At some point in your writing career (today, tomorrow, after you’ve died), someone is going to say your work is sexist, racist or homophobic. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re peering into your work and discovering uncomfortable truths about themselves that they don’t like. Critics of Something Positive might run along those lines.
Unfortunately, they’re not often far from the mark.
“This isn’t true,” you might declare. “I’m not sexist. I’m not racist. I think of everyone equally. I just write racist characters. Some folk are simply over sensitive.”
Sure. Some people are. Centuries of being denied promotions, having a campaign of domestic violence inflicted against your ancestors, and being cyber-stalked might do that. Hundreds of years of exploitation, state violence against your neighbours and your family might lead to you being a ‘touch’ on the angry side too.
However, structural sexism / racism is a vile thing. It’s this worm that gets in you, winds itself through your thought process and is almost impossible to remove. Once it’s in there, it whispers and says, “This is normal. This is how the world is, this is how things are. Everything else is a lie. All those other perspective are distortions. Mistruths.”
It’s why Lena Durham wrote a show about women in NYC with only white female characters and still won’t accept that maybe she’s got a racist spore somewhere in her body. It’s why there are 22 women in The Wise Man’s Fear and hundreds of male ones, but Patrick Rothfuss is not quite convinced he’s got a piece of that icky lurking in his profound heart.
Hey, let’s face it, that’s the way the world is, right? And, if we’re really truthful with ourselves, we can’t sympathise with a racist character. As a post-racial / sexual human, we get all angry and shit about those racist / sexist / homophobic white, male folk out there who demean others. We hate them so much. We will punch any book that contains those characters in the cover.
Unless it’s Ready Player One. Or Brooklyn Nine Nine. Or Old Man’s War. Or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Or Twilight. Or Tomb Raider. Or… Or…
I’m going to start with Ready Player One because it was heralded by the Daily Mail as the stand out sci-fi novel of 2011. It has an endorsement from Terry freakin’ Pratchett. From feminist / activist John Scalzi himself. A man, who despite fighting for women rights every other second, tells me I need to experience a nerdgasm over this work.
What is it though? Ready Player One features six main characters. Parzival (male), Art3mis (female), Aech (male), Daito (male), Shoto (male) and Sorrento (male). You can see from that list alone there’s a problem.
“But Daito and Shoto are Japanese!” you might exclaim. “So it’s ok. Minorities!”
Sure. Oh, by the way, SPOILER ALERT! because that’s the turf we need to go to.
Firstly, there is no reason why Daito and Shoto couldn’t have been female characters and female avatars. I know a number of super Japanese geeks who happen to be women. It’s pretty common. It’s not rare. Why do they both have to be male? Why didn’t the entire editing division of Random House say that he needs to switch their genders? It wouldn’t have been that hard, they only have about twenty lines of dialogue between them.
(Did you know that 9/13 people involved with this project at the original publisher were women? It tells us so in the acknowledgements.)
Secondly, Parzival (the protagonist) spends the whole time getting hero worshipped by Shoto. Shoto can’t revenge his brother? No worries, the white guy will sort that out. A rare pill that could’ve helped Shoto with his quest is given to the pale-skinned dude from the U.S. by Daito because, hey, that’s how the world should work.
Ignoring that small slice of white racial supremacy which crept into the text, let’s have a look at Art3mis and Parzival’s relationship. Art3mis is a famous gunter who writes a popular blog about the quest they’re both on. Our main man has an infatuation with her. That’s fine. We all have crushes. He then proceeds to cyber-stalk her, which again, kind of fine. It happens. Guys do that, Google it.
Except instead of freaking out and never talking to him again, Art3mis responds and they become besties. Not only that, but at the end of the story she admits that when she suggested splits-ville it was a mistake and she’s so sorry. Hey, why not? Parzival’s such an awesome guy. Who knew that the random, cyber-stalking, privacy snooping, crazy-man fan would turn into such a compassionate guy? All you have to do is just give in. Let him kiss you.
Not only does she serve as his motivation, love interest and digital helper, but the story treats this situation as if no other male has ever done this before. As if this activity is a good idea. As if cyber-stalking (done with the best of intentions) is ok.
No, it’s not ok. It is never ok. If you want to freak out about the stalker-abuse relationship in Twilight that’s fine, but you’ll also need to write long-winded posts about the same issues in Ready Player One too. 80s nostalgia doesn’t make it all go away. Computer generated worlds set in the future don’t change ethics, bro.
Which leaves us with Aech, the totes awesome friend. So this is a weird one. You have a male avatar, who acts like a male avatar, yet who is actually an African-American female. (Let’s ignore the issue of all the characters, who are nineteen / twenty, acting like 13-year-olds for the moment. Or forever. It’s a different issue.) This secret is revealed right at the end and Parzival gets upset as he thinks he’s been betrayed. Which is strange because the world is full of people who look like aliens. Some avatars have six arms, others are hundreds of feet tall. Would he have gotten upset if she’d been a six-hundred pound, wobbly, extra-terrestrial but then he discovered she’d been an Indian American from Oklahoma?
