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Monday, 19 September 2016

Representation in Fiction - Why it Matters

In the modern West, we are privileged to live in a world that is saturated with stories. Cheap print media, a massive film industry and ubiquitous TV sets overstuffed with channels have been joined by the omnipresent communications of the internet and the rising art of interactive video-game story-telling. As a child of the aptly-named information age it would be difficult for me to recall all of the fictional narratives I have absorbed in the past month, impossible for me to list all the tales that I have been at least partially exposed to in the past year.
In order for us to truly experience a story, it is usually necessary for each event involved to be described from the perspective of one of the characters present. These fictional individuals are normally intended to be direct analogues for the humans of our real world. Given the vast army of characters we have met and the innumerable adventures they have had, one might assume that we have vicariously lived as every type of person there is and seen visions of our world from almost every angle that can be lived in.
Sadly, this is simply not as true as should be. It is not so very far back in our history that men were considered naturally superior to women in almost every respect - and held almost every position of direct power that could easily provide the agency for a stirring story. Many Westerners also considered white people to be superior to other ethnicities and whites held great power in many regions where they numbered only a tiny minority. Heterosexuality was the only publicly acceptable orientation and commanded complete domination of the social order. Under these circumstances it became a nearly universal convention for the protagonist of a Western story to be a straight white male.
More importantly, this social order was considered to be ideal by those who held great power within it. Presenting a different type of person as equally powerful and able – and asking the audience to applaud their exploits – was a direct challenge to that status quo. Since the powerful were aware of the ability of even fictional works to sway the minds of those who heeded them, a great degree of social pressure was exerted to ensure that authors delivered the 'right' message and did not 'corrupt public morals'. Positive characters of other types still existed, but in absurdly small numbers compared to their actual demographics.

In the real world, we have seen great strides toward correcting these problems. Hard-fought campaigns have brought many previously marginalised groups of people substantially closer to equality. Most people now consider sexism, racism and homophobia to be very bad things, even if this also causes them to angrily reject any suggestion they might be unintentionally guilty of these charges.
Unfortunately it is the nature of fiction to retell tales that have already been told. New heroes are inspired by old ones, even when the story itself is not a conscious reworking of a proven classic. The combined population of all our other worlds still holds a severely disproportionate number of straight white men compared to our real one, meaning that everyone else is correspondingly under-represented. The capitalist aspect of the story-telling world (which ultimately pays for all of the distribution methods I mentioned above) is happy to encourage this trend because it means adhering to a proven business model.

The empowerment of differing people and a decline in willingness to censure and censor subversive material has naturally lead to to an increasing number of diverse protagonists. However, some campaigners have begun to actively seek the acceleration of this trend. They push for a conscious effort to be made to include more diverse characters by authors of all backgrounds, deliberately changing the universe of fictional art into a more complete and accurate reflection of the human race.
Although this seems like a noble goal, many have been left puzzled and alienated by the language of these campaigners. Applying real-world political arguments to the contents of fiction seems to them like a fundamental failure to separate fantasy from reality, a self-righteous attempt to win a completely meaningless victory in a world filled with important causes. If an author can create or destroy entire fictional universes without any real-world consequences, how can calling the minority status of a fictional character 'important' be anything other than delusional?

Having both heard the accounts of others and experienced the effects of representation myself, I am very much of the opinion that representation in fiction does matter. I intend to illustrate this with my own story, chosen simply because it is a tale that no-one else can tell.

In many respects I am not a person who has ever been under-represented in the media I have consumed. I am, in fact, a straight white male. I have seen so many characters that looked just like me (except for the muscle tone) that I actually find it boring these days – the traits they display are so much the presumed default that characters exhibiting them feel like they don't have any traits at all.
Of course, every person has many different aspects to their identity. As regular readers will know, my identity includes both being a Christian and being a member of the BDSM community. Although the former is infinitely more important to me, both of these things have an effect upon my sense of self.
Christians are perhaps under-represented in stories these days. Negative Christian characters are often cartoonish - and positive ones are frequently undercut by the implication that they are objectively deluded but benefit from their personal passion. Even so, Christian representation is quite frequent and often displays some understanding of how being a Christian actually works.
BDSM representation, on the other hand, is very infrequent indeed. Positive kinky characters are almost unknown next to those for whom it serves as an indicator for villainy. As I grew up I only occasionally saw this part of myself anywhere in fiction and never saw anything that I could actually identify with on an advanced level. Indeed, I rarely even saw much that exhibited an acceptable standard of consent.

