Why representation in media matters and why marginal voices have to be loud

Representation in media matters. It matters a hell of a lot. Here’s a recent New York Times article on the extreme lack of diversity in children’s literature.

Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference, and desperately try to wish the world into some more familiar form. As for children of color, they recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.

Personal anecdote: I was really into Godzilla movies when I was a kid, not just for the campy fantasy, but the fact that for once on TV, during my childhood, there were people who looked somewhat like me having adventures with the occasional white extras or sidekicks (I’m ignoring the weird cut with Raymond Burr in the original ‘Godzilla’). In retrospect, this was hugely important to my development that, other than the overwhelming number of martial arts movies where the heroism always had to do with violence, I was getting a glimpse of journalists and scientists out to save the day. Sure, I’m actually of Korean descent, the films were usually badly dubbed, and even as a kid I could tell Tokyo was a giant model train set, but I loved every second.

Fast forward, and it’s amazing how much HASN’T changed since then, and when things have changed, the backlash is stunningly depressing.  Recently there’s been much made about two potential film properties: The Fantastic Four and Peter Pan. In the first place, we have some uproar about Johnny Storm aka ‘The Human Torch’ being played by a black actor, Michael B. Jordan. In Peter Pan, we have (an already problematic character in the J.M. Barrie book) we have a Native American character, Tiger Lilly, being potentially played by Rooney Mara, a white woman. There are a couple of arguments here, and I think they’re pretty ably broken down by actress Felicia Day, as she approaches it from both the need for roles for working actors of color, and for representation in general.

To compare Tiger Lily being cast as a white women to Human Torch or Heimdall being cast as an African-American is not equivalent, because I don’t think this issue is about violating or adhereing to “lore,” I think it’s about providing more representation. And that’s why I think that the Human Torch being cast as African-American is an awesome thing, because that move evolves Hollywood and storytelling and the Marvel universe.

While this conversation is very much current, a lot of people have talked about these issues for quite some time. Take for instance, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, 2012, Jeff Ma (who becomes ‘Ben Campbell) in 21, 2008, Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind, 2001, going back to even when actors like Marlon Brando and Katherine Hepburn would portray people of color. This problem isn’t new, and it hasn’t changed much. So why isn’t this changing? What’s the reticence?

Well, in children’s books, the author Christopher Myers refers to this stone wall as “The Market”.

I think is what they all point to because The Market is so comfortably intangible that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.

I’ve also heard the ‘institutionalized’ excuse, wherein moving parts in a medium such as, say, film, are so complicated that it’s better off not pointing out the baked-in racial, gendered privilege throughout. Or let’s take a look at the paucity of women protagonists in video games, as per the Guardian:

Late last year, EEDAR, a video game sales-forecasting and research firm, revealed findings that showed that out of 669 current titles that had protagonists of a specific gender, only 24 of these were exclusively fronted by women. And these games didn’t sell as well as their brethren. “If you look at the first three months with the smaller quantity of female-led games, they did not sell as well,” explained Geoffrey Zatkin of EEDAR. “The ones that were male-only sold better.”

Seems like a “just so” argument, which, upon closer inspection, doesn’t seem to hold up.

But what’s this? “Games with a female-only protagonist … [received] only 40% of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually.” Less marketing spend means fewer sales which, it seems, means less marketing spend in the future. Who fancies a quick game of vicious circle?

Even Jared Leto’s coach for playing a trans woman bought into tired old tropes about being blind to representation.

Last week, Calpernia Addams wrote an op-ed for this publication regarding Jared Leto’s portrayal of transgender woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Addams, a trans woman who coached Leto on his portrayal in the Oscar-winning film, suggested that cisgender (nontrans) actors should be able to play trans roles, so long as they’re the most qualified person for the job.

In doing this, Addams, like so many others, understates the frustration many trans people have with Leto’s portrayal; It’s not simply that he was a cis actor playing a trans role — but that he was a cis actor playing the same trans role the world has seen a hundred times before.

