Friday, 11 September 2020

Provocations Beyond Fiction.

 I am a  graphic novelist in the high fantasy genre.I have a Fine Art Practice Foundation Degree and I specialize in traditional media. The low cost of simple pencil and paper has shaped my art practice. 


I represent Notts Trans Hub. I’m a moderator there actually. We are a Nottingham based facebook group that works to bring the trangender  Community together for organising, consultation, empowerment, sharing resources, etc - it's a communication tool, that covers local news and issues. However it became clear within not too long of its founding that there's a massive gap in NHS services for supporting trans people, notably the three year wait to see Gender Clinics, currently a necessity to begin medical therapies in the UK.  So the spin-off the Trans Space Notts real life monthly peer support  group was set up by community member volunteers. As some people never make it to the Trans space Notts peer support group, and need community support outside of the once a month that service can be provided, Notts Trans Hub admins decided to allow Facebook posts that request support. However, although there are a few trans volunteers who happen to be mental health professionals, NTH is not an official support group because it was not setup that way and there are not enough qualified volunteers to safely advertise NTH as a support group. 

That said, we do our best to be there for people during difficult times. Notably around the Winter holidays. A 2018 report by Stonewall showed more than one in 10 trans people (11 per cent) who are out to their family, aren’t supported by any of their family members. 

Many of our members are trans activists, as such Notts Trans Hub operates by whats known as the Safer Space Guidelines. A set of affirmations created by it’s founding members, that organizations can sign up to in order to show their commitment to trans inclusivity. The idea that Trans people’s self identification should be respected, that trans people are marginalized, pointing out the need for alles, representation, and so forth. 

On the subject of representation, the inclusion of a trans character, even a trans lead in genre fiction ought to be no more controversial than cisgender character. Backlash at the very concept includes the idea that it’s quote “forcing diversity” And forcing “leftist ideology and the trans agenda”, neglecting the fact that we are neither an ideology, an agenda, or a debate, but rather people with the potential to be included in and lead narratives outside of the narrow framework set by the media.

With trans representations, the transformation itself is the focus. The notion that to include a trans character one must be telling a stereotypical trans narrative, one of quote, “feeling like they’re born in the wrong body”, coupled with a sensationalized and fetishized, transformation. Here you can see that writers who are taught not to be redundant, and to be as minimalist as possible, can begin to see gender diversity as a superfluous addition unless something specific is done with those traits. This is a factor across all forms of minority representation in fiction: You mean to tell me the character isn’t a straight cis white male?  Explanation please! As if every other kind of humanoid represents the not only an agenda, but constitutes tokenism if they merely get to join the party. 


From writing Quote: 

“I don't think that diversity should be emphasised when writing just to tick the diversity box,  In my novel I actually ticked that box by not mentioning the diversity of my characters. If society wants to regard ethnic diversity as read throughout itself then I don't feel the need to write it into my work because it must be the default assumption. If a reader can work out the ethnicity of my characters from what I have written then so be it, but if they can't then it is clearly irrelevant to the story”

Another poster responds with: 

“I agree that you shouldn't incorporate non-white characters just to be diverse. That's tokenism and most non-white people I've talked to about this find it really annoying.”

This view comes from a position of privilege and underestimates the value of simply being seen. Of simply having a place in the adventure, even if it’s a small one, as the poster is likely used to being represented and seen all the time. And something that is abundant is taken for granted. As such fails to account for one simple fact: Tokenism is better than nothing. As a non white trans person myself, I’ll take it. As simply being included, is a massive step up from the way we’re usually portrayed in news stories. This is sad that we’re at the point where a trans person just standing around in the background, and not being depicted as a deviant, is a revolutionary act. Take for Instance, JK Rowlings, series of crime books written under the pseudonym “Robert Galrath”;

In book two, The Silkworm, which won the Gold Dagger Award in 2015 from the Crime Writers' Association. A potential suspect, trans woman Pippa Midgley is a pitiful, high-strung, violent character with no sense or self-preservation. She stalks and attacks Strike with a Stanley knife. When Strike defends himself and drags her into his office, references are made to Pippa's assigned sex at birth: her "prominent" Adam's apple, voice "as rough and loud as a docker's," and the vocal exercises she may have done, as she explains she's transitioning. Strike threatens her when she attempts escape. "If you go for that door one more fucking time I'm calling the police and I'll testify and be glad to watch you go down for attempted murder. And it won't be fun for you inside, Pippa...not pre-op."