I remember Jabba the Hutt taking clear pleasure in controlling women on leashes, despite the biological irrationality of his attraction. I remember the Baroness from GI Joe and I definitely remember the time she got tied to the front of Serpentor's tank. I remember Onatopp from Goldeneye, vampire Willow from Buffy and Lucy Liu's omni-sadistic call girl from Payback. Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman was... revelatory, but even she was a mentally unstable villain. I remember watching The Matrix Revolutions whilst curled up with an equally kinky fiend, who sighed and asked why it was always the bad guys who got the fetish clubs.
The first genuinely positive BDSM character I can recall seeing was the protagonist of Secretary, which I plucked up the courage to go and buy a ticket for at my local cinema. It was remarkable for me to see these desires from the perspective of the character who was actually experiencing them, let alone for her to end up in a happy marriage that satisfied them. On the other hand, the film strongly implied that her sexuality was a direct result of her mental illness and self harm. This bothered me because I knew that it was untrue in my case. I also remember a previously chatty Facebook acquaintance who never contacted me again after I said that I liked the film and did not personally consider the spanking and bondage to be 'way controversial lol'.

Aside from the Secretary-related gripes, this poor representation never actually bothered me at the time. As a straight male I took it for granted that most female characters would be presented in manner that happened to titillate me. I lapped up these sexualised characters in the same casual way that I consumed all the rest, simply taking an extra interest because they met my personal taste. Since the stereotypical dominatrix fantasy involves the woman acting mean and cruel, making them villains kinda worked for me. My friend's question stayed in my mind, but the only result was that I came up with a concept for a good-aligned club owning RPG character as a thought exercise. (He was a Warhammer Fantasy character who hunted Slaanesh cultists amongst his patrons, whilst fending off Sigmarite witch-hunters who would prefer to just burn the lot of them). It probably says something that I considered it an exercise in creativity to come up with a kinky character who got to be seen in a positive light, but I didn't really understand this at the time.
I did go through a year or so of acute mental distress, when I started worrying that my kinky desires meant that there was something wrong with me and that I would eventually become an abusive partner. I attempted to repress the kinky elements of the sexual thoughts that arose in me every seven minutes or so, fighting an invisible and unwinnable battle that followed me everywhere I went. However, I think this had more to do with getting lost inside my own head than with internalising the sexual politics of Goldeneye. Perhaps I would have come through this wilderness into a proper understanding more swiftly if I had been presented with even one piece of positive mainstream representation, but ultimately I feel it was a journey that I had to take.

The event that began to change things for me was the passage of the Extreme Pornography laws in 2008 – an ill-conceived and reactionary piece of legislation that criminalised some BDSM porn. I had first encountered BDSM porn at about the age of 19 in what I can only describe as an strongly positive experience. I have already described the lack of representation in the mainstream media and even the internet was a far less accessible source of information in those days (Wikipedia wasn't actually invented until the same year). The moment when I saw the contents of my own head re-enacted in large photo galleries for popular consumption was the definitive moment that I knew I was not alone. It bothered me that the enthusiastic downloading which followed this discovery could have theoretically got me arrested if I had been born later – not because society was striking out against the evils of pornography, but because it was afraid that people like me might prove dangerous.
Further reading around the topic taught me about R v Brown (aka the Spanner Case) and the lasting effect that it had upon the British BDSM community. I learned about the fact that people with BDSM proclivities were not legally protected from discrimination in the same way as most sexual minorities (and that public sector employers were the worst culprits where discrimination was concerned). It became clear to me that many people kept their preferences secret not due to conformity or because they were conflicted about their needs, but because they were genuinely afraid of suffering material harm if the wrong people found out.
Under these circumstances, the negative and inaccurate picture painted by poor representation started to matter to me. Without an insider perspective, it was clearly the only information that most people would ever have on the subject. It was also clear that popular ignorance was objectively harmful since it led to support for discrimination. I began to advocate online in various ways, presenting the subject positively in my own artwork and arguing against negative stances in comment sections and discussions.
This practice put me into conflict with a particularly unpleasant individual on DeviantArt. He had written a series of essays in which he argued that all dominant or sadistic men were abusers and that all submissive or masochistic women were the victims of brainwashing. He expressed the belief that one day society would become enlightened enough to execute all of these men – and the hope that his work would act as a small stepping stone on the road to that outcome.
Although some extremist Atheists have gone there regarding religious people, discovering a Western intellectual calmly arguing for the literal mass murder of my demographic was a pretty new experience for me. I don't consider him to represent many people and have little fear that his predictions will ever come to pass – but I have never since doubted that the fight for public opinion is one that is worth winning.

