Concern trolling and “gratuitous diversity”

I really wasn’t planning to engage with this semicoherent muddle by Felicity Savage over at Amazing Stories. Half my Twitter feed has been laughing at this article for days — it’s usually amusing when people who don’t understand a thing attempt to critique it — but I don’t find it funny, just sadly exemplary of the kind of cluelessness that abounds within this genre, and Anglophone society as a whole.

But it got pointed out to me that Steve Davidson, the AS editor, has jumped into the discussion to try and clarify the muddle. It hasn’t helped much, but I think the gist of what he, and ostensibly Ms. Savage, are trying to say is right here:

I think that calling into question gratuitous examples of diversity advances a valid argument: stating that a character belongs to a particular minority while not backing that character up with background and characteristics that make them genuine representatives of that minority is, in many respects, gratuitous. The point of featuring non-majority characters is to expand our experience and knowledge, not to make a work more marketable. (And other things, like creating more opportunity, providing good role models, etc)

I, for instance, am bothered by television commercials where it is obvious that some corporate hack somewhere demanded that “one of every kind” be visualized in the commercial. They’re not genuine portrayals, they’re contrived and as such distort.

Really, Steve? That’s what bothers you?

Let me tell you what bothers me.

Concern trolling. Y’know, when someone “participates in a debate posing as an actual or potential ally who simply has some concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause. In reality they are a critic.” (From here.) It’s not lost on me that neither Mr. Davidson nor Ms. Savage have done or said much to advance the cause of “genuine diversity” in SFF — whatever they think that means — unless they’re doing it in so esoteric a way that I simply can’t recognize it. Quite the contrary: Ms. Savage seems to have advocated against full inclusion for women in adventure fantasy*, and judging by her ridicule of Expanded Horizons in the article, it’s clear she’s not all that interested in racial inclusiveness in SFF either. Not fictionally, and not in real life:

Fandom has tried to develop this literal-minded concept of diversity in real life with the establishment of “safe spaces” for female and non-white fans at conventions. It hasn’t always worked too well, owing to a problem with gawkers. The Angry Black Woman, a blogger, had an unfortunately typical experience at WisCon in 2010: her squee was harshed by “people who just stared into the POC safe space room like it was a particularly interesting zoo exhibit complete with pointing.” Pity the poor black fan who can’t attend a convention without people touching her hair or asking her to teach them about negritude. But also spare a wee drop of compassion for the straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male! He’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives–and yet when he tries to approach them in real life, it all too often … doesn’t end well.

Yes, pity the poor straight white guy, endless recipient of profane anger whenever he drops a bit of earnest, well-meaning bigotry. (Warning for Shetterly, linked and in the comments.) So pathos. Much meanies. WOW.

Indeed, the only kind of diversity Ms. Savage expresses a positive interest in is this kind:

Twitter post by Felicity Savage dated 11-29 stating: Valid disagreement. This is my kind of diversity - diversity of opinion! Personally I like...

Twitter post from Felicity Savage dated 11-29, stating: ...SFF that doesn't get bogged down in contemporary identities, but builds worlds I couldn't have imagined.

She concludes: “I want characters to be themselves, not reflections of us.” To which I can honestly say good luck, if she intends to write nothing but characters who are unimaginably non-reflective of human identities. I’m thinking the only way to write a character who reflects no human identity is to write a non-human — since after all, all humans have gender, and all humans have race, even if these are only things which have been ascribed to them by the reader. But y’know, I kinda don’t think what she’s doing here is some revolutionary call for more non-humans in SFF. I get the impression that what she’s calling for is unmarked default characters — i.e., characters whose identities aren’t mentioned, or who at least don’t force her to pause and think about whether and how they belong. But presumably she understands the point of all this gratuitous diversity that so irks her — which is the fact that in English-language literature, only straight white men are granted the privilege of unquestioned ubiquity. If we want to change that, we need to see more non-straight non-white non-men popping up in SFF, as gratuitously as straight white men do.

