For those of you feeling discouraged, or lamenting that it didn't look like a Blue Wave, pause a moment. Breathe. We didn't win (or haven't yet concluded) the "sexy" races. O'Rourke/Cruz, Kemp/Abrams, DeSantis/Gillum... but so many good things happened last night. Look at these victories. Let this be confirmation that your work mattered, and your vote mattered. Your vote still matters. Change is happening. Keep up the amazing work, y'all.
The Nazis carrying torches and confederate flags don't speak for me. Nor do the politicians crying out for unity when they not only benefited from but directly incited division. We may share skin pigmentation or citizenship, but they do not speak for me. We are none of us equal until we are ALL equal. We are one race: human. Our diversity is a strength, a feature not a bug.
You guys said that instead of Flash Friday, you wanted to see an essay on something near and dear to my heart. So here ya go, loves. Let me know what you want to see in 2 weeks: flash or an essay?? Think about the last thing you watched on television. Was it a football game? A sitcom? News? Maybe you don't take commercial tv, but prefer Netflix or a similar streaming service. Did you check out the new hotness? Or catch up on an old favorite? Are you thinking about it? That last thing you watched? Now, I have another question for you: did you see yourself there? Were you represented in the show? How about the commercials? Were you there?
Unless you're a cisgendered (your biological sex and your gender match) white hetero able-bodied human with a very specific BMI and body shape, probably not.
Now, there's a very public discussion at the moment about racial diversity in film, what with the Academy Awards nominations coming out with nary a minority to be found. We've talked for years about ethnic roles in adaptations being given to white people, or transgender characters being played by cis (typically white) males. Even in female-centric films, men still have more speaking time.
There's more to diversity than race and gender, to be sure, but right now these are the issues at the fore of the societal conversation. Media--books, television, films, advertisements, toys--all have a problem. The majority of these things do not represent most people.
"Why is it important?" I hear you asking.
Media is a mirror. It reflects our society's values, tells us what is "good", what is "bad". Media influences our thinking from what brand of cereal to buy this week at the story, to which political candidate we should vote for. Media tells us what is "normal", and what we should be in order to be a working cog in the societal machine.
When you don't see yourself reflected in that mirror, it can be damaging as fuck to a psyche. It makes you question your identity, can leave you feeling adrift and alone with no guidepost or role model. It can make you feel LESS THAN.
It's important to see a black super hero like Falcon, or a Muslim heroine like Kamala Khan, a wheel-chair bound Batgirl like Oracle, or a black Disney princess like Tiana. You want children to believe they can be more, be anything? They need to see that represented in print, on screen and in the toy aisle. They need to see themselves in positive places of power, roles with agency and control. You want a black woman to excel and become president? Show her that she can. You want oppressed people to rise up? Show them it's possible. Hell, Sesame Street understood that in the late '60s and still does!
I was excited as hell after watching one episode of Jessica Jones. Look, I'm 5'11'' and weigh over 250 pounds (thanks PCOS!). I watch an Avengers flick and I don't see myself there. I will never be the agile femme fatale like Black Widow. I'm not a soldier like Maria Hill. Though I adore her, I am too bohemian and coarse to be Peggy Carter. I have no interest in being a power CEO like Pepper Potts, nor can I personally identify with Scarlet Witch.
But Jessica Jones? While she is portrayed as skinnier and way more alcoholic than me, I see myself here. I see myself in her snark, her profanity, her "I don't give a shit if I wear the same pants for a week" mentality. I see myself in her struggle to survive the psychological abuse of Killgrave, her very real PTSD. I watch Jessica Jones and think for a moment, "yeah, I can be that heroine."
I cried when I saw The Force Awakens last month. My daughter and I were sitting beside one another while a woman took up a lightsaber in a franchise that is (historically) terrible for women. My daughter and I were there in that character. Finally. We could be Jedi. (Just for one day.)
Black roles are generally given to sidekicks. Largely they are a token role that could be played by someone white, as their race has little influence on their character. The exception being something that chooses a stereotypical portrayal of a black person, or a historical film that discusses slaves or Moors.
Asian characters are typically martial arts gurus, fetishized, or both. If neither of the above, you're a computer expert or really good at math.
Indian? Smart character. Socially awkward. Butt of jokes. Or you work in a 7-11. If you're female, you're "exotic".