When Fifty Shades of Grey erupted out of nowhere, it didn't take very long for me to notice. I was utterly thrilled to hear the rumour that not only was a BDSM romance novel selling tons of copies to mainstream audiences, but that many people were recommending it to one another as inspiration for spicing up their sex lives. Seeing the usually hateful and negative tabloid press actively encouraging people to get kinky ideas felt like I had slipped into a different world. I went to my local WHSmiths and boldly plucked a copy off the shelves, eager to be a part of this great moment.
Fortunately I read the blurb on the back cover before I actually got as far as the checkouts. Although many excellent works have stunningly bad blurbs for some reason, the text raised enough red flags for me to put the book down and decide that I would read a few online reviews before buying a copy. It didn't take long to confirm my worst fears – Fifty Shades portrayed BDSM interests as a direct result of mental trauma and BDSM relationships as horribly abusive.
I've since come to the conclusion that Fifty Shades is effectively the same as some of the lesbian erotica books that were written a good few decades ago. They both portray an relatively innocent person being drawn into a relationship with a more experienced individual who is defined by their sexual deviance. They both portray that individual as being the way they are because they are damaged, which in turn makes them possibly dangerous. They both portray the eventual destruction of the relationship as an inevitable culmination of that factor. One might think that the erotic fantasies presented would be undermined by this negative stereotyping, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of people who actually like those things. But neither book is actually aimed at the group it presents – the lesbian books were aimed at the larger market of straight men and Fifty Shades is aimed primarily at vanilla women who have never tried anything like it. Thus the books sell well whilst throwing the people they are hawking under a bus.
I watched as the press coverage gradually changed from encouraging vanilla couples to spice things up to running cautionary tales about women who had suffered bad relationships with 'real' kinky people. Previously we had lived in a world where the BDSM community had very little representation, but now we had moved into one where a derogatory hatchet job was the fastest-selling piece of literature in human history. When I eventually read the book, it was to provide material for an article breaking down some of the many things that it did wrong.

It was when I was bemoaning this state of affairs that an online friend referred me to a webcomic by the name of Sunstone. Upon taking a look, I was so blown away that I read the entire body of work so far in a single mesmerised session.
Sunstone is a romantic comedy about a couple in a BDSM relationship. It is therefore seen from the perspective of kinky characters – and does a vastly better job of it than anything else I've seen. The detail and depth of understanding wildly surpasses other works and gives the characters a real sense of veracity despite their slightly cliqued concepts. More importantly it was an extremely positive story that foreshadows a happy ending – and takes the time to actively debunk the misconceptions and stereotypes that plague so many other treatments of the subject.
Although the comic is still an ongoing work, the second chapter is firmly my favourite of the five created so far. The first section is a pretty idyllic tale and the later instalments begin to enter romantic drama territory that is broadly familiar from works about other types of romance. This is actually a huge deal given everything I've already said. The second chapter, however, tackles some of the specific problems that the BDSM community can face and the scars that they can leave. Yet it manages to do so without ever framing the very existence of BDSM as the source of all the problems, or as something that inevitably gives rise to these kind of injuries. It is in truth a universal story about addiction and self-destructive choices, which happens to be told from the perspective of a social group who never normally get used as a cast of characters.
Perhaps the most potent moment for me in the whole chapter comes when one of the characters talks about all the time she spent trying to figure out what was wrong with herself. Her girlfriend (who acts as the book's narrator) replies “why would anything be wrong?” Whatever level of acceptance a kinky character might receive in the course of a story, the idea that the protagonist – and by extension the author – might ask that question was entirely new information. 

My wife and I own enough books that one of the rooms of our house is effectively a small library. I am a big fan of the cinema and our DVD collection is large enough to fill multiple bookcases. Despite all of this, Sunstone was a story that I had been waiting for over half my life to be told. It is difficult to express how much reading it for the first time meant to me, or how grateful I was that someone had written it. (I'm not saying that no such works previously existed, but they sure weren't easy to just stumble upon). Despite the massive amount of representation I receive in other ways, seeing this much-maligned side of myself decently reflected for the first time was a profoundly happy and valuable moment.

