Disabled Characters Who Rock

I’m sure this won’t be news to you; we need better disabled characters. Portrayals of people with disabilities tend to misinform, sensationalize, stereotype and outright villainize them. There are thousands of articles out there on harmful disability tropes and more still to be said.

But you know what I’d rather do than write another one of those articles? Talk about some disabled characters I love. I think that, when talking about disability representation, or any other kind of representation, it is easy to get bogged down in the difficulty. I don’t just mean the labor of research or the ethical questions about which stories are yours to tell; I also mean the emotional consequences of submerging yourself in pain. It is not creatively energizing. It puts you into that “everything sucks” mentality, and going straight from that to writing can turn into the toxic editors “everything I write sucks” mentality. This is especially damaging when it comes to diverse characters, because, on the way to writing awesome representation, you will probably write some shitty representation. Not because you’re a bad person, but because all your writing is shitty when it’s on it’s way to being awesome. Representation isn’t different, it’s just extra emotionally charged.

I also think writers need “dos” as well as “do nots.” While it’s good to be aware of problematic tropes, I think that when you actually sit down to write it’s better to have an idea of good representation to focus on. You don’t hit a bullseye by focusing on the people in the crowd who you are hoping not to shoot. You know the bystanders exist, but you keep your eyes on the target.

Besides, this has been a rough year for all of us, and it’s nice to spend a little time dwelling on happy thoughts.  Continue reading

Choosing Your Influences

A few years ago, when I was a baby SJW, some people recommended Laci Green’s videos to me. I liked what she was saying, but something made me uneasy. I was still finding myself and recovering from my fundamentalist homeschooled background, and all the toxic messages that came with that. I was learning that one of the most damaging things from my childhood was how I felt that disagreeing made me stupid and evil. There was no space to be uninformed, still processing the evidence, or still comparing points of view. My choices were to either accept instantly or be utterly wrong, not just intellectually, but also morally.

Some segments of the social justice community were, frankly, triggering, because they shared that mentality. I don’t use that word to mean “unsettled” or “offended,” which is how many people (mis) use it. I mean it in it’s proper, medical sense; bringing back thoughts, habits or behaviors that interfere with the healing process, or cause symptoms of a mental illness. Laci Green was highly triggering, because even though she was saying things that I agreed with wholeheartedly, she was saying them in ways that made me feel that to continue examining these ideas would made me stupid and evil. At this time, those ideas were new to me, and I was afraid of simply accepting the first thing that came along, no matter how much sense it made. So, despite liking what she was saying, I decided not to follow her.

Even though I had no idea what would happen, I must admit to feeling a big smug, given recent events.*

I bring that up because it was a decision that lead to a habit of carefully choosing who I let influence me. That habit, more than any other, has protected me from activist burnout. I do have finite mental space, and some voices are exhausting, demoralizing, and, yes, triggering. It took some trial and error to work out who actually helped me and who didn’t, but in the end I ended up with a few simple guidelines that have served me fairly well.

First Guideline: Look for People Who Blend Positives and Negatives

Constant angry ranting can be tempting, because anger is contagious, and what do you want from your social network more than a highly shared post?. But it’s a toxic mental diet. It ultimately drains your energy, makes you cynical, and encourages you to spend most of your time putting other people down without adding anything constructive.

That said, I’m not sure nonstop positivity is great either. There are too many problems out there. There is pain and damage and systemic oppression that needs to be addressed. There’s a fine line between positivity and complacency, and an even finer line between complacency and complicity.

When an activist can post something about a systemic problem, and something else praising a solution or celebrating a moment of progress, that tells me they are able to see the world for what it is; a broken place that is still worth fighting for. A world full of people beautiful and precious despite their flaws. It reminds me that social justice is an ongoing, self-experimenting process. It makes me less afraid to take part in that experimentation, even knowing I might fail or prove ignorant. It gives me a hope that is grounded, not ephemeral, and it cultivates patience for a long fight still ahead.

Second Guideline: Look for People Who Evolve

I can’t say it enough; nobody’s perfect, and the people with the most problems are usually the ones most convinced they have nothing to learn.

In the social justice community, we have a bad habit of treating every problematic misstatement as a reason to ditch someone completely, but there are two problems with that. First, sometimes people make honest mistakes, which, given time, they will correct. Second, sometimes it’s not the other person who is wrong, but us. I’ve had times when I thought somebody was deeply misinformed or misguided, but in fact I was missing something. If I had dismissed them offhand, instead of looking closer, I would have missed out on a chance to grow.

