It’s increasingly understood that some stories are not everyone’s to tell, but how can you know which ones? When is a story just a story, and when is it someone’s heritage? Why is this such a big deal? This week, we try to shed light on what it is that makes certain stories so sensitive, why it can cause harm, and why there are some topics that most writers should just stay away from. Also, an unexpected King of the Hill reference.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Kayleigh. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: And previously on this podcast, we have occasionally said that something is not our story to tell, would be one way we would put it, or said that we don’t want to use certain creatures from mythology in our stories because they are not ours.
So, I just wanted to open by asking both of you — Oren, Wes — to tell me in your own words, what it means, that something, isn’t your story to tell.
Oren: I would say that it is a question of does the story belong to someone who has been harmed by something that benefits me? So, for example, does the story belong to someone whose people have been the victim of imperialism, which then propped up white people and enforced white privilege that I benefit from, whether I want it or not.
And if the answer is yes, then I would say, that’s not my story to tell. As opposed to say, if it’s just a group that I’m not part of, like if it’s Christianity — I’m not Christian — but I don’t think it matters. If I use an angel in my story, I don’t think that’s a big deal, and I’m not ancient Greek, but I think using Zeus is fine.
For me, that’s a pretty good test. Has this group been harmed by something that is benefiting me on a structural level? And if the answer is yes, then it’s probably not my story to tell.
Wes: Storytellers, we’re equipped to kind of tell stories through experience and practice. And if I’m thinking about these things “that’s not my story to tell;” I’m thinking to myself “I can’t tell that right.”
If I’m having doubt, that translates to someone can tell this better, someone who has the right experience and toolkit and lived experience to share this. And it’ll make for a way better story than I ever could. So that’s another thing that kind of comes to mind for me, in addition to what Oren was talking about.
Chris: I think for me, I could build an analogy that was more of a personal situation that I think actually covers it surprisingly well. If you knew somebody close to you who went through something traumatic, you would not just take what they went through and package it and put it in your fiction story, detail by detail, and then just sell it.
Most people would know that that would just be inappropriate behavior and that it is really insensitive to that person’s pain and profiting off of that person’s pain. Sometimes it’s not pain-related even, but you have a friend who tells you — I feel a little silly for using the, the phrase story idea, because frankly story ideas are not valuable, but nonetheless — if your friend got really excited about their Buffy fanfic that they were planning and then you were to go to somebody else and repeat exactly what they told you. Hey, maybe they wanted to share that, that’s not yours.
Those are kind of analogies, but usually when we’re talking about not our story to tell, we’re talking about it at a whole large group of people level. Some of those same issues come up where one group can take something that was traumatic for another group or inherently is associated with that other group and use it in inappropriate situations and profit off of it.
To be specific, we’re going to be talking about exploitation and appropriation — which are not the same thing, but are pretty heavily linked, specifically cultural appropriation.
So let’s just define each of those terms. Exploitation, generally, I have defined that on the site as being: when you use the pain of another group for the benefit of people who aren’t part of that group. Specifically, when that group is marginalized and it’s going to be benefiting people who aren’t part of that marginalized group.
A common example is depictions of rape in our stories. There’s a lot of uses that storytellers have for rape. It could be for anything like, “Hey, look how gritty and realistic my setting is, it has rape.” Or it could be, “Hey, see this guy, he doesn’t rape this woman. Isn’t he a great guy?”
Oren: Look how low we can get the bar. We can get it very low.
Chris: Conversely, “Hey, this guy’s a rapist. So now, you know, he’s a villain.”
Oren: Yeah, how else would I have known?
Chris: A typical rape survivor is not going to enjoy a story with rape in it. If you use that, you are making it so that the people who actually had this kind of trauma happen to them can no longer enjoy your story. Therefore, it’s just for the benefit of people who aren’t survivors generally.
And that doesn’t mean that there’s no place for commentary about rape. Usually people who are using rape in these situations, like the examples I gave, they’re not trying to make meaningful commentary about rape. They’re trying to use it as a storytelling tool and not thinking about what effect that has.
Oren: If you look up exploitation films, this definition can start to get very muddled. I was very confused because when I heard terms like sexploitation and blaxploitation, I assumed certain things about these movies.
But then when I looked up what some of these movies actually are, some movies got tagged as blaxploitation because they had a lot of black characters in them. Others were clearly more harmful because they portrayed a lot of negative stereotypes or were just racist in some other way. Whereas some didn’t have that, but they were still considered part of that genre of film.
