Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Tag: writing outside your demographic

It’s Not the Goddamn Batman, it’s the Goddamn Imagination

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the limits of creator’s imaginations, particularly when it comes to writing outside of your demographic.

Two panels of Black Canary watching somthing. Text is internal monologue about how Batman's beating up a lot of guys and she's like, totes in love with the goddamn Batman.

In Frank Miller’s imagination, everyone loves the goddamn Batman.

Lately, I’ve found the best examples of both success and failure in writing outside one’s demographic in the world of comics. Successes include books like Trees by Warren Ellis, and Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue Deconnick. Failures include Strange Fruit, written by Mark Waid and drawn by J.G. Ballard. As J.A. Micheline points out on Women Write About Comics, the book fails because it falls back on tired, racist tropes. Micheline notes that when white characters  say something racist, there is always someone there to contradict them or chide them for their racism, making it a magical fairy tale for white people. There is also a mute superman character, who is an alien, but looks like a black man, strong, silent, and animalistic. As Micheline says, there are real-world consequences to actual black humans when this type of trope persists: “This depiction of the superhuman black has led to dire consequences for a number of black youth in America, to name a few: Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. White police feel so threatened by black men, fear their purported strength, aggression, and animalistic tendencies, that they believe themselves justified when gunning them down in cold blood.” Micheline’s suggestion that perhaps a story like this should involve one or more black creators seems awfully apt. You can read her plea to white comics creators to create responsibly at Comics Alliance.

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The comic I want to talk about today, though, doesn’t even touch on race. It’s entirely about white people. Which is a relief, because it still manages to be once of the worst comics I have read, and I don’t even want to contemplate what Frank Miller would have done if he’d tried to include people of color in this…well, as my podcast-mates put it during our review, this dumpster-fire of a comic.

What am I talking about?

Why, All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, of course.

actual image: a dumpster fire

Pictured: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder

This nine-ish issue series came out between 2005 and 2008. It’s written by Frank Miller, who was in the process of going from a creator of respected, if pulpy comics to a person who writes white supremacist America propaganda and other fringe, ridiculous projects. The tragedy of the series is that it’s drawn by Jim Lee, and the iconic comic artist does a fantastic job at bringing Miller’s bullshit script to life.

All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder is set in an alternate storyline to any of the main, canonical DC universes. Batman is young, and just now “adopting” (read: abducting and brainwashing) young Dick Grayson (Robin) after his parents are murdered. There are plenty of scenes with lots of first person internal monologue from a wide variety of characters.

But what this book is really about is Frank Miller imagining himself as the goddamn Batman.

Robin and Batman in the Batmobile. Robin: "Who the hell are you, giving out orders like this?" Batman: "Are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I'm the goddamn Batman."

The panel that launched a thousand memes.

In the imagination of Frank Miller, the goddamn Batman is an unrepentant asshole who revels in the most toxic masculinity possible: he hates grief and loves beating the crap out of people. He gets all the ladies because they also love watching him beat the crap out of people. He makes Dick Grayson camp out in the Batcave and eat rats because it’s going to help him become “strong”. He tells people to shut up a lot. Heroic!

But the goddamn Batman is not the only character that Miller boldly ventures to explore: we get internal monologue from Dick Grayson, Vicky Vale, Wonder Woman, Jimmy Olsen, Superman, Batgirl, Black Canary, and more. All of it makes one thing painfully clear: Frank Miller cannot conceive of what might be going on the inside of an adult woman’s mind.

Vicky Vale in a revealing evening gown talking about how excited she is to go on a date with Bruce Wayne.

Vicky Vale does not get any deeper than this. She is not portrayed as a woman, but as Miller’s anima.

If you wanted insight into Miller’s train of thought when writing the Vicky Vale scenes, fear not:

From Miller's script, with accompanying panel: "Oh, Jim, I'm shameless. Let's go with an ASS SHOT. Panties detailed. Balloons from above. She's walking, restless as always. We can't take our eyes off her. Especially since she's got one fine ass."

