Posts Tagged ‘Commentary’

And lo, in the leadup to Christmas, because it has been A Year and 2016 is evidently not content to go quietly into that good night, there has come the requisite twitter shitshow about diversity in YA. Specifically: user @queen_of_pages (hereinafter referred to as QOP) recently took great exception to teenage YouTube reviewer Whitney Atkinson acknowledging the fact that white and straight characters are more widely represented in SFF/YA than POC and queer characters, with bonus ad hominem attacks on Atkinson herself. As far as I can make out, the brunt of QOP’s ire hinges on the fact that Atkinson discusses characters with specific reference to various aspects of their identity – calling a straight character straight or a brown character brown, for instance – while advocating for greater diversity. To quote QOP:

[Atkinson] is separating races, sexuality and showing off her white privilege… she wants diversity so ppl need to be titled by their race, disability or sexuality. I want them to be titled PEOPLE… I’m Irish. I’ve been oppressed but I don’t let it separate me from other humans.

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

Listen. I could rant, at length, about the grossness of a thirtysomething woman, as QOP appears to be, insulting a nineteen year old girl about her appearance and lovelife for any reason, let alone because of something she said about YA books on the internet. I could point out the internalised misogyny which invariably underlies such insults – the idea that a woman’s appearance is somehow inherently tied to her value, such that calling her ugly is a reasonable way to shut down her opinions at any given time – or go into lengthy detail about the hypocrisy of using the term “white privilege” (without, evidently, understanding what it means) while complaining in the very same breath about “separating races”. I could, potentially, say a lot of things.

But what I want to focus on here – the reason I’m bothering to say anything at all – is QOP’s conflation of mentioning race with being racist, and why that particular attitude is both so harmful and so widespread.

Like QOP, I’m a thirtysomething person, which means that she and I grew up in the same period, albeit on different continents. And what I remember from my own teenage years is a genuine, quiet anxiety about ever raising the topic of race, because of the particular way my generation was taught about multiculturalism on the one hand and integration on the other. Migrant cultures were to be celebrated, we were told, because Australian culture was informed by their meaningful contributions to the character of our great nation. At the same time, we were taught to view Australian culture as a monoculture, though it was seldom expressed as baldly as that; instead, we were taught about the positive aspects of cultural assimilation. Australia might benefit from the foods and traditions migrants brought with them, this logic went, but our adoption of those things was part of a social exchange: in return for our absorption of some aspects of migrant culture, migrants were expected to give up any identity beyond Australian and integrate into a (vaguely homogeneous) populace. Multiculturalism was a drum to beat when you wanted to praise the component parts that made Australia great, but suggesting those parts were great in their own right, or in combinations reflective of more complex identities? That was how you made a country weaker.

Denying my own complicity in racism at that age would be a lie. I was surrounded by it in much the same way that I was surrounded by car fumes, a toxic thing taken into the body unquestioning without any real understanding of what it meant or was doing to me internally. At my first high school, two of my first “boyfriends” (in the tweenage sense) were POC, as were various friends, but because race was never really discussed, I had no idea of the ways in which it mattered: to them, to others, to how they were judged and treated. The first time I learned anything about Chinese languages was when one of those early boyfriends explained it in class. I remember being fascinated to learn that Chinese – not Mandarin or Cantonese: the distinction wasn’t referenced – was a tonal language, but I also recall that the boy himself didn’t volunteer this information. Instead, our white teacher had singled him out as the only Chinese Australian present and asked him to explain his heritage: she assumed he spoke Chinese, and he had to explain that he didn’t, not fluently, though he still knew enough to satisfy her question. That exchange didn’t strike me as problematic at the time, but now? Now, it bothers me.

At my second high school, I was exposed to more overt racism, not least because it was a predominantly white, Anglican private school, as opposed to the more diversely populated public school I’d come from. As an adult, I’m ashamed to think how much of it I let pass simply because I didn’t know what to say, or because I didn’t realise at the time now noxious it was. Which isn’t to say I never successfully identified racism and called it out – I was widely perceived as the token argumentative lefty in my white male, familially right-wing friend group, which meant I spent a lot of time excoriating them for their views about refugees – but it wasn’t a social dealbreaker the way it would be now. The fact that I had another friend group that was predominantly POC – and where, again, I was the only girl – meant that I also saw people discussing their own race for the first time, forcing me to examine the question more openly than before.

