Saturday, July 28, 2012

Minority Warriors

I wrote this post last year. I've decided to post it after much thought.

I've restrained from blogging on this topic, or even expressing it in public because I know (as usual) that my opinion is usually negative and non-favorable. However, after a series of rather interesting events, I've decided to do a rather lengthy write up. Be warned, this contains spoilers for various books, movies and television shows.

Earlier last year, I received an ARC for Across the Universe, by Beth Revis. I'm what you'd call a champion of racial diversity. I don't write for racialicious (a fabulous blog, by the way) and I wasn't a member of racebending or Aang Ain't White, even though I was an Avatar fan at their inception. I do, however, love to read books where being non-white is non-issue. Now, off the top of my head, I can't recall many books where this is the case. So, despite my many issues with Across the Universe, I'm a Beth Revis fan and I applaud her for going the non-standard route even if I despise whoever headed the decision in Razorbill to whitewash the cover. More on that here, here, and here.

A few months after reading Across the Universe, I came across ferretbrain. One of their writers, Daniel Hemmens, coined the term "minority warrior". He defines them as:
straight white men [who] attempt to speak on behalf of women, nonwhites, and homosexuals.
I don't have a problem with this -- when it's done correctly. And, frankly, I'm sick and tired of sitting back and saying nothing about the problems I have with portrayals of racial minorities in popular media at the risk of offending someone because they like a show/book/movie that's extremely popular and undesirable to dislike (unlike Twilight, or The Last Airbender).

Including a minority in your work does not make you progressive or politically correct. Just sticking one in there means nothing. It pisses me of when someone says that by including a black/asian/gay/hispanic, they're automatically not racist or homophobic. If that were the case, minstrel shows would still be shown around the clock.

In addition, defining someone by their sexuality or race or ethnicity is not a good thing. No one, and I mean no one is defined by being black/Asian/gay/Hispanic. It is not who you are. It is part of you are, but it is not your entire identity. Yet, for whatever reason, when these kind of characters (you know who they are) pop up, and they're solely defined by being black or Asian or gay with little to no other defining traits, they're put on pedestals and worshiped as being groundbreaking and/or given awards.

And it's not just in shows like Glee, which I abhor for a multitude of reasons, ranging from its poor writing, poor lip synching, and various soap opera cliches. Nope. Even my favorite white authors are unable to evolve from this one dimensional, "ultra hip" way of thinking. And I find it problematic.

Case #1: John Green

I love John Green's books. And I'm not just saying that. I've read Looking for Alaska several times. He's one of my favorite contemporary writers. But I've never been able to understand the way he presents his minorities.

From his three most popular books we have Takumi, Lara Buterskaya, Hassan, and Marcus "Radar" Lincoln. At first glance, there's nothing wrong with these names. But when everything adds up, it only leads me to the conclusion that these three were included to be "hip" and "diverse". Especially since (with the exception of Takumi in the second half of LfA) they aren't treated as anything but "other."

Let's look at the three main male characters in LfA. Miles "Pudge" Halter, Chip "Colonel" Martin, and Takumi Hikohito. First odd thing? Why doesn't Takumi have a nickname if he's been best friends with Chip and Alaska since ninth grade?

Second odd thing? We know that Chip has a girlfriend and that he could get another if he wanted. We know that Miles has a girlfriend and Alaska thinks he's cute enough to cheat on her boyfriend with. But we never discover anything about Takumi's romantic relationships outside of his crush on Alaska and that he may have at one point lost his virginity. But, considering the context of that conversation, I'm sure it was a joke.

My biggest problem? Apparently, Takumi also played a part in letting Alaska go. Because he couldn't have been an innocent bystander. He had to be the last person to see her alive, therefore, shifting the blame (in the reader's eyes) from Miles and Chip to him.

