What we talk about when we talk about the bad -isms

This is a follow-up to something short I posted on tumblr. (It should be noted that the wordpress and the tumblr really do work as companions to one another – here, I post things that are quite long and/or mostly my writing; there, I tend to reblog short things from others with commentary.) Sorry about the seemingly enormous paragraphs lower down – for some reason, the line breaks I’ve inserted refuse to appear. Shall be fixed asap.)

In that post, I quoted Harriet J of Fugitivus, who wrote, from an American perspective, about realising that the dominant media representations of people, and narratives about people, are about white people, and how an awareness of that may affect the way you see the world. The part I quoted was:

If you are white and you think you are pretty aware of race and racism, ask yourself this: do you feel comfortable in all-white spaces? Do you feel comfortable reading books without more than one non-white character? Or watching movies where there are never more than two black people (and if there are, in a modified Bechdel test, do they speak to each other?) Do you feel comfortable in stores or restaurants with all-white staff, all-white employees, all-white posters, all-white products? Do you feel comfortable when every banner ad on Amazon shows you a white person, unless you search for products with the words “african-american” in them?

The whole entry can be read here.

A friend messaged me, wanting to discuss this particular post; the friend is on board with most of the things I tend to post there, but had some issues with this one. Our conversation is reproduced here with his permission, because I think it exemplifies the reason people get so confused about the purpose of the Bechdel test (which is explained with depth and aplomb in the link within the quote, so you should read it there rather than here):

P: I’m a little confused as to the point of this one – is a work automatically discriminatory if it doesn’t feature black people? I mean, even in America, given the statistical racial demographics, a work would have to feature a core cast of about twenty characters just in order for it to pass that modified Bechdel test. I guess my position comes down to, “being comfortable around white people does not entail being uncomfortable around everyone else. And it certainly doesn’t make you unaware of racism”.

Me: The point wasn’t meant to be that every work should be able to pass the modified test – and it could easily be passed with a cast of two if you’re just saying “any character who isn’t white”, which is the standard I’m looking at – but that an enormously small number of works do. It’s the cumulative effect of hundreds and hundreds of movies that don’t pass, and the overall atmosphere that it creates. It would be unfair to say that each individual movie is deliberately racist, because I doubt most casting directors or writers even think about these things, but the cumulative effect is a media environment that says, “White people are the main characters, almost always.”

Re uncomfortableness – you know how once you notice an optical illusion in an image, it’s hard to ignore it again? Being aware of this kind of thing, I think, is like that. It’s not that you automatically become uncomfortable around white people and white-dominated media – it’s more that you can’t unsee it once you’re aware of it, and if racism’s a thing that’s important to you, it can start to grate a little. Hopefully, that awareness leads to change if the “you” in this situation is a creator of media, or even a consumer.

P: Unless of course it’s an issue movie!

Hm, I see what you mean though. I’m just still not sure I agree – there DO exist plenty of works in the world in which members of such minority groups are given main roles without the story being about the fact that they’re a minority. Maybe not enough to bridge the gap between what you’d expect from a real world sampling and what you get in a Hollywood sampling, but we’re making progress, and the gap gets smaller everyday.
Me: Absolutely, we are making progress, and especially in the fringes of media which may eventually spread to the mainstream. And I know it’s troubling to look at it the way I’m framing it, because it seems so pessimistic, and somewhat dismissive of the non-mainstream works that are more diverse. But if you look at the media that the majority of the population who aren’t into theatre or Literature or indie movies are consuming… 

Ok, game:
Think of ten mainstream (something you can see in any Village cinema, not a festival movie) movies with a single main protagonist (not a duo or a strong ensemble, specifically has to be a “this movie is primarily about one person – think Jerry Maguire or I Am Legend) who is a straight white man, not a biopic.

Same thing with a straight white female.

Then same with any straight nonwhite male.

Then with a straight nonwhite female (biopic rule still in place, non-festival rule still in place).

I played this with a friend the other day, and it was what inspired the post. It’s actually doable, though it takes a fair while when you get to nonwhite woman. (It becomes completely impossible when you try to do it with a non-straight character.)

