Culture, Representation and Diversity

Apparently, there is something in the air regarding the US cultural dominance and how can marginalize or outright erase other viewpoints. Joyce Chng wrote about it, Aliette de Bodard wrote about it, I wrote about it (here and here).

Now Athena Andreadis weighs in and with a two-part post on Safe Exoticism. Part 1 is about science and common misrepresentations in SF and very interesting in itself. Part 2 is about culture and addresses similar issues to the posts by Joyce Chng, Aliette de Bodard and myself.

There are other reactions as well, for Clint Harris responds to Aliette de Bodard’s post about the dominance of US storytelling modes.

What makes this post interesting is that Clint Harris is American (at least as far as I can tell) and still doesn’t find himself and his experiences reflected in popular culture. This is a point that is often forgotten in this debate, namely that there are also plenty of Americans who are underrepresented, misrepresented, exoticized or just plain don’t exist at all in US mainstream pop culture, e.g. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Jewish people, rural people, the poor, first and second generation immigrant cultures, people from the South or Midwest, Mormons, Amish, certain professional cultures, some subcultures, people with alternative sexualities, etc…

It is easy to forget, particularly for those of us outside the US, that the pop cultural images of the US as presented by the visual media (book are more diverse, provided you make an effort to seek them out) show only a tiny sliver of the country. The overwhelming majority of films and TV shows are set in big cities and only a handful of cities at that. Or when was the last time you saw Cleveland or Atlanta or Cincinnati or Phoenix or Salt Lake City or Houston or Denver or Minneapolis depicted on screen? Let alone vast swathes of rural America.

My students mostly get their image of the US from TV shows like CSI or NCIS. It’s an attractive image – most of them dream of visiting the US some day or even living there to become police officers, firemen or Navy SEALs. In fact, I have the theory that a lot of Anti-Americanism worldwide is actually the result of people having their naive pop culture determined image of the US invaded by unpleasant realities of racism and homophobia and state-sanctioned torture and the death penalty and unprovoked wars and a dozen other disappointments.

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion in the online SFF community and beyond about issues of gender, race, class, culture, how to write about people and cultures who are different from us in some way and how to prevent othering, exoticizing or stereotyping them. Much of the time, these discussions turn ugly very quickly, which is why a lot of people are unwilling to say anything about these subjects at all. I always hesitate before posting about sensitive topics such as race, gender or culture. It’s also certainly no accident that Aliette de Bodard begins her post with a bunch of disclaimers and apologies. It also doesn’t help that previous discussions have often been very US-centric with non-US viewpoints often ignored or dismissed or worse.

All of this is a pity, because these discussions are so very important and worth having, particularly now that we are getting more and more viewpoints from around the world. And I’m very glad that this latest go-around has been largely free of namecalling and ad hominem attacks. That is, I did get a trollish comment on my response to Aliette de Bodard’s post, but that had nothing to do with the main topic but was instead berating me for my refusal to read a new epic fantasy book full of rape and murder and violence against women.

So here’s to more diverse fiction and to a more accurate portrayal of other cultures.

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5 Responses to Culture, Representation and Diversity

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  2. Kate Elliott says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    Another point: the cop shows? and etc? With rare exceptions, they have little to do with real police work (or real forensics, or real law practice, or whatever). Hollywood projects a distorted and unrealistic view of many things, which are too often taken as the “real” thing.

    • Cora says:

      Oh, definitely on the cop shows, medical shows, forensic shows, etc… I hope that most people, at least adults, know that those shows are fiction and have little to nothing to do with reality. Actually, I keep drilling this into my students. Yes, those shows are cool and fun to watch, but they’re not reality.

      It’s not just cop shows either. For example, I cannot watch Titanic, because in spite of all the experts he supposedly hired, James Cameron has zero knowledge about ships and shipbuilding and even breaks the laws of physics at some points. My Dad, who is a naval architect, thinks Titanic is a wonderful comedy.

      Another issue with Hollywood productions is that the Hollywood version of the US way of police work, legal practice, etc… sometimes becomes more real, particularly to young people, than the local way of doing things. For example, when they visit a courtroom for the first time, plenty of Germans are surprised that there is no jury and that the lawyers don’t shout “Objection” every two minutes, because they only know courtrooms from US-dramas. And lately, one of my students who is a huge James Bond fan and wants to work for the MI6 replied to my suggestion that maybe the German intelligence service BND might be a better fit with “Wow, you mean Germany has spies? Do they also have a license to kill?”

      • Kate Elliott says:

        In my experience, unfortunately, many people in the USA do take their expectations about how “this” or “that” works from what they see via Hollywood or the cable news infotainment channels or just plain received wisdom.

        It’s why all too much epic fantasy reads the way it does: it’s based either on 30 year old historiography regarding issues of gender (for one) and/or on what I call Hollywood Medieval, which is a blend of Disney Medieval and Victorian Medieval. That goes for cop shows and forensics too — those two are ones I’ve seen my spouse react to, rather as with your father and Titanic.

        And, in fact, I have my ignorance gaps too, narratives I can enjoy because I know little enough about them that I miss the things that are wrong.

        • Cora says:

          I have always put the Disney and Victorian inspired cod-Medievalism in epic fantasy and also much historical romance written by US authors down to the fact that Americans have no firsthand experience with Medieval architecture, castles, living conditions, etc… unless they have been abroad. Whereas many people in Europe still live in cities with considerable amounts of Medieval architecture (some actually live inside Medieval architecture) or have at least visited an actual Medieval castle or cathedral at some point. Besides, Disney’s castles are based on Neuenschwanstein, i.e. a building that is not medieval at all but a Victorian Neogothic folly, which even was electrified when first built. We’re also not as susceptible to viewing the Disney versions of various fairy tales as the only version, because most European children have been exposed to other versions of the stories as well.

          I sympathize with your partner regarding the cop and forensic shows, because those can be so obviously wrong. A few days ago, I watched an episode of CSI Miami where the entire lab experienced a poison gas attack and a regular killed by exposure to Halon gas, a fire-fighting agent which is non-toxic to humans. One minute of googling could have told them that their ” deadly poison gas” was not so deadly after all. Never mind that the cast all behaved like complete and utter idiots – if I come into the lab to see my coworkers passed out on the floor, I call 911. I do not walk into the lab to expose myself to whatever knocked them out.

          Though I agree that there are plenty of books, films, TV shows, etc… where I either don’t know enough about whatever the subject is to get thrown out of the story by things that are plain wrong. There are also works where I don’t expect accuracy, e.g. I don’t expect scientific accuracy from Doctor Who.

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