Social justice is intrinsic to storytelling. Fiction has a long history of championing the oppressed, and spec fic fans are particularly proud of that tradition. We love to pontificate about how Star Trek portrayed a racially diverse bridge crew like it was no big deal or discuss how Octavia Butler pushed us to consider what race and gender even mean.
Given the importance of such stories, it’s no surprise that many storytellers dream of advocating for social justice in their own work.* But while this is an admirable goal, it’s easy to make mistakes, especially for privileged authors. Such mistakes often mean a story does more harm than good, and that’s the last thing we want. There’s no exhaustive list of possible mistakes, but in my role as a content editor, I see some of these pop up over and over again.
1. Both Sides-ism
Few social justice causes come without conflict. If they did, we wouldn’t need to advocate for them anymore; they’d just be the default. And if there’s one thing progressive storytellers love, it’s portraying conflicts as complex and multisided. To most of us, this feels natural. We’re rejecting the simplistic good-vs-evil narratives of our youths and seeing the messy world for what it is.
This well-meaning worldview often creates a problem in social justice stories because it turns out that not all conflicts are multisided. Reactionaries may scream that immigrants are dangerous and that they steal jobs, but this simply isn’t true. Plenty of research has shown that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native citizens, and while any large population increase can stress resources in the short term, the long-term benefits of immigration are clear as well.
This dynamic holds true for most social justice conflicts. Plenty of people think that believing victims of sexual assault means abandoning the presumption of innocence, but they’re wrong.* Many others will tell you that poverty relief is difficult because people take advantage of aid programs, which is simply false.
When stories give credit to these false ideas, even through indirect parallels, they reinforce those ideas in real life. Activists have to spend even more time debunking false ideas than they already do. This is true even if a story eventually comes down on the right side of an issue. Simply granting credibility to a factually incorrect argument is enough to do damage.
How to Avoid It
The first step to avoiding both sides-ism is to not give the wrong side credibility out of obligation. If you want a story with more than one valid point of view, then issues like police brutality, marriage equality, and bathroom access probably won’t make for good subject matter.
The tricky part is avoiding both sides-ism on accident. We are not blessed with a complete understanding of every issue out there, and it’s easy to think a conflict is more complex than it actually is through ignorance. The solution, of course, is research, the same way you would research a historical period or theoretical technology. When researching, pay special attention to who has the power and who claims to be harmed. Those with power often harm those without, but the reverse is rarely true.
2. False Empowerment
Power structures and hierarchies are a seemingly inescapable facet of human society, and all too often, they disenfranchise people at the lower echelons. We see this all the time in the present, and it tends to get worse the further you go into the past.
These hierarchies are a common target for storytellers, which is great. It’s important to empower the historically downtrodden, and there’s the practical consideration that most protagonists need a degree of power in order to influence the story. Unfortunately, many storytellers seem unwilling to actually challenge the hierarchies in their stories, which is how we end up with false empowerment.
Instead of breaking an oppressive hierarchy or just leaving it out, storytellers craft tales where the hierarchy actually helps the people at the bottom. The most common example of this is the idea that women have the real power in a patriarchy because they control the men through sexy wiles. False empowerment also rears its head in the shape of a poor person abusing financial aid programs or a person of color getting what they want by shaming white characters for being racist.
No matter how it manifests, false empowerment is harmful. It supports the idea that marginalized people don’t actually need equal rights and protection, because they’re already in charge! Sometimes this comes from a genuine desire to show empowered characters making the best of a bad situation; other times, it’s a product of simple ignorance. Either way, false empowerment gives people the wrong idea of how social justice works.
How to Avoid It
If you want to tell a story about someone low in the hierarchy, that’s fine and possibly quite valuable. It’s important for audiences to know that underprivileged people have always fought for and accomplished things. You just have to make sure that the character’s underprivileged status is a hindrance, not an asset. An unassuming grandmother might secretly run a patriarchal family by whispering in her sons’ ears, but it should be clear she could do a better job without all that patriarchy getting in the way.
Alternatively, it’s fine not to focus on restrictive hierarchies or to craft worlds where they don’t exist. In most cases, the audience won’t even notice, just like they don’t notice when action heroes travel the globe without any way to pay for things. Your story doesn’t have to focus on how its protagonist is constantly derided for being a black woman in Victorian Britain. You can just focus on her battle against demons.
3. Direct Substitution
Parallels are a valuable tool in any storyteller’s belt, especially when tackling social justice. A parallel gives you some distance, so you have more room to experiment and your mistakes are insulated from real-life tragedies. Parallels can also be valuable for easing people into a social justice topic they might not otherwise be ready for. Someone who gets indignant over Black Lives Matter might not have the same knee-jerk reaction against green-blooded aliens fighting for civil rights.
At the same time, we want our parallels to feel believable, so we take inspiration from real life. That’s fine, until we take a little too much inspiration, and then everything falls apart. Once it becomes obvious what your story is substituting for, you lose all the benefits of a parallel. People will judge your story as if it were about real life, and any mistakes will be looked at far more harshly. You might have only meant to use the Vietnam War as inspiration, but when one side is a guerrilla force lead by Hu Chee Myn, the story might as well be historical fiction.
Worse than the critical fallout is what direct substitution says to the people being paralleled. In most cases, it is literally dehumanizing, as the most common parallels are for a real group of humans to be played by aliens or a fantasy race. This is particularly bad for marginalized groups, as they are often dehumanized in real life. That dehumanization is then used to justify discrimination against them. You can see this everywhere, from politicians talking about “swarms” of refugees to your reactionary uncle who thinks gay people are weird and dangerous.
