Monthly Archives: August 2016

If Stranger Things Had a Black Protagonist

Spoilers ahead. Seriously.

I recently wrote about how to do a better job coming up with racially diverse protagonists, as opposed to writing an all-white cast, realizing what you’ve done, and trying to find someone re-writable at the last minute. One of the tips was to mentally recast stories you like.

Stranger Things is ripe for this exercise. It’s a great show with talented actors, but it does not do well with race. The setting is Hawkins, a small Indiana town in the ’80s, which would realistically have a white majority and a few Black families. The fact that there are only a few Black characters isn’t what I’m objecting to. They still had full control over who they picked to represent that Black minority, and unfortunately the writers picked Lucas.

Lucas_Sinclair_001

Lucas barely has a personality. He is the sidekick who carries the conflict ball. Worse, he frequently insults my favorite character, Eleven, and that absolutely poisoned my ability to like him. Given how popular Eleven ended up being, I’m certainly not alone in that. If your audience keeps wishing your only Black character would shut the hell up, you’ve gone seriously wrong.

The last couple of episodes did redeem him somewhat, so I hope season two will make better use of his character. Still, I can’t help but wish they had represented the Black population of Hawkins with a protagonist, instead of a sidekick.

Hopper

Hopper

The thing about demographics is that your age, race, gender, orientation etc are always a part of you, but at some points in your life they are major factors, and at others they are minor. It’s fine to recognize that you aren’t qualified to write a Black Person’s Story (TM). But that’s no reason to never write Black protagonists, because everyone’s life is made of thousands of little stories. You can pick the stories where a person’s race isn’t the biggest element.

Hopper is a perfect example of this. His primary identity, in this show, is as a cop. He is pulled between his fear that he’s overstepping his jurisdiction to find a missing child, and his worry that he isn’t doing enough. He battles obstructive authorities, sorts through red herrings and struggles to see the truth. In this setting, those conflicts wouldn’t be changed by his race.

Hopper is also a good illustration of how the spotlight itself can act as a vaccine against stereotyping. In the course of his investigation, he sometimes resorts to violence. If he were a secondary character, those moments might comprise most of his screentime. Even though it’s heroic violence, it could still potentially feed into aggressive Black man tropes. But because he’s a protagonist, he’s allowed a greater degree of complexity. He gets backstory, moments of introspection, doubts, vulnerabilities, and even scenes that showcase his gentleness. He’s balanced and multi-dimensional.

I am white, so take everything I just said with a grain of salt. I might have completely overlooked something problematic; if you think I have I would love to hear from you. This goes for everyone below as well. But on the whole, based on what I’ve learned so far, Hopper feels like the safe choice.

Joyce, Jonathan and Will Byers

Joyce and Jonathan

If Hopper is the safe choice, this is the risky one. The Byers are dirt poor. Mr. Byers is a deadbeat who abandoned them a long time ago, and Joyce struggles to find enough time to spend with her sons. Furthermore, this isn’t a poor town. The Byers are outliers, looked on with suspicion by most everyone else. If you made them the only Black family as well… I’m sure you can all see the problem.

In this case, being protagonists wouldn’t fix anything. Hopper is shown being violent and gentle, confused and canny, confident and conflicted. The Byers don’t ever stop being impoverished. If the spotlight is the vaccine against stereotyping, they have the egg allergy.

Another issue is that Will and Eleven’s resemblance to each other is a plot point. This means Eleven would also have to be Black. Eleven’s mother is a catatonic addict. Sure, she took drugs as parts of an experiment, but you see the problem. Also, there’s an implication that Eleven’s biological father didn’t even stick around long enough to learn her mother was pregnant.

That’s not to say nobody could write the show this way. But if you wanted to do this, you couldn’t ignore the racial issues. You’d have to change the show, to actively discuss race and poverty. I, as a white writer who was raised in the middle class, would not feel comfortable doing this. My life so far hasn’t given me anything special to say about those issues, but my privilege would elevate my voice. I’d end up talking over people who really have experiences to share.