Is that the worst part this reveal? Probably not. This reveal is normalising whiteness. It’s saying that if you can create any character, you should generate one that’s white and male (even in the year 2044) because it will be the standard identity for everybody in the future. Where’s the multi-ethnic Earth we all dream of? The effect of the growing Asian economic powerhouses? The changing demographics of our society?
Forget it, let’s brush past all that terrible universe building. If famous authors can give it the thumbs up, so can I. Except, something else happens. Parzival struggles to accept the real identity of Aech. Even though she’s identified herself as an African American lesbian, that’s too much for our hero. Even though she explained the only reason her avatar is white and male is to appease people like Parzival and get them to treat her normally, he strips her of real identity in the next few pages. He calls her a male. He removes her agency and re-labels her with an artificial name that’s socially acceptable to him.
Acceptable to the reader.
Did I miss the outrage? The part where message boards were lit up describing how cyber-stalking is not an acceptable behaviour? Where warping someone’s real life personality into something else you’re more comfortable with is not just uncool, but also an atrocious and unacceptable social act?
Ok. Ready Player One and I have issues together. We’re not friends. We don’t sleep in the same room any more.
Let’s glance over at Brooklyn Nine Nine. I love Brooklyn Nine Nine. It’s witty, it’s funny, it makes me laugh. My wife and I spend hours chortling it up with the crew.
It also can’t change the fact that Jake Parelta (a character I adore) is a little sexist, maybe a little racist. Sure, it’s accidental racism. And certainly, it seems the writers have deliberately constructed him that way. They know what they’re doing.
Still, when people rush out and say, “You can’t like a racist character,” it’s a big statement. We do. All the time.
Let’s take two situations. One is Parelta’s use of ‘boy’. Boy is not a good term to use for any grown man. It’s infantilizing them. It’s reducing them to something less than they are. When you use it to refer to African American man though, it carries a lot more history and bigotry with it. It is dredging up a past where if you were white, you could use the threat of state-sponsored terror to force a person of colour to do what you want. Or else.
Jake uses this controversial phrase several times to refer to his boss, Captain Ray Holt. This is despite the fact the Captain has specifically advised Parelta to never call him boy.
Secondly, Jake slyly disrespects Amy Santiago. Sure, it looks innocent enough. A joke here and there about her sex life, the way he doesn’t do what she wants when she asks and how he’s always poking at her for her seriousness. They’re friends? Right? That’s how things go down.
Yet then there’s the way he’s uncomfortable with her having relationships outside of his sphere of control because he likes her. Not enough to admit this, but just enough to keep trying to passive-aggressively dominate her life.
Fortunately, the show pushes back against these ideas — and hard — it knows that these actions are hurtful and makes Jake Parelta the butt of the jokes for being…sexist and racist. If those words make you a might uncomfortable, that’s fine, we can call him immature. A man-boy. A character with father issues.
We can keep smudging the real undercurrent of why he’s doing those things with external factors until the reality of his isms against others go away.
“He’s misunderstood,” some might cry. “He’s complex,” other straw-people might say.
Yes, he is. Yes, he’s one of my favourite characters. (Along with Captain Ray Holt and Rosa Diaz.) But, part of that complexity is that he’s a little racist and a tad sexist.
So, structural sexism. It’s real. It’s as real as the Earth is round and the sky exists. The worst part, perhaps the most terrifying aspect, is that it isn’t going to dissolve in us. We can’t snap our fingers, spin around three times, and have it disappear.
It’s our worldview, it’s buried deep inside of our identity about how things are. How things should be. How the world works. It is there in the micro-seconds we assess people, and the fraction of a moment before we open our mouth to reply to a person’s comment. It haunts us as we write, as we create, and as we breathe.
There’s a way to fight it though. It’s not easy. It’s not the simple path of virtue and long-winded speeches. It’s this: to admit you’ve got it. To admit that somewhere, hidden inside your construct of humanity, is a dash of sexism, homophobia and racism. To realise that it isn’t going away and you’re going to have to fight against those things until you die.
I do it. Most times I fail. I craft a character or write a scene and realise it’s full of a culture that puts white males at the peak of the hierarchy. That says it’s ok to objectify and silence LGBTI folk, women and people of colour. I err, but I know that I do that. I know that can be my default mode when I’m not careful, so I go back over everything and check it for structural issues. I ask not what kind of society the book should be set in to appeal to the current culture, but what kind of society should it be set in to encourage true equality.
And even then I fall, stumble and find my pen gushing out things that hold us tight to the old world order. Yet I fight — badly and inadequately — to conquer myself.
How about you? Are you willing to enter the fray? To do battle against your greatest opponent? The dark-self hiding in the mirror world?
The world is waiting.