Friday, March 18, 2016

The cognitive dissonance of having a problematic favorite

Back in December, I blogged about how reading/writing while underrepresented screws with your head. Two of the biggest sources of angst for me are 1) trying to figure out how/whether to cheer for things that are awesome but problematic and 2) wondering whether you're doing enough to be an advocate for the change you want so, so badly.

Today, I witnessed a Twitter storm that brought those questions to the forefront of my mind again and twisted my brain into knots (gonna avoid specifics to protect the innocent, but I have a feeling much of Book Twitter will know what I'm talking about). It's one thing to call out a Big Famous Property for problematic depictions of minorities, especially when it's not one you're particularly attached to. It's another when you realize that something you love is problematic. And it's the worst when it's someone you know and adore... Or even yourself.

The first time I read Gone with the Wind, I was a ten-year-old who'd lived in North Carolina for as long as she could remember. And I friggin' loved it. I loved how it brought a bygone era to life. I loved how Scarlet was smart and strong and brave. I loved that she was anything but perfect... That she could be mean and selfish and even cruel, but still the heroine. I loved Rhett Butler's roguish charm. I loved Melanie's quiet strength and wisdom. And... I loved Mammy for her strength, stubbornness, and sense of honor.

Then I grew up. Learned history (real history, not that fluff they teach you in elementary school). Saw people criticize what I'd been calling my favorite book for years. Reread the book and was like, "OH SHIT."

Many denounce Gone with the Wind for its awful depictions of slavery and racism, and they are totally right to do so. There are happy slaves and simple-minded slaves and lazy freed slaves who just want to go back to their masters and get taken care of (*cringecringecringe*). Scarlet's love interests become members of the goddamn KKK (*criiiiiiiiinge*). Mammy doesn't even have a name, or any motivations of her own beyond propping up the white heroine (*curls up into a little ball of pure cringiness*). For these reasons (and more), many would dismiss Gone with the Wind as racist garbage from a racist era. And that is their right.

But... But... But...

But Scarlet is still an amazing strong female antihero, unafraid to be herself in an era where women were supposed to be oh-so-nice. Rhett Butler is still a fantastic, swoon-worthy romantic hero. A bygone era still comes to life--from a certain point of view. And even knowing what I know, even understanding how awful parts of it are, I can't shake my fondness for that damn book.

I still consider it one of my favorites. I tried not to, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't hold a special fondness for it despite its problems.

So where does that leave me?

Denouncing Gone with the Wind (even just to myself) felt like a betrayal because there are so many parts that are so, so good. At the same time, liking it also felt like a betrayal, because so much of it goes against what I believe I stand for.

Gone with the Wind was one of the first of my favorites that I realized was problematic (super-duper-uber problematic). It was far, far, far, far, far from the last. And more keep popping up, either because I take another look at something in retrospect, or I discover something new.

Last summer, I stumbled upon the Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And I was hooked from the very beginning. It was hilarious, clever, and seemingly progressive, with its unabashed feminism and its gay African American co-lead.

And then they introduced an East Asian character named Dong and made his name a running joke.

The look on my face was probably something like this: -________-

The conversation in my head went something like this:

Usual Me: Did... Did they just make a racist Asian joke?
Wiser Me: Yes. Yes they did.
Usual Me: But they acknowledged it! They addressed it! The characters KNOW that making fun of Dong's name is wrong! And Dong is a real East Asian name!
Wiser Me: It's still a cheap joke that hinges on an East Asian character's name. Plus, he's a walking bundle of stereotypes. Math whiz who works at a cheap restaurant and wants to marry for a green card? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
Usual Me: But... But the show acknowledges all that! And there ARE Asians who are math whizzes... I was one once! I have family that works at a cheap restaurant! I know someone who married for a green card! These are all true things that happen!
Wiser Me: Doesn't mean it's okay for the only East Asian character on the show to be all these things bundled up... and not much more.
Usual Me: But... But he's a love interest for the main character! And if you look really hard, there might be some actual character traits? Also, it's cool that there's an East Asian character with a significant role in the first place. Right? Right???
Wiser Me: Damn, your bar is low.
Usual Me: Okay, but it's Tina Fey's show. Tina Fey is awesome. Tina Fey is progressive. We love Tina Fey.
Wiser Me: We do love Tina Fey. That doesn't mean she can't fuck up.
Usual Me: But... But... But Tina Fey is one of the Good People! She didn't MEAN to offend anyone! And she's smart... I'm sure she thought about all this!
Wiser Me: And she fucked up. Good People can fuck up too.
Usual Me: Maybe we're being too sensitive.
Wiser Me: If we're uncomfortable, then there is something problematic here.
Usual Me: But we still love Tina Fey and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and we still can't wait to binge-watch the next season.
Wiser Me: That is all fair. You can like something and find it problematic at the same time.
Usual Me: *le sigh*
Wiser Me: *le sigh*

Oftentimes, it feels like the world is all about picking sides. Are you with us or against us? Team Batman or Team Superman? Are you Us or Them? Are you right or wrong?

