I recently became aware of a criticism of the book Graceling by Kristen Cashore (if you haven’t read Graceling and plan to you may want to skip the following paragraph. I will try to be vague, but there will be SPOILERS).
In Graceling a character becomes disabled, but he has a special power called a grace that eventually allows him to compensate for the disability. It was brought to Kristen’s attention that the magical cure for disabilities often seen in fantasy novels is hurtful to the disabled because it promotes the idea that in order to be whole, someone must be cured of the disability. And clearly someone who is disabled and can’t be magically cured and has been able to live a fulfilling life as a whole person, may be insulted by this insinuation. Kristen addresses this in her blog found here and is very open and honest about it.
On the writing site Absolute Write (a great site, very useful with lots of smart, nice aspiring and published writers), every once and a while someone starts a thread asking for advice on how to write a character of different race or of a different sexual orientation or with a disability, and I’ve seen some of these threads end in frustration on the part of the OP because there are so many pitfalls to avoid, some of which are contradictory.
No one (that I know) wants to make anyone feel lesser or railroaded into a stereotype or marginalized. But there seems to be no way to write a minority character that won’t offend someone. A lot of times writers who really wanted to include a minority, end up choosing not to. It is safer and easier not to include a minority character, which also leads to criticism of white washing or straight washing, etc.
|It's a cute movie, but is it a little sexist?|
But besides writing minorities, there are other issues that frequently come up on the forum. Every once and a while, there are criticisms about books or movies being sexist, either subtly or overtly. There is the Madonna-whore complex (where every female character is either virginal or a prostitute), slut shaming (where any female character who is sexually active is bad), and feeding into rape culture. Female characters are criticized for being too passive or too domineering or too manipulative; and male characters for being too controlling or too violent or too stupid, needing the women to solve all their problems because men can’t seem to function properly without a woman’s guidance. And honestly if you look hard enough, you can see issues like these in almost every book, movie, and TV series. I saw Brave last weekend (a great show about a mother-daughter relationship), and there are already criticism about subtle sexism in that movie.
All of this fear of unintentionally being offensive or propagating hurtful stereotypes or promoting harmful ideas can be stifling. I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t try to be sensitive and consider what might be hurtful, but honestly if every character and situation was written to ensure that every aspect of the story fit political correctness, the story and characters could feel forced. Over-thinking in any way can make a story unauthentic.
I don’t know about you, but I know that I have flaws. I try really hard to be open and fair, but I’m sure I have prejudices that I can’t see. I am a product of this imperfect world, raised by wonderful but imperfect parents. No matter how hard I try not to offend someone, my stories will reflect my imperfect world view, and I’m sure if I ever get readers, some of them will be savvy enough to point out those flaws.
So what do you do as a writer? Do you stress about unintended messages that might leak into your story? Do you go over your MS with a fine-toothed comb nixing any phrase, characterization, or plot turn that could possibly be interpreted as politically incorrect? Or do you write from your heart and don’t worry about it?
Honestly, I’m not sure what the answer is.