Defying the Appropriation Police
If you’re in the fic biz, you’ve probably gotten fish-slapped with the concept of Cultural Appropriation. And if you’re one of the lucky ones who’s not been browbeat with this latest politically correct dogma, let me give you a quick definition. Cultural Appropriation — as used by those who push it — is when a person assigned to an Oppressor Identity writes about, or employs character(s) from, an assigned Victim Identity.
I remember (way back in the stone age of the 1990s) how people were hot about inclusion: deliberately salt-and-peppering books and stories with women, non-Caucasians, and non-straights. This trend continued for about a dozen years, until the includers suddenly began to be attacked for “doing it wrong.” The inclusion was deemed “inauthentic” for various reasons, usually relating to questions of voice, protagonist positioning, and research.
And when I say voice, I mean the semi-tangible cadence and quality of how a given character in a fictional work “reads” to the audience — ergo, how this individual sounds in your head when you’re going through the book or the story. So, even if your hero is from a Victim Identity, if (s)he doesn’t sound like (s)he’s from that Victim Identity, boo on you. Make it double-boo if you’ve given Victim Identities only to the ensemble, not the leads.
Protagonist positioning has to do with a character’s relationship to the hero (or heroes, or heroines) of the piece. Put too many Victim Identity characters into supporting or antagonistic roles, and you’re going to get a pantsload of verbal buckshot from people who’ve made it their business to police this stuff. You must not only write Victim Identities as the heroes, you must write them with correct voice to boot.
Research is when you’ve failed to sufficiently enhance your characters or your setting with enough details that objectively match the culture(s) or the time period(s) in which your story happens to be set. So, even if you’re doing Victim Identities in your lead roles and you’re getting the voice(s) right, if your details — say, for instance, a mythic medieval Chinese Dynasty story — don’t reflect extensive reading and note-taking, for that specific time in that specific place . . . you’re still doing it wrong.
Are you ready to throw up your hands and quit fiction-writing altogether? Who needs to tip-toe through that much of an ideological minefield?
You are not the only one. In fact, more and more writers are mustering the courage to push back against the mantra of Cultural Appropriation. Precisely because fiction-writing of any type or sort is, by its very nature, borrowing from the world around us. To include when authors who are assigned (or self-assign) Victim Identities, tell stories about or which include characters from designated Oppressor Identities.
Yes, gentle reader, Victim Identity authors get it wrong too.
Somehow, this isn’t ever the problem we’re talking about though; with Cultural Appropriation. As per usual, with the doctrines of 21st-century Political Correctness, the “wrong” always flows just one way.
I myself am in favor of scuttling the whole concept of “wrong” — especially when applied to science fiction and fantasy. With SF/F, we’re not just talking about people both past and present, we’re talking about people past, present, future, alternate past, sidewise present, hypothetical future, extrapolative future, and so forth. To include people who aren’t people at all: alien life forms, or humans who’ve changed so much, they might as well be aliens by our current standards and sensibilities.
There is literally no way to “get it wrong” in this context, because you’re not writing a historical drama set in Feudal Japan. Writing a book like Shogun necessarily ought to involve extra effort, just because a book like Shogun — written wholly in make-believe mode — ceases to be Shogun. And becomes something else.
Science Fiction and Fantasy don’t necessarily have the same restraints.
Consider the all-time classic bestseller of the field: Dune. Set ten thousand years in the future, Dune doesn’t have to accurately or correctly reflect any extant identities or cultures, because none of the identities and cultures that currently exist in 2016 A.D., existed in 8016 B.C. And it’s unlikely that, even with our miraculous digital mass storage and preservation of music, movies, television, and books, that the culture(s) and identities of 12,016 A.D. will have much relation to our present culture(s). Artifacts of our present culture(s) may persist, but we — who we are, in this decade, on this planet — will not.
So, how can Dune get it wrong? Too few women in leading roles? Too many men occupying pivotal parts in the story? The roles men and women play — being sexist or misogynistic?
But wait, why should a hypothetical society set ten thousand years in the future, have any relation to 21st-century A.D. concepts of gender equality, or affirmative action? These concepts themselves are only a couple of hundred years old, at best. The vast bulk of human history reflects societies where gender and ethnic and sexual stratification not only existed, but was commonplace.
It might be that way in the future too. Or it might be that way in a fictional fantasy Earth where dragons are real, and wizards wield magic wands. Or a parallel timeline where all of the European monarchies still reign, controlling a globe filled with colonies. Or an alternate history where the Enlightenment occurred in Classical Greece, or Pharaoh’s Egypt.
In fact, caste societies are ready-made canvases for drama. Thus a feudal interstellar dynasty, replete with dukes and barons, not to mention slaves and concubines, becomes instantly tangible. The author doesn’t need to laboriously erect a believable framework for the war between House Atreides, and House Harkonnen. The framework is baked in, and we (who are not that distant from feudalism ourselves) intuitively grasp the meaning and import of Paul Atreides’ journey through that universe.
The “perfect” imaginary society, is a boring imaginary society. Just look at Star Trek. If the entire franchise had been set on Earth — and Earth only — it would have been like watching over a thousand episodes and a dozen feature films all focusing on Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, but without the town drunk, nor the foolish deputy, nor the occasional genuine criminal drifting through, to cause trouble. Star Trek Earth is a paradise. But paradise doesn’t make for good storytelling. Which is why the U.S.S. Enterprise was out there on the frontier. Getting a piece of the action.
