A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Why are there no _______?

Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” As a corollary to this, you could say that the easiest way to take away people’s power is by pretending that they have none. I call this the The Last of the Mohicans problem. For the better part of the past two centuries, it’s been fairly common to see popular culture depict Native Americans in a way that emphasized how much of the population had been lost and how much of the culture had disappeared. James Fennimore Cooper’s novel exemplifies this mentality right in its title. For European Americans, the notion serves two purposes: it provides a language with which to process guilt over the various historical injustices that have been done to Native Americans, and it situates those injustices firmly in the past, rendering contemporary Native Americans invisible. The The Last of the Mohicans problem is a way of affecting a multicultural ethos without ever having to confront the realities of the less privileged groups with which you coexist.

Lately, I’ve been noticing instances of a close cousin to the The Last of the Mohicans problem--the Why are there no _______? problem. Like LotM, Watn_? is typically expressed by well-intentioned, progressively inclined folks, and like LotM, Watn_? renders invisible the real people for whom the assertion purports to advocate. But unlike LotM, Watn_? doesn’t assume that those people are extinct, only underrepresented.* The great irony of Watn_? is that those problems of underrepresentation are typically very real, but Watn_? not only fails to address those problems, it actually contributes to them.

Buggin' Out got so angry, he moved to Albuquerque and built a drug empire.

Three examples of Watn_? have been on my mind lately. Two of them are recent, and one is from a few years ago, but still relevant.

1. Why are there no black people in science fiction? 

Or, as David Barnett put it in The Guardian, “Why are most SF authors straight, white western men?” Josh Finney quite persuasively rebuts this criticism by, among other things, pointing to the way in which assumptions of whiteness undermine the work being done by creators of color. Discussing how Klingons and Ferengi are perceived as racial stereotypes, Finney writes:
[L]et me tell you, Jimmy Diggs was personally responsible for some of that aggressive Klingon behavior. And to hear him tell it, he was highly influential in some of the best remembered Ferengi episodes. You know what else? Jimmy is black. And fuck, if Jimmy can to be slammed for these portrayals, what chance do I have?
It’s certainly possible to still argue that the Klingons and Ferengi are racial stereotypes (let’s be real here: they totally are). But an awareness of Jimmy Diggs’s race and his contribution makes it harder to see Star Trek’s handling of race as simply stereotyping. Greater awareness of the existence of creators of color leads (or at least ought to lead) to a more sophisticated understanding of the works. That awareness isn’t there right now, and Finney places responsibility for that fact not on the science fiction community, but on consumers, especially white liberal consumers like David Barnett:
It’s not their cry for diversity that’s the problem. I agree. More diversity would be great. But throwing stones at aging white guys isn’t going to fix anything (especially when they’re quantifiably less racist than the average American). Nor is lobbying publishers a solution. The best that’ll result in is a slew of bland, safe, token characters gratuitously crammed into stories for the sole purpose of shutting people up. 
You want sci-fi stories with more color, women, gays, transgendered, and “non-white” settings? Easy. START BUYING THEM.
2. Why are there no Christian LGBT allies?

Dan Savage has a term for pro-gay rights Christians, NALTs, which stands for Not All Like That. Savage came up with the term to refer to Christians who would come up to him and “whisper” that they are not all like that--”that” being Pat-Robertson-style hate mongerers. Savage has frequently expressed resentment that these NALTs do not do more to publicly denounce anti-gay Christian conservatives, and recently several pro-gay rights Christians have taken up the NALT label and transformed it into an “It Gets Better”-style project, with Savage’s support.

I’m a fan of Savage, but NALT always rubbed me the wrong way, for reasons this blog post nicely articulates:
I get where Savage is coming from, but the idea that the people Savage called NALTs were somehow only privately so, in a “just-between-me-and-Dan-Savage” kind of way, always seemed a frustrating sleight of hand that belied the relative power imbalance between traditional and non-traditional Christian communities. I’m just not sure if I can in good conscience support popularizing a term that I think is dismissive of non-traditionalist Christianities.
Going a step further, not only does Savage’s use of NALT undervalue the efforts of pro-LGBT Christians, it also rhetorically treats “Christian” and “queer” as if they are mutually exclusive terms. I’m neither Christian nor LGBT, but I know people that are both and I know that it is possible to be both at the same time. I don’t think it helps anyone to pretend like you can’t be.

3. Why are there no women on The Daily Show?

This one’s old, but it came up again recently in a discussion I was having about Jessica Williams, the newest (though not so new anymore) reporter on the Comedy Central series. Williams replaced Olivia Munn, whose short time at The Daily Show was noteworthy mostly because it provided an occasion for Irin Carmen to call the show a boy's club. Now, I don’t know why Munn left, and I think Jessica Williams is hilarious, but to this day, Carmen's article bothers me for a couple of reasons.

First, it insinuated that Munn was unqualified for the job, suggesting that she had been hired because she is conventionally attractive, despite the fact that she had been the cohost of a comedic talk show (Attack of the Show) for four years. Second, the article alludes to the systemic issues having to do with the exclusion of women in comedy, but maintains a narrow focus on the question as to whether or not Jon Stewart/The Daily Show is sexist. Madeleine Smithberg points to the bigger picture, but rather than analyze the implications of the show's place in a larger industry, the article turns the focus on Munn. Third, it reduced the creative conflicts between Smithberg and Stewart to Stewart throwing a newspaper, an irrelevant detail that equates being a jerk with being a misogynist and that, implicitly, suggests that women can’t handle the adversarial environment that characterizes the late night talk show. All of these details suggest an analytical approach that is more invested in affirming the existence of inequality than it is in challenging inequality in any meaningful way.

I’m not saying that underrepresentation isn't a real problem or that questioning underrepresentation has no value. Sometimes, versions of the Why are there no _______? question can lead to interesting counterfactual thinking. When Dustin Rowles asks “Where’s the female Walter White?” for example, the question touches on the intersections of gender, genre, and audience expectations in interesting and generative ways (even if Rowles’s focus on parenting seems like a partial answer at best). But asking the question doesn’t automatically challenge the injustice that it points to. In fact, it might do the opposite.

*Okay, I suppose I could call it the Why are there so few _______? problem, but Why are there no _______? better captures the question's tendency towards hyperbole.