Direct substitution stories only get worse with age. As a group’s otherness fades, the support for dehumanizing them fades. There were plenty of people in Tolkien’s day who disapproved of all his dark-skinned humans being evil, but nowadays even the most reactionary audiences would consider it over the top. That makes it even more important to avoid this mistake if you want your story to have a decent shelf life.
How to Avoid It
The primary defense against direct substitution is to simply be more creative in your worldbuilding. You can start with a real group as your inspiration, but then you need to put in some work. Change what the characters look like, what they eat, their names, their celebrations. Change them until they are clearly different. Pay special attention to cultural touchstones. It’s not enough to make your aliens into blue cat people; audiences will still see them as Native Americans if you leave them with beaded hair and feather decorations.
For additional insurance, it’s best to populate your cast with diverse characters. This is easy, and it helps a lot. Audiences are far less likely to see your aliens as a parallel to Cold War China if there are plenty of Chinese characters among the humans.
4. Empowerment by Exception
Making the protagonist special is an important part of storytelling, and with good reason. Not only is it enjoyable for the audience if the main character is someone out of the ordinary, but also you also need a reason for the main character to solve a problem no one else can solve. It’s even more important to make underprivileged protagonists special, since underprivileged audiences rarely get to see characters they identify with in badass roles.
This sounds straightforward, but when it comes to underprivileged characters, authors keep making a very serious mistake: they make the character special only in relation to people within their underprivileged group. The most blatant examples are the stories in which a female protagonist is the only woman in the story with magic, or the only woman who can survive turning into a werewolf, or the only woman who can lift a sword properly.*
Don’t worry, empowerment by exception isn’t limited to just women. You also see it in the only character of color with an education, or the only gay guy with a solid bench press, or the only slave willing to rebel. This mistake can strike at any underprivileged trait a character might have, possibly more than one!
No matter how the mistake manifests, empowerment by exception is insulting and condescending. It says, “Yes, this character is special, for one of them.” It implies the character has bettered themselves by being less like others in their group, and it puts down the rest of the group by extension.
How to Avoid It
An easy way to avoid this problem is to make the protagonist special in regards to everyone, not just other members of their group. That’ll take care of the issue, and you never have to think about it again. Instead of being the only girl with superpowers, she can be the only person to have two separate powers at the same time.
If it’s absolutely required that the protagonist be special in relation to the rest of their group, it should be clear that this isn’t because the group is lacking in some way. If you’re writing a story about the first black person to teach at a prestigious university, there needs to be an acknowledgment that other black people have been qualified in the past but were kept out by racism. Better yet, use a parallel and make it about the first human teaching at an elven academy of sorcery.
5. Trauma Exploitation
Storytellers love to make their work real and intense,* and what’s more intense than trauma? Even in stories that aren’t chasing the grimdark trend, it’s often beneficial to inflict hardship on the protagonist, either in the main narrative or as part of a tragic backstory. These hardships give the character something to struggle against, which makes them more sympathetic.
That all sounds great, but it leads many storytellers to make a serious mistake: assuming problems related to a character’s underprivileged status will be even better. The trans character will face conflict over their gender, or the black character will face conflict over their race – sounds great! After all, bigotry is perhaps the greatest evil humanity has ever spawned, so surely bigotry-induced trauma will turbocharge a protagonist, right?
Things don’t quite work that way. Instead, stories that focus on the hardships of a character’s underprivileged status often come off as exploitative, especially when crafted by a privileged storyteller.
The first thing to consider is the audience’s experience. Bigotry-induced trauma is different than any other kind of trauma, and including it in your story can cause real harm. A person who recently lost their parents might be really upset by the death of the protagonist’s parents, but at least there aren’t hate groups telling them they deserved it. Meanwhile, a queer person can be beaten bloody and then be told it was their own fault for not being straight. Including the second type of trauma can be really harmful for people who’ve experienced it in real life.
If you’re going to ask sections of your audience to relive that kind of trauma, you’d better have a really good reason, and most stories don’t. The best most stories can say is that they’re providing representation for underprivileged characters, and there are better ways to do that. These stories come off as exploitative, because it feels like the trauma was added to excite a privileged audience.
Privileged authors are more likely to make mistakes when writing underprivileged characters because they don’t have the relevant experience. If the story is about trauma, those mistakes will be much worse for the audience and destroy any message you meant to impart. On top of that, underprivileged communities have a difficult time getting their voices heard, and they feel that they should be the ones to tell their own stories. A privileged author trying to tell such a story, even with perfect execution, will not be looked on kindly.
How to Avoid It
If you’re just looking to tell a good story without making things difficult for yourself, the best solution is to simply treat underprivileged characters the same way you’d treat privileged characters. Storytellers have been giving compelling hardships to straight white cis-dudes for a long time now, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. If the hardship of losing a best friend works for your privileged protagonist, it’ll work for your underprivileged protagonist too.
If you’re determined to include hardships related to underprivileged traits you don’t have, the best advice I can offer is to bring on people who do have those traits to help you. Sensitivity readers are good, but you’ll also want consultants to assist before the beta-reading phase. Not only will these advisers increase the quality of your work, but they’ll also lessen the impression that you’re appropriating someone else’s story. They’ll expect to be paid, so you’ll have extra costs to consider. This is not the sort of endeavor one embarks on cheaply.
Some people like to portray social justice as an unnecessary complication to storytelling, and it’s true that many authors stumble when trying to make their work more progressive. I’ll tell you a secret though: all of these social justice mistakes are also storytelling mistakes. They will make your story worse the same way a distant POV or boring plot will. That’s why it’s so important to know about them. On the bright side, they all have easy solutions once you know what to look for.
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