Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's Getting Better. Let's Pick Up the Pace Here.

It is never wise to rely too much on the assumption that what you happen to come across is a fair representation of reality. After all, we all see what we see because we look where we look. In order to understand the world, we have to examine it consciously and go into new places, look for new things, pay attention to details where we normally look at wholes, and at wholes where our attention is usually zoomed down to fine details.

But we all start with what's in front of us, and a juxtaposition of stuff floating across the screen in front of me when I was noodling around yesterday startled me into an invigorating, if intimidating, glimpse of reality.

First came a much-reblogged Tumbler post concerning the depiction of same-sex relationships in popular media, specifically movies; how "The girls are never supposed to end up together," how boy-girl relationships can be anything, go anywhere, be intercepted by story at any point. If a boy and girl are best friends at the beginning of the movie, we know and they know that by the end of the movie they can be lovers and this can be accomplished by one kiss, no angsting, as part of a larger arc that may or may not focus on their emotional lives. But if a girl and a girl are best friends at the beginning of the movie, the odds are huge that by the end of the movie the one who isn't the protagonist will be standing on the sidelines being sweet and supportive of the all-important heterosexual relationship her BFF has gotten into during the movie; or even if they do wind up together, the movie will be about the struggle to face up to the fact of same-sex attraction. Most stories with queer protagonists are still coming-out stories first. And, given that we structure our lives around narrative, this is discouraging for the young queer, or the old one, trying to find the storyline that works for her life.

Immediately under this in my dash was a picture sequence of two male sims getting engaged.

I see a lot of such pictures on Tumblr, because I use it mostly to post pics from my game and follow what other people post about their games. The Sims2 program starts everybody off dead center on a scale of attraction to male or female, and the player (or a program modification installed by the player who wants less control of the process) determines the sexual preference and to a certain extent the gender orientation of the characters by decisions and actions during play. It's difficult, though not impossible, to model bisexual and transgender identities in the game; but any player can pretty much make any sim gay or straight at will. The sims themselves do not care.

And hardly any simmer I've ever run across didn't love having same-sex couples in their games. Sororities seethe with Lesbian Drama; male couples raise rampaging hordes of adopted and alien-hybrid children; generals and high-level politicians and small-town matriarchs welcome their sons' husbands and their daughters' wives with open arms; children grow up with two of one parent and none of the other, or with three grandfathers and only one grandmother, or (I have a kid like this in my game) two mothers with two fathers living next door, and never think it strange. Because it isn't. The vanilla code distinguishes between joined unions and marriage, but you can mod that out. You can even get same-sex pregnancy mods, if you want, or use a simple cheat to simulate artificial insemination.

What this tells me is that the movies, and to a certain extent even books (which are always ahead of the visual media in reflecting social change, if you read the right books) are missing a trick here.The General Public, or at least an economically viable chunk of it, is way past ready to get beyond the coming out narrative. We're ready for media to get with the program and treat normal stuff as normal, to proceed with the story (and get to the cute animations that we can't help snapping pictures of and showing each other online because although yeah, we've all seen the wedding video and the slow dance and the leap-into-arms hug in our own games, the pixels are individuated enough that they do not get old.)

Yet the institutions of media continue to behave as if this stuff is controversial, uncommercial, and barely in demand at all.

And then a little later, across the same dashboard, I get another reblog which gradually led me back to the UCLA Newsroom website, and a story about a study demonstrating that shows with racially diverse casts and creative teams do better in the marketplace than shows with primarily white casts and creative teams. Which nevertheless still outnumber the diverse shows.

Which is huge, as anyone in YA and children's literature can tell you. Non-white characters and authors are out there - but it can be so freaking hard to track them down, to get people of color onto bookcovers even when the protagonists aren't white, even to keep character tags that indicate ethnicity, and the reason we're told time and again is that white characters sell better and that non-white characters have to be handled with kid gloves so as not to offend anyone.

As if being left out completely isn't offensive.

Yeah, well, when all the books with black people on the cover are shelved under "African-American Studies" instead of "General Fiction" in big box retailers, it's not surprising if they don't sell it well. That's not the fault of the characters or the cover designer! But the place to deal with that isn't on the supply side; isn't to capitulate before being challenged; isn't to assume that this perceived marketing reality is inevitable and unfightable.

Or even true, as anything other than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The moral of yesterday's dashboard is clear. The audience for diverse stories about diverse people exists. It is easy to be afraid of the economic consequences of writing for an invisible audience - but the secret, I see, is not to limit oneself to the visible audience, but to go forth and tear down the screens blocking them from your sight. They're out there. We can find them.

For one thing, we are them.

Now we just have to stand up nice and tall and speak nice and loud and make ourselves visible to the gatekeepers. This is taking too long, and media representation is an important part of social change. It's not enough to hang out whispering to each other on tumbler and Facebook. We have to vote with our dollars and our library cards. Complain as loudly and directly and vociferously of being stifled as the whiny minority complain in order to stifle us. Go into bookstores and ask for books with transgender protagonists; they'll find them for you. Go into libraries and check out books by Hispanic authors (whatever "hispanic" means anyway) on a regular basis. Talk up your favorite diverse shows to your co-workers in such a way as to coax them out of their comfort zones to watch and enjoy them too. Squee loudly about realistically depicted disabled characters, in public. Do amazon searches for "bisexual protagonists," "Native American / Indian authors," "black YA" whatever, and gripe to the management when you get inappropriate results.

Don't be didactic, but be proactive.

Write the book you want to write; and at the same time, create the demand you want to fill.

You are not the only one.

1 comment:

  1. An RPG player once asked me if I were using a variation on Chris Claremont's famous query,* "Is there any reason this character cannot be a woman?" in choosing the sexual orientation of player characters. My answer: Not consciously, I just didn't automatically rule it out.

    *No pun intended.