The Wheeler Family

Mike is the classical  children’s protagonist. He’s brave, smart, and precocious, but still figuring out who he is and how to take care of things on his own. He’s part of a group of friends, but in this story he takes the lead, and their actions revolve around him.

Mike

For some reason, this character is always coded as white, but there’s no reason for him to be. I can think of Black cops, like Hopper. I can’t think of any characters like Mike who are Black, and I can’t think of good reasons for that. So I’m already liking this option.

Then there’s Nancy. When I imagine her as Black, she actually gains depth.

Nancy

She’s a good girl going through her rebellious phase; kissing boys instead of doing her homework, tasting beer, generally seeing what it’s like to not live up to her reputation. You can relate to her identity crisis, but it’s fairly prosaic. There’s nothing to set her apart from all the other characters like this.

Suppose, however, she was the only Black girl her age in a small, predominantly white town. She would exist in a world where she is spared some of the uglier, more overt displays of racism, but still has to deal with a constant feeling of not quite fitting in. She still sees a culture that doesn’t consider her type of beauty the “right” kind, and that will project a trashy image on her regardless of what she does. A few scenes could be enough to paint this picture. She sees a scene from a Blaxploitation film on TV, flinches and changes the channel. She stares a little too long at a blonde model in a lipstick advertisement. A shopkeeper is a little too watchful of her, and she imagines snapping at him, but doesn’t. All her life, she has overcompensated, by being a clean-cut, straight A student, and she’s sick of it. We would understand that Steve, who is edgy but rich and popular, offers an opportunity to cut loose while still fitting in.

The bulk of her story could remain the same. Stranger Things wouldn’t have to be about race, like in the example with the Byers. Race would just become a facet of Nancy’s character arc, which helps distinguish her, and raises the stakes of her conflict.

In fact, this change would actually solve a story problem. You know that scene, at the end, that made us all go “WHY??????!!!!!!!!?????” Imagine she’s the only Black teen girl in town. Imagine she has to decide between Steve, who elevates her status, and Jonathan, who associates her with stereotypes she’s desperate to avoid. I’m still mad at hypothetically-Black Nancy, but at least her decision makes sense, instead of being character assassination committed for no goddamned reason besides prolonging a love triangle.

Now, I’m not saying that making the Wheelers Black is the one true correct story choice. Rather, it’s the one that makes me, as a writer, go “ooooh!” Now I’m interested in someday writing a story with Black characters like Mike and Nancy.

That’s why I like this exercise. I think the reason we got stuck with Lucas as the token Black kid is that the writers weren’t excited about writing diverse characters. They were thinking, “better put a Black kid in there somewhere so nobody will yell at us.”

That’s not how either good writing or good representation works.

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How to Come up with Diverse Protagonists

A couple years ago I wrote a post titled What to do When All Your Characters are White. I liked it, but in retrospect, it describes short-term solution. Panicking about representation partway through planning a novel is not exactly the ideal situation. It’s better to have character ideas that naturally run across a spectrum of identities.

Some might argue authors have no control over what inspiration they are struck with, but I disagree. Personally, I have gotten better at this over the years, although it’s still a work in progress. So, as a follow-up to that old piece, I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me avoid the problem of whitewashed casts in the first place, instead of just patching it up at the last minute. I’m focusing on race, because that’s the area where I’ve needed the most improvement, but I think these tips can apply to any kind of diversity.

1. Honestly identify your comfort zones.

This was a tough one for me, but it was an important step. It’s uncomfortable to tell yourself something like “I’m more nervous to write Black characters than any other race,” but when I did I could work on it, and it’s not a problem in the same way any more. I think white people have a sort of collective don’t ask don’t tell policy when it comes to worries about race. None of us are supposed to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, or stereotypes, or anything of that ilk. But if you aren’t willing to recognize what needs to be worked on, you’ll never improve.

The Chaos
The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson: a weird, fun novel about confronting your inner demons.

2. Research pro-actively, not reactively.

Something I’ve noticed about research in general; last-minute research works best for details and side characters. The quality of your story improves if the main elements draw on subjects you are already familiar with. This means you should never wait for a story idea before researching something of interest. If you want to write mysteries, make it a habit to read about crime, the history of police work, law, forensics etc.

