False Equivalence: Selfies and Diversity in SFF

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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November 29, 2013

Selfie with cat. November 2013.

See that up there? That’s a selfie (that’s my wtf face, btw).

See this? That’s a discussion of diversity in SFF that happened on Twitter over the last day or so.

You want to know what these two things have in common?

Not a damn thing. Unless, of course, you’re Felicity Savage. In which case, they are pretty much the same thing. And, of course, if you are a woman who posts selfies you’re a narcissist (except not really).  If you’re a man it’s art.

Just think about that for a second.

So from the very beginning, Savage is arguing from a deeply flawed and–arguably–sexist perspective.

There’s so much talk about representing diverse voices. It’s a good thing to have stories written by lots of different sorts of people, of course it is! But the call for diversity is usually interpreted with deadly literal-mindedness as a call for more characters who are female / black / Asian / what have you. Why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page?

Oh, I dunno. Maybe because white cis heterosexual men don’t have a lock on being protagonists in stories? Because in the absence of markers indicating otherwise, people will assume that a character is a white cis heterosexual man? Because there’s so much more to humanity that that narrow, small slice?  Because it’s really tiring to never see people who look like you, who come from your cultural background, who share a sexual orientation or gender identity with you in fiction? Because that sort of thing, over time, actually is a denial of your humanity?

She then goes on to talk about–with a fair bit of mockery–some of the issues that persons of color (POC) have to deal with at conventions: having to deal with rude and inappropriate questions, being touched without permission–that’s assault, by the way–and when those POC try to set aside some safe space they still aren’t happy.  But Savage has no compassion for the very real racism and ignorance that POC have to deal with on a day to day basis and, instead, calls for compassion for the poor misunderstood white man:

But also spare a wee drop of compassion for the straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male! He’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives–and yet when he tries to approach them in real life, it all too often…doesn’t end well.

Because, yeah. White men: the real victims here. Wait. No. Fuck that noise. (Oh, crap–there I go again, swearing and stuff. Felicity Savage also doesn’t like swearing.)

Why are all of Savage’s examples so old (they all seem to date from 2010 or so)? One would almost think that Savage has been nursing this for quite some time considering how well-aged they are.

And then we get to the conclusion where Savage suggests that speculative fiction writers should leave off the introspection and interrogation of identities and go write about aliens instead. Because writing about aliens or other kinds of cultures which may be unfamiliar to your protagonist(s) without thinking about identities and how they work within human (and other) societies always ends well. Always.

Oh, and her parting shot is a nasty comment about how she sometimes reads mum-lit for the lulz. Because, hey, books about an experience that people with female body parts may have in their lifetime? Totally mock-worthy.

Diversity is important–it’s not just about filling a quota or getting a pat on the head from a particular group of readers or writers or editors.  It’s about including everyone and making everyone welcome in our community. It’s about having all sorts of different kinds of people as heroes and villains and in between.  It’s about not defaulting to the same kinds of characters every time we write a story–it’s about challenging ourselves to be better. It’s about failing. It’s about trying again. It’s about actively working to make our community a better place for everyone. Story doesn’t–can’t–live in a vacuum. I want to read stories about people who are like me and people who are not like me in the least.  I want speculative fiction to represent all of humanity, not just one small privileged slice of it.

Another, better response to Savage’s article can be found over at The Other Side of the RainDiversity is not Narcissism: A Response to Felicity Savage.

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  1. Jessica

    I love your WTF face! My mouth was hanging open when I read that. That article is just so … clueless… Does this person really frequent online communities, or did she just Google for a few minutes to write that post?

  2. Rafael

    What can I say, I agree 100%. Surprising, no? No, the surprise is that people like Savage are still making these types of arguments.

  3. Ridley

    See that up there? That’s a selfie (that’s my wtf face, btw).

    Liar. That’s a cat picture.

  4. Natalie Luhrs

    @Jessica: Honestly, her examples are so old, I suspect that she’s been nursing a grudge for some time. It’s a quite telling collection of examples.

    @Rafael: As long as they think people will listen to them…the best thing to do here probably would have been to let it go without comment but the more I thought about it the more annoyed I got.

    @Ridley: You got me.

  5. Whitley

    He’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives
    Oh, the horror! What will they think of next? Telling children not to throw hissy fits? Telling teenagers not to skip school? Can you believe the nerve of some people, pointing out things that are bad and suggesting ways to improve! Why can’t anyone just think of the poor, beleaguered men who are perfectly comfortable having the world ordered to suit them perfectly at the expense of everyone else. WHY CAN’T THEY EVER THINK OF THE MENFOLKS COMFORT, HUH?

  6. Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey

    Well, as a straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male (and Christian) I can only say that this ninny doesn’t speak for me. Somehow I don’t envision seeing her at Wiscon any time soon! (I do hope that she’s no kin to my Savage relatives back in Tennessee.)

  7. meoskop

    If it’s the same author, I read her first two books and haven’t given her a single thought since.


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