Posts Tagged ‘Diversity’

On the phone from the Middle East, where he is currently deployed, Torgersen lamented what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters, by Amy Wallace

In light of this year’s Hugo Award results, and with particular reference to Amy Wallace’s excellent rundown on the Puppies affair, I feel moved to address the Sad, rather than the Rabid, contingent. Per Torgersen’s remarks above, and setting aside every other aspect of the debate that renders me alternately queasy or enraged, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something fairly fundamental to the problem that’s consistently misunderstood by the Puppies, and which, when explained, might go a long way towards explaining the dissonance between what they think is happening and what is actually happening. Not that I particularly expect Torgersen or Correia to listen to me at this point; or if they did, I’d be greatly surprised. Even so, the point seems worth stating, if only for the sake of greater clarity.

When it comes to debating strangers with radically different perspectives, you sometimes encounter what I refer to as Onion Arguments: seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail. There are layers to what’s being misunderstood, to what’s missing from the conversation, and unless you’ve got the time and inclination to dig down to the onion-core of where your perspectives ultimately diverge, there’s precious little chance of the conversation progressing peacefully. After all, if your interlocutor thinks they’ve asked a reasonable, easy question, your inability to answer it plainly is likely to make them think they’ve scored a point. It’s like a cocky first-year student asking a 101 question and feeling smug when their professor can’t condense the four years of study needed to understand why it’s a 101 question into a three-sentence answer. The problem is one as much of attitude as ignorance: having anticipated a quick response, your interlocutor has to be both willing and interested enough to want to hear what might, at least initially, sound like an explanation of a wholly unrelated issue – and that’s assuming you’re able to intuit the real sticking point straight off the bat.

So: inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.

Right?

Wrong.

But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.

Let’s start with layer one: context. While there’s always been an element of diversity in SFF – you can’t ignore the contributions of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler, or pretend that the Golden Age greats never wrote about politics – as the Puppies themselves agree, it’s only comparatively recently that a movement in favour of promoting diversity has flourished. Setting aside the question of whether this is a good or a bad thing, or merely just a thing, at a practical level, increased diversity in narrative means you’re adding a new set of variables to any critical equation, which in turn requires a new way to discuss them. For example: if the vast majority of protagonists in a given genre are straight, white men, then critically speaking, there’s little need to mention their straightness/whiteness/maleness when making reviews or recommendations, because none of these details are relevant in distinguishing Story A from Story B, or Character A from Character B. Instead, you talk about other things – the quality of the characterisation, for instance – and consider it a job well done.

Which, contextually, it is. And somewhat understandably, if this is what you’re used to, it can be easy to assume that ever mentioning race or gender or sexuality in a review is irrelevant – even when the characters are more diverse – because these details, whatever else they might indicate, have no bearing on the quality of the story.

Except, of course, they do, as per the evidence of layer two: experience. Who we are and where we’ve come from impacts on our construction; on our beliefs and personalities. Returning to a situation where straight white male characters are the default, a reviewer would be within their rights – would, indeed, be doing a good job – to discuss how Character A’s working class upbringing informs his personality, especially when compared with Character B’s more aristocratic heritage and attitudes. A veteran soldier will have a different perspective on combat to someone who’s only ever studied tactics at a remove, just as an old man who’s recently outlived the love of his life will think differently about romance to a teenager in the throes of his first infatuation. These details are critically pertinent because they demonstrate how and why two characters can experience the same story in radically different ways, and if we as readers happen to have some points in common with Character A or Character B, we’re always going to compare our own experiences with theirs, no matter how fantastical or futuristic the setting, because it helps us gauge whether, in our opinion, the writer has done a good job of portraying their thoughts and feelings realistically.

And so it is with details like race and gender and sexuality. A queer character will have different experiences to a straight one, particularly if they live in a homophobic culture; someone who’s religious will have a different outlook on life to someone who’s an atheist; a person from a racial and cultural minority will experience their surroundings differently to someone from the racial and cultural majority; someone who grows up poor will approach wealth differently to someone who’s always had it. How relevant these details are to individual characterisation and worldbuilding – and how successfully they’re executed within a given story – will, of course, vary on a case by case basis; but of necessity, they matter more often than not, and therefore deserve to be mentioned.

Which means that, if the straight white man is no longer the default character, but is rather just one of a number of options, his straightness, whiteness and maleness will be subject to new scrutiny, both in the present and as a retroactive phenomenon. This is layer three: awareness. All stories, no matter how fantastic or futuristic, are ultimately the product of their times, because their writers are the product of their times, too. We might envisage new worlds, but what we consider new depends as much on what we think is old as what we think is possible; our taboos change with the decade or century or according to cultural context; particular writing styles go in and out of vogue; and audiences, depending on their tastes and when they’re raised, expect a range of different things from narrative.

The retroactive criticism and analysis of old works has always been part of literary tradition; what changes is the present-day yardstick against which we measure them. Right now, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift spanning multiple fronts, both political and creative: we’re aware that stories are being told now which, for various reasons, haven’t often been told before, or which didn’t receive much prominence when they were, and which are consequently being told by a wider range of people. Depending on your personal political stance, and as with the question of diversity in the context layer, you might view this as a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing – but regardless of your beliefs, you can’t deny that it’s happening, and that it’s having an impact. As a direct result of this, many of us are now looking at old stories – and at old defaults – in a new light, which means that certain narratives and narrative elements which, by dint of once being so common as to void discussion, were considered thematically neutral, are now being treated as political. (Which, really, they always were – but more on that later.)

As our cultural taboos have shifted – as queerness has become decriminalised (if not always accepted) and rights extended to everyone regardless of race and gender (though still often enacted with prejudice) – the types of stories it’s acceptable to tell have changed, just as it’s now possible for a wider range of storytellers to be heard. We’re all aware of these changes, and whether we like them or not, their visibility makes us question our stories in ways we haven’t before. Thus: while there is nothing noteworthy in choosing to write a straight, white male protagonist in a cultural milieu where almost all protagonists share these qualities, the same act carries more meaning when the combination is understood to be just one of a number of possible choices; and especially where, of all those choices, it’s the one we’ve seen most often, and is therefore, in one sense, the least original. Which doesn’t make such characters inherently bad, or boring, or anything like that; nor does the presence of such characters – or the success of such writers – preclude the simultaneous presence of diversity. It simple means we have an increased awareness of the fact that, up until very recently, a certain type of character was the narrative default, and now that he’s not – or at least, now that he’s not to some people – it’s worth asking whether his presence is a sign that the writer, whether consciously or unconsciously, is perpetuating that default, and what that says about the story in either case.

Which brings us to the fourth layer: representation. Following on from the issue of awareness, consider that, as a wider variety of stories are now being told by a wider variety of people, a wider range of protagonists has consequently entered the narrative market. As with context and awareness, you might think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing: regardless, it is happening, and will doubtless continue to happen. As such, a wider percentage of the audience is now having stories written both by and about them – or at least, about people like them – than in previous years; which means that, in response to the former dearth of such narratives, there’s been a corresponding rise in people requesting or recommending them primarily or prominently on the basis of their representational elements.

Ignoring for the moment all questions of quality – which, yes; I’m aware that’s the discussion we’re ultimately having, but bear with me – it should be a point of basic human empathy to understand why this is important; or at the very least, why representation matters to so many people. Despite our ability to empathise and connect with characters whose lives and experiences are utterly different to our own, we still like to see ourselves represented in fiction from time to time, not only as a form of validation – you’re worth telling stories about – but because, amidst so much difference, it’s a point of connection, affirmation, identity. Yet because straight white male characters were so long the default – and because that default, by virtue of its ubiquity, was considered politically neutral – changing the recipe, as it were, is still a visibly deliberate act: it makes the reader aware that the author chose for the character to be male or female, queer or straight, black or white (to give the simplest binary permutations), which awareness refutes the mythical idea of characters as the immaculate, fully-fledged gifts of some inviolable Muse, beyond the writer’s ability to pick or alter; and as such, there’s a reflexive tendency to conflate deliberate with forced, where the latter term carries implications of artificial, false, arbitrary, tokenistic. When these attributes don’t describe us, it’s easy to forget that actually, people like that do exist in the real world, and in considerable numbers; they’re not just something the author has made up out of whole cloth, and the fact that we might be surprised to see them in a given story doesn’t mean, ipso facto, that they’re incongruous within it.

As such, there’s a developing trend towards recommending stories which feature traditionally under-represented groups, not just as some arbitrary exercise, but because we’re aware that members of those groups might actually want to read those stories, and will, as a consequence, have a material interest in that aspect of the contents. But for precisely this reason, such recommendations are seldom indiscriminate, based, as Torgersen and the Puppies fear, solely on the presence of Character A regardless of execution or context – because even though protagonists have long defaulted to being straight, white and male, there’s an equally long tradition of other groups being portrayed badly. The fact that a book contains multiple female characters is no guarantee that those characters are written well, let alone inoffensively, just as the presence of POC within a classic text doesn’t mean their portrayal and treatment isn’t screamingly racist – which is why, when you see  diversity advocates recommending books on the basis that Character A is queer (for instance), the implication is that the filtering for quality has already taken place; that Character A both exists in a well-written narrative and isn’t a walking stereotype. The entire point of the exercise is to promote stories, not on the basis of token or forced diversity alone, but which portray diversity well – and because an author writing from their personal, in-depth experience is likely to have an extensive understanding of the topic, this support naturally extends to mentioning if, for instance, the author of a story starring multiple queer characters is queer themselves, not because there’s an assumption that straight people can’t write excellent stories about queer individuals, but because within any field or group, there’s always going to be a degree of insight or insider knowledge that can only be understood through personal experience, and it’s worth recognising which books are likely to replicate it, especially if we’re insiders, too, and are therefore more likely to notice if those perspectives are missing.