This isn’t an easy road for anyone. Nobody has all the experiences needed to understand every point of view. Some of the problems ahead still don’t have clear solutions. If you’re following somebody who hasn’t seemed to change at all, that person is either stagnant or dishonest.

What I look for now is evidence that a person is constantly self-evaluating and re-evaluating. I can never expect to find a person without flaws, but I can expect to follow people who are constantly going through a process of reducing them, and I can hope that practice rubs off on me as well.

Third Guideline: Look for Empathy, Not Consensus

While this criticism has often been misapplied, I think there truly is an echo chamber problem in social justice. Unfortunately, many people seem to think the solution to that is to listen to hatemongers on the far right. I’ve noticed that those who embrace that solution are actually often those who have been least interested in paying attention to inter-community debate. There is so much disagreement among leftists and moderates. Even within small communities, from environmentalism to feminism to LGBTQIA, there are people who see problem A but have no experience of problem B arguing with those are ignorant of A but deeply entrenched in B, and people standing aside, bogged down in problem C, asking “excuse me, excuse me, hello? Anybody hear me?” Then, even when we can all agree that a problem exists, there’s the problem of agreeing on solutions. Clear, straightforward paths are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the time multiple possible solutions exist, all of which have positives and negatives, all of which have advocates and critics.

It’s dangerously easy, in social justice, to get hooked on one problem you are familiar with, and one solution that appeals to you. But we are all a tiny fraction of the big oppression problem, and while one person’s philosophy might be infuriating because it’s wildly ignorant of your reality, yours might be as infuriating to them for exactly the same reason.

When I’m trying to decide who to engage and argue with, and who to ignore, I find it’s helpful to ignore what they are saying, and instead look at why they are saying it. Sometimes there’s evidence that they are just looking to put others down. There’s no point arguing with someone like that. They don’t really want to listen to you, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on the far right or only a faint tint bluer or pinker than me. As far as they are concerned, your job is to either puff them up by becoming one of their converts, or puff them up by letting them stomp all over you to the applause of their cheering fans.

Others, however, agree with my basic values, and share my goal of making the world a better place. They just have an idea I disagree with. Those people are worth arguing with, whether the gaps are vast or small, because there is some hope of mutually educating each other.

The only type of philosophy that’s not worth listening to is one that devalues the fundamental worth of a human being. So long as there’s agreement on human value, everything else is just a difference of how we fight for human rights. Don’t engage with people who, with their words or their actions, make a habit of putting other people down. Do engage with people who have different plans to create a world that’s fairer and freer for everybody.

Zeroth Guideline: Trust Yourself

This is the zeroth guide, not the fourth, because it transcends all the others. I didn’t predict what Laci Green would end up doing. In fact, it was only retroactively that I could put any words to it. Even after my vague negative vibe turned into a nameable thing, I never would have anticipated what actually happened. I was just following my gut about what seemed emotionally healthy to me.

Do that thing.

Do challenge yourself. Sometimes you’ll hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, but that also makes you better for hearing it. It’s worth pushing through that discomfort. But when you feel like you’re becoming a person you don’t like, or your mental health is being negatively affected, you don’t need to spell out exactly why you aren’t comfortable. Nor do you need a reason why nobody on earth should listen to that person ever; you aren’t everyone, you’re just you. Listen to the voices that make you a stronger, happier, better informed and ultimately more loving kind of person. Don’t waste time on all the rest.

*For those who haven’t followed it or haven’t heard of Laci Green; She’s a prominent Youtuber who vlogs about feminism, consent culture and sex ed. In the past she’s received a lot of praise, but also been criticized as an example of White Feminism; the problem of mainstream feminism being synonymous with the issues of white women, or erasing issues and perspectives of Black women. Over the past several weeks, she has announced that she started dating an anti-social justice, “alt right” white supremacist Youtuber. She also has been using her various platforms to legitimize voices of white supremacists, anti-feminists and anti-trans activists. Her defense has been that SJWs are too sensitive and PC and won’t engage with the other side, which, given previous criticisms and my original reason for ditching her, is highly ironic.

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and storytelling, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been dropped on concrete. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

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?