By the same token, if you realize at the last minute that your 1930s Chicago crime thriller needs more Black people, and you only have superficial knowledge of race relations in that time and place, you might have to decide you don’t have the expertise to write more than a few minor characters. But the more time you spend educating yourself about race relations and other cultures, the easier it will be to write more and more significant characters from all backgrounds. This also applies to educating yourself about racist tropes and what people really want to see more of. It’s easy to stumble blindly into a problematic trope. Educate yourself by reading media criticisms written by POC, and awesome blogs like Writing With Color.

Saving Face
Saving Face: an wonderful comedy that wouldn’t have worked without the author’s intimate knowledge of Chinese-American culture.

3. Re-imagine your favorite stories with diverse casts.

Writers are inspired by other writers. I think this is a major source of the ubiquitous white man protagonist. Sherlock Holmes inspires House. Clark Kent creates a genre for Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to be born into. King Arthur creates a trope of Secret Royalty with Epic Destiny, and sets the default to “straight white teenage boys.” What happens if you take your favorite white characters and make them Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc? Do they actually change? Does it bring up new issues that could be fodder for an interesting story? Would this story be too challenging for you right now, and if so is there something you can do to bridge that gap? See point two.

sister-mine
Sister Mine, also by Nalo Hopkinson: fits into the Gods-on-Earth subgenre, but with loads of Afro-Caribbean mythology

 

4. Remember that everyone around you is a protagonist.

As writers, we love talking about gaining inspiration from all around us. But is that unadulterated inspiration? Or are we still influenced by the narratives around us? The think often we are. The interesting looking white guy gives us an idea for a main character. The story our Uber driver tells about growing up in Cameroon just inspires a scene where that white guy gets in a cab with a Cameroonian driver.

We all know everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But I’ve found it helpful to actively look at everyone around them and imagine the story where they are the main character. Some of these are stories I couldn’t write. One Uber ride didn’t give me enough material to capture all the nuances of Cameroon. That’s not the point. The point is getting into the habit of seeing everyone as equally protagonist-y.

Little Mosque
Little Mosque: a fantastically funny show where the Muslim community gets the spotlight.

5. Read and watch work by non-white creators.

Saved for last because it’s the most important. First, as I said before, art inspires art. This could be a whole post of it’s own, but short version; I’ve grown up in a world that mostly puts white artists in front of me. This means that my inspiration for non-white characters has largely come from white artists, who themselves were copying other white artists, who were inspired by other white artists… This process can’t create original, lifelike POC characters who represent the diversity that’s out there. If you want a fresh outlook, go straight to the source. Find musicians, actors, comedians, directors and yes, writers who aren’t white.

Second, while I think white people have a responsibility to undo some of the damage our ancestors have done, it’s important to not go so overboard that we talk over POC. You need to respect the actual voices of the people who you are trying to represent. You need to elevate their voices directly, not just borrow them. There are also plenty of reading lists on the internet. Also, every book/film/TV show pictured on this post was written by someone who isn’t white, so if any of them appealed to you, there’s your starting point.

Warning; if you follow this advice, at some point you will be angry because all these authors with their awards and their amazingness and yet I’ve never heard of them why????!!!!!

BloodChild
Octavia E. Butler: you are so wonderful. Where have you been all my life?

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic; A Matter of Obedience

 

This episode centers around Tom Reilly, a longtime friend of Whit’s. Tom is every old timey stereotype in the book; the positive ones, that is. From the perspective of the Adventures in Odyssey team, old fashioned and traditional is automatically better. For example, the Bible School class Tom has been ask to substitute teach, though inherently Biblical and therefore wonderful, has been tainted by the teacher’s newfangled ways. As Reynold the teacher’s pet explains;

“We learned that the word obedience as it appears in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word hupakoe, meaning to give fulfillment of God’s claims and commands, and hupatage, which means to bring under subjection.”

“Anything else?”

“It took us the whole class to learn about hupakoe, Mr. Reilly.”

How? You defined both words in one sentence.