Consider, for instance, the probable insights contained in a military SF novel written by serving soldier, as distinct from one written by a military historian, as distinct again from one whose author’s knowledge of combat, tactics and fighting comes primarily from what they’ve read or seen in other fictional stories. The different backgrounds and knowledge-bases of these hypothetical authors says nothing about how well they write fiction, or how skilled they might be at other aspects of storytelling; they might have wildly different narrative styles and work within very different worlds, such that comparing their books, for all that they ostensibly share a genre, is a tricky proposition. All three books could be excellent in different ways, and all three books could be poor. But if someone you knew  to be both a good judge of fiction and possessed of actual combat experience – let’s call them Sam – handed you the first writer’s book and said, “Read this! The author actually served overseas!”, you’d probably deduce from context that, having served themselves, Sam was telling you that this writer gets it; their experience is my experience, or close enough to mine to be recognisable, and they know what they’re talking about. 

Similarly, if Sam praised either of the other two books for the military content, you’d understand that they were speaking from a position of personal experience: that, to someone with firsthand knowledge of fighting, the tactical/combat elements didn’t feel unrealistic or forced. By the same token, if Sam disliked the first book, you might take the criticism seriously while considering that, as the author was writing from their own first-hand perspective, too, a lack of realism wasn’t necessarily at fault, so much as a clash of opinions. But if Sam told you categorically that the third writer had no idea what they were talking about – that, regardless of any other qualities the book might have, the military aspect was hopeless – you’d be inclined to take that criticism more seriously than if a civilian friend with no grasp of tactics recommended it wholeheartedly; but depending on your own status as civilian, historian or soldier – and how badly you wanted to read the book for other reasons – your own reaction could be different again.

What I mean to say is this: seen from the outside, it’s easy to look at the members of a community recommending stories on what seems to you a superficial basis, and to conclude that, actually, nobody in that conversation is concerned with quality at all. But as per the fifth layer – language – what you’re really witnessing is a collectively understood shorthand: a way of signalling quickly that this book or that is worthy of attention based on a deeper awareness of commonly-held priorities, with respect accorded to those whose recommendations are supported by their personal experiences. Particularly on Twitter, where conversations between small groups are visible to non-participants and where character limitations make exposition difficult, it makes sense that bloggers, writers and critics alike try to be as succinct and powerful in their advocacy as possible. Just as I would accord a greater critical weight to the judgement of a soldier recommending a military SF novel, if a person of colour praises a book for its positive racial representation – or, conversely, criticises its lack thereof – I’m going to consider that relevant.

Which all ties in neatly to the final layer: taste. I’ve said before, and will say again, that I’m a firm believer in the value of negative reviews. Not only do they serve an important critical function, but as another person’s taste is seldom identical to our own, they help us construct a more useful idea of where our interests overlap with the critic’s, and where they diverge. Demonstrably, there’s an audience right now for diverse fiction: for stories which reject the old defaults and showcase a wider range of people, themes and places. The fact that some people enjoy such works does not, in and of itself, make them good works, just as popularity is no guarantee of goodness, either. The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist: creative endeavours are funny like that. There’s always going to be a sort of tension between technique and passion, skill and heart, not because those things are in any way diametric opposites, but because we can never quite agree on whether one is more important than the other, or if you can really have one without the other, or where the distinction between them lies if, for instance, the most heartfelt aspects of a story are only so because of their technically sound expression.

As such, creative awards are contentious creatures – have always been so; will always be so – inasmuch as presenting one represents the imposition of an objective judgement into a fundamentally subjective medium; and because all claims to objectivity are inherently political, so must awards be political, too. This isn’t new information, though some people, like the Puppies, have become mightily outraged at the revelation that what they’ve historically perceived as a lack of politics was, in fact, merely a political bias towards their own comfort. That they are no longer predominantly catered to, they perceive as being under attack; what they call the forced introduction of politics into a formerly neutral space is rather the revelation of existing politics through a natural process of change. A sandbar might be solid for years, but when it shifts with the ocean and so makes new waves, it hasn’t betrayed the people standing on it – though possibly, it might have collapsed sooner beneath their weight, especially if they mistook it for solid and made it the foundation of an improbable edifice.

I guess what I want to say is this: despite what the Puppies think, the rest of us aren’t interested in diversity without quality, and as we’re all acutely aware, the failure mode of diversity is stereotype, which concept isn’t exactly on handshake terms with quality in the first place. That we want to celebrate historically silenced voices and perspectives doesn’t mean we’re doing so purely to spite you, or that we’ve lost all sense of judgement: if our tastes extend to seeing in fiction those versions of ourselves you’re disinclined to write, then who are you to tell us we aren’t entitled to our preferences? Nobody is saying you can’t tell your stories; we just might not want to read them, the same as you evidently have no desire to read ours. That’s not the genre being attacked – it’s the genre changing, and whether you change with it or not, we’re still going to like what we like.

Stop fighting the riptide, Puppies. As any Australian could tell you, it’s the surest way to drown.

1.

A few years ago, I tried to read Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. I made it about halfway through before the roaring anti-Semitism finally drove me to fling the book at the wall, never to be resumed. I still don’t know how the story ends, but once I’d calmed down enough to think about it, I was struck by the difference in characterisation between Rowena and Rebecca, and what that particular contrast still says about the way we write women in fiction. Rowena, as Ivanhoe’s beloved, is meant to be the personification of all the feminine virtues of Scott’s period – beautiful and pure and obedient and yearning – while Rebecca, reading between the very broad lines, is someone we’re meant to root for despite her Jewishness without ever liking her best.

Except that, for precisely this reason, we do; but even though he wrote her that way, Scott doesn’t seem to realise it. Rowena never reads like an actual human woman because she was never intended to be one: she is, quite literally, a platonic ideal, and that makes her dull and lifeless in addition to being passive. But because Rebecca has to work to even be seen as a person in the first place, she’s much more fully human than Rowena ever is. Rebecca fights; she wins admiration by her actions, by sinking her teeth into the story and demanding to be seen: she has rough edges and strength of character, she’s narratively active, and as such, it’s impossible not to like her.

Here is what I took away from Scott’s treatment of these women: Rowena, passive and set on a pedestal, is what he thought women should be, while Rebecca, active and human, is what he grudgingly acknowledged women were; or could be, at the very least, if they actively tried to overcome the handicap of their gender.

And thus the question I ask myself, when examining female characters on the page or screen: is this woman a Rowena, or a Rebecca? Meaning: has she been written as an ideal, so defined by what the author wants her to do – usually for a man’s benefit, or to benefit his narrative (which classification, I hasten to point out, applies equally to female villains, who benefit the hero’s narrative by being Evil Because Cartoonish Misandry And/Or Incompetence) that she doesn’t come across as an actual human being? Or has she been written as a person, comprehensive and flawed and possessed of agency, even or especially if it makes her seem unlikeable or imperfect?

Slowly but surely, we’re getting more Rebeccas. But most of the time, for a very long time, Rowena has dominated.

2.

There’s this feeling I get, whenever I read a Rowena-heavy story. It’s a physical sensation, a sort of ephemeral chill that sinks into me with every male-only page, every chapter where women only exist to fill in the edges of stories that are really concerned with men. It feels cramped, like I’m crawling into some metaphysical box, and the older I get, the less comfortable it is, and the sooner I have to pull out again, the narrow confines chafing across my shoulders. It feels small in those stories, as though there’s no room for me there. I feel the same way about heteronormative storytelling: the more aware of myself I become, the more conscious of my own identity, the stronger the impulse to scream at books that don’t so much as acknowledge my existence. I feel a similar level of disgust about whitewashed stories, but being white myself, that visceral, squeezing element is missing – it’s an intellectual outrage, rather than a personal affront, and while it still makes me angry, I can’t pretend it’s the same thing. Not, to be perfectly clear, because I think the absence or stereotyping of POC is somehow less important; rather, it’s the difference between seeing your best friend punched in the face, and being punched yourself. Both assaults are utterly unacceptable, but one blow you feel secondhand, and the other in the flesh.

In 2010, I went to see the film Buried, which is shot almost entirely from the perspective of someone buried alive in a small box. It made for an intensely claustrophobic viewing experience: even knowing the camera wasn’t going to suddenly cut to a different scene, you still expected it, still wanted it to, and the lack of variation swiftly became a physical itch, a writhing unease and discomfort.

That’s what homogeneous storytelling feels like from the other side, when all the characters like you are either Rowena or stereotyped or absent altogether: claustrophobic. Go away and watch Buried, and whatever else you think of it – I hated it for reasons that had nothing to do with the cramped perspective – at least you’ll learn what it’s like to read a book or watch a show where part of you keeps waiting for the POV to leap to something new, something other than unrelenting sameness, only it never does, and all you feel is the tension caused by the absence of innovation.

Like being buried alive.

3.

I’m sick of the Sad Puppies.

Look: let’s be honest. The Puppies, by their own admission, aren’t interested in stories about people like me, or the stories of other people who aren’t like them, or stories which feature political arguments other than their own. There’s something fundamentally paradoxical about their hatred of diversity: they seem to think of it as a box-checking exercise, some arbitrary, unrealistic obsession with describing impossible, or at least implausible, persons – but at the same time, they clearly believe such individuals not only exist, but do so in vast, conspiracy-carrying numbers, because who else do they think they’re arguing with? The real world, according to Puppy gospel, is being steadily overrun with politically correct SJWs who are all queer or black or female or disabled or – gasp! – some dread combination thereof, and because they resent this tyranny, they don’t want to encourage it by acknowledging those demographics in fictional stories. This doesn’t stop them arguing, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that their stories are really reflective of the real world, even though their daily lives (they claim) are defined by a ceaseless political struggle that their fiction never reflects, partly because it’s meant for entertainment purposes only (they say), but mostly (one suspects) because the only actual struggle they’ve experienced can be better described as a personal failure of empathy, viz: why the hell would anyone want to read a book about her?

