I’m Not A Sparkly Vampire – I’m The Other Character
As a kid we tend to think our experience is everyone’s experience. I know some adults who still believe that. Usually, at some point in life something shocks you into realizing everyone has a slightly different if not crater sized difference in perspective than you.
When I was a child I associated myself with the character in the story who took action. This is usually the protagonist but not always. This, I now realize, was something carefully cultivated by my parents and not commonplace. I didn’t see the differences in race, gender, etc. as a center of focus. I was covertly taught these factors were less important than what someone did because my parents didn’t pay attention to them. I wanted to be a knight instead of a princess. My poor mother tried to figure out what to do with a girl who wanted to take fencing and archery lessons. I got archery lessons and quit when I was supposed to shoot Bambi. My nine year-old-self couldn’t do it. We never found fencing lessons. Finding someone who is willing to teach children to wield swords are hard to find…for good reason. My parents are pretty amazing, but there are a lot of amazing parents out there that open the world up to their children outside of societal norms. While growing up I found a few like-minded souls but Science Fiction and especially Fantasy books weren’t popular. I knew my love of fantasy was strange to my friends and my choice to read during lunch and recess stranger. It, however, didn’t exclude me. I had the option.
Some people will say everyone has the option to see a world a different way. That is true but I was taught to be able to craft the way I see it. I was a waifish brunette white girl. I am now a curvier*cough* plumpish *cough* brunette woman. If I was a child reading YA fantasy now I would be in high heaven. Someone who looked like me is in nearly every book as the protagonist. I’m not a sparkly vampire… Damn! A look- a-like of me, however, is popular in YA. Blondes are to conformist, and non-white characters to edgy. Brunette girls are safe, and they have flooded the YA market. I remember how nice it felt to read these characters that started popping up all over the place. I didn’t think about it at first, but I felt a kinship to them. Some were a little more helpless than I would have liked them to be, but they were main characters and they were at the center of the action. I still didn’t pay that much attention to it.
After Hunger Games was made a movie and I, like many, were shocked to see that Rue was interpreted as Black it made me think a lot harder. My first reaction was, “Collins never said she was black. Why wouldn’t she say it?” My second reaction was, “Collins mentioned that her skin was a dark brown. Why wouldn’t I consider her being black as a possibility?” Part of the reason is we tend to see characters similar to ourselves in our mind unless we are told otherwise, and I am white. The second reason is unless a character is specifically stated to be of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, etc we assume that the character will fit the societal default norm and movie/gaming franchises default to the majority.
It may not seem that detrimental but if I enjoyed getting to read characters that are like me, and let’s be honest I am a default norm, how would it feel to read about a character who was like me if I wasn’t.
I worked in gang intervention with AmeriCorps. Much of the time was spent in after-school programs and shadowing students. Most of them didn’t enjoy reading and a few hated it. The teenagers I worked with were mainly white and black because of the demographics of the city I was working in. The biggest correlation the kids had was they came from low income families and had little parental involvement in their lives When I tutored them I had a hard time getting them to read anything and spent the majority of time running after them. One kid, however, made an excellent point on a days he only chose to argue with me rather than run from me. He said, “Why the fuck do I want to read about a bunch of rich, white kids? This shit has nothing to do with me.” Well, that was hard to argue with. I started looking for books that he could relate to. Because of his personal circumstances his teacher and I had him read ‘Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America’ by Nathan McCall instead of the curriculum book he was supposed to be reading at the time. Teachers had more freedom at the time. He actually read it. I don’t know how to convey what a victory this was. ‘Makes Me Wanna Holler’ is an amazing book but it wasn’t easy to find and I had a whole community helping me find it. It is a story of redemption. It isn’t a road I want, nor a road the author wants, every young black man to relate to. There needs to be options. We need nerdy Native American Magicians and popular Asian football players. I recognize it’s not common but if the option is never seeded in a child’s mind they aren’t likely to try that path. It’s not impossible, and we don’t have to make it harder than it needs to be.
My experience only made me nerdy. I wasn’t wearing pretty princess gowns or baking cakes but gender equality had come a long ways before I was a child, and I had involved parents who guided me to see alternate options available to me. If we want children to break stereotypes and break societal norms we should give them some examples of what they can do. If we want children to read we should give them characters that relate to their experience. Those books, TV shows, games etc. are raising children. For some children the books, TV shows, and games are more involved in their lives than their parental figures. Unfortunately, if all a person sees in these mediums are people who are unlike them it can ostracize them.
In the workplace there is substantial focus on indirect discrimination. This looks at factors that create unintended negative effects that contribute to creating a more homogeneous population of people in a workforce. A lot of focus is aimed at fixing these issues including federal programs that require an Affirmative Action Plan yearly if a business takes more than $50,000 in government contracts. If adverse impact is present then you must create a written plan to fix it. There are large fines if action isn’t taken. The expectation is that the employer hire the most qualified individual but where do those qualified individuals come from? Qualified diverse candidates aren’t always available. This program may be necessary but it is reactive not proactive. We need to take proactive steps to create qualified candidates. Why wait until a government plan is created with a process and punitive measures? That structure will restrict the creative process and would be more detrimental than helpful. I can’t imagine one writer who would be willing to be restricted so. There are other options. Writers etc. can take responsibility in their own hands. I ask you to think about your audience and who you want them to be. Once the creation process is over there is little you can do to change it but you are a God when you are writing it. Take that power and do something amazing.
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Stephanie Swint is both a Book Reviewer and Human Resources Director. You can read her reviews on her blog bookishswint.wordpress.com and on Goodreads. Her main interest is fiction and has a passion for fantasy and science fiction. As long as a book is involved she is happy.
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