Monday, 3 December 2012

Musings About Nerd Culture: Justifying Sexism And Racism

When it comes to fantasy, horror and science fiction, the need for the creator to explore social issues or establish an authentic-feeling setting is normally something that comes in early in the creative process. However, with all writers being human, sometimes the intended result doesn't come across as well as it should, creating a work that is seen as being offensive because it comes across as racist or sexist.

Normally this comes about as the result of two things,
- Trying to adapt a culture from a specific time in history to create a setting.
- Or, trying to use the setting as a lens to examine social issues, such as gender, race etc.

Rich folk at a party, Dishonored
This is all well and good, and some writers manage to pull this off exceedingly well. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, for example, successfully uses fantasy as a means to satirise perceptions of other cultures, assumptions of gender roles, politics, trends etc. In other works the intention is occasionally lost in translation, for example in the computer game Dishonored, which is based in a fantasy world based on Victorian London and uses the setting to examine gender equality, classism etc. but is assumed by some players to actually sincerely believe in the ideas it's putting forth. Those ideas being that women can only be damsels in distress, maidens, teachers, prostitutes etc. despite their desire to be otherwise.

My problem is when people feel that any flaws in the delivery can be justified JUST because it's an adaption of real life culture or because it's a speculative fiction work. That because it's sexist or racist it's okay because it's a fantasy or science fictional work.

ST: OS, Plato's Stepchildren
Let's use a science fiction setting as an example... say, Star Trek. The creator Gene Roddenberry wanted the franchise to share his concept of a Utopian society where racism no longer existed, money was eradicated along with poverty, and there were no longer wars on Earth. But despite the admittedly big things they did in regards to the time period it was made, the Uhura/Kirk kiss being one of the first inter-racial kisses on network TV in the US for example, the franchise in general is kind of terrible in its treatment of women.

In Roddenberry's era, for example, they stated that in Kirk's time despite living in a Utopian 23rd century future where everything is awesome... women aren't allowed to be star ship captains due to being too emotionally unstable ('Turnabout Intruder'). And then there are the at least two occasions where women are bullied into being subservient breeding stock by aggressive supermen ('Where No Man Has Gone Before' and 'Space Seed'). Even moving out into the later series there are still episodes that attempt to examine other cultures or gender equality but instead come across as offencive due to how the writing is botched or how they decide to handle the story.

ST: V - Tattoo
Star Trek: the Next Generation's 'Angel One', for example, which had a planet where women had the place in society that men do in ours... which attempted to flip the perspective of how the audience saw the treatment of women (men are expected to wear revealing clothes, for example) only to end up with a product that in the end managed to insult both genders at once. Another example where they attempt to examine another culture, this time a fictional Native American one made of numerous elements of different cultures from across both North and South America in Star Trek: Voyager's 'Tattoo'. There they started with the aforementioned decision to moosh unrelated cultures together, which is a common Speculative Fiction trope if a extremely lazy one, and then went into extremely uncomfortably racist territory by claiming that Native Americans were just a bunch of language-less savages until some white aliens gave them the ability to communicate, grow crops of whatever.

These cases themselves are more one off examples rather than the rule for how the cultures or genders are depicted in the show, depending largely on the individual writers' ability to compose a competent story, but with Star Trek there's always the underlying implication that they didn't necessarily have that much respect for their female characters to start off with. Partly it is a marketing thing, with someone thinking that they could attract a larger audience by sticking the women in miniskirts or skintight jumpsuits purely for the point of fanservice. 

Troi, ST:NG Season 3
If, say, you're trying to point out how a misogynist culture is wrong, maybe treating your main female cast like pieces of meat on an episode by episode basis isn't exactly the best place to be when you're trying to take the moral high ground. Even if it does lead to moments where, for example, Councillor Troi is made to wear an actual Federation uniform instead of her usual outfit by a temporary new captain on the Enterprise, and it's treated as an example of him being an unreasonable douche (ST: TNG- 'Chain of Command'). I should probably note that Troi's actress was actually noted as saying that she preferred the actual uniform over what they normally made her wear. In fact, in Marina Sirtis' words:
"I was thrilled when I got my regulation Starfleet uniform... it covered up my cleavage and I got all my brains back, because when you have cleavage you can't have brains in Hollywood... I was allowed to do things that I hadn't been allowed to do for five or six years. I went on away teams, I was in charge of staff, I had my pips back, I had phasers, I had all the equipment again, and it was fabulous. I was absolutely thrilled."
And that's not even getting into the treatment of the two female leads in the most recent series Enterprise (smug white men acting superior to one, who is there specifically for fanservice purposes, while the other is brought in because she's a language expert, but is bossed about and given menial tasks an ensign to do regards of the fact she left a prestigious teaching job to go on the star ship...).

What point am I trying to make with this? My point is that if the Star Trek franchise was any other genre, then they would have been called out for their treatment of women and minorities far more often than they would otherwise, due to people just accepting that it's okay because it just comes with the setting. When dealing with a constructed universe, you have to consciously decide how things work or how things are, so just telling people to accept it as being part of the genre tends to come off as lazy at best and offensive at worst.

