I don’t need everything I consume to be Steven Universe.
First, a disclaimer! This isn’t an argument advocating for gritty, grim, dark (a sort of thing that I in any case find deeply juvenile; I know this because I liked it as a teen, but one’s supposed to grow up sometime). Neither do I care for the sort of fiction where the author confuses misery for profundity — a story isn’t suddenly more worthwhile or valuable because it features a very grim lesbian whose one true love dies tragically in a very dark epic fantasy world, or gay men are executed with a pike up their — well. I think of minority tragedy porn as synonymous with the grim and the dark and the faux-mature; I even acquired and published a story that subverts exactly the trope of Bury Your Gay — where queer characters are subjected to constant torture, lose their romantic interest, or commit suicide.
So I don’t like fiction that feels cozy, and I don’t like fiction that shovels queer characters into mass graves. So what do I want?
Getting past the dichotomy
I enjoy Steven Universe a lot; most viewers would probably agree that its main characters — or even the boardwalk ones — are by and large sympathetic, easy to relate to; many of the primary ones also happen to be space lesbians, and it’s one of the most positive shows around with regards to representation. I like these characters. I’d probably want to spend time with them in person, except quite obviously they are not real. Steven Universe is very easy to watch, extremely digestible.
But not everything needs to be like that.
Requiring characters to be sympathetic, ‘relatable’, ‘someone you’d have dinner with’ makes for a monolithic experience. At the end of the day, these are not real people; they will never step out from the page for tea. The qualities of real people are not necessary for fictional ones. Fictional people don’t need to be kind or pleasant; all they really need to be is interesting. Character arcs need not lead to the inevitable endpoint of learning a lesson and becoming more pleasant — that is palliative, and not always interesting.
In ‘The Uncomfortable Experience That Was the Beginner’s Guide’, Kanane comments —
“What was going through his head as he was building this?” Narrator Davey asks. And I think “why don’t you just ask him?” No one can know what’s going on inside another person’s head without asking, but Davey barrels on, because he’s going to explain it to us anyway.
“This is what I like about all of Coda’s games. Not that they’re all fascinating as games, but that they are all going to give us access to their creator… I want to get to know who this human being is,” he continues.
…there is a problem with thinking that playing someone’s games, even extremely personal ones, really tells you something about that person’s emotional state or personality or perspective. Even an extremely personal game can never be more than a snapshot of one aspect of a person’s emotional state or perspective.
Let’s call it the intimacy economy. Most of us gravitate toward celebrities or semi-public people who are open about their vulnerabilities, their emotions, their personal lives. They are relatable.
One of the artists working on Steven Universe tweeted her frustration that fans of the show would dissect her every tweet for information related to it; that her personal life or casual social media use was being mined as though it was a composite of tantalizing spoilers, or answers to fan theories. Other members of the Steven Universe staff are treated similarly, the writers in particular. Their personal relationships are put under the telescope, love lives and not, everything grist for the fan mill. It’s incredibly disturbing to watch, and the entitlement on the fandom’s part is evident and off-putting. This isn’t how you treat real human beings. But it also speaks to the need to get very, very close to what you consume, whether invasively reading texts as direct autobiography because the characters share the marginalized author’s race or sexuality (something that’s never done to writers of majority; no one insists that George R. R. Martin’s rapist characters mean he must be put on the sex offender registry, or that he wants to push children out high windows, or even that his father was abusive and made him participate in gang rape. No one suggests that Stephen King must have been a sexually repressed, bullied teenage boy on account of Carrie; any such suggestion would be immediately dismissed as patently ridiculous, and I agree), or at least get close to the characters as though they are real people, a sort of celebrity.
The other day, I came across a review — not of my work — where the reader complains that, though the characters are terribly diverse, they never have to face homophobia or racism or misogyny, which robs their ‘identities and experiences’ of relevance. What is implied is that, unless marginalized characters are being miserable and tortured, this reader cannot sympathize with them.
To overuse the phrase, there’s a lot to unpack here.
The first is the entitlement of readers into marginalized experiences: you’re a marginalized person, therefore readers — often privileged ones who benefit from denial of your rights but who’d like to play tourist— should be given access to your personal life, your colonized misery. The second is that, if you’re a marginalized writer, your characters need to not only be accessible (emotionally open, likable, sympathetic, ‘relatable’), they must also suffer, because presumably they’re autobiographical and you the writer have suffered from racism or homophobia and so on.
