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Does writing slash about white men make you racist and sexist?

Some speculation. Full disclosure: I am not deeply into any fandom. Even though I strongly support fanfiction and think it’s awesome, it’s possible I don’t truly understand some of the issues at hand.

So, I’ve been reading the metafandom community on livejournal, and issues that come up over and over center around these related questions:

“Why do we hate / what’s wrong with Mary Sues?”
“Are we really antifeminists and racists for writing about white men? We’re women; we should write about women. And, like, more black people. Should we feel bad about this?”

These issues are related. Mary Sues occur when a fanfiction writer creates a new character, or adapts an existing one, to be her avatar. She’s often too perfect and rather undeveloped, and a lot of people hate Mary Sues and bash other fanfiction writers for writing them.

Mary Sue.
It’s not hard to understand the impulse for Mary Sue — if I’d just read Twilight and I longed to be a part of that world, I’d go ahead and write myself in. That’s part of what fanfiction is about. There are Serious Writers in fanfiction, a lot of them, but there are also simply fans who love the original material so much they want to make it come alive for themselves again.

By writing a Mary Sue, they’re saying, “what if I was still the same, and Twilight was actually my reality?” Of course, writing yourself in makes you tremendously vulnerable, so they often try to throw people off the scent by killing themselves off, or making their Mary Sue annoying or over the top, etc. See? It’s not really them. But still, the meta-message is, “I’m special enough to enter this world that I love.”

Why people hate her.
It’s not real. It couldn’t ever happen. Of course, none of the fandoms are real, and no-one believes it is, but when an obvious self-insertion happens, the purists in the audience revolt. They are looking for the truth-in-story, and they believe they’ll get there closer by only using the existing characters, in character. These kinds of readers hate Mary Sue possibly because she represents real life intruding on the story world.

Writing about WASP men.
The lore goes, fandom is mostly made of educated females who are attracted to men. From my own experience in both a small liberal arts college and a big state diploma mill, I got the impression that most college-educated women were white. Yes, I did have friends that were not white, but if I looked around at my cafeteria, there was vastly more pasty ivory than brown.

People write stories that are natural reflections of their life experiences. If you grew up in a white family, and went to a mostly-white high school and college, it’s not a shock that you’d write about white people. It’s not a crime! You aren’t racist just because you aren’t black, or Mexican, or whatever.

There’s also the fact that most TV shows have mostly white people, still, accompanied by the token minority characters. Then again, I haven’t watched TV in many years; maybe I’m wrong about this.

Write what you know?
I’m of two minds about this.

  1. If a writer is not black / Asian / female / male, how can he-she-it possibly have the cultural authority to write about it?  Isn’t it appropriation / fetishization for a white writer to do a story about life on the streets as a Mexican gangster?
  2. Writers are imaginative and inherently have the ability to understand people, regardless of sex or species.  I’m pretty sure Bram Stoker never was a vampire or a woman, and yet he managed to do pretty well with those characters.

I can understand why most of fandom likes it over F/M and F/F — they’re women! They’re attracted to men! It’s hard to write any erotic story if you are not excited by it, yourself.

Write what turns you on!
Most women I know aren’t attracted by the idea of having sex with other women. Some of them have tried it, and the response is, “Eh, I came, but it didn’t do that much for me.” I don’t expect a female writer to write good F/F if the idea doesn’t do it for her — I expect that her best stories will come out of what she is emotionally passionate about, and what turns her on. In fandom, I expect that the male characters will turn her on more than the female characters, since she is probably attracted to men more than women.

Don’t write to prove a point or push an agenda — it won’t result in good art.

In my writer’s group, a lot of people are “trying to get into” something, whether it’s horror, science fiction, etc. It’s because they think those genres are cool, and they want to be cool by being in the scene, just like learning to play guitar so you can pick up chicks. It’s externally motivated by how they want people will think of them as writers, and the way they’d like to think of themselves.

But it usually results in poor storytelling because they aren’t really passionate about what they’re writing. They try to write dark, gritty stuff but don’t have a keen interest in the “thin ice of life,” as Steven King says. “Be yourself,” is always the advice given.

A word about women characters in popular entertainment…
This being said, I’d be blind not to notice that even “strong women” in entertainment, especially movies and TV, are still often defined by what men think of them. They’re like men, but in a sexy chick body. These heroines are admired because of traits usually seen as masculine, often despite their unfortunate female status, and this evaluation happens both within the story world and with real life.

The way I’ve seen it, women characters are depicted as women first, and people second. But this is not the fault of only the writers — women, in real life, also classify themselves as women first, people second. I see it all over author bios, especially of romance writers:

“I’m married to a wonderful man and am the mother of n fabulous children…” Or, slightly more modern:

“I’m a mom, writer, coffee drinker, and avid reader… not necessarily in that order.”

Anyway, I’m not surprised that female fans don’t resonate with most of the female characters found on TV and in the movies. Being a male protagonist is not remarkable, and it’s easier to see beyond the male-type machine into the unique character within (or make up the uniqueness!) than it is for female protagonists, especially if you’re sensitive about your own place in society as a person with a female-type machine.

