Rethinking the Default

I’ve got a lot to say about this. How to organize my thoughts…

So a while ago, a fairly large review site posted a review of a book that was mostly positive. However, at the end of the review, they lamented the fact that the main characters were in an interracial relationship, but that fact wasn’t addressed and explored fully in the book. The reviewer felt that it was impossible for people in an interracial relationship not to receive backlash for it, and that the book should have addressed and included that backlash.

Similarly, another author I follow recently received a review for a short story they wrote in which both of the characters ID as trans. The story is a fairly short, cute romance, but the reviewer thought it was odd that the author didn’t delve deeper into the characters’ past, and their trans identities.

Noticing a trend?

Both reviewers assumed that if the characters belong to a minority, then that fact has to be addressed in the story. For them, the characters identities/race were just sitting there like a big elephant in the room waiting to be addressed, and they felt let down when it never was. Now, if the characters in the books had been white and cis, would they have reacted similarly? Felt let down if the white characters didn’t at some point contemplate their privilege over any non-white characters? Or if the cis characters never stopped to think about when they really realised that they were cis, and all the ways they perform their gender to make sure people know what it is? Probably not.

For most readers, characters who are white, cis and (for readers outside of m/m and f/f) straight, are the default. The invisible norm. They assume that characters are going to be this way unless they have a specific reason to be otherwise. Something that serves the story. The reason for this bias is our culture, and our culture’s stories. Mainstream movies, books, television shows. The vast majority of these stories have main characters who are white, cis and straight. And if they aren’t, you’d better believe that the story revolves around that fact. I read a post a while back that talked about famous, award winning roles by African American actors. The vast majority of them are roles that are based on real people, and real events. Black actors are very rarely allowed to step outside of specifically “black” roles and play characters who’s race isn’t the main point of the movie. (Unless, for some reason, they’re Will Smith.)

So, because of all this, we start to see white, cis, straight people as the “default” and everyone else as the “other”. Which is incredibly faulty logic, but it forms the basis for a lot of discrimination. And this default is no more present than in movies and books with straight, white, cis characters, and in the criticism of stories that feature the “other” without devoting the story to that fact. But when minorities hear criticism like this, what we’re hearing is “there is nothing interesting or important about you besides your struggle and your pain. You are not a full human being, with a life and interests and dreams beyond your struggle. No one wants to hear about you falling in love, or saving the world, or achieving your dreams, unless it is secondary to hearing about your subjugation.” And right now, it kind of feels like no one does.

That’s why it’s so important that stories exist with minority characters that don’t make that fact the main point of the story. And I’m not saying that stories about minorities’ struggles aren’t important. I’ve written them, and they can be incredibly useful in educating the public and changing people’s minds. But so can the stories that just have minority characters in them, for no reason except that those kinds of people exist in real life. We need these stories, and lots of them, so that maybe one day, the “default” will just be human.

I should note, also, that it seems to be much more common for authors to receive backlash for writing a minority character if they belong to that minority. There seems to be this very shitty universal assumption right now that if a white person writes a book about a POC, they’re being forward and brave and breaking stereotypes etc. but when a POC writes a book about someone like themselves, they have an “agenda” and the book needs to be more harshly critiqued. Which is bullshit, but there you go. I sometimes wonder if my decision to make Luke in Ink & Flowers of Chinese descent would have been more harshly criticized if I was Asian-Canadian myself, and I think that yes, it probably would have been. And that’s a problem, and something white authors have to keep in mind.

Getting off track a little here, but this topic is a whole can of worms that I could probably write a million more blog posts about. I’d love to hear people’s opinions in the comments. Have you ever read a book with a minority and felt that it was missing something by not being about their race/gender identity? Do you think “coming out” and “racism” narratives are still important, or that they should be retired for the time being in favour of more books and movies about “incidental minorities”? What are some defaults that you’ve had to unlearn, as a writer or as a reader? Let me know! And thanks for reading!


I’m excited to announce that Ink & Flowers will be available as an audiobook from Less Than Three Press on December 28th! LT3 now has a collection of audiobooks available for download on their website, and from Audible, Amazon and iTunes. Check it out!

Ink & Flowers [Audio]

About to lose his apartment, and desperate to avoid having to move in with his horrendous relatives, shy art student Luke impulsively agrees to a deal from hell: sex with a man he doesn’t know in exchange for a couch to sleep on.

His new “roommate” Cooper is everything that Luke hates: crude, uncouth, and covered in tattoos, not to mention openly gay. Luke has all but resigned himself to a miserable fate when it turns out Cooper might want something a little different than he expected.

Ebook
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Thoughts on Mockingjay

Yesterday I dragged myself out of the house in the rain and did quite a bit of walking and standing at bus stops in order to get myself to the theatre to see Mockingjay: Part 1. I almost didn’t go – my bed was really comfy, and I’d already endured a pretty scary doctor’s appointment earlier. But I really wanted to see it, and my holidays are almost over, so I made myself go. And I’m really glad I did.