So what we have here in Ms. Savage’s post is an expression of concern about the rise of “gratuitous” diversity… framed by a call for more straight white men. And what we have in Mr. Davidson’s call for “minority”** characters who genuinely represent their own background is… the very gratuitous superficiality that he claims he doesn’t espouse. Because, well, he only demands that “minority” characters justify their existence in a given narrative. Only women and people of color (etc.) risk being less-than-genuine for appearing alongside dragons and spaceships without reason. There has to be a point, see, whenever people like me pop up in fiction. We’re there only to “expand our experience and knowledge”, to educate; we can’t just be kicking around for the same reasons white men would be. I mean, really: if we’re not doing something black (or gay or Jewish or whatever), why are we even there? Because, amirite, God knows we’re not marketable.

And we never will be, with friends like these.


* Yeah, OK, we live in a world where 95-lb child soldiers have been used to conquer nations, with and without modern weapons; women soldiers really shouldn’t be that hard a stretch of the imagination.

** Scare quotes are because it’s a bit silly to refer to 3.5 billion women or 1 billion Muslims (or whatever) with a term that suggests they’re only a small portion of humanity.

45 Responses »

  1. I got hung up on the phrase “gratuitous diversity”. Okay, I’m still hung up on that phrase. My response was, “WTF?” Still is. So if a story isn’t about racial conflict, racism, ethnic identity, etc, then the presence of minority characters is gratuitous? They seriously think this way?

  2. You are eloquent, as usual.
    It’s worth noting that Savage’s take on the whole V*x D*y clusterfuck was to complain about how “progressives” curse and completely ignore the blatant racism. To them, “diversity” is an intellectual game.

  3. “Yes, pity the poor straight white guy, endless recipient of profane anger whenever he drops a bit of earnest, well-meaning bigotry.”

    For. Real.

    “Because, well, he only demands that “minority” characters justify their existence in a given narrative”

    I am standing up and clapping long and loud for this summation of everything that is wrong with the article and the dudes response to it. Thank you :)

  4. Craig,

    Inorite? Anyone who thinks calling someone a shit is obscene, but calling an entire race “savages” is not, is someone whose values are seriously twisted.

  5. Thank you. I knew there were parts of these arguments that were obnoxious and insulting, but I couldn’t articulate why. I’m going to come back to re-read this post many times. So thank you.

  6. background and characteristics that make them genuine representatives of that minority

    Oh my god. Who decides what “background and characteristics” suffice to make a character a “genuine” representative of a minority? Because it better not be these people.

  7. So let me get this straight, for decades we’ve worked and encouraged companies and advertisers to have their commercials reflect the real world diversity of their shopping base, acknowledging non-whites as the real people they are rather than say exotic species barely present, and now that they’ve been doing this more in the last decade or so, this is a problem? (And ditto for stories, movies, etc.)

    I think my response to this, after Sara Gunderson’s WTF, is “tough luck, buddy.”

  8. Yes, thank you!

  9. The implication that it is (1) self-obsessive for a reader to yearn for characters that are in some way like her, but (2) only when a non-white straight cis male does it… and that SF is really great at exploring what it means to be human but only if it doesn’t “gratuitously” deal with race or gender or sexuality… I just can’t. I mean, you already said these things, just. Brain besploding.

  10. Oh, this is great. I’m going to start putting the word ‘gratuitous’ in front of everything that makes me uncomfortable or that I dislike but don’t want to justify why. ‘Gratuitous brussels sprouts.’ ‘Gratuitous Facebook ads.’ ‘Gratuitous racial homogeneity.’ Yeah. It works.

  11. My thought about Savage’s elaboration via Twitter is that the people who want characters not to be “reflections of us” are people who already see enough – positive – reflections of themselves in their larger culture.

  12. (The link to the article in the first sentence needs tweaking, btw.)

    It’s great that she doesn’t want to see people like her in her fiction. Except, she totally gets to read about people like her whenever she wants to. Of course no character is going to be /exactly/ like you and reflect /all/ of your identities, but every reader should have the freedom to find lots of characters that reflect various aspects of their identities.