Write what you like to write. I don’t think you’re being racist or sexist by writing about white men. I don’t think you’re antifeminist by not writing F/F, and I don’t think your uncool if you aren’t really into horror or science fiction, but want to write Mary Sue-ish romance instead. Only by being true to ourselves as unique beings will we make race/gender a non-issue.

Links:
http://community.livejournal.com/metafandom/288622.html?#cutid1 -> roundup of posts
http://impertinence.livejournal.com/540692.html?format=light

11 thoughts on “Does writing slash about white men make you racist and sexist?

  1. Good advice, Kat. You said: “Write what you like to write. I don’t think you’re being racist or sexist by writing about white men. I don’t think you’re antifeminist by not writing F/F.” Wouldn’t that be horrible if writing communities used political agendas to “guilt” their members into writing from a currently approved list of topics?

  2. “Wouldn’t that be horrible if writing communities used political agendas to “guilt” their members into writing from a currently approved list of topics?”

    That results in really bad storytelling. I’ve tried to do it, too, but I keep saying, “God! I just don’t care!” with every word. Not condusive to good fiction!

  3. As interesting as I think meta is, I’ve never really been able to read the metafandom community of LiveJournal. I’ve found that it actually sucks some of the joy out of fanfiction for me. It’s just a personal thing.

    I’ve gotten to the point where if I encounter a Mary Sue in fanfiction I might mention it if the author seems like they’d be open to criticism, but odds are just as good that I’ll simply move away from a story and go read something else. Sometimes a person might not know they’re writing a Mary Sue and will appreciate some comments pointing it out, but there are also people who know and just don’t care. It annoys me to see something so flat but I’ve learned to move on and let them write what they enjoy.

    I’d say that even people who do enjoy seeing original characters in fanfiction, or at least don’t mind them, hate Mary Sues because they’re perfect and few things are more annoying or boring than reading about a perfect character. Another aspect is that they lessen the canon characters by taking away screen time, becoming the focus of the story, and frequently causing the characters’ personalities to change. Suddenly Heero from Gundam Wing is writing poems at midnight and spitting on Relena just because Mary Sue is the love of his life.

    I’m not up for speculating much about fandom in general because I think there’s a lot that would have to be taken into account so I can only talk about myself and my writing habits.

    I write mostly about women because I’m one myself and because I’ve spent the last couple of years writing Sailormoon crossover fanfiction, which naturally meant writing about a lot of strong women. I’m not more inclined to read a story just because it includes a female lead anymore than I’m more likely to play a game just because it has a female lead. It all depends on how interesting the premise looks.

    If I think I can do it, I’ll write f/m, m/m, f/f, or whatever, but I usually do f/m because that’s what I most comfortable with. I’ve tried writing m/m before; sometimes it sucks and sometimes it doesn’t, but trying to force it always made it worse. I haven’t done f/f but if the story is good, I’ll read it and if I ever had an idea I wouldn’t mind trying it.

    A character’s race won’t make me more or less likely to write about them; it just depends on whether or not I find them interesting. I’m also not going to write about someone just because she’s black anymore than I’m going to write about her just because she’s female. The result of writing in that mindset would probably be weak. If I see them as an underrepresented character with potential, well, that’s different.

    And one quick moment of speculation: a large amount of the fandoms I know of have males, some of them white, as the main characters (which is a separate problem), getting the most screen time, character development, and the like. It’s possible that some people are more comfortable writing about these characters because they’ve had the opportunity to make a better connection with them – they know that character’s goals, past, and how he interacts with others better than other character’s and because of that they feel more comfortable writing about him.

    Females often get the short end of the stick as characters even when they’re supposed to be important and are repeatedly called strong in the series, only to have events prove otherwise. With the male leads getting to do more interesting things, maybe some people just think they’d be more interesting to write about.

  4. I get you. In the short time I’ve been reading it, they seem to be… hmm. Defensive about stuff they don’t need to be defensive about, maybe? And that just casts a shadow on something most people do for fun.

    At the same time, I think it’s important to understand why you like what you like, especially if you feel weird about it. Perhaps that’s just my scientist’s mindset — we like to break down what we love to find out how it works. People write about what resonates with them, and that usually has something to do with their gender identity (though not always — things like leather fetishes don’t have any inherent gender, do they?)

    I agree about the fandoms — sometimes, there just isn’t a lot to work with that isn’t a white male. The female characters are un-identifiable or too stupid to live, so fan writers work with what they got. And women are great at slipping past gender in adventure fiction, which is where many got their start when they were kids (Narnia, LOTR, etc.) Using well-developed suspension of disbelief abilities, it’s not an issue to bond with the male characters.

    “Females often get the short end of the stick as characters even when they’re supposed to be important and are repeatedly called strong in the series, only to have events prove otherwise. With the male leads getting to do more interesting things, maybe some people just think they’d be more interesting to write about.”

    No kidding. It’s possible for a character to be both female and strong, without being “like a man” or compared to traditional ideas of masculine and feminine. They can just be themselves, and happen to be female.

