ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE ARE NO GODDAMN POC HUMANS IN YOUR SPACE EPICS
"I just don’t see how non-white characters would fit into my book. All the characters in my head are white."
I see this excuse as a crisis of imagination. Particularly if you’re writing SF, often set in a future when anything can change. When everything can be different than it is now. We’ve already seen our first black president. We’ve seen women in ever more powerful roles. Gays and lesbians are coming out in nearly every corner of society, and universal marriage equality is becoming more and more imaginable.
You can’t imagine a black genetic engineer as your main character? An Hispanic lesbian piloting a starship? Then your imagination needs some revamping. You need to start thinking outside the box. Open up your corner of the world to more possibilities.
ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE ARE NO GODDAMN POC HUMANS IN YOUR SPACE EPICS
the legend of korra does women so dirty.
desna and eska have a mother and the fact that she’s so inconsequential is treated like a joke
asami is a prop who is disrespected by everyone around her and no one cares
ginger is assaulted by bolin but he still gets rewarded by her affection at the end
katara has every last drop of personality sucked away from her and shows up to i don’t know make atla fans feel sad
lin’s competence and characterization is fucked with just to prop up mako as the greatest cop ever in the history of everdom
women aren’t the majority movers and shakers in the plot the men are
women don’t have strong relationships to one another and if they do they aren’t given any importance in the plot
korra herself has a decent arc but that’s not enough for me
i don’t want to see one well developed female character i want to see numerous well developed female characters and this show can’t even do the minimum
Everything here I agree with. But what if that’s how the time period is? The world is becoming modern and it’s sort of close to ours. Even here was had a time where women were treated with disrespect and being objectified, somewhat close to that time, even today.
I know these types of things wasn’t shown much in atla, in fact, the women of atla were dignified and broke all stereotypes to show how strong women can by their own will, but I don’t know.
The “what if that’s how the time period is?” argument needs to be thoroughly debunked. Not because this is a fictional world and the creators can choose to create whatever characters they want and give those characters whatever significant roles they want, but because it’s completely “off” as an argument, anyway.
As you note, even today and in the past women have been treated with disrespect and objectified. But that doesn’t mean women didn’t play important roles in history. Women continued to work with what agency and social capital they had and played proactive roles in determining their fates. It’s history makers who have done us all the disservice of pretending that women don’t do anything important when they are marginalized. This is something that Avatar: The Last Airbender actively subverted by showing characters like Katara, Toph, Yue, and Ursa making decisions even if they had more limited options than the men in their world.
While writing Avatar: The Last Airbender the writing team was able to take a close look at their story and rewrite two character concepts so that Katara was not the only woman character in the series. They changed the concepts of Toph and Azula from boys to girls and added characters like Ty Lee and Mai. The writers could have been just as thoughtful with The Legend of Korra - Spirits.
For example, they could have revised the story so that Senna was the heir to the Northern Water Tribe, and Unulaq her younger brother. In Spirits, we never understood why Unulaq wanted to depose Tonraq. If Unulaq’s older sibling had been Senna, a callback could have been made to the consequences of Katara’s actions at the North Pole in A:TLA. The regressive gender politics of the historical Northern Water Tribe would have been a believable motivation for Unulaq stealing the right to rule from an older sister and first woman heir to the water tribe. Senna fleeing to the South and the South’s desire for independence would have paralleled how Kanna fled to the South in A:TLA. Senna could have been engaged in the rebellion storyline as a powerful waterbender. Instead, we see Tonraq leading an all-male Southern Water Tribe rebellion while Senna stays out of the way, and the conflict between Unulaq and Tonraq echoes the Water Tribe brother conflict that we saw play out in Book 1 with Tarlokk and Amon.
Another option the showrunners could have taken, but did not, was to make President Raiko a woman instead of a man. This could have illustrated an interesting change in leadership and gender politics in Republic City (going from a Council that only had one woman on it to a woman president.) The role this character played could just as easily have been filled by a woman character. Instead, we get President Raiko and his First Lady, Buttercup, who is depicted as easily charmed by Varrick in contrast to her wiser husband. After being kidnapped, Buttercup doesn’t show up again when Raiko is doing his tactical surveillance (when Bolin brags about his heroic antics, it’s about saving the President and not the President and the First Lady. At least Joo Lee does a thing.)
It doesn’t make sense that Katara would not be deeply engaged in negotiating the political situation between the two Water Tribes. And why not let her be proactive in the fight. Master Waterbender Katara trained two Avatars in waterbending and was likely instrumental in helping Aang negotiate diplomatic situations as partner to the Avatar. The argument that she is an “older adult who is retired” doesn’t make sense— King Bumi was 100 years old and still a diplomat and fighter. Actually, it would have been easy to substitute Katara in any of Tonraq’s scenes without greatly impacting the plot. (Katara even has an established history of fomenting rebellions!)
It’s not the “time period.” It’s the writers’ choices and decisions. There were a lot of options available to them.
Good commentary above, but I’d also like to make the point clear that there’s a difference between IN-UNIVERSE disrespect and side-lining of women, and NARRATIVE disrespect of women.
The first would make the time period issue a legitimate point, because women WERE treated poorly in that time and did have fewer options available to them. Strong and complex women still exist and still take proactive action to determine their own fate, but exist in an environment which works against them, which is inherent in the story itself.