Keep in mind, I haven’t Dallas Buyer’s Club myself, but I’m just going on what the basic concept of the portrayal as well as what other trans activists have expressed about this issue. Again, there are numerous apologists who would state that there are financial considerations (bigger name actor), faux-egalitarian principles, etc. etc.

I reject the attitude of this is just how the world works. It’s a plainly bad argument and frankly insulting. The thing is, whatever existing structures one uses to excuse this lack of representation, it’s clearly NOT right. Arguments like “the best actor for the role” tend to break down when I asked which white actor one would like to see as an alternative lead in 12 Years a Slave. It’s a dodge, not egalitarianism, in order to avoid having to think about a longstanding problem. And since I know that few people change of their own accord, those of us who do care, HAVE to complain. Otherwise, the terrible representations of blackface, brownface, yellowface characters of the past, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or just about every “Bond girl” would have remained unchallenged. The squeaky wheel has to keep squeaking to get the attention of these less-than-attentive producers of content. Sorry if that bothers you, content producers and their legions of apologists, but we’ll keep bringing it up if you keep ignoring or erasing us.

Otherwise, as the U.S. continues its shift away from a monochromatic cis-male majority to an even more pluralistic society, children of color, young girls, kids growing up with differing gender identities, they will continue to have to model themselves against a norm that doesn’t look like them, or share their experiences. And what kind of ill-conceived map is that to draw for the diverse next generation to follow?

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Observations from an Anti-Choice Protest

I spent this past Saturday morning escorting patients at a women’s health clinic (re: “abortion factory” per fundamentalists), so I thought I’d share some observations, aside from the signs and the shoving flyers in people’s faces that are common optics in the media, about the protesters who were apparently more numerous than usual (about 19 or 20) yesterday.

1. Many of them were especially dishonest. Going beyond just the typical misinformation they spread about health and medical science, one man in particular was consistently trying to position himself in such a way as to make volunteers make physical contact with him somehow in order to be able to lodge a complaint, or perhaps more darkly, start an altercation. Also, voice amplification is against ordinance, yet it took two calls to the police to get one dude holding a big cardboard cross while on a step ladder to turn off his mic.

2. Biblical circular logic was rampant. One guy tried to quietly get a rise out of us after he picked up on my conversation with other volunteers about how the Bible routinely seemed a-OK with the mass slaughter of actual infants and entire tribes. He pulled the standard fundie Christian apologetic question to absolve themselves of some of the more terrible aspects of their holy book “Yeah, and which part of the Bible is that in?” I retorted (though I shouldn’t have risen to the bait) “the part that has the ’10 commandments'”. Which got him to reply, let’s see what those 10 commandments say … and then he proceeded to read them from his own Bible. Not understanding that he had just been on the path of negating the Old Testament to combat the accusation of infanticide and genocide, he proceeded to use it to reinforce his position on not killing babies or honoring parents or something. Oh well, I told him to read the other version as well and the 613 laws of Moses that Maimonides identified. The guy with the mic at one point also said that EVERY task we undertake is a sin, which made his current task seem a bit ironic.

3. They really loved policing gender roles. Women are supposed to, innately, love babies and be nurturing! Men shouldn’t be “cowards” and “sissies”! Men were also told repeatedly to “be a man!”

4. One guy really loved terrible analogies like “you’ll save the whales. You’ll save the trees. BUT YOU WON’T SAVE BABIES!”