The hard thing about finding your favorites problematic is that it can feel like you're betraying your team. Like, "I'm supposed to be rooting for this, so why am I picking at its problems?" And the closer a favorite is to your heart, the harder it is to say, "Wait a minute, maybe this isn't okay." It can feel like switching sides and rooting against something you still desperately want to cheer on. Especially when it isn't you specifically who has an issue with it.

Recently, J.K. Rowling unveiled a few short write-ups on Magic in North America on the Pottermore website. Like most people my age, I grew up with Harry Potter and loved it (well, most of it). J.K. Rowling always seemed so cool and progressive. I was sure she was one of the diversity Good People, especially when she tweeted her glowing approval of black Hermione in "Harry Potter in the Cursed Child". And when I read the first installment of Magic in North America, I thought nothing of it. Seemed a little phoned in writing-wise, kind of like a super high level encyclopedia entry, but I was basically just like *shrug*.

Then I began seeing criticisms of her depictions of Native Americans. They called J.K. Rowling out on treating Native Americans as a monolith when, in reality, there are over 500 distinct and diverse nations. They called her out on using lazy stereotypes about Native American earth magic and such. They called her out on appropriating skinwalkers, which comes from Navajo lore and has real spiritual meaning for many.

Oh. Shit.

Usual Me: Oh shit. But we love J.K. Rowling.
Wiser Me: We can still love J.K. Rowling. But she fucked up.
Usual Me: We fucked up too, then.
Wiser Me: We most certainly did.
Usual Me: We didn't mean to!! We just didn't know any better!!!
Wiser Me: I'm sure the same thing is true of her. It's not an excuse.
Usual Me: What do we do???
Wiser Me: We acknowledge the fuck-up. We apologize for the fuck-up. We fix the fuck-up as best we can. We try not to fuck up again.
Usual Me: But no one reads our books. Or our blog. We are a small-time nobody author. Can't we just--
Wiser Me: No. Walk the walk, coward.
Usual Me: You're mean.
Wiser Me: Tough love.
Usual Me: Can I have a cookie?
Wiser Me: Not until you apologize for your fuck-up.

Bear with me for a moment while I digress from this blog's intended subject and do what Wiser Me advised.

I appropriated skinwalkers too. In The Firedragon, my YA dystopian fantasy about a monster-fighting teen girl. Among the creatures she encounters: a manticore (a Eurasian mythological beast), a spearfiend (a thing I made up), a hellhorn (another thing I made up), and... a skinwalker. Because I thought they were like manticores... mythological creatures from long, long, long ago that no one really believed in that could be adapted for fantasy tales. Like how every author who writes fantasy/paranormal/horror has their own take on dragons, vampires, ghosts, zombies, angels, demons...

But I'm not here to make excuses. I'm here to say I'm sorry. I did something wrong because I didn't know it was wrong then, but now that I do, I'm not going to do it again. I was a total ignoramus, and now, I know better.

I'm really, really sorry.

There will be no more creatures called skinwalkers in that series. If the made-up creature that the Firedragon encounters turns up again, it will come with a different name and an explanation that this is most certainly not a skinwalker, that the creature was misnamed, that treating skinwalkers the same way as manticores and my totally made-up nonsense like spearfiends is not okay. NOT. OKAY.

Again, I'm sorry. I can't unwrite the book that was published. It's out there for good, with my terrible, ignorant mistake glaring from its pages. But I can acknowledge that it was a mistake. And I can promise I won't make the same again.

My turn to be the problematic one.

Which really, really sucks because, for the past two years, I've done my best learn about the issues surrounding diversity, read different perspectives, and advocate for an end to such problems. Fuck. My. Life.

Anyway, back to the topic of problematic favorites.

Diversity is hard. You can do your best to do everything right and still fuck up (like I did). J.K. Rowling probably thought she was helping the diversity effort by including Native Americans in her fictional lore, rather than erasing them in favor of another Eurocentric fantasy. Tina Fey probably thought that having her characters acknowledge how racist name jokes and East Asian stereotypes are would help call them out, rather than exacerbate the problem. Hell, Margaret Mitchell did extensive research before writing Gone with the Wind. She probably thought she was doing the right thing by depicting African American characters in her version of a positive light (Mammy, Pork, and Dilcey are all dignified, intelligent, and loyal characters, which would be positive traits if they had any personality beyond that and didn't exist solely to prop up the white characters).
If you see one, you're missing something.
If you see both, your brain hurts.

