3 January 2016 - 3:30 pm

The problem of representation

As an artist, representation is a problematic minefield.

Not all artists care about diversity and representation. I’m going to say up front that that’s fine: it’s completely up to the artist what elements they put into their work and what issues they want to tackle.

However, ignoring issues like representation and diversity opens an artist up to criticism. But trying to tackle them has the same effect.

To be clear: I think that representation and diversity is a problem in mainstream media. Western media is heavily biased towards straight white males. Women are not proportionally represented, people of differing races are not well represented, the presentation of religions is skewed, people of differing abilities aren’t well represented, and the LGBT+ groups struggle to be seen as well. You don’t even have to be a minority to be poorly represented in fictional media.

(For the purposes of this post, I’ll be talking about media in terms of fiction – TV shows, movies, books, etc – rather than journalism and news reporting, which is also very problematic but less about art.)

There is increasing pressure from all kinds of different groups to improve diversity in our media. There are calls for more lead characters that are female, or POCs, or not-straight, or not-cis, or non-binary, or not-Christian. And rightly so! Some mainstream media outlets are listening and responding. Some indie outlets have always been doing it.

At the same time, there’s a lot of criticism and resistance to who is writing and representing these characters (lead or otherwise).

‘Appropriation’ is the word that I keep seeing crop up in these arguments (and such sentiments usually devolve into arguments, though I personally try to stay out of it). A particular group is represented but not quite right or not by someone ‘authorised’ to do it, and so it’s vilified by the group that is being represented.

Cultural appropriation is something that I’ve seen crop up a lot in articles and posts over the last couple of years. (It has most likely been around a lot longer; that’s just when I started to notice the volume of it.) Those outside of the cultural group in question are not allowed to play with their toys, not welcome to join in. Just recently, a free yoga class was banned from an American university because someone complained about it being cultural appropriation. (Honestly, I can see what these objectors are saying, but I think it’s all gone a little far.)

Then, when it comes to fiction, there are those minorities who don’t believe that anyone outside of their group can properly write their situation. I’ve been personally told that I couldn’t possibly understand a particular person’s situation or journey because I haven’t walked it myself (this particular instance was in relation to trans issues, but it’s not the only time I’ve heard that sentiment and not the only group I’ve heard voice it).

This is particularly rankling for me. In one instance, we’ve got a group of people crying out for more understanding, acknowledgement, and inclusion, and in the next breath, they’re pushing people away because we couldn’t possibly understand and are not part of their group. You can’t ask for inclusion with one hand and demand exclusivity with the other. You can’t ask for understanding and then tell people it’s impossible for them to gain it. And stating that your personal experience is so special that no-one outside it could possibly understand is the height of arrogance, to me.

Most human being are empathic creatures. A lot of us make an effort to understand other people, and are even interested in the things that make us different. Artists, in particular, are very involved in this. Writers make their stories out of getting into other people’s heads, in understanding what makes a particular type of person tick, in understanding how their past has built them up to the point in their lives that we are writing about. These people are not all us. If we could only write the journeys we have personally walked, then I would not be able to write male characters, or gay characters, or black characters, or those of different creeds to me. I’ve done all of these things, and writers all over the world do it all the time.

Doing it well requires research and a whole heap of understanding. But it seems that even if people do their research and try to include diverse characters, they are criticised by various groups because they’re not ‘authorised’ to do it.

Or they’re criticised because they’ve included group X, but not group Y, and haven’t been inclusive enough. Sure, it’s nice that the lead character is a female, but is she a blind black transgender lesbian? Then you probably haven’t been representative enough and at least one group will complain. (This is reflective of some of the discussions I’ve seen about popular fiction (mostly movies and TV) on equalist websites.)

I get that there’s always going to be someone who is not going to be represented, and that’s not fair. It sucks to be left out. On the other hand, it’s not always possible to represent everyone; particularly, it’s hard to do that without gymnastics worthy of the olympics, and usually winds up with such a caricature that it fails to represent anyone.