Mulan and Masculinity

I’m at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, and I’ve got that song from Mulan running through my head. You know the one. On the surface, the lyrics of this song reinforce many of our most problematic ideas about masculinity, including;

  • A person’s ability to perform masculine ideals define their gender identity
  • Masculine ideals are so lofty as to be nigh superhuman (“you must be swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”)
  • Being womanly and being weak are practically synonymous, which is why the most humiliating thing is to be defeated by a woman

Yet everyone who hears this song knows it is from a movie where the protagonist is a woman.* We know the joke is on the singer, even before we see the film, but one of my favorite things about this movie is that it goes a step further than the standard gender-bending woman power stories. All too often, those stories challenge the first idea, by having a woman successfully perform masculinity, but leave the second untouched and sort of whistle awkwardly past the third. Sometimes the men are the butt of the joke for being outdone by a woman, and very often the only person worthy of her affection is the one man who really can best her. In Mulan, on the other hand, everything is taken a step further.

Li Shang and Ping

First, Mulan is, initially, terrible at fulfilling Li-Shang’s expectations… and so is everyone else. The cisgender men are all overwhelmed and struggling. The film has introduced Mulan as someone who struggles with femininity, which makes her feel inadequate, but then it dares suggest that people of all genders can struggle to live up to the idealized expectations of masculinity and femininity. When Mulan succeeds, it is celebrated because it marks a turning point for all of them. They ultimately live up to Li-Shang’s standards, not because of the inherent gifts of testosterone, but because of teamwork, persistence and loads of practice. It’s like the “masculine” ideals of strength and bravado can be fulfilled by anyone sufficiently dedicated to master them, regardless of their hormones or chromosomes. What a novel concept.

Speaking of which, I love the three soldiers who become her friends. Initially, they bully her. This is… honest. Brutally honest. In my experience, the worst gender bullies are always the ones who are insecure about their own presentation. From the Republican senator who bemoans gay rights only to be caught with a rentboy, to the scrawny nerd who trolls anyone who dares identify as both geek and woman, hypocrisy is the classic defense of the man who can neither live up to standards of masculinity, nor work up the courage to rebel against it. Because toxic masculinity is so hierarchical, it’s easy for them to decide that, if they can’t climb the ranks, at least they can make sure everyone below them stays down.

This is what her friends initially do. They are failing Li-Shang’s tests, so they make sure those around them won’t succeed and make them look bad. But Mulan refuses to play this game. Instead, she persists and, through her success, inspires them to work on themselves rather than keep putting down anyone weaker. I love that this is addressed. I love that children get to see how shitty that bullying is, and cheer for the discovery of a better way. I love the reminder that masculinity doesn’t have to be about being better than everyone else. It can be about collaborating and being better together.

Yao Ling Chien-Po

Second, the love story isn’t about Mulan finally finding a man who can defeat her, or some such sexist bullshit. In fact, Mulan never fixates on or pursues him. It’s Li-Shang’s character arc that drives the romance. He learns that his rigid concepts of gender roles are stopping him from finding true love with someone whose best traits are best recognized outside of the gender binary. Mulan is not the “Girl Worth Fighting For” they sing about (another song where sexist lyrics are deftly skewered by the context). She doesn’t need to be. Everything she is is wonderful enough.

Finally, and here’s my favorite part, Mulan never comes to perfectly embody masculinity, or femininity. She does become a much, much better warrior, but so does everyone else, and throughout the story she is more likely to use creativity and intellect to solve her problems than brute force. In the end, she returns to feminine clothing, albeit in a more subdued, gender neutral way.** The story isn’t about how she’s awesome because she’s masculine, unlike all those awful feminine women. It’s about how she’s brave, smart, resourceful and loyal; heroic traits that can go with any gender presentation.

Mulan

I want to do many more reviews of stories that explore gender, and especially explore how we tell stories about masculinity; how we spread toxic messages, and how we can do better. But for now, I’m off to hang out with awesome trans-spectrum type folk. If you have any requests for gender-centric stories that you want me to review, please leave a comment. Films are preferred, because it’s easier for me to find the time to watch and rewatch them, but if there are books or TV shows or anything else I’ll do my best. As always, thanks for reading!

*Her portrayal is consistent with just about any gender identity, including trans male and nonbinary. That is to say, she never says anything about who she feels she is, but rather about her sense of duty to her family, so you can read into the story what you want. I’ll refer to her with female pronouns, because that’s what she uses in-story, but I support all headcanons.

**Okay, okay, my personal headcanon is that today she would label herself genderfluid or a gender non-conforming woman. This is largely because she seems clearly uncomfortable with her initial attempts at performing extreme femininity, but not at the end when she is presenting as a woman again. I don’t think she would have looked as happy if she didn’t feel that “woman” was at least partially true to who she was. But that’s just my interpretation.

Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…

 

eugene-manet-on-the-isle-of-wight

… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise

Beautiful Characters

I just came back from a party I went to, mostly to keep my extroverted boyfriend happy, but I ended up having a good time. There was a guest there who I hopefully didn’t stare at too much. I’m bad about staring at people. I blame it on being a writer; often I notice things about people that trigger some writerly thoughts. There’s something about the way they are dressed or carrying themselves that gives me an idea, and I want to stare to imprint the idea into my head, to fully process it, sometimes even to consciously understand what is unconsciously appealing about them. Of course, at the same time I  don’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I keep finding my eyes drawn to them when I’m bored, catching myself and looking away in a way that I’m sure people notice. In this case I felt particularly awkward, because she had vitiligo.

Vitiligo is a condition where certain patches of the body lose pigment over time. The  extremities and face tend to change first, so it’s very visible. It’s occasionally associated with more severe diseases, and can cause some stigma and insecurity, but in and of itself, it isn’t dangerous, nor is it contagious. What made drew my writer’s eye wasn’t the vitiligo itself, but the fact that she was very pretty. And I don’t mean pretty despite her vitiligo, or would be pretty if not for the vitiligo. She had vitiligo, and she was pretty, and I was trying to figure out how to describe that.

See, I’ve realized that prose has done a seriously terrible job of handling body positivity, and I don’t think it’s gotten enough finger wagging for that. Most of the criticism ends up directed at visual media, but I think in a way prose can be more destructive, and often is. The typical approach to describing characters is to declare them lovely, plain or hideous, and then offer up a list of traits that support the author’s claim. As a result, thin and blonde becomes officially beautiful, fat and freckled become officially plain, and highly unusual traits, like vitiligo, don’t get to exist at all unless the author wants an ugly character. It encourages people look at themselves like they are unassembled puzzles, and the bits writers have declared unattractive automatically outweigh the officially attractive ones.

That’s not how people actually look. Real people are composites, not only of their physical features, but also of their personalities and attitudes. Often, a larger than average nose or a scar or a rotund waistline occur in a person who, as a whole, is very good-looking. Furthermore, that’s not always the case that removing that trait would necessarily make them look better. So it was with this woman. She had light brown skin, with the area around her eyes and nose white like a raccoon’s mask in reverse, and she had a pleasant smile and soft dark eyes, a light pinkish-purple top that went well with her black hair, and she was pretty.

Visual media at least has the ability to show us people as a whole, and let us make up our own minds. Where a book would just state that Lupita Nyong’o is unattractive because her skin is too dark and Adele is unattractive because she is fat, a picture can’t hide the truth that both of these women are utterly gorgeous. I first realized this when reading a rant on how Emma Watson was too pretty to play Hermione, who was supposed to start out very ugly, and of course this was a sign of cinema giving us unrealistic standards of beauty. Hermione is described as having frizzy hair and buck teeth. Emma’s hair looked frizzy to me, and her teeth… I couldn’t really tell. Teeth have to be pretty dramatically deformed to be noteworthy, and Hermione’s parents were dentists. They would  have taken care of anything worse than a slight overbite, which is often cute. Honestly most ten year olds are cute. It’s how they survive to puberty; they have faces that make adults go “awww, let me feed you.” The critic got it backwards. The movie was honest, and the book was giving us unrealistic standards of ugliness.

As I tried to avoid staring at the woman at the party, I realized I wanted to talk to her about this. I wanted to ask her if she had ever read a book with a character who had vitiligo, and how she would want to be described. I wondered whether it would make her happy to hear that I thought she was pretty, or uncomfortable; as a trans person I know many people are are uncomfortable hearing certain parts of themselves described in a positive light, and I wonder if that’s a gender dysphoria specific thing, or if it applies to other stigmatized traits. Every way of framing this sounded awkward to me, so I never asked. Instead I’ll address the question to the internet.

To anyone who is reading this, think of some part of yourself that you think a book would blindly deride. How would you feel, if you read a book with an attractive character who had that trait? Are there ways that could be described that would make you feel uncomfortable? Are there ways that would make you feel good? Do you think books have affected how you think about your appearance?

Mad Max and the Damsels Who Do Things

I saw Mad Max a couple nights ago, and I got at least two blogs worth of thoughts out of it. My overall impression of this movie was that it not perfect, but I enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for a lot of good action scenes you will probably love it.