Even so, it never struck me as anomalous back then that whereas the POC kids discussed their own identities in terms of race and racism, the white kids had no concept of their whiteness as an identity: that race, as a concept, informed their treatment of others, but not how they saw themselves. The same boys who joked about my biracial crush being a half-caste and who dressed up as “terrorists” in tea robes and tea towels for our final year scavenger hunt never once talked about whiteness, or about being white, unless it was in specific relation to white South African students or staff members, of which the school historically had a large number. (The fact that we had no POC South African students didn’t stop anyone from viewing “white” as a necessary qualifier: vocally, the point was always to make clear that, when you were talking about South Africans, you didn’t mean anyone black.)

Which is why, for a long time, the topic of race always felt fraught to me. I had no frame of reference for white people discussing race in a way that wasn’t saturated with racism, which made it easy to conflate the one with the other. More than that, it had the paradoxical effect of making any reference to race seem irrelevant: if race was only ever brought up by racists, why mention it at all? Why not just treat everyone equally, without mentioning what made them different? I never committed fully to that perspective, but it still tempted me – because despite all the racism I’d witnessed, I had no real understanding of how its prevalence impacted individuals or groups, either internally or in terms of their wider treatment.

My outrage about the discriminatory treatment of refugees ought to have given me some perspective on it, but I wasn’t insightful enough to make the leap on my own. At the time, detention centres and boat people were the subject of constant political discourse: it was easy to make the connection between things politicians and their supporters said about refugees and how those refugees were treated, because that particular form of cause and effect wasn’t in question. The real debate, such as it was, revolved around whether it mattered: what refugees deserved, or didn’t deserve, and whether that fact should change how we treated them. But there were no political debates about the visceral upset another boyfriend, who was Indian, felt at knowing how many classmates thought it was logical for him to date the only Indian girl in our grade, “because we both have melanin in our skins”. (I’ve never forgotten him saying that, nor have I forgotten the guilt I felt at knowing he was right. The two of them ran in completely different social circles, had wildly different personalities and barely ever interacted, and yet the expectation that they’d end up dating was still there, still discussed.) I knew it was upsetting to him, and I knew vaguely that the assumption was racist in origin, but my own privilege prevented me from understanding it as a microaggression that was neither unique to him nor the only one of its kind that he had to deal with. I didn’t see the pattern.

One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see to their deeper cultural meaning. This is why so many white people get pissed off at jokes about suburban dads who can’t barbecue or soccer moms with Can I Speak To The Manager haircuts: far too many of us have never bothered to introspect on our own sociocultural peculiarities, and so get uppity the second anyone else identifies them for us. At base, we’re just not used to considering whiteness as an identity in its own right unless we’re really saying not-black or acting like white supremacists – which means, in turn, that many of us conflate any open acknowledgement of whiteness with some truly ugly shit. In that context, whiteness is either an invisible, neutral default or a racist call to arms: there is no in between.

Which is why, returning to the matter of QOP and Whitney Atkinson, pro-diversity advocates are so often forced to contend with people who think that “separating races” and like identifiers – talking specifically about white people or disabled people or queer people, instead of just people – is equivalent to racism and bigotry. Whether they recognise it or not, they’re coming from a perspective that values diverse perspectives for what they bring to the melting pot – for how they help improve the dominant culture via successful assimilation – but not in their own right, as distinct and special and non-homogenised. In that context, race isn’t something you talk about unless you’re being racist: it’s rude to point out people’s differences, because those differences shouldn’t matter to their personhood. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t allow for the celebration of difference: instead, it codes “difference” as inequality, because deep down, the logic of cultural assimilation is predicated on the idea of Western cultural superiority. A failure or refusal to assimilate is therefore tantamount to a declaration of inequality: I’m not the same as you is understood as I don’t want to be as good as you, and if someone doesn’t want to be the best they can be (this logic goes) then either they’re stupid, or they don’t deserve the offer of equality they’ve been so generously extended in the first place.

