A while back fans of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series got a slap in the face from Scifi channel and there was a storm of outrage that even I, who don't get cable, and never got beyond the first book in the series heard about.
Well, I call it a storm but as storms go it was more a sudden thunderstorm with hail over in the next county than even a category one hurricane. In fact it was pretty limited to a small corner of fandom and was promptly forgotten by just about everyone else.
I haven't seen the miniseries they made but I haven't read one review that was kind to it. Everyone pretty much agrees that they took good written fantasy and created standard made for TV dreck out of it. They apparently didn't even bother keeping to the plot of the books and they made major changes in the characters.
One of which was taking the hero, Ged, and making him White.
Yes, in a time when there are groups dedicated to lobbying studios to get more non-White role models on the screen they took a character who was dark haired and dark skinned and made him not only White but surfer blond in the bargain.
Now, in this day of extreme PC where silly things are done on a regular basis to stamp out even the suggestion of racism – like firing a man who used the word niggardly – you'd think that the producers would know better. After all something like that is bound to cause a huge scandal right?
Apparently not. Even the usual suspects who spring on any excuse to use race to get themselves into the news were remarkably silent.
Yesterday when I wasn't even looking for it, in one of those fun happenstances that make me love the internet, I found this article by Pam Noles on what didn't happen and what it means to her personally.
At the bottom of that is a link to a further response that is a lot more direct and delves into how the same attitudes are at work in regards to gender. I'll post it here so you won't miss it.
I like this woman and I really like her writing. I started to email the links to people I know who might also want to read what she has to say about being a woman and being black and being a geek and realized after I had the email open that there were so many of y'all that it should go here instead.
Christina, I think you'd especially like the stuff she has to say about feminism in the second piece. It's pretty close to some of the things you've posted on the subject.
My response to the piece is that I'm pretty color blind about characters, not really caring for the most part what color they are. But then a lot of people would say that because I have fair skin and blue eyes and a Southern accent that I don't really count as Hispanic anyway and that I'm really part of the White in group that can afford to be color blind. I've run into open prejudice because of being a nerd more than for any other reason, my religion surprisingly has come up as an issue several times as an adult, but except on rare occasions, race hasn't been much of an issue for me personally other than trying to figure out what I was supposed to check on those standardized tests. White? Hispanic? Other? At least there are more choices on forms like that now.
It's probably impossible to argue something like whether or not I'm part of the in group. Those that make those sorts of distinctions will have already sorted me and anything I might say wouldn't change whatever classification they've come up with. I will say that I never felt like I was part of any group really beyond my immediate family until I got involved in fandom. Even though I'm considered “White” by most (but not all) there wasn't, and isn't, anything on TV or any other media that reflected being a rural Southern girl who was half Puerto Rican and was taken to Baptist Sunday School AND the occasional Catholic Mass. Having relatives who were darker with a tan than my piano teacher, who was considered black, was pretty confusing too.
Race wasn't why I was the target of bullies through most of school. I just did not understand how to fit in and didn't have any real enduring friendships until college. It certainly didn't help my own sense of self that whatever side of my heritage I might want to celebrate I pretty much fell like a phoney. Real Crackers don't have take left over pastelias to school for lunch or have plaintains with their porkchops. Real Puerto Ricans can speak Spanish and presumably know the difference between a samba and a rumba. I never, ever, fit in anywhere except in my immediate family.
I think that instead of being color blind about fictional characters because I'm “White” I'm color blind because I've learned to look for, and identify with, the outsider characters. The person who was different but who was accepted as a member of the group would give me hope that I could be accepted if I just found the right group. People who modeled ways that I could put up with being ostracized and still maintain some personal dignity helped me survive.
And a lot of those characters were either not White or White but not human. Which does underline the fact that not being White often makes a character an outsider by default doesn't it?
I think we have seen progress in presenting characters with a more diverse ethnic background in the last twenty years even though this recent Earthsea incident highlights how far we have to go. There are now more characters who are a mix of races and cultures that are not outsiders.
I also think that regardless of their own backgrounds, or the backgrounds of the characters in the stories that they read, kids are going to find someone to identify with who will help them get through the rough times. It won't matter if the race, gender, sexual orientation, or age matches up with them, it will be only matter that what's inside matches.
But, the fact is, that even though it's not a requirement for them to identify with someone, kids do identify with people who look like them more easily and so many of the non-White characters in popular media model behavior that is destructive in some way. It's that, more than just numbers, that I'd like to see corrected most of all. It won't help to have more “minority” characters if they are portrayed in negative ways and we can't afford to lose the ones that we have now just because some suit thinks that having a dark skinned hero in a fantasy show will hurt ratings.