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:
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.