This is a guest post by Paul and Renee. Paul and Renee blog and review at Fangs for the Fantasy. We’re great lovers of the genre and consume it in all its forms – but as marginalised people we also analyse critically through a social justice lens.
This is a complicated issue because, when it comes to media, the 2 often seem to be the same thing. If a book or film or TV series has included marginalised people then surely it has portrayed them, right?
Well, not so much.
Let’s say I write a book. In this book we have Fred, the deeply closeted gay man. We have Jennifer, who has depression that she manages with therapy and pills. We have Jane who is Latina through her mother, but takes after her father in colouring.
None of their marginalisations are noticeable and, because I didn’t feel it relevant, I don’t, mention any of this in the book.
And then someone picks up the book I’ve written and says “this book is erased – everyone in it is straight, white and able bodied.” And, like so many before me, I vault up onto my high-horse and announce irritably that there are actually 3 marginalised people in the book!
And I probably could argue that I included 3 marginalised people. But can I honestly say I portrayed them?
Because portrayal is the key here. We’ve argue a lot about the damage of erasure. How harmful it is for society to not see us part of life and part of the stories worth telling. How we, and especially our youth, grow up without any role models, without any sense that their own stories and their own lives actually have value and are worthy of attention and being told. And none of that is changed by “invisible” portrayal – by inclusion that we can’t see. We don’t get to see ourselves in media if you hide us, disguise us and treat us as a secret.
How do we get to see characters like us, see ourselves included if the only way we can see this is if we decide to do some research, hit the internet, trawl through the author’s blog and random interviews and see if we can find some background hints of a marginalised person. This? This is not portrayal. Having to do homework after reading a book to find the marginalised person is not portrayal. Playing Where’s Waldo with the marginalised people is not great portrayal, no matter how much your background notes say.
And I really have to question how much “inclusion” it actually is. People often forget that the characters in a book or a TV series are not real people. They do not exist outside of their medium – their books or show. I think it can be argued that anything that isn’t shown in their book or TV show doesn’t actually exist – these aren’t real people to have backgrounds and hidden lives and multi-faceted beings. Their existence is limited to the page/screen – if it doesn’t appear on the page/screen then should it be even included in the character at all?
A lot of this is due to societal default. The default person in society is the most privileged – a cis, straight, white, able bodied man. Lacking any other description, this is generally the identity we assume a character has. If we don’t mention a race, we assume Whiteness. If we don’t mention a sexuality, we assume the character is straight, etc etc. And this is not a good thing – we shouldn’t think that way, this shouldn’t be our assumptions and this shouldn’t be a societal standard.
But it is. And, ultimately we do have to deal with what is. If we want to change that – and we should – then I can’t see us doing it with less visible portrayals. We can’t challenge this by only having marginalised characters in a book or on a show that are apparent to those willing to do the homework. We need to normalise the presence of marginalised people rather than casting them as the Other or something hidden.
It’s also a problem because extra-textual identities are being used as a defence when people complain about erasure or tokenism in a show or book. People complaining about the lack decent roles or development for Boyd on Teen Wolf were confronted with the excuse that Tyler Posey, the actor who plays Scott McCall, is Latino. This is something we didn’t know, despite watching both series, and we had to google it to find out (we also found out that Colton Haynes who plays Jackson is half-Cherokee). I’m sure some other watchers of the show did know this or did spot it, but it completely went over our heads. We know we noticed Danny was Native Hawaiian and other people missed that. But Scott McCall as Latino wasn’t raised as one element of the shows inclusiveness – it was raised as an excuse for having Boyd, the least-developed werewolf and Dr. Deaton the magical assistant. If you complain about inclusion in the Harry Potter series, someone is bound to raise the subject of Dumbledore. There’s a reason why TV Tropes actually has coined the phrase “Word of Gay” for all the of the writers out there who have said one of their characters are gay without including it in the text.
Of course, it is also wrong to exclude the existence of people like my characters, Fred, Jennifer and Jane. There are GBLT people who, for various reasons, keep their sexuality and being trans secret. There are invisible disabilities. There are POC who are light skinned and who don’t have names or cultural clues from their heritage. These should be included as well – and they most certainly DO belong to the groups in question and it is never, ever acceptable to deny their identity because it is not always instantly noticeable. But the problem comes when these are the portrayals INSTEAD of more visible marginalised people rather than AS WELL AS. The hypothetical people complaining about my hypothetical book could easily have been mollified if there were portrayals of GBLT people, disabled people and POC in that book who were recognisably so within the text, l that didn’t require homework to identify or access to my explanatory notes. That doesn’t mean all marginalised people have to be grossly trope laden Lesbian Sharks or Blackety Black Black, but we should be able to read the book or watch the show and the only marginalised people we see are ones we have to google to discover.
Even putting aside my hypothetical – look at the actual examples. No-one would be raising stink about hiding Dumbledore’s sexuality in the text if we’d actually had a decent gay character portrayed there. Scott McCall being played by a Latino actor would never have been raised if people weren’t angry at how utterly lacking the portrayal of Boyd was. We wouldn’t complain about the Bromance used instead of representation if Danny actually had a bigger, more involved part of the show.
These characters should exist, we should have the full variety of diversity in our media. But we shouldn’t have them used as an excuse for erasure or tokenism. We shouldn’t be using research-required inclusion as an excuse for not bothering with text supported portrayal. We shouldn’t be afraid of having marginalised people in major roles who are clearly identifiable as marginalised people.