Watching the diverse casting of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the amazing intersectionality of Zootopia, it feels like we’re finally making progress on the front of social justice in storytelling. People are realizing that stories and the lessons they teach mean something. But no matter how much progress we make, some naysayers will try to hold us back. They make the same arguments over and over again about how social justice is bad or just doesn’t belong in storytelling. Fortunately, they’re wrong, and knowing their arguments in advance will help you explain why. From YouTube comments to uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners, these are six of the most common arguments people make against putting social justice in stories.
1. Representation Is Pandering
Uh oh, an author made their protagonist black, queer, female, or anything else that isn’t associated with the dominant group. They must be pandering to whatever demographic their character is part of. That’s the only explanation!
First, let’s look at the definition of pander. From Merriam-Webster:
To do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable.
For now, let’s assume that this hypothetical author made their protagonist part of a specific group in order to draw in an audience from that group, and not just because it made the most sense for the story. That isn’t pandering; it’s expanding your audience, and in any other context it would be seen as a proper, good, or reasonable business move.
This argument is inherently hypocritical. No one ever accuses the countless stories that star straight white dudes of pandering to the straight-white-dude demographic, even though focusing on the dominant group to the exclusion of all others definitely isn’t proper, good, or reasonable. For a long time, minority audiences have been ignored or taken for granted. The current upswing in diversity is a course correction to address historical injustice, not an example of different groups being unfairly favored.
Even if someone hates any and all attempts to expand readership, it’s impossible to know an author’s motivation. Did Jeff Vandermeer cast an Asian woman as the protagonist of The Southern Reach because that was how he first imagined the character or because he thought it would draw in extra readers? Was Gene Roddenberry only hoping to get Star Trek better ratings when he conceived Sulu and Uhura? We can’t know, and as such it’s pointless to waste our energy endlessly dissecting such questions. What matters are the results, not the intent, and the results are more diversity.
2. Stories Are Meant as an Escape
Speculative fiction is where I go to relax and get away from all the conflict in real life. Why would you bring all your arguments and your critiques into my happy place?
This argument has two distinct prongs. The first is that spec fic is meant to be light and fluffy with no serious discussion that might bum us out. That’s absolute nonsense. From the day Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, a book about the responsibility humans have to their creations, spec fic has been about important ideas and issues. Fantasy is part of that, too, with the One Ring being an important metaphor for weapons of mass destruction whether Tolkien meant it to be or not. Anyone who says spec fic shouldn’t host serious discussions either doesn’t understand what they’re saying or has no respect for the genre.
The second prong of this argument comes from people who see spec fic as their refuge from the terrible hardships of the world. They don’t want that peace interrupted by important but sometimes difficult discussions. It’s true that this genre of ours is a place where many people can be accepted for who they are and all the weirdness they contain. It’s a beautiful thing, but there’s a trick to it: not everyone has an easy time finding such acceptance.
When someone from outside the dominant group* tries to find enjoyment and escape in spec fic, they face a number of obstacles. They might find a dearth of characters who look like them or be told they shouldn’t cosplay their favorite hero because they don’t have exactly the right body type. These obstacles come in many flavors, and they make it impossible for people to find the escape that spec fic supposedly provides.*
Spec fic fans who call for more social justice aren’t taking away anyone’s refuge; we’re trying to make it available to as many people as possible. Speculative fiction should be open to anyone, not just those of us lucky enough to already have the privilege.
3. Story Quality Is All That Matters
Who cares if they cast Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi? It doesn’t matter if the actress is actually of Japanese ancestry, only that the movie is good.
This argument pops up whenever a story is critiqued for putting a white person in a role that should have gone to a person of color or for including some kind of problematic plot element. It’s very clever, as it casts social justice as some kind of secondary concern, independent of a story’s quality. The person making the argument can then claim the position of enlightened defender, making sure stories stay good for everyone to enjoy.
The obvious hole in this argument is that social justice supporters* also want stories to be good. There probably isn’t anyone out there who actively wants stories to be bad. Except maybe the people who keep producing Transformers films, but that’s beside the point.
Think about a person saying that they don’t care if the dialogue is well written; they just want the story to be good. Sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? That’s because social justice is one facet of a story’s quality, like plot or character development. Better social justice improves a story, the same way that better worldbuilding or fight-scene description does.
We do see one major difference between social justice and other story qualities: a lack of social justice has a negative impact in real life. When a story passes off creepy stalking as romantic, that reinforces unhealthy attitudes already present in our society. When a person of color can’t find anyone who looks like them in the gallery of great fantasy heroes, it sends a message that those with darker skin don’t belong.
At the same time, stories that feature strong social justice themes help make our world better. When Terry Pratchett wrote Monstrous Regiment, a book about the evils of entrenched sexism, he brought the issue to the attention of readers who might never have thought about it before. When Zootopia based its entire plot around intersectionality, it gave a bunch of kids* their first glimpse at the complicated nature of discrimination in our society.
I don’t know about you, but those sound like good stories to me.