“Her” being Rebecca, both literally and metaphorically. The Puppies are agoraphobic in a genre otherwise defined by sweeping claustrophobia: they want to stay in the buried box with the dwindling air supply, while the rest of us are desperately clawing to get out, away from them and into the sunlight. We want to breathe, to change the scene, and they’d rather we suffocated wholesale than let us.

4.

Here’s what fanfiction understands that the Puppies don’t: inversion and subversion don’t ruin the story – they just give you new ways to tell it, and new tools to tell it with. Take a platonic relationship and make it romantic; there’s a story in that. Take a romantic relationship and make it platonic; there’s a story in that, too. Take a human and make her a werewolf; take a werewolf and make him human. Don’t try and sidle up on hurt/comfort like it’s something you’re ashamed to be indulging in; embrace the tropes until you have their mastery. Take a gang of broken souls surviving the apocalypse and make them happy in high school; take a bunch of funny, loving high school kids and shove them in the apocalypse. Like Archimedes, fanfic writers find the soul, the essence of what makes the characters real, and use it as a fulcrum on which to pivot entire worlds, with inversion/subversion as their lever of infinite length.

Without order, nothing can exist; without chaos, nothing can evolve. So the saying goes, and so it is.

5.

A tip for male writers: if your female characters never defy your expectations – if they never surprise you, never throw a wrench in your plans, never successfully beg a greater share of the story and your attention than you’d initially planned on giving them – then you’re not really writing women. You’re giving us Rowena, not Rebecca; over and over and over.

Be wise to the difference.

Warning: all the spoilers for Kingsman.

For a week or so now, I’ve been wanting to talk about Kingsman: The Secret Service, which I was finally able to watch, and which I genuinely loved. Not only is it an engaging, well-acted, well-scripted action movie that is funny, touching and littered with pop cultural hat-tips, but it manages the difficult trick of being both an homage to and a biting debunk of the James Bond franchise. Specifically: Kingsman takes all of Bond’s hallowed trappings – the spy gadgets, the sharp suits, the suave badassery – and explicitly removes both the misogyny and the classism that traditionally underpins them. Being a Kingsman, or gentleman spy, as explained by veteran Harry Hart to protégé  Eggsy Unwin, isn’t about having the right accent or upbringing, but “being comfortable in your own skin” – the exact opposite of Bond’s womanising, macho façade and aristocratic heritage.

In taking this stance, Kingsman also takes a stab at traditional, toxic notions of masculinity. Eggsy, we’re told, was once a skilled gymnast – possibly even Olympic-level material – but was forced to stop because of his violent, sexist stepfather’s ideas about gender roles. Eggsy is protective of his mother and younger half-sister, Daisy, and respectful of his colleague, Roxy, without ever being paternalistic or condescending, because Eggsy’s version of masculinity – the version encouraged by Harry Hart – is predicated on treating women as equals. Similarly, when confronted by the privileged, upper-class snobbishness of the other young white men in Kingsman training, it’s both striking and significant that the three outsiders – that is, lower-class Eggsy and the two female candidates – instantly bond together against them. This kind of intersectional solidarity across the boundaries of class, gender and, I would argue, sexuality (though we’ll come to that later) isn’t something you often see in action films; and nor is there a whisper of either competition or romance between Eggsy and Roxy. Instead, we’re given a situation where the two outsiders become, not lovers or rivals, but friends, their relationship one of mutual respect and support, and given how rarely that happens, I’m always going to appreciate it.

On the downside, it stands out that all the Kingsman candidates are still white; as does the fact that the villains, Valentine and Gazelle, are, respectively, a MOC who speaks with a lisp and a disabled WOC. Given the whiteness and overwhelming maleness of the Kingsmen, this isn’t a great state of affairs; but at the same time, both Valentine and Gazelle are spectacular, memorable characters. In defiance of stereotypical roles for black men, Valentine – played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson – is a software genius who gets sick at the sight of blood, while Gazelle, a double amputee, fights ruthlessly using her leg-blades. And while it doesn’t quite compensate for casting POC villains against an otherwise white cast, it’s nonetheless salient that the film expressly chooses to hang a very meta lampshade on the James Bond parallel in the following conversation between Harry Hart and Valentine:

Valentine: You like spy movies, Mr DeVere?

Harry: Nowdays, they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones? Marvellous. Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.

Valentine: The old Bond movies –  oh, man! Oh, when I was a kid, that was my dream job: gentleman spy.

Harry: I always felt the old Bond films were only as good as the villain. As a child, I rather fancied a future as a colourful megalomaniac.

Valentine: What a shame we both had to grow up.

This exchange is telling on several levels: not only does it expressly evoke the contrast with Bond while making a neat comparison between Harry and Valentine, but it makes a very literal statement about the reasons behind Valentine and Gazelle’s characterisation. When Harry says that modern spy films are ‘a little serious’, the camera pans to Gazelle’s bladed legs, which she’s artfully displaying for him: Kingsman is not a serious film, and in this moment, we’re meant to recognise its self-aware attempt to recapture the hijinks of classic Bond while simultaneously making something new. But by the same token, a not insignificant portion of Kingsman’s strength comes from its villains – from their originality, vibrancy and memorability. So while the decision to present the Kingsmen as an all-white institution battling two POC villains is still problematic, especially at the level of visual/thematic storytelling, it also gives us two extremely charismatic POC characters: Gazelle’s fight scenes are some of the most amazing I’ve seen in a long time, and given the extent to which this turned her disability into a strength, it’s significant that, when she is defeated, it’s not because this strength is somehow recast as a weakness. She is never rendered helpless, her weaponised disability is never turned into an Achilles heel, and villain or not, Gazelle is undeniably awesome.

By the same token, it’s also significant that the film’s ultimate concept of villainy isn’t personified by Valentine and Gazelle at all, but rather by men like Arthur and Kingsman dropout Charlie – that is to say, by rich, privileged, powerful white men who’ll happily crush others to ensure their own survival – and, at the other end of the scale, by agents of toxic masculinity like Eggsy’s stepfather, Dean, who routinely asserts his dominance through aggression and domestic violence. In fact, there’s a neat parallel between Eggsy and Roxy’s infiltration of the Kingsman system and Valentine and Gazelle’s calculated ascendency through the echelons of privilege: all four characters are agents of change against the entrenched systems of (straight, white, male) power. As such, it’s notable that the implants Valentine has his wealthy patrons wear to protect against his ultimate, population-thinning weapon also gives him control over them: Valentine exploits the self-serving nature of his clients’ survival instinct, but clearly has no intention of handing over the reins to the same class of people who, according to his philosophy, ruined the world in the first place.

If this was all there was to the substance of Kingsman, it would still be an excellent movie. But what I really want to dissect is the extent to which Kingsman can be read as a direct challenge to the idea of heteronormativity as a narrative default, and why this is so important.

In our culture, the unspoken rule – not just in storytelling, but in real life – is that everyone is assumed to be straight until proven otherwise. This is why, for queer people, coming out is never just a thing you do once: we have to do it over and over in endless new social contexts, because unless we expressly state our sexual orientation, most people – and especially straight people – will assume we’re heterosexual. There are many frustrating consequences to this, one of which is the struggle to see queer interpretations of narrative treated with the same subtextual validity as their straight counterparts. There are, for instance, plenty of tropes which, if enacted between a man and a woman, are invariably seen – and, indeed, treated as – inarguable preludes to romance: the classic establishment of a “will they, won’t they” UST dynamic, as per the lead pairings in shows like Bones, Castle and Fringe. Over and over again, we’re taught that such tropes are implicitly romantic; but when the same narrative devices are used to create charged encounters between two men or two women, these same implications are often fiercely resisted. Even in scenarios where a character’s sexuality has never been expressly stated – even if we’ve never seen that character involved in a canonical romantic relationship – they’re still assumed to be straight; and if they have had a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, then (the dominant logic says) they can’t possibly be bisexual or closeted or anything other than 100% hetero, because queerness, unlike straightness, can never be implicit or subtextual: it’s either overt, or it isn’t there at all.

As such, and because popular narratives are overwhelmingly more likely to canonise straight pairings than queer ones, the on-screen PDAs of confirmed heterosexual couples end up being used as yardsticks for the validation of queer relationships. That is: until or unless a proposed queer couple meets the minimum standard for PDAs as established by a straight couple in the same story, then none of their interactions can be deemed romantic, even if, prior to the straight relationship becoming canon, it was still assumed to be a valid romantic prospect due to the presence of the same romantically-charged tropes now deemed insufficient to legitimise the queer relationship. (Because heteronormative double standards, that’s why.)

But now, consider Kingsman: a film in which there isn’t a single straight kiss on screen. Though Eggsy’s mother is married to Dean, the relationship is an abusive one, and we never see any affection between them. Though we’re given snippets of physical contact between Valentine and Gazelle that hint at a romantic relationship, it’s never confirmed aloud. And though Eggsy, in another reference to classic Bond, supposedly ends the film by sleeping with a princess – and although we see her half-naked in bed, rolling over for him – we don’t actually see them do anything together. Which means that, somewhat unprecedentedly, there’s clear subtextual parity between straight and queer interpretations of Kingsman: the usual bar is set so low that, as nobody in the whole film either kisses anyone or overtly declares their sexual preferences, any move to interpret the characters as straight on the basis of tropes, word usage and behavioural cues alone grants equal validity to the thesis that they’re queer for the same reason.