Be aware that films labeled with a -xploitation tag may or may not be actually exploitative.
Wes: Appropriation inherently has aspects of that, especially as it relates to imbalances when we talk about compensation, but maybe we can step into that conversation here in a sec.
Chris: A common phrase you might hear is the phrase called trauma-porn, which is often how exploitative stories are labeled. Usually a privileged group has really emphasized the painful aspects of some kind of marginalized experience, then it’s labeled as trauma-porn and usually the criticism there is that the story is exploitative.
Oren: There is occasionally a bit of a hazy line between what is an exploitative story made about someone else’s pain and what is a story that someone who experienced that pain made to explore it or to critique it or to comment on it. That can sometimes happen.
I’m going to say that in most cases, that’s not going to be the issue. If you do not personally suffer from that experience, in most cases, whatever it is that you’re thinking of is not going to fall into that category. It’s going to be a lot more cut and dried.
Chris: Next, cultural appropriation and this one frustrated me for a long time and took a long time to get answered, especially since you go to con, there’s a panel on cultural appropriation, go to that panel, hoping to learn what is it? How do I not do it? And every time coming away confused.
Oren: They tell you what it is and you’re like, okay, I know what it is now. Then they’re like, “Avatar” is great. And you’re like, doesn’t “Avatar” do all those things? And they’re like, yeah, but it’s, it’s fine. They’ll carve out the “Avatar” exception in, in real time. I’ve seen people do that, It’s weird.
Chris: Cultural appropriation is basically things associated with a marginalized culture being used by the privileged culture. Also, there are different groups of people and different groups of marginalized people and I would say with cultural appropriation, what’s important is whether you belong to that particular culture or not.
I wouldn’t say that one marginalized culture can never appropriate from another marginalized culture, especially when they’re doing so through the lens of a more privileged culture that engages in appropriation. It’s possible to have more equal cultural exchange, certainly.
I wouldn’t say just because it’s not a privileged culture, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen all.
Oren: Right, and that’s where I try to bring back the whole concept of who has been harmed here. I’m not French, but I don’t think it’s a huge problem if I use French history in my story. Or if I use some French folklore, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.
I think the reason for that is that France has never been colonized by America. That’s just not a thing that’s happened, so I don’t think it’s a problem.
Chris: Well, I don’t think you can really appropriate from a privileged culture. Whether different marginalized cultures, for instance, can appropriate each other’s stuff, that’s one question. But any privileged culture, the main narrative about what their culture is, is packaged and determined by them. So if you’re an American, the ideas about what it is to be an American and what American culture is, you’re the mostly the one that determines that, because it’s a very privileged culture. And so privileged Americans are the ones that make movies about that and other cultural products about that.
It’s very different when you have a culture that a bunch of white people are taking aspects of your culture, and then they are determining how your culture is going to be presented.
Wes: Again, it doesn’t really matter to white Americans if some Korean film doesn’t depict America very accurately.
I’ve noticed that in a lot of films made outside the U.S., the U.S. often looks like it’s stuck in the ’20s and that’s kind of neat. It’s kind of an interesting piece of trivia, but it doesn’t really hurt me in any way.
Chris: Right. Or everybody from America is a cowboy, but who cares? We have no shortage of depictions that we determined, that we made ourselves. So it’s just funny because it’s not a sore point.
Oren: Or there’s a funny meme going around that there was some baseball game that was made in Japan in the ’90s and they needed to make a bunch of fake, made-up American names for their baseball characters.
Some Japanese developer tried to invent a bunch of American names and they sound horrendous. They’re all incredibly wrong and they don’t sound right at all, but if you’re a white American, your name being mispronounced is not a huge problem for you. There are exceptions, of course, if you have a European name, that could be an issue.
But it’s not as big an issue, as opposed to, if you were — for example — someone who is of East Asian descent.
You might have a name that people just refuse to pronounce properly, even though it’s not hard, you know? And in that case, if an American game did that and made a bunch of weird sounding Japanese names, that might actually hurt somebody. Particularly Japanese Americans; people who live in Japan might not care.
Chris: Yeah. When you’re used to respect and you have no shortage of respectful treatment, when somebody gets something wrong, it’s just funny.