And what is Lara's purpose? She's there to be Miles' girlfriend. That's it. And she loves sex. Granted, Alaska loves sex as well, but she doesn't do anything but kiss Miles. Besides, there's not enough space for a discussion on manic pixies in this post.

One instance of the minority without a romantic life, or the minority with an overblown sex life and not much else, wouldn't bother me. But then I read An Abundance of Katherines. And I was introduced to Hassan.

Hassan is a muslim. A fat, happy, friendly muslim. He cracks a lot of jokes and doesn't have a character arc outside of being that fat, happy best friend. When he does get a girlfriend, she cheats on him with TOC (the other Colin) in the woods. This is a plot device that revolves around the nerdy white male character who ends up getting a girlfriend from this entire chain of events.

Their names coupled with their obvious otherness and the fact that they get no sex, unlike the geeky white male characters, bother me. If it was in one book, fine. But two? It's a little bothersome.

And then there's Radar. What's the big joke surrounding him? His parents have a house full of black Santas. That's it. I have no idea why white people think "black" automatically makes something funny. But, apparently Will Gluck thinks so because:

Case #2: Easy A

Easily one of the best worst movies I've seen in a while, Easy A managed to piss me off by using "black" as a joke not once, but twice. I read the script for the movie. The adopted black boy bit was not in the version I read. Why is that funny? They adopted a black kid and this is a joke because... ?

And then, in the end of the movie, the gay white boy running off with the black dude was funny because... ? Can someone explain why this is humorous? And not even Barry Lyga is exempt.

Case #3: Boy Toy and The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

Once again we have the "sex with a black dude is funny" joke. In two books that reference each other. Also, we have a dick joke referencing penis size. Yeah, not funny. But, whatever. Don't get me wrong, Cal isn't a bad character. But he's the super racial minority. Not only is he handsome, but he's into sports, has lots of sex, and he's also kind, smart, and hangs out with the geekiest kid in school. And, in case you forgot, he's BLACK. He's the friendly black kid who hangs out with the geeky white boy so you know the main character is hip and progressive.

Case #4: Glee

Where do I begin? We have the sassy fat black girl who never grows out of being the sassy fat black girl. Did I mention that she's sassy? And black? And fat? Because the show doesn't cease to remind you of this every five minutes. Ryan Murphy must think his audience is composed of amnesiacs who can't remember basic facts from one minute to the next.

Then we have the Asian girl and her Asian boyfriend and yes, they're Asian and Murphy doesn't cease to shove this down your throat time and time again. And, apparently, it's some kind of joke. Eh, I find it tiresome. He rips material from early 90's kid's shows that were trying very hard to be diverse, spins it as a joke, and plays the "well, it's only a joke and look -- here's a message to show that this is wrong before we do it again because it's satire".

What's an Asian F? An A-. How many times have I heard a joke like this? Does he even try to lampshade the trope? Eh, no. Southpark does a better job with its minorities. Yeah, you heard that right. Chef and Token are more progressive than the entire cast of Glee.
Apparently the mere fact of acknowledging them excuses them. It's not a stereotype if you know it's a stereotype, because then it's satire. You don't even have to subvert or challenge the stereotype in any way. As long as you know about it.

That's the power of knowledge.

Glee gives us a central cast consisting entirely of stereotypes, and does nothing to challenge them.
For more, read this.

I am sick of writers who define their characters by their race. I am sick of writers who leave a minority spot open so their white characters look like uber cool hipsters with black/Asian friends. I am sick of writers who combine all of their diversity points into one character while leaving the rest of the cast white and straight.

When I can pick your minority out amongst your cast of straight white characters, you have a problem. They're sticking out because you put them in there to be diverse. And it shows. It's awkward for me, a racial minority, to groan through your token moments. It reads that you must flash your little red light again and again to show that this character is different from your main white characters because, if it's that important, why is the rest of your cast (you know, 98% of it) white?


Note: I'm not claiming that any of the above writers are racist, or that you're racist for enjoying their material. 

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