Representation, Not Objectification
By Cheryl Morgan
We hear a lot about the need for better representation of minority groups in fiction these days. Problem Daughters, the new anthology from Futurefire.net, should provide exactly what we’ve been asking for. However, all too often, when that representation happens, members of the minority groups in question are unhappy. Aside from the obvious problem of lack of proper research, one of the main reasons for this is that authors—particularly cis straight white authors—confuse representation with objectification.
What do I mean by that? Well, when an author puts a minority character into a book, the first thing they often think about is how to weave that character’s minority status into the plot. That is, the author tries to make the book, at least in part, about that character being a member of a minority group. The thing that makes that character “other” in some way becomes by far the most important thing about them.
Let me illustrate this with an example dear to me: trans characters in fiction. We are much more common that we used to be. However, it is still the case that many books with trans characters focus closely on the process of gender transition for that character. To some extent that was a necessary stage that we had to go through. At some point readers needed to be educated about trans issues. But fiction has to move on from that. Trans people can’t forever only be included in books in order to talk about transition.
To see why this is a problem, consider that classic bad review in which the reviewer complains, “There was no reason for this character to be xxxx”. The reviewer is saying that the character should only be a member of the minority group if there is a compelling plot reason for them to be so. Otherwise, the character should just be an “ordinary person”, by which the reviewer generally means a straight cis able-bodied white man. If you, as an author, only put a trans character into a book to talk about the process of gender transition, then you are buying into that philosophy.
What trans readers want, and I’m sure the same holds true for members of other minority groups, is for characters like us to be treated as “ordinary people”. There’s no reason why a trans person can’t be a wizard, or a starship pilot, or a pirate queen, or a vampire hunter. We’d like to have adventures too, please, not just be relegated to the sad person who does weird things with their life and is discriminated against because of it.
Here’s a recent example. In the recent Detective Comics #948 we meet Victoria October, a top scientist in Gotham City. We learn that she’s trans because of a casual mention of her new name, and that the fact that Batman sent her a card to congratulate an old friend on her transition. There’s no transition drama. Dr. October is getting on with her life just fine. She’s not in the story so it can talk about transition; she’s just representing the diversity of life in Gotham City.
Of course this brings us up against another common anti-diversity argument, the idea that it is “unrealistic” for members of minority groups to have adventures, or hold important positions, because that would “never happen in the real world.” There are, of course, many trans women who are top scientists in the real world, but no actual superheroes.
Hopefully I don’t have to point out that the entire point of speculative fiction is the make worlds up, and that those worlds should be different in some way from ours. That difference might be that Africa is the world leader in space flight, or that single-gender communities are commonplace, or that people don’t actually care what gender you were assigned at birth.
However, as someone who studies trans history, I’d also like to point out that what most people today believe to be true about the “real world” is simply an aberrant bubble. For most of human history the idea of people transitioning gender was deemed thoroughly plausible. People might not have understood why it happened, or wholly approved, but they knew it did happen. Ideas such as homosexuality and heterosexuality, or the immutability of the gender you are assigned at birth, are products of 19th century science and philosophy, and are now looking rather simplistic and inaccurate. One of the reasons why countries like India, Pakistan and Nepal have given legal recognition to people of a third gender is that such people have lived openly in those countries for centuries.
What I’d like to see from Problem Daughters, therefore, are stories in which diversity of characters genuinely means diversity of representation, not just a bunch of stories in which members of different minority groups are objectified in some way. Given that I have lots of faith in the editorial team, I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m going to get. Although, of course, you folks have to write those stories. Get to it, please.