This is an issue I’ve struggled with for quite some time – the question of whether an author has a duty to provide good role models.
What I mean is, if you have a character who is Black, or female, or gay, or whatever, there’s quite a lot of pressure to make that person sympathetic and to make a point out of bashing some stereotype. For example, the female character may end up saving the day and rescuing the male characters from danger, deliberately subverting the “damsel in distress” trope.
There’s a good reason for this. The stories we tell reflect our cultural values – if we are not on the lookout for racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, in ourselves as authors, we risk carrying on those prejudices and enshrining them into our stories. We risk writing characters who are not three-dimensional human beings but rather lazy stereotypes. There is an Agatha Christie novel (Lord Edgware Dies, for the curious), in which one of the characters is under suspicion because there may have been a financial motive for the crime and, well, she’s Jewish. So, obviously she’s more motivated by money than other people. That’s not okay. Similarly, if girls only ever read stories in which women are always peripheral characters rather than the main character, and are routinely abused, needing to be rescued, and valued only as romantic partners instead of as people in their own right, they’re going to pick up the values those books are transmitting. If all the portrayals of Black people in the public sphere are of lazy, shiftless criminals, those stereotypes are going to be picked up by readers of all colours, and that’s not good. The stories we tell both reflect our culture and shape it, and I do think that as authors we have a responsibility to make sure that our stories are as prejudice-free as possible.
Obviously, this does not mean that we should never SHOW prejudice. This is the reason Huck Finn keeps getting banned – because people can’t tell the difference between showing prejudice and endorsing it. Yes, you can include racist events and speech if your novel is set in Mississippi in the 1950’s. Yes, you can show a society in which women are blamed for being raped, if your novel is set in Victorian England. (Depressingly, you could probably show both rape-victim-blaming and racist speech in novels set in modern times, too, but that’s another rant altogether.) But that’s different from actually being racist or sexist. For an example of what I mean, compare the truly shocking rape scene in Mad Men (in which Joan’s saying “yes” to whatever her rapist wants is assumed just because he’s her fiancée, but we see the damage this does to her) with the rape scene in Michele Giuttari’s A Florentine Death, in which the victim of a brutal rape realises later that actually she enjoyed it, is minorly disturbed by this fact, and then carries on with a consensual relationship with her rapist. The only nod to her consent is that she now (gently and seductively, of course) guides him to the “right” place, as opposed to the “wrong” place, which is where he raped her. That’s supposedly what makes it okay again, that they’re using the proper orifice, not that he raped her while she screamed at him to stop but actually, she was enjoying it and wants to get him straight back to bed the next night.
I hope you see the difference.
However, this desire to be good – to write stories that challenge stereotypes and affirm the humanity of women, minorities, and LGBT people – can be problematic. The main problem is that, in that virtuous desire, you run the risk of subverting the story to the cause, to write a story not because it’s a good story but because it has a strong female central character, or is gay-positive, or whatever. Stories should be stories, not wrapping paper for morals.
J.K. Rowling has said that she wanted the character of Harry Potter to be a girl, but all attempts to write the book that way felt false – the character of Harry himself took up residence in her head and refused to be evicted. Similarly, in A Merry Requiem, the story I was writing had men at its centre – with the exception of Delphine, all women are romantic partners, and even Delphine herself becomes less important as the plot heats up. While part of that is because that’s what was realistic for the time, the historical setting isn’t the only issue. The 19th century had examples of feisty women involved in politics, art, and even on the barricades, so there was no historical reason why I couldn’t have included a woman at the centre of the group. It just didn’t happen to go that way. No female character naturally emerged from the story I was writing. Do you have a duty to force it?
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, took a lot of flack because, in her book, the initiative for the zeitgeist-changing project comes from a White character, and the Black characters need to be cajoled into participating. She was criticized for her Black characters lacking agency, for them “needing a White woman to rescue them.” I don’t think this criticism is fair. Certainly, Black characters have been shown, more often than not, as helpless and passive. But these characters were not like that – they were three-dimensional people, with their own thoughts and their own worlds, and their own agency. But they had a lot more to lose from this project than the White character did. It’s understandable they’d be more cautious. Did Stockett have a duty to completely change the plot of her book so as to provide a Black leader as the initiator of the project? I don’t think so. I think she did very well at portraying both Black Mississippi and White Mississippi, and their complex interactions. More than that, I think her book actually was a powerful anti-racist statement, simply by showing all her characters as real human beings. There is plenty of potential for really good novels to be written about Black leadership in the Civil Rights movement, and I definitely agree that more of them should be written, but that was not the story Stockett was telling. I think when we say there’s only one acceptable way to write about Civil Rights, and that is with all the main characters, and all the leadership, being Black – or when we say there’s only one acceptable way to write a female heroine, and that is to show her as strong and tough, we damage our creativity. And, more importantly, we fall victim to reverse stereotyping, by saying the only acceptable way to write is to subvert stereotypes in one proscribed way.
I think the issue is complicated. It’s easy to say “well, there should be more strong women as lead characters,” or “there should be more books that show Civil Rights initiatives coming from Black people and not from White people,” but if the story that’s wandered into your head is that of Harry Potter or The Help, you shouldn’t have to completely gut it in order to tick some kind of box. Sexist books can have strong female central characters (or sexist video games – look at the Lara Croft flack from a few months back), who kick ass and take names and who are nevertheless still seen as objects. Sexist books can have Black characters in central roles, but still paint broad stereotypes instead of seeing their characters as real people. Non-racist and non-sexist books can have Black or female characters in peripheral positions, and in stereotypical situations, but if those characters are treated as people rather than as representatives of their group, they become more realistic.
So, ultimately, I think the best societal good comes from a hackneyed artistic truth – write the story that comes to you. Examine it, yes. Ask yourself, “what assumptions am I making about this group of people, in writing this character that comes from it? Do I know enough about what this character’s experience would be in order to write them truthfully?” And do research if needed, in order to avoid your own prejudices infecting your work. But mere tokenism – more strong female leads! More Black characters taking initiative! – isn’t the answer. The answer is good books, with real characters, and lots of them.
What do you think?