Cultural criticism about the representation of different kinds of people in fiction is not, by any stretch, a new phenomenon. It was old when I was a college student, but then (as now), I and my peers found it a fascinating subject. Why were the lion’s share of the protagonists in novels, films, and television shows white, straight males? What does that say about us as a society?
The world is perhaps a bit different now, but this particular strain of criticism is still strong, as demonstrated by #OscarsSoWhite or a stroll through Vox, or Slate, or really any cultural criticism website. People who don’t subscribe to the theory will rightly point out that television, at least, is as diverse as it’s ever been, which is certainly true. Critics maintain that our most popular properties are almost entirely white, male, and straight. (See the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though that may be getting less true by the day.)
Why not have stories that draw from all different kinds of experiences, the critics ask, rather than this one specific vein?
I don’t think anyone would dispute the actual reason for a lack of diversity: most writers and decision-makers in the entertainment industry are white, straight men. By default, stories generally get written in a way that reflects the experience of the writer.
I myself am not immune to this phenomenon. I’m just lucky enough to have a bit more diverse background than most writers. In other words, as a gay writer who’s been all over the world, it’s not that surprising that I would write a novel with multiple gay characters of different races and backgrounds. I didn’t set out to make a novel that would, say, fulfill the requirements of the Bechdel test. If it does, that’s merely a happy accident borne of the way I imagined my story.*
The real problem, then, is that too many writers and content producers looks the same (i.e., white, straight males). That’s not to say these people can’t produce amazing works of art–they unquestionably can–but it indicates that the problem is more of a root-level creative one rather than one of conscious choice.
Someone might postulate, for example, that some of the difficulties I experienced in getting Future Imperfect to print involved the fact that its main character is gay. I’m not sure whether that’s true, because I think it’s just hard to get any book by a first-time author published. It probably didn’t help, though, and some of the reactions I got from potential agents could potentially be explained that way.
All of that’s very nice, I suppose, but the question remains: what to do about this issue? All I can offer is advice based on my own experience. Storytellers, keep looking for a way to tell your story. Don’t give up, and do the best job you can. The current cultural shift in diversity tells us that we can use art to explore multiple perspectives in a way that improves the integrity and quality of the media. It’s just not going to happen overnight.
* After having given the matter some consideration, I think Future Imperfect does pass the Bechdel test, albeit in a strange way. The Bechdel test requires at least two female characters who meet each other and talk about something other than a man. Without spoiling anything from the novel, I think a scene from the last chapter qualifies rather dramatically. Anyway, those who want a more feminine installment of the story will likely be happier with Judgment Day.
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