Talking about race isn’t the same as racism. Asking for more diversity in YA and SFF isn’t the same as saying personhood matters less than the jargon of identity, but is rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, for many people, personhood is materially informed by their experience of identity, both in terms of self-perception and in how they’re treated by others at the individual, familial and collective levels. And thanks to various studies into the social impact of colour-blindness as an ideology, we already know that claiming not to see race doesn’t undo the problem of racism; it just means adherents fail to understand what racism actually is and what it looks like, even – or perhaps especially – when they’re the ones perpetuating it.

So, no, QOP: you can’t effectively advocate for diversity without talking in specifics about issues like race and sexual orientation. Want the tl:dr reason? Because saying I want more stories with PEOPLE in them isn’t actually asking for more than what we already have, and the whole point of advocating for change is that what we have isn’t enough. You might as well try and work to decrease the overall number of accidental deaths in the population without putting any focus on the specific ways in which people are dying. Generalities are inclusive at the macro level, but it’s specificity that gets shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.

 

 

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So far this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Broken Bird characters – and apparently, I’m not the only one. Why are they overwhelmingly women? What does their popularity say about our narrative-cultural obsession with romanticising damage, and particularly female damage? Is it possible to write Broken Birds without romanticising their trauma? Can we really say that most Broken Birds are strong female characters when the trope overwhelmingly rejects femininity? And why do such heroines abound in UF and PNR in particular?

It’s an issue I’ve had Feelings about for some time. I learned and fell in love with the trope as a teenager; which is to say, uncritically and before I knew there were words for the patterns I saw in stories, let alone how to apply them. I gravitated to Broken Birds so wholeheartedly that my own early writing is saturated with them. Unconsciously, I’ve built my whole understanding of narrative on a bedrock of Broken Birds – and that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because the logic of such characters is ultimately founded on the deeply problematic romanticising of damage.

No human being is perfect. As the tattooed left arm of a recent bus driver so eloquently proclaimed, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Even the most well-adjusted person has hang-ups, and as conflict drives stories, it only makes sense that drama and damage be omnipresent in narrative. Traumatic origins make for interesting reading, just as terrible occurrences make for good story-fodder. No matter how grand or intimate the scale of events, calamity and catastrophe stalk the pages of every novel – and rightly so. Small wonder, then, that we routinely exalt characters who rise above the horrors they’ve endured while still being influenced by them. Show us tormented souls struggling for redemption. Show us travel-weary nomads, battle-scarred warriors, guardians of grey areas and hard-boiled detectives. Show us heroes with pasts and antiheroes shackled by honour. Show us doctors who can’t heal themselves and untrusting cynics searching for love. Show us unseen scars and visible. Show us pain, and that pain is survivable.

But never forget that damage has a cost.

Romanticised damage is heroin chic for the soul: no matter how angry, hurt or soulful it looks,  its expression is ultimately constrained by glamour. Real damage is rampant, inconvenient and frequently unbeautiful. Romanticised damage self-medicates, but is never addicted; represses and explodes, but never unfixably; abuses friendships, but never beyond salvation; drinks, but never vomits or blacks out;  seeks self-destruction, but always nobly; hurts itself, but never others; expresses sarcasm, but never joy. On a fundamental level, romanticised damage is an expression of authorial image-consciousness: a limiting awareness of the fourth wall that shies away from having the protagonist behave irredeemably, lest their sympathetic status or morality thereinafter be called into question.

Which is, in a nutshell, how Broken Birds work. Their tortured pasts provoke a specific empathy that their darker impulses must never negate, in order that the one continue to justify the other. It’s a precisely calibrated balancing act that annoys the hell out of me, because – among other things, which we’ll get to – it effectively hardwires the character for emotional stasis. Too much healing, and they stop being broken, which nine times out of ten kills the narrative premise; too much distress, and the dysfunction stops being cute and starts looking villainous, or at best obscenely selfish. Both transitions are narratively workable, but Broken Birds are meant to be beautiful, haunting, troubled: if they can’t rescue themselves, we have to want them to be rescued; if they can rescue themselves, then they’re not broken; and if they can but don’t, then the reason – whether selfishness or stupidity – must render them less attractive, and therefore less birdlike.