For instance: as part of their Kingsman training, Eggsy, Charlie and Roxy are all asked “to win over… in the Biblical sense” a chosen target – the same target, in fact, for each of them: a pretty young woman. All three trainees are subsequently seen attempting to do just this, and while none of them succeeds, the fact that Roxy is asked to seduce a woman alongside Charlie and Eggsy – coupled with the fact that she appears just as enthusiastic about it as they do – is arguably suggestive of her queerness. Even if a viewer set on a heteronormative interpretation wants to insist that Roxy is only ‘playing gay’ for the sake of the mission, on the basis of the evidence, it’s just as likely that Eggsy and Charlie are both queer men engaged in ‘playing straight’. By which I mean: if it’s possible that one of the trio is willing to seduce the target despite their own sexual preferences, then it’s just as likely that this person is Eggsy or Charlie as it is Roxy, not only because each of them is equally willing to attempt an explicitly sexual conquest, but because we have no canonical reason to think any of them are straight. By the same token, if Eggsy and Charlie’s enthusiasm is proof enough to deem them sexually attracted to women even without any followthrough, then the same must logically be true of Roxy. As such, the only way to insist that there are no queer characters in Kingsman is to purposefully enact a heteronormative double standard that goes above and beyond the usual yardstick set by straight PDAs: to insist that subtext is enough to prove straightness, but insufficient to prove queerness, even under identical conditions.

Canonically, therefore, there is at least one queer character in Kingsman – but, just as canonically, it’s the viewer’s prerogative to decide who they are. The only other narratives I’ve ever known to pull this trick successfully are Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, where the use of ‘she’ as a default pronoun by the inhuman narrator means that determining individual gender – and, in the case of characters stated to be in relationships, sexual orientation – is entirely up to the reader.

As such, building a case to support the queerness of particular Kingsman characters is more than just an academic exercise: it’s a necessary means of engaging the canon through subtext. And thus, consider Eggsy Unwin. When Eggsy and Harry’s conversation in the pub is interrupted by Dean’s cronies, Harry goes to leave – until, that is, one of the men calls out: “if you’re looking for another rent boy, they’re on the corner of Smith Street”. Now, given that Eggsy is, in canon, perfectly willing to engage in criminal activities to financially support his family – and given that the speaker knows this – his word choice becomes significant. He doesn’t tell Harry to find a rent boy, but another rent boy, thereby implying that Eggsy is one himself. Ordinarily, if such a line were delivered in a film whose straight yardstick demanded a higher burden of proof for queerness than subtext alone, the heteronormative assumption would be that this is only an insult, meant to demean Eggsy by implying both that he has sex for money, and that he does so with men, thereby besmirching not only his straightness, but Harry’s. But even if we agree that, yes, the statement is undoubtedly meant to be insulting, the phrasing suggests the possibility that it’s also true – that Eggsy either is or was a rent boy, and is therefore potentially* queer.

If we choose to interpret this line as proof of Eggsy’s queerness, then, a subsequent conversation with Harry would seem to endorse it further. When Harry tries to explain to Eggsy what their relationship as Kingsmen will be, this exchange takes place:

Harry: Did you see the film Trading Places?

Eggsy: No.

Harry: How about Nikita?

Eggsy: [shakes his head]

Harry: Pretty Woman?

Eggsy: [scrunched face of near recognition, as though he’s heard of it, but not seen it]

Harry: All right. My point is, the lack of a silver spoon has set you on a certain path, but you needn’t stay on it. If you’re prepared to adapt and learn, you can transform.

Eggsy: Oh, like in My Fair Lady!

Harry: Well, you’re full of surprises. Yes, like My Fair Lady. Only in this case, I’m offering you the opportunity to become a Kingsman.

What’s interesting about these cinematic comparisons is that each film suggests a different set of implications for Eggsy and Harry’s relationship, though all are predicated on a poor or disenfranchised person (Eggsy) being given a second chance by someone more powerful (Harry). Trading Places is about a male hustler given an opportunity to succeed by a powerful man, albeit in a cynical context; Nikita is about a female criminal trained as an assassin by a powerful man; Pretty Woman is about a female prostitute and a rich man falling in love; and My Fair Lady – which, crucially, is the one, they both agree on – is likewise about a poor woman being trained into aristocratic manners by a educated man, with the two eventually falling in love. Of these four comparisons, only one references a relationship between two straight men (though interestingly, in Trading Places, the Harry character still befriends a female prostitute); the other three all compare Eggsy to a female character whose primary relationship is with a man, once platonically (Nikita) and twice romantically (Pretty Woman and My Fair Lady). In a film that’s already had one character refer to Eggsy as a rent boy, the comparison with Julia Roberts’s character arguably takes on double significance, and when you couple this with the fact that both Harry and Eggsy choose cinematic examples that suggest the potential for a romantic relationship between them, there’s a compelling case to be made that this is, in fact, exactly what’s happening. (The fact that, in a later scene in the same location, Harry makes a joke about Eggsy losing his suit-wearing virginity – “one does not pop one’s cherry in fitting room two” – is also suggestive of sexual/romantic banter between the two.)

There is, in other words, a very good reason for the vast quantity of Hartwin slash that began appearing on my tumblr dashboard long before I ever saw the film: canonically, we have as many reasons to think that Eggsy is a bisexual action hero as he is a straight one, and if we could be forgiven for seeing a romantic subtext to Harry’s Pretty Woman/My Fair Lady/cherry-popping comments were Eggsy’s character female, then it’s only reasonable to suggest that same subtext applies between two men. Personally, I like to think that Charlie, Roxy, Eggsy and Harry are all queer – and the best part is, you can’t tell me otherwise.

Kingsman, then, while flawed in some respects, is nonethless a thoroughly fun – and, I would argue, surprisingly subversive – film. Certainly, it’s one of the more enjoyable action flicks I’ve seen in a long time, and when the promised sequel arrives, I’ll definitely be in line to see it.

 

*In the context of sex work for financial necessity, of course, there’s no default assumption that a person’s choice of client reflects their preferences otherwise. Nonetheless, when it comes to subtextual interpretations of narrative, we can argue that, in this case, it does, provided we stop short of assuming it always must.

(Correction, 11.06.15 – In the original version of this post, I mistakenly listed Charlie’s character as Rufus. This has now been fixed.)

Earlier this week, K. Tempest Bradford wrote an article encouraging readers to forego books by straight, white, cismale authors for a year, the better to “change the way you read and the way you go about picking things to read”. Bradford is not alone in her approach; as she herself mentions, Sunili Govinnage read only authors of colour in 2014, while Lilit Marcus spent a year reading only books by women. The point of such experiments should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying even a small amount of attention to literary and SFFnal politics over the past few years: thanks to a combination of conscious and unconscious bias, works by straight white men are reviewed more, praised more, promoted more and generally given disproportionate prominence in the literary scene than those by other writers, and as such, it’s easy to miss out on excellent books – to say nothing of contributing to a culture where their authors are routinely dismissed – by never questioning what and who we’re reading.

Enter Laura Resnick, who has missed the point so spectacularly, it’s hard to know where to begin. To quote:

…my reaction to being challenged to give up Straight White Male writers for a year goes like this.

I can’t think of any writers whose names indicate their sexual orientation. Can you? Is there any such thing as a gay/lesbian/transgender name? Or do authors routinely list their sexual orientation in their formal jacket bios?…

Nor does an author’s fiction give the reader a reliable indication of his or her sexual orientation. For example, the New York Times bestselling Lord John novels feature a gay protagonist; the author of his adventures is heterosexual (Diana Gabaldon). There are also gay authors who write straight protagonists. I can think of several current examples, but since I’m not sure how public they are about their sexual orientation, I’ll stick with naming the late E.M. Forster and the (very) late Oscar Wilde.

And even when an author’s photo clearly indicates their gender and racial/ethnic heritage, how often do photos reveal their sexual orientation? (Rarely, if ever, would be my guess.)

And what if there is no photo?

And I just.

OK.

This is one of the stupidest strawman misdirects I’ve ever fucking seen. Christ on a bicycle, Resnick is literally writing this on the goddamn internet while flapping her hands like the internet doesn’t exist; like there’s just no way to learn anything about an author’s identity beyond what’s contained in a physical fucking paperback; like Bradford is really just asking us to stand in a bookstore and guess. Bradford, in fact, doesn’t say anything about how readers should go about determining authorial identity, presumably on the basis that explaining how to Google things might come off as condescending. I mean, look, yes: Resnick is correct to assert that you can’t just assume someone’s race or sexual orientation on the basis of their name or the content of their writing, and that identity is a thing with many facets. Obviously. But Bradford has never claimed otherwise, and acting like there’s literally no easy way to learn these things, the whole enterprise is tragically doomed from the start when you are, as mentioned, actually on the internet, is just a whole new level of derailment.

Because once you get down a few paragraphs, Resnick’s real problem with Bradford’s challenge becomes clear: it’s not that she thinks this information doesn’t exist, but that she can’t be bothered to look it up:

So in order to ensure that I am not reading straight white male authors, I’d have to do far more googling and research on writers than I am willing to do, since my interest is in their fiction rather than in the authors or their personal details. And even if I wanted to go to such effort, some of that information isn’t available without a bizarre intrusion into their privacy, since some writers choose not to discuss various aspects of their lives in interviews and social media.

My god, it’s just so hard.

The way Resnick has it, you’d think that Bradford was exhorting us all to start acting like digital stalkers, as though considering the personhood of the author is necessarily synonymous with needing the author’s details any cost, regardless of time or privacy. I mean, does Resnick even understand the part where this is proposed as a challenge – that is to say, as a call or summons to engage in a contest – rather than a set of hard rules for everyone to adopt, forever and ever, amen? And even if Resnick was minded to accept, it’s hardly a policed event: K. Tempest Bradford isn’t lurking outside her house, machete in hand, ready to barge in and demand an accounting if she accidentally reads a straight dude’s book. The actual point in all of this, which Resnick has stubbornly missed, is to encourage people to read more widely; to engage with perspectives other than their own; and to maybe consider the race, the gender, the sexuality of the authors they read as relevant, given the proven cultural bias towards promoting the works of straight white men over others.

