Representation: An author’s duty?

Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First off I think that the only duty an author has is to tell her story.  Full stop, done, fin, 終わり, einde, ukuphela.  After all, it’s … wait for it now … her gorram story!!!

Now, thing is, while “duty” is a pretty strong word, I think we have a responsibility as authors to be mindful of our characters and what they may represent about our settings and by extension about ourselves.

The thing is, this is a slippery and messy subject if you’re wont to use sloppy thinking.  See, if you have a story about two men talking in a restaurant with no other cast but, perhaps, a waiter — possibly not even that — then representation is out the window; just forget about it.  Their sex and gender is irrelevant to the matter beyond pronouns to use, their skin colour is irrelevant, etc.  Unless, of course, the conversation they’re having, or something about the setting changes that (hey, could be very important if something about the story makes it important that it’s two black men on their lunch break at the coloured section of a 1950s diner!).  The larger your cast, though, the more it starts to matter.

Now, again, be careful.  Let’s say we’re talking about Universal Nexus.  Now, in it, the cast can seem whitewashed.  Why?  Because the stories written so far all concentrate on a single large family of people who are of Norwegian descent.  There are non-whites in that family … most are non-Human as well, but a few are Human.  It would be if the rest of the Sweytzian society had more crackers than a Keebler elf that there’d be a problem on race.  Now, a family that large, sexuality might start to play a factor — a family with 30 children, sundry spice of those 30 children, nearly as many grandchildren from the elder members of those 30 children, and the 8 parents … if someone ain’t the fuck gay or bi … well, something’s not quite kosher now.  Somone not being trans?  Hmmmm … nah, I think it’s uncommon enough that in 100 people it’s not really a statistical certainty; but hey … we do actually have a few androgynous in there so some Gender Non-Conformists if not strictly trans.  Not bragging, it’s just the largest cast I have ready access to the demographics of; I detest Star Wars Expanded Universe, Star Trek after TOS was entirely too good at being an example what not to do, and Babylon 5 wasn’t quite big enough cast to be as great an example — though it comes fantastically close as does Firefly.

The thing is mindfulness.  Don’t make characters gay, black, white, Asian, Martian … just make them people, but be mindful that people are diverse.  You don’t even actually have to ever say what they are!!

Look at Harry Potter.  Ol’ Dumbledore is gay.  Cool!  Does it make the slightest difference to the story?  That depends on how it influences the way you read some of his fashion choices (seriously, anyone whose gaydar didn’t ping needs to get the damned thing checked out — or am I stereotyping?!  Never know, you just never know).  Thing is, colour doesn’t play a huge role, either.  They’re in the UK where names and such can give some hints of skin colour, but by and large it’s left to the reader’s imagination; is the cast whitewashed because of a shortcoming of Rowling’s, or yours?  Also, let’s not forget that it’s a relatively small cast made primarily of families that have been in Britain and of a rather small gene pool since the gorram DRUIDS!!  Hint people — a lot of British wizards and witches, dey gonna be white folk, it’s if she had the Zulu witches and wizards being heavily white, that’s whitewashing.

The trick is to examine your own biases and see if you’re picturing an overly monochromatic, overly [insert sexuality here], overly [cis/trans]gender, etc. crowd.  Key word:  Overly.  A society of old British families are going to be, mostly, white by the demographics of that part of Europe throughout the past thousand years.  A story set in modern London, however, with a pick-mix cast, well … now that had bloody well better at least contain a few people with some Indian skin tones, except depending on what part of India their family is from that could be just as pale as their neighbour whose family has lived in London since it was founded, but that aside a few darker skin colours better be found.  In a visual media.  If it’s a written media, just remember when you imagine it that you’re imagining the real streets of London and, so long as you’re doing that, you’re not putting monochromatics into your work nor reading it into a work that never actually says what colour people are.

Colour’s the first one.  I mean — face it, folks no read no more, they watch TV and movies.

Sexuality, gender, sex?

These are a different matter.  If the story contains no points where it matters, then it’s no point saying that she’s trans, or he’s gay, or whatever.  Maybe one or more of the little boys in Hogwarts was actually trans, or one of the little girls a lesbian — how would we know?  Not all transgender are obviously so, and we don’t know the who dated/married whom of the entire school — shit, we don’t even know the names of the entire student body nor teaching staff!