Which is where we come back to our first two questions: why are most Broken Birds women, and what does that say about our obsession with female brokenness? By way of answer, I’m going to propose a radical notion: that damage has, narratively speaking, become the go-to justification for escapism.

Consider the following hypothetical premise: a successful, happy twentysomething with a loving family, interesting friends, a good career and a caring partner is suddenly drawn into a fascinating, chaotic and hitherto unknown world of action, adventure and intrigue. This world, however, is swiftly proven to be incompatible with living a normal life. Instantly, the question becomes: Which do they sacrifice? Who gets hurt? Obviously, narratively, we know they’re going to choose whatever this new world entails, because that’s the point – but even though we’re already gunning for a particular outcome, we still want the transition to be painless. This is why so many characters in YA novels are orphans, or have distant, absent or abusive parents: because when the action calls for them to leave home and face the forces of darkness – as it invariably will – we don’t want their loved ones to be injured by the choice. Even though we’ve already chosen a thousand times over in favour of quests, we still don’t want there to be a cost to starting them, because we don’t want to begin by thinking of our protagonist as a selfish, hurtful ass – which is what we, the reader, would be if we upped and left our comfortable life for one of thrills and adventure.

But damage excuses all that. If a character has nothing to lose by jumping headlong into their brave, new world – if nobody will miss them, or if they’re so broken that it excuses selfish decisions – then the usual cost is waived. The damage heaped on the characters is a way of alleviating not just their guilt at going, but our own for wanting it to be easy. For wanting to like them right from the outset.

For wanting to run away, too.

Because no matter what else they might achieve, stories with a new world component are always going to have escapist elements. Narratively, damage is used to justify that escape, to the point where trauma preceding adventure has long since become a cultural default. As a result, we readers absorb the pattern. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we connect damage with freedom; and that makes damage romantic, because it implies – however carelessly, however unintentionally – that the best way out of our everyday lives is to wait for them to implode. In the real world, enacting life-altering change takes extraordinary courage. Travel, changing careers, moving away from our loved ones, swapping partners, going on adventures, living wildly – none of this comes easy, or quickly, or free. But in stories, we can fantasise about all our responsibilities being taken away by fate, thus freeing us up to go on as many adventures as we like without ever having to justify wanting more than what we have.

And this is not a bad or unhealthy thing. The very attraction of ‘my life explodes and then I have adventures’ fantasies is that the vast majority of us never really expect – or, crucially, want – these things to happen. Their safety and entertainment value both stem from their supreme unlikelihood. We know we only get one life, and yet it’s human nature to want more than that; infinitely so. Stories, at their most fundamental level, exist to mitigate this knowledge. Like the third good fairy at Princess Aurora’s christening, we cannot alter this truth entirely, and so, instead, we soften it a little. Thus, like Aurora, instead of pricking our fingers and dying, we enter prolonged dream states and become Sleeping Beauty. We conjure up the ghosts of other existences so that we may live more, not less, continuing down internal roads when real ones are closed to us. Or, as Lewis Carroll put it:

Anon, to sudden silence won,

In fancy they pursue

The dream-child moving through a land

Of wonders wild and new,

In friendly chat with bird and beast —

And half believe it true.

But there is a world of difference between the offhand way we can treat with personal tragedy in our own private, escapist fantasies and the way we ought to treat them out loud, in reality, on paper. Because the thing we all know – the thing we must forget in order to dream our funny, broken, parallel lives – is that real trauma isn’t romantic. Without wanting to imply any necessary, absolute causation between an author’s personal experiences and the stories they write, I would suggest, as a matter of empathic intuition, that someone who has (for example) suffered the loss of their closest family members would be much less likely to casually include this fact in their protagonist’s backstory than someone for whom such personal grief remained purely hypothetical. Or, to put it another way: we respect such rights and losses as we have taught ourselves to respect, which is why good authors – or at the very least, well-intentioned ones – do research. If, on setting out to write a story, we can recognise our own cultural, sexual, historical and/or racial ignorance in areas relevant to our narrative, then why not acknowledge emotional ignorance, too?

