Saturday, July 14, 2007

"Call My Name!"

I just finished Into the Wild (which is absolutely brilliant, btw and WARNNG, possible small spoiler ahead).

So the first thing that popped into my head after reading Elizabeth's Bear's post about diversity in fiction, was this line from Into the Wild:

I can't run, she realized. Refusing to help was just as much of a fairy-tale act as helping ...

There are two things that bugged me about Elizabeth Bear's post.

First off, she starts off with the whole "don't kill me for this" routine just like guys tend to do when addressing a bunch of women and gender/sexism. Not a Huge Deal, but that crap is always annoying and dumb.

Secondly, she uses the stupid phrase "professionally offended". Now, it's quite true that there's a certain number of people who are just plain stupid. And that number is much larger than 3%, I fear. It's also true that there are a lot of people who are hypersensitive. ( I rather think I happen to be one of them. I also think I happen to be right a lot of those times. :) ) There are also people who can't seem to do anything other than complain. *cough* But using the same sound bites often abused by the very people you are trying to distance yourself from is just bad tactics, at the very least. (With obvious exceptions to be made for important and long-standing concepts like "freedom.") No matter how many disclaimers you add, it still sounds like you are on the wrong side. There's no need to leave the gate wide open to shitty connotations unless you have to.

Now, Ms. Bear also rightly points out that fear of criticism is more likely to silence well-meaning authors than jackass authors and that of the major problems we find in dealing with racist/sexist/looksist/queerist/classist/ismist assumptions in fiction ... is that in some ways, there is no win.

She also goes on to offer a very obvious and good solution to this problem. That is, in fact, the purpose of the post, most of which is recommended reading.

But, with the huge disclaimer that I don't write professionally and so I don't quite know what it feels like to have your baby torn apart in public by the very people you hoped to make happy, I think that Ms. Bear left out something important.

The whole idea that "in some ways, there is no win" is not just a dilemma for well-meaning authors. It's just how things are when it comes to most of these -isms.

My mother teaches first grade. Several years ago, on the day the class made pilgrim hats for Thanksgiving, the mother of one of her students came to talk to her after school. The girl was crying and the mother looked close to hysterics. The mother also didn't speak English very well, and so had some trouble communicating the reason why she had come by.

It turns out that the mother had come by the classroom because she thought something really awful had happened, but she wasn't able to get what had happened from her daughter. (The daughter was simply upset because her mother was.) Why did she think this? Because her little girl was wearing a white hat, and white is the color of death in Chinese culture.

My mother was horrified and, feeling extremely guilty, tried her best to explain the history behind the pilgrim hats - all the while making the little girl a pink hat to replace the white one. After telling me the story, my mother kept wondering aloud what she could have done to prevent all this. (And she meant this quite sincerely; my mother was on the verge of tears herself at that point.) I told her that there was nothing she could have done; she did everything right.

This isn't strictly true, of course, but this was the first second-generation Chinese-American my mother had taught, and the girl had just joined the class, so it's not like she'd spent years ignoring all the differences between her student's cultures and her own. Fuck-ups will happen; the real solution isn't just to try to prevent them, it's also to simply deal with them as best you can when they do happen.

The correct solution, however, is never inaction. It may be tempting to use our privilege to shield ourselves from having to deal with all this crap, but that's not a solution, that's a cop-out. The real solution is to say. "Hmmm, I hadn't thought of that. I'll do my best to consider that carefully before my next story." Or even "Well, I did that for reasons, X, Y, and Z. I understand that you disagree with me, but we aren't going to agree on everything. Please don't take this to mean that I don't care what you have to say, however." Lot's of times, it ain't gonna help; but trying to be respectful and then also trying to be gracious - ok, honest and respectful, in any case - about criticism is certainly a better choice than doing nothing at all.

One last bit of advice from the non-professional - just because no one is yelling at you doesn't mean they think your stuff is all a-ok. It may easily be that the -isms in your work are so commonplace as to not be worth giving special attention to. Or, it may be that not even bothering to address the issue has made you sunk so low in their expectations that they no longer think you are worth addressing either. After all, Joss Whedon doesn't get hit with so much feminist critique because feminists think he doesn't care

Remember that the next time someone complains about x,y,z in your work. When they aren't doing it because your stuff is so spectacularly bad that to let it slide would be a crime against humanity, they are usually doing it because you managed to make something that meant something important to them.

note: this doesn't apply to abusive and malicious criticism, but that didn't seem to be the kind of criticism Ms. Bear was talking about.


bellatrys said...

Thanks, I've been meaning to get to it, esp that "don't hurt me!" passive-aggessive tactic, but I've been overwhelmed by RL and the last time I tried to address her racial privilegemindedness (as opposed to general authorial privilegemindedness), last year during what has since been dubbed the Great Cultural Debate of DOOOOOM!!! it turned into a 20page ramble that didn't actually get anywhere near a conclusion.

I did hit the "well we don't HAVE to write you people at all" thing in my "Six Asian Characters" skit, at least.

Mickle said...

I think I missed the "Great Cultural Debate of DOOOOOM!!!" I was still just starting to buy comics in comic - as opposed to trade - form back then.

And I have all kinds of rambles like that, so I know how that goes.