Thing is, when it matters don’t forget to include them when/where possible.  Don’t shoehorn them in — that’s tokenism and is absolutely worse than just not bothering — but if you’re sitting there going “this dude is married, he’s going to go home and there’s going to already be dinner on the table with a kiss waiting for him at the door, and 3.2 kids and a dog, too” does it have to be a wife?!  Why not a husband?  If it is a wife; if the book is a little bit more adult detailed … later on, when our husband and wife are starting to get intimate and have a little sexy naked time, why can’t our intrepid father’s vagina be pleasured by the nimble fingers of his wife?  If it doesn’t matter one way or the other, and you don’t get a definite picture so you’re doing that whole “making the characters” business — then here’s a good point to do that sort of thing.  If you start thinking in terms of “what is the literary significance of him being a trans man?” you are in a sad and sorry state my friend; step away from the pen, put the story away for now, go have a stiff drink and a quiet lie down — maybe watch a little Blazing Saddles or something.

Now the thing is, when you include anyone, you need to be accurate and respectful.  This can be tricky.  Thing is, there are always going to be people who really live up to their stereotypes.  I have known gay men who were more flaming than Hollywood Montrose on Mannequin; I have known black women who are just like the women in Don’t Be a Menace to Society While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood; and white, bible-thumping, Southern Baptists who are exactly like their worst stereotypes.  I’ve also known gay men who you wouldn’t think for a single second weren’t straight until you saw them kiss their boyfriend; I’ve known black women who were nothing like a Wayans’ parody; I’ve known devout Christians of various denominations who really paid attention to Christ’s words and are the kindest, most generous, and open-minded souls you’ll ever know (and yes, that includes Baptists … no idea what flavour of Baptist, but Baptist).

Now this is where I get to mention a movie I rather enjoy:  Woman on Top.  No, it’s not porn.  It’s a romantic-comedy with the only nudity involving a very deep bubble bath so for all I know the two characters were wearing bathing suits in there.  Now in it is a woman, named Monica, who is trans.  She is Monica through and through, a woman; an eccentric woman, yes, but she’s an artist and we’re all a bit nuts — she’s charming.  Does her decorating style and mannerism lead one to think of a gay man?  Well, possibly, if you think of her as a man, that’s exactly what you’ll see (she is played by a man — Harold Perrineau — as a matter of fact, a very talented guy if the few things I’ve seen him in are any indication), but believe me she’s exactly like plenty of women you’ll meet, too; so if you think of her as a woman, you’ll just see an extremely extroverted, very confident, rather flamboyant, artsy, black woman.

Thing with our fair Ms Monica is that not everyone in the movie acknowledges her as a woman!  This is a big deal.  If they did, it wouldn’t be believable.  I applaud the fact that she’s treated equally as being a woman and as being a man in drag.  This is a reality for trans women; and a form of it is a reality for trans men.  Accuracy needs to go with your respect.  It might make a few of us feel all warm and fuzzy inside if everyone treated her as a woman without question, without hesitation, without a single thought to her status as transgender; except for two little details:  1) how the fuck do you know she’s trans?!  At that point she’s just another woman in the cast  2) I’m sorry, but this isn’t Sesame Street.

Now, on the flip side, we need to remember this:  an author’s first responsibility is to her story.  Other responsibilities take a distant back seat to this.

It does us no good to hollar and cry over “misrepesentation” every single time.  A character who is a stereotype for no purpose, that’s a problem.  One who is a stereotype to serve a purpose … let’s take Hollywood Montrose, he’s campy as all hell, but there are men like him, and his flamboyance is an important part of the comedy of the script.  If we can’t laugh at ourselves, then we’re too uptight (metaphorically, I suppose — gay, I am, yes, but gay man, I am not).  The trans-something (hey, face it, she could be a drag queen, a transvestite or transsexual — it’s a short scene with little detail) in Crocodile Dundee, in that bar with Gwendoline … there is nothing wrong with that scene.  Yep!  I said it!  What?  Think about it.  What’s wrong with the scene?!  A bar full of drunken dopes, in 1986 and one clueless bumpkin from the Outback; that scene was dead on — Bravo!

Really, always, it does no good to think, if you do it sloppily.  We’re Human, we’ll do that sometimes, but the point is to watch out for it.  Readers and the authors both have a responsibility, really, to just have a little common sense and to remember that their brains aren’t there to cool the blood, they’re there for thinking.  You spend a ridiculous number of calories a day to power the damned thing, use it — take a second to really ask yourself just what in hell you’re doing when you put pen to paper or when you’re holding the book and flipping the pages.  99% of all Political Correctness is complete bullshit.  It’s people muddying the language and getting indignant over stupid stuff — sometimes ignorance and stupidity, sometimes over what’s meant to genuinely be a bit of fun that you might join in with if you took a second to laugh at your own expense.  Remember — whatever I call you, whatever joke I make, whatever statement I make — it’s only an insult if you take it as one.  Well, there are exceptions — radfems say some just plain mean things about a lot of women, but trans especially, and 700 Club says some downright awful things about … frankly … everyone; but the point is that intent should be a very crucial bit of context just as how much the words coming out of that total stranger’s mouth actually matter is a very crucial bit of context.

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