The idea that this approach is somehow inimical to having an interest in the content of a writer’s fiction is the exact opposite of what Bradford and Govinnage are positing: namely, that an author’s real-world identity and experiences are sometimes – though not always – reflected in their works, and that if we’ve defaulted to reading only or predominantly one type of author, then perhaps we’ve defaulted to only or predominantly reading one type of content, too. As such, if we are, as Resnick claims to be, sincerely interested in reading good stories, then ignoring the relationship between author and work – as though every book, like the goddess Athena, is cut fully-formed from the flesh of some oblivious, authorial Zeus – is something we should be wary of doing.

And then it gets worse:

Additionally, apart from having no interest in trying to research writers’ personal information before deciding whether to read their fiction, my reaction to Bradford’s article is that I would have found her argument more effective if phrased in a positive and constructive way, rather than phrased in the negative, counter-productive way she chose—by advising on authors (straight white male) not to read.

Ladies, gentlemen and others of the internet, behold this sterling example of tone policing, aka You Didn’t Discuss Your Experiences Politely Enough (According To Me) And So I Choose To Disregard Your Argument. The fact that this approach is favourite among sexists – the “I’d listen to feminists if they weren’t so angry” brigade – makes it doubly cringeworthy when deployed by a white woman against a woman of colour: as Flavia Dzodan famously said, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, and in the wake of Patricia Arquette’s tone-deaf call for women who aren’t straight, white or cisgendered to step up and help white ladies achieve equality for themselves, I find myself with even less patience for this sort of White Feminism than usual. I don’t know if Resnick identifies as a feminist or not, but for the love of god, fellow white women: do not fucking tone police women of colour on issues of diversity. More to the point, what article was Resnick reading? Bradford’s piece isn’t an angry polemic against the evils of patriarchy; it’s a calm, articulate acknowledgement of the fact that yes, there’s a bias in the literary world, but here’s a suggestion for countering it.

Again, I feel obliged to point out that nobody is forcing Resnick to read anything she doesn’t want to. Hell, it would’ve been quite easy for her to say, for instance, “I support the sentiment of Bradford’s article, and even if you don’t want to skip your favourite white male authors for a year, there’s still a lot to be gained by diversifying your reading”, and left it at that. Instead, she goes out of her way to attack the logic of Bradford’s challenge, which makes what she says next seem more than a little insincere:

I agree completely that reading a wide variety of authors and themes is a wonderful idea, one to be embraced. This practice has always been encouraged in my family, and it’s practiced by many of my friends, too. I also agree that reading about women, other societies, and other sexual orientations from the perspective of authors who are women, or who are from other societies than our own, or who have other sexual orientations other than “straight” is a suggestion to be embraced. But I don’t agree that limiting my reading in any way is a good idea. Not even if it’s the group—straight white male writers—whose voices have been heard the longest, loudest, and most consistently in our society’s reading culture.

I say again: Bradford is proposing a fucking challenge. By definition, a challenge in any context has rules and limitations, which is how you differentiate your participation in it from the norms of everyday living. That being so, it’s fair to ask: is Resnick opposed to all reading challenges on principle, or just to this one? And if Resnick is really so concerned with the prospect of limited reading, then why has she just spent umpteen paragraphs complaining about how unreasonably difficult it is to try and read diversely?

Years ago, some stranger at a party asked me what I read, as people often do with writers. I named a bunch of books I’d read lately, and named a bunch of writers that were among my favorites, and when I was done… The person asked, “Don’t you ever read any male authors?” I had named only women, and I hadn’t even noticed! Not until this person remarked on it.

Although I still tend to read more women than men, ever since that conversation made me realize I’d been limiting my reading, I make more of an effort to read male novelists. Your mileage may vary, but eliminating straight white male authors from my reading would probably set me back, in terms of the variety I read, since male authors (of any ethnicity or sexual orientation) used to be noticeably absent from my fiction reading.

Look, I’ll be honest: I tend to read mostly women these days, too. But when it comes to my cultural consumption in other areas – when it comes to films, comics, TV shows? Those arenas are pretty fucking heavily male-dominated, even when you actively want to diversify, and as such, I feel no particular urge to try and redress the balance when it comes to written fiction, which is the one narrative arena in which I can come anywhere close to finding parity, let alone surpassing it in my favour. Straight white dudes have a fucking monopoly on visual storytelling, and not just in front of the camera, but behind it, too – directing, scriptwriting, animation and countless other fields are all so squarely white and male, it’s like staring at a box of envelopes. And while I’m not suggesting Resnick should tailor her fiction consumption to fit my preferences, I take issue with the inference that there’s no correlation between straight white male dominance in fiction and straight white male dominance elsewhere; as though this isn’t a single facet of a bigger, more complex problem.

Look at it this way: if you’re eating bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but have fruit for desert, and someone comes along and exclaims over how strange it is that you don’t eat bread for that one last meal, too, then switching to a baguette before bedtime will not add variety to your diet, even if you keep the strawberries. By all means, Laura Resnick, read what you like – but don’t confuse your personal reticence to change your habits, even temporarily, for a reason why the rest of us shouldn’t even try.

 

Whenever we watch a film or read a book, regardless of genre, we always approach the narrative with a set of basic assumptions about its content. If the story is set in the present day, we’ll expect a certain degree of familiarity with the context, though obviously, these expectations will vary in accordance with where we live and where the story is set. If the story involves a discipline or profession with which we’re intimately acquainted, we’ll likely be more critical of its portrayal than otherwise, because any liberties taken or errors enforced will stand out to us. By contrast, if the subject matter is new, or if it involves something we only recognise as a vague conceptual outline, we’ll be more inclined to take the writer’s word for it – an accurate until proven in- mentality. Which is, somewhat paradoxically, how genre stereotypes often get started: if our only, first or primary exposure to a concept is through fiction, and if we automatically assume that what we’re shown is well-researched, then seeing it presented differently at a later date – even if the subsequent portrayal is more accurate – might trigger our scepticism, especially if we’ve seen multiple versions of the original lie, now leant a greater authority by the act of reiteration.

As such, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between an assumption based on fact, like our own, first-hand knowledge of a profession or practice, and an assumption which is itself based on other assumptions, like a popular, romanticised version of a certain historical era. For all that humans are voracious learners, we don’t always consider how or why we’re absorbing information until someone asks us to provide a source, and by then, it’s often too late.

But what happens when you apply this habit of assumptions to purely fictional concepts?

Science fiction and fantasy stories are full of impossible ideas which nonetheless influence our thinking, taking on lives of their own. Dragons don’t exist, but depending on how we first encountered them, we’re likely to have an opinion about their essential nature; on whether (for instance) they’re more properly treasure-hoarding monsters like Smaug, mystical protectors like Falcor, or soul-bonding companions like Mnementh and Ramoth. But while we might prefer a certain type of dragon, we’re also willing to accommodate changes to their mythology: our assumptions are more fluid than fixed, and if we see something new, our first thought won’t be that the writer is incompetent or misinformed, because we understand that fictional truths are malleable.

As such, we’re supremely unlikely to challenge the presence of a wide and varied range of dragons in SFF: the comic swamp dragons of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld don’t preclude the ferocity of Daenerys’s Drogon or the thoughtfulness of Temeraire, and even when we encounter dragons who completely subvert our Platonic ideal of the species – who don’t breathe fire, who can’t fly, who might be feathered instead of scaled – we still accept the possibility of them, because, well, it’s fiction! Dragons aren’t real, and so they can be whatever we want them to be, up to and including a shapeshifting race of scaly humanoids who live in a mountain-tree. But at the same time, we often hesitate to extend the same degree of narrative diversity to persons who actually exist, even within the parameters of fiction, because it violates one of our assumptions-based-on-assumptions, that women can’t or Vikings didn’t, and therefore hits a mental stumbling-block.

Which, as I’ve said before, is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements – magic, dragons, FTL travel – are anchored to the narrative by the presence of realism in other areas, like believable characters and settings; but when we start using familiar as a proxy-term for real, we run the risk of letting ill-formed assumptions dictate the limits of the possible – and when we’re dealing with fundamentally impossible situations, that’s an even more pernicious habit than usual. Which begs the question: what are our limits, exactly, when it comes to accepting fictional scenarios? Obviously, there won’t be a universal answer, but in terms of trying to establish a personal one, I’m going to borrow a terminology of limits from BDSM, which is surprisingly applicable: that is, the concept of hard limits, soft limits and requirement limits.

For these purposes – that is, a discussion of narrative preferences – I’m using the following definitions: a hard limit is an element whose inclusion we won’t tolerate under any conditions; a soft limit is an element we’ll entertain under particular conditions, but which otherwise breaks us out of the story and/or compromises its realism; and a requirement limit is an element without which we’ll struggle to enjoy the story at all. Speaking personally, then, and by way of quick example: I would consider the presence of three-dimensional female characters to be a requirement limit. If you effectively eliminate women from the narrative, then you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that you’ve constructed a realistic setting; and even if you include a host of plausible, plot-centric reasons for their absence (all male armies, gender-based plague) I’m still going to look askance at your decision to do so. By the same token, a soft limit would be something like owner/slave romances: I’m not wholly averse to them, but I strongly dislike seeing the issues of consent and power imbalance handwaved Because Feelings.

As to my hard limits, though: that’s an interesting question. Certainly, there are narrative elements for which I have a strong dislike, but in most instances, I’d still classify them as soft limits – that is, as devices that only bother me when they’re done badly, instead of at all – and with the exception of specific triggers, I suspect the same is true for most people. But if we’ve only ever seen an element written badly, or if it’s something we haven’t encountered before, we might reflexively write it off as unrealistic, when what we really mean is that it pushes a limit we weren’t conscious of having, or that its unfamiliarity takes us out of our comfort zone. Engaging with narrative is ultimately a question of immersion, the willingness of a reader to suspend their disbelief, and as with BDSM scenes, it’s difficult to do that if we don’t trust the other party not to accidentally hurt us.