I’ve been in plenty of Sunday School classes (and regular classes) where the teachers touched on the Greek, Hebrew and Latin root words. It never took up a whole class, in fact never more than a minute. If it did, it was because the root words were genuinely interesting and enlightening.

I also find this an ironic criticism. This series never stops praising the Bible, and emphasizing the importance of studying it, but God forbid you learn the copy in your own home is just a translation. God forbid you learn anything about the original language, and the subtleties that may have been lost. Tom rants for a while about this Bible School where they don’t read the Bible, never mind that, in a sense, that’s exactly what they were doing. He realizes that the duty of truly teaching them about obedience has fallen to him, and decides to tell them a story.

Not a story from the Bible, mind you. Just something that happened to him as a kid. You know, REAL Bible study stuff.

Tom’s father was a country doctor during the Great Depression. One day he asked Tom and his sister Becky to deliver some medicine, while he went to see another patient. Before he left, he gave Tom a list of instructions.

  1. Take the Single Path through the Gloomy Woods. It’s long and windy, but it’s a direct route, so they won’t get lost.
  2. Take a knapsack of food, because the trip will take most of the day and they will be hungry.
  3. Don’t play around. This means you, Tom. You can’t afford to waste time goofing off.
  4. Don’t talk to strangers on the way.
  5. Knock on the house with the blue door, and tell the man there who you are. Don’t knock on any other doors, because the people in that area don’t trust strangers.

He also advises his son to take a pocketknife, on the general principle that every story needs a Chekhov’s Gun. Becky also brings a book, because this good old-fashioned story wouldn’t be complete without Tom making fun of people who read for fun she doesn’t want to get bored.

Naturally, Tom goofs off on a bridge over a stream and promptly loses the knapsack, and they spend the bulk of the trip suffering hunger pangs. He nearly breaks rules four and one, when a stranger approaches and offers to show them a shortcut and food, but Becky talks him out of it. When they finally emerge, Tom is so desperate for this whole ordeal to be over, he runs up to the first house he sees and knocks on a red door.

Becky points out how red is an extremely un-blue color, but Tom brushes her off on account of… reasons?

Of course the woman who opens the door assumes they are evil pranksters who must be locked up in her basement while she goes for help. Naturally.

Luckily, she leaves the key in the door. Tom joyfully announces that Becky’s book will finally be useful for something. He tears out a page, pushes it under the door, knocks the key out with the pocketknife, pulls it under the door and unlocks it from the other side.

They finally follow their father’s directions to the letter, complete their mission and get some food. And if the story had stopped there, I honestly would have thought it was fine. A bit obvious and trope heavy, yes. But overall, a standard children’s morality tale. Unfortunately, this being Adventures in Odyssey, we can’t just stop there. We have to have the moral explained to death, to make absolutely sure we don’t engage in any independent thought.

As Tom says to his class;

“That little adventure taught me how important it is to obey. Even when it’s not convenient or when I don’t understand why I’m being told to do something, and even when I don’t want to. I tried to make excuses and argue, and I was wrong, and suffered because of it.”

As Tom talks, he puts the emphasis on “why,” even though that does not apply to the story. Each rule came with a clear explanation from his father, and he disobeyed it anyway. He goes on like this for a while, to make it clear that obeying is always, always good and disobeying is always, always bad. If we learned “obey people who give directions that make sense and are for the good of everyone involved,” we learned the wrong lesson. We should have learned unquestioning obedience.

Obedience, I think, is an act of trust. It is only virtuous if we are trusting those who have earned it. Sometimes they earn that by giving us clear reasoning. Other times we choose to trust someone because of their track record. And yes, some people start out in an authority role, like a teacher, parent or boss, and it’s worthwhile to trust that they got that position for good reasons. There’s a difference between that and blindly following someone who gives directions that are damaging and foolish.

I don’t trust leaders who try to argue obedience is something we all automatically owe them. It tells me they know the foundation of their authority is weak.

Final ratings (because I’ve decided that should be a thing)

Best bit: Every named character follows a Tom Sawyer theme. It’s moderately funny when you notice it.

Worst bit: Anti-intellectualism – fun for the whole family!