5. Margaret Sanger and racism came up often as many of the clients were minority women and men. The thing was, many of the volunteers were white, but the clinic staff itself was quite diverse. Also, it was irritating having some dudes right in front of my face saying that this was a bunch of white people trying to kill black babies. HEY, I’M RIGHT HERE, GUYS! HELLO! *waves*

6. That 10 Commandments guy got all ‘War on Christmas’ with me at the end of their “work” day, pointedly saying “Merry Christmas” and waiting for a response. So I said “and Happy New Year”. And then he repeated himself. I looked confused for a moment and replied “um, Merry Christmas”. He lit up and said “oh, so you celebrate Christmas?” Seeing where this was going, I said “I’m an atheist, but sure. I think it’s also polite to say Merry Christmas back.” His face fell and said “Oh, well that’s a whole other discussion. I’ll pray for you” and walked away. It was adorable.

While one patient coming in was crying which made me stare very hard at a few of the protesters, many of the women were quite fine that day. Some of them and the men accompanying them were just as combative and feisty as the protesters. Good for them! The volunteers were outnumbered 19 to 7 early in the morning, so I really have nothing but praise and admiration for the 6 other volunteers, one who is already a friend of mine, for handling what was a trying and stressful situation as professionally they did. Made me feel much more confident about being helpful.

This was my first direct experience being on the “front line” as it were, of the abortion debate, and it was seemingly overwhelming. However, nothing could have strengthened my resolve for the defense of the bodily autonomy of women and their right to reproductive freedom and choice as seeing first hand the necessity of that defense and the type of dishonest tactical maneuvering made by those who are so heavily invested in restricting those rights. Since these committed protesters are there every Saturday, it’ll be my honor to put on the volunteer lab coat and do it all over again.

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The Unbelievers: An unbelievably missed opportunity at diversity


EDITED: I was reminded that Cameron Diaz’s father, of course, was of Cuban descent, so I updated the total number of persons of color to ‘two’ to avoid erasing her heritage arbitrarily.

So a couple of weeks ago I caught the documentary, ‘The Unbelievers‘, described as following:

…renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.

As to these particular statements, I don’t find huge disagreements with these men or the documentary on the veracity of religion, science and reason, and only some disagreements on what to do about these issues. But I had a problem with this documentary not specifically on its stance on atheism (though I didn’t find it compelling for a number of tonal and aesthetic reasons). Rather, I had a problem with the makeup of the featured individuals.

First off, I understand wanting to utilize two of the big names in atheism in Dawkins and Krauss, both of whom were traveling with and around each other over the globe, in order to make a bigger draw for what is a niche type of film. Secondly, I also understand wanting to fill up much of the other speaking slots with celebrities and well-known people in the atheist world to add even additional buzz. Finally, I get that documentaries are expensive and tough to do, and that it’s potentially why this film ran so short in terms of running length (though there seemed to be a LOT of padding by way of establishing shots). What I don’t get is how in this modern era, as discussions have been ongoing and notable among atheists about the lack of diversity and representation in our ranks, they ended up with only three women, one of whom was the only person of color, but a pretty uniform representation of affluent white men.

Let’s look a the website’s own list:

Ricky Gervais
Woody Allen
Cameron Diaz
Stephen Hawking
Sarah Silverman
Bill Pullman
Werner Herzog
Bill Maher
Stephen Colbert
Tim Minchin
Eddie Izzard
Ian McEwan
Adam Savage
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
Penn Jillette
Sam Harris
Dan Dennett
James Randi
Cormac McCarthy
Paul Provenza
James Morrison
Michael Shermer
David Silverman
…and more.

Now, there’s something disingenuous right from the beginning. While Stephen Colbert is a fine comedian with skeptical sensibilities, he is well-known for being a practicing Catholic despite his progressive stances on things, and he only appeared in the film in the context of a segment from his own TV show as an interviewer. Also, the ‘and more’ is just plain silly, consisting mostly of crowd shots (including myself at the Reason Rally hilariously enough), background individuals and folks just caught up in lengthy montage sequences.

So, here are the only women given significant screen time to speak: Cameron Diaz, Sarah Silverman and Ayaan Hirsi-Ali. Diaz and Hirsi-Ali are also the only persons of color (Diaz being half-Cuban in terms of heritage). James Randi is the only one who identifies as being gay. The only other minorities of color who had a “voice”? Angry Islamists.

