The culture club
A longtime reader of this blog (yes, those exist!) had some communication with me after last week’s article, asking my thoughts on the idea of writing for people not just of different genders but different cultures. The problem they kept running into was a sect of their writing peers who were of the notion that no one should be writing a character from another culture unless they themselves as writers had grown up in that culture. Now mind you there’s already a problem with that line of thinking since if you grew up in a culture, then it’s not going to be “another culture” to you, but I suppose the basic gist of the matter stands… are you allowed to write an Inuit character if you weren’t raised in an Inuit community? Should you?
There is an intense paradox at the heart of questions like this. The unspoken part of the argument is that in media representation we’re operating from the default of mainstream, Amero-Eurocentric culture, usually with an added rider of focusing on white people and white people problems, and sometimes with a further rider of focusing on the problems of straight white men. Given the ongoing output of Hollywood and E3, I’m not going to deny that, since it seems to be that only by continually pointing fingers at the issue does it even register as an odd thing.
Anyhow, here’s the paradox I spoke of. Minority groups often express a wish for more balanced representation, or sometimes any representation at all, in media. Which is absolutely fine. But pairing that with a blanket prohibition that, say, only Japanese people should be allowed to write characters from Japanese culture seems to me as self-defeating as saying only women should be allowed to write female characters.
Now arguably you can say that’s a problem of the majority of the writers at the top echelons of media being straight white men (and that’s not even counting the straight white men at the not-so-top echelons, like me). If we had more women in those positions, if we had more native Japanese, etc. etc., we could… well, what? Divide up the characters in terms of writing tasks, like so many poker chips? Would that really work even for a collaborative effort like a TV series? What about a novel? You know, those generally single-author things that a great number of TV Shows and movies are developed from? I really, really want to say no to the concept that we can’t possibly understand other human beings unless we’ve lived lives exactly like theirs.
That’s not to say there aren’t potential pitfalls and problems. I’ve talked up some of them before, and they’re issues even a black man writing black characters can have (as Dwayne McDuffie testified): that once you get out of the unspoken default, the character is in danger of becoming a symbol rather than just being seen as a human being. And yes, it gets more and more terrifying the further you get from shared circumstances. It’s true I spent the past couple of blogs arguing that we’re all the same when stripped down to our cores, but it would also be willfully blind of me to declare that once you start layering on circumstances of race, gender, and culture, everyone will have the same life experiences. If I create a character that’s an elderly Muslim woman living on the streets of Bangladesh, I believe I could figure out the core principles of what makes her tick and how she ties into my story, but getting the details right (or at least, not horribly wrong) will present a challenge. I might just need to do a bit of research on that score, as opposed to writing a middle-class white man from the Greater Los Angeles area.
We’re dealing with a legacy of years and years of hackneyed and insulting portrayals in media that’s continued to this very day, even if it’s gotten slightly more subtle than the times of the minstrel shows or depictions of the “yellow peril“. But I don’t think the right response is to pull up the ladders to our respective tree houses and declare our culture clubs closed to all outsiders. Let’s be more courageous than that.
And yes, you may now get the Boy George jokes out of your system, you karma chameleons, you.