Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Diversity in Fiction, and The 2016 Oscars

If you own a TV, listen to the radio, or browse the Internet, chances are good you've come across the budding storm that is the 2016 Oscar Diversity Scandal. If you haven't heard about it, somehow, then check out this article quoting the academy president, this video, and this list of highlights.

Up to speed? Good.

So what does the lack of diversity in mainstream film, and the significantly bigger lack of diversity in film awards, have to do with people writing books? Well, a big part of it is the argument that crops up, and which I have to listen to, every time this big, scary, capital-D discussion comes up. It doesn't matter if we're talking about college admissions, actors, authors, imaginary characters, or CEO job positions. The argument goes something like this:

"It doesn't matter what a person's skin color/gender/background is. We pick the people who do the job best, and who make us the most money."

I smell self-serving bullshit.
The argument accomplishes two things for the person making it. First, it depicts them as a truly color and gender-blind person. They're only interested in results, this argument protests. Second, it says that everyone has the same opportunity, and that because everyone has that same opportunity, those who come out on top did it all themselves.

I'm sick of hearing this, because it isn't true.

First, The Obvious

Before we get started here, I am aggressively white. My ancestors came to America from Norway and Sweden, via England and Ireland. I'm also male, and come from a middle-class background. I am often the subject of unfair treatment, but that treatment always benefits me. Because of the way I look, the way I talk, and because of my cultural heritage, I'm playing the game of life on easy mode in America.

A reference shot, for those who've never seen my book jacket.
I have never, for example, walked into my local comic shop wearing a Batman tee shirt and had someone demand I prove my fandom by asking me a slew of obscure trivia questions. I've never had someone ask me whether the book I was selling at a convention was full of "chick stuff." And I've never had someone insinuate that I got one of my stories published because the editors wanted to have someone of my ethnicity/gender/etc. in their book in order to score "diversity points" with readers.

You know something else that's never happened to me? I've never had someone tell me, "you can't do that," when I said I was going to be an author. More specifically, I've never been told that people of my gender or ethnicity don't write horror, sci-fi, or fantasy, as if that opinion was a fact. Editors have never suggested I change my work when I write stories with main characters who shared my ethnicity or gender because it, "might have trouble selling." I've never had to write under a pen name because readers are unlikely to buy a book if they think it was written by a man. Most notably, though, I've never had trouble finding representation in any of the fiction I love. Movies, comic books, novels, TV shows, and even video games have provided me with a life-long parade of manly white men whose adventures I have followed.

The idea that other people have to deal with any of the arbitrary barriers I just listed, and whose most common representation in the media they love is as comic relief, villains, and stock characters, is something that I think we should address head-on.

An Example of Social Factors

Anyway, back to the issue at hand.

My point is that movie studios aren't a colorblind mass who choose actors, directors, screenwriters, and composers based on an impartial judge of talent and past performance. It's just as often that someone lands a starring role because they fit a certain look, said something clever at a party, have the right friends, or graduated from the right college. It is, by no means, a merit-based career where people are rewarded based purely on the talent they've displayed.

To show the kinds of ripple effects unseen social barriers can create, I'd like to present an example that has nothing to do with movies or books, but which is illustrative of the impact social challenges can have on entire groups of people for generations.

This example is full of terrible stuff, so have a silly puppy before we start.
Have you heard of the Federal Housing Authority? Well, one of the many responsibilities this federal organization had was helping people become homeowners. The logic was that the more people who bought homes and owned property, the steadier the economy would become, and the better off society would be as a whole. As such, this organization gave out mortgages at lower rates to qualifying people. It was a good idea, but it was an idea with a heavy streak of institutionalized racism running through it.

You see, for many decades, the FHA gave out housing loans to white people who wanted to buy homes, but found reasons to deny minority applicants. This helped ensure that white neighborhoods stayed that way, but it also made sure that many minorities had to either get more expensive loans, or make due with renting. This allowed white families to acquire property, and to begin accruing wealth. Said wealth was handed down through the generations, providing firmer footing for their children and grandchildren.

This lending policy was eventually discovered, and steps were taken to reverse it. However, the rock had been thrown into the pond, and the ripples were still going. Because predominantly white families had been allowed to buy homes with low rates, the recipients had been able to move up the financial and social ladder. Minorities, on the other hand, had often been forced into poverty, saddling the next generation with debts and hardship instead of upward mobility. It was theoretically possible for these other groups to move forward now, but instead of starting at the beginning, many families were struggling just to get to the beginning after generations of hard living and wrecked credit scores.

The ripples go further than individual families, though. This lending policy contributed to minorities being segregated into low-income areas, and helped stop people from moving up financially. Additionally, when education was funded by home and property taxes in the school's area, it meant that schools from affluent, white communities received a great deal of funding, while minority-dominant schools received significantly less. This led to a gap in the way the next generation was educated, and the resources they were allocated. More graduates came from the schools with the funding to hire good teachers, and from communities where families weren't struggling to overcome a slew of other obstacles in addition to making good grades. The result? More of the kids from the predominantly white communities went to college, got degrees, and made the necessary connections to help them get further in their careers.

You still with me?
Now, none of that means there weren't people from bad homes or poor neighborhoods who didn't end up being successful. It doesn't mean there weren't failures in the affluent communities. It doesn't mean that those who achieved didn't work for their successes. However, it's a lot easier to graduate from high school if your parents have good jobs with benefits, if you have teachers who are happy with their salaries, and if you don't have to work a part-time job to help out with the household bills. And it's a lot easier to graduate from college if you were able to get grants and scholarships, or if your parents can help you pay the costs, so you can focus on meeting people you need to know, and getting the degree you need.

So What Does That Have to Do With The Oscars?

The point is that these kinds of background manipulations happen at all levels of society, including movies and books. There isn't a dearth of minority and female roles in Hollywood because the picky public won't go to see them (just look at the rave reviews for the last Star Wars film, or Mad Max: Fury Road). The dearth comes from the money men only being willing to green-light projects that conform to their expectations. Additionally, it isn't that female action figures don't sell. Executives don't want to confuse their demographic by making toys of action-oriented women like the Black Widow, or Rey, even though there's a huge market demand for them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; we've decided these movies don't sell, so we don't make them. Because there are none of these movies, everyone assumes it's because they don't sell.

After all, why would you refuse to make something if there were hordes of fans lining up to throw money at you for giving them what they want?

The same thing happens with books, too.
What people are asking for with the Oscars, and with most other fiction awards, is not to take awards away from white actors, or white authors. Especially from our favorites, whom we all agree have earned those awards. What we're asking for is genuine opportunity for people who haven't been given a shot. That the next time Hollywood is making an action movie where the hero's ethnicity isn't specified, that you consider casting someone who isn't a straight, white man in the role. Or, if Hollywood really wants to branch out, to purposefully tell stories from someone else's perspective.

No one is denying the talent on display at the Oscars. What we're asking is where are all the other talented people who deserve recognition as well?

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1 comment:

  1. Regarding one of your last points, it looks like some studios are able to cast people of different sex/race. Case in point, it looks like the Ancient, in Dr Strange, has been gender swapped and is now female, and Idris Alba is (I believe) now cast in the lead role for the movie adaption of the Dark Tower series. It's not much, but it's a start, by some pretty big companies.