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The Midweek Mingle: Hollywood Tokenism

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When it comes to diversity in fiction/cinema/whatever, we’ve come a long way. Like, a really, really long way, in a relatively short time. If the Supreme Court rules that same sex marriage is legal, pretty soon, we’ll have an entire generation who doesn’t remember a time when it was illegal. We already have a generation or two who won’t have to worry about getting their sexuality classed as a mental disorder. And already, QUILTBAG+ characters are hardly something to bat an eye at (Usually. I’ll touch on that further, promise.). Yay yay yay, more more more!

However (there always seems to be one of those lurking around), when you start to look at this diversity (and this happens with POC characters and female characters and religiously diverse characters, as well), you’ll notice that you have a cousin who is gay, or the lesbian neighbors, or the transwoman working at the local grocery store. Just not the main character. Still, we have to deal with this struggle to get a QUILTBAG+ main character out there. I’m not saying that every novel or short story or what have you needs to have a diverse main character. Not even the majority of them. After all, QUILTBAG+ individuals are a minority. We’re a large minority, a vocal minority right now, but a minority.

In literature, we don’t have a lot to complain about on the gay side of things. There are a lot of gay characters who play important parts, and gay romance/erotica is one of the hottest genres out there. In sci-fi and fantasy specifically, yes, there’s still some work to be done, but we have gay superheroes and gay wizards and gay space captains, and they aren’t just there to be a token. When it comes to lesbian characters, I personally think that we have more work to do for inclusivity on that front. There just aren’t a lot of lesbian main characters (although sci-fi and fantasy does, I think, a better job than, say, romance and erotica. One of my publishing houses is always trying to scrounge up somebody to write F/F romance, and it always falls on deaf ears, which is unfortunate). Still, we see a fair amount of representation when it comes to lesbian characters.

The big places we’re lacking are kind of… well, everything else in the QUILTBAG+ spectrum. Intersex, agender, and asexual characters are rarely just a character. They’re normally an alien or fantasy race. I think it’s good, and I think it’s eye-opening (though not as eye-opening as it used to be). I also think it subconsciously drives home this idea that to be intersex, to be asexual, to be agender… those are all ‘alien’ concepts. Not something that really happens with humanity. That may or may not be the goal in  given work (for example, I highly doubt the Karhiddish in Left Hand of Darkness were intended to do anything more than broach what was a difficult subject at the time… and kind of still is.), but it’s something that happens

Even less likely to be represented well are bisexual characters. Part of that is a restriction of time and page space, more than anything. In a given book or script, you often just don’t have the time to explore every facet of a character’s sexuality, especially when it’s not a part of the plot. Some of it is, I believe, rooted in this strange concept that bisexuality isn’t real, or that there’s something off about it. Still, we’ve seen some popular examples, normally in longer-running series. The first one that comes to mind is John Constantine. It’s a facet that’s often ignored.

But I think the worst representation we have is with trans* characters. Too often, trans* characters are completely ignored, even by writers who support diversity in all forms. They’re afraid to write about it (which, as I’ve said before, isn’t a good enough reason), because they don’t know it well enough. Those are understandable fears, fears I have, fears any author looking to include more diversity has. You just have to struggle past them.

Now, when trans* characters are included… well, I think the way it’s done just misses the mark. Often, you’ll see gender changes to show the advancement of science. Medical experts can now swap your gender back and forth all you like. The troubles: it’s normally in the background, and it’s normally treated like some recreational thing. For a trans* person, it’s not recreational. It’s a real-life hardship. Or sometimes, you’ll see it with some side character, or even worse, playing into the stereotype of the trans* prostitute. Whatever the representation, in sci-fi and fantasy, trans* characters are often exoticized. They’re as human as any of the main characters, but are viewed as thoroughly alien. I can’t recall one single instance when there was a trans* character in speculative fiction who wasn’t part of the backdrop. That is bad. That is awful.

Now, the struggles don’t end with just what I’ve listed. So many other aspects of the spectrum—genderqueer, two-spirit, pansexual, etc—that aren’t represented well, if at all, in SF/F. I wish I could go into each of them here, but this post is already running pretty long.

I don’t give assignments here—I don’t have that kind of authority, and this isn’t that kind of thing—but if I were to give one today, it would be to try. Do your research, and make at least an attempt at including an under-represented part of the QUILTBAG+ community in your fiction. A short story, flash, or a novel, if you so choose. The important thing is that you try, because if nobody tries, then nobody can mingle.

1 thought on “The Midweek Mingle: Hollywood Tokenism”

  1. How to fix this:

    * If you are a writer, then you can:
    ** look for the gaps and put good characters into them.
    ** avoid tokenism by having at least two characters of each type that you feature who are different from each other, and by making sure they have something concrete to do so they aren’t just rainbow window-dressing.

    * If you are a reader, then you can:
    ** buy things from writers that cover those gaps.
    ** review such works.
    ** recommend relevant works/writers to your friends.

    * If you are into crowdfunding, then you can:
    ** make this a theme in your prompt call.
    ** prompt for more diverse QUILTBAG protagonists.
    ** sponsor works that fill these gaps, even if somebody else prompted them.

    Oh, and I write trans* main characters. I’ve probably heroed the whole QUILTBAG by now. Look for Calliope and Hyperspaceman in Polychrome Heroics; plus Damask is a multiple system, and with a female body that means the guys are effectively trans and have similar challenges as trans singletons.

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