There’s a counter in my head. Imagine a tiny recording demon, making marks in its ledger, constantly alert.
There’s a counter in my head, and I can’t turn it off.
It counts women present in a narrative. It counts people who aren’t men. It counts queer representation. It counts—although somewhat less strictly, due to the blinkers of its upbringing—the presence of people who aren’t white, or who aren’t able-bodied. It counts up roles. It compares and contrasts roles. It counts incidences where things follow a trend, and where they diverge. It recognises patterns. Dead women. Sexual objects. Motivating objects. Objectified. Tragic queerness. Queerness-as-a-phase. Women sidelined. Elided. Present but only significant for how they relate to a white able-bodied cisgender man.
It counts whose story gets to be told, and by whom.
It counts opportunities to include people.
And opportunities to include people NOT TAKEN.
The tiny recording demon isn’t a new development, exactly. I’ve been counting since before I started writing Sleeps With Monsters—that kind of counting is how I ended up writing this column, after all.
The fact I can’t turn it off? That’s new, from the last four years. The analysis is instinctive, at this point: some of it happens below the level of conscious thought.
Last week I wrote a column on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a film that exceeded my expectations, because my expectations for the portrayal of women and “minorities” (only a minority depending on where you stand) in Hollywood is, from experience, so low. Hell, my expectations are low across the board, not just from Hollywood. I’ve read—or at least started—more science fiction by blokes in the last five months than I had in the preceding five years, I think, and the recording demon did a lot of scribbling.
It is very frustrating. I’m very frustrated. I’m a bit sick of being the angry feminist in the room, to be honest: sick of being required to justify and explain why I’m angry. It irks the shit out of me. And I know that most of the time? Most of these novels’ readers don’t even notice unless someone points it out to them. Much less care.
The 1:2 or 1:3 (depending on how you’re counting) women:men proportion in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (and the fact that Finn is a black man) made a bunch of bigots angry. One in three, at best, people. One in three is not even parity.
But the resistance to anything like parity is obvious, and loud, even among people who would no doubt consider themselves well-meaning. Last week’s post only pointed out the ways in which the characterisation of men and women in Star Wars: The Force Awakens differed: pointed out that one in three is not parity, and that this can’t really be hailed as a sign of any true egalitarian approach.
The comments were entirely predictable. There were the comments that claimed complaints would be made if a woman had played the Evil General, comments that complained that counting was the worst form of criticism, the comment that complained about Carrie Fisher’s aging, the comments that offered the solution of just don’t spend your money on it, the comments that said why don’t you go make your own, the comment that claimed not to care about the proportion of women on screen or in texts, the comments that expressed puzzlement at any criticism of the female characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the comments that claimed it wasn’t an equality issue but a quality-of-writing issue, the comments that implied having a woman in the Force-sensitive hero role ought to outweigh any possible criticism…
The comments were entirely predictable, and I owe the moderation team here drinks. And doubtless will again, because I want to take those comments as a ready-made case study in people who don’t have to notice or care don’t notice or care.
When you have easy access to food, when you know in your bones you are unlikely to ever go hungry for long, hunger is a theoretical concept. It’s not serious.
Hunger isn’t an inescapable part of your world. You’re not so used to it that it doesn’t even hurt, that all you feel is tired, exhausted, worn down.
The world produces enough food that no one ought to be hungry. But the distorting effects of privilege and capital, access and opportunity, mean some of us can gorge ourselves on a surfeit while others starve to death.
You think hunger is too extreme a metaphor for artistic representation? Perhaps it is. But food feeds the body, and art feeds the soul. (Or imagination, or spirit.) Artistic under-representation is a kind of imaginative malnutrition: there’s just enough to keep you hoping, and never quite enough to satisfy.
I count, and I analyse, because gathering information is the first step in articulating a critique. You look for patterns in the data. You see how they fit together. You see structures, and how they maintain themselves.
Those entirely predictable comments are part of a pattern that supports the consistent under-representation of people who aren’t straight white able-bodied cisgender men. Each separate instance is only a point on a line, but together? Together they’re the voice that makes it harder for the rest of us to speak and be heard.
I can’t stop counting. If I didn’t count, I couldn’t point you to the reasons why I’m so very, so viscerally, irked.
But when I do count… You’re doing it wrong. You’re counting the wrong things. Numbers don’t matter. These numbers represent progress, so why are you still criticising? There are mitigating circumstances! The numbers aren’t the whole story!
The numbers are the story I can show you. The numbers are the story that can be verified by an independent count.
And the numbers, across the board, make it very easy to exceed my expectations.
When it’s no longer so easy—may I live to see the day!—I can only hope my recording demon will toddle off back to hell for a long and fruitful retirement.