Writing Outside Your Demographic
Things to Avoid: Othering
What is Othering?
Othering is a subtle concept that applies to a lot of stuff. It is related to, but not the same as, the literary theory concept of The Other as an opposite of The Self. A basic breakdown of othering is this: A person breaks down people into two basic categories in their brain, People Like Me and People Not Like Me. When this is applied on a larger scale world-view level (Not Like Us), this becomes othering.
Othering is not just declaring you are not like me, it’s a you are not like me with an implied and I am better or more normal than you. That I am US and you are THEM.
- “Oh, you know how those people are,” says an older white man, referring to people who use food stamps.
- An online article about gamers clearly assumes all gamers are male.
- An apparently able-bodied woman having dinner with a man with spinal muscular atrophy is assumed to be his nurse when they are in fact dating.
- “But where are you really from?” a white man asks an Asian man.
- My white friend who just started wearing a headscarf because she converted to Islam suddenly gets patted down at airports a lot more frequently. (True story.)
Othering is a game of assumptions, stereotypes, and microaggressions.
I’m thinking of a time when a I was playing a draft-style Magic: The Gathering tournament. (MtG is a card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, who also make Dungeons & Dragons, i.e. solid geek territory.) This was a fairly casual event in a game store. Folks would hang out and chat between rounds. A man I hadn’t played and didn’t know remarked to me, “Your boyfriend must have taught you a lot about Magic.” Now, Mike and I were both playing the tournament, and were clearly there together, although we’re not big on PDA. This man’s assumptions ran deep. He assumed: 1. Because I was female and there with a specific guy, we were dating. 2. Because I was female, I had been introduced to Magic by my male partner. Underlying this was the otheringest assumption of all: 3. Because I was female, I couldn’t have had the same kind of introduction to Magic that this dude had; I was essentially different than him. Of course he backpedaled pretty hard when I gave him a withering look and said, “Dude. I’ve been playing since I was twelve.” He got all sheepish, of course, and spouted some bullshit about how he knows lots of women who are in traditionally masculine jobs. Because that’s relevant to how I learned to play Magic. OTHER ME HARDER, BRO.
Othering is a big deal. People are thinking about it in regards to multiple disciples: medicine, law, politics. In April 2015, there’s a large-scale conference and UC Berkeley about Othering and Belonging.
[Othering] is a process in which we marginalize people; we don’t recognize their full humanity. We make them feel invisible…noticed but not seen.
-John A. Powell, Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley
How does Othering show up in literature?
Othering shows up in books and films when the implied narrator or the camera treats a particular type of people as outsiders, abnormal, stereotypical…in other words, as THEM.
- In The Tempest, Caliban is the Other to Prospero and Miranda. This is shown not only because he is very different than them, but also that he is specifically gross, dark, and undesirable. (Contrast him to Ariel, who is a magical being, but not set up as Other.)
- Othering often comes up as gross stereotypes based on a sense of exoticism, such as “Indian” culture in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
- In the March/April 2015 Writer’s Chronicle, Krista Humphrey discusses LGBTQ protagonists in mainstream literature. She points out that pre-Stonewall Riots, LGBTQ protagonists were often written as fundamentally unhappy as a result of their orientation. She cites Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar as an example, which ends with one man raping another after he is romantically rejected. This, Humphrey suggests, “echoed the current societal opinions of homosexuality of the time, that homosexuals were second-class, depraved, and in many ways sub-human.”
- Early English translations of The Arabian Nights fell into some bizarre flavors of othering and exoticism. Modern translator Hussein Haddawy says, “From Galland to Burton, translators, scholars, and reader shared the belief that the Nights depicted a true picture of Arab life and culture at the time of the tales and, for some strange reason, at their own time. Time and again, Galland, Lane, or Burton claimed that theses tales were much more accurate than any travel account and took pains to translate them as such.” (from the introduction to Haddawy’s The Arabian Nights translation which is gorgeous go buy it)
But wait, you cry. Sometimes othering is important! Sometimes characters are bigoted, and that’s important! Sometimes the story is all about one group meeting another that is Other to them. Yes. Those things are important. And yet you, the author, should be aware of how Othering is functioning in your work. Are your characters othering each other, or are you othering them?
I think understanding Othering helps me break down when characters in a work are being bigoted versus when the author of a work (or the implied narrator, or the implied world) is being bigoted.
To contradict myself a little bit here, let’s look at Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. In the novel, the aliens are intentionally Othered really hard up until the end, when Ender is able to connect with them and see their full, well, beingness if not “humanity.” This is a clever, good use of Othering in a novel. Aliens are a great way to talk about Othering in the genre of science fiction. Ender’s Game is a bit ironic as an example, of course, because the author is a notorious bigot who actively campaigns to deny LGBTQ folks equal rights. Awkward.
How to Avoid Othering Your Own Characters
Are you assuming that your reader or audience is a particular kind of person?
Have you fallen into stereotype? Are your characters fleshed out with an appropriate details that make them whole people? This also counts in terms of background characters: of course walk-ons don’t need to be three-dimensional characters with a back-story or anything, but neither should they be lazy shorthand stereotypes.
Are characters outside of your demographic set up as Others? If they are, is that something you wanted to do on purpose? Ask yourself: are you doing anything interesting with that? If this is an US & THEM situation, and the US is like you, and you and your protagonist are say both white heterosexual cisgendered males…well, does your character learn anything about encountering Others? Can you mirror your own growth, if learning how to not Other people is something you’ve learned to do?
What have y’all got? Ideas? Experiences of being Othered? Experiences of Othering someone else? Better examples of Othering at work in literature? Put ’em in the comments.