There’s a hashtag worth checking out on Twitter and the ensuing conversation today: #WeNeedDiverseBooks
I used to teach workshops and courses for young writers (sometimes teens, sometimes even younger). There was a common pattern I noticed: kids, particularly very young ones, tended to write stories about protagonists who looked like them. I remember one girl who wrote about a worm, sometimes someone might write about a puppy, but if there was a human protagonist–even in a fantasy setting–the writer’s “default” character resembled them in gender, ethnicity, usually hair and eye colour, and often his or her home life.
One year, in one of my classes, there was a pair of second generation Chinese immigrant brothers. They’d been born and raised in Canada, and the younger of the two was about seven or so (IIRC). He wrote and illustrated a story about a boy who had an older brother (the other elements I don’t recall, but it sounded very similar to a story about him). And the protagonist in his story was a Caucasian, blue-eyed boy.
That was his default. All the stories he wrote, stories with protagonists who had details similar to his own life, were about white dudes.
And that made me think very hard about what stories, regardless of medium, all these kids were being exposed to. Books about white boys. TV shows about white boys. Movies about white boys. Even most toys tended to center around white boys (if human elements were involved).
This was a small child already growing up to see white as default. There is nothing wrong with a non-white child deciding to write about a white protagonist, but this calls for a long hard look at why writing about a Chinese boy never occurred to him. Why he never saw himself reflected in the media he consumed. And this isn’t new; talk to any teacher and they will tell you similar stories (eg. black girls who internalize that beauty is white skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair in all of their drawings and stories). It left me questioning…what do I write? What do I read? What am *I* putting out in the world that contributes to this?
A friend of mine has run into a frustrating lack of children’s books where the kids have gay parents. Not where it’s an “issue”–“Hey, Susie has two moms, and that’s a big deal, but it’s okay!”–but just normal kids having normal adventures whose parents happen to be gay. She wants her daughter to feel normal. And I don’t doubt she wants her daughter’s peers to see their family as normal as well.
And fiction is so, so powerful. It provides validation, catharsis. It encourages the development of empathy. Kids deserve to see themselves reflected in fiction. Their skin, their hair, their eyes. Their parents. Their disorders. Their physical abilities. Their beliefs. Their size. Their family’s income level.
I was born in the early eighties. I had sassy (white) female characters in books and badass (white) heroines in film, but the one area I found it sorely lacking was video games. I bemoaned the fact I always had to play as a boy saving a girl. Even at eight, nine years old, I knew that something was wrong here. It wasn’t that I couldn’t play as/identify with a male character; I just didn’t want it forced on me. And I wanted more than a token girl, the Smurfette trope.
I held onto this growing resentment for years and it’s still a factor today when gaming. I tend to part with my cash for female-led games or ones where character gender preference is an option. I still play the female character whenever possible. And, generally speaking, I no longer feel forced to identify with a boy, therefore I am more likely to play male-led games than I ever was before.
But I was lucky in that I realized pretty quickly something was wrong with the lack of gender diversity. It was something I pushed back against early on. That is not so for a lot of kids who grow up internalizing that white hetero cis dudes are default and everything else is “different” and “other.”
What drove this home for me more recently–this need to see yourself represented (because, let’s face it, I’m a white, hetero, cis chick–there are lots of me all over the place, and I am quite privileged in many ways)–was TV. Yes, I live under a rock, and haven’t had cable in about seven years. But now I have Netflix and knitting while catching up on stuff I’ve missed the past few years has been great. And being that I lived under a rock, I had no idea that the lead character in Homeland has bipolar disorder.
See, I get it. I get what’s it’s like to have every depiction of someone like you be shown as a killer. Or as a joke. That is how mental illness is treated by most writers, regardless of medium. Need a reason why someone on Criminal Minds killed a bunch of people, so the protags have a villain to hunt? MAKE THE CHICK MENTALLY ILL! Need some cheap laughs? MAKE A SIDE CHARACTER MENTALLY ILL! And obviously it is also how a whole bunch of non-white ethnicities, non-Christian faiths, and non-cis characters are portrayed. (And yes, I am cognizant of the criticisms of some of that on Homeland; I just would like to separate, for a moment, other potentially problematic elements from why this show has value to me.)
As I watched Homeland‘s protagonist’s manic meltdown and subsequent crash into depression toward the end of the first season, it struck me how grateful I was to see someone “like me” on TV, as a main character. Not the perp-of-the-week on some crime drama or the wacky neighbour, not a joke, but someone living with–and often succumbing to–that particular illness. My god, to just see someone have a depressive episode and not have it immediately result in suicide (because ALL depressed people are automatically suicidal, dontcha know) was subversive and a revelation.
It doesn’t matter that Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder isn’t exactly like mine; what matters is there’s something very validating and cathartic about seeing a fictional character go through those struggles. How much more susceptible you are to gaslighting when you’re already “crazy”; how difficult it is to trust yourself when you know something’s “wrong” with you; trying to maintain yourself through extreme ups and downs, because the world’s not going to stop and let you off the ride just because your brain is fucked up. How the illness can be a liability but your unique perspective also has value. The struggle with questions of treatment.
And I’m left to wonder, if more stories like that are out there, depicting people like me not as a bad guy or as a joke, but as a real, functioning person who is more than her illness, will that not remove some of the stigma overall? Will that not breed compassion and open more conversations? Ultimately, will that not save the lives of people with a disorder that has an 85% survival rate, if they can feel more “normal” and safe enough to seek help?
I want that for everyone. And I want it to start with kids.
A lot of the time, when people–writers, editors, readers–talk about a desire for diversity in fiction, it gets thrown in the category of “PC”. That it’s just ticking off a list for the sake of political correctness and that is a bad thing. Because we’re so used to the narrative of white, hetero, cis, able men as default. But there is so much power in fiction–it allows people to open up and identify with the experience of others in a way few other things can, and understanding a wide variety of experiences makes us better people. It can save lives. Diversity matters.
Kids need diverse books. Adults need diverse books. Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in fiction.