This is not about Vicky Vale. This is about the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass. The male gaze, ladies and gentlemen!

But wait! Not all women are pointless sexpots. Some are straw feminists:

Wonder Woman, with internal monologue about how this city stinks of men and how awful men are and men also men

Goddess help him, I think Frank Miller thinks that feminists are constantly angry and only think about men and how awful men are.

This is Frank Miller trying his best to write a character who’s really different than he is. Unfortunately, he has only managed to write a weird shadow-self, a woman who rants about men and how incompetent men are and men and awful awful men, but then later makes out with Superman and shuts up for a while.

The goddamn Batman, then, becomes Frank Miller’s power fantasy. Women like Vicky Vale and Black Canary become his admirers; Wonder Woman becomes a foil that only serves to reinforce the role of dominant masculinity in the story. The goddamn Batman uses words like “retarded” and “shut up” to try and assert dominance over the other characters. It’s little wonder that one of the few characters who rang true to me was Jimmy Olsen, the horny teenager:

Jimmy Olsen looks at Vicky Vale while she changes even as his internal monologue is denying this fact.So what’s my point? Why am I showcasing the wretched failings of Frank Miller’s imagination?

Because it’s easy to see. And if we start out by looking and the goddamn Batman as an example of the limits of one person’s imagination when trying to write a variety of characters, then we can slowly expand our critical lens. It’s easy to see when Frank Miller writes women like sexy lamps, but it’s much harder to think about your own writing, and where you have blind spots. Did you just write a woman who has no thoughts or desires outside of the male main character? Are you basing your characters on media stereotypes of their demographics? Did you write a silent black superman wrapped in a Confederate flag?

We live in our own heads, and it’s hard to get outside of them sometimes. Showing your work to a wide variety of people and listening humbly and honestly to criticism is one way to expand your brain-horizons. Working with creators other than yourself, including those outside of your demographic, is another. You can also consider if you’re writing for an audience of people just like you (the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass; the white folks who want to be soothed about racism), or if you’re writing for a diverse audience.

Writing Outside Your Demographic: Resources

So what am I doing in this “writing outside your demographic” series? I realize that by “outside your demographic” I secretly mean “a demographic more socially marginalized than you.” So what’s my intention?

  1. I want authors to think about issues of representation, demographics, and Othering in the work that they read and write. This includes both critical engagement with what you’re reading/watching and critical engagement with your own work.
  2. In this series, I’m mostly focusing on writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction that has an element of world building. I think many of the topics covered are relevant for wider reasons, but if I’m being self-aware of my own secret agendas, that’s it.

However, here are things that I am not trying to do:

  1. Keep my focus solely on works written by or written about white folks, straight folks, male folks, able-bodied folks, etc.
  2. Neglect critical voices and theory by traditionally marginalized populations.
  3. Reduce creative works down to their creators or the creative intent behind them.

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So with that in mind, I want to start featuring some resources that may help writers illuminate how demographics, power, and privilege function in literature.

A Book to Read

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

by Toni Morrison

Cover to Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark This is a collection of three essays of Morrison’s that look at how race plays out in “canonical” U.S. literature written by white folks. It’s short, important, and revelatory. It was written in 1992, and I am sad that I didn’t discover it until this year, because it gets to the essence of some very important stuff.

[…] I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumptions […] circulated as “knowledge.” This knowledge hold that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States.

[…]

The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.”

(from her essay “Black Matters”)

Morrison’s arguments are profound and subtle. She engages with race in American literature in a way that incorporates, yet is more than, literary theory. She looks at works by Poe, O’Connor, Melville, Hemingway, and more.

Morrison introduces the term “American Africanism”, which is a shorthand for “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify [in the U.S.] as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, reading, and misreading that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people.” (also from “Black Matters”)

It’s only about a hundred pages long, and completely worth your time. Go forth and read it.

 

A Website to Explore

Racialicious

This site features essays by many authors on pop culture and race.

