No Respect and Segregation
Lately, two issues, distantly related, have captured the genre blogs I frequent. Reversing the title order, the first issue is the gender and racial heteronormative segregation of the film industry and the second issue is the utter lack of respect for genre literature by mainstream critics. As I said, the two issues are related in that both share a lack of respect and an ingrained bias that has been, thus far at least, ineradicable.
To start with segregation, the controversy arose after the white washing of The Last Airbender, the live action adaptation of Avatar: the Last Airbender. The source material is set in a world with heavy East Asian influences and the characters are ethnically Asian, but those characters are then cast with white actors in the lead roles. Similar white washing has occurred with the live action adaptation of Dragon Ball and seems to be the case with Akira (if the movie sites are to be believed). As Hal Duncan and N.K. Jemisin point out, this is segregation.
There are two problems here, I think. One is the temptation and compulsion to immediately declare, as Dwayne McDuffie terms the ‘Rule of Three’, if there are more than three major characters of an Othered group, then that work is moved into the Othered’s literary genre. And if the writer is of the same Otherness as the three or more? Automatic shunting into Feminist, African American, Chicano, Asian American, GLBT, etc. genres.
This shunting then artificially limits the audience to just that demographic. It might be the greatest thing ever, but few people outside of the group will ever read or watch it. This brings to mind Duncan’s lament of missing GLBT mainstream film. Except for a certain cowboy movie and Milk, there aren’t any. Again, why?
Well, I think it has to do with racism that hides behind economics. We, the Powers that Be, don’t think a movie starring non whites (excepting a few) will be successful. And this axiom is believed, even if there is ample evidence to the contrary. This is as true for non white actors as it is for older women and openly gay actors. The “conventional wisdom” (wherever the hell that comes from) states something, therefore it is true and we, the Powers that Be, are too cowardly to challenge it. And with enough cowards, nothing changes. When I took a class on the Cold War through film, I watched a Sidney Poitier film called No Way Out, in which there is a subtle attempt to portray the hicks, the uneducated, the underclass as the bigots while the elite are portrayed as more tolerant. But the truth is that the elite are condescending with their own racism hidden behind the overt violence of the underclass. And I think that racism exists today in a similar form.
And of course, there is backlash because the president is African American. And this backlash is affecting most civil rights movements in both the political and cultural sphere. When a reader laments the lack of ‘black cannibals’ in his fiction, then things are getting terrifying.
Moving on to genre and respect. I think a similar problem is at hand. For those readers who “don’t read genre” or who read genre when young and abandoned it, there is a prejudice there as well.
If my memory serves (I can’t remember the title of the book on Victorian popular culture I read), a specific genre of literature (realism) was selected by early Victorian critics as a means to legitimize prose fiction against the ancient bane of literature, the Neo Platonist Puritan. At this time, the novel was surpassing poetry as the most popular form of literature through the popularity of the gothic romance. But course, popularity means very little to the gate keepers of Culture. And so, the gate keepers selected a specific genre that appealed to a bourgois taste. The other (gothic romance and its children) are then gradually relegated to ever worse ghettos.
Nowadays, the situation is more problematic as “mainstream” authors utilize genre techniques and “genre” authors utilize modern and postmodern literary techniques. This leads to confusion and burnt bridges as Margaret Atwood claims that she is not a science fiction writer and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is claimed to not really be fantasy. And of course that last statement is utterly stupid. The only Atwood novel I like is The Robber Bride, so I’ll focus more on Martin.
Brian Murphy, over at Blackgate, had a good response to an LA Times story trying to make the upcoming A Game of Thrones television adaptation not a fantasy. But of course, the argument only reveals the prejudices at work. If it is good, it can’t be genre. This is, of course, an ingrained logical fallacy. The problem lies in the ingrained nature of the prejudice. It is extremely hard for people to over come ideas and notions that are ingrained. I know, I myself struggle with the academy’s attitude towards SF/F all the time. But I recognize it for what it is and understand that.
In the end, one must always struggle against the prejudices they have be it racial, gender, sexual, or cultural. And in the end, one can only hope that the Other, either human or genre, can get to the promised land of acceptance.
Postscript: For those of you interested in better essay posts on this subject, check out N.K. Jemisin’s website: http://nkjemisin.com/ and Hal Duncan’s blog: http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/ and of course Blackgate: http://www.blackgate.com/