[I need to check whether the friend with the game would like to be credited; I'll edit him in if he would. Update: he would indeed. He's Peter C. Hayward, and he has quite the internet presence.]
I know that I’m extremely lucky to have friends who want to have a chat about this kind of thing just because the opportunity is available, and especially friends willing to let their conversations with me become blog fodder, so thank you muchly, P.
Sometimes someone, often an activist, will say that they find some aspect of the media to be racist or sexist/misogynist/misandrist or homophobic/anti-gay or transphobic/anti-trans. And someone else will hear this and find it absurd; they’ll say, “But that’s not deliberate; it’s not fair of you to accuse them of __ism just for something small like that! They don’t actually hate women/gay people/trans people etc, so how dare you apply that label!” There is absolutely a perception that in order to be problematic you need to be deliberately __ist – that the only real homophobes are the people who shout slurs, the only real misogynists are the people who tell their wives to get back in the kitchen with no trace of irony. Most people bristle when you suggest that their work contains an element of a negative __ism, because they don’t see themselves as one of those awful deliberate __ists, and they think that’s what you’re accusing them of.
In fact, though, we’re often talking about accidental, incidental, background noise sort of __isms, the kind one barely notices because they’re so subtle and insidious as part of a general background of culture – which is the very reason that they need to be explicitly discussed, because otherwise they would go unnoticed. When, say, you can watch a sampling of twenty movies released to a broad audience in the last year, and find that most of them don’t pass the original Bechdel test, and many of those that do only feature women talking to each other about men or dating, it’s reasonable to suggest that there is a kind of unconscious sexism going on. That doesn’t mean that every writer has twirled their evil moustache and thought to themselves, “Hm, how can I best ensure that my female characters aren’t represented as fully as my male characters?” When people point out that Pixar, one of my favourite film companies of all time, has yet to produce a movie with a female primary lead (something that’s about to change when their upcoming film Brave is released) we’re not saying, “Pixar are vicious sexists”. We’re saying, “That’s possibly because of sexism that exists on a background sort of level, that influences one’s writing and directing without even being aware of it.” It wouldn’t really make a difference to the quality of the overall narrative if Marlin or Nemo had been female, or if Sully or Mike had been female, or if Remy or Linguini had been female; it’s just that they happen not to be, over and over again.
At this point, I want to ask you, if you grew up as a boy, whether any of your favourite books from childhood or adolescence put a female protagonist in the starring role – the character that you, the viewer, are meant to identify with and care about most, the Harry Potter of the tale. Any of your favourite movies? How many would you say had a male protagonist in comparison? Did your parents often choose to buy you books with female leads, or take you to see movies with female leads? Did you often choose those books or movies yourself?
I ask because there are a pile of books on my childhood bookshelf with male protagonists that I adore, and a roughly equal selection with female protagonists – but that’s because people felt quite comfortable buying me, a girl, “boy books” and “girl books”. “Girl books” included sci fi and fantasy action adventures, like Tamora Pierce’s Lioness and Protector of the Small series or Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood and Black Maria. They included complex coming-of-age narratives relatable to members of any gender, like John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside. They included older, more quaint narratives about strong-willed children who embarrassed and confused their adults, like Anne of Green Gables, and tales of broken families and confused children trying to create their own private safety, like… well, everything Jacqueline Wilson has ever written. These are not books that boys would find dull by any stretch, but they feature female protagonists in a very definite lead, so parents and friends will often see them in a bookshop and dismiss them as an option for a boy to read, thinking that a boy can’t relate to them – that a boy could enjoy reading about a spaceship or a pirate vessel or a wizard school, but if the lead is a girl, it somehow ceases to be relatable, becomes a girl book just for girls. (Girls, of course, may not be given books about rough and tumble action unless they request it, but female bookworms almost certainly have a few tomes on their childhood shelves with male protagonists. I do wonder whether Harry Potter would have blown up with boys in the same way if it had been Harriet Potter and nearly nothing else about the character had changed.)
In adulthood, it’s not always quite as visible, until… well, how many men are even willing to give Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters a go, even though they’ll happily slave through a Dickens of additional girth and sometimes less adventure, or a Shakespeare with similar subject matter? Pfft, those are girl books about marriage and stuff. Because no man has ever found a love story compelling, obviously.
Now apply the same thing to non-white-centred books, movies, toys. As an Australian, if you are white (hell, even if you’re not) how many books have you read centred around an Aboriginal lead, or an immigrant lead, or really anyone who isn’t white, compared to anyone who is? How many did you read as a kid? The odds are good that mostly the stories you were given just happened to focus on white people, just sort of accidentally, unless you read a lot of sci fi in which case race sometimes left the building and the solar system. Or, if you were straight, how many books featured a gay character as the lead, and without making the whole book about their sexuality, just a lead who happened to be gay, just ‘cos, in the same way a lead might happen to be tall or red-haired or sarcastic or shy? Probably in school, you were assigned one or two ‘issue Books’. Apart from those, what are the comparative percentages? How much media starring a non-white or non-straight person do you reckon your white, straight peers consumed if they weren’t bookworms who would just read anything they could get their hands on?
When I say this is an issue of __isms, I’m not saying, “Each of these authors is a dirty filthy __ist who is doing this deliberately! How dare they choose the protagonists they want to write about? Your parents and the people who bought you gifts, they were deliberate __ists too! How dare they shy away from books that weren’t marketed at your demographic, or take recommendations from friends?” I’m saying that this is one of those times when an __ism is too big to see, so that it ends up influencing the way you see the world without even noticing, the way poblishers market books and production companies create movies and ultimately the way people think, because the media you consume is such a huge chunk of how you process the world (which is how things like this end up happening). You are the fish in contaminated water and you don’t notice because, as Melissa McEwan so aptly puts it, all your life you’ve been swimming in it.