If you don’t have that, if people are constantly disrespecting you and misrepresenting you, then it’s not funny anymore. Appropriation generally includes distorting other cultures just by representing them inauthentically. There’s almost always some element of “this is inaccurate” at some level to things that are considered appropriation.
Definitely profiting off of representations of somebody else’s culture. If somebody makes a totem pole, for instance, that was not made by Native Americans and then sells that, they’re profiting off of Native American culture and therefore denying Native Americans who should be making those totem poles — if they’re going to be made — any profit that would have happened as a result of their heritage.
Wes: And a further extension of examples like that is if you start, we’ll just say mass marketing culture from marginalized groups, then it becomes that much harder to allocate funds, to preserve cultural elements.
And then suddenly you’re basically participating in cultural degradation. Because if totem poles are everywhere, then why does that one got to stick around and be protected? The mindset becomes popular and people don’t see it as anything other than something you can go by. So that can really hinder efforts with preservation.
Chris: There’s also just a big element of disrespect that happens. Like a Native American feather headdress, that’s a sacred item that is supposed to be earned by the person who wore it. That’s not something that… it’s very disrespectful to just put it on whoever. That’s just not culturally appropriate.
I don’t know a lot about Mexican culture, Day of the Dead, but I have to say seeing white people wear Day of the Dead costumes on Halloween — Halloween is for ghouls and horror stuff. And the Mexican Day of the Dead is about honoring your dead family. Those things don’t seem to mix very well.
Those types of things can be very concerning where it’s, “Hey, that’s something that’s really special to us and you’re completely disrespecting it.”
Oren: Can I mention something about the whole concept of authenticity, especially when we’re talking about using mythology or religious beliefs in fantasy. Because this is something I see authors get confused by a lot.
They hear that this white author used this Hindu thing inauthentically or used this indigenous Australian thing inauthentically, and did they get confused? Fantasy is full of very inauthentic European mythology and religion in that it is not accurate to its original source material. The angels that appear on “Supernatural” are nothing like the angels from the Bible.
Wes: What? [All laugh].
Oren: Yeah. You know, the way that the Greek and Norse gods are portrayed in most fantasy stories is nothing like they are in their original mythology. To the extent that their mythology is consistent in any way; often it’s not.
But that’s the thing, as fantasy authors we often make these changes, and that confuses people. Why is it okay to change angels, but when I start changing Shiva, a Hindu God, that becomes a problem?
And it comes down to who gets to decide what that change is. What it should be. And that’s just how it is and I get that’s a little frustrating. Because it can seem like a double standard, but you just have to go back to that question of who was harmed in that exchange, people of Hindu faith were colonized by the British primarily, but not exclusively, and they are still recovering from that. And in a lot of cases, specifically recovering from having their religion misrepresented. And so, it’s really not our place to decide what the epic fantasy version of Shiva should be.
Now, if some Indian writer wants to do that. Someone who is Hindu and wants to show me their epic fantasy version of Shiva, that’s not really anything like what he is in the actual religion, then great. I will read that book. I will buy it from you. Sell it to me right now.
Chris: Part of the reason it’s, we would say, it’s not our story to tell… Yeah, people should be able to benefit from their own culture. But it’s also, there’s a huge element of, can you actually do this right? And do you have the knowledge and the experience necessary to do that?
Certainly with exploitation, the fact is that people who’ve been through trauma definitely depict it differently than people who have not. If it’s something that is… if you don’t have trauma around something like sexual assault or abuse, or what have you, it’s not a pain point for you. It doesn’t trigger anything and so usually it’s a lot more gratuitous.
It’s just not at all sensitive to somebody who does have personal experience that makes that a lot more painful for them. Whereas if somebody were to write about their own trauma, they would just automatically write it differently because of that and that would just be more sensitive to the people who had those experiences.
Oren: Abuse, like child abuse for example, is a different sort of thing than the issues of racism or cultural power that we’ve been talking about. But you can see the same dynamic at work in which if someone just randomly throws in that this character was abused as a child, that can seem pretty insensitive. And what is that? Just like a random piece of this backstory that you mentioned in the same line as Auntie went to Burger King once.
That seems weird. So it’s not this case that I would never write a character who was abused as a child, but if I was going to, I would not simply put that in there as a random factoid about his backstory. Because like that has serious effects and there are people who suffer from that.
Chris: I’ve definitely seen stories where the storyteller uses abuse to generate sympathy for protagonists. But what happens a lot of times in these situations is this person doesn’t know a lot about abuse and substantive abuse, and they feel like nobody’s going to sympathize with the protagonist, unless they make the abuse super extreme.