    I can read about white people whenever I want. I can read about female characters whenever I want. Less often can I find geeky female characters, or genderqueer characters, or overweight characters. Especially ones that are protagonists.

    Do I want to read about them all the time? No. Sometimes? Definitely.

    That she doesn’t want to read about characters like her is fine. Except that she doesn’t get the right to say that people who /do/ are wrong for wanting it. And we can’t go running to the aliens and androids to bail us out — ‘let’s not write about humans at all!’ Cuz the Doctor is still a white guy with a British accent, two hearts or no.

    I’m a little confused by her selfie metaphor. Because it would seem to say that authors are writing about people just like themselves, and I don’t think people advocating for diversity have generally been saying that. In fact, often just the opposite.

    The selfie metaphor works a whole lot better if you’re talking about author self-insert fic.

    (Also, I really want to know what the Japanese word is for ‘selfie’, since she randomly brought up Tokyo.)

  13. I still want people to point me to, and objectively PROVE, a case where a work of fiction has ever been made weaker or worse by the inclusion of considered* diversity. (Especially BY a POC/woman/LGBTTQI writing their own culture)

    Because my experience is the polar opposite. EVEN when the final decision ends up to go with a male or white character for a given role, the act of thinking about it, of considering the alternative instead of slipping into a default, seems to add depth to the story. It’s hard to prove unless one has read/seen versions with and without, but my reading/viewing over the last few years sure gives me that impression.

    (The nearest to a direct example would be Elementary versus Sherlock, and even there, the writing style and pace and morality are so different it’s hard to isolate and discuss the diversity element. Although I feel Sherlock would be better for doing more and doing it right in addition to the areas it did seem to excel, and that whatever its flaws, Elementary is not weakened but strengthened by Joan Watson, Marcus Bell, and Miss Hudson.)

    *The only cases I’ve encountered where including a POC or female or LGBTTQI character have weakened a book or movie it was a caricature of a common stereotype in a story where the other characters were not. And in a few cases of less egregious stereotyping (or where everyone and everything was a stereotype), even that inclusion made me happier than absence would have.

  14. The “women are okay in a modern army, but they don’t belong in a fantasy” rant blows my mind. How would magic or dragons not be just as much, if not more, of an equalizer than firearms?

    And even if you have a realistic or “gritty” world, the scarcest glance at history reveals that while women warriors were rare, they did exist, so it would be unrealistic not to have them. Because, well, reality had them. If your world doesn’t, it’s unrealistic and wish-fulfilling… just in the opposite direction of someone whose fantasy world is full to the brim with them.

    Just… what? Wouldn’t you want to do any kind of research before making a statement like that, or is the internalized misogyny just too strong?

  15. There is one simple reason I include POC and LGBTQ people as characters in my writing: those are the kinds of people I know in real life. The argument that there has to be a REASON for a character to be anything other than a cis-gendered straight white male is ludicrous, and in fact, insulting.

  16. This made me think about all the characters who don’t get backgrounds, just cardboard cutouts to stand in to get shot, thrown off a cliff, etc. No one thinks of the henchmen, except Austin Powers and Venture Bros.

    What these authors are missing is that at least for some of us we seek out the new and interesting, so reading about a fictional biracial character or what it’s like to grow up in Bangledesh or Cairo is more appealing than yet another version of a Horatio Alger story.

  17. Well, of course, WTF. And heavens forbid that the women or members of various minority groups in any story not be doing things that scream “here! I’m a woman/member of a minority group! Look at how different I am from you, the reader! lookie lookie lookie!” and that serves to educate the privileged reader about someone else’s real world experience, especially in a work of speculative fiction.

    But I’m afraid I’m mentally stuck on the idea that it’s unrealistic to picture women in combat. Ms. Savage seriously needs to look at the history of that issue; even assuming that the “reality” she wants her fiction to conform to is the European Middle Ages, which really was a period that emphasized heavy cavalry and shut most women out of warfare, there were still professional female fighters. And in most other eras and locations of human history there have been more than a few.