Again, this is despite the fact that it’s been a longstanding criticism that the atheist “movement” has been almost as diversity-challenged as the Republican Party here in the U.S., there didn’t seem to be much of an effort in this film to change that perception. The prominent white male faces are counterpointed by the fact that there were, of course, more diverse elements in those establishing crowd shots. But, large scale identification, involvement in atheist/skeptical issues and leadership visibility has still been something slow in terms of growth among varying minority groups for a secular community that desperately needs to address these issues in the face of rapidly changing demographics in the U.S. (just like the GOP).

Filling up on mainstream individuals is all well and good, yes. Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher and Penn Jillette are all very prominent faces in terms of notoriety. That still left room for figures in the atheist circles that you could have emphasized or introduced to, what was likely, the “choir” of atheist viewers who would watch this, such as other women who spoke at the Global Atheist Conference like Eugenie Scott, Annie Laurie Gaylor or Kylie Sturgess, or a person of color such as Lawrence Leung, an Australian comedian. At the Reason Rally, they could have squeezed in some soundbites from Taslima Nasrin, Jamila Bey, Greta Cristina, Victor Harris or Hemant Mehta. Just a couple of one-liners and/or introductions would have been nice.

I wouldn’t rail on this except it’s now 2013, and there was every necessity to make the conscientious effort to be more inclusive, show-off a little more diversity. Instead we get a plodding, incoherent film that panders mostly to those who already “unbelieve”, and does little in the way to depict atheists as something other than a mostly white men’s club.

Final count of unbelievers who get a voice in this movie: 18 white men, 3 women, 2 persons of color, 1 queer person. Is there an extended version that can come out on Blu-Ray like a Peter Jackson movie with some bonus features that include marginalized voices?

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Not Afraid of Amazon Drones … Just All Flying Things

Some day, I will order a new Kindle Fire or some other electronic device. I can imagine it flying through the air within minutes to my heavily urbanized environment, floating like a massive insect, a payload of consumerist desire approaching. A tempest of winds! The unpredictable Northeast weather exacerbating a mechanical malfunction in one of the rotors! The tiny computer attempts to compensate, but it is losing altitude at a tremendous rate as it approaches my apartment.


The Amazon drone delivers right through the living room window and into my flat screen television. Glass, electronic components and machine fragments lying everywhere. The Kindle Fire is OK!

My fears tend to be a bit more prosaic than corporate missile delivery systems I suppose.

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Cooking Competition – A poem

The game wraps around,
Plastic and sheer, preserving,
Deflecting freezing burns.
The kitchen is a noise inside
A shell, roaring and kinda ringing, inging, ing.
Angry red skin from the flames,
Scorch marks and soup stains on the apron.
The other chefs keep diving in, dripping
Sweat away from the courses by tilting
Their noses into every configuration,
Proud that the perspiration shows so keenly
Under studio lights.

The temperatures are all wrong, but we compete.
The spices have lost their labels, but we know the routines by heart.
The tools are substandard, but we still strive as if sex
And procreation are on the line.

Well, my sweat dried away hours ago,
Desiccated cold desert the map of my
Brow. I am nerveless and the oven mitts
Are minor comforts.
Sure, the eggs won’t crack themselves,
That cake will not rise without my words
And hands to apply heat.
The assistants resemble the audience
As opposed to serviceable help. And I’m
All out of sriracha.

But, I’ll save this meal, if not to the judges’ palates,
To my own satisfaction. Horrifying self-entertainment,
surprisingly our only possible joy every Saturday night despite
Our steaming opposition to each other.

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Growing Up Isn’t Necessarily Growing Out

In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed some of my favorite hobbies have fallen by the wayside (with a brief blip of reignited comic book collecting). My fascination with sports, and fantasy baseball in particular, my obsession with video games, and my voracious appetite for science-fiction and fantasy literature, seem to have cooled in their ardor. I am 37-years-old, and one might contend that I’m growing “out” of such things.