Sometimes the issues over the setting come about more as a result of the way the work is adapted. For example, in the Game of Thrones books it's told from a first person perspective, so the audience can see what the characters are thinking, giving them a bit of insight to their motivations and how they see the world they move about in. Despite being a character in a version of Medieval Europe, for example, they might have aspirations or observations about their situation that enables us to see things more from their perspective.

The loss of a first person narrator is one of the changes that happened when adapting the books to television, mostly because having numerous characters giving voice overs to the action would become distracting. The downside of this is that occasionally it appears that women accept their station in life, just because that's the way things are, with only a few exceptions.

Dothraki who can't afford horses apparently.
Another change that lead to an unfortunate interpretation of the characters was in the adaption of the Dothraki. Within the novel the Dothraki, a horse-focused culture that was intended to reflect the Mongol culture circa the time of Genghis Khan. But in the adaption the Mongol-influences were dropped, making the Dothraki more a generic barbarian culture more along the lines of Conan and his successors. However, the production team of the show decided to primarily cast the Dothraki with a mixture of various non-caucasian actors and actresses and then not really expand their culture beyond not liking anything other than horses, rape, slavery and murdering people. Admittedly the European influenced cultures in GoT also get up to some horrible stuff, but the treatment of the Dothraki has what TV Tropes calls "Unfortunate Implications".
Even the Mongols had more going on than just looting and pillaging, the lack of interest in expanding the Dothraki's culture beyond this comes across as more than a little racist. Some people have justify the treatment of the Dothraki by claiming that it's excused because other non-caucasian actors and characters are introduced later on, or that their portrayal is okay because they're a generic barbarian culture like Conan's... but that isn't really a very good excuse, at least in my view. There's a difference between acknowledging cliche and using it and just using it straight, as the first implies a certain depth to the a story and the second just reinforces the cliches and makes it offensive.

The skewed ideas behind race and gender in the superhero sub-genre... will take an entire article of its own to cover, so we'll just steer clear of that one for the moment.

The Discworld
An example of a speculative fiction franchise that could be argued to handle gender and race correctly, at least in my view, would be the aforementioned Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett. Initially starting as more of a series intended to parody fantasy and role playing tropes, the series as since branched out to be a satirical series that's covered other genres, religion, opera, current events in a way that works within the setting itself. It's also one of the few mainstream fantasy series that could work as a feminist setting as well.

Due to its setting and the choice by Pratchett to use his universe as a lens to examine the modern world, it isn't as bolted in position as the likes of Game of Thrones when it comes to dealing with other cultures and how people treat women. In fact social change is one of the themes adopted fairly early on within the series, with the main setting of the city of Ankh-Morpork evolving gradually from a standard medieval setting to something approximating the modern world. As such themes like gender relations, immigration, integration, prejudice, classism and the like are incorporated into the plot, examined and, if not dealt with, then at least steps are taken to resolve them in the future. Just because, say, characters come from an Middle Eastern influenced society for example, doesn't mean that they act like stereotypes, for example, (Jingo) which is a satire of the (First) Gulf War, jingoism and the associated rise in Islamophobia at the time.

Sgt. Angua, Night Watch
The fact that the Discworld setting isn't inhabited purely by a bunch of white people except for a small number of national stereotypes is one bonus of the series, one more evident as it progresses, but where Pratchett really excels is when it comes do dealing with female characters. This may seem oddly worded, but he's one of those writers that manage to strong characters that are female, as opposed to Strong Female Characters.

This is also something that's evolved as the series has progressed, there were female characters that were parodies of cliched female fantasy characters (Red Sonja-ish barbarian heroines, for example) but they later moved on to other such roles, such as the policewoman Sergeant Angua in the Watch books. Female characters within the Discworld tend to be varying degrees of savvy, competent in whatever happens to be their area of expertise, and used to explore the perspective they would inhabit within the story. The characters in the Witch centric books, for example, are used to explore the original concept of what witchcraft is considered to be, in the herbal medicine, midwifery, and Village Wise Woman sense. This also happens to include explorations of the flip side of the beneficial side of "witchcraft", in how often just regular old women were seen to be the cause of whatever problems the community needed a scapegoat for.

Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, Witches Extraordinares
Similarly, the Discworld persentation of female characters within the setting also uses an idea that I'm hoping I'm not explaining poorly. The idea that just because a character is feminine, or has a "feminine" occupation, that means that she is somehow less able than the female characters that don't. The idea that a woman could be a teacher, a cook or a nanny and be no less awesome than the characters who are journalists, adventurers or policewoman. Some works seem to treat women who act "womanly" as capable as the ones that don't, which is something that Pratchett manages to largely avoid, even in  his non-Discworld novels.

Whether this use of female characters as both actual characters and as means to explore how their positions are different to their male counterparts is translated in the live-action television sequel to the Watch novels remains to be seen though. Maybe they'll continue the series tradition of good female characters, or maybe they'll fall prey to the Game of Thrones trap, though considering the non-time locked status of the Discworld universe that should hopefullly be less of an issue. Chances are even that the Discworld show will manage to have a more balanced portrayal than most fantasy adaptions, but we'll have to wait and see.

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