Is Science Fiction/Fantasy discriminatory? Yes, the industry seems to think so…

Q: "So, why do you write these strong female characters?" A: "Because you're still asking me that question." - Joss Whedon.

Q: “So, why do you write these strong female characters?”
A: “Because you’re still asking me that question.” – Joss Whedon.

I don’t normally dodge too far outside my own writing and musings on my writing on this blog, but this article in The Guardian brings up something that bugs me: there is this idea that science fiction and fantasy is the realm of straight white men and somehow discriminates against those who are not in that demographic.   From the article:

…it has come to a head over the past week, after the World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon, set people asking why the majority of writers are straight white males from the US and UK, and why they mainly write about straight white males?

The author Jim C Hines sparked a conversation on Twitter after posting a picture of the all-white past, present and future chairs of WorldCon and coining the hashtag #DiversityinSFF. As the South African books blogger Lauren Smith wrote, it’s a problem often talked about in SFF circles. “These genres – or at least their English-language versions – lack diversity, with the major problem being that white male authors and straight, white, predominantly male characters are favoured,” she said, adding that it’s clear “who and what is underrepresented: anyone who is POC [person of colour], female, gay, transgendered; settings and cultures that aren’t North American or European; non-western folklore and mythology”.

Well, first of all, I take issue to that last part.  As a straight white male from North America and of European ancestry, I wrote two books set in Ancient Mesopotamia and the majority of the “white” people in them are the villains.  The protagonist is a young, pre-Abrahamic Middle Eastern girl.  The mythology and settings are exclusively pre-Abrahamic Mesopotamia.  I would also add that, as a rough estimate based on Facebook and Google metrics, almost 60% of my readers are female in the age range of 18-35.  But that is not my main issue.  My main issue is this idea that science fiction and fantasy are somehow exclusive by design or by omission.

(I also find it amusing that the article uses a still from “Firefly” featuring Nathan Fillion and Richard Brooks – considering Joss Whedon, the creator of “Firefly”, “Dollhouse”, and “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” is known for his strong female characters in science fiction and fantasy – hence my choice of picture.)

I don’t think you can blame the sci-fi/fantasy community for this – there is a stereotype from birth on that science fiction and fantasy are the domain of nerdy white boys. I find it ironic that the stereotype is being flipped around and used to bash those into sci-fi/fantasy

First it was people laughing at us and calling us nerds. Now its people calling us sexist or racist because we tend to be a limited demographic. The reality? The community doesn’t care who you are as long as the story is good.

We aren’t in the era where D.C. Fontana had to hide her real name anymore – authors and writers like Jane Espenson and Anne McAffrey are evidence of that. The problem isn’t those creating the content or publishing the content – the problem is the greater public and what it views as acceptable for certain segments of the population to consume.

It’s the barbie doll paradox in reverse. Instead of “girls are expected to do it”, it’s “girls are NOT expected to do it”. And when they do, they get labeled as tomboys or lesbians or weirdos in their formative years.  I think of Katie, the girl who was bullied for liking Star Wars, as a prime example of this.  The response to her story was amazing – self-described “Geek Girls” from all over the world did everything they could to support her, as did the more “traditional” geek boys.  They shared their stories with her – but their stories often held a very similar thread: it wasn’t until they became adults that they felt it was okay to show the world they weren’t barbie girls.

(This also brings to mind a conversation I had about “The Duel” – a sci-fi short I have been working on.  Someone asked me if I made the female lead in the story a lesbian because of the idea that a strong female leader had to be a lesbian.  The honest answer: I didn’t realize she was lesbian until I was writing about her wife.  Her character is just married to a woman.  She may even be bisexual, I don’t know, but she really isn’t as strong as she thinks she is – that is part of the story.)

The same thing applies to “non-whites” – since its inception, sci-fi/fantasy has been the realm of a very small demographic, globally speaking. One of my old friends used to introduce himself at critique circles with the caveat, “Yes, I am a black man who likes science fiction and fantasy. Yes, that means, according to other black men, I’ve been whitewashed.”

