Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Fandom and Racism: Is it racist to not ship or like a character of color?

Recently, I joined the Sleepy Hollow fandom, and I’m loving it a lot. However, someone pointed out that they recently saw a post on the Sleepy Hollow tag that said the “only reason to not ship Ichabod and Abbie is racism.”

I do NOT believe not liking or shipping a character of color, in and of itself, is racist. However, I do think it’s important to talk about where this idea comes from, because it is indirectly pointing out a very real issue in fandoms and media in general.

This sentiment is nothing new, and as much as it may seem to come out of left field, it has a very real, very palpable basis. Not because fans are racist, but because of the the way people of color are treated in popular media. And how that inequitable treatment and lack of representation can be echoed in fandom.

Similar accusation have been leveled against fans, in the True Blood fandom, who didn’t like the character Tara. In the Iron Man/Avengers fandom there has been accusations of unequal treatment of the Tony/Rhodey ship. I can even remember were heated debates over similar issues in both the Heroes, and Angel fandoms. 

I used to roll my eyes when I saw these kinds of accusations fly around in the past. They didn’t make sense to me because I, like many other fans, didn’t like or ship these characters either. I knew that my choice to ship or not wasn’t based on race, but rather how I felt about the character themselves. I was left, like others in fandom, scratching my head. 

Then, I joined the Twilight fandom. Where the most popular slash pairing was not between the two male leads of the series, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, but rather Edward Cullen and his vampire sibling Jasper Whitlock. Two white guys. 

The popularity of the Edward/Jasper pairing, confused me, given that Jasper had a smaller role, and very few scenes of interaction with Edward, when compared to Jacob. It was especially inexplicable to me when most popular slash ship I had seen in other fandoms were almost always between the two male leads (especially so if they were romantic rivals). The only difference that I could see between all those popular slash ships and Edward/Jacob was that it is a multicultural relationship.

I have a lot of friends who are Ed/Jasper shippers, who I know are not racist, but I knew there was something else at work, and I had to figure it out. So instead of judging them, I decided to listen to what they had to say about why they liked the ship, but more importantly why they didn’t like or relate to Jacob. 

Once I set aside my own personal feelings (and anger), I realized the fault didn’t lie with fans, but rather with the source material. Many of the Twilight fans don’t like Jacob Black, don’t see him as a desirable, or relatable character because Stephen Meyer didn’t write him to be one.

When you look at the Twilight series, all of the Quileute characters are underdeveloped, undesirable and unsympathetic. Their actions often bordered on racist stereotypes. From Jacob’s attempted sexual assault on Bella, to Paul’s violent temper that resulting in him shifting into wolf form and attempting to attack Bella. Even Leah’s “harpy” stand-offish behavior toward Bella, all set them in opposition of Bella, the lead character and the stand-in for the reader. They are alien to her human nature, but not in the sparkly, desirable way the vampires are, but a violent, animalistic threat to her very safety. I mean, jesus, Meyer even made them smell bad. WTF?

While other media aren’t as overtly racist in they’re portrayals of people of color, often their treatment of characters of color are no less problematic. In other words, fans might be more inclined to love and ship characters of color if there were MORE of them. If people of color were allowed to be complex, layered and most of all relatable to everyone in the audience. 

See, the issue lies within the sever lack of diverse representations of people of color, where we are not only the villains and best friends, but the lovers, heroes and more. The best way to achive this is to expand our presence in all media. Stop the token casting of a few people of color, and fill the cast to bursting with us. Show the diversity that exists in reality, where we are doctors, lawyers, criminals, geeks, and soldiers. Once we are more present, and more accessible in media, than there will be more fans rooting for and falling in love with us. 

Not liking a character of color or not shipping them isn’t racist. However, fans shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the latent racism, and lack of representation of people of color in media. Nor should they ignore how the problematic nature of the media they consume can directly affect how they react to (love, hate, mourn, etc) characters of color. 

Love who you love, ship whomever you want, but don’t ever stop questioning and examining media. We ALL should challenge content creators to do more, to do it better and do it with a more diverse cast of characters to represent EVERYONE in the audience.


"Latent racism."
A lot like our good, old internalized misogyny.
Will keep my mind and eyes wide open for this.

Boy, this made me think.
I do think, as both a slash writer and a het woman, I have to acknowledge I am taking liberties not only with the characters, but also the LGBT community when I write. I try to be mindful of stereotypes, and do the characters justice.
I think you make an excellent case for the underlying aversion no only to write race, but to read it, and it made me realize my own justification was really 'latent racism'..
I wasn't really aware of fanfic PC racism until I read a fic that made Twilight Paul into a 'white' villain. He was still volatile, and when drinking, he became violent. I didn't really know how to take this. I wondered if the writer had an aversion to writing Paul as a savage/drunk and would-be rapist of a white woman? Was it being more open-minded to make him white? I realized after a while that in choosing the name Paul, no matter how his character was later ascribed a 'new' race, it comes with those connotations, and making him white isn't avoiding the ugly stereotype it dredges up. I mean, why choose 'Paul', and not say, 'Mike'?
In another example, I saw Jake given a different minority race. Again, why make Jake black, and not use the character Tyler? I had to remind myself that Tyler was white in Meyer's book, btw, but not in the movie. Of course this change was unproblematic because the character was static and indistinguishable as a suitor to Bella. What if, instead, they had made the bitchy character Lauren black, for example? What would read into the race change then?
I personally quite like Jake slash shipping, but it took me a while to find some good ones. after reading this, I had to ask myself: why don't I write Jake slash? It's not a matter of Jake's character being uninspiring because I see enough healthy reinventing of fall-down Bella, so why not reinvent bitter and jilted Jake?
If Jake et al is an unlikeable character (more so then Bella?), why not rise to the challenge? I guess I have to own up to worrying that by changing Jake too much, I will inevitably do a disservice, not to Meyer's writing, but to First Nation culture.
I actually thought Meyer had taken enough liberties, and my whitegirl slash up would add insult to injury, because I happen to be aware of ancestor's history of native appropriation.
Which is kind of bullship, if I stop and think. I don't hesitate to write slash, my confidence in part from my gender studies. I know my First Nation history too, but I have to admit, I am less worried about writing OOC characters in slash settings, than I am writing OOC when writing about first nation race. Of course I would want to be true to the First Nation perspective, and not whitewash it.
The problem starts with that self-imposed restriction.
It is objectifying: my inherent assumption of other as so different, that I can't speak of it or to it.
I better write some Jake slash, to redeem myself.

I am so sorry it took me so long to reply. I have to tell you that this comment pretty much made my year. Thank you so much for reading, and thinking about what I've said. And PLEASE let me know if you write Jake slash. I want to read it.

Thanks again for reading and commenting. :)

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