Latino/Latina? We will not differentiate between Columbian vs Honduran vs Mexican vs Puerto Rican etc and so forth, because that would mean we'd have to learn something. You're the silly friend, the drug lord or John Leguizamo who is both.
Native/Indigenous people? If we mention your race at all (without mistaking you as Latino/Latina), you're sagelike and wise. Or drunk. Or in a historical film and will likely die of cholera, small pox, or an arrow wound.
Fat? You're the plucky, funny best friend with a heart of gold. You are probably Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy since Janeane Garafalo go out of the game. But, on the plus side, Mattel has released a series of new Barbies with different body types. Only took 57 years.
In a wheelchair, or otherwise disabled? Yeah, the movie isn't going to be about you, but instead about how brave you are to overcome all obstacles. You can't just be a person, we have to fetishize your disability. LEGO has decided to release mini-figs with wheelchairs, though.
Gay? You get characters now, but you're going to either share exposure with an ensemble cast, or be a supporting character. We won't focus on you, and if we do we will make it all about your gayness rather than your humanity. You will always be the snarky friend in a rom-com. Sorry.
Then there's erasure to deal with. So many parts of real people are swept under the rug or dismissed, assuming they make it on the screen or page at all.
Bisexuals? Sorry! We're either portrayed as capricious children who can't make up our minds, confused kids jumping on a bandwagon, greedy, or liars. And we'll never be the lead in a rom-com unless the plot is about how we are "forced to choose". We will only ever be object lessons.
Transgender? You're probably going to be a male-to-female character (because we can understand a woman wanting to become a man, but can't fathom a dude turning in his privilege of his own accord to be female). You may be degenerate, a villain or a laughable parody. Or you're a blatant Oscar grab for a cis male who will be seen as "so brave" for taking such a role.
Non-binary? Good luck. If you exist at all outside of niche media, you will only be background, or you'll be in an indie film starring Tilda Swinton (the goddess of androgyny) and featuring an all Bowie soundtrack.
Mental illness? No, we just need to pop a pill or try harder. Society doesn't talk about mental illness. (I was happy about Silver Linings Playbook being a bit new on this front, but we can do better.) The mentally ill characters in media are deviants, villains or object lessons.
Similarly, the Autistic Spectrum doesn't get much love. You're likely to find someone like Benedict Cumberbatch playing it off ambiguously as part of the ridiculously smart character. However, there is a character on the popular tween cartoon Monster High. Ghoulia Yelps is a "zombie", but she is a positive depiction of a girl on the Spectrum who is still valued by her friends and treated no differently than others.
Polyamory? HA! No. We get "Sister Wives" and "Big Love" bullshit on TLC that is all but mocking plural relationships. Or articles with pictures of people holding hands behind someone else's back, implying that polyamory is adultery by any other name.
Not only is the representation in film/books flawed, it also doesn't give an accurate depiction of the world. There are more minorities than the typical blockbuster would have you believe. The reality posited by even television and print media is flawed. Your common news anchors are less racially diverse than the communities they cover. That magazine was photoshopped and otherwise manipulated to the point that we aren't seeing any truth. Reality television isn't. Print ads are distorted.
Make It Your Own.
I know I've got it easier than some by sheer dint of being white and cisgendered. There are certainly more of us in the media than, say, a trans dude, or a black non-binary amputee. But frankly, I've come to a point in my life where I'm fucking exhausted by media telling me I'm not good enough. I'm not the "right" body type. I don't have the "right" kind of job. I'm the "wrong" sexuality. My gender is "less than". I'm tired of trying to find myself in a media that refuses to acknowledge my existence.
I'm a curvy, bisexual, polyamorous artist who uses the word "fuck" like it's punctuation. I'm not between sizes or trying to lose weight. I'm not lazy, nor am I unaware of my size and the potential repercussions on my health. (I have a disorder that causes problems with my reproductive and metabolic systems among other things.) I'm "fat", and that doesn't make me less beautiful.
I have one child and lack the desire (and now the ability) to have more. And I'm okay with this. That doesn't make me less of a woman.
I am bisexual and polyamorous. I am attracted to people. I am not capriciously sexual. I find a good, deep conversation more orgasmic than sex. I am not a liar, adulteress or in any way less than ethical.
I am an artist. I don't have a traditional day job. That doesn't mean I can't contribute to society, my family or the world. My joy in being an artist does not make me less worthy.
I'm tired of trying to find myself in the mirror of the media. So I've done a few things about this.
