, it's because someone decided to make it that way.

Contemporary dramas, historicals, remakes of old racist stories, and fantasy and sf )
Welcome to International Blog Against Racism Week!

If you would like to participate, here's what to do:

1. Announce the week in your blog.

2. Switch your default icon to either an official IBAS icon, or one which you feel is appropriate. To get an official IBAS icon, you may modify one of yours yourself or ask someone to do so, or ask [livejournal.com profile] oyceter to do so as she has agreed to make a custom one for everyone who asks, or go to her LJ and take one of the general-use ones she put up.

3. Post about race and/or racism: in media, in life, in the news, personal experiences, writing characters of a race that isn't yours, portrayals of race on TV, review a book on the subject, etc.

Basically, the idea is that by fostering open discussion right now, future discussions will be less fraught and everyone will feel more comfortable talking about the subject.

There are a number of discussions going on at the moment regarding the portrayal of race in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I cannot comment on that movie, because I haven’t seen it. This post is about multicultural casting in general, by which I mean both the issue of writing roles for and casting minorities (as opposed to not writing about and casting them), and how doing so may or may not be done in a stereotypical manner.

My intent is to demystify the process by which dramatic media (plays, TV shows, and theatre) end up with the casts that they end up with, and in which minority actors end up playing memorable and unique characters, or are forgotten in the background, or play embarrassing stereotypes.

Once I get past the introduction and begin to discuss methods of casting, I will touch upon all the relevant issues: artistic, practical, and political.

(I will discuss similar issues in prose fiction in a different post.)

This is a subject which is quite complex and interesting, both artistically and politically, but which tends to generate discussions in which more heat than light is shed. However, I hope we can get past our natural defensiveness regarding a touchy subject, and actually talk about the issues at hand without insulting each other or resorting to straw-man arguments like, “You’re saying that a movie is racist unless 51% of the cast is black.”

I have faith that all my regular readers can do that. However, posts on touchy subjects tend to attract drive-by commenters. In the Pirates debate, I was particularly startled by several totally non-sequitor anti-Semitic remarks like it's like some of the Jewish people thinking that all white people are neo nazi supremecists because EVERYTHING in some way comes back to anti-semitism. and our teacher was so Jewish even the Jewish kids thought she was weird. Not to mention the astonishing display of chutzpah by the latter commenter, who attempted to prove that she was not only not racist, but had been oppressed more than anyone ever, by claiming that her ancestors had been oppressed by slaves.

Given that, let me give fair warning to anyone who might drive by: any comments along those lines will not be deleted, but will be mercilessly mocked and preserved for all eternity, so little children who pass by will cry out, “Dear God, what is that thing?!”

Before I start, I will address a couple of points in advance, as they will certainly be brought up in comments if I don’t, and they tend to drown out discussion of more interesting issues.

(Note that I am mostly referring to American media, because that's what I'm most familiar with. The default for a hero in India, say, is not a white man, but an Indian man. If you are not American, please mentally substitute locally discriminated-against groups where appropriate. Also, while I am primarily talking about racial minorities, much of this is also applicable to women and non-racial minorities.)

1. Why should a movie have to put in a minority actor, solely for the sake of having a minority?

Why should the default be that everyone is white? Seriously: why?

If the story is intended to be realistic, most places and eras were not entirely white; if the story is fantasy, then why must an entirely made-up world be inhabited solely by white people?

2. Movies and TV are just entertainment. Please don’t ruin my light entertainment by forcing it to make a political statement by casting minority actors.

Why should entertainment be any less entertaining because there are minority actors onscreen?

Why shouldn’t minority audiences be able to enjoy light and fluffy entertainment that shows people like them, and isn’t spoiled for them by the inclusion of insulting stereotypes about them?

Finally, racial stereotypes, like non-racial stereotypes, are boring and predictable. If you avoid them, your work will be more entertaining, not less.

3. If you’re white and you write about minorities, you get criticized for stereotyping. If you leave them out, you get criticized for that. You can’t win!

Yes, this is a touchy area. Minority writers also get criticized no matter what they do. (If a minority writer writes about her own group, she may be criticized for making them look bad, or look unrealistically good, or by failing to address every possible angle, or of locking herself into a ghetto. If she doesn’t write about her own group, then she’s contributing to the lack of portrayals of that group.) Also, no matter how well anyone writes, they will get at least one bad review. No one is immune from criticism, nor should expect to be.

But if you make a good-faith effort to be inclusive and not be stereotypical, some people will appreciate it. Also, you will be helping to change the climate that causes so much criticism. A big reason why roles for minorities attract disproportionate criticism is that minorities are disproportionately underrepresented onscreen. Write more good minority roles, and eventually the sheer mass of them will cause each individual one to be less weighted.

4. But the movie just happened to be cast that way. No one sat down and decided to be racist, it just coincidentally happened that the Jewish characters were all greedy, the Hispanic ones all spoke in bad English, the Asians were sexless geeks, and the white characters were articulate, smart, sexy, and heroic!

It is quite possible that no one decided to be racist. However, movies do not descend from Heaven, untouched by human hands.

Every single thing in a movie is there because someone decided to put it there, and they decided to put it there for a reason. The choice to put a vase of flowers on the table, the choice to make them roses, the choice to make the roses red: there was a reason for all of that, whether thematic, plot-related, character-related, or because they harmonized visually with the heroine’s dress. And a human being also deliberately chose to either write in characters of a certain ethnicity, or cast them that way.

Now, it may be that no one thought of the implications of the greedy Jews, etc. Maybe they made the Jews greedy because of an unconscious assumption that Jews are greedy, not an active hatred of Jews. Or maybe they live under a rock and had never heard that Jews are frequently stereotyped as moneygrubbers. However, the result is the same. This is why it’s good to be aware of the implications of the choices we make. If we don’t ever question our assumptions, we may end up making statements we don’t mean to make, and be boring and stereotypical to boot.

(This doesn’t mean that you can never write a Jewish character who’s greedy, but that you should be aware that it’s a stereotype and have a reason for doing it anyway, and execute that reason well.)

5. What, I’m not allowed to enjoy anything unless it passes a political correctness litmus test?

Not at all. It is perfectly legitimate to have differing opinions on whether or not a work is racist or otherwise offensive, unless it’s something like Mein Kampf.

Also, we all love works which contain opinions or representations that we disagree with, whether it’s film noir where every woman is either an evil whore or an innocent victim, or a charming romantic comedy with a bit of vicious anti-Semitism thrown in as comic relief. It is perfectly possible to love a work and still be capable of seeing and discussing flaws in it, whether those flaws are artistic or political.

I will now discuss several different methods of casting, with particular reference to the various iterations of Star Trek.

Black Klingons, Asian Computer Geeks, and Lt. Al Giardello )
For those of you who haven't been reading the journals in question, there is a conversation going on that started with a post about a panel on cultural appropriation at Wiscon, and spun into a number of heated debates circulating around that and related topics. Here's a round-up of links.

Cut for people who are sick of all this. Contains juicy details of how casting is done for American TV.

Read more... )
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