What is not yours is not yours
(With apologies to Helen Oyeyemi.)
I recently finished reading a couple books, one Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and the other Fatal Women by Tanith Lee. Rachel, narrator of Wolf Border, is a distant character who views the world through cold description. Beautiful ones, to be sure, but at a distance. She never quite opens up, not to us and not to most people in her life; when she does open up slightly to her brother or lover this is not treated as a magic cure, and she always holds back, has reservations. I don’t ‘relate’ to her and not just because she’s a white heterosexual British woman; I don’t relate because this is a very particular sort of person, and she doesn’t have much in common with me. I enjoyed Wolf Border not in spite of her distance but because of it. (I also don’t attempt to psychoanalyze Sarah Hall through this text, because that’s strange and creepy.) The narrators of Fatal Women are lesbians, and they tend to be more passionate than Hall’s Rachel, but by and large they are not nice, pleasant people you’d want to spend a lot of time with. For the most part, they aren’t threatened with sexual assault, corrective rape, and generally they get to live and love as they like. Some of them have abusive partners, some of them live alone, but homophobia doesn’t define their lives.
They don’t offer up their suffering for the reader. There is a closedness to many of them that repudiates the concept that marginalized experiences are a commodity for the privileged to consume. Perhaps not coincidentally, the narrators of What Is Not Yours is Not Yours are likewise not interested in forming narratives of oppressive suffering — and it’s a collection where most of the narrators are queer, of color, both. Rather than desperately toiling in misery, they fight, crush on celebrities, go to university, live in comfort, live half in fairytales. They are more emotionally available than Wolf Border’s Rachel, but there are always parts of their stories that remain shrouded and they don’t fulfill that conventional reader obligation: open, sympathetic, ‘relatable’.
(What precisely is ‘relatable’? I’ve seen white western readers complain of translated Japanese fiction — not light novels — that it is emotionally cold, the characters difficult to get close to, or ‘identify with’; there is the background radiation of the racist stereotype that East Asians are robotic and emotionless when they aren’t grasping and greedy. Scarlett Johansson is cast as Kusanagi Motoko because Hollywood is certain that a Japanese actor would have been ‘difficult to relate to’ for the audience. I came across a complaint that the narrator of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ifemelu, is ‘too scornful’, contemptuous, unpleasant for her wry observations; these same traits in a white character might’ve been called witty, clever, human. The endless sneering that Ifemelu is too privileged — and by extension, Adichie herself (educated and middle-class, with educated parents, doesn’t require a white savior: not at all what a Nigerian woman is supposed to be)—and not properly a marginalized black woman, when most audiences make no objections to the existence of Lena Dunham or Emma Watson or Caitlin Moran, but instead praise them as feminist icons even though all three could not possibly be more privileged short of literally dressing in gold plates…
The quality of being relatable and likable, of being seen as human, is inflected with power and race and hierarchy. White criminals, up to and including mass murderers, get sympathized with and acquitted. Black people are shot dead for simply existing.)
I offer that requiring that media you consume be filled with ‘sympathetic’ characters doesn’t make you simply a monolithic reader, but one who participates in oppressive institutions by subtle, insidious complicity. ‘I can’t relate to this, so this book is bad’ is a polite, liberal way of saying ‘I can’t relate to a character of color, or queer characters, or characters who come from non-hegemonic cultures, or neurodiverse characters, so this is bad’. (We can hear you think that, even if you’re saying, ‘I don’t care if the characters are white or black or polka-dotted.’ Trust me, we can hear this.)
When your preferences align with homogenizing cultural imperialism, they are inevitably coded — and they reveal more about you than about what you’re commenting on.
Always? No. But nine times out of ten? Yes.
Some further reading:
In high school, when I explained to a teacher that I wanted to be a writer someday, they tried to encourage me with this: “Yes, I think your life story would make a fascinating tale.”
Okay, but that’s not . . . um . . . I wasn’t interested in selling the story of my life at all.
Of course, it is trivially true that all fiction is “autobiographical,” in the sense that the author’s experiences inform and color their consciousness and all emanations from it, but that is quite different from saying that the only story a writer may be expected to write is autobiography.
Yet, POC writers are assumed to have perspectives that are less than “universal.” Indeed, their writing is often seen as a kind of self-exploiting performance — they write with their bodies, sell their memories, exoticize and craft their experiences for dominant consumers as the Other. When applied to my racial identity in America, this takes a particular form.