4. There’s No Reason for a Character to Be X
Why would you want this character to be bisexual? What plot relevance does it have to make her Hispanic? You need a strong reason to make a character stand out from the dominant group, or else you’re doing something bad.
This argument often goes hand in hand with accusations of tokenism. The argument contends that if an author doesn’t have a plot that necessitates a minority character, then there shouldn’t be one. Any such character would clearly have no role in the story and thus be a token. The assumption is that characters exist in some kind of default state from which any social-justice-minded storytellers must alter them.
Spoiler alert: characters have no default state. They don’t exist until we think them up. Luke Skywalker didn’t spring into existence as a straight white male; George Lucas decided to make him that way. Heck, Lucas even decided to make him human. Authors don’t often think about these decisions, but they’re made any time a new character is created.
The real question to ask is, “Is there any reason this character shouldn’t be a minority?” In the vast majority of cases, the answer is a resounding no. Speculative fiction deals in the fantastic and the strange, so there’s no justification to only have characters from within the dominant group. Even when writing in the real world, when realism is a concern, authors always have opportunities to include minority characters in major roles. With most minorities badly underrepresented, storytellers have a moral obligation to do so.
Occasionally, this argument will come from well-meaning people who think that a character’s minority status must be important to the plot, or else the author is trivializing it. In this line of reasoning, if a trans character’s gender isn’t a source of conflict, it erases all the hardships faced by trans people in real life.
This version of the argument still doesn’t track, because people shouldn’t be defined solely by their minority status. Great stories are told about the difficulties characters face being outside the dominant group, but we also need stories where that isn’t an issue. The short story Judgment Day is fantastic for taking on the evils of racism, but that doesn’t mean Deep Space Nine isn’t a great show for portraying a black space captain in a universe where no one thinks that’s unusual.
Note: This section has been edited to remove the word “chosen” when referring to a trans person’s gender.
5. Advocates Should Make Their Own Stories
Why are they forcing women into Ghostbusters? Why don’t they just go and make their own giant franchise about busting ghosts, and they can put women in that one? I’m not against social justice, I just think people who want it should make their own stories instead of messing with the ones we already have.
This predictable refrain appears whenever someone suggests an existing franchise be modified for more inclusivity or when a storyteller announces they’ll be doing so. The torrent of rage over the all-female Ghostbusters film is a visible example. Scan the comments of any post about that film, and you’ll find a host of critics who insist they’re not sexist but just want the girls to go be in a different movie.
This argument’s big stumbling block is that very few people have budget to make a film just lying around, let alone one with the production values audiences now expect. And because of the film industry’s intense dislike of anything that’s not from an established franchise, the chance of new blockbusters featuring diverse casts is low. As such, saying that social justice advocates should “make their own movie” isn’t a real suggestion.
But what about stories that aren’t on film? Theoretically, anyone can write a novel if they can spare hundreds of hours away from work, child care,* or whatever else occupies their life. The argument is still silly though, because nowhere else do we expect people to make their own version of a product they aren’t happy with. If someone says they want more leg room on their flight, the response is never to demand that they build their own plane.
People ask that products and services they purchase be changed all the time, and it’s rarely a problem. They might not always get what they want, but no one ever denies them the right to ask. This argument is also hypocritical 100% of the time. Sift through the social media history of anyone who uses it, and I guarantee you’ll find them complaining about some aspect of a story they didn’t like. Why didn’t they just make their own?
6. People Won’t Buy a Story With Social Justice
Look, we’d all like to put more social justice in our stories, but storytelling is a business first and no one wants to buy this PC-hippie nonsense. Of course I’d buy it, I’m not prejudiced, but it just won’t sell well overseas. You know how those people are.
This argument is the final fallback position of those who don’t want social justice in stories. Instead of attacking social justice as an idea, they attack its practicality. This argument is disturbingly common even though there’s no real evidence that it’s true. Every social-justice-oriented story that fails is held up as proof, while the successes are ignored as aberrations. Perhaps the popularity of films like The Force Awakens and Zootopia will dampen the enthusiasm for this argument, but we shouldn’t hold our breath.
The second half of this argument is the bizarre assertion that “foreign markets” in particular dislike social justice stories, and it’s disturbingly widespread. Thanks to some leaked emails from 2014, we know even high-level film executives think this. In reality, there’s almost no data to support this conclusion, and what little there is could easily have been caused by other factors. While people from outside the US are just as capable of bigotry as we are, it’s foolish to assume they are more so without any evidence.
More importantly, this argument would still be terrible even if social justice stories did sell poorly. If we are to be a moral society, we must sometimes do things with no immediate payout. Nearly every step forward in civil rights and social justice has been nay-sayed by those who claim it will cost too much. If we give in to those voices, we will never move forward.
As speculative fiction authors and fans, we have a responsibility to make our stories part of the solution to inequality. It’s vital that we keep pushing either by writing social justice into our stories or demanding the same from those who manufacture our media. Along the way, we’ll run into those who push back against social justice because they’re threatened by it or they just don’t know any better. Don’t let their bad arguments prevail.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.