This from one of the best selling authors of all time. Excerpts like these provocate beyond fiction indeed, as it does damage to real people and contributes to a trans misogynistic culture. Does she get a happy ending? No, she gets called a self dramatizing twat for even wanting one. 

Compared to that, Trans men inhabit the comparatively enviable position of simply being ignored. In her book, Whipping Girl, Julia Serano writes: 

“The media tends to not notice - or outright ignore trans men, because they are unable to sensationalize them without bringing masculinity itself into question. 

Some at this point chime in with the defence of Rowling et al, with the notion that they’re writing seedy crime, or otherwise dystopian fiction,  so of course trans people cannot expect to be placed in positions of empowerment. No one is. To which I say that is a false premise, other characters almost always are protected by the writer. Furthermore there is a balance to be struck between empowerment and sensitivity, vs the need to place characters through conflict and meaningful struggle. Indeed sometimes characters must say and do things that are politically incorrect in order to create a narrative that is both interesting and flawed. No one is saying that a good trans character is to be a paragon. However it is the overall portrayal that matters. What experience and impression is the reader leaving the story with. This is determined by the underlying messages and themes that tie the character’s actions and interactions together, not so much individual moments. By no means it it an easy thing to write, and it requires deep thought as well as a knowledge of the community to avoid offensive stereotypes. As such straight cis white males are the easiest to write as the threshold of criticism is at its lowest. An implausibly hypercompetent straight  white cis male lead  is just your standard action hero. An implausibly hypercompetent straight cis white female lead is called as a Mary Sue. Changed anything else in those lists of traits, change white to black, change cis to trans, even change the body type, and it becomes seen as the dreaded “SJW Propaganda” with accompanying “The sky is falling” and “Get Woke, Go Broke” memes. For a trans lead inherently begins to threaten the status quo by saying that not all stories need to cater to the cisgender gaze in order to work. These critiques are based on a foundation of hypocrisy. For when a fictional work includes types of people and right wing politics they like, all of a sudden its “just a game” and “just a movie”, as evidenced recently by their defence of Ubisoft using Black Lives Matter as the villains in the game “Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad”. To them, and to most media gatekeepers, majority does not only rule, it takes up all the space. 

Thus sadly we are living in what I call a “Desert of Originality”. Or what the moviepreviewcritic called “The Moviepocalypse”. It doesn’t refer to a lack of originality at the indie level. Far from it. There are many talented independent writers struggling to be recognised and try to be original and legit. There are people like that in Notts Trans Hub.  But does it pay off? No. 

You can  put years into mastering drawing, and/or original writing, and then someone comes along and quickly rises to the top by tracing famous characters and writing bad fanfics. Its exactly how I felt observing Master Media's "Anime War".  A - and I use this term loosely - creator, who gained almost three and a half million subscribers on youtube doing just that. 


On top of that, Hollywood seems intent on remakes, not original stories. The comics Indusry's dominated by two big studios, who have their own characters and don't accept original/unsolicited submissions. The attention of publishers of all kinds are increasingly focused on tent pole sequels. With increasing student loan debts and costs of living, the arts and especially creative writing, becomes a sub optimal choice at the university level and becomes denigrated as useless. It seems like the odds are so stacked against original creators these days. 


This is a feature of rampant, cut throat capitalism,  where a story that was done perfectly well the first time, would sooner be remade than actually take the chance to invest in and  build something new. What chance does trans representation have when the stories being draw upon were from eras where tran representation was terrible or non existent.  What chance do indie artists have of taking up the slack if they find themselves in an environment when they can make more money tracing over drawings of Batman and Goku than they can by going through the great labour of writing original stories?


It’s why conversations like these are so important. Audiences today have less disposable income to begin with, have been raised in corporate monopolies of storytelling, who’s marketing has defined the limits of their comfort zone and have an acquired fear of stepping outside of that. We as a community have the ability to unpack that and create a culture that rewards originality and through that comes representation for those who so badly need it. Trans people need allies as creatives, as there are few trans people and those who do chose to become visible are likely to find themselves relentlessly harassed. 

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