Here’s a sample:

The Hope of Just Representation in Entertainment by refresh_daemon

 

A Video to Watch

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”

Avoiding Cultural Appropriation: They’re Doing It Right

Last week I talked about cultural appropriation, that offshoot of colonialism which gets thrust into everyday lives as well as literature.

This week, I wanted to address some texts made (at least in part) by people writing outside of their demographic that deal with cultural appropriation. These representative of a few strategies that one could take when writing outside of one’s own culture.

Research Like A Fiend

Michael Gruber: Tropic of Night

Cover to Tropic of Night by Michael GruberWhat is it about?

This is the first novel in a thriller series set in Miami, revolving around Cuban-American detective Jimmy Paz.

Jane Doe lives in the shadows under an assumed name. A once-promising anthropologist and an expert on shamanism, everyone thinks she’s dead. Or so she hopes.

Jimmy Paz is a Cuban-American police detective. Straddling two cultures, he understands things others cannot.

When the killings start — a series of ritualistic murders — all of Miami is terrified. Especially Jane. She knows the dark truth that Jimmy must desperately search to uncover. As their lives slowly interconnect, Jane and Paz are soon caught in a cataclysmic battle between good and an evil as unimaginable as it is terrifying . . .

michaelgruberbooks.com

How does it avoid cultural appropriation?

I think that the amount of research Gruber did to prepare for this book shows. There are several cultures drawn out in believable, delicious detail in this thriller: Cuban, Cuban-American, Yoruban (in Nigeria and Mali), Chenka (in Siberia). The main character (and only significant white character, if I recall correctly), the anthropologist known as Jane Doe, is well aware of her own anthropological/outsider lens on these cultures. At the same time, she has a visceral experience in Siberia that changes her forever. She doesn’t lose the outsider lens, but she’s got some strong feelings about shamanism…

 

Make a Parallel World

Leia Weathington: The Legend of Bold Riley

photo of the trade paperback of Legend of Bold RileyWhat is is about?

This comic from Northwest Press, published as a trade paperback and now with shiny new issues, follows the heroic journeys of Princess Rilavashana SanParite, called Bold Riley. She’s a swashbuckling, monster-fighting, lady-seducing hero, who uses both her brains and her brawn to solve problems. She gallivants around the fictional land of Prakkalore having adventures. The comic’s format is a selection of interconnected short stories with a rotating set of artists. All the stories are written by Leia Weathington.

How does it avoid cultural appropriation?

Prakkalore is not India. But it’s not India in the same way that Middle Earth is not Scandinavia. It’s a colorful fantasy world populated by monsters and heroes that come out of primarily Indian mythology. The name Bold Riley was given to Princess Rilavashana by an exotic Westerner with red hair who was one of her palace tutors. While the Western Dude Gives Name bit might be problematic in other contexts, he’s an outsider and an incidental character. Prakkalore is default. (This connects to next week’s topic, Othering.)

 

Deal with Cultural Appropriation as Part of the Text

Jeremy Hersh: Natives

What is it about?

In Hersh’s short film, a Manhattanite lesbian couple, Rachel and Anita, go on a trip to meet one of Anita’s sort of estranged parents. They haven’t come out to Anita’s parents, who are native and live on a reservation. Rachel is all kinds of awkward trying to connect with them. It’s a good film, and only 20 minutes long, so I’ll just post it here:

How does it deal with cultural appropriation?

From Hersh’s director’s statement:

Rachel, a young Manhattanite photographer and Anita’s girlfriend, is also guilty of appropriating her girlfriend, and in perhaps a more obvious way. Rachel is fascinated by Anita’s Native American roots.The journey that Rachel goes on in the film is analogous to my process in researching, writing and planning the film. Throughout, I’ve carefully tried to present my own fascination with Native American culture as genuine and respectful, hoping to keep my directorial eye reverential and not exploitative. Yet, I’ve also learned during the process that being constantly cautious about being offensive can easily lead to condescension. This is exactly what Rachel is guilty of in the film.

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Preview of coming attractions: Othering! Books I’m reading that are written by people outside of my demographic!

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