Also, fiction shouldn’t be a checklist of ‘have I included every permutation of human experience’. That’s seldom good for the story. There are times it can work and times it doesn’t. But there are people who seem to think that every story should, and those that don’t, have failed in some fundamental way.

Again, I feel the need to point out: I don’t think that those who feel excluded should ‘shut up’, or ‘be happy with what they get’, or pat creators on the head for ticking some of the representation boxes. I don’t think this is an easy problem to solve. But demanding (or whining, as so often happens) that your particular group should be included and whatever doesn’t manage it is shit? That’s unfair, too.

So is the fact that whatever an artist does, it’s wrong. Ignore representation, and you’re vilified. Try to include it, and you’re criticised, because you’re not inclusive enough or because you don’t have the right to write that particular group. Do it badly, and wow, watch out, because how dare you. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is!

I strive to do my characters justice and present them fairly, whatever aspects may make up their history and personality. I try to mix up the elements of those characters, because I believe that a diverse cast is fairer and more interesting. I try to break down the barriers and include as many different kinds of people as I reasonably can. I’ve studied psychology and I do research when I delve into an area I’m less personally familiar with.

At the same time, I don’t write about the issues of any particular group. I’m not writing about a trans journey, or gay rights, or racial issues, or religious controversy. These might be elements that influence a story (because they might be part of a character’s journey), but that’s not what my work is about on the macro level.

Instead, one of the things I try to do is normalise diversity. To have gay and bi and racially different characters alongside each other and for it not to be the focus of events or discussions. To have them working together or butting heads for reasons other than those aspects of who they are. This is more reflective of how I would like the world to end up, not how it is right now. I’m more interested in exploring people with these as facets of who they are, not as the major thing they are.

In many ways, writing scifi frees me from some of the real-world restrictions and gives me the scope to normalise some of the diversity. Starwalker, in particular, gives me a lot of room for this. I still try to do the various elements justice, and it has allowed me to venture into some new areas. (For example, I find writing cultures I’m less familiar with challenging, because I don’t want to be accidentally insensitive, but I’m actively trying to stretch into some of these areas in Starwalker.)

In The Apocalypse Blog, I had a great opportunity to throw lots of different people together and took advantage of that. At the same time, I was writing a story set in a contemporary Western city, so I wasn’t as free to be as broad as I am in Starwalker. I was able to mix in gay and bi characters (some as main characters), though, and that made for a better story without taking it over, I think.

So I guess you’re probably wondering: what’s the point of all this? I think my point is mostly: if you want the stories in the media to be more diverse, support will get you much further than vilification and hatred. I’m not alone in trying to present diverse worlds, and while I’ve never been personally attacked about it, I’ve seen it happen to so many that it makes me sad.

For many creators, there’s no way to get it ‘right’ for everyone. We need to find a way for people to accept that a work of fiction doesn’t have to be perfect, or represent every group, or acknowledge every type of struggle in human experience, because that’s impossible.

Don’t ask the impossible. Find a way to make the possible great.

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  1. Alexander Leaking Pen Hollins says:

    I’ve had a very similar conversation with my brother where he was telling me that I just couldn’t possibly understand being trans. I stopped him cold on that one. If I, as a white male writer, can try to understand and get in the head of a woman, a black person, an AI computer program, a semi intelligent horse, a magically created golem, or a space alien, suggesting that I just CAN’T understand being trans is not only personally insulting my skills as professional understanderer (TM) but suggesting that being trans is special and to be held up over all other different types of being that people may not fit in, and is insulting to every other minority, because you’re particular minority is the “special” one.

    Appropriation is, at least was, taking elements of a group without using them all, without playing fair, or identifying the group they came from. There are cases of obvious appropriation, think pretty much every 50’s or 60’s movie with an asian character, but the term is getting used pretty widely now. Kinda drives me nuts sometimes.

    January 4th, 2016 at 1:45 am

  2. Mel says:

    Glad it’s not just me. Thanks, Alex!

    January 4th, 2016 at 3:45 pm