The implication is obvious: as a man of African ancestry he shouldn’t be interested in science fiction or fantasy.  He should be interested in sports, hip-hop, and whatever else is the stereotype for “his culture”.  If you have ever been bullied for being different, you can imagine how hard it must be to be bullied for not only being different, but not being “faithful” to your own culture.  This applies to all demographics.

I would finally like to point out that science fiction and fantasy not only has a huge following in Asian cultures, but that following may actually eclipse that of other genres and pop culture movements.

Of course, I am not saying there aren’t dinosaurs in the publishing industry who think they should be marketing to a certain demographic.  J.K. Rowling’s initials are an example of this.  But the overall point: the publisher was wrong in his belief that if people knew “Harry Potter” was written by a woman, they wouldn’t read it.  He based his decision on marketing demographics, and those demographics, from before the internet was a household thing, were as antiquated as the idea that women should only go to college to find a suitable husband.

I welcome your comments and further discussion on this.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/sep/06/science-fiction-racism-sexism-discrimination

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2 thoughts on “Is Science Fiction/Fantasy discriminatory? Yes, the industry seems to think so…

  1. I think you do bring up valid points but you are ignoring the unfortunate fact that minority faces are still the minority in sci-fi. There are a lot of social reasons in terms of identity, but one reason is that studio producers, publishers, etc. honestly don’t think blacks and other minorities sell. I’m black so I’m writing from this perspective.
    Most aliens are either vaguely asian, because the mainstream loves the “exotic” or white-aliens even if they aren’t just regular human looking. Most black creators don’t get a chance to tell their stories. There are many factors for this. An unfortunate number of white fans in particular believe that black creators who write books with majority minority casts are pushing an agenda. Not to mention that placement of books by black authors is kinda random in bookstores either being put in the scifi/fantasy section or the African-American lit. section depending on geographic area. Most big companies will outright tell creators “We love your work, but no one will buy it with a predominately black cast” They think white people can’t identify with non-whites, non-whites however are expected to identify with whites. Look up the comic “Concrete Park” for the story the creators have about getting that actually made. There are a lot of industrial problems based on streotypes and institutionalized racism that constructs whiteness as a social default.
    And it’s great that you’ve written outside your zone of identity, but you’re just one person how many non-white protags have you found in Borders of BArnes and Noble or any other book store?
    I can think of maybe six strictly science fiction. And even then some of those books have very few people of color outside the protagonist

    • “There are a lot of social reasons in terms of identity, but one reason is that studio producers, publishers, etc. honestly don’t think blacks and other minorities sell.”

      “There are many factors for this. An unfortunate number of white fans in particular believe that black creators who write books with majority minority casts are pushing an agenda.”

      That may be so, but how do I, as the reader, know you are a minority author unless it is plastered on the cover of the book as part of the selling point? If you include a picture, and I look at the About the Author section, then yes. But at that point you have already piqued my interest enough to find out who this author is – I find it hard to believe the average reader is going to look at it and say, “Ooh…black person. Nope, can’t buy this one.”

      And it could be explained as easily with my overall argument as any other: the average reader of the genre is young, white, men, therefore the marketers of the genre market to that demographic.

      “And it’s great that you’ve written outside your zone of identity, but you’re just one person how many non-white protags have you found in Borders of Barnes and Noble or any other book store?”

      I don’t know because I don’t pay much attention to the race or even physical description of the characters, to be honest. And if the author was good, they didn’t include much because they created a world that was lush enough, and a character that was rich enough, that my mind filled in the blanks.

      As to the “zone of identity” part, I’m not sure what that means. I was raised in a rather conservative, white, and largely under-educated rural town – with strong religious overtones. That should probably be my identity, but it is not – not by a long shot. That is another example of typing demographics: as a general rule, you would expect someone from my area to either eschew books, or read Dan Brown and Tom Clancy novels for entertainment and Chicken Soup for the Whatever for anything else.

      But, I will agree that minorities are underrepresented – whether they be LGBT, black, asian, or women – but, again, I do not believe it is some systemic problem of racism, sexism, or anything of the sort: it is basic marketing. And until those in charge understand the change in demographics, they won’t change who they target.

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