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Representation vs. Tokenism

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ireth, Aug 6, 2016.

  1. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    In revising my main WIP, I've come to the realization that two female characters among the supporting cast are a lesbian couple. These characters are very minor, appearing in only a handful of scenes each, and their life goals and such are only tangentially relevant to the MCs and their plot. This makes me worry that my readers might feel more like I added in some token lesbians at the last minute, rather than how I feel, that these characters' coming out (to me, the author) occurred as a natural evolution of me developing them as characters.

    I think it should be said that, before I realized either of these characters were gay, I had one of them killed by the villain to demonstrate how evil and depraved he becomes at the end of the story (because seriously, who in their right mind would kill a healer who was trying to help them?). When I had the aforesaid realization and the "bury your gays" trope occurred to me, I changed the ending so the woman in question is unharmed (as is her lover), and another supporting character is killed instead. The lesbian couple get to live happily ever after (even though their final scene in the book shows them alongside the protagonist mourning the death of their friend). Same plot impact, less awful implications.

    To the point: where is the line between representation and tokenism? I have only so much room to develop these minor characters without bloating my novel past recognition (I'm probably already running high as far as my word count for a YA novel goes), and I am no more inclined to change the orientation of the major characters who are established as straight into LGBT than I am to genderswap half of the lesbian couple to make them straight. Such would be untrue to the characters and frankly irritating to me. Am I overthinking this, or is it something I am right to be concerned about? How should I handle this?
     
  2. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    I see tokenism as basically putting in the character either to pander to a certain demographic or to use them as a conduit for political/social/religious views that are not in sync with the themes of the book.

    This is what really annoyed me about the TV show True Blood. It was almost like a running gag where half the characters ended up being gay. It served no real purpose other than to say "Hey we have a bunch of gay people in our show aren't we progressive".

    If the characters are adding something to the story then I don't see an issue. If they are just dead weight and merely there because they are representing group "x" then it looks more like tokenism.

    I have a gay side character in part of my story and his being gay plays a part in the plot. He's basically nobility that lives in a time where arranged marriages are not uncommon. So he is arranged to marry a girl that also happens to be the MC's childhood friend and possible future love interest, who is currently trying to find her and her brother to rescue them. So you have the awkward dynamic of a closet gay male and his soon to be bride who is a classically beautiful female interacting with each other. She's too young to comprehend it and he's really good at hiding it when necessary.

    That being said I have to make sure and work on fleshing his character out beyond that one part of his background, or he risks ending up being a semi-token character. So him being gay is just one aspect of his character and what he contributes overall to the story.
     
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  3. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    IMO, overthinking. Do what's right for the story, bugger everything else. Some characters are minor, if they happen to be gay, great, move on. Some characters are major, if they happen to be gay, great, move on. Characters live, characters die, characters might sleep with sheeps... or they might be a donkey with a thing for dragons... great, move on, LOL.

    But that's just me.
     
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  4. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Well, my characters do have roles in the story outside of being gay. One is a healer, as I mentioned before, who befriends the MC and helps her when she's injured and ill. The other is a tailor who makes the MC's wedding dress. Their orientation doesn't impact the plot, mainly because I didn't set out to create gay characters as such. They're just characters who happen to be gay. No one comments on their orientation as being "wrong" or "right"; the MC (who is a human from 21st century Earth) doesn't make much of it aside from "awww, you're getting married? Congrats!", and the couple's peers (whose culture is different than the MC's in a lot of ways, given they aren't human nor do they live on Earth) have no strong opinions on homosexuality one way or the other. People love and have sex with whomever they choose, marriage and monogamy are optional, and no one else really bats an eye.
     
  5. I have been wrestling with this difficult subject quite a bit myself. My thoughts on it are complicated so bear with me...