(major spoilers avoided, but beginning and subplot spoilers ahead)

One thing that stood out to me was how many of the characters, specifically the protagonists, were women. In fact all but two of the good guys were female. Charlize Theron was absolutely terrific as Imperator Furiosa, a badass hero who really wasn’t written as a Female Action Hero TM, but just a complete all around boss who happened to be female. Eventually she is joined by other characters who are fabulous and heroic and happened to be women. Then there were five damsels in distress, whose escape early on kickstarted the plot.

The trope of damsels in distress is a sticky one. The damsel exists to be victimized, but then her victimization is not explored from her perspective. Instead, it is in the story to set up an end trophy for the hero, with the implications of a traumatized wife never explored, nor the question of whether his possession of her constitutes salvation or just a different kind of prison. Played straight, it can’t avoid being incredibly sexist. However, Mad Max subverts the damsel trope in ways that are both obvious and subtle.

The most obvious subversion I have already mentioned. The damsels do not sit around waiting to be rescued at the end of the movie. They start the plot themselves by breaking free together. I’ve seen other examples of this, but in this film it felt particularly appropriate because of what they were escaping from.

The damsel in distress trope is highly objectifying. It effectively turns a human being into a living MacGuffin*. The villain of the movie, Immortan Joe, is also highly objectifying. The beginning scenes set his world up as one where humans are regularly treated and used as machines, as cannon fodder, as cattle, even as living blood bags. The girls are his breeder concubines, and when they leave they write on the walls, over and over again, that they are not things.

In too many movies, this promising start would end there. The hero would enter the film and it would once again center all around him. The girls would not emerge as real characters. However, this does not happen.

To begin with, they do have individual personalities, and small subplots to themselves. The Splendid  Angharad is the leader, brave and aristocratic, and fully willing to sacrifice herself for the rest of the group. Toast the Knowing…

Okay, I have to take a break to acknowledge the weirdness of the names in this movie. Because they are all collectively so weird, it sort of works, in that they feel like they all belong to a world where naming practices have changed radically. Still, I have to ask what kind of drugs or drinking game aided the invention of these names? Anyway…

Toast the Knowing is quiet, and as such is the hardest to pin down, but she is the one who is able to handle guns, not fire them but load them and identify which bullets go with which weapons. In several scenes she reiterates their goal of finding “the green place,” which suggests to me that she is highly focused. Capable is the most compassionate, the kind of person who can look into an enemy’s eyes and see someone vulnerable, maybe in need of a second chance. The Dag’s suffering has made her fierce. She is delighted when she finds a mentor among the other female characters. Cheedo the Fragile lives up to her name. She is the most frightened and the most tempted to surrender. Typically she is seen standing behind or under the arm of another character. This makes her the most classical damsel in distress of the five, but when the time comes to be brave she finds her courage.

I liked that they were individualized, because it made an interesting counterpoint to the villain’s objectification. He treats them as inhuman, as women valuable only for being beautiful and fertile, but the writers and actresses take steps to remind us that they are people. On top of that, I loved the way they continued to be worked into action scenes as the plot continued. Letting them scream in the backseats would have been bland and expected, but the expected subversion, letting them all be action heroes, would also be cheap. It would reaffirm that the only kind of person worth being in an action movie is a stunt master, and would also be unrealistic given their background. And yes, I realize I’m talking realism in a movie which features an electric guitar that’s also a flamethrower.

But what happens is a kind of realism that is appropriate even in a movie so self-indulgently absurd as this one. They don’t become magical shots or martial artists just for the convenience of the plot, but they continue to find ways to help the characters who are actual warriors. Sometimes it’s loading guns in the backseat, sometimes it’s doing something incredibly brave that I won’t mention because spoilers, and sometimes it’s just defying genre expectations by bracing themselves in the background and not screaming. Honestly, these damsels scream less than in any other movie of its type that I have ever seen. It’s because they are brave, they knew what they were getting into, and they understand that when the action heroes with actual action hero training are stunt driving, dodging bullets and solving Inconvenient Equipment Malfunction #37, probably more noise is not what the situation calls for.

The point is, whether by action or by consciously chosen inaction, these characters participate in their own escape from beginning to end. This wasn’t heavy handed, but it still felt like the result of deliberate action taken by the creators to not do what they were condemning the villain for doing. Damsels or not, they weren’t going to erase these characters’ humanity, or their agency in their own story.