Rather, I think I’m growing up in the ways that matter and in the ways that people maybe should consider striving to do no matter what age they find themselves living until. For instance, my lack of interest in sports doesn’t diminish what I still love about the games. I can easily watch the Knicks or the Yankees play if they happen to be on when it’s convenient for me. But, I also keep gaining a larger understanding for the business and culture that surrounds sports in America that prevents me from embracing it without critique or unconditional affection. Rape culture, homophobia or some other conservative agendas that surround the hoopla that is America’s celebration of athletics makes it difficult to be absorbed into the purity of the game itself. I understand that great social change can happen from the field of sport, but with the kind of money and power that comes from the modern sports entertainment industry, there’s a sense of entrenchment for the culture that reaches all the way down to the activities of children now. I have a hard time getting behind that.

Video games also have similar issues, though the combat may be more fierce since the hold of machismo and controlled violence is more virtual than real. Since games as a creative endeavor continues to become more democratic through the changing technologies, even with the same kind of financial stakes that afflict sports, I foresee more positive changes, and made rapidly, in the near future. That being said, the toxic culture of gamer entitlement, particularly online, can be a huge turnoff, and of course, there are always other things competing for my time and money in the meantime.

The amount of time I read, however, is almost entirely about time. I remember the golden years of burning through two or three novels a week as a teenager and a college student. That rate kept shrinking and shrinking as other responsibilities set in and other needs took hold. However, I try and keep up with the doings of favorite authors or just follow general news, such as by listening to the Sword & Laser podcast. If there’s anything that really turns me off about this world its the stories of the too-slow attrition of the entitled, old guard of the genre who still feel the need to make pronouncements excluding marginalized people, a grand hypocrisy considering the marginalization of the genre itself from “serious” literature (and not unlike the problems faced by sports and video games).

Three elements that made up a bulk of my interests as a young man are essentially not the same in my view as they once were. This is natural, but not in the way someone outside of these sub-cultures might think. This isn’t just about the continuing growth of being a responsible adult and putting aside the “childish” things of youth. After all, I still love the core of these pastimes, and I largely don’t give a damn that some of my peers and contemporaries can still deride or look askance at what I like to do with my leisure time. The problem isn’t that I’m growing old, but that the industries surrounding my hobbies are still growing up themselves. I just feel like they need to pick up the pace a little to catch up.

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Japan’s Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism

I did a guest post for my friend Miri at Brute Reason on Freethought Blogs highlighting the racism AND sexism of the popular story going around about Japan’s declining birthrate being salaciously tied to a lack of sexual activity. Here’s a quick look, and the rest of it can be read here.

I remember as a kid laughing at the clownish stereotypes of characters like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” and Toshiro Takashi in “Revenge of the Nerds”. What I didn’t realize at the time was how I, as a Korean-American boy, was internalizing a host of images desexualizing men of East Asian descent. Add to that, the hypersexualized imagery of Kim in “Miss Saigon” and Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal”, it came as no surprise to me last week when a story about “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” became such a viral hit on the Internet and mainstream media. Shall we say, I had even expected it at least over a year ago.

Everyone from the Guardian to Bill Maher had their say about those nerdy Japanese men and apparently dissatisfied women. After the story spread for quite some time, there came the derisive counters to this obviously poorly conceived and factually dubious headline. Since the story was predicated on the declining birth rate in Japan (a reasonable story to look into) the critics of sensationalist media noted how quick those propagating this shoddy journalism were to jump to conclusions. Mostly lost in the backlash to this story was how much of what was happening fit not only a narrative of cultural insensitivity and racial stereotyping, but how that stereotyping fit a long historical narrative of desexualizing Asian men and hypersexualizing Asian women for the benefit of the white heterosexist image of power.

Read the rest at Brute Reason

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