The moral of this story is that representation matters for two reasons. The first of these is simply that it matters to the people who receive it for the first time. Everyone encounters stories that meet them where they are in a particularly profound way and acquire lasting personal value as a result. This is most common when we are young children, to whom every cliché is unknown and every lesson is a new revelation. Some of us grow up to think that the very act of emotionally investing in a story is childish, but the rest of us continue to find more milestone works throughout the course of our lives.
Representation of this type nearly always provides a strong response because it throws a new light on everything that we have previously read. Whether we get something that we never knew we needed or finally find something that we always wanted, the absence of the same representation elsewhere is thrown into sharp relief when we finally find it. It is often interesting to hear the reasons why a particular story means so much to a particular person, but in these cases we can come to an understanding of society's blind spots that is invaluable when going forward.

Representation is a young Whoopi Goldberg seeing the Original Series of Star Trek and being thrilled to see a black woman on TV who 'ain't no maid'. It is the little autistic boy sitting up in excitement because Drax doesn't get metaphors either. It is the fetal amputee crying in the cinema after Fury Road, because she had never imagined that a badass action hero could share her disability. It is the female critic going to see the Ghostbusters remake and realising what her 7 year old self was never given.

The second reason that representation matters is simply that the people being represented have enemies. If ignorance, prejudice and legal discrimination were not a part of the collective experience of the BDSM community, I would simply have laughed at the inadequacies of Fifty Shades and moved on. But as long as these social issues exist, the future will be genuinely affected by the direction in which popular opinion shifts. This is very much also the case with many other groups, who are still fighting to change a society with a history of deliberately denigrating and excluding them. As long as these battles continue, active attempts to improve representation will be both political and correct.
Presenting fictional worlds in which certain social inequalities and divisions are not present actively challenges their existence in our own. Giving storylines usually reserved for one type of person to another quietly denies the idea that they are justified. Accurately showing the world from the perspective of people who are normally used as side characters can reveal challenges and injustices we never knew they faced. As long as some people actually remain opposed to the idea of social equality, the role of stories in shaping public opinion can and will change lives.

It is extremely obvious that individual works often carry a message for their intended audience. But the sum total of all the stories carries a message too. It is unhealthy to teach children that particular demographics are the natural 'main characters' of life – whether they are part of those demographics or not. It is reprehensible to teach privileged adult consumers that the depth of their collective wallets excuses them from the unwelcome labour of seeing the world from perspectives other than their own. It is absurd to claim that artists or critics are acting in bad faith toward their audiences when they try to present social ideas in their work – even if they are commissioned by public funds such as the BBC.

Obviously not everyone who opposes the pro-representation crowd is hostile toward progressive politics – many simply do not want political agendas to hijack the creation of their entertainment. Unfortunately, most arguments along these lines fail to recognise the way in which the refinement of pure art is already mutilated by the status quo.
It is acceptable to argue that you want to judge a film or game by the quality of the story and technical achievements, not the gender split of the characters. But if if you do, you should care about the fact that the gender split of a script has a massive impact on whether a studio chooses to fund a promising pitch in the first place. However equitable your own consumption is, your menu has already been subjected to sexist discrimination before it ever reaches you. As long as industries are claiming that this is simply a matter of giving the consumers what they will buy, it is up to those consumers to actively refute that claim.
It is acceptable to argue that writers should determine the ethnicity of a character organically rather than specifically setting out to tick boxes. But you cannot then argue that Matt Damon was the only logical choice for a film set in ancient China, because how else do you sell a movie about dinosaurs attacking the Great Wall? If you don't care about the ethnicity of the lead characters, you definitely can't ask why audiences would care about the exact same story if it were happening to an unfamiliar foreign person.

Conversely, it is not acceptable to roll your eyes and ask why almost every protagonist's story needs to have a gay character in it somewhere these days. The answer to that should be self-evident – the simple fact that almost every real human life has a gay person in it somewhere. It is a profound abuse of Chekhov's Gun to claim that characters should only differ from the presumed default if it is necessary for the progression of the plot.
Representation in this case – and perhaps in all cases – is a rejection of the convention that certain types of people are supposed to be invisible in fiction. It breaks new ground in storytelling by saying new things within the mainstream forum. It carries the message that just because someone has existed upon the margins it doesn't mean that they inherently belong there. And there is no reason why turning out the ten millionth white action dude and his damsel is artistically superior to that.