For starters, I write the media I want to see. I write diverse characters who are more than just a race or label. I write them with those things in mind, but the character is more than skin tone or sexual orientation.
Another part of that is being more authentic. Since I stared posting blogs in 2000, I made it a point to be myself. What you see is what you get. While things in my life have changed and I do keep many aspects of my life private, I prefer to be open about who I am. We need authenticity in the world. People need to see reflections of themselves, and know that there are places where their freak flags already fly. I want to be a safe place. I want to be an ally. I want to be real. To that end, I post things like this where you see me. (I mean seriously, how could I post an article about representation in media and not represent myself honestly in my own public space?)
And recently, I've started actively seeking me-friendly media. I know it's out there. I've found poly-friendly webcomics like Kimchi Cuddles, and Twitter accounts that promote bisexual inclusion. I've started collecting images on my Pinterest boards (non-binary thinking/bisexuality/polyamory here, and plus-size here - WARNING, both boards may be NSFW) that represent me, so that on days when I need a mirror, I can find one. On days when I feel "less than" I can remember that I am enough.
You are enough, too.
When popular media includes things like Donald Trump spewing rhetoric against Muslims, Mexicans, blacks, women and more; when echo chambers turn into houses of mirrors that stretch and twist reality, we need diverse media. We need representation. We all need to know that we are enough.
Again, today's post was picked by Patronuses and viewers like you. Like what you read? Want to suggest something for me to write, be it fiction or non? Want early and exclusive access to new work? Want to shower me with chai, chocolate and money? Consider becoming a Patronus!
No, I'm not going all Mufasa on you. Okay, actually, maybe I am. So some crazy shit went down in Paris, France this weekend. And in Beirut, Lebanon. Suicide bombings, senseless violence. Murder. Death. As we've seen when tragedy strikes--be it hurricanes, terrorists or other disasters--these things can bring out the best of us. People coming out of retirement to be volunteer first responders. Cab drivers giving Parisians a free ride home. Hashtags or social media sites that help victims. Tips on how to deal with tear gas shared to people in Ferguson from people in Egypt.
I'm going to voice an unholy, unpopular opinion...
I didn't like the Joss Whedon "Much Ado About Nothing".
There. I said it.
Look, I love Joss Whedon's other works. I find his writing to be impeccable, sharp and entertaining. His direction and filmmaking abilities are some of the best in the current crop of Hollywood. In short, I dig Joss Whedon. However, I cannot say that I enjoyed his take on this particular Shakespeare play. I much prefer the Catherine Tate/David Tennant stage production directed by Josie Rourke. I could write an entire blog post about my issues with the Whedon version, but, in the end it comes down to four words: It's not for me.
Along those same lines, I don't like lima beans, country music, reality television or skinny jeans. I'm not into Clown Dominant BDSM porn. These things and the people who dig them are not inherently bad (though I ask for a slight dram of understanding when I look at you funny for the clown thing). They are, however, not for me.
In general I am a "live and let live" person. If you eat lima beans while listening to your Keith Urban, I'm not going to rage at you or call you names. I'll be over here with my chai, watching the Tate/Tennant version of "Much Ado" for the tenth time in as many days.
But I realized recently that there is one avenue where I have an extreme prejudice. And that arena is BOOKS. I posted on Twitter quite happily that if your book is poorly written (ie riddled with spelling and grammar errors, rife with poor characterization and otherwise chock full of suck) I will rip it apart. I can, when it comes to the written word, be a judgmental bitch.
Now, my personal Facebook account is set to "friends only" for various reasons, the most pressing of which is that I like to have some semblance of space that is for myself, friends, family and close colleagues. Otherwise, I've got a fan page or my Twitter feed or this blog or conventions et al for everyone else. Anyway, I used my personal Facebook account to ridicule a self-published novella for its horrible cover and the atrocious writing quality. I started off being vague about it, not naming names or using the copy/paste function. After a while, however, I posted a link to the book on Amazon to share with others so they would see, "This is why I'm gagging here!"
I have amazing friends. Not only will they laugh with me, they will take me aside and say, "This time, I think you need to check yourself." One such friend sent me a private message offering a different point of view that I had, admittedly, been ignorant of. He suggested that this book was written that way specifically because it was aimed at a particular audience. The book used a cultural language and plays to the values of a specific kind of person.
In short, this book was not for me.
It wasn't written for me. It was written for another woman with a different life experience.
