by Tessara Dudley
Recently, there’s been a push for diversity in young adult fiction, and I am so here for it. But diversity in fiction and media isn’t enough. The problem isn’t only the rarity of characters from marginalized communities—queer characters, trans characters, characters of color, characters with disabilities, and so on—it is that when they are there, they are warped, sometimes beyond recognition.
I know this well, because books and fandom have been my escape from stress and hardship for the last 15 years. I will go to the mat (metaphorically) to defend my favorite characters. I love books and fantasy worlds…but I know they don’t always love me.
Often, we cannot see ourselves in these characters from our communities because they are almost parodies of us. Or even worse, we internalize the awful, damaging stories they tell about who we are. When the brown folks are always villains, what does that say about brown folks?
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Harry Potter, for instance, is not a story about brown folks. In Harry’s world, people of color—like Dean Thomas and Lavender Brown—are marginal sidekicks at best. The message is that we can’t be main characters, can’t have agency. And yet, without people of color to identify with, I, a Black queer cripple, have identified as a Slytherin for almost 2/3rds of my life.
If you’re not familiar, 90% of Slytherins are basically portrayed as neo-Nazis aiming to build a terrifying, racist world led by wealthy, violent “pureblood” wizards. Doesn’t seem like the first group I would identify with, but those of us who’ve been into Slytherin from the start have created an alternative narrative to build community around. The seemingly universal hate of Slytherins feels a lot like the bullying and abuse many of us have faced. For better or worse, Slytherin is where we feel at home.
But I have to admit that Harry Potter isn’t even the worst offender on my list.
I watch Supernatural. I was drawn in by the working class main characters, even though I was simultaneously put off by rampant misogyny and racism. On the one hand, very real. On the other, way too real.
One of my most recent faves is Elementary – a modern day Sherlock Holmes adaptation set in New York City. It has diverse, genderswapped characters, a trans actress playing a trans woman, and serious portrayals of addiction and mental illness…and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There’s a fear that comes when we start watching/reading/enjoying a new work. It’s a coiled little fear in our hearts: when will this one go wrong? When will this excitement be tarnished by casual ableism, by racism, transmisogyny, or heterosexism?
If you’re familiar with my problematic faves, you know that there’s plenty not to love. From Orientalism to misogyny, from cultural appropriation to lack of representation, Supernatural has had it all. But I liked Supernatural so much that my partner and I got matching tattoos!
As for Elementary, a couple of one-off jokes aren’t the end of the world, but being fat-shamed is obviously still pretty painful.
So, how can I still love these shows?
One thing that frustrates a lot of folks new to social justice is this understanding that things we love can perpetuate oppression. It sometimes feels like we’re not allowed to love anything, because everything is problematic!
I can sympathize: I know that feeling of the bubble bursting when someone reminds you of reality. With Elementary, I got so wrapped up in my excitement that I snapped defensively when a friend interrupted my gushing to give a perfectly valid critique:
“I don’t watch procedurals,” she said. “They always seem to feature trans women as murder victims.”
I apologized for snapping at her, but it still bothered me after. It felt awful that I couldn’t affirm my friend’s feelings by acknowledging the dismal track record of police procedurals. Instead, I shut her down. It was really crappy of me; in that moment, I wasn’t being a good friend.
And so it’s true: everything is problematic, because everything is made by people. But that doesn’t mean we absolutely have to abandon our faves. The important thing is to be willing to critique them. We need to critically engage our media, and call for show creators and show runners to do better. We need to educate and challenge each other. Often, folks get stuck in the reactive moment, where attacking their faves feels like an attack on them, like an implication that they are bad people by association. If we can move past that, though, we can create a climate of loving accountability.
I like to watch my faves with friends, because I know they might pick up on oppressive moments I don’t, and we can have a positive, respectful conversation about what the shows we enjoy could do better. We can talk about tropes that pop up in our favorite media, and come up with solid analyses about why certain shows make us happy, even if we have to wade through a heavy dose of marginalization to get there. We can connect with other fans on Tumblr, and build whole new points of view outside the official reality.
Until the media gets it right, there’s still room to love the things we love, even when their creators didn’t build those worlds with us in mind.
So, I continue to fly my Slytherin flag high. We’re seen as ruled by ambition and cunning, and I say yes. I am cunning in the pursuit of justice. I use all the tools at my disposal. After all, I seek nothing less than a radical reinvention of the world, moving into a future where every person is valued and all of our needs can be met. What’s more ambitious than that?
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Tessara Dudley lives in the rainy Pacific-Northwest, writing poetry and personal essay from the intersection of working class Black queer disabled life, and hoping her art will help to build a better world. The spark of inspiration keeps Tessara busy; her latest project is founding a small press. She can be found, among other places, at http://tessaradudley.com