Context is important. Context matters when it comes to diverse stories, especially if you’re reviewing or critiquing them. It really bothers me when people ignore the larger context of diverse stories, so… to my blog I go. To discuss this. I promised a post like this the last time I blogged, and here it is: Context. Matters.
This post has been floating around in the recesses of my mind for some time now, with little bits and pieces of ideas popping into it every so often, but I only recently decided to sit down and write it after seeing some of the responses to casting news about the upcoming Marvel movie Black Panther.
Lupita Nyong’o is in talks to star, most probably as T’Challa’s love interest. The comment section of the article I read about it – I think it was on The Mary Sue or something like that – were full of people complaining about how Marvel can do better than casting women as love interests.
I was inclined to agree with this, but I stuck around for a little while longer and found a string of comments pointing out that this is actually a GREAT move on Marvel’s part because, and I quote, “There aren’t very many movies where the love interest is a woman of color, especially a darker-skinned woman.” These women aren’t seen as worthy of attention, as someone to be desired.
I’m so glad that I procrastinated whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing by reading the comment section for a few more minutes, because it raised a point that I probably wouldn’t have thought of on my own – since I’m white.
And I think that’s key when you’re discussing diverse stories: Listen to what people from the group you are reading about or watching have to say about this story. Don’t write it off as something that’s been seen ten thousand times before, because chances are that it hasn’t – not for the diverse group in question.
The piece of media that gave me the first idea for this post was Malinda Lo’s Ash, which is a lesbian/bisexual retelling of “Cinderella.” I was upset after seeing reviews where people dismissed it as being no different from the original fairy tale. They said it wasn’t creative enough. I talked about this with a friend, and – to make a long story short – we ended up talking about tropes and lack of representation and how stories like this are more important than people realize.
Yes, Ash is a straightforward (…pun not intended) retelling of “Cinderella.” There aren’t any bells and whistles to it, no frills attached except for the fact that the protagonist falls in love with a woman.
But that’s enough to make it different. To make it stand out. Because girls like me, we don’t get very many stories like this. Genre fiction. Fairy tales. Happy endings.
And, I don’t know, maybe this just goes to show that I’m much too invested in books for my own good, but it breaks my heart to see people react in this way to books like this – to stories in general like this one – because it’s so obvious that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They have little or no understanding of the history of LGBTQ+ representation – the lack of it, the damaging tropes, and more.
They’re approaching this from the point of view of an outsider, and that’s OK, but I also believe that if you really, truly want to make a difference in your allyship, you need to listen to people from whatever diverse group is being represented when they tell you why a particular type of representation is huge news for them. (Whether good or bad.)
I felt the same way when I saw reviews of Carol. The reviews from LGBTQ+ critics and websites were overwhelmingly positive, but a lot of straight reviewers… didn’t really get it. They couldn’t seem to see how this movie was different from any other romance. Like Ash, there aren’t many gimmicks here either – it’s set in the fifties, and the main characters go for a road trip, and there’s divorce angst to sort out. Nothing too different from what you might find in a movie about a straight couple.
Except, well, Carol isn’t about a straight couple. I mean, there are some in the background and everything, but the protagonists are two lesbians living in the 1950s, and if you can’t see why that’s huge – well, you need some context. And I don’t really care whether you ask people to explain the context to you, or do some googling and find things out for yourself, but the point is that you should make an effort to learn about the context.
Learn about why The Price of Salt, the novel it was based on, was revolutionary in the genre of LGBTQ+ lit. Learn about the long history of the Bury Your Gays trope, which stretches back to loooong before the novel’s publication in 1952. Learn why it was important for an LGBTQ+ woman to write and publish stories about women like herself, and why that made it stand out from all the other LGBTQ+ novels written by straight men. There is so much context to learn.
And don’t ignore that context, either. I have a feeling that someone will pop onto this post and exclaim, unbidden, “You don’t have to like a diverse story just because it’s diverse!” And if they do such a thing, I’m going to be very disappointed, because that’s not what I’m saying at all and I don’t know how you got the idea that it is.
What I’m saying is this: OK, so maybe you didn’t like something about a diverse story. Maybe you thought one of the characters in Ash was underdeveloped. Maybe the cinematography of Carol wasn’t quite to your tastes. That’s fine.
But for god’s sake, please stop critiquing diverse media because you perceive it to be “more of the same.” You don’t have to love everything about a diverse story, but taking the time to learn a bit about the context behind it – and the reason why people from a diverse group to which you do not belong love it – can give you at least a basic appreciation of why that story matters to that group.
Chances are that if you’ve seen, say, [insert romcom trope here] many times before, it was only in movies about straight couples and never in movies about LGBTQ+ couples. Chances are that if you think there are “too many superhero movies,” there’s a little black boy somewhere who never sees people like him in action flicks except as the sidekick and/or comic relief to a white superhero.
Chances are that this story is more “original” than you realize.
Just because you have seen, read, and heard countless stories about people like you doesn’t mean everyone has. Media is skewed towards a very white, cis, straight, abled point of view and therefore most of what you may perceive as tropes… aren’t tropes for certain groups of people. Because we’re hardly ever in stories like that.
Imagine Me & You, one of my favorite LGBTQ+ movies of all time – and the first one I ever watched, actually – differs from most romcoms only in that it’s about two women. It’s the tropiest tropefest you’ve ever watched. One of my friends once described it as “all the fanfiction clichés rolled into one movie.”
And those tropes don’t bother me at all, because I’ve seen them one hundred thousand kazillion times with straight couples and never before with an F/F couple. It’s new to me when presented in this way, with these characters. I love finding media with unexpected twists such as this because those twists are what make those stories stand out. When the context is that a certain group of people has very few stories, we need to learn to celebrate what they do have.
Instead of saying, “Where have I seen this story before,” we need to start asking ourselves, “Who hasn’t seen this story before?” What is a tried-and-true plot to one person may be a story that someone else doesn’t, can’t, take for granted. I think that if you understand this, your understanding of diverse media in general – the impulse behind creating it, the reasons fans give for praising it, and so much more – will grow by leaps and bounds.