 

*A common trope in which something exists not to influence the story directly, but spur others to action by being desirable; the letters of mark in Casablanca, the diamonds in Notorious, the quest objects in the Indiana Jones movies, etc.

What To Do When All Your Characters Are White

Or perhaps I should call this one what I do when I realize all my protagonists are white. Nah, that’s less catchy, but I’ll clarify now that this is what I do. I’m hardly a Multicultural Writing Expert. These are the tricks I use for the kind of writing I tend to do. I’m putting them up here in part because I think others might find them helpful, and in part because I’m hoping other people will have some more ideas that I might find useful.

I should also go into a little bit into my rationale for caring in the first place, because that has a huge bearing on my process. I belong to the school of thought that says that stories play a role in how we form our ideas about the world around us. If those stories all have white protagonists and only have people of color as villains and one dimensional tertiary colors, that helps bolster racist ways of seeing the world, while being accustomed to hearing all sorts of stories told about people of all races makes racism untenable. I believe the stories we tell have more power to change minds than all the workplace mandated sensitivity trainings, for the simple reason that people come to stories open hearted, while they go through workshops watching the clock for a chance to escape. However, I believe that for stories to have their full impact, they must be believed. To be believed, they must feel real. For that reason, I think painstakingly ensuring every story has one black person, one Asian person, one Native American person, and so on is ineffective. At one point that approach was a step forward, but these days its just cloying and obvious, and nearly as easy for the audience to dismiss as those sensitivity trainings. Stories should not feel like I deigned to put some POC characters in, or like I grudgingly chopped out a space for them in deference to political correctness. Those should feel natural, so the audience hardly notices they are there. One day, we should get to a point where lacking diversity is as jarring and noticeable to readers as having diversity was to readers fifty years ago.

1. Think about the setting. Which races are germane to the setting, and which are rarer but still plausible? Something in the Medieval England countryside, probably doesn’t need any characters who aren’t white. Japanese characters won’t fit into any story outside of Japan, from 1635 to 1868. They had a strict isolationist policy. On the flip side, though, there are many settings that we think of as less diverse than they necessarily are. Note how I said Medieval countryside in the first example? The ports and major cities were a different story. Plenty of Spaniards, Italians and Moors made their way there, as merchants, diplomats, sailors, mercenaries, and so on. The American Old West also gets very inaccurately whitewashed. In the Southwest, much of the territory was recently acquired from Spain and Mexico, so a high percentage of the population was Hispanic, just as it is today. Furthermore, the new territories were popular destinations for freed or escaped slaves. A quarter of all cowboys were black.

2. Think about cultures. I have a basic rule; I don’t have to be intimately familiar with a culture to write a character who belongs to the race associated with it, but I do need intimate familiarity to write a character who identifies strongly with that culture. Real people exist along a spectrum when it comes to culture. We belong to many groups, and we usually identify more strongly with one group than another. You don’t have to know everything about Hispanic culture to write a person who is Hispanic; nobody will think its implausible if you write a person who happens to be Hispanic but identifies primarily as a tremendous geek. On the other hand, trying to write a culture without some experience with it is like trying to draw a portrait going only off of secondhand descriptions. No matter how great an artist you are, you never seem to end up with anything better than a caricature.

Those two steps together give me an idea of which races I should be looking to add into my story. That in turn helps avoid tokenism. Saying, “okay, if I add one black, one Asian and one Hispanic character, hopefully no one will yell at me,” looks contrived. Saying, “Cleveland really should have more black people,” is just being realistic. The rest of the steps help me decide which characters to change.

3. How clear is my sense of each character? When I write, I like the characters to feel alive in my head. Some writers complain about their characters taking over the story, changing its direction. I’m almost disappointed when they don’t. So if I have a strong character who has been very assertive about who they are, I’ve learned to avoid messing with that. For reasons I can’t fully explain, even changing a character’s hair color can make them lose a certain vividness in my mind. This can be a problem as I’m looking for characters to change races. On the other hand, it can also be an advantage. Sometimes my characters are being less lively than I want them to be. Either they aren’t coming to life, or they have come to life, but become characters I’m less interested in writing. These characters are the first on the block to change race. The new race doesn’t change who they are as people, fundamentally; rather, giving them a new face, and often a new name, also gives my own mind the flexibility to solve some deeper character problems. I come out with a cast that is more diverse, and also just better.

