Tag Archives: Joss Whedon

Equality, Diversity and Appropriation

Recently (actually about a month ago) Joss Whedon spoke at an Equality Now function. In some circles this was lauded (Jezebel called it perfect), others were less certain (such as The Mary Sue), and many were downright critical. I don’t want to down-play the importance of the feminist discussion, and we should all recognise just how problematic is the depiction of women in genre fiction and genre fandom. (If you don’t, try scrolling through the images here, many of which are drawn from Whedon’s own work).

I am a Whedon fan, but not a full Whedonite. I loved Buffy and Angel. I loved Firefly. Dollhouse, not so much. Serenity was ok. Cabin in the Woods was clever but problematic in many ways, not the least of which was that in its knowing parody of sexist horror tropes it conformed to all of the sexist horror (as explained brilliantly by Kirstyn McDermott). But I digress. With no disrespect to the importance of the feminist discussion,  an article by Clem Bastow got me thinking about Orientalism, another aspect of equality that genre fiction needs to confront.

Rebecca Brown’s essay on Orientalism in Firefly/Serenity gives a great outline for what Whedon has done in drawing on Oriental aesthetics and culture, but what he has not done is drawn into stark focus by Mike Le. A future culture in which Western and Oriental language, fashion and philosophy is blended, but no one exists who is of Asian appearance? Le rightly asks if such a gendered world could have been made – a world of male and female cultural equality – without female characters. I suspect not. I am certain, not.

I was reminded of Richard Morgan’s future/noir novels in which Takeshi Kovacs is protagonist. The character is explicitly located as being culturally Japanese/Slavic (and fiercely pedantic of the pronunciation of his name: Koh-vach). For all sorts of reasons related to the technologies available in Takeshi’s world the physical appearance of the character is less relevant than you might assume, but this is the internet’s #1 image of him:

And here he is on a book cover:

That’s some obvious white-washing, and even if we give Kovacs a re-sleeving pass, there’s plenty more examples of Asian characters being white-washed, or erased, or presented in yellow-face. I could go all the way back to Mr. Yunioshi, or David Carradine in ‘Kung Fu’but unlike black-face, this is not some embarrassing relic of the past. Tom Cruise as the ‘Last Samurai’, Keanu as the main one of ’47 Ronin’, 2010’s all-caucasian ‘Last Airbender’, 2012’s ‘Cloud Atlas’, even ‘Pacific Rim’ cast Clifton Collins Jnr as Tendo Choi.

On his blog over the past months Alan Baxter had guest posts from people discussing their early inspirations in genre fiction. The post by Thoraiya Dyer on the Feist/Wurts ‘Empire trilogy’ struck a cord with me because I too read and greatly enjoyed those books. For me they were one of the first examples – perhaps the first example outside of folk stories and mythoilogies – of Fantasy from a Non-Anglo perspective. Much as with ‘Dune’, which I also read as a teen, I was fascinated by the different culture, the different way of life, that was presented.

Mara of the Acoma is a young woman, powerless by the regular measures of the genre. She is no warrior, no adept of magic, has no divinely assured destiny. She is unprepared fro the challenges she faces but survives and overcomes them by the force of her agency and wits. Here she is on the cover:

That's her there, the white-chick dressed in white with blonde hair

That’s her there, the white-chick dressed in white with blonde hair


Never mind that Mara is obviously described as dark-haired. Never mind that the buildings of her world are more rice-paper screens than towering spires of marble. Never mind that she really has no use for a sword. And yes, the civilising white saviour comes in later to show her how much better things could be if only her culture were whiter and more European, but until that point the books did an excellent job of introducing me, and apparently Thoraiya, and I’m sure many other readers, to new cultural influences on Fantasy. I sure do hate the character of Kevin, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Paul Atreides is the privileged white male, but he  only comes into his power when he leaves that world. Re-reading ‘Dune’ recently I was struck by how my younger self had missed the obvious parable: when a technologically superior force invades a desert to extract from it the natural resources required to maintain their technologies,  the native inhabitants look to a religious leader to mount a rebellion against their oppressors. Again – Paul is the white saviour, giving the Fremen a leader that couldn’t have come from within, but still, this was the 70s.

