Fiction matters. Media matters.
There was some controversy recently about Matt Damon appearing as the hero in a film set in China during the Song dynasty. That's around the 10th century, a time when there was a historically notable absence of white Americans in China. Now there's a big conversation to be had about a film set in China about Chinese things having a white American hero. It's not a simple thing and it's a conversation that needs to be had.
And anybody who says "Relax, it's just a movie, it's not like it matters" is full of shit.
I'm not here to talk about The Great Wall or the racial controversy around it.
I want to talk about some writing I was doing recently. Actually, it was world building. I was writing up some notes for a role-playing game. Setting details, plot hooks, important and interesting NPCs. Exciting stuff to you, I'm sure. I had grouped my important NPCs by categories like Business, Politics, Law Enforcement, Crime and so on. Within those categories, I wrote some notes on all the important people within the world. As I was working, I began to notice something a little off about my notes. I scrolled through all my important NPCs that I'd written up so far - organised crime bosses, police commissioner, two mayors, a business tycoon. After skimming over what I'd read, I noticed the problem.
All my important people were men.
All of them.
And with only a couple of exceptions, they had very white sounding names. The exceptions were a couple of characters of Chinese.
This happens a lot, regardless of whether I'm working on a role-playing game, a short story, a novel or whatever else. I have default modes of thinking that guide my creative endeavours. You don't need to be a genius to figure out where these come from, either. I live in a part of the world that is overwhelmingly white and if you live in this area and you're not white, you're statistically likely to be of Chinese descent.
This ethnic mix is my day to day reality. This is the world I see when I go outside.
But I also default to male and that's a little weirder. The world I see is not 90% male. I don't walk down the street and see a noticeable absence of women around me. And yet, male is my default. If I'm thinking up a character, I will automatically write them as male. Is it because I'm male? Does that tip the scales?
Let's go back to my game notes. I was writing about important non-player characters. These were the movers and shakers, the people with influence, the people who matter in my fictional world. They were 100% male. Not let's compare that to my day to day reality, the world that I see whenever I open my eyes, go outside, turn on the TV, listen to music. It should come as no surprise to you that I see a lot of men. Business leaders, political leaders, sports stars, popular musicians*, even criminals who make the news are largely male.** The people who shape the world are men. That's a pretty weird dissonance between population and power.
Well, yeah, obvious, right? Everybody knows that.
Right. So let's go back to fiction. Like I said before, fiction matters. We consume fiction in all kinds of media for a variety of reasons but there's always an element of escapism. Fiction offers us something we can't experience in our life. That might be adventure and excitement, it might be drama and romance, it might be sorrow. Whatever the case, we're stepping out of our life and into another life in another place to gain some form of fulfillment.
Now imagine that when you look around the world and see all the important and special people are, I don't know, foxes. Red foxes. You're not a red fox and maybe you can never be a red fox and, even if you could, you don't want to be a red fox. Now imagine that when you read a book or watch a movie, all the best characters are red foxes. Heroes and villains and even most of the supporting cast are all red foxes. You might get it into your head that unless you're a red fox, you can't be special or important. This is why fiction matters.
Yes, okay, we get that. This is nothing new. Hell, this isn't even new for me. I wrote about the importance of representation ages ago. Why are we here?
Well we've talked about the world, and my role-playing game notes. We've talked about why we consume fiction, why fiction is important and we've talked about red foxes. Now let's talk about you.
Just like me, you're going to have default ways of thinking. There's a good chance that your defaults are similar to or the same as mine. When you're being creative, those default ways of thinking are going to shape how you create. Your fictional world will automatically reflect your defaults. That wouldn't be a surprise. It is a problem, though.
It's not your fault, of course. It's the world around you and the life you live that shapes your defaults. You don't get to choose them. But you're still responsible for them. In fact, you're responsible for a lot. Fiction is important, remember? If you create fiction, then you're creating something important. You're taking on a responsibility, here. You've got to be aware of what you're saying with your fiction without actually saying it.
Are you reinforcing an inequality? Are you shutting people out? Are you creating a world where certain people don't exist and aren't welcome to exist?
You might not be. You might be. Maybe you don't know. If you don't know, then it's probably time you took a moment to stop and think about your defaults and, if those defaults aren't living up to your responsibility as a creator of fiction, start changing them.***
*Fun fact about me: I love glam metal. Take a look at the glam metal page on Wikipedia and count how many glam metal bands it talks about that are all men vs the ones that are all female. After you've done that, go listen to a Vixen album. Not to prove a point or anything, just because Vixen is awesome.
**Do you know where women do turn up in media? As victims, as wives to important men, as reporters talking to and about men, as co-stars, supporting cast and love interests to me.
***I'm happy to say that my game notes - which are a work in progress - now have a much better mix of gender and ethnicity. Also werewolves because werewolves, like Vixen, are awesome.