4. Deal with stereotypes. Obviously, if making a character a particular race would also make them into a stereotype, don’t make that character that race. However, this is most likely to be a problem if only the low ranking, tertiary characters are being made minorities, which itself is an issue. Major characters are supposed to be fleshed out and complex. A character whose only noteworthy traits are being smart and Asian is a stereotype. A character who was always good at school but particularly loves astronomy and lies awake stargazing and wondering about alien life, whose passion eventually took him to Astronaut Camp where he has begun actively wondering about his odds of becoming a real astronaut, because he really wants it, but so do many kids and only a handful become astronauts (but then again somebody will get to do it and why shouldn’t it be him?), and meanwhile he is having a summer romance with this girl who is allergic to peanut butter which is driving him crazy because peanut butter is his favorite food ever, which is leading him to wonder whether this is proof that he really loves her because he is making a sacrifice, or proving that he doesn’t because if he really loved her he could give it up without any trouble… that character isn’t a stereotype, even if he happens to be Asian.

Which brings me to another thing I think about. Just as in my previous writing about gender, a person’s race might not define how they behave, but it will affect how people around them think of them. So I don’t only think about how to avoid making stereotypical characters. I also consider which characters will interact in interesting ways with the stereotypes society might hold about them. Once, for example, I had a love interest who everyone thought was stupid and troublesome. He was considered a bad boy by nearly everyone. Part of the love story revolved around the protagonist realizing that he was actually a very nice guy, and intelligent. He had ADHD and some other learning disabilities that were diagnosed late. By the time they had, he had already gotten a reputation among his teachers. He, in turn, had developed a sense that his teachers would always be less patient with him, and had a certain distrust of authority at school, which is why he continued to butt heads with his teachers, but in other contexts he was actually very sweet and responsible. Initially he was white, but I realized that the stereotypes young black men often have to deal with fit very neatly with his backstory. I’ve actually seen this dynamic at work in one of the elementary schools I used to work at; the white teacher expects the black boy to be trouble, and so has less patience with him when he is trouble. He in turn realizes she isn’t expecting his best behavior, and so gives up trying to please her, which she takes as confirmation that she was right all along, and the cycle continues. So in that case, even though the character was fine as a white person, I changed him.

5. Top characters get changed first. While writing minorities of all sorts has improved over the years, an issue that remains is that even when non-white characters exist, they are almost never the protagonist. If I can change the protagonist’s race, I do. I also look to love interests and deuteragonists, characters who are the protagonists of major subplots and narrators. What I try to avoid is the black best friend problem, where everything important to the story is done by white characters and then the one non-white role is taken by someone whose role is just to listen to the white protagonist whine. Best friends might be important to the protagonist, but that is different from being important to the story. Characters important to the story are the ones whose actions significantly alter the course of it, or who are profoundly shaped by the course of the story. If a character’s primary role is providing commentary, or getting rescued, or giving aid in a way that doesn’t require them to put in real effort or make a significant sacrifice, they are really just ambulatory plot devices. If those are the only characters I’m changing, I’m not doing it right, and I need to take another look at my truly important characters.

So, what do the rest of you think? How do you approach diversity in your casts?

Why None of the New Spider-Man Villains are Working

I’ve written twice so far about the problematic villains of the new Spider-Man franchise. I wrote about the disturbing side of Dr. Connors’ motivations and viewpoint, and my own alternate interpretation of Max Dillon’s whole character. So I suppose this is the conclusion to an impromptu trilogy on why these villains aren’t working.

There’s a pattern to the way the villains of this new series have been written. First, the character is given a medical condition. Dr. Connors was missing an arm, Max had some sort of mental problem, and Harry has retroviral hyperplasia. The disability provides the one and only motivation the character will have for the entire movie. Dr. Connors sought physical perfection, Max is lonely and obsessed with Spider-Man and Harry was looking for a cure. None of them come across as bad people when you first meet them, but the disabilities have laid the groundwork for their villainy. Then they get hit with Applied Phlebotinum and are transformed into monsters, both mentally and physically. Their initial, disability inspired motivation will still inform what they do, but they will never again be anything but scenery chewing villains.

I want to talk more about the writerly issues with this than the political issues, but please understand that’s not because I’m not bothered by the implications. One disabled villain might or might not have bothered me, depending on how well that character was written and whether there were any other disabled characters. Three in a row is a problem, especially when all of them are, one way or another, motivated towards evil by their disability. The reason I’m not talking about that is because many others have talked about the need to be cautious when portraying minorities, particularly when that minority is stigmatized and the character can potentially reinforce the stigma. I think it’s a worthwhile issue to talk about, and the only reason I’m not saying anything about that right now is because I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. But don’t mistake that for my thinking that the biggest problem here is that they weren’t artistically satisfying. It’s only that this is the problem that I have something at least somewhat new to say about.