Forward to today and I am reading Mazarkis Williams’ first novel, clearly set in an Orientalist culture. I am not far into the novel, so I won’t comment further, but it is still difficult to see this culture as anything but the Other. Perhaps that is for me as a reader to overcome.

My own writing draws on the culture I see in the streets and workplaces where I live, in my friends and the friends of my family, in the public spaces I frequent, but my novel, especially in its earliest drafts, was set in the pseudo-Euro tropes of lazy Fantasy. As a young writer one tends to reproduce what one has read. As Neil Gaiman says, “Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.”

I think the question that fascinates me here is when writers can draw upon cultures of the Other to add to their world (as I believe Morgan did with the Kovacs novels), and when does it become white privilege mining other cultures and appropriating elements that then become stereotypes?

I don’t have the answer, but much as with good art – I feel that I know it when I see it.

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From an idea to an act of creation

When I really should have been working on other things there suddenly popped into my head a line:

They rode out with the intent to kill Old Man Madigan, and the means to make it so.

This happens to me sometimes. Sometimes a line, sometimes a description, sometimes dialogue – even whole conversations. I use the notes function on my phone, or I scrawl this stuff on scraps of paper that I then keep in a completely chaotic and highly intuitive mess around my house, or occasionally in a notepad I bought, long ago, for the purpose.

And so this line about Old Man Madigan sat ignored for some time, until I came back to it and questioned what I had made. Who is/was this old man? Who was out to kill him, and why? why ‘riding out’?

Initially my answers to that were confused collisions of genre, or reductive allusions to things I’ve liked elsewhere. I wanted them a long way from authority, such that they had to take ‘justice’ into their own hands. I wanted to explore that ambiguity of authority, or its absence. I wanted to question whether these men seeking to deal death were agents of justice or of revenge. Was this a community coming together against a predator, or was this mob rule, unfettered in its attack on an outsider?

I liked the idea of a posse.

So the US perhaps? A western? Shane, or The Searchers? It made sense of the ‘riding out’, but it just didn’t grab me. A space western? Perhaps Joss Whedon’s fault. I could almost see Nathan Fillion sneering my line. Awesome… and yet not my own. The space thing was interesting though.
So they’re in space, a long way from Earth. Colonisers then? Something between LV426 and the Wild West writ extra-planetary? Barely more original than channelling Mal, but perhaps something I could work with. If I could steer clear of a Takeshi Kovacs analogue. No horses I suppose. Are they riding out on bikes? Hoverbikes?

I followed this path for a while. Researched light-speed, the fastest man-made objects, the nearest goldilocks planets. Nothing there unless I’m prepared to have spacecraft travelling up to percentages of light-speed  and even then the travel time is decades. So perhaps a moon, Saturn has plenty, Jupiter too, some potentially life supporting. But these men riding out should not be in space-suits. That’s not what I see. That doesn’t work for me.

Back to the notepad and disorganised filing then. For weeks. Months. I start writing other things. I’m in the middle of something that’s pretty hefty. Novella at least, perhaps room to grow. And then Madigan’s back.

Australia. Red dust. Post the exploration, pre-Goldrush. Madigan’s an impossible survivor from the prison fleets, fled or released upon his term and free now either way. He’s impossibly old, and the means of his longevity have earnt him the antipathy of the young community nearby his secluded home. He had fled other men, at least the white ones, but now the communities are growing, the Europeans spreading, and it has brought him into conflict. How? A young girl, missing, killed perhaps, perhaps used by this secluded old man. An angry father then, a community of angry fathers. The men of a fledgling town drawn together by their hatred and fear against Madigan, their common enemy.

But if Madigan is so long lived? Will he be so easily killed? What means do these men have? What assumptions do they make, and are they valid? And what is the role of the local inhabitants, considered fauna, shunned, ignored. What do they think of Madigan, what is he – this European interloper who will not die?

The images were coming thick and fast now. Red dust, hard men worn by weather and work, stern women with determined jaws, children casting off their parents’ culture for one all their own, the Aboriginal tribe, shifting and displaced, those caught in the middle – part of both worlds and neither…  and in this Madigan – a spider in its web. Or is he? Is he really the villain of the piece?

So I started writing. And suddenly I had 4,000+ words and a couple of thousand to come. A short story. Not yet born, but gestating nicely and not far off.

Excerpt here.