Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Black Villain



I don't like to talk about controversial topics, but I am trying to go beyond my boundaries. This is also a good exercise in me accepting feedback/criticism/humility. Something I need to do if I intend to write posts like "The Penny Arcade Dickwolves Go To State", "My Philosophy on Writing Women", and anything concerning Anita Sarkeesian (btw, that's a fun name to say). I better be able to take it if I can dish it out.

Remember, just because you are offended doesn't mean you're right.

Here's a problem I run into when writing. I'm a straight white male. I live in Minnesota. I simply do not know much about being a member of the "other". That means I'd better make most of the people in my story a straight, white male. At least if I want to be commercially successful. There's good stories about being the "other" out there, but I'm still an amateur.

However, I don't want to make everyone a SWM. Not only is it implausible, it's boring. So if your "other"'s not going to be the protagonist, what other roles are left? There's the supporting roles, like the mentor. But if you make a Black man that role, you're in the "magical negro" territory. If you make him an ally, then it's too easy to make him the trickster/comic relief (Grover from "Percy Jackson" comes to mind) that evokes too many "minstrel" memories. Not to mention you end up with a character who has no life outside of his one white friend. (More info) He's nothing more than a device to show the main character is a good guy (look at him, he's got a black friend. He's not racist!)


Then there's the antagonist -- the shadow, the shapeshifter, the tempter -- but if you do that, then marketing or political groups think you're vilifying all blacks. You've got a white guy facing off against a black guy? It's no longer about the characters. Now those people represent their entire race, and people cry "white man's burden" and "nothing's changed, same old tropes".



It's either positive discrimination or re-enforcing years of racist entertainment. James Earl Jones does a fantastic job as the villain in Conan the Barbarian. His role has nothing to do with race. But you still find people who think the whole story is meant as a political message


In a book, it's a little easier to get away with it. Just don't physically describe your characters. John Scalzi's done this multiple times. He's even maneuvered some so that he doesn't mention a character's gender. Characters who actively have sex with a male.

In movies, you can't do that. You've got a character who could theoretically be any race. More often than not, he's not going to be a black guy, unless he or she was specifically written as such. And style doesn't count, like the Muses in Hercules.


It's a no-win situation. It means that movies stay the same -- screenwriters are forced to make the same characters, same archetypes, and black actors are forced into the same types of roles if they want to get work. (See Hollywood Shuffle, a great movie that's still holds up today). Either they're in movies where they're the only black guy, or movies where there's nothing but black guys.

I feel like I'm not explaining myself well enough. Take Game of Thrones for example. (Spoilers for Season 3). Daenerys spent her year's story arc gathering an army. First, she buys 8,000 obedient soldiers, then wipes out their slavemasters who owned them. Then she traveled to a slave city and freed everyone there. Her season ended with crowd-surfing over 10,000 freed people calling her "mama".


But people are accusing Daenerys of being a white savior, sent to free the poor brown people. I'm not sure exactly who they're accusing (they do know that she's a fictional character, right?) That whole white man's burden thing -- she's suddenly become the noble and impeccable pinnacle of shining morality. And in turn, that accuses her writers/creators of perpetuating white fantasy stereotypes, or being ignorant of them. One commenter said they can't watch that scene without the racial implications taking them out of the narrative. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when complaining about race in GoT.

But really, what else is supposed to happen? You can't just race-flip Daenerys in the middle of the season. She is white, blond, and blue-eyed because her whole family is (and she's a product of questionable hereditary mixing in the first place). Westeros has many kinds of weather, it's an expy of England. The people across the narrow sea are dark-skinned because it's mostly desert and sun. They're probably toiling in the sun 24 hours a day. Daenerys is a moral person who has power -- she's going to do what she can to free others. Character motivation + setting equals plot. That's the way the story goes. It's what the character would do.


Now granted, I wish that she had some more obstacles during her arc. It seemed that everything went very easy for her -- she exchanged her dragon for all the 8,000 Unsullied, then used them to kill everyone in the city and get her dragon back (you'd think they'd have a precaution for that in the contract). Then she goes to Yunkai and meets the three badass mercenary leaders that are going to take on her new army (one of them's called "the Titan's Bastard"). But do we see Daenerys's mettle tested? No, because all three of these super-warriors get killed off-screen by a traitor. Then Daenerys sits and waits while her knights sneak in and take out the guards. And then crowd-surfing at the end. My comfort is that I know things won't keep going this well for her (it's Game of Thrones, after all).


But the problem when anyone brings up race is that the other side says "you just don't get it". Fine, I agree with that. But I think no matter what gets changed, no one's going to be happy. There are no black vikings, but then people are angry when Heimdall is portrayed as black in Thor, when he's white in the comic, but then cast him as white and people say "why are there no black people in this movie? Throw us a bone!" and chaos ensues.



Are these the same people who thought The Two Towers needed to be renamed to be "sensitive" to 9/11? You can't win. There's always going to be someone complaining. Tell me, what would make you happy? What do you want to see?

So I'm going to keep making the stories I want. I'm going to make the stories I'd want to read, whether they have white villains or Asian housemaidens or woman shapeshifters. Bucking the paradigm is one thing, but not at the sacrifice of story. I'm lucky that in writing, all the pictures are in your head.
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