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Diversity Pass.

Passing on the Diversity Pass.

Race and the Screenwriter.

Characters and Race.

Listed in chronological order, the links above show a conversation across four screenwriters blogs about race in scripts. The first begins by saying that you should add a bit of multiculturalism to your script, that you should dodge the racial stereotypes, the second talks about how putting in race is axe grinding, loading the script for a point that needn't be there, the third talks about using ethnic sounding names in scripts, and the fourth, probably the most reasonable next to the first, talks about how ethnicity in scripts simply represents the current world view.

Some of the conversation is stupid, some of it ignorant, some of it really quite interesting, and it's worth reading, especially if you're reading or writing speculative fiction, which sometimes feels like McWhite Land. Yes, I know there are plenty of examples of non-white characters in books and short fiction out there, so there's no need to point it out to me, but the point remains that as a genre, speculative fiction is predominently white, male, and heterosexual. To build upon the argument given by Blogger Four (John Rogers), it's simply not representative of the world out there. (Or perhaps it is from a race point of view. Take a look at the right hand side of Locus Online, where covers of previous issues are listed. They're just covers, so I'm not suggesting anything outside the fact that it's interesting to note the colour of nearly a year's worth of covers.) In addition to that, unlike the suggestion of Blogger Two that your representation race doesn't matter, so you can have black janitors, black astronauts, whatever... well, it does matter. In the white world, non-white individuals and their representations have a weight. In our culture, if you put up a Lebanese man and ask him to comment on something relating to Lebanese culture, you are placing that man in a position of power where he speaks and represents his culture, whereas a white person in that same position would not. So if your only black person in a film is a janitor and he mops up after a bunch of rich white kids as they runaway from a unknown horror and he then goes Morgan Freeman on them and gives them advice... well, it's bad writing, firstly, and you ought to have your eyes gouged out, but it's also demonstrating an ignorance of racial politics in the world you live.

It is, also, not thinking about your audience. Do you imagine that everyone who reads and watches your work is white? That they all come from White, Western, heterosexual backgrounds? Don't be ridiculous. The world isn't one culture, and it won't ever be one colour, no matter what some people tell you, and if all you show to your audience is one world of one colour, then you will eventually stop connecting with a portion of it. Maybe you will never connect with that audience. It's just something you might want to consider when writing, or even reading, watching, whatever. It is not axe grinding to have a multicultural representation in your work, and while you're at it, you should also think about minority lifestyles, because it's not axe-grinding to have those represented, either.

It's a diverse world. Show it.

Comments

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sonanova
Jan. 11th, 2006 12:25 am (UTC)
It can be so cardboard and phony when writers try to write outside their experiences and obviously strive to gain an audience simply by sticking in token characters. For myself, I feel comfortable writing about various sexualities (many of my characters are either bi(pan?)sexual or homosexual), but I also read a great deal about that culture. In the novel I have been working on, I have actually made a point to read so-called "black" fiction - particularly a few black cyberpunk genre writers- so my non-white characters did not come across as symbols of "black experience" but as the defined characters they are. I think it's hard for McChad to understand what it's like to be a marked other. I also like to think that all of my characters are "marked", in one way or another, even if they are marked simply by their own desire to deviate. It's what makes them interesting as characters. As an anthropologist and a writer, I think I am more conscious of this than most. Diversity is a key element to every story that I write, but avoiding stereotypes and making the inclusion of a transsexual, a native American, a Pacific Islander or a straight republican not a spectacle but a true experience is a challenge to any writer, regardless of how I classify myself.
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 12:32 am (UTC)
yeah, token characterism is not the way to go, either. i think writers should read outside their usual world view, and such. that's cool that you did it for your cyberpunk novel. very admirable.
sonanova
Jan. 11th, 2006 02:04 am (UTC)
It has to de done. I think a lot about how alternate cosmologies, real and imagined, might conspire to create our future. After all, as you said, we live in a global world already. How other groups of people visualize their place in the future is a major theme of all of my work, as a writer and otherwise.
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 03:43 am (UTC)
hmm. that's interesting. i think my theme is how people visual themselves now... maybe.
ataxi
Jan. 11th, 2006 02:55 am (UTC)
"It's a diverse world. Show it."

What if your writing isn't about this world, or you're writing about a part of this world that isn't diverse? In my office as I look around me there are ten men, no women. Two Asian guys, the rest white. All between 20 and 40 with the large majority between 25 and 35.

