Diversity’s for the Next Guy

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So there existed female Vikings. I hate to break the news, because you’ve lived your life for however long without knowing that. If you’re reading this site, it’s been at least seven years. I’m sorry. But the world is awesome and you’re missing out. Don’t kill the messenger, because I just found out myself.

It’s been weird. There’s a limp parallel between my experiences online and those in school, as a senior at Fitchburg State, which is in a town in Massachusetts, which is the state with Boston. Which is the city with the New England Patriots. That parallel — reading old articles like this, “Fear of a Woman Warrior,” and hearing female professors in classes posit briefly their hesitant thoughts on political matters. In the news recently, we have things like Ray Rice (and Hope Solo), and these things do reach this town near Boston, after a mild jaunt.

The Ray Rice discussion led us to discover that there is an ESPN website exclusively for women, which is not entirely true but might as well be. Regardless, it’s an obvious parallel to segregation in professional sports. It’s a difficult subject, for sure. My professor didn’t criticize or push deeper on what it all means, possibly because it’s too controversial. And for my stomach if not my rational mind, the class isn’t ready to have that conversation if just one person is not. With every batch, right? Like a professional, she moves on, and I’m glad.

Another class is a writing class, and we have to independently create a character for this ongoing project. The professor tallies and finds that the men write men and the women write women. That was true for me as well, although *clears throat* I did not create an Asian character at the very least…

She says isn’t that funny, and mentions that male writers have a hard time with female characters, and she knows someone who chose to do male characters in a book because he didn’t know how to correctly do female characters. She wouldn’t act like this, women don’t say that. If he can’t get it right, don’t even try, pal.

Again, I’m a senior and soon to leave this institution of higher learning. This is not a conversation I should be hearing now. And for those who didn’t hear it…? The professors who do leverage their writing classes for political discussions toward accountability in writing seem renegade, conspiratorial. And I assume with optimism they exist in every school, batch to batch.

But that class reminded me of that Gamespot article above, of the guys who didn’t want to write female characters because they could get it wrong. They could even possibly offend somebody, given a bad representation of a minority. One designer said it best: a largely white male cast “for fear of someone calling me out for my non-white or non-male character being stereotypical, offensive, or – at the absolute worst – outright racist or sexist.”

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Picture this.

You’re an author. So long as you’ve published with a real publisher, you have an audience, and thus you have some measure of influence, that measure roughly quantified by Twitter followers. You sit down to create, whether prose or sequential art or teleplay. Story premise first, then a cast of characters is born, and based on the roles they play, certain races and genders are brought to the front of your mind while others can be ruled out. Excluded.

You’re not a bad person — I know that. Hell, you might even be female or black or something crazy. But you weave this narrative with nothing but white, masculine silk, not a stain on it, and as a result, upset nobody. Challenge nothing. No renegade you.

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If we can imagine a woman as a warrior, or an urban young black man as somebody possessing of a beating heart, we might be able to see where these things happen in the real world, which is plenty. And better yet, we might keep ourselves from continuing to weave as we do, prolonging this narrative. As this article, “We Have Always Fought,” points out, the story we learn about history and women is full of more plot holes than say, Prometheus. History also, turns out, had more unbelievable sights and sounds: female Vikings, female soldiers, female pirates. Aliens are passé but a woman who can kick your ass would blow everybody’s minds. Take note for Blade Runner 2, Mr. Scott.

Representations in popular media are today’s bridge between history as it is (warrior women), and the impressionable youth constantly bombarded by educational influence from school, the Internet, parents, television — those kids who’ll decide how much of history is brought into the future. So it breaks my heart when writers don’t make the attempt to normalize images because they’re not brave enough. And if admitting they’re not educated enough, haven’t done their research, they shouldn’t be so quick to contribute to what these kids see.

Even for me, there’s hesitation to cast say, a black woman, as a villain. The only thing that could hold me back is the absence of cultural context sorely needed to justify a representation like that. We’re back to the strong female character situation. Before we have villainous black women, we need strong/positive black women as inoculation against how those future, more nuanced, more challenging characters, are received. According to Roland Barthes, we have little say in how our work is taken, but we can make predictions — the case for responsibility is doubled.

Maybe I need not think not of these ‘kids,’ as a whole, in creating this black villain, but of one person, the little black girl out there who will see whatever I’ve created. And for your heroic Asian man, think of the little Asian boy, and so on. Worried about people online shouting at you for creating some stereotype? Or for writing a female character who might kick ass but isn’t rounded enough? Who knows — maybe you really made a difference for that one person, that little kid, who doesn’t necessarily care about the comprehensiveness of this character’s struggle. Instead she thinks that maybe she can do anything.

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I know very well what popular representations, if poorly handled, can do to self-image, the sense of identity, what happens when you look in the mirror. Whether cringe or swallow and chin up in spite of it — without the appropriate socializing safety net to counteract the things we see on TV and in movies, the psychological consequences can be so damaging, and no matter how rational or educated one gets, those feelings never go away. Better to prevent them from taking root.

We could play like the game-players and pretend that a joke is just a joke, that fuck, I didn’t mean to offend you, so don’t be offended. Easy like. I want to try something different, play like Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, or Rhianna Pratchett and Crystal Dynamics, or David Simon and Ed Burns, and flank that villainous black woman with ‘redundancies’ of black women, provide a spectrum and protect myself against claims of creating stereotypes.

Not because I don’t want to be called a racist or a sexist, but because either way, I am heard on the other end. You’re that writer, weaving (or writing), and so you have their attention. What would you like to tell them?

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