Problematic favorites cause a lot of cognitive dissonance. You see two things that are equally true, but that can't both be true. My favorite analogy to this is the classic rabbit/duck illusion. At first, it's just one. Let's say duck (see the beak?) Then, you start to see the other. Let's say rabbit (see the ears?). Seeing the rabbit means you can't let yourself see the duck anymore. But you KNOW the duck is still there. And then you start seeing both... a weird rabbit-duck... and that just makes no sense.

Unless you remind yourself that most things are more than one thing. The image is both a rabbit and a duck. One does not negate the other. They are both correct. And you'll just have to learn to deal with flickering between the two.

Gone with the Wind is a book with an amazing heroine that brings a bygone era to life. This is true.
Gone with the Wind is hella racist. This is also true.
It is still one of my favorite books.
It has many problems. You would be right to criticize it and dump it in the trash and set it on fire and tell everyone to stop reading this garbage.
I can't do that. I'll probably read it again soon. I'll cheer for Scarlet, swoon over Rhett, and cringe when slavery, the KKK, and free African Americans show up on the page.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a hilarious and entertaining comedy with feminist messages. This is true.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt depicts its sole East Asian character as a racist stereotype. This is also true.
It is still one of my favorite comedies, and I will almost certainly binge-watch the new season in a single weekend.
It has a glaring problem. Maybe I'm the only one who sees it. I'm well within my rights to boycott it, like I boycotted SNL for years after their racist, yellowface depiction of a Chinese president.
I know I won't do that. I cross my fingers that the next season will stop it with the East Asian stereotypes and lazy jokes. And if they don't, I'll cringe, cringe, cringe until I'm a little ball of cringe-iness. And wonder again if I'm being too sensitive.

J.K. Rowling is a brilliant fantasy author with incomparable worldbuilding skills. This is true.
She built her Magic in North America world from stereotypes and cultural appropriation. This is also true.
I still love her world, the wonderful world of Harry Potter. I'll almost certainly read or watch anything new she dreams up from that world.
That world will still be problematic. You'd be totally right to criticize it and boycott any new movies/books/etc that come out of it.
I'll want to join you. I'll hit the retweet button and read the thinkpieces. I'll probably spend my money anyway.

The Twitter storm that prompted me to write this blog post left feeling split. On the one hand, I really, truly love the object of criticism. I've raved about it. I'll continue raving about it. Because it's an amazing thing, and I want it to succeed.

On the other hand, I want diversity and well-done representation. I want problematic representation to be called out for its problems. I want well-crafted and insightful criticisms, even of things I adore, to be seen and heard all up and down the Internet. This is why I was so disappointed by all the silence I witnessed instead.

Some of the loudest voices I knew of were silent. They had good reason to be silent... No one wants to betray a favorite. Especially when it feels personal. Imagine if you were J.K. Rowling's best friend. Or Tina Fey's. Or Margaret Mitchell's (through a potion that allowed you to stay young and progressive for almost a century). Would you amplify the criticism of their work? Even when that critcism aligns with what you profess to stand for?

I wouldn't want to. But doing nothing felt wrong as well. So I did, in the smallest, most insignificant way possible.

I retweeted something. With a disclaimer.

I don't know if I agree with what I retweeted. I don't think I know enough to agree or disagree. I don't know if anyone even saw or cared what I did (like I said, I'm nobody! Who are you? ;-) If you got that reference, have a cookie). But I saw something that made me think. I saw something important, something that others should see in order to form their own opinion. I wasn't loud, but I wasn't silent either.

Inaction is action. If I'm willing to comment or amplify commentary on things distant from me, then I should be willing to do so when it hits closer to home too. If I don't, if I'll get involved in so many other things but won't engage when something feels personal, then I'm choosing to let one slide because it's one of my own. (Again, I'm really, really sorry for appropriating skinwalkers in The Firedragon, and I won't do it anymore. And I'll do more research next time.)

I understand those who remain silent. I'm practically one of them (after all, I'm keeping things vague to protect what I consider one of mine). And people who seem more concerned about "eating their own" than discussing the issues pointed out... well, I get it. But it's not productive. And it feels like tone policing.

I'm still disappointed. In the silence, in myself.

When it's something distant and well known, something that seems so big and rich that it's unstoppable, that creates the problem, it's easy to stand up and say, "Hey, that's not right."

When it's my favorite, or hell, even my own work, that's the problem, it feels next to impossible. Because saying so, or even saying it might be so, or even saying "take a look and consider whether it's so," feels like a betrayal.

That isn't how it should be. A criticism is not an attack.

As for criticisms that feel like an attack... well, we all know (or I hope we all know) that tone-policing is not okay. Some people have the right to be angry.

Anyway, I don't have a suitable conclusion to this. Because there is none. When something you love is problematic and goes against what you believe in, what you profess to stand for, there are no easy answers. All I can say is that silence is disappointing.

And if you ever see me do anything (else) problematic, please call me out. Call me out as loudly and angrily as you want. You don't have to be nice. Say what's on your mind.

Because conversation is the first step toward progress.

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