Diversity versus cultural appropriation—Best current practice?

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Here’s a current report on the subject from professional writers in the field.

Thursday night after Halloween, I went to a program at the local writer’s guild that included African American poets and musicians. Excellent program. Then afterwards, some of us went across the street for a couple of brews and had a great conversation about art and marketing your work. One of the gals in the guild is an established novelist who writes research-based historical-type fiction, and she mentioned that she’s having trouble finding a publisher for her latest work: a story about a civil rights riot that took place in 1919 and includes African American characters.

Far be it from me to judge the racial heritage of others, but the writer looks pretty German. Her agent has told her the problem is the African American characters in her book. According to Agent, major US publishers are no longer interested in works from Caucasian writers that feature African American characters—not just lead characters, mind you, but any kind of prominent characters at all. Presumably this is based on the recent movement to call out cultural appropriation from “privileged” white writers.

So what am I doing today? I’m going back through my marketable works to remove anything that might identify characters by race or ethnic heritage. Sure, that really cuts down on the diversity, but that’s the end result of the cultural appropriation and/or “own voices” movement, isn’t it? A curtailment of ally-ism in support of minority issues (e.g. my friend’s novel on civil rights riots)? Less diversity in the works available for sale? Greater segregation of the market?

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Cultural Appropriation and the Dilemma of Halloween Sales

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So, it’s been kind of entertaining to watch people try to sort through the costume issue this week. First, Megan Kelly lost her job at NBC for saying white kids should be able to dress up as black characters for Halloween. Then a lot of other people checked in, horrified at the idea of white kids dressing up as person-of-color characters. Of course, this would be the worst kind of cultural appropriation for “privileged” white kids—pretending to be some white colonialists’ black-face vision of POC like Moana, maybe, or characters from the Black Panther movie. It just not done in this enlightened age. But then the issue of costume sales came up. This is a $9 billion market in the US.

I was in a pretty good position to assess the costume market this year. I worked a Trunk or Treat event for a small church in a little town up near the Tennessee/Kentucky line. This is middle America, folks, trending heavily to the working class, with a few professional families mixed in. The most creative was a Transformer costume built out of cardboard. There was the usual collection of ghosts and zombies; one Jason Voorhees and a Freddie Kreuger. A couple of Wonder Women came by, a Flash, a Batman and one Superperson, However, a good third to a half of the costumes were Disney or Marvel characters—princesses for the girls and superheroes for the boys. Quick calculation: this works out to be maybe $4.5 billion in US sales.

So, what are Disney and Marvel supposed to do about the cultural appropriation dilemma? Given that $4.5 billion is on the line, this is a huge crisis.

The problem, of course, is that these companies have worked themselves into a corner through trying to provide “diversity” in their productions. A few years back, providing more diversity was considered progressive. There’s still a push for it—all productions need more POC, more POC as lead characters, more role models for POC children to identify with. But then, a recent shift in focus has identified this movement as cultural appropriation instead of diversity. When Disney makes a film featuring native Hawaiian characters, for example, the (privileged white) company is appropriating a minority culture, making millions in profit off the backs of the native Hawaiian characters. Should Disney be allowed to do this? Or should only native Hawaiians be allowed to make films about their own culture?

Worse, one of the most popular movies this year was the hugely successful Black Panther film. Only 13% of the US population is African American, so if only children of African heritage are allowed to wear these costumes, it puts a pretty strict limit on sales. So how did the companies react? By promoting sales to white children, of course. There were all kind of people out there giving them permission.

Doesn’t profit always trump cultural sensitivity?

Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

Review of Incredibles 2 

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This is an animated film written and directed by Brad Bird, starring Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson and Samuel T. Jackson. It was produced by Pixar, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and released to theaters June 15, 2018. This is the second animated film in this series. For anyone who missed it, the first film titled The Incredibles was released in 2004. This review contains major spoilers.