(I have a theory that the emotional comedown we sometimes feel on finishing a powerful story is an equivalent phenomenon to sub-drop, which suggests the interesting counter-possibility that the lethargy and self-doubt often experienced by authors on completing a novel is a type of dom-drop, too. In both instances, there’s a neurochemical rush brought about by intense emotional stimulus – the act of either connecting with a story, or controlling it – that comes to a sudden end, and if we then, for instance, find ourselves feeling guilty about the extent to which we’re obsessing over fictional characters or frightened that what happens next is beyond our control, I see no reason why that couldn’t lead to other knock-on, physical effects. That being so, there’s a commensurate argument to be made that participation in fandom may work as a form of aftercare for creators and consumers alike: a way of reassuring ourselves that our feelings are valid and reaffirming our preferences, which adds a whole new dimension to creator/fan interactions. But I digress.)

Perhaps, then, our idea of realism in this context is less to do with facts and more a question of feelings. A story doesn’t have to be literally realistic, in the sense of conforming to real-world rules, in order for us to believe in the premise; rather, it just has to feel authentic, in the sense of convincing us that the setting is internally consistent, and while our notions of narrative authenticity are always going to be informed by our assumptions, we can still take a flexible approach.

Enter the concept of fanfiction: stories written about settings and characters with which we’re already familiar, but which exist for the express purpose of changing them. By its very nature, fanfiction plays with our expectations: we go in knowing exactly what happens in canon, but every story still interprets and alters that canon differently, and if the original work is incomplete – a show still airing, a film trilogy missing the final instalment, an ongoing series of novels – any fics written before the end are going to have different jumping-off points to those written post-completion. For instance, while it’s common practice for fanwriters to reverse or ignore particular canon deaths, not every fic which features canonically dead characters is a retcon. Instead, it might have been written at a point in time before the deaths had happened, extrapolating future events on the basis of an endpoint that was subsequently superseded: a bifurcation in the timeline, rather than an attempt at overwriting it, and readers will have to navigate the distinction.

As such, fanfiction requires its audience to continually adjust their assumptions, not just about what might happen, but about what has happened already, even when this means uprooting our base concept of the original story. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about known unknowns is a strangely apt description of this process, and is therefore worth quoting, not least because the man himself would probably shudder at the comparison:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Or, to put it another way: we know the fic will draw from canon (known knowns) and that parts of it will be excluded or altered (known unknowns), but not what original material the writer will contribute (unknown unknowns). To this, I would also add a fourth category, constituting our base assumptions about narrative and worldbuilding in general: things we hold to be relevant or true, but don’t consciously take into consideration unless forced to do so (unknown knowns). And fanfiction likes to play with these, too – for instance, by making small, pertinent alterations to an otherwise real-world setting and treating them as normative, rather than as an integral aspect of the plot. Which isn’t to say that original fiction doesn’t do likewise. It’s just that, for whatever reason, fanworks seem more willing to take the concept further, making blanket changes to social/sexual norms instead of simply inserting magic into familiar settings.

By way of example, I recently read a Wild West AU where everything was as you’d expect, except for the blanket social acceptance of homosexuality and lack of racism; the primary romance was between two newly married men, while the external conflict involved a pernicious neighbour trying to steal their ranch, and none of the cultural changes were ever questioned. For all that Hollywood can produce something as utterly batshit and ahistorical as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, I’ve never seen a mainstream narrative write an alternate history for the express purpose of exploring social equality in a different era – but steampunk guns, anachronistic swearing and giant mechanical spiders? No problem.

As an inevitable consequence of being human and having opinions about the world, we’re always going to take our assumptions with us into fiction. But being concerned with realism – or rather, with authenticity – and Malinda Lo has a fascinating essay on the subject, for anyone who wants to explore it in greater detail – doesn’t mean we should have to sacrifice whole fields of narrative possibility for lack of historical or personal precedent. The point of SFF isn’t to convince us that these stories could happen here, but to create a hypothetical elsewhere, parallel to our own, that’s sufficiently internally consistent, or engaging, or preferably both, for us to immerse ourselves anyway.

And if there are dragons involved, then so much the better.

 

 

 

Browsing the Guardian this week, I encountered a deliberately provocative headline – ‘Howard Jacobsen: All my books are apocalyptic. I have never met an intelligent optimist’ – and promptly did a double-take when I read down to see that Jacobsen has apparently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his latest novel, J, which is being described as ‘dystopian’ and ‘apocalyptic’. I frowned at the computer screen, trying and failing to reconcile this information with Jacobsen’s self-professed status as someone who is contemptuous of genre things; a man who once argued that what makes genre fiction genre fiction is its formal predictability… the best novels will always defy category‘. And, indeed, it’s clear that Jacobsen does include dystopian fiction as a type of genre writing, as per his assertion that ‘internecine war will sometimes break out between the genrists – paranormalists deriding the moralistic pretensions of dystopians, for example‘. One could be forgiven for expecting, therefore, that Jacobsen has taken issue with such labels being applied to his own work; or at the very least, has failed to use those labels himself.

Apparently not. ‘In a way,’ he says, ‘all my books are apocalyptic.’

In his 2012 review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Hal Parker made a salient observation about Chabon’s use of genre:

Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?

Though Parker is speaking specifically about a white writer’s appropriation of black culture, going on to link these elements with the novel’s arguable classification as a work of ‘gentrification fiction,’ the idea of literary gentrification has, I would argue, a wider and more general applicability which he himself acknowledges: namely, the idea of literary writers seeking to detach – and therefore, in their frequent estimation, elevate, or even rescue – genre ideas from their cultural, narrative and contextual points of origin. Part of what makes this such a difficult phenomenon to discuss, however, is the fact that ‘genre fiction’ has long since become an umbrella term encompassing wildly different types of writing, each with its own history, heroes and hallmarks, and each with varying points of intersection and overlap with the others. Much like a university attempting to unite a handful of disparate academic schools under a single banner by turning them into a college, ‘genre fiction’ is often treated – and, as a consequence, called on to defend itself – as if it were a single, coherent entity, and not, as per the university model, an administrative and academic siphonophore. As such, I would argue that genre fiction isn’t a genre in and of itself, but rather a college of genre – and that makes for some interesting analysis.

For instance: author N. K. Jemisin, who is African-American, has spoken in the past about her books being shelved in the African-American section of bookshops, despite the fact that she writes epic fantasy. It’s worth quoting her at length on this point, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent:

I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting…

It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.

Problem is, most black readers aren’t “new” readers. That was a misconception derived from the initial racist assumption by publishers and retailers that “black people don’t read”; to people who swallowed that baloney, it must have seemed as though millions of black readers suddenly sprang fully-formed from E. Lynn Harris’ forehead in 1995. This is a completely illogical, frankly asinine assumption — what, were we all sitting around playing with our Dick and Janes before that? But that’s racism for you; logic fail all over the place.

And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”…

As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. The folks who would be interested in one are highly unlikely to be interested in the other. But that is precisely what happened to her, because her book got shelved in the AAF section too.The Autobiography of Malcolm X has diddlysquat-all to do with Zane’s “Sex Chronicles”, but I have personally seen these two authors shelved side-by-side in AAF, I guess because X comes near Z on a bookshelf…

Worse, any bookstore or library that does this is, IMO, perpetuating the same racist assumptions that caused this problem in the first place. It all comes down to the idea of universality — which mostly just means “the ability to write something that appeals to white readers”, in my experience. Before the AAF boom, black readers were assumed to have no interest in books meant to appeal to white readers; hence the assumption that we “didn’t exist”. When our existence was confirmed, black readers were then assumed to be strange ducks, Not Like The Rest Of Us in taste or discernment, fundamentally alien — or Other — in our intelligence and thought processes. And black writers — despite having written mainstream books for generations — were assumed to be incapable of writing for anything other than this strange, alien audience. If “universality” = “whiteness”, well, of course we couldn’t possibly have it. Even if we did.

Trying to disentangle concepts of genre from concepts of race is, therefore, a highly problematic proposition, and one which ties in particularly to concepts of antiblackness, as per the fact that, as Jemisin points out, the African American section* is concerned only with the segregation of one specific racial identity. As such, it’s worth noting that both Howard Jacobsen and Michael Chabon are Jewish men, and while it’s conceivable that Telegraph Avenue might have been shelved in the AAF section, Chabon’s other works – such as, for instance, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which arguably belongs to the college of genre, and which, as the title suggests, is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish identity – would not receive the same treatment. Jacobsen’s J is similarly informed, taking place after an event described in his interview as a ‘mass pogrom’:

The new book is about the annihilation of any group, any “other”, Jacobson says. “The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.”

Not having read J – and despite my general dislike of Jacobsen, I’ll admit I’m tempted – I can’t pass any judgement on the quality of the book, its dystopian elements or its relationship with the college of genre. What I can say, however – and returning, at long last, to the original point – is that Jacobsen’s decision to write a dystopian work, embracing the potential of genre’s college without rescinding his previous disdain for it, and being rewarded for his efforts with a second Booker shortlisting, raises an important question. Namely: if, as Jacobsen himself contends, truly great novels defy categorisation, then in the game of literary gentrification, which writers are considered capable of transcending genre while still employing its tropes, and which are not? Because if, per Parker’s criticism of Telegraph Avenue, there’s a parallel to be made between the racial implications of a particular narrative and the context in which that narrative is both created and received, and by whom, then it doesn’t seem irrelevant that, whereas works like Jacobsen’s J, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are, apparently without effort, classed as being both literary and genre-transcendent while still possessing strong dystopian roots, something like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is not. When Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife, with its titular SFFnal conceit, can be shelved and discussed as a purely literary work, but Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze cannot, then we have a problem. When Nicholas Sparks, a man made rich and famous by his penchant for writing about tragically beautiful white people having romantic sex in the rain, states emphatically that ‘If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section… I don’t write romance novels,’ and the bookstores of the world agree with him, while N. K. Jemisin can end up shelved in the African American section regardless of the actual content of her novels, then yes: we have a problem.

