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This is part 2 in the series: Social Justice Concepts for Storytellers

Last time, I described why it’s important to have diverse characters that represent people with marginalized traits. I also described how storyteller carelessness can sabotage attempts at representation. However, many storytellers not only add characters to represent marginalized groups but also choose to make their stories about marginalized experiences.

How We Overfocus on Marginalized Traits

Example

A Japanese family moves into a new neighborhood. They are invited to join the neighborhood block party. But when they show up, the host will not let them just have fun. On entrance, the host loudly announces, “Hey everyone, it’s the Japanese family! Did you know they’re Japanese?”

The family reaches for the pizza that everyone else is eating, but the host blocks their path, shoving a tray of sushi in their hands. The host spends the rest of the night trying to get every family member to bust out ninja moves, refusing to believe they don’t know martial arts.

When storytellers depict characters with privileged traits like being white or cis, they don’t think of those traits as defining features. So they make those characters stand out with distinctive personalities – such as being rebellious, strict, or witty. But when a character with a marginalized trait is depicted, storytellers often think of that trait as the character’s defining feature. Instead of giving them unique individual characteristics, they emphasize the trait. More often than not, this turns the character into a stereotype.

This is not to say that characters shouldn’t have features that reflect their race, gender, disability, etc. We may not realize it, but when we depict a character with a privileged trait we share, we includes lots of subtle cues that reinforce this. Marginalized characters should also have these cues. For instance, if all the straight characters are dating but none of the queer characters are, it will feel like their sexual orientation is being erased. But just like privileged characters, marginalized characters should be individuals.

Focusing almost exclusively on marginalized traits shows that the storyteller thinks of marginalized people as “other.” Besides stereotyping, this can manifest by writing plot arcs about marginalized traits. A cis person may focus on a trans character’s transition, or an able-bodied person may focus on a disabled character’s adjustment to their disability. For comparison, women don’t write plots about circumcision or sexual stamina every time they have a man in their stories. That would be weird and off-putting to men.

At this trend’s worst, storytellers start thinking that they shouldn’t include marginalized characters without a “reason.” This blatant bigotry uses a double standard, whereby privileged traits such as whiteness need no justification to be present in a story, but marginalized traits like neurodivergence can only be justified if the plot specifically requires a neurodivergent character. Not only does this discourage including marginalized characters, but it almost guarantees that any who make it in will be shoehorned into roles determined when plotting.

Is “othering” marginalized people the only reason for creating plots about marginalized identities? No. But if that identity isn’t yours, there’s a good chance it’s a contributing factor. If you automatically assumed that having a marginalized character meant you should focus on their marginalized trait, take a step back and rethink things.

How This Focus Becomes Exploitation

Example

A couple of proud parents are throwing a graduation party for their daughter, who is entering college next fall. Everyone’s having fun when the parents call all their guests to the living room for an important discussion. “We’ve heard there’s a lot of sexual assault happening on college campuses, so we’d like everyone to share their experiences of sexual assault.”

The guests who’ve been assaulted quietly flee the party. Everyone left has a boisterous discussion of all the secondhand accounts they’ve heard. It seems like a great discussion to them; they don’t even notice all the people who left.

We’ve all had moments when a story impacted us because it reminded us of our own lives. Sometimes this creates warm fuzzy feelings, but sometimes it brings up experiences we’d rather forget. I don’t know about you, but I hate it when high school dramas remind me of my actual high school years. Watching stories that remind us of bad experiences turns a fun, escapist story into a deeply uncomfortable one.

Now let’s consider all the stories focusing on marginalized traits. Storytellers create plot arcs by finding problems significant enough to generate conflict. By definition, it requires looking for experiences that are unpleasant for the character. That means a storyteller writing a plot about a marginalized trait is deliberately seeking material that is uncomfortable for people with that trait.

Unless that storyteller has that trait themself, they probably don’t have the same level of personal discomfort with the problems they are putting in their story. Their depiction will reflect that. They will be more likely to depict things like violence or discrimination in graphic detail. They will also more likely to glorify violence, intentionally or otherwise.

All too often, the result is a story that’s about a marginalized person, that uses painful experiences unique to that marginalized group, and that only privileged people can enjoy. These stories exploit the pain of marginalized people for the benefit of privileged people. Exploitative stories are often accepted by publishers and studios run by privileged people. Then, they do well in the market because they are popular with privileged audiences. Very quickly, the privileged perspective on marginalization drowns out the voices of marginalized people.

When Is It Okay to Tell These Stories?

Stories about marginalized experiences should definitely be told; the question is whether people without those experiences should be doing it.

  • Personal experience translates to expertise on a topic, so people without those experiences are more likely to get it wrong.
  • Since the story is covering things the storyteller is inexperienced with in more depth and detail than if they were just depicting characters with marginalized traits, the risk of getting the depiction wrong is higher.
  • Since the subject matter hits close to home, the results of getting it wrong are more disastrous. A woman described as super sexy is one thing; a rape scene described that way is at a whole new level of grossness.

There is definitely value in bringing important issues to light, but marginalized storytellers can write about the issues they want everyone to know about in the way they want them to be depicted. In fact, because publishers and other production companies see similar stories as competition for each other, privileged storytellers writing about these issues are probably making it harder for marginalized storytellers to publish stories about their own experiences. Given that, it’s questionable whether there is any upside to this practice.

This is why at Mythcreants, we recommend against telling stories that belong to marginalized people. If you’re wondering exactly what does and doesn’t qualify, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the story or experience associated with a marginalized group?
  • Is it unpleasant or personal in nature?

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then we advise staying away. Of course, there will be exceptions for the rare storyteller. Maybe several of your loved ones have had these experiences and are supporting your efforts to tell a similar story. Maybe you’ve studied hard for years and are dedicated to getting it right. But these situations are not common.

We do get occasional pushback on this advice. Naturally, privileged storytellers chafe at hearing that they’re not supposed to do something. Marginalized people sometimes worry that this advice erases them or will discourage privileged storytellers from including them in stories. I understand this; I’ve been there. But like I said in my last post, no one asks to be invited to a party expecting their new host to turn around and call them names. We all know how we want our lives to be portrayed, so it can be hard to imagine all the hurtful things storytellers might do. But they do it a lot, and we don’t have to choose between being excluded and letting them abuse us. Storytellers can do better.

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