    And about 10% of the women then/there never married, so Savage’s idea that it would have been economically impossible for women to fight because they would have had to be looking after husbands and children is wacky, too. And then she ought to take a look at some medieval European ideas about race…. I mean, I don’t want to be a pedant, but if you’re going to complain that speculative fiction isn’t sufficiently realistic you ought to know something about the reality you’re demanding.

  18. I started out wondering what you were writing about. I didn’t get it, surely we shouldn’t just say “the person is black” without explaining why that even matters. (And it shouldn’t matter.) (Incidently, you present the argument better than Savage does; your description of her piece is acurate.)

    But as I kept reading, I got your point. And it’s a good (and well written) point.

    Maybe 15 years I read a story from even longer ago (probably from the 1950s). The twist was that the protagonist was black. Whoa. The default protagonist is white and male, so the twist worked. (I wish I could remember the author, or the title, or anything besides that twist.) (Actually, I remember reading another story actually written more recently, in which it isn’t mentioned until the end that the colour of the skin of the protagonist was black, and so was the vampire he had helped capture. I can’t remember who wrote that one either.)

    And that perfectly illustrates why more diversity is needed in SF (etc.).

    And it isn’t difficult (I guess, not being a fiction author). Even if it were merely a passing comment about how the clothing that worked for that model didn’t for protagonist (because skin colour). Or a “she thought of her girlfriend, probably never seen again” as our protagonist heads to certain death.

    Realised recently that much of the SF that I’ve read recently is far more diverse than the SF I read years ago. Probably because what I was reading was ancient by the standards of SF, being from the 1940s through to the 1980s. I was happy when I realised that.

  19. And Crom help us if a “minority” character is in a story for the purpose of being some sort of representative of the experience of people of that “minority”!

    Then we would hear the shouting of “Oh, no, not another story about What It’s Like To Be [Gay/Black/Female/Amputee/etc]. I already read one of these this year!”

    There aren’t enough palms and faces in the world to do justice to the logical disjoint the AS folks are promulgating.

  20. “There has to be a point, see, whenever people like me pop up in fiction. We’re there only to “expand our experience and knowledge”, to educate; we can’t just be kicking around for the same reasons white men would be. I mean, really: if we’re not doing something black (or gay or Jewish or whatever), why are we even there? Because, amirite, God knows we’re not marketable.”

    Well said. Unfortunately, I just had an argument along these lines with a fellow writer. It’s a distressingly common attitude, even among people who insist that they’re not racist etc.

  21. Not only were there women fighters in armies (especially in Asia and a lot of Viking women fighters who were buried with their swords just like the men,) but the vast majority of women who weren’t soldiers still had to fight. Camp followers and wives of male soldiers were part of the battles — they weren’t protected and often the enemy came directly for the supply wagons. Women who were in castles, cities and other places with walls were expected to fight to defend those walls, especially as male fighters were often away, including leading the defenses if they were the nobility. Women who were out in rural unwalled villages had to fight against attackers, especially as their menfolk were often far away looking for work and food — or not coming back at all. Women in nomadic tribes that roamed across Europe, Asia and Africa were also expected to fight and defend camps, horses and homesteads. Women slaves were used as cannon fodder just as much as men were and tried to stay alive.

    So if you have a world that is grim and poor and violent and filled with war, what exactly do they expect women to do in it — sit around and wait to get killed? “Oh no, there is no man around for hundreds of miles to save me! Guess I’m a dead duck.” That’s not what historically occurred and any female author who thinks it did has had a deficient education.

    But this always happens — the only reason they think the inclusion of minority, women, etc. characters is being done or overdone to be “trendy” is because more fiction is reflecting the real world — and the real historical world. The worldview is changing to be more accurate, not less, and anytime that happens, there’s a backlash that it’s too fashionable and you have to quit that right now. To which you can point them toward a concept called path dependence — the “trend” is here to stay.

  22. So… the only characters who don’t have to justify their inclusion in a narrative are straight white men? Mt Davidson, this non-straight white man invites you to fuck right off.

  23. [Typo in previous comment – please delete it and this parenthetical. Thanks!]