Literary gentrification is not a simple matter of famous literary authors – who, coincidentally, tend to be straight, white men – cherrypicking SFFnal tropes and declaring them cleansed of genre, transcendent of but inspired by: it is as much a question of whose writing we deem capable of having this effect as one of which writers strive to have this effect, in that however much one tries to transcend, one cannot actually achieve it – or be told that such achievement has, in fact, occurred, regardless of intention – without a critical audience to argue, or even assume, that this is the case. The idea that works either by or about POC constitute a discreet genre is, as Jemisin points out, as problematic as it is established within the industry, but despite the college of genre being long defined as the home of ‘anything and everything not deemed literary fiction’, it had never quite occurred to me before that the former can be seen to fit within the latter. Perhaps this is yet one more reason why the question of diversity within SFF has become so prominent lately: we have, at long last, begun to argue for the rights of everyone in our college, however falteringly, and if those rights are ultimately defined as ‘the right of POC to not be viewed as inhabitants of a separate genre, but as an integral and assumed part of any readership or creative body’, then so much the better.

Because as much as I loathe seeing smug literary authors speak snidely about SFF in one breath while borrowing its tropes in the next, I’d be misplacing my outrage if this was the only level on which the phenomenon disturbed me. The archetype of the straight white male literary author is so culturally ingrained at this point that it can, at times, serve to obscure the very tangible prejudices underlying the reasons for its primacy: that, now as historically, in genre as in culture, the dominance of straight, white and/or Western men in a given sphere, coupled with a corresponding lack of representation from other groups, is not a fucking coincidence. I would be far more inclined to accept Jacobsen’s argument that truly great works transcend the classification of genre if the ability to bestow transcendence was not apparently restricted to a narrow class of person, not because they’re the only ones interested in producing such works, but because we assume their works possess a certain quality that the works of others do not, even when they deal with similar themes in a similar manner. Hypocritically borrowing from a genre one professes to despise is one thing, but doing so as part of a process of literary gentrification predicated on the selfsame dystopian history of racism, sexism and exclusion of the Other you’re ostensibly critiquing is quite another.

One cannot help but wonder if Jacobsen has noticed the irony.

*As the name suggests, the African American section is something you’re unlikely to find in bookstores outside of America. I’ve never seen an equivalent section separating out, for instance, Aboriginal literature in Australian stores, but that doesn’t mean such sections don’t exist, and if you’ve seen or heard of one, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

To say this year has involved reading lots of awesome books is an understatement. Seriously, it’s getting to the point where the cumulative impact of reading successively brilliant novels is radically upgrading my concepts of narrative, storytelling, character, world-building and language on an almost daily basis. The ironically twinfold upshots of this are that:

(a) I’ve had more viable, full-fledged ideas in the past six months than the past six years, but

(b) have grown steadily too intimidated by other people’s talents to work on them.

This is a species of problem, in that I haven’t written anything more strenuous than outlines, poetry, email and blogs for nigh on four months, but also a good problem, in that reading so many jaw-dropping stories is proving roughly equivalent to tripling the size of your car’s fuel tank while simultaneously filling it with delicious, premium petrols. I’ve always worked to a peaks-and-valleys schema when it comes to writing – on when I’m on, off when I’m off – and with each book devoured, I’m once more nudging closer to that brain-full, word-hungry state of ecstatic madness that inevitably precipitates a writing binge. To which I say: woo!

But until then, I’m going to keep reading – and, occasionally, talking about what I’ve read. Which brings me to one of the many awesome books to have crossed my paths in recent months: Karen Healey’s The Shattering.

Seventeen-year-old Keri likes to plan for every possibility. She knows what to do if you break an arm, or get caught in an earthquake or fire. But she wasn’t prepared for her brother’s suicide, and his death has left her shattered with grief. When her childhood friend Janna tells her it was murder, not suicide, Keri wants to believe her. After all, Janna’s brother died under similar circumstances years ago, and Janna insists a visiting tourist, Sione, who also lost a brother to apparent suicide that year, has helped her find some answers.

As the three dig deeper, disturbing facts begin to pile up: one boy killed every year; all older brothers; all had spent New Year’s Eve in the idyllic town of Summerton. But when their search for the serial killer takes an unexpected turn, suspicion is cast on those they trust the most.

As secrets shatter around them, can they save the next victim? Or will they become victims themselves?

– summary from Goodreads

Full disclosure: Karen and I are friends. However! This does not make her writing any less awesome, nor my awe of it any less genuine. I thought her first book, Guardian of the Dead, was wonderful, but The Shattering absolutely blew it – and me – away.

Here is the thing about protagonists: they are characters, which is to say participants in a linear narrative, which translates, by and large – although not without notable and significant exception – to good guys. Particularly in YA, protagonists are, more often than not, meant to be sympathetic and likeable. Pause your thought-chain, though, because I’m not taking this where you think I am. Healey’s trio of protagonists – Keri, Sione and Janna – are both of these things, though in markedly different ways (which is closer to what I’m getting at, but wait).

Because here is the thing about people: they are human, which is to say complicated, which translates, by and large – although not without notable and significant exception – to being flawed. Unless we’re completely oblivious or narcissistic, we can all acknowledge our own imperfections; but acknowledging the truth isn’t quite the same as believing it. Whenever called upon to provide a bio, there’s a reason my default self-description starts with the phrase bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality – which is, simply, that even though I know I’ll die one day (hopefully in bed, aged 109, surrounded by heaving piles of my published works and the occasional loving family member) a part of me can’t quite believe it. Or at least, I can’t believe it all the time, or else I’d end up completely depressed and paranoid. And the same thing goes for flaws, too: because even though I can acknowledge their existence on a factual, intellectual level, it’s only comparatively rarely (or during moments of deep self-consciousness) that I can perceive them as a whole. This condition is not particular to me, and what it means is that, moment to moment, human self-perception tends to skew towards believing ourselves to be kinder, better versions of the people we actually are.

And here, finally, is the thing about authors: we are people, too. Which is to say that, when we sit down to write sympathetic characters, we have a tendency to forget their flaws in much the same way that we mentally block awareness of our own. This doesn’t mean the default state of authorhood is to write perfect characters – far from it. But we do, however, have a tendency to neatly align the emergence of flaws with plot-points rather than writing them in as constant facets of a protagonist’s personality; and while there are certainly times when doing so falls under the purview of the Law of Conservation of Detail, this isn’t always the case. Specifically: if we want a character to be sympathetic and likeable, then it’s easy to shy away from giving them flaws that aren’t addressed or overcome as part of the narrative proper. This is not unrealistic characterisation per se, because most readers immersed in a protagonist’s thought processes find it similarly easy to extend their heroes and heroines the same flaw-obscuring courtesies they habitually extend themselves. Most of the time, in fact, we pick  up a book with an eye to liking the main character, because the vast bulk stories we’ve grown up with have taught us that this is what we’re meant to do (which is a different issue in and of itself). We identify with and view as normative such flaw-free and unobnoxious characters because, unless we’re in the habit of actively critiquing our own behaviour, that’s who we think we are, too. And while the practise doesn’t actually constitute bad writing – or at least, not by itself – it does lead to characters who are, perhaps, a little thinner and a little more idealised than actual humans, in much the same way that their destinies are more cathartic and their luck more strongly abetted by the presence of plot armour.

Karen Healey, however, does not do this – which is why The Shattering’s Keri, Sione and Janna are among the most concrete, fully-fledged characters I have ever encountered.

It’s more than just their flaws, of course. I can picture all three easily – faces, bodies, expressions, movement. I can hear their speech patterns in the dialogue, the different intonations and word-choice setting them all apart. I can even hear their accents, which I’d swear is unprecedented, and I can see the setting of Summerton like a place I’ve actually visited: the light, the sounds, the houses. The prose style contrives to be simultaneously clean and crisp, yet evocative and lush; the plot is simple, but expertly orchestrated, with not a single misplaced or unnecessary emphasis. The action is gripping, the magic and danger both menacing and believable – but it’s the humanity, the sheer strength and purpose of the characters, that makes it an absolute winner. With the chapter framework alternately cutting between Keri’s first-person recollections and respective third-person insights into Janna and Sione – an excruciatingly difficult balance to pull off competently, let alone well – both structure and voice ought to be bland at best and messy at worst. Instead, each character is whole and distinct, their interweaving outlooks made complementary even as they differ.

As in Guardian of the Dead, Healey has created a realistically diverse cast: Keri is mixed-race, Maori and pakeha; Sione is Samoan, and Janna is a white New Zealander. For lazy, unthinking writers, this would be deemed a sufficient means of distinguishing the protagonists all by itself, because regardless of race issues, there’s a strong cultural tendency among modern storytellers to delineate different characters more by colour and appearance  than by native characterisation, the logic seemingly being that if the audience can picture the heroes as looking dissimilar, then there’s less need for their personalities to actually be dissimilar. At its worst, this practice swiftly devolves to appalling tokenism and stereotyping; at its best, a character’s racial/cultural identity is effectively portrayed as their only identity. Even for well-meaning creators, this can be a hard stumbling block to overcome – but not for Healey. Her characters are real, functioning people, and while their respective heritages certainly inform who they are, these aspects are only and always part of a larger whole.

Which brings me back to flawedness: because the other thing about human beings is that, despite our best intentions and protestations of equality, we are still all products of the cultures which create us – their negative aspects as well as the positive. Which is why Keri thinks of her brother’s girlfriend as a white bitch, and why Janna treads on people’s feelings, and why Sione’s shyness manifests as inattention as often as it does endearing silence; and why Keri is cold-blooded, and Janna selfish, and Sione jealous – and why none of this stops them from being sympathetic and likeable, because all of a sudden, whenever a character we’re attached to thinks something mean or dismisses a friend or behaves badly, we’re forced to confront the fact that we do those things, too, and perhaps more often than we realise, and that this only stops us from being good people if we make no effort to change. It’s a rare book that can bring on such epiphanies without being preachy and while simultaneously letting both protagonists and reader orchestrate their individual redemptions, but The Shattering does so beautifully.