However, the OP is talking about the narrative disrespect of women, which is, essentially, that the writers and direction of story-telling, on a meta scale, actively work against the women in their story. The women get less screen time, their plot and character arcs given less importance, their characterization relies on pre-existing stereotypes in the audience’s mind, and their relationships are less developed than those involving men. In this case, it’s not just the universe they live in disrespecting these women and working against them, it’s the very fabric of the story itself, and the choices the WRITERS make which limit the potential they have to carry their own plots via their own actions.
This is an interesting and important distinction to make.
If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”
And I think that this a huge challenge for boys, because they want to pretend they can write girls. Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliche lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.
And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity. And without an enormous amount of assistance, you’re not even going to get a D. I think with male writers the most that you can hope for is a D with an occasional C thrown in. Where the average women writer, when she writes men, she gets a B right off the bat, because they spent their whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity. In fact, part of the whole feminism revolution was saying, “Me too, motherfuckers.” So women come with it built in because of the society.
It’s the same way when people write about race. If you didn’t grow up being a subaltern person in the United States, you might need help writing about race. Motherfuckers are like ‘I got a black boy friend,’ and their shit sounds like Klan Fiction 101.
The most toxic formulas in our cultures are not pass down in political practice, they’re pass down in mundane narratives. It’s our fiction where the toxic virus of sexism, racism, homophobia, where it passes from one generation to the next, and the average artist will kill you before they remove those poisons. And if you want to be a good artist, it means writing, really, about the world. And when you write cliches, whether they are sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, that is a fucking cliche. And motherfuckers will kill you for their cliches about x, but they want their cliches about their race, class, queerness. They want it in there because they feel lost without it. So for me, this has always been the great challenge.
As a writer, if you’re really trying to write something new, you must figure out, with the help of a community, how can you shed these fucking received formulas. They are received. You didn’t come up with them. And why we need fellow artists is because they help us stay on track. They tell you, “You know what? You’re a bit of a fucking homophobe.” You can’t write about the world with these simplistic distortions. They are cliches. People know art, always, because they are uncomfortable. Art discomforts. The trangressiveness of art has to deal with confronting people with the real. And sexism is a way to avoid the real, avoiding the reality of women. Homophobia is to avoid the real, the reality of queerness. All these things are the way we hide from encountering the real. But art, art is just about that.
Exhibit A for why Wikipedia and the dictionary are not always the best places to look when deciding what terms to use. Continue to research and come to your own conclusions about whether or not you feel comfortable using those terms!
Caring about diversity seems to me like the absolute bare minimum standard of decency.
I remember when I was still in school, I went to a gathering of people in my city, an informal fantasy nerds book group. So, we were all talking about books, and the subject of this one book series with a gay romance in it arose, and I began to tear it to pieces: I thought it was terribly written, I had to let everybody know how just so, so bad it was. And a girl who I hadn’t met before that day looked me dead in the eyes and said: “Those books saved my life.”
I sat there and stared at her, until I found my voice and said: “Wow, I’m so sorry, I was being an asshole.” She was very nice about it: she went “Eh, yeah” and then I asked her for some book recommendations and she asked me for some.
I was describing Unspoken to another writer, and I won’t say who they were but they are New York Times bestselling, and she reacted to the diverse elements of it saying “I wouldn’t do that: you can’t afford to do that with the sales of your last series, you can do those things after you’re successful” and I couldn’t help but remember that girl saying “Those books saved my life” and feel sick that anyone would ever say that. So I wrote the book the way I planned. I’m not saying I did a good job, or even a sufficient job, and it’s no excuse for the things I got wrong, but I did always remember that even doing what I’d thought was a lousy job, those books helped people by having representation. There’s no excuse for not trying.
I’m worried this story makes me sound self-congratulatory or big-headed: I don’t mean it that way. Nobody should ever be congratulated for having basic empathy. It’s normal to want to throw up if someone says something terrible to you. Other authors do a much better job of writing diversely than me–still more other authors, who don’t get the chance to be published because of institutional prejudice, would do a much better job than me. I’m just using the story to illustrate why I think diversity should be important to everyone. I just want to write good stories–and that means stories that are inclusive–and try not to be an irredeemable jerk. (Sometimes I fail at both those things.)
Workshop with other writers who write diversely, particularly writers of color. It’s part of developing your craft as a writer—you put in the work and effort to learn how to write differently and using less racist language than other authors have in the past! And write, creatively!
Even so, don’t use language with a racist history (eg. almond eyes) to describe Asian characters. Make your best effort to emphasize the character’s appearance so that the person is unmistakably PoC, but accept that some readers may still end up ignoring your descriptors (whether subconsciously out of conditioning, or willfully out of racism.)
"Tamara was Asian."
(More resources here: http://racebending.tumblr.com/tagged/unsolicited-writing-advice)
In the most comprehensive study of children’s literature during a period of 100 years, researchers recently found that:
- 57% of children’s books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.
- In popular children’s books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.
- The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters.
It’s not just the quantity, but the quality as well. Female characters, as in movies, are often marginalized, stereotyped, or one-dimensional. For example, in Peter Pan, Wendy is a stick-in-the-mud mother figure, and Tiger Lily is a jealous exotic. The animated books featuring animals are particularly subtle. Think about Winnie the Pooh—Kanga is the only female character, and she’s definitely not one of the gang.
The researchers concluded, “The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children’s media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games, and even coloring books.”
But, it goes beyond gender and is true of racial and ethnic diversity as well. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education has conducted a survey of all kids and young adult books published each year since 1985. Of an estimated 5,000 children’s and YA books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans.