If you don't know already, there's been loads of drama in the last couple weeks over two things in the writing community: the casting of a Korean woman as Nagini in the latest Fantastic Beasts movie and more recently, Stephenie Meyer's apparent refusal in the past to cast POC actors in the Twilight movies. It's no surprise that people on Twitter were absolutely scandalized and both writers have come under a lot of nasty attack on social media.
We all know that there's been a huge move towards adding more diversity in fiction and film and that has put pressure on writers to be more inclusive of minorities in their writing. Those who write white characters only or characters that have ambiguous ethnicities or sexualities tend to face some harsh backlash. Some of it is understandable but other times it has been unfair. J. K Rowling has been the recipient of such criticism. Over the years she's been attacked for not writing Dumbledore as openly or explicitly gay and when this was reaffirmed in the first Fantastic Beasts movie, fans raged on social media. People, including writers, still attack her for the lack of diversity in her books. She's been called a racist and a coward. Then when Voldemort's snake Nagini was recently cast as an Asian woman dressed in seductive clothes and wearing dark makeup, people took to social media again. Keep in mind that the movie hasn't been released and yet, people are already coming up with their own narratives:
'So basically, Nagini is a sexy Asian woman who was enslaved by the 'white man'.
As an Arab writer, I know what it's like to be misrepresented and fetishized. The only 'positive' representation of Arabs that I know of is Disney's Aladdin and that movie is so problematic, it's disgusting. So even I found Nagini's clothes and general look inappropriate. That being said, we also need to put things into perspective: the 'vampy' look seems to be a common feature of how the Death Eaters generally look on screen. Also, we don't know yet how the other characters in the movie will look like and if that one picture of Nagini is representative of how she is generally depicted. We also don't know the details of her relationship with Voldemort. So it would have been nice for the writing community to hold back their pitchforks until the picture became clearer in order to make more accurate judgments.
Pointing out problematic representation or any other issue is a good thing and a necessary thing for us to grow as writers and as a community. But making assumptions and attacking one another on a personal level isn't. Any one of us can make mistakes and I'm sure no writer would like to think that if they unwittingly offended a group then their whole character would be smeared. It's not fair on anyone and writers should be especially wary about doing this. This is one thing.
The other important point I need to make is this: There's a difference between having a diverse cast of characters in a book and writing a story that represents minorities. The publishing industry needs more books by minorities and stories that engage thoughtfully with our lives and struggles. This is not always the same as having colored fairies or vampires for instance; especially when these characters are not the protagonists.
Now, that's not to say that sprinkling diversity doesn't have its benefits. Of course it does. Sometimes even representation that is a bit inaccurate can give some positive exposure. But can or should every single book have a diverse cast? To me that sounds impractical, restrictive and inauthentic. Should we applaud writers who take the time to diversify and do it well? Yes. Should we encourage diversity? Yes. Should we demonize those who don't diversify their characters? No. Putting that kind of responsibility on every writer is unfair. And creating a hostile environment that bullies writers into adding diversity for the sake of not being criticized or because it's 'the trend' will only guarantee sloppy representation. POC don't need to be squeezed into stories by begrudging white writers. There are plenty of writers (white, brown or black) who genuinely want to write about minority groups. Why force diversity onto writers, only to get mad when they don't do it right? We need to allow writers the flexibility to write their stories in the way they imagined them.
Someone once wrote on Twitter that a book can't be seen as 'feminist' if it doesn't include a gay character. This is ridiculous. Why judge and undermine stories in such a sweeping way? So a book about strong, heterosexual, white women isn't good enough? Give writers the space to write what they want in an authentic manner and shift the pressure onto publishers to release more books by and about minority groups. If Meyer imagined her characters to be all white, let her be. There are others who are willing to write about black or Asian vampires. Would it have been nice if J. K. Rowling adding a more diverse cast in Harry Potter? Maybe even an Arab character? Of course! That would have added another layer to the books. But that's not the same as saying that she's a horrible person for not doing that. Or that it's every writer's moral obligation to represent every minority group in their books.
Humans are complex and have complex motivations so it's dangerous to throw words around like 'racist' when writers don't include minorities in their stories. There are so many possible reasons why someone would want to focus on one group over another or exclude a theme or make their characters sexually or ethnically ambiguous. Sometimes it just comes down to stylistic choices, relating to that specific story. It's not always a representation of the person's beliefs or who they are. Other times writers will just simply make mistakes and should be called out on them in a respectful way. It's sad that we need to remind one another of the importance of being kind and careful in the way we judge each other. It really feels that in our quest to be more inclusive as a writing community, that we're becoming hostile and intolerant of each other's choices. This is a horrible place for us to be.
Food for thought in this week's post. Let me know your thoughts in the comments and see you guys next week!