Story: It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s not bad. B –

Moral: Once again, they skirt close to a good message, but explain it to death and add problematic elements in the process. D

The Long Fight For Progress

Dear Bernie Sanders Voters,

On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Riots kicked off what most historians see as the modern LGBTQ movement. We had roots going back before that, but this was the moment that set us on fire. It was the day we found our power. It was the day we said “enough.” After decades of work from that movement, I was given the right to marry my boyfriend, only a year and a month ago. We are now like any other couple, wondering if the finances are right and whether we’ve waited long enough to not be “rushing it,” not wondering when our country will be willing to recognize that I’m his and he’s mine.

And even with this landmark crossed, I feel the fight for my extended queer family is nowhere near over. I still see my little brothers, sisters and non-binary siblings harassed, beaten, killed or driven to suicide. I still have to mourn fallen trans comrades every November 20, on Transgender Day of Rememberance, including far too many beautiful trans women of color. As a trans man, I experience the humiliation of hearing people debate whether or not I have the right to use a bathroom.

I think Bernie Sanders was for leftist socialists what the Stonewall Riots were for the LGBT movement. The ideas were there before, but this year I saw people taking action on these economic policies in a way I never have before. I saw unity and passion. Bernie lit a fire for you, and it warmed my heart to see it.

Now when I see disappointed Bernie supporters, I feel a range of emotions. Part of me honestly sympathizes. It’s hard to see yourself come so close, to imagine you are about to hit a goal that once seemed unbelievable, to feel momentum pushing you forward and then realize it wasn’t enough. I’ve been there. It sucks.

Part of me also feels a little bemused. I shake my head and think, “did you really think things were going to change that fast? Have you not looked at the history of progressive movements? Progress has never been a sprint. It’s always a marathon.”

But most of me fears the movement being put out too soon.

It has taken the LGBT movement so long to hit even the landmark victory of marriage equality. That doesn’t mean we were stagnant for forty-six years. We took small achievements when we could. We didn’t want civil unions, but they gave couples rights that they needed. There were people whose life partner was dying in a hospital, and they couldn’t visit, because they “weren’t family.” Those people couldn’t wait for us to make some all or nothing stand. So we took what we could get, then we got up and kept fighting. The same thing goes for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It wasn’t the acceptance we wanted, but it gave LGBTQ people in the military at least a veil of privacy. We took it. Then we kept fighting. We elected gay leaders. We saw them shot down. We survived an AIDs epidemic. We kept fighting.

You’ve done some truly awesome things this year. You exposed issues with the system, showed that progressive socialism isn’t toxic to a campaign, and, in Bernie Sanders’ own words, forced the Democrats to adopt their most progressive platform in generations. You got the Democratic establishment’s attention, and just because your candidate didn’t make it to office, that doesn’t mean you can’t leverage that attention to push the party further and further to the left. 

But if you let the Republicans take control of the government, those victories will mean nothing. We can’t put that progressive platform to action if the man we have in the office spends all his time boasting about an imaginary wall while handing out tax cuts to the wealthy. 

I only just got marriage equality. More than that, I only just got the ability to go back to college. My parents kicked me out and I’ve been struggling on half a degree ever since. With my testosterone prescription and my anxiety disorder, I can’t go back to school without insurance to cover my medications. I can’t pay insurance without help. Obamacare is letting me get ahead. If Trump is elected, he will steal my hopes of marriage and college in a heartbeat. Along with that he will destroy environmental regulations, a diplomacy-based approach to foreign relations that keeps us from constantly declaring war, the whole concept of raising taxes on the wealthy, Roe v Wade… Even when he’s gone, the Supreme Court Justices he elects will remain. Those of us who have been fighting for basic human rights, as women, as racial, religious or ethnic minorities, as disabled people and LGBTQ folk, we will all experience setbacks. We will experience repercussions for years.

You can avoid that setback, for yourselves and all the rest of us. You can use this moment to move forward, not backward. Unite to put that progressive platform into power, and if Hillary Clinton disappoints you, take her on again in 2020! Elizabeth Warren, anybody? I’ll be right there with you. 

So what do you say? Were you just in this fight for a sprint, or are you ready for a marathon?