    Diversity in books is the trickiest thing I've ever had to deal with. I'm white and straight as heck, and I'm not sure of the right way to approach characters who aren't, since of course I can't pretend they don't exist. No matter what you do, someone will find it offensive. No matter how you portray the character, someone will think you did it wrong. Race, religion, class, sexual orientation, etc. are touchy subjects for very good reasons. We try to behave as if there never was a time when some people were considered less than, or at least that we've already left it behind...but neither is true. The horrors in our history persist into our present.

    I'm starting to think that I'm not even qualified to write about groups I don't belong to. The only people who really know what it is to be gay are gay people. Is it true that people can only tell their own story? No, I don't know anything about being lesbian, black, etc...Im not. How do I write about cultures I don't belong to, experiences I don't have, perspectives I don't understand? Can you learn these things? Or are you just stuck with who you are, able to tell only the story that's entirely your own? Don't the stories we read and the people we meet become part of us in some way?

    I do know what it is to be human. That's the story I have. That's what I know.

    Thus, the importance of writing, first and foremost, a character...not a character of a particular gender or race or belief, but just a character.

    The problem with including "diversity" just for the sake of diversity is that the characters then exist to add diversity, and can't move outside of that. Instead of a character, they are a black character, a gay character, an Asian character, etc. Their "diverse-ness" becomes their most important and defining characteristic. I think that's tokenism.

    People don't want to be lumped into an ambiguous stereotype along with everyone else with the same skin color (or whatever) and copy-pasted into the background of a story. People want to be represented. They want to be able to see themselves in a story and relate to the characters. That's what all of us want, right? At least, that's what I want. I want to look into the pages of a book and think, "This is MY story. This author is telling MY story."

    I'd like to add that some kinds of diversity are thrown left and right, and some are basically ignored. Racial diversity is everywhere (genuine or otherwise.) But diversity of beliefs/religions? Basically ignored. Christianity is occasionally stereotyped (hypocritical, backward puritans), but aside from that...I don't know what the characters in the books I read believe about anything.

    The most common types of diversity are those that are easiest to fake. Racial diversity? Just change a character's skin color and stick him in the background somewhere. No big deal. *Note my sarcasm.*

    There are some perspectives that have never been written about, practically. For instance...I was homeschooled.

    What does that word make you think of?

    I'm vaccinated. I believe in evolution. I don't eat organic. I have friends. I'm allowed to read Harry Potter.

    Do these things surprise you?

    They shouldn't. Not all homeschoolers do it for religious reasons. Not all are crazies that want to brainwash their children. Believe it or not some people actually homeschool their kinds because they believe it's a better educational option.

    Shocking, right?

    How many books have I read that portray homeschooling accurately? How many characters have I read that are homeschooled for reasons other than a cult-like religion or a deadly disease that will kill them if they go out into "the real world?"

    Zero.

    Now, this was a tangent, but I'm using it to drive home a point. Diversity in books tends to be very superficial. Authors include a rainbow of skin colors and sexual preferences without thinking about the perspectives, beliefs and thoughts of the characters. They LOOK different, but inside they're all conveniently the same.

    You have to do more than scatter outward "diversity" throughout your cast. You have to explore each character as a person. What unique experiences, feelings and ideas does each character have that none of the others do? Everything that makes us who we are is complicated. (That sounds less profound than I intended it to be. Oops.) What are your characters on the inside? Can you really understand them in that way?

    I don't know. But I hope this has sparked some thought. Great topic btw!
     
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  6. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

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    To me, the difference between a token character and diverse characters is that a) they are fully realised characters with their own histories, motivations and lives, not recoloured cardboard cutouts and b) they are plural, i.e., more than just one of them. It seems that your characters are fully realised, so you're probably fine.
     
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  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I'm trying to figure out how they happen to be gay. In my stories, I'm the writer. My characters happen to poop, too, but they only do so if I write the scene. And I only write the scene if pooping is integral to the story.

    If the sexual orientation of the characters is indispensable to the plot, then that's fine and off you go. And you have no question to resolve. But it sounds like it's entirely incidental, so why bother bringing it up at all? They can be friends and you don't have to go any deeper than that. Heck, plenty of people think Bert and Ernie are gay, but I'm pretty sure there are no explicit sex scenes in Sesame Street. Why? Because it's not indispensable to the story.

    So, like I said, I'm trying to figure out why this is an issue for you as a writer. I must be missing something.
     
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  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    If you want kids brainwashed, send them to public schools, heh heh. When starting to home school our two adopted daughters, we certainly encountered the religious assumption, although we are far more spiritual-agnostic, LOL.

    I hear you on writing different perspectives. In an epic fantasy off-Earth, I don't worry about it at all. Cultural differences are whatever I say they are, LOL. Writing a female is interesting, but I stick to 3rd Limited, so it's still a narrative voice of a female's perspective, rather than shooting for a 1st. I think make them human is the best advice, so IMO you're spot on. And I found out quickly that some women liked my female characters, and some didn't, on the point of being written well form a female perspective... so, it's easily overthought.

    Sexuality will never be a major theme in any of my books, I bore easily reading about it, and more so writing it... I'll stick to basic romances as subplots.
     
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  9. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    I don't have explicit sex scenes in my novel either, but that doesn't make these women any less of a couple. They attend a royal ball together, they get excited about their wedding, they hug and grieve together.

    "Why bother bringing it up at all?" Because I want to show that not everyone in the universe is automatically straight, nor should they be assumed as straight. I could easily cut out all mention of their orientation without changing the story, but I feel I'd be missing out on an opportunity to positively portray lesbian characters if I did that. They are lovers and fiancées, not just friends, and pretending otherwise is a disservice to them.
     
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  10. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

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    I think having a chemistry between those two characters is all you need to do. Yes, you can certainly have them express excitement about their wedding. If they're minor, let them be themselves. Readers can kind of guess what the relationship is between the two... and the wedding plan talk confirms what readers might have guessed.

    There's more than one right way to handle it, but what's important is to not say "look reader, LGBTQ...!" And I believe you aren't doing that. You have characters with a very real relationship, and they don't come off as tokens.
     
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  11. Peat

    Peat Sage

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    There is no clear and easy to follow line. One person's representation is another person's tokenism and vice versa.

    However the closest thing there is to such a one runs like this IMO -

    Treat the subject matter you are handling with respect and knowledge, and treat the characters as characters first and examples of X first, and you'll probably be okay.

    Doing that constitutes like 95pc of being okay with 95pc of the people. And you never get 100pc of the people.

    I would point out that respect involves being able to kill a minor character rather than sparing them because they're X, and being able to make them villains as well as heroes. People from group X rarely appreciate being thought of as some Other who are different and incapable of being the things people from outside group X can be. Always killing the X is bad; always letting them live isn't good either.

    That said, I think you're on the right path Ireth.

    I'd also like to second DragonOfTheAerie's point about conveniently being the same on the inside. I mean, they are, but they are not. I would say that superior representation demonstrates that people from group X go through different experiences to not-X because they are X and that shapes their reactions to the world, but at the same time demonstrates they are still people, as capable as anyone not of X of falling on the same full gamut of the human experience from Ozymandias to Corporal Nobbs.
     
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  12. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Thanks, Peat. I think one of the reasons the "bury your gays" trope stuck out to me in this instance is because the character who dies at the villain's hand is the only non-antagonistic character who dies at all, and having the victim be one of two gay characters seemed especially problematic in light of that, hence the change.

    (side note: Discworld reference = win. ^^)
     
  13. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    When people like it, they call it "representation". When people don't like it, they call it "tokenism".

    I also had a gay couple in a story of mine. They were kind of important though and they had a thematic purpose for the main characters. I didn't intend for them to be representative for gay people so I would take exception to them being called "representation". I'd prefer if people call them tokens.
     
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    @Ireth - okay.
     
  15. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I think intent is important. Your intent wasn't tokenism, and your characters are gay because that's how the story evolved. Your intent will have affected the way you wrote, and I think readers will be able to tell. You won't be able to control how certain readers interpret it - and yes, there will always be someone who sees any representation of anything but the demographics they themselves occupy as being "tokenism" (did you see the reaction to the Ghostbusters remake having women in it? Absurd.) I think you can safely ignore such reactions and interpretations.
     