I think this whole thing is bullshit really. There is not necessarily an onus on the writer to represent this world accurately or with political sensitivity, or to avoid offending, excluding or failing to connect with readers. It connects back to a bizarre notion that fiction should be about lying only as much as you need to to tell "your story", and keeping it "real" for the rest. Stifling and tedious for most stories.

Those writers are TV screenwriters and it's betrayed by their approach, I think: they're very concerned with the exigencies of actually getting their product onto screen and making it popular. Which is fine, but it's not the only story.

I'm explicitly not ranting against political correctness, or against people who actually do write characters with different cultural backgrounds, or against the idea that if you wanted to depict an accurate random sample of the population of Australia you would include characters from a variety of cultural backgrounds. But.
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 03:42 am (UTC)
What if your writing isn't about this world, or you're writing about a part of this world that isn't diverse?

sure, that's fine, but would you write the same thing, again and again? if you've only one world view, write one thing, then leave, and don't repeat yourself. of course, this isn't what happens, as you can see tons of authors repeating similar world views again and again, even if it is a world view that doesn't connect with anything real.

but as an author you have responsibilites, least i figure. one of those responsibilities is to think outside your box, to think outside small world views, to see, indeed, the entire world in its diversity. if an author is just going to show the same thing again and again, how does that make them interesting?
ataxi
Jan. 11th, 2006 03:56 am (UTC)
"as an author you have responsibilites, least i figure"

As an author you probably feel you have responsibilities, especially if you have an audience.

But I don't think morality and art need necessarily have a connection and I think that sometimes things that aren't written with an audience in mind at all can be really interesting.

I don't have any problem with stipulations, moral concerns, responsibilities, diversity passes and other "shoulds" per se but if they are a fundamental requirement of writing, at all, something is wrong.

"if an author is just going to show the same thing again and again, how does that make them interesting?"

I love a lot of art that consists of the "same thing again and again". The third time you see something is never the same time as the second anyway, because the third time you see it you've already seen it twice before.

Insisting on an arbitrary degree of difference between artistic productions, or between characters in artistic productions, could be a route to crushing the articulation of nuance. Think of it like a rare defective stamp. The defect means nothing without the mass of identical stamps from which it differs every so slightly.

"you can see tons of authors repeating similar world views again and again, even if it is a world view that doesn't connect with anything real"

Yeah, but do you hate them for the repetition, or did you hate them anyway the first time you read it?

I think you could call it a general principle of aesthetics (as well as information transmission) that blankness, repetition and uniformity add significance to digressions.
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 04:16 am (UTC)
As an author you probably feel you have responsibilities, especially if you have an audience.

yes, i do. but i feel that responsibility because i live in the world, with people, and the world is unkind to people. maybe only five or ten people will ever read my stuff, and that's fine, but the responsibility is there because what i do is public, is to be consumed by the public.

But I don't think morality and art need necessarily have a connection and I think that sometimes things that aren't written with an audience in mind at all can be really interesting.

can morality and art be seperated?

we are, at our very base, people of morals. you and i, having grown up in a western country, have a solid slap or morality in our culture which we access every day, perhaps without noticing it. that can simply be the decision not to steal, to not stare down a girl's dress. these things come out when an author sits down to write, in small, idiosyncratic moments, even if art is not written for an audience, or with an audience concern in mind, which i do not suggest it should be. but the idea that you can be truly free of morality... ah, that, i think, is a mistake. it will always be there, lurking within a work.

does this make the morality as fundamental as you suggest and thus wrong? i doubt it. it's a different kind of morality to the one i at times suggest, but it's a morality still. the more you become aware of your own influences, the more you can see it within your work, you can see how to play with it.

I love a lot of art that consists of the "same thing again and again". The third time you see something is never the same time as the second anyway, because the third time you see it you've already seen it twice before.

by the third time, i've usually left.

Insisting on an arbitrary degree of difference between artistic productions, or between characters in artistic productions, could be a route to crushing the articulation of nuance. Think of it like a rare defective stamp. The defect means nothing without the mass of identical stamps from which it differs every so slightly.

you see, to me, that just sounds like you justifying people who aren't creative. i don't disagree that you can have nuance of different types, but after a while, it stops being a nuance, and is simply demonstrating that you are limited.

Yeah, but do you hate them for the repetition, or did you hate them anyway the first time you read it?

i didn't hate them. i was just bored by them. imagine that you go to work every day, and the moment you enter the office, you are treated to a half hour conversation, every day, each week, for a year, about a failed romance. it begins and ends the same way: girl meets guy, fight in the middle, they marry at the end. for every day you enter, it is same conversation, told in the same manner, in the same tone, with the same pauses, and that only that names change. how long till you get utterly bored?

i bore easily.