15 responses to “What we talk about when we talk about the bad -isms

  1. “At this point, I want to ask you, if you grew up as a boy, whether any of your favourite books from childhood or adolescence put a female protagonist in the starring role”

    My first book love was on Greek myths, and Athena rocked that house. Next was Nancy Drew. I still have no idea why the Hardy Boys sucked so hard in comparison, because they seemed like they should be roughly equivalent. But damn did they suck.

    Also, it occurs to me you mean something else by “any Village cinema.” But I did spend a while puzzled that you wanted to talk about art houses but exclude festivals.

  2. Re your growing up lit – you are a lucky man with excellent tastes.

    Yep, Village cinemas are a large chain here, comparable to Hoyts, which you possibly don’t have over there either.

  3. Also, I do wonder whether we nerds are an accurate sampling as far as books go – hence the comment about what you noticed your less bookish peers reading.

  4. For the non bookish, gonna go with “nothing.” Not a very diverse choice.

  5. Well, since you asked. :)

    Similar to Doug, I’ve read plenty of Nancy Drew and Greek Mythology (<3 Athena, my favorite Greek goddess) . I read a lot of Narnia, which has female protagonists, even in combat! I read "Are You There, God? It's Me “, I read The BFG, I don’t remember much else, from that time. When I was older I read His Dark Materials, a Pern novel as well as other books.

    As for non-white, I don’t think I’ve read too many of those when I was a child, and not too many as an adult now, either. At least, no books that I specifically remember as non-white.

    BTW, what do you think about the “Dumbledore is gay” thing? Which is something stated offhandedly and doesn’t have any evidence in the novels?

  6. Hey queers, have half a cookie!
    Yeah fuck her.

  7. Maybe… maybe I should phrase things less combatively. But not tonight.

  8. It seems there were plenty of female stars in my childhood reading, almost more than I expected. Mardsen and Pullman, of course. The Earthsea books were favourites of mine, and Tombs of Atuan my favourite of those (The first book in the series of course was a deliberate subversion of whiteness in fantasy, Tombs revists the ‘young child comes of age and leaves home on an adventure’ but with a girl, and does some serious gender analysis of it. Best of all, both book are wonderously subtle about it.) Curiously, all the Forgotten Realms books I’ve read had female leads (I doubt that’s typical of the imprint.) Childhood adventure stories, like Enyd Blyton wrote, I recall had girls and often as boys but mostly groups including both. Et cetera.

    I can’t think of much science fiction I read as a child with women leads, though. And all those choose your own adventures and final fantasy books might have been written to keep the character vague, but the cover and illustrations tended to have them as male. Very few videogames that I recall had female player characters.

  9. The only sci-fi with female protagonists that I read were by Elisabeth Moon… But there were more fantasy ones, such as Tamora Pierce.
    However, as for race, there were only one or two books with non-white protagonists in sci-fi, and none at all in the fantasy I read I don’t think.

  10. I grew up as a boy, and I loved almost every novel Enid Blyton wrote, particularly the Mallory Towers and Twins of St Claire books (which star an all-female cast.) “The Naughtiest Girl in School” was also a favourite, as well as the Marsden books listed above.

  11. I’ll echo most of John Marsden’s books and add the Obernewtyn Chronicles, which I loved as a kid. I fall into the category of book-loving young lad, though, so I’m probably skewing the statistics further.

  12. Alright gang, you tell me – am I completely off in this post, or has the world just gotten better of late, or do I just have a *really* skewed (and awesome) sample when it comes to the gender aspect?

  13. Oh you’re not wrong about this. I’ve just read *a lot* of books. Some of them had women in lead roles, much less than 10%. Hardly any had non-white lead characters. I doubt there was even a queer character to be found in children books when I was little.

    The situation is improving, but it’s very far from equal or balanced. And IMO, even less so in movies, which in my elitist mind are generally more popular (in the “lower level of entertainment” sense of the word) than books.

    Then again, I haven’t read Twilight.

  14. Oh, Zohar, I would love to see your reactions to Twilight.

  15. Was watching Red Dwarf with my boyfriend the other day, one of his favourite shows as a teen, and noticed that it passes the modified Bedchel test for non-white people even though there are only 4 regular characters on the show who have humanoid faces. And the boyfriend tells me that race is never once remarked upon for the duration of the show’s run. It’s just unobtrusively there. <3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s