    I don’t know if that’s a valid point — if I’m ignoring inherent gender differences, or whatever. All I know is, in my martial arts class, there were women and men who were lighter and shorter than me. There were women and men who were taller and heavier — not to mention more skilled — than me. My teacher, himself, was “176 pounds soaking wet,” and took up MA to defend himself.

    He said something like this to a few of us after class: “You have to work with what you have. There will be people who are stronger and faster than you, but you’re always going to have something over them. You just have to find out what it is.”

  5. Here by way of fan history.

    Self inserts are not necessarily Mary Sues. Mary Sue deforms canon and character. She makes Spock cry (literally. The first one, Ensign Mary Sue age 15, died heroically saving the Enterprise and even Spock cried at her funeral) She’s a phase. I wrote my share.

    I have trouble writing f/f because I have trouble telling where my sexual responses end and the characters’ begin. With male characters, that problem is less noticeable.

    Not all white men are WASPs. I have Italian Catholics, mutt pagans, Greek Jews, Celtic atheists and other. They are all white, but not all of them are Anglo, Saxon or Protestant.

    I will argue when your entire writing world features only white men, then you’ve crossed the racist/sexist line. When everyone from the newstand clerk to the nurse to the grocery owner is white and male, you need to ask yourself why. There are times and places where that works. 1960s, sundown town in middle America, sure. 2010, New York City? not so much.

    But I totally agree on write what pleases you the most, write the story that demands to be written. And stand tall, because someone WILL find something to gripe about.

  6. “These issues are related. Mary Sues occur when a fanfiction writer creates a new character, or adapts an existing one, to be her avatar”

    I actually disagree. It occurs when you do that, AND/OR when the character THEN starts to wrap canon around itself completely. Not all self inserts do, and some non-inserts do that and turn Sueish.

    Remember, most people who dislike sues actually do so because Sues are completely crappy female characters. They are devalued females: Females who are only good because they are approved by male characters. That’s their point.
    Most of us would rather have awesome female characters who are awesome on their own, and are therefore VERY critical of Sues (and Stus, naturally, since those tend to warp female characters).

    *Continues writing mostly F/F*

  7. Hi Angelia,

    Thanks for your insight!

    “Not all white men are WASPs.”

    I got the feeling that most leading white men in the most popular fandoms are rather WASPy, except for obvious cases such as Blair Sandburg from Sentinel (and he’s the sidekick – military, white Jim.) Kirk, too, seems like the all-American hero, and though religious/ethnic backgrounds aren’t specifically gone into, I feel that the audience will assume the WASP profile. Am I wrong about this? I realize citing two examples out of the whole of fandom may not be representative — just the first two I though of. (Oh, and Harry Potter, of course.)

    “I will argue when your entire writing world features only white men, then you’ve crossed the racist/sexist line. When everyone from the newstand clerk to the nurse to the grocery owner is white and male, you need to ask yourself why. There are times and places where that works. 1960s, sundown town in middle America, sure. 2010, New York City? not so much.”

    That would be eerie and unnatural!

  8. Thanks for coming by — unfortunately, only have a minute to respond. So, the issue isn’t about self-insertion but simply bad writing? That is one of the camps on metafandom. Nice to see an f/f writer! Is your stuff archived anywhere?

  9. Jim Kirk is from Iowa. His surname is Scots so we can assume Celtic ancestry there. And in that era, most people are pretty much humanists, without use for any religion. Harry Potter is as WASP as they get. Blair Sandburg is Jewish. So is Charlie Eppes. John Sheppard is the first that comes to mind as WASP, and his sidekick, again, has a Celtic surname (McKay). Charles Xavier is, but Erik Lensherr is explicitly Jewish and European. Jean-Luc Picard is French.

    “That would be eerie.”
    I have a country like that. The only people who are employable are white males. The only people allowed to be seen or heard in the media are white Christian males. The only people allowed on the streets after dark are white males. Women are confined to houses. And the black 50% of the population is considered animals or criminals. It’s an unpleasant country and I’m working on my third book in it.

  10. Gundam serie is always awesome, extremely with this one.

  11. I write because I enjoy writing. I never understood the need for “Mary Sue” or “Gary Sue” until I joined this fan club years ago where everyone made up an original character which was required. I made her up and threw her away. I didn’t really care to use her. I have read a lot of fanzines with so-called original characters that were involved with the main cast of characters. I got so tired of one that I said tot he person “move on with the story and stop centering the story around your character and the main love interest.” Sigh…

    Now fanfiction is mostly made up of teenage girls as young as 12 with some kind of problem with life writing stuff that doesn’t make sense, breaking rules, and making up characters that are not believable. Not only that, they don’t even know how to spell or use proper grammar. If you tell them this, they jump down your throat. I guess they do not teach constructive criticism in school. I would hate to seem them later in life in the real world. They are actually the reason no one enjoys or will read fanfiction anymore. I would love to know what site these educated women who write stories are because ff.net has gone down hill.

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