I think what we've seen recently in the news with Ferguson and the like has highlighted that while many of us are trying to live colorblind, we are instead blinded to other experiences. It's not out of anger, hatred or racism, but it is a flaw. In trying to see only people and treat everyone equally, we forget that everyone lives different experiences. Women walk to their cars holding their keys like a weapon. Black men are stopped for carrying a can of tea and Skittles. These are details of every day life for some people that the rest of us do not necessarily understand. A man doesn't know what it is to grow up in rape culture from a woman's perspective any more than I--a middle-class, cis white woman--can truly understand what it must be like to live the life of a black teen in middle America. Or a Latina immigrant. Or a transgender male. I can--and do--have sympathy. I can imagine or put myself in his/her shoes. But I can never truly know what that person's life is with cultural heritage and social conditioning.
That being the case, this particular book was not for me.
And I know that some of you are sitting there shaking your heads wondering how this can possibly be an epiphany for me. Well, I know that there are divisions. I know there are sects, schisms and denominations in the world. I know well that there are cultural/racial divides. But the one place I forget these things exist is in a library. It may be my naivete showing, but I think of libraries as huge, open areas where anyone can peruse any section at length and read any volume they choose. There isn't a room set aside for this class or this color or this creed. Books are accessible to all, in my mind, and I try to make my own writing equally open.
But, yeah... guess what, Jamie. This book isn't for you.
Coming to this conclusion throws the issue of diversity-in-fiction into even sharper relief, and adds new questions to the mix:
When writing The Other (be it People of Color, other genders or sexual preferences etc), where is the line between writing people--fully-generated characters--and ignoring their differences? For example, we don't want our strong female characters to be "men with tits" any more than we want to whitewash PoC. I think we can agree that white-cis-heteronormative male is not the default human setting (regardless of what popular media would show). However, we don't want to have token black characters or Sassy Gay Friends just for the sake of them being there, either. Personally, I write people. Some of my characters are black, some are white. Some are satyrs and gods. Some are bi, some are cis, some are Pan. To me, though, these are things that inform who they are without defining who they are. My characters have fears and desires that resonate on a human level.
However, is this also a problem? Does being colorblind turn into erasure? I'm thinking here of a discussion way back in high school about how shows like Cosby and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air didn't depict "blackness" but black people in white roles. The idea of "the Carlton" being the equivalent of a house slave. (Not my personal feeling or argument, but one I've heard often and take into consideration when developing characters.) That argument stuck with me, though, and it does play in the back of my head sometimes when I'm working on character development. Am I writing a fleshed out character who is black, or am I writing a Carlton?
Where is the line between writing a dialect and poor writing? It's been pointed out to me that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is considered to have its own rules. If that's the case, and we say that AAVE has its own set of standards, where is the line between "poor writing" and "following a different set of rules"? And along this same line, by deciding that AAVE is acceptable, are we allowing writers to "write down" to people? And to that point, is that good for anyone? It almost sounds like--in some cases--we would lower standards and turn out poorer product for certain audiences. I find that as insulting to both creator and audience as I do seeing men portrayed as having dull minds and uncontrollable libidos, or women used as plot devices.
Now, in my own writing, I look at dialect as something that individual characters have. If writing in first person, I will allow slang and dialect to a point, but not over do. In third person, the prose I keep in standard American English with all the grammatical trappings and spellings of MLA and Chicago Style manuals. If a character is Cajun, or African American, or has a thick Geordie accent, I let that come through in dialogue. Spellings and grammar be damned, if it's what that character would say, so be it. However, I don't let it leak into the prose. (I will admit that my lead character speaks in Internet English sometimes in her prose, but that's who she is.) So don't misunderstand; something like the works of Twain written in Southern American English is not going to be held to the same yardstick as Shakespeare.
Furthermore, if we posit that there are not only books that are "not for everyone" but entire genres written with one subset of humanity in mind, is this in some way segregating? Is it just as limiting as omission? We have black publishers, women's publishers, LGBTQ publishers...groups set aside to make sure all voices are heard. But at what point does that swing the pendulum to separate but equal?
These are more philosophical points, perhaps, and I know that they only scratch the surface of issues. These questions are not going to be answered in a day or Twitter post. But I'm keen to open a dialogue with you about them. I don't pretend to have The Answers to this. I have ideas, but I also will admit that in some matters I'm ignorant.
PS: And no, "Much Ado" is not up for debate. Tate/Tennat FOREVAH!!!