This isn’t really a review, per se, but I just wanted to gather all my thoughts together about the film. First off, I want to say that I really enjoyed it. The Hunger Games movies (and books I assume, though I haven’t read them) are an incredibly complex and nuanced look into what an oppressive regime looks like, and what exactly is necessary for a revolution to occur. It also manages not to get lost in it’s grand scale, taking time to explore the characters and quiet moments that are necessary to make us care. There’s also no Hunger Games in this movie, which is really a blessing. The story focuses on the real world, and it’s all the better for it.

Normally I don’t like the practice of splitting one book into several movies, because it often feels like a bid for more money, and it can awkwardly break up the arc of the story. But in this case it worked, because the filmmakers used that extra time to develop those quiet moments between the characters. The film didn’t feel 100% like a complete film, and a lot of things have definitely been set up for the sequel, but there were some satisfying character arcs, and it still felt cohesive.

It’s definitely a “girl power” movie. I’ve got some praise and some criticism for this aspect, and I’ll start with the praise. First off, you have all the wonderful female characters. They definitely feel like the focus of the story, with the male characters definitely there, but slightly more in the background. The Bechdel test is blown out of the water as well, with Katniss routinely conversing with her mother and sister, Cressida, President Coin and Effie. The POC representation was … okay. There were diverse characters there, for sure, and no one doubts that Panem is a multi-cultural country, but there’s still a pretty strong lack of non-white main characters. The POC were mostly side characters and background characters (spoiler: a whole bunch of which die.)

The thing I’m slightly divided on is Katniss herself, and her treatment in the film. And I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, because there’s something to be said for writing minority characters and keeping in mind that they are a minority. But there’s also something to be said for allowing the character to move beyond that. Katniss  is never allowed to forget that she is female. While the Hunger games (and the horrible fake parade for the Capitol) is over, she’s still being coerced into dressing up and performing a part. This is really something that is almost explicitly stated as being motivated by the fact that she is female, and the fact that she’s still trapped playing this part even when she’s supposed to be liberated sort of rubs me the wrong way. And that’s part of Katniss’s tragedy, I suppose, that’s she’s really a very introverted warrior type who is now being forced to stay out of the actual battles and instead be paraded in a costume. And maybe this is something that gets addressed in book three and we just haven’t come to it yet, but by splitting it between two movies, there’s definitely a lot of frustration felt for the limits being put on Katniss.

Something I really want to crow about though, is the amazing self-awareness these movies have, and the way they’ve circumvented the public’s preconceived notion of what a movie with a teenage girl as the lead is going to be about. I know that when The Hunger Games was first being advertised, I wasn’t that interested. I think this is partially because of my own prejudices and partially because it was being advertised as “the next Twilight.” You had a lot of focus on the love triangle, and not a lot of focus at all on what the movies are really about, which is rebellion against an oppressive regime.

And the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant thing about this is that is is exactly what the Capitol does within the movies. They focus on Katniss and Peeta’s love story, force-feed it to people, tell them that this is what it’s all about. All the while drawing attention away from what’s really going on in the real world. And the paralells between the Captiol and our world are easy to see. The most poignant example being of course, the way our media latched onto the love story and downplayed the revolutionary aspects of the movie. Because of course, this is a story about a teenage girl, an the only thing teenage girls are good for is being silly and falling in love … right? There’s no way they could be interested in overthrowing a dictator, fighting for their freedom or changing the world. The popularity of the series with teenage girls really says otherwise.

Again, the revolutionary aspects of this story are great. I love how the world of Panem is obviously a dystopia, but it is purposely made to be almost indistinguishable from our own. I love how the concept of sacrifice and making the hard decisions is explored and allowed to play out fully. I love all the strong female characters, and the brilliant, subtle character arcs. I don’t love how Katniss is constantly being controlled and made to play a role, and I don’t love how weak her love of Peeta makes her, although I understand that she’s meant to be a flawed character, it just seems to be too convenient of a flaw, considering that she is a teenage girl. And these are all comments on the world-building itself and the basic storyline, which may be more about flaws within the books than the movies. I think the movies, including this one, are absolutely excellent, and are a testament to how well books can be translated into movies if in the right hands. I kind of wish the later Harry Potter movies had been in the hands of these filmmakers. They absolutely know what they’re doing.

So there you go. Mockingjay: Part 1 is an excellent movie. Good, solid film-making, nuanced, complex characters, immersive world-building.  It’s not very long, just over two hours, I think, which is probably another plus of the book being broken into two movies, and it’s two hours well spent. If you’ve not seen the other two movies, I recommend watching them all.

Oh, and there’s also this cutie:

If nothing else, go see the movie for him.