From a writer’s perspective, giving a villain a disability is not in and of itself bad writing. Erik from Phantom of the Opera is a villain with a medical condition. He’s disfigured. Because he lives in the era of superstition and circus sideshows, and not the era of plastic surgery, he has been caged, beaten, put on display like an object, and finally hidden away from all society by the one person who took a moment to see the world from his point of view.  Everybody who likes the play loves Erik. He’s the one who brings the audience to their feet at curtain call, because he’s interesting. He terrifies the audience, but also evokes their sympathy. He’s a tragic, poetic figure. And frankly, I don’t think many people come away from Phantom of the Opera thinking, “damn, better stay away from those disabled people, because they are creepy.” They come away thinking about how horribly and unfairly Erik the person has been treated.

Compare Erik to any of the Spider-Man villains. The story takes to the time to let us get to know Erik. We see where he lives, we see flashbacks to his childhood, and we hear how people talk about him. We also know things about him that have nothing to do with his disability, like the fact that he loves theater and has excellent taste, and is highly intelligent, all of which play into his role in the story. He shows us anger, jealousy, sorrow, depression, hope, love, lust and even tenderness. I don’t know much about Dr. Connors as a person. I just know he is missing an arm and feels rather bummed about that. I’ve imagined a lot about who Max Dillon might be, but really as he’s portrayed in the movie he’s just a nutcase with a Spidey fetish and some skill with electronics. Harry Osborn gets more characterization, but ultimately it doesn’t come to much. His early bantering with Peter tells us a bit about his life, but nothing established there is really used later on. His vengeful attitude towards Spider-Man is not foreshadowed; he is not shown to be a vengeful character until he is suddenly required by the plot to be so. Furthermore, he becomes determined to discover a cure immediately for a disease that apparently took decades to kill his father, and I don’t recall seeing any indication that it’s likely to kill him any faster. It’s illogical and broke my suspension of disbelief.

Which brings me to a rather strange problem. Not only do we not learn much about any of these characters besides that they are disabled, but we don’t even know much about that. We see specific examples of how Erik’s disfigurement affects his life, and the mask he wears is a nice, iconic detail that fits in with the rest of his character. He’s inventive and artistic, so he found a way to make a mask that covers exactly what he wanted to hide. It always bothered me that someone as troubled by his lack of an arm as Dr. Connors, and with as much access to state of the art technology, he never bothered to get a prosthetic. Add it to the fact that we never see him use any other sort of assistive device, we never see him harassed for his condition, we never see the handy technique he developed for opening doors when he’s got an armful of paperwork, it looks like the writers didn’t think it was important to research or develop the one trait that defined their character.

This pattern continues for the other two villains. My personal headcanon aside, I have no idea what Max Dillon has. I don’t think you could make schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or any other diagnosis fit him without at least as much imagination and reinterpretation as my autism diagnosis did. It seems they just gave him stereotypical “crazy person” traits and called it a day. Instead of being put into his head, so we can understand what he is doing and why, we are pushed out it with a hand wave of “yeah, sure, whatever. He’s insane. What more could you possibly want to know?” With Harry, we finally get a name for his condition, and it’s real. I looked it up. His lethal condition only occurs in walleye pike. Also it’s not lethal. I suspect they strung together a bunch of medical sounding syllables and then nobody bothered to do a Google search.

The point is, these villains have barely even been written. Villains are not bit parts. The second most important character, after the protagonist, is not the love interest or best friend or wise old mentor, it’s the villain. Without the villain, there would be no obstacle and thus no story. A villain can even get away with being more engaging than the protagonist, and not infrequently they are. When the villains are poorly constructed, they drag the whole story along with them. The hero’s struggle won’t be as engaging if it’s against somebody the audience cares little about. The conflict becomes at worst unconvincing and at best unoriginal and boring.

The writers of the new Spider-Man series are not bad writers. Peter and Gwen are both excellent characters. Many of the scenes, subplots and side characters in both films were great. So why, why why why, did these writers say, “our villain has a disability; our work here is done”? Why did they not research what they were getting into, think about life from a disabled person’s point of view, or give some thought as to who these characters were as people, aside from any medical condition?

Why did they not write characters?