    So… the only characters who don’t have to justify their inclusion in a narrative are straight white men? Mr Davidson, this non-straight white man invites you to fuck right off.

  24. Brava and thank you.
    I hadn’t really thought about my attempts at writing stories in ages. During my brief fiction-writing career (from maybe 6th to 10th grade) I put characters of different races in my stories because that’s what you were Supposed To do if you were a Good Person, but I never successfully made it through why that was a good thing, or paid attention to how few of the authors I read did what I thought I was supposed to do.
    At the time, I was a little stumped because I knew I couldn’t really write characters of different backgrounds sensitively (they faced issues I knew nothing of and I was 13 and correspondingly not much good at understanding people who weren’t me), so writing stories in fantasy worlds was my solution to that problem. (Plus magic is more fun than no magic.) Since my stories never got past the character and world-building stages, this occupied a disproportionate amount of my attention.

    And the women who did lead armies from the front–Joan of Arc, Boadicea, etc.–have been true-life legends and general bywords for awesomeness for centuries. So fantasy female soldiers and generals make for perfectly plausible stories.

  25. I’m always sort of flabbergasted by the argument that tokenism (which I think is what he was getting at with his statement about minority characters that aren’t “genuine representatives of that minority”) is worse than no representation at all. It’s not great, obviously, but at least it’s a first step.

  26. The only pity this straight white cisgendered married Christian Anglophone male asks, is for my horrified fear that I might be related to the stupid lady (since I have Savages in my family tree).

    In the meantime, the rest of us can only wish it were fewer days until WisCon! See you there, N. K.? (‘cuz I don’t expect Felicity to show up.)

  27. “Gratuitous diversity” will become my new motto to live by when I’m plotting stories. It’ll be like my own personal deadly sin. Delicious.

    I do think there are legitimate concerns in trying to write characters *well* and especially not as stereotypes when writing marginalized characters, but even worse than not getting it right? Not even trying. Erasure. (Or deliberate erasure of everyone not white & male, which seems to be what this Ms. Savage is suggesting in her two articles linked).

    I swear, if I have to watch one more trailer for yet another conventionally attractive, all white, heterosexual, cis-gendered cast…

    I just don’t get it. Why would you (generic “you” being a story-teller / script-writer) keep using the same three crayons again and again when you’ve got a whole box? That three crayon world doesn’t look anything like the world I know. It’s not even trying. Even aside from erasure issues; it’s BORING.

  28. Ontogenesis,

    I do think there are legitimate concerns in trying to write characters *well* and especially not as stereotypes when writing marginalized characters, but even worse than not getting it right? Not even trying. Erasure. (Or deliberate erasure of everyone not white & male, which seems to be what this Ms. Savage is suggesting in her two articles linked).

    Yeah, I’m willing to concede that she (and Davidson) were trying to make a point about writing marginalized characters in a shallow way. I (and many, many, many other folks) have made the same point on more than one occasion. But that’s a problem of poor writing, and the solution to the problem isn’t to stop attempting diversity, as they’re (apparently; frankly the whole thing really is a muddle, hard to parse) suggesting. The solution is to write diversity better.

    But instead what I got out of the post and Davidson’s comments were that we should pity poor straight white guys, give up all this diversity crap because it’s hard, and leave the political out of our fiction. Which, to those of us for whom the personal is political, means stop writing, accept the straight white guy status quo, and go home.

    Yeahno. Fuck that.

  29. When I read the comments by Savage and Davidson, it seems like their having to think/write/deal with these issues causes them a lot of anxiety, and instead of educating themselves they’d rather come up with some semi-coherent justification for making it all go away.

  30. One of the things I enjoyed about David J. Schwartz’s Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic is that there were non-white and queer characters who were just there, because sometimes people are like that. The story wasn’t about them being non-white or queer at all.

    “Gratuitous”? Um, no.

  31. I didn’t click any of the links yet so I have no idea what is going on, but I love this shit:

    …She concludes: “I want characters to be themselves, not reflections of us.” To which I can honestly say good luck, if she intends to write nothing but characters who are unimaginably non-reflective of human identities.

    Bonus points for Doge too, amazing.