I think you could call it a general principle of aesthetics (as well as information transmission) that blankness, repetition and uniformity add significance to digressions.

so, what, accept the shit for the one jewel every now and then? i dunno, man, sounds like it's more fun to tell people to strive for something different.
ataxi
Jan. 11th, 2006 05:08 am (UTC)
"that just sounds like you justifying people who aren't creative"

The inner argument is diversity vs. uniformity as aesthetic qualities. Here you want to link it back to a judgement on the artist, but really it's just us arguing over aesthetic values.

You "bore easily" so you set a high value on work that encompasses a broad-grained diversity of images and ideas. I'm saying that there's a place for work that narrows the focus and examines one idea or image in fine detail, possibly with a lot of recapitulation.

The outer argument is whether art should be subject to general mandates concerning the value of its content, in light of justifications such as "it's a diverse world. show it". I don't think so. I think write whatever way you like, with or without external constraints, and let whoever reads it, yourself included, value the output on whatever terms you like.

Essentially what I'm objecting to is you moving from your personal aesthetic preference to a generic principle - of course this is your blog so there I'm probably the one in the wrong ;-)

I just finished Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space which was a cracking book hard-sf-plotwise but had a dearth of likeable characters, and a surplus of characters who all acted, felt and read the same way despite their different status, circumstances and backgrounds. Principal character names included Sajaki, Khouri, Dan, Calvin, Pascale, Sylveste, Hegazi, Falkender. "Tokenism or not?" I found myself asking repeatedly as I read it, but this wasn't a reaction I particularly enjoyed, it seemed more a tangential distraction from the book's real strengths.
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 10:30 am (UTC)
Essentially what I'm objecting to is you moving from your personal aesthetic preference to a generic principle

dude, that's what this blog is all about! i'm trying to remake the world from my little corner!

actually, in truth, i think a lot of people take my personal opinions as things i think should be generic principles, whereas they're never meant that way. everything i saw here is a personal opinion. show the diverse world, that's just my opinion, what i think people should do more of. do i think it should be the guiding light for all work? nah. but if i spent all my time saying, 'i mean this this way but not this way and not this way' i'd enver finish a post.
ataxi
Jan. 11th, 2006 11:38 pm (UTC)
"i think a lot of people take my personal opinions as things i think should be generic principles, whereas they're never meant that way"

Yeah, I know. That's how these things work - people present opinion as almost-statement-of-fact for effect, and people take opinion presented as almost-statement-of-fact as actual-statement-of-fact just to have something to argue with. We're all spiralling around down here ...
exp_err
Jan. 11th, 2006 04:14 am (UTC)
if an author is just going to show the same thing again and again, how does that make them interesting?

Look, I'm partly playing the devil's advocate here, but:

1) Can't you show more than one thing within one cultural setting?

2) Don't you think all those US TV shows and movies that have three white characters, one asian character and one black character (one of them old and one of them obese), none of them (except the whites) coforming to stereotypes and all of them in perfect harmony are just showing the same thing again and again?

3) Like the person you are responding to, I can look around my office building and see little diversity. Of the 50 or so people who work in this building (scientists, secretaries, technicians, managers, cleaners), probably 2/3 are male and all but one is white. I see him to nod to once or twice a week. When I go home and hang out with my friends, I'm afraid the vast majority of them are white, too. That's not something I've chosen (certainly not consciously, anyway), but it's true nonetheless. It may not be imaginative, but is it really irresponsible to write stories about people more or less like me, in cultures similar to my own? Does being mainstream mean that we're automatically uninteresting?
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 04:29 am (UTC)
1) Can't you show more than one thing within one cultural setting?

yeah, of course. diversity is king.

2) Don't you think all those US TV shows and movies that have three white characters, one asian character and one black character (one of them old and one of them obese), none of them (except the whites) coforming to stereotypes and all of them in perfect harmony are just showing the same thing again and again?

totally. those kind of shows are part of the problem.