Because without lived experience, you don’t know how hurtful things that to other people who have not lived it, might seem small. So they just layer it on really thick and that just becomes kind of trauma-porn. Going to exploitation when talking about just other groups, so people see the breadth of the issue. One instance that’s common is writers, cis writers who are featuring trans characters always focusing on the trans person’s transition.
That would be an example of exploitation. That’s a very sensitive thing for trans people. You shouldn’t focus on a transition just because you have a trans character. Generally, it’s a lot easier if you bring in a trans character post-transition and anything involved in a trans character’s transition is just very sensitive. There’s definitely been trauma porn out there focused on transitioning and those kinds of things.
There’s a lot of marginalized groups that have experiences that are very specific to them, that are either personal or painful, and it’s not a good idea to just go gung-ho on any of those.
Should we move on to talking about whether or not this is something that can be done respectfully?
Oren: Usually, no, I guess it’s not 100 percent, but pretty small. And, of course, there is a debate of even if you could, for example, write a story that takes place in a culture that’s not yours and you could write it and you were so good at writing it that no one could tell.
Let’s just assume that somehow you manage that through the mother of all research, or maybe you lived there for a while. Who knows? But let’s assume you did it, then there’s really still the question of are you taking up one of the few slots for this kind of book that should probably go to someone who actually has that cultural background, so they could benefit from it?
That’s a whole other question.
Chris: For appropriation, a lot of times we’re talking about, for instance, if you’re a white person who is writing what you might call an East Asian-inspired fantasy setting. To me that has just tons of warning bells, just in that description right there.
First of all, East Asian is way too broad. Cultures are very, very specific and a lot of times, when you hear people talking about cultural appropriation, one of the biggest complaints is people — for instance, “Moana” — taking a bunch of different Polynesian cultures and then just being like “Oh, we can just use pieces of all of them and just put them together.”
No. If you’re like, “Oh, it’s inspired by this.” Okay, that means that what you’re doing is you’re not trying to make it authentic. Generally in that case, we don’t recommend… it’s okay, you can just base it off of Europe. It’s okay, really. And there’s plenty of ways that you can make your setting creative without that.
But we’ve generally found about zero case studies of people who are not part of a culture actually doing this respectfully. And, maybe someday, if we find some great success stories of white novelists who did a great job of depicting their Japanese fantasy culture, or something, and Japanese people loved it and Japanese Americans loved it, and then we could find out: What did you do?
Because usually traditional research just doesn’t cut it. There’s so many things that are part of culture that are very difficult to research.
Oren: Lots of really subtle things that if you haven’t lived there, you’re not going to notice them. They don’t always get written down.
This is another case where again, I know authors get kind of confused and it can be a little frustrating, because if you make a fantasy story that has elements of French, German and Spanish cultures all brought together in one fantasy city, no one cares. Like that’s fine. Most people will think that’s not a problem.
If you do that with three different East Asian countries and mix them together that way, that can be a problem.
And I get that this is kind of frustrating. It can feel like a double standard. Again, the reason is that in real life, white people have a tendency to treat everyone from East Asia like they’re the same.
There’s a “King of the Hill” skit about that. Where they keep asking this guy if he’s Chinese or Japanese and he’s Lao. If “King of the Hill” gets it, I think the rest of us can get it.
Chris: You know, there’s been maybe a couple movies. Like “Coco” has succeeded, and they brought in tons of consultants for all those little nuances. A novelist succeeding? We haven’t found one yet.
Even if we found some could be successful and have works that were not considered to be appropriative, we still, as Orin said, have to ask the question of maybe the people of that culture should be profiting off of this instead.
Oren: We say this a lot on the site, but just to reiterate, what we’re talking about here is not that your story should be all white, all the time. What we advocate for is diversity through characters, because we think that’s important for a number of reasons, and it’s simply easier than trying to depict an entire culture that you aren’t part of.
And often you still have to do research and sensitivity readers are still good, but it’s more doable. And that’s what we recommend.
Chris: For exploitation, it’s not quite such a high mountain. It’s still difficult. In most cases, what we find is a lot of storytellers who aren’t really doing it for the right reasons, are not willing to put in the amount of energy that it takes to get it right. But if it’s something that you’re passionate about, you want to make meaningful commentary on it, especially if you have personal experience with it, you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re willing to put in work, you’re willing to get a paid consultant for something that could be exploitative, then it is possible.