This is a book with heart, conscience and consequences. Superbly written, brilliantly characterised and perfectly paced, it’s something everyone should read. Whatever Healey produces next, she’s certainly set the bar high.

Let me show you how it works:

  1. A female, POC and/or LGBTQ politician/leader is appointed in your area. This is cause for celebration, because
  2. while you aren’t sexist, racist or homophobic, you’re all too aware of the fact that other people – and, more specifically, The System – are frequently biased in those directions, making it harder for such candidates to be accepted regardless of their qualifications. Certainly, this new person is a definite a minority among their high-powered brethren, which suggests that
  3. they must be exceptional in some way. Depending on the context, this specialness could be ascribed to any number of skills, passions or characteristics, but the most important thing is that
  4. despite their gender, race and/or sexual orientation – or rather, despite the biases of less enlightened people who consider such things a handicap – the candidate has succeeded. But no matter how glad you are to see them installed, it’s important to remember that
  5. the candidate did not succeed because of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation. Regardless of whether quotas and/or tokenism are a relevant in this instance (which depends entirely on the individual circumstances), it’s generally seen to be the job of obnoxious, right-wing objectors to claim, sneeringly, that so-and-so was only let in because of their gender, race and or/ sexual orientation, this being a basic means of undermining such a candidate’s qualifications from the get-go. Nonetheless,
  6. it’s clear that their gender, race and/or sexual orientation is a relevant factor in terms of how they’ll be perceived in their role, no matter how irrelevant it might be to their actual portfolio. But even though these details only matter to you in terms of your being happy to see The System veer away from straight white male dominion,
  7. should an instance arise (as it inevitably will) where the candidate is in a position to act (or not) on left-wing issues – and particularly where, either accurately or not, you perceive those issues to overlap with their own gender, racial and/or sexual identity – your natural expectation is for them to Do The Right Thing. And as you’ve already acknowledged that the candidate is special,
  8. you’ve automatically set yourself up to hold them – albeit with the best of intentions – to a higher moral, social and political standard than their straight, white and/or male counterparts. Even if you can acknowledge that people in positions of authority must, of necessity, compromise their own values in order to maintain alliances, get work done in the long term and keep their position within the party/organisation, all that hopefulness about seeing a female, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate in the arena can turn swiftly to feelings of betrayal should they compromise on the issues you care about,
  9. because they, of all possible candidates, should know better. But now they’ve gone and abused your trust; they’ve proved that they weren’t special after all – no better than their straight, white and/or male colleagues, really, and certainly worse in terms of causing you heartache, because of how they should have known better. And because you took their betrayal personally, rather than viewing it as a pragmatic (if irritating) function of their being a human in office, you can’t bear to support them any more. You’d feel like a hypocrite now, and anyway, keeping them in just to maintain diversity and at the expense of your principles would really be tokenism. And so you take the only remaining, logical course of action, and
  10. vote them out of office. It’s a shame they couldn’t live up to your expectations, but maybe the next woman, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate to come along will be different. After all, is it really so unreasonable to expect that your chosen leader be a flawless paragon of virtue?

Congratulations! You have now succeeded in holding minority candidates to such an unreasonably high standard on the basis of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation that you’ve effectively recreated the same type of discrimination you were so angry about in the first place. Wash, rinse and repeat, until society collapses or insomniac authors die from an overdose of facepalm.

This tutorial/rant brought to you by politics, the internet and human nature.

Consider the following thought process:

1. People who look different are easier to tell apart than people who look the same.

2. Audiences are better able to distinguish between characters who are described or shown to be physically dissimilar to one another.

3. Physical dissimilarity in such instances is often established through differences in hair, skin and eye colour.

4. People of Caucasian descent have a wider range of natural hair and eye colours than people of other races.

5. Narrative tokenism is a natural consequence of physical dissimilarity being used to create visually distinct characters.

6. Creating a visually diverse cast of characters is not the same thing as creating a racially diverse cast of characters.

All stories exist within a tradition of storytelling. Unavoidably, that tradition is both connected to and influenced by external culture. We live now – and have done for some time – in a multicultural society, a fact which is in absolutely no danger of changing. I don’t know what first sparked the notion that diversity was best expressed by the image of one male and one female of every ethnicity all standing together like the denizens of a transnational Noah’s Ark, unless it’s Walt Disney’s fault, but for whatever reason, and while I acknowledge that there’s an undeniable egalitarianism to this approach, the symmetry of it seems to have become an unquestioned narrative trope.

This is not a good thing, for two main reasons. Firstly, as described above, it leads to tokenism. An important clarification, before we go any further: this is neither the only cause of tokenism, nor is it the most common. But particularly in visual media, it is easy to conflate visual dissimilarity among characters with racial diversity, and in a context of Caucasian dominance, this cannot help but lead to instances of the human hair colour quartet – blonde, brunette, red and black – being used to represent diversity, with non-white characters frequently fulfilling the black-haired quotient. Secondly, and as a direct result of this, it leads to a situation where casts are considered to be diverse if they contain one or two non-white characters, and where an equal distribution of different ethnicities therefore becomes seen as the moral ideal.

On the surface, this latter consequence might not seem particularly problematic – certainly, there are worse ideals to have – and yet it is still polluted by the dual contaminants of aesthetic balance and white privilege. After all, ensuring that a range of ethnicities be represented in roughly the same ratios is not the same thing as ensuring that the main characters are drawn randomly from that pool, and despite the best intentions of such diversity, there’s still an underlying assumption in our society that at least two such characters must always be white. This creates an extremely problematic working model of racial diversity within narrative: one where the only constant is the presence of white characters who, despite an equal opportunities orbit of POC colleagues, are still more likely to be the protagonists than not.

What got me thinking on all of this is the extent to which visual diversity as a means of distinguishing characters is a particularly common ploy in book serials and TV shows aimed at preadolescents. Back when I was nine or so – a burgeoning tween, at any rate – it seemed that everywhere I turned, characters in books and on TV were being set apart from each other on the basis of colour association. Some of these were more genuine attempts at diversity than others. The five main characters of Capitan Planet, for instance, were all from different parts of the world, belonging to entirely different cultures and ethnicities; additionally, each character was given command over a particular element, which was in turn associated with a specific colour. Thus, Kwame was African with earth magic (green); Wheeler was North American with fire magic (red); Linka was Eastern European with wind magic (purple); Gi was Asian with water magic (blue) and Ma-Ti was South American with heart magic (yellow). A much less tactful example is the Power Rangers franchise, where each Ranger was literally described in terms of colour. In the original series, this meant that the white male characters were the Red, Blue and Green Rangers, respectively; the white female character was Pink Ranger; the black male ranger was Black Ranger; and the Asian female character was Yellow Ranger, none of which is particularly encouraging.

Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc series sat somewhere between these two examples, diversity-wise. Of the six main characters, four were white – mousy blonde Tom, light blonde Richelle, brunette Liz, and redhead Elmo – with two non-white characters then fulfilling the black-haired quotient: Nick was Greek and Sunny was Chinese. Insofar as every character narrated an equal number of books, it was an egalitarian system, but in terms of creating a visually diverse cast, it still felt as though the ratios were chosen on the basis of differing hair colour. Other series, such as the W.I.T.C.H comics and just about any fairy– or princess-based serial aimed at ten-year-old girls, will follow a similar pattern, though the latter examples are much more obsessed with Caucasian visual diversity than the former. Take a flip through the character sketches for just about any cartoon or anime, and you’ll witness a similar phenomenon: regardless of the racial diversity of the casts, many shows will deliberately create a unique colour scheme for each character, the better to set them apart – and if the fantasy aspects of a given story can be subtly expressed with the help of such visual cues, then so much the better.

And speaking of SFF, take a moment to consider the racial makeup of successive Star Trek crews, or the desired character balance of a typical Dungeons & Dragons party. Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor too far, but it nonetheless strikes me as a relevant that in both these instances, imaginary humanoid races – be they Vulcans, Cardassians and Klingons or orcs, gnomes and elves – are usually deployed on something of a ‘one of each’ basis. The starship Enterprise might well be a shining beacon of diversity, particularly given the era in which it was created, but in each successive franchise, the pattern was always for more human crew-members than alien, with the latter characters made special and distinctive by the fact that nobody else in the main cast shared their heritage. Similarly, the foundation of any successful D&D campaign is a balanced party, in terms of race as well as skill. You don’t want everyone to play an orc anymore than you want everyone to play a halfling,and as those sentiments extend to novels, too, the typical makeup of myriad Tolkien-derivative quest fantasies, such as Terry Brooks’s Shanara novels or the massive Dragonlance series, therefore depends on an even mix of character backgrounds: the archetypal motley crew.

So here, ultimately, is my question: why is the single most common expression of diversity in narrative contingent upon creating casts of characters whose individuality is defined by their collective difference? Why, unless those characters are white – or, in fantastic instances, human – is there an unspoken law against writing a cast where multiple characters share the same racial, ethnic or religious background? Why is it necessary that POC characters go constantly two by two, one male and one female, in narratives where the majority of characters are white? Does it have something to do with the fact that our childhood stories are saturated with the logic of colour association, or are those narratives a subconscious simplex of tokenism in the adult world? I am not saying that colour association in children’s stories is an inherently vicious idea, nor am I arguing that ‘one of each’ narratives fail at genuine diversity. But it strikes me that if notions of visual dissimilarity, cultural symmetry and aesthetic balance are continuing to fuel the logic used to create casts of characters, then we might not be approaching the issue with as open a mind as we should be. Sadly, the real world is neither perfectly symmetrical nor innately egalitarian, and if our best efforts to display it as such still persist in conflating white privilege with realistic diversity, then the problem is more pervasive than we think.