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  16. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    "Absurd" is right. People attempting to defend that awful movie on the grounds of it being "representative" or whatever. All that controversy for a movie that was critically mixed and financially unsuccessful.
    Really, I think that example just shows that good intent (debatable in this case) doesn't make a good product or lead to a good reaction in the long run.

    Also, I generally think it's bad for artists to ignore a bad reaction or interpretation. That's how you get artists who never get better because they never listen to criticism.

    Your responsibility as a writer isn't to provide representation or avoid tokens. Your only responsibility is to write a good story.
     
  17. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    It is absolutely okay to have gay secondary or tertiary characters, and it doesn't mean anything diminutive about gay persons to have it that way. All that someone SHOULD read into this is that you're writing a story about a character that happens to be straight (or other) and that the MC has friends who happen to be gay.

    I have worried about this exact same thing (If you remember my gay loan shark with the name Strange), and all I can say is that in my heart, I knew I named him and described him before I realized he was a gay man who was a good friend of my straight, female protagonist. His sexuality is a small part of the book, only mentioned a few times, and never in a derogatory way. She actually asks him if he'd run away with her and marry, but he refuses (kindly0 and says that perhaps she should find someone who genuinely wants to marry her, it just isn't him.

    I know how tricky this is. I think you have to just know in your heart that you are portraying your characters (whatever their race, gender, or sexuality) with respect and honesty. If you do that, (and I know you're a very respectful and aware person), that's all you can do. Haters will probably hate, in their own uneducated way, but people who appreciate the story you're telling and appreciate how you chose to write lesbians who aren't considered "out of the norm" will enjoy the story more for your respectful attitude. That's what I hope, anyway, because that's my attitude as I wrote the gay loan shark, tertiary character that I did.

    :) Best wishes!
     
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  18. TheCatholicCrow

    TheCatholicCrow Inkling

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    I understand this line of reasoning but I would like to caution anyone reading this thread to think that any minority must be dealt with differently than any other characters. Just because the character is a lesbian doesn't seem like a great reason to change the plot point (the same would be true for a Black, Asian, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, disabled character). As an ethnic minority I see authors try to include "diversity" all the time and having every white character die but letting the Latina live feels like we're being written down to ... like we can't handle seeing "one of our own" experience any hardships in fiction. Frankly, it's insulting. We die like everyone else... (oddly specific example- I know)

    Personally, I'd say keep the couple (if you want) but don't go out of your way to treat them any differently than you would any other character, white, straight, or otherwise.

    Diversity means a lot of things that we often overlook - as already noted, homeschooling, and I'd like to add lesser disabilities like wearing glasses ... somehow everyone usually forgets that. But if you include a character with glasses, you don't have to give them a past of being bullied and called "four eyes" (who even came up with that anyway? I've never even heard anyone say that ... )

    Not saying you have to redo the ending, if it makes more sense that way then great. But when you go out of your way to give them a happy ending (unless it was already headed in that direction) it can feel contrived and runs the risk of becoming token. If you really don't view homosexual relationships as being any different than heterosexual sexual relationships, don't go out of your way to treat one delicately. If they're the same in your eyes (I'm assuming that's the case) them treat them the same. :)
     
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  19. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Good point, TCC. For the record, I do have a bisexual character in an antagonistic role (whose sexuality is never remarked upon, positively or negatively) who is killed by the MC in self-defense, so it's not quite a matter of "straight people die, LGBT people live" as a generalization. I just thought better of killing someone who was well on her way to a happily ever after with her beloved. But I still needed a healer to die so the villain could end up where he needed to be for the climax, and the one I killed was the only other one with enough development to warrant any sympathy from my readers.
     
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  20. TheCatholicCrow

    TheCatholicCrow Inkling

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    Just as long as there's more to it than "people will frown if I kill off X character" :)
     
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