This film picks up right where the last one left off. The Parr family are “Supers” who are hiding out under a government enforced program of secret identities called the Super Relocation Program. The Underminer bores into the Metroville Bank and the Parr family (a.k.a. The Incredibles) tries to stop him from vacuuming all the money out of the vault. There’s a lot of property damage but they fail to stop the robbery. This leads to bad press. Man-in-Black Rick Dickers informs the Parrs that the Super Relocation Program has been discontinued, which means, at this point, they’re on their own in maintaining their secret identities. The program will only pay for two more weeks at a motel, so the family is facing homelessness. Bob and Helen are approached by media mogul Winston Deavor and his sister Evelyn, who admire superheroes and want to launch a media campaign featuring Elastigirl to get them back to work on stopping crime. Bob agrees to watch the three kids, Dash, Violet and baby Jack-Jack, while Helen takes the job. This turns out to be more than Bob bargained for, as he has to deal with math homework, budding romance and Jack-Jack’s emerging powers. He gets support from his buddy Frozone and super-costume designer Edna Mode. Meanwhile, Helen finds her job isn’t what she thought. Can Bob and Helen figure out what’s going on? Can the kids save the day again?

So, Brad Bird made his point about superheroes hiding out in the first film, and the messages here are a little different, leaning heavily to the adult philosophical. Some of it comes out in straightforward conversations between Helen and tech talent Evelyn, and between Helen and Bob, while more of it is embedded in the characters and plotline.

Message #1: Can you help people too much? Evelyn thinks superheroes make everyone weak and unable to fix their own problems, while, as a Super, Helen thinks it’s right to help people in any way she can. When asked what people really want, Evelyn thinks it’s always ease over quality, and to be taken care of by Supers, which will lead to disaster. Again, I’m not the greatest on ideologies, but this looks like libertarianism vs. socialism with some overtones of Social Darwinism. How much should we help others? Does too much help really keep people from reaching success on their own?

Message #2: What should you do if laws are wrong? If laws are immoral, is it more right to follow the rules or to break the rules? Helen decides on breaking the law to appear as Elastigirl, with the hope her actions will bring about a change in government policy.

Message #3: Role reversals are tricky. Everybody needs to respect the jobs other people do to make the world run—especially moms. Bob really struggles through the family thing, but eventually gets it under control.

Message #4: Beware of social media. Evelyn turns out to be a social media activist. In her role as Screenslaver, she hypnotizes anyone who looks into her screens and forces them to become her minions in a bid to destroy the Supers. Besides this, Winston looks suspiciously like someone who recently testified before the US Congress about the use of social media in the last US presidential election.

Highly recommended. High five on the Ideation Scale.

Five stars.

The Incredibles, an Elitist Skreed?

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When I was reading the press leading up to the release of Incredibles 2, I was (and also wasn’t) surprised to find that The Incredibles (2004) was apparently criticized as elitist because of the message it sends.

The Incredibles (a.k.a. the Parr family) are all “Supers,” that is, people with talents that make them different. Mr. Incredible is super strong and fast: Elastigirl is stretchy: Dash is really fast, and Violet can become invisible and project force fields. Because of government policy, they are required to bury their talents and to adhere to secret identities and live as ordinary people. The kids have grown up under this program, and are surprised that mom and dad, when things get dire, expect them to step up and perform as superheroes. Syndrome, the villain of the story, means to sell inventions that will make everyone super, so everybody will be the same. As I interpreted this, the message to kids is: Don’t hide out; step up and learn to use your own talents for the good of society.

So, is this message really elitist? Where did it come from leading up to 2004? And why did writer/director Brad Bird feel it was necessary to say this in a children’s animation film? Everyone is supposed to be equal under the law, of course, and democratic ideals say that everyone should be respected the same regardless of race, creed, talent or color. But does that mean everyone should be an ordinary interchangeable cog in the great machine of society?

There’s some background here: For anyone who isn’t aware of how the Bush era No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was interpreted, it meant the US educational system should work for equal outcomes from all students—no one should have undue advantage or disadvantage. The Act set minimum standards and required that schools spend their time and resources to bring all children up to this level, but no further. In some states, funding for gifted programs was cut by 90% as a result. Schools shifted to achieving the mediocrity of minimum scores. Add to this the tendency of children to persecute anyone who is different, and the result was that talented kids were hiding out left and right, without any avenue to discover and develop their talents. All the emphasis in the public schools is still pretty much on achieving minimum performance, and anyone who stands out is pretending they are better than everyone else. Right?

