Literary Segregation

Hal Duncan wrote an awesome post on segregation in our fictional culture, and everyone who writes or reads (or watches TV or movies, or makes or consumes any other kind of fictional media) should read it. Powerful stuff.

The status quo in the media, in our narratives, is segregation. It’s a state in which members of abject groups–black, queer, whatever–are deemed to not belong as main characters. This is the segregation of not being able to sit at the front of the bus. The abject may be allowed in as an exception if this “serves the plot” if there’s a reason for the character’s gayness. This is the segregation of being stopped in a white neighborhood and challenged on your purpose in being there. The abject may be allowed in as Gay Best Friends or Magic Negros in service of the straight, white protagonist. This is the segregation of travelling into a white neighbourhood to work as a cleaner in someone’s house.

Yes, this. This is what’s going on whenever someone says they don’t want to read a story about a woman, because they’re not into all that shoes-dating-mommy stuff, as if any narrative about a woman must be about “woman things.” Or when someone else says they don’t want to watch a movie about a black character, because “I don’t want someone preaching at me about racism.” As if any narrative about a black character must feature racism as the driving force of the plot.* Or when someone protests watching a TV show about a gay character, because “homophobia, blah-blah-blah, and besides I don’t wanna see two guys doing it.” As though every narrative about gay people has to be blatantly sexual, and must focus on homophobia.**

Those stereotyped cliches are the uniforms Duncan talks about, the special roles people who aren’t white/straight/able-bodied/male/Christian/and-so-on have to wear to justify their place in a “normal” narrative. A story can have a black protag only if the story is about Black Problems. A story can have a gay protag only if the plot is centered on Gay Issues. A story can have a female protag only if it focuses on Women’s Stuff. The idea that a mystery could have a black detective, or that a war story could have be about a female officer, or that a thriller could be about a gay spy — without the protag’s blackness or femaleness or gayness being a key to the situation or conflict — well, that just doesn’t occur to very many people. The default protag is the straight, able-bodied, Christian white man, and it takes deliberate thought for most writers to reach for someone else, unless they’re writing that Black Story, or Woman’s Story, or Gay Story, or Blind Story, or Autistic Story, or Jewish Story, or whatever other “special” narrative they’re crafting, aimed at a “special” (meaning small, niche, specialty) audience.

Only by recognising that system for what it is can we deal with it, as we must and as we can. If we can desegregate the buses, we can desegregate narrative. When it comes to fictional representation of the abject, if we can understand what we are striving for as desegregation, articulate it as such, there is no argument against this. Otherwise? Simply demand better treatment for queer characters, and they’ll say we’re demanding special treatment; they’ll call it political correctness. They’ll say we want leather armchairs at the back of the bus. Simply demand more queer protagonists, and they’ll say we’re demanding quotas. They’ll say we want seats set aside for us at the front, even at the expense of some poor old white fart called Art.

Demand desegregation, and all this straw man bullshit is exposed for what it is.

This. It’s not about quotas or “special rights” or political correctness. It’s about being allowed to sit in front of the bus, about being allowed to be the protagonist, to save the world and solve the mystery and find love and win the competition, and anything else that straight white guys have been doing in fiction for centuries.

Read the whole thing, because Hal Duncan has a powerful voice, and a clear perspective that sees past the crap that’s been there so long it’s become invisible.

Angie

*I won’t even get into how someone who reacts that strongly against hearing about racism is probably the exact sort of person who needs to hear about it.

**See previous note about people who recoil from hearing about bigotry being the ones who need to hear about it.

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Angie

Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.