It does take a lot of effort and the average storyteller is just trying to write their story. They’re just trying to make their villain villainous and they don’t need rape to do that. They’re just trying to make their love interest look good and they don’t need him to choose not to rape somebody to do that. And again, abuse, we find lots of storytellers put abuse in their stories, not knowing it’s abuse, and once I tell them, they take it out.
The average storyteller does not realize how much they are taking on by putting potentially exploitative content in their stories. But it’s not like it’s impossible to do it well.
Oren: This is also a case where, moving it back to appropriation just a little bit, there is a lot of well-meaning, but incorrect advice out there about how people are tired of high fantasy that’s based off of medieval Europe.
First of all, no they’re not. [All laughing]
Second, what that is getting at is that people do like novelty in their setting. They like novelty, that’s a big part of the draw of fantasy. Being like, “Ooh, I wonder what this setting has in store for me.” There is, because of that advice, a number of authors — I have worked with some of them — who think that in order for their setting to be not boring, they have to appropriate from other cultures.
And they didn’t think of it as appropriation at the time, because they had not considered this enfolds a complicated subject. But that’s what they were doing, because they had been told that no one wanted to read another fantasy story based on medieval Western Europe.
There are just so many ways to add novelty to your setting other than taking from Japan or Thailand or the Aboriginal culture of Australia. You have so many good options that are better than those. You know, that’s a piece of advice I see a lot and I do think it is giving a lot of writers the wrong idea.
Wes: There’s definitely a good list of things, like Oren’s “who does this harm” question, is a good one to ask. That example there, Oren was good about, if you’re looking at stories and you’re like “Oh, I need to mine something from another culture,” that’s the definition of cultural appropriation and exploitation.
We’ve talked about “Supernatural” recently, and in season one, they deal with a wendigo, or a wen-dee-go, you should ask yourself what ethnic, racial or cultural group does this belong to? What significance does it have? Does my using this benefit me in some way and take away from the group it belongs to? And what makes it possible for me to engage with this in my story?
So it’s definitely… you’ve got to ask yourself some questions. Especially the engagement and the harm stuff. You’re supposed to write what you know, and if you’re cherry picking from like other faiths, you probably don’t know it.
Oren: Right. And I will just say real quick, sometimes this can be pretty complicated, but I have checked with a number of Native American advocates who are into SpecFic. The answer is almost universally, please do not use wendigos or skinwalkers or other mythological creatures as monsters. The majority of them are saying that, and even if you know some person who is from the relevant tribe, who says it’s okay, I would still not do it. Just because enough people have told me not to, that I’m going to err on that side.
Chris: I’m not going to say permission isn’t relevant, but we always have to remember one person can never represent an entire group. So getting permission from one person doesn’t mean that when you write your story, that group is going to be, “Oh yeah, it’s fine you got permission.” [All laughing]
You know we want you to succeed and we want what you write to be well received. So we have to be frank about what will do that and what will not do that. One other thing that a lot of people ask about world building is, “How do I come up with a theoretical world and a theoretical culture if I’m not allowed to take things from other cultures?”
So if I have a culture that’s, for instance, living in a cold environment, how do I know what to do with them if I’m not allowed to take from the Inuit? In those types of situations, you have to think a little harder. By studying other cultures, you can find some logic that you can use in coming up with things that your own culture does that are different from just taking a specific practice from a culture.
A great example is burial practices. You can look at a variety of all the burial practices around the world and you’ll find a pattern where people do whatever is the most practical to dispose of a body. If it’s easy to dig into the earth, they will bury it. If they have lots of wood to burn, they will burn it. If they don’t have either of those things, but there’s a body of water nearby, they will put the body in the water. From that you can kind of extrapolate from cultures.
There’s also some practices that are in more than one culture. In that case, if it’s something that multiple cultures engage in, you have to think about how you’re packaging it. Are you giving it a label that’s associated with a specific culture or details that are associated with a specific culture?
It’s not that you can’t use cultural research to come up with ideas for your world building, but it’s important that you think about your world and how it works separately and logic that out, as opposed to just transplanting something that’s taken from another culture.
Oren: I think this is a good moment to end the podcast because we’re a bit over time. So thank you everyone for listening. If we said something that piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[closing theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?