So, almost every story must contain at least some form of unfairness or injustice. Otherwise, what have the protagonist(s) got to work against?
Moreover, consider the fact that no person — however effectively (s)he embraces a given Victim Identity — has the exact same experiences and outlook as another person. Slice it fine enough, and two people from the same Victim Identity (or Oppressor Identity) are going to necessarily be different.
Want proof? Pick a random sample of two dozen women, and put them into a room. Show them a scenario to which a “real woman” must react, and ask them all to submit their conclusions.
You’re liable to wind up with half a dozen to a dozen (or more) different responses. Because even though they’re all women — ding, ding, Victim Identity — they are individuals first. Informed by individual upbringing, belief systems, religion, traumatic events, and driven by different motivations. Thus there is no single answer to the question of what would a “real woman” do in scenarios X, or Y, or Z.
Therefore, there is no right answer.
And this is true for any other Victim Identity, and Oppressor Identity too.
Perhaps the entire concept of Victim Identities, and Oppressor Identities, is faulty?
I certainly think so.
Just like I think the concept of Cultural Appropriation is faulty too.
I think Cultural Appropriation was invented purely by people who have grown so comfortable and easy in their lives — like Star Trek! — that they must invent some kind of drama, to fill their attention span.
So we have authors being accused of “stealing” culture, and telling stories they’re not “authorized” to tell.
Given the fact culture cannot be copyrighted, how can anyone “steal” what is rightfully in the public domain? Also, from whom does an Oppressor Author receive written permission: to include character(s) or culture(s) from the Victim Identity sector? Is the hall pass obtained from Victim A every bit as good as the hall pass from Victim B or also from Victim C?
What if Victims A, B, and C, are in dispute? Over any aspect of what it means to be a Victim? What if some people in categories A, or B, or C, don’t see themselves as victims at all, either small-v or caps-v?
What if the person from whom you’re seeking a hall pass, is unlikely to ever give you one? Or, as often as not, give you one, but with an asterisk on it: to be rescinded at any time for any reason, just because I feel like it.
Look, there’s a point at which you, the author, simply have to have the courage to not care if somebody complains.
I know that’s a very scary thought, in the era of the internet — where complaining has become a life-wrecking, big-money spectator sport. We inhabit a time when complaining has become a career: professional activism. Journalism isn’t about discovery and dissemination of facts, it’s about lobbying for a particular kind of politics, and enforcing a particular ideological paradigm. Nobody who ever writes a book or story, can ever hope to please everyone in that kind of toxic soup. No matter how well you do your book or story, some asshole on the intarwebz is gonna bitch about it.
Thus, refusing to apologize — in that atmosphere — take’s chutzpah. A willful disregard for the opinions of the complaining class.
But people also respect chutzpah. The field of SF/F used to (once upon a time) pride itself on chutzpah — on thumbing its nose at convention. At the rule-setters and rule-makers. At accepted dogmas and doctrines which were uncritically embraced.
By all means, do your research. Strive for that moving target known as authenticity. But more than that, reach down inside yourself and tell the stor(ies) only you can tell. Because you are a unique reality filter. No other person on the planet, nor any other person in history, has experienced the universe in quite the same way you have. This will inform your stories far, far more than trying to check boxes or avoid shibboleths. Because you are not merely the sum of your demographics. Nor are you merely some role somebody else assigned you, because of your demographics. These things play a part in who you are, but they are not the end-all be-all of you.
And they are not the end-all be-all of storytelling either. No matter how much certain special snowflakes may scream and shout about it.
Because good storytelling — bold tales, told boldly — speaks for itself.
Dune is not the all-time genre bestseller, because it is obediently inclusive of the proper types and kinds of Victim Identities, all arrayed in a correctly-proportioned menagerie of weighted and measured representation. No. Dune is the all-time genre bestseller, because it tells the story of a young man — a prince — cast unjustly from his rightful inheritance, hunted, hardened, made potent by trial and travail, so that when he ultimately returns to seek justice, he’s not only fighting for his own honor and survival, but the honor and survival of an entire misbegotten people.
That is storytelling. Timeless enough, that it’s lasted well beyond the life of its originator, in the hands of generation after generation of eager readers.
And this is the point of the whole damned enterprise, you see? To tell a story that captivates an audience. In the way only you are equipped to tell it.
And if you “get it wrong” according to somebody else’s calculus? Even Dune is not without its nay-sayers. In fact, there is no book or series known, which does not have critics. Criticism will ever be with us, like the poor. You can’t hope to evade criticism.
What you might hope for, is to make them criticize you for the right reasons. Because you’ve written passionately from the heart. And told a story worth remembering. And you didn’t keep looking in your rear-view mirror — for the Cultural Appropriation Police, and their red-white-blue lights flashing at you.
All else is merely a matter of craft. Of skill. Of finding the right combination of setting and plot and characters, that makes peoples’ imaginations light on fire. You focus on these things, and don’t worry about Cultural Appropriation . . . you just might latch on to authorial immortality.