In SFF, the simple answer is: because half the fun is making things up. If escapism is still the order of the day – if we can still tell stories where the culture, sexuality, history and races are imaginative extrapolations on the real – then why are emotions any different? And on the surface of things, that’s a fair point. I don’t have to think it’s plausible that a group of sheltered Hobbits from the Shire would find the courage to walk into the fires of Mount Doom in order to enjoy the story, because part of the willing suspension of disbelief inherent in the fictional act – and particularly in SFF – is accepting that, however rare such people might be in the real world, the majority of leading characters tend to be exceptional. Fiction is not like reality TV, shoving a metaphoric story-camera into the homes of ordinary folks in the hopes of striking an eventual dramatic jackpot. Instead, we have already decided our protagonists are different or special, because that is why we are there.

But the leeway this buys us is limited. Real-world causality must always apply to some extent, so that even if we’ve already decided the protagonist is exceptional, their actions still have to make sense. In order to create believable stories about imaginary cultures, races, gender relations and histories, the narrative has to be grounded in something familiar. And, while there’s no rulebook stating this has to be emotional content – which could easily prove impractical in stories about alien, hybrid or other inhuman characters  – more often than not, we mean it as a default. No matter how strange the society or how impossible the scenario, protagonists must still adhere to the rules of the world we’ve written them; and where we’ve left humanity as the default social setting, that means we have to understand their emotions.

Which is why romanticised damage comes off as an indicator of bad writing: even allowing for the fact that your mileage may vary, it still suggests a lack of emotional research; and as such damage is arguably a defining characteristic of Broken Birds, that puts them at a high risk for poor characterisation. To be clear: this is not a blanket attack on stories whose protagonists have traumatic pasts or origins or who continue to undergo suffering, for the simple reason that not all damage is romanticised. As a rule of thumb, romanticised damage is damage portrayed without realistically negative consequences, or whose consequences tend towards the protagonist being cursed with awesome. Such as, for instance, describing a character who has all the behavioural hallmarks of being an alcoholic without ever actually calling them one, or making them black out, or showing them throw up, or do anything but function at 110% while living almost entirely on hard liquor.

This is, I suspect, the main reason why Broken Birds abound in UF and PNR – or rather, the reason why Broken Birds in those genres stand out as being particularly problematic. Remembering the implied covenant of exceptional characters, it can be harder for readers to gauge how exceptional a protagonist situated in a sufficiently distant or fictitious setting actually is, comparatively speaking. If we don’t know anything about their world, its culture and history except what the story tells us, then the emotional narrative becomes something of a closed system: the only facts available to us are those the author chooses to relate, and unless some misstep of writing or characterisation makes us question that system’s integrity, then it only makes sense to accept what we’re told as true. If, on the other hand, a story is set in the present day – however altered by magic, weird technology or alternative history – then the system is automatically thrown open for comparison with our existing knowledge-base; and that’s where things get interesting. Because if the story fails to invoke the unquestioning sanctity of our private loss/escape fantasies – if we expect greater emotional verisimilitude from a published narrative than from our daydreams – then we can claim to know exactly how exceptional a character must be in order for us to believe in their survival.

And Broken Birds, by definition, are limited. Integral to their nature is the requirement of our sympathy: there are some lines they cannot cross, yet they must still be damaged and mangled by circumstance enough that the question of their doing so arises. This creates what I’ll call the Dark Side Shortfall: a contradiction between the negative emotional trajectory objectively suggested by their circumstances and the author’s desire to keep them looking beautiful. A successfully written Broken Bird is one where the writing, characterisation and worldbuilding are solid enough that this limitation never looks like a limitation, but rather the only natural course of events: one where we believe, despite the existence of the trope, that the character would always have made those choices. But if we suspect we are being shielded – if it feels as though the only reason our hero keeps faith is because the author wants them to – then Houston, we have a problem.

