I’ll be honest. I started to write a What The Hell Do We Mean When We Say Strong Female Character post, but then I realized that I’d already written two of those. So I’m taking a different tack today. I want to talk about world building. Not the big, obvious, Just How Does “the Force” Work type of world building (seriously, though, midichlorians? that is some bullshit, Lucas.) …I want to talk about the more subtle type of world building that happens in every single fictional work, whether “genre” or not.
Let us consider first the long-running radio show A Prairie Home Companion. Its world building is fairly blatant. It is set in a fictional town, Lake Wobegon, MN, where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.” They say this every show, and it is apparent at least peripherally in the sketches and monologue stories that make up the show. This is a version of Minnesota that’s a little hyperbolic, a little wacko, a little locked in the undefinable past where the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon can kind of perk along Lutheranly and have some fairly specific personal growth that gently challenges but ultimately does not destroy the status quo of the town.
Let us apply this same world analysis to another radio show (or podcast, as we moderns call it), Welcome to Night Vale. In the world of Night Vale, incomprehensible eldritch horror is happening more or less constantly. The citizens of Night Vale take this more or less in stride, and one of the joys of the show is how normally the townsfolk react to abnormal events. Another key facet of Night Vale? Unlike real desert towns, say, in Arizona, Night Vale is totally chill with the subversive radio host, Cecil, being in a relationship with the male scientist from out of town, Carlos. Their relationship is not the whole point of the show, but it comes up pretty frequently in a *gasp* normal way. Night Vale citizens are cool with secret police and marauding monstrous librarians and calm, normal gay relationships. And in a media culture saturated by people who actually complain any time a queer relationship of any kind is mentioned, Welcome to Night Vale is a fresh breath of air.
My point here is that it is possible to use the “what is normal in my fictional world” level of world building for great justice. It’s easiest in “genre” fiction, I think, because often the world is supposed to be connected to reality than in literary realism. Star Trek, for example, began airing in 1963 during the Cold War. It showed a hopeful future where there could be a black woman, an Asian man, an alien, a Russian man, and an American man who liked punching people all in the same room getting along and working together.
The 1952 western film High Noon, which you should all go watch immediately if you haven’t seen it, was a classic piece of genre fiction that had justice-filled world building. Most Westerns at the time were about a sort of fictional “good old days” where the men were spit and shot things and had showdowns, the women wore corsets and did a lot of screaming, and people of color were two-dimensional villains. High Noon turned that world on its ear. High Noon almost passes the Bechdel Test, certainly passes the Mako Mori test, and passes the Sexy Lamp test with ease. Its lead male character ends up running away and being sneaky rather than having a direct showdown. There is a female Mexican character who not only has power in the town, but is a dynamic character with, like, actual characterization and everything. The world of High Noon is not the “good old days.” (Of course, that meant it got crap reviews, but that’s another story.)
If course, not all fictional worlds work for great justice. Take the hit TV show Supernatural, for example. I have watched four seasons of it, enough to notice that the world building has some rules to it that I find personally odious. Some aspects of its world building are really cool, i.e. all the American legends and a Bizarro World version of Biblical cryptids are real and running around and killing people. Other aspects? Not so much. There is rarely a woman on the show who a) is not evil, b) gets any amount of screen time, or c) does not die. I mean, the evil women get screen time, but then they die. You could fill out a sexist tropes bingo card ten minutes into the show. (People who watch more Supernatural than I do talk about it, with spoilers, here.) To be fair, Lord of the Rings (which I like a great deal) also has a pretty problematic world, e.g. the taller, prettier, and whiter you are then the more everyone wants to be you. As a creator, I think you have an onus to at least be aware of the signals your world building is sending.
Also, in case it’s not screamingly obvious, the vast majority of media we consume, particularly on film, is set in a world completely disconnected from reality. It’s a world where everyone has really cool jobs: doctors, lawyers, crime scene investigators. It’s a world where problems take, at most, two hours to solve, and oftentimes can be resolved in twenty minutes. It’s a world where there are mostly white men anywhere, including in crowds. It’s a world where two women having a conversation about something other than a man is rare, two people of color having a conversation about something other than a white person even more so. In case y’all forgot, that’s not reality. People have shitty jobs. Life doesn’t have nice story arcs. Half the human population is female. Fiction is not reality. But fiction is important. Telling stories helps us make sense of our lives; it gives us the catharsis we need to deal with our weird, sometimes shitty, sometimes confusing reality. And if you are telling stories, you get a choice. Do you want to tell your story in a world where women are always svelte in sexy outfits, and black people are thugs, and the random Asian chick knows kung fu? Or do you want to tell stories for great justice?
A caveat: Not all stories need to imagine a world in which the Patriarchy is over or people have solved global warming or whatnot. Stories can be awesome and cathartic and important and still have problematic aspects or be set in a world of darkness and injustice. My plea is simply this: be aware of the more subtle aspects of your world-building. Notice who you’re writing in and writing out. Many of the male authors who get pinned down and told “You! You write good female characters! How?!” say something like, “I consider women human” and move on with their lives. Point is, they’re writing stories without the assumption that the default character setting is “male.” And personally, I’d like to imagine a world where stories that involve a more balanced cross-section of America air on American television. Where movies about women are not automatically deemed “chick flicks.” Where Miles Morales and Kamala Khan don’t have to be a big freakin’ deal. And you know what? I think the more we tell the stories we’d like to see, the more we’ll get that world.