So, what do we do about the fact that people really do have individual talents? Some people are world-class athletes and some are Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and some are Nobel Prize-winning scientists. If you try to substitute a scientist for a ball player, then there’s going to be a problem. Right? And if you try to dump all those kids who have been encouraged to adhere to minimum standards into a job market, then there’s going to be a problem there, too. Right?

But then, maybe I’m wrong. Surely it’s elitist to look for the best job candidate.

Ahhh. Okay. Now I feel better.

Next, a review of Incredibles 2.

Wrap up of the 2018 Ideation Ratings

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, professor, writer and literary critic Tom Leclair says he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.”

As a political battle has developed over the SFF awards in recent years, somehow this approach to the nominations seems to have gotten lost for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Some of the recent finalists and/or winners have been called out as political propaganda, having little or no substance beyond emotional appeal, poorly written, etc. Things have settled down a little this year, as the traditionalist have made their point and pretty much left liberals in control of these two awards. The finalists for the Nebulas, given by industry professionals, seems to have been a serious striving for diversity of genre as well as author in the nomination process–an effort to be fair. Still, the list of winners ends up with crowd appeal, but not much to contribute to the “literature of ideas.” Totaling up the scores, I’ve given the winners an average Ideation score of 2.05. The Nebula finalists included Autonomous, “a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history,” but it didn’t win.

The differences between the Nebula and the Hugo finalist list mostly subtracted ideas and quality works rather than adding to them. I suppose this is something we can expect, as the Hugo finalists are elected by a close group of WorldCon members and their tastes are, for this reason, very limited. However, they did come up with the five star idea man, Kim Stanley Robinson. I may revisit this when the list of winners is available. Robinson won the Nebula the last time he put out a novel, but he didn’t even appear in the list of finalists this time. We’ll see how much the climate has changed since 2013.

I’m thinking Robinson may not win for the same reason Newitz didn’t win—his book is hard to read. It’s long, it’s got small print, and it’s full of economics. Nobody wants to deal with that anymore. I’m expecting WorldCon members are going to go for Scalzi or Jemisin instead.

The Continuing Feminization of Major SFF Awards?

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If anyone noticed, all four of the 2017 Nebula fiction winners were women. In 2016 William Ledbetter was the single male winner in the novelette category. In 2015 all the winners were women. In 2014 Jeff VanderMeer was the single male winner in the novel category. In 2013 all the winners were women. You have to go back to 2012 to find equity, when Kim Stanley Robinson and Andy Duncan won in the novel and novelette categories and Nancy Kress and Aliette de Bodard won in the novelette and short story categories. At least the 2017 Nebula finalists indicated an effort toward sexual diversity, as the list included at least one man in each category, with the total ending up at 5/25 or 20%.

For the 2018 Hugo, only the novel category has even the possibility of a male winner. In 2017 all the Hugo winners were women. Same for 2016. 2015 was a weird year, when No Award won two of the categories and Liu Cixin and Thomas Olde Heuvelt won the other two. You have to go back to 2014 to find equity, where Charles Stross won the novella category and John Chu won the short story category, while Ann Leckie won in the novel category and Mary Robinette Kowal won for the best novelette. For the 2018 Hugos this year, the number of men in the list of finalists is 2/24 or just 8%.

In 2017 the World Fantasy Award short and long fiction winners were all women. Same for 2016. In 2015, the winners were all men, and in 2014 there was a mix of 2 women and 1 man. You’ll never get equity in this one, as there are only three categories.

I’ve not done a statistical analysis, but just looking at the results, especially for the Nebula and Hugo Awards, suggests a definite trend for female winners. Last year I noticed a flurry of articles about the triumph for diversity in the awards because of all female winners in the face of continued prejudice, etc., but this year I haven’t seen much of that type comment, although one article did note that women had dominated “yet again.” Instead, the remarks seemed to be more about racial diversity and Jemisin’s third win in a row.

So, can I gather from this result that there’s a certain discomfort growing about the continued domination of women in the awards? Even Jemisin might be getting suspicious. She didn’t bother to show up to collect her third Nebula, apparently preferring to stay home and write on her current project instead.

In the early years of the science fiction awards, men always dominated, of course. So, why are men suddenly writing so poorly? Clearly this isn’t just a problem with white men, since in 2017 Asian, Hispanic, black and Native American men didn’t measure up, either. So, why not? Why is what the women wrote so much better?

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