3) Like the person you are responding to, I can look around my office building and see little diversity. Of the 50 or so people who work in this building (scientists, secretaries, technicians, managers, cleaners), probably 2/3 are male and all but one is white. I see him to nod to once or twice a week. When I go home and hang out with my friends, I'm afraid the vast majority of them are white, too. That's not something I've chosen (certainly not consciously, anyway), but it's true nonetheless. It may not be imaginative, but is it really irresponsible to write stories about people more or less like me, in cultures similar to my own? Does being mainstream mean that we're automatically uninteresting?

absolutely :)

but, more seriously, consider the idea of being an artist, and consider the idea of evolution in an artist. should you make an entire career out of writing those stories? how many do you think you have? enough for sixty years? for five? how long until you have to step outside your world to keep writing, and to keep being interesting?

it's not that i don't think white people shouldn't be written about. the reason i write about this stuff is because it's the majority of what is written, and someone has to speak about minorities and their representations and maybe plant the seeds that you should look outside your world. it's cool if you don't want to do this, but at the same time, if you're planning to be an artist, if you're planning to do this for years and years... you going to write about the same white people, again and again?

i don't want to.
(Deleted comment)
ataxi
Jan. 11th, 2006 06:09 am (UTC)
I remember someone saying that they'd read all of the Earthsea trilogy without realising Ged wasn't white, and I also remember seeing an edition which had a white Ged on the cover.

I was a bit disappointed to see that the Ghibli version of Ged was going to be Caucasian-ish.
(Deleted comment)
ataxi
Jan. 11th, 2006 09:37 am (UTC)
Yep, I think I read that interview, actually. I remember when I read Earthsea as a kid being surprised when it was revealed that Ged wasn't white. I thought that was damn cool at the time.

The Ghibli Ged is white with red hair judging by the banner on this page:

http://www.ghibli.jp/ged_02/
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 10:44 am (UTC)
cool. thanks for that. i think i maybe even read it a while back (?) when the earthsea series debacle came out.
ex_benpayne119
Jan. 11th, 2006 08:23 am (UTC)
I think your point about the implicit power in representations is interesting.

Personally, it's a dilemma I've so far avoided, because, like others, I've focused chiefly on characters who exist in fairly sheltered social groups. I think you're right though, that over a career you have some responsibility to represent the world in some of its diversity.

I'm personally nervous of doing so, because there are all sorts of power dynamics involved in that position of "speaking for" (not that I'd ever try to do that, but it can be taken that way) another race. I guess a lot of authors avoid it for that reason. But that's not much of a solution.

benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 10:24 am (UTC)
I'm personally nervous of doing so, because there are all sorts of power dynamics involved in that position of "speaking for" (not that I'd ever try to do that, but it can be taken that way) another race. I guess a lot of authors avoid it for that reason.

i think, if you move outside token characters, you neuralise the speaking for position. likewise, you can break that down by characterisation, and so forth. another way, as was pointed out further up, is simply research. do the research, learn, use it. of course, that said, there are also right and wrong ways to approach ethnicity.

but, y'know, i get a little tired about hearing the i've not focused on it cause i'm writing characters for a certain group thing. it's fine to do that, really, but, well, if everyone in the same genre is saying the same thing, then what do you end up with? it's not happening, of course, but it just distresses me to hear it again and again.

but, hey, maybe it's just me. everyone's got their thing.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 11th, 2006 12:11 pm (UTC)
The reason I think stories are white-centric, is because they’re in English. So naturally characters and cultures are written and read in that context. The same logic applies if a story is written in Chinese, or Arabic, or Turkish.

In terms of morals, people have them because they can afford to.

It means we’re lucky.

A passerby.
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 10:56 pm (UTC)
The reason I think stories are white-centric, is because they’re in English.

that doesn't mean it should stay white centric, tho.
treehouseman
Jan. 11th, 2006 12:49 pm (UTC)
Really interesting and broad topic. Wikipedia links to an article on "The Magic Negro", which is in itself a kind of misguided racism. Morgan Freeman -- poor guy -- tends to get lumbered with these sorts of roles: white guy has a problem, black guy helps him out...but is never really in a position of any power.

I'll reproduce a slab of text here just for the hell of it:

Although it is usually a well-meaning attempt to portray a positive black character, critics like Lee, Ariel Dorfman, and Aaron McGruder believe that the use of this stock character is racist, because it perpetuates the idea that blacks should be subordinate to whites. The racial roles of the archetype are rarely reversed (lower-class white character helps a troubled black character).

The Magical Negro can be considered a form of the "noble savage" or "wise old man" archetype. Variants include the Native American who helps pragmatic whites discover their inner spirituality and brings them back in touch with nature, and the servant (of any non-white race) who sacrifices himself to save his master.
benpeek
Jan. 11th, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC)
yeah, i do think things like the magic negro are racist, myself. perhaps unintentionally, but still.
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