  32. It’s all just pot calling the kettle black.

    Lots of Intolerant Hatred is really all that I’m reading(I mean on this site)And people who define themselves by their critique of others.

    Course that goes for most sites, But it’s always good to point it out when I comes across it.

    Just remember

    Censorship is the first Refuge of the Coward.

    Be Real, Be a Individual.

    Peace

  33. @NKJemisin,

    Totally agree with that assessment. Funny, how it always seems to be the people who are already privileged who are the most likely to whine “it’s too hard~~~can’t we slow down?” when it comes to social change. Those with privilege also tend to underestimate the struggles of the underprivileged (which is why we gotta school ‘em).

    Apropos of nothing, I note that both Ms. Savage and Mr. Davidson appear to be white in their profile photos).

    And the idea of speculative fiction that ISN’T political kind of blows my mind. It might be extremely subtle, but it’s almost always there.

  34. This goes hand in hand with another oddity that I’ve experienced online of late: white authors “desperate to be inclusive” and “trying to find a place to add a PoC” in their stories, but struggling mightily because, you know, it’s so “difficult” to write characters who are not white. Poor them. *rolls eyes*

    Thanks for the interesting read.

  35. Someone needs to get the ball rolling on a rant about all the gratuitous white people present in mainstream speculative fiction. It seems to me that most times they aren’t even particularly white! Why include them at all?

  36. I hate this type of stuff!

    ‘gratuitous diversity’ is like saying you’re depicting the reality of the range of human identities and physical makeup to well. Stop it. It’s based in the worse kind of ignorance and blindness.

    Though I do fear that the more and more white writers depict POC the less and less POC will actually get published or successful, because they’ll use the concept of ‘politics of difference’ to shut down voices of POC but that’s a completely different problem than the brought up by Savage.

    If we had more writers like yourself and less like say Terry Goodkind I doubt we’d have a large problem with otherism in genre fiction!

  37. Well that’s another question anyway. Why does fantasy always have to be medieval/feudal/tribal/warrior. That bores the snot out of me. It’s like this whole other WORLD, right? So why repeat the same ages/tropes? Let’s find a way out of this. More build in the worldbuilding.

  38. So unfortunately, my friend’s internet crapping out (requiring I do this on my phone), and my inability to find an email address and thus having to post this here, means my original, well-thought out (and less, “excuse me while I jump from thought to thought”) commentary on The Hundred Kingdoms just isn’t going to happen. So I’ll simply link you to this post (http://ma-belle-michelle.tumblr.com/post/71509402193) and say, quite discreetly,

    Thank you. You and this book are instant favorites, and the fact I’m 3 hours shy of being up 24 hours is all that is keeping me from starting the next book.

    Michelle

  39. Alas, the downfall of Swype, *sincerely, not discreetly. That WOULD be the one mistake I missed. -_-

  40. “Possession is nine tenths of the law” is the motto of those who have taken things by force, who created inequities by their own actions.

    “White males should be nine tenths of the characters” uses the same rationale.

  41. Semi-tangentially, I am reminded of the hue and cry when the first Hunger Games film came out and it was “revealed” that Rue and Cinna were black.

    Oh no! These characters who are held up as people to empathize with and who Our Heroine (who, interestingly, is described in the book as having “olive” skin and black hair…) is fond of are black.

    Never mind that Cinna’s appearance (other than commentary about whatever thing he’s done with his hair or clothes that day) is never described. Or that Rue’s appearance is described, and if you missed that she’s black I really cannot help you.

    But see, white people read those books and empathized with Rue and Cinna, and cared for them. Therefore (to paraphrase an actual Tweet I saw) Rue had to be blonde. She couldn’t have dark skin and hair that curled tightly.

    I mean, what’s next? If we accept that this character that we’ve fallen in love with is actually a woman, is actually a person of color, is actually LGBT, then, maybe we’d have to admit (!!) that women are as human as men are and that one’s skin color and who they love isn’t a relevant factor in whether or not they’re a good person. Maybe we’d have to admit that the “default” person isn’t a cishet white man.

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