Which is where the gender card comes into play, because despite all the advances of feminism and equality, we still think it’s less acceptable for women to be made unbeautiful, whether physically or emotionally, than it is for men. The reason most Broken Birds are women is precisely because we’re more prone to limiting female characters than male, and especially when those limitations are designed to keep us sympathetic – and attracted – to the characters. This is not necessarily a conscious process, although it certainly can be. Rather, it’s a problem of lineage. The classic literary antihero is the hardboiled detective, who, when recombined the femme fatale, becomes the Broken Bird  – an incestuous bleeding together of noir’s most powerful archetypes. But unlike Blade, who inherited all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of his diametrically opposed parents, the Broken Bird is a creature of contradictions. From the detective, she takes strength, cunning and a certain maverick flare. From the femme fatale, she takes vulnerability, a damsel complex and tragedy. In other words, the Broken Bird’s strengths are masculine, while its weaknesses are feminine. And, not unsurprisingly, this is not a combination that works out well for female characters.

Femme fatales, as the name suggests, are dangerous and duplicitous, with both qualities invariably tied to their gender. Classically, if they were ever redeemed, it was through love; but otherwise, while the hardboiled detective was constrained by a personal code of honour (if not the actual law), the femme fatale remained morally suspicious. She was traitor and adulteress, whore and heartbreaker, a liar on the run and a bad girl out for what she could get – and yet, crucially, never an antihero. That mantle was reserved for the men, who worked outside the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit. In noir, it was the women who made the hard choices, who rode their downward spirals and betrayed to stay alive; but they were also feminine, owning their sexuality and their gender even as they defied the culture and times that sought to label them.

But the typical female Broken Bird rejects femininity. Not sexiness – she’s still the femme fatale’s daughter, after all – but sorority, domesticity, and anything else that’s traditionally been deemed the purview of women. She will not like fashion; she will not wear dresses; she will not want children; she will not cook or clean or shop. She will, instead, be hard and beautiful and broken and, in the vast majority of cases, emotionally vulnerable, unsettled by her love for a man (or possibly two men) with whom, for various reasons, a traditional life is impossible. That’s a key word, impossible, because it points to a redaction of choice. Always, Broken Birds are sculpted by fate and damage: they can’t have normal lives or be like other women, they can’t can’t can’t – so loudly and so frequently that the question of want becomes buried. Broken Birds have trouble wanting. They’ve been burned so many times that they don’t (can’t) know their own desires; they don’t (can’t) know what’s possible in terms of their own happiness, except in the immediate short-term. But it’s this very confusion which frees them up for complicated, uncertain – but undeniably passionate – relationships, and for being rescued, over and over again, by white knights: men who, in a weirdly Freudian twist, quite closely resemble their hardboiled, femme fatale-redeeming fathers.

Does this make them inherently bad characters, or mean that they can’t be strong women? On both counts, no – but as an archetype that seems only to be growing in popularity and whose appeal is often taken at face value, I am much more uncomfortable with the idea of not asking these questions than with poking the trope and seeing what it means.

Footnote: I have, of late, become extremely leery of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ – or rather, of the fact that trying to identify protagonists as such invariably means holding women to higher standards than we do men, because we’re more invested in their measuring up to our personal, feminist ideals. This bugs me, because while the goal of encouraging more and varied fictional ladies is one I endorse wholeheartedly, the risk of unconscious left-wing bias actually making things harder for the groups we mean to support – whether characters or writers – is very real, and something I think we’re blinding ourselves to. Which possibly negates this whole post, inasmuch as I’m talking almost exclusively about the gender-oriented problems inherent in a particular trope, but still: if equality and progress is what we ultimately want from our stories, then we really need to start unpicking male tropes at least as vociferously as we do female; not just in terms of how those characters interact with women, but in terms of the negative lessons they unconsciously impart to men. That includes Broken Birds – and the romanticising of damage – across all genders.