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.