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Read This: Pam Noles' SHAME

"Those Hollywood People took all of the key heroic players and shifted them down into the paler end of the spectrum. And they were obvious about it. Yes, they knew enough about the rules to keep at least one Magical Negro around to help the newly blond haired, blue eyed surfer Ged through his Journey Of Transformation To Save The World, because lord knows white boys can't do something like that on their own.

What is that? That's spit. Gobbed right between the eyes and dribbling down."

Pam Noles on Color, and a lack thereof, in science fiction, fantasy, and Earthsea.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2006 07:56 pm (UTC)
Icon says it all.
Jan. 21st, 2006 08:50 pm (UTC)
That's amazing, thanks so much for the link; I'm going to nick it for my journal. Earthsea influenced me weirdly as a kid and I still find Le Guin fascinating, so I was forewarned about the garbled whiteface "adaptation" I think via her site, but I hadn't noticed/thought about the implications of genre media's inadequate coverage.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 01:21 am (UTC)
Jan. 22nd, 2006 01:56 am (UTC)
From the look of it, the Studio Ghibli adaptation of the story has also "paled down" the lead character:


...if the largest images I've seen of the movie poster are any indication:


I'd love to be proven wrong though.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 02:10 am (UTC)
As if I have any relationship to hobbits or wizards or what have you just because they happen to have light skin.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 05:19 am (UTC)
Sorry, can you clarify?
Jan. 22nd, 2006 09:51 pm (UTC)
I'm reluctant to answer since this sort of subject tends to get people rather exercised, but since I already opened my flap, I supposed I might as well.
First, and most importantly, my lily-white self doesn't let the fact that hobbits, elves, immortal wizards and whatnot are, at the very least, different races from myself (not to mention imaginary) keep me from enjoying fantasy stories. Heck, even the fact that Treebeard was brown didn't stop me from thinking he was pretty cool. People who allow their obsession with skin color to transfer over into imaginary worlds need to examine their priorities.
Second, fantasy in the post-Tolkien world (with some exceptions) has been based primarily on Scandinavian and Germanic myths. When those myths were born, over a thousand years ago, those peoples had had very little exposure to folks of other races and colors, hence they do not play an important role in the myths. I don't find the lack of white folk in the Australian aborigines' Dreamtime mythos a personal affront, and were there no whites in a modern fantasy story influenced by that mythos, it would concern me not one whit.
The irascible Ray Bradbury has written an essay on this sort of PC-quota-based thinking and where it ends up, which you may find of interest:
"If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters." Heh. Give 'em hell, Ray! But more seriously, he has a point. If >koff< "people of color" >koff< find their representations lacking in modern fantasy fiction...let them rent typewriters.
Now, those points made, I have no objection to multicolored fantasy worlds. I admire writers who can create truly new fantasy milieus in which such a thing seems fluid and natural. This is why I have been a BIG fan of the Earthsea books--not because they meet some PC target, but because they are originals in a field regrettably dominated by lame Tolkien ripoffs (yes, she's still influenced by Tolkien's root sources, but she makes them her own).
When I was living in Japan, I actually had a discussion with Miyazaki regarding his interest in the Earthsea books. He told me they were an inspiration for the Nausicaa story (and once he mentioned it, the penny dropped and I saw the parallels) and because he had heard I was in SFWA, he asked if I knew Le Guin, as he wanted to make a movie based on the books. I passed along her info from the SFWA handbook and forgot about it. I later heard that she'd turned him down. Interesting that after all these years, it's finally happening.
Now, regarding the alterations made to the characters and story by Hollywood...my support on this is complete and unwavering. Such changes are unforgivable and indefensible. I hope the producers are ruthlessly excoriated and raked over the coals for this heinous crime against the author and her work. As of yet, I'm not quite as wound up about Ghibli's alterations, until I know more. Obviously, the character designs they use are not really one race or another (compare the Japanese characters in Totoro to those in, say, Laputa). But certainly Ged should at least have darkish skin, and that poster...hmm.
There, I've said my piece. Now let the flaming begin!
Jan. 24th, 2006 12:10 pm (UTC)
Australian details
It's very insulting to use a lower case "a" for "Aborigines"; the usage of the word itself is regarded as pretty distasteful by the people who know how it was used here a couple of centuries back. The term that I've been asked to use by the majority of Indigenous people where I work is "Indigenous Australian".

Both "Dreamtime" and "mythos" also hold nasty semiotic overtones, and are avoided by the people who bother to research some Indigenous Australians' preferences.

If you would like to know more I suggest you contact the Oodgeroo Unit at the Queensland University of Technology; I am so grateful to them for introducing me to an Indigenous perspective on life in Australia.

Now, on your "let them rent typewriters"...
Why should people of non-hegemonic backgrounds be the ones who have to correct our constructions of characters who "lack" or are missing entirely? I really suggest you read the work of Martin Nakata, a Torres Strait Islander academic, who writes about this logically, pragmatically and with great fury.

It's really worth attempting to get inside this argument from an Indigenous perspective. And attempting to get inside characters the same way.

I know I can never be "in the shoes" of someone who has lived an entirely different life. But I do my damndest to empathise, by reading, listening, and asking questions as much as I can. Do you see that as valuable, too?
Jan. 22nd, 2006 02:57 am (UTC)
If the character's identity is not particularly tied to their ethnicity, I can't see any reason on earth for race to be a consideration in casting. Just to take one example, in the Stephen King novel "The Shawshank Redemption", Red was an Irishman (that's why he's called Red), but he was portrayed quite ably by Morgan Freeman in the movie version.

Now in this case, it is depressing that the Hollywood powers-that-be neither seems to know nor care *why* the ethnicity of the Earthsea characters matters to its fans (or to care about the author's wishes in the matter). But it's equally depressing that there are parents like Pam Noles' who claim they have their kids' best interests at heart while encouraging them to identify only with fictional characters who look like themselves. Ye gods, what a crappy thing to do to a child.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 22nd, 2006 05:22 am (UTC)
Setting aside the fact that the Sigh-Fie Earthsea was dreadful, WHY did it have to White if it didn't have to be Black?

And have you read Earthsea? And how do you not get that's it important for people to see themselves in what they love?
Jan. 22nd, 2006 05:18 am (UTC)
I don't see how that's crappy. Well, I'd see how it was crappy if her parents encouraged her to only identify with white people in real life, and only with African Americans in fiction. But they didn't.

They were asking her to ask HERSELF "Where am I in this story? This movie?" How is that crappy? And if that's crappy, I'm a crappy mom. I point out to Girl how many books and shows are Default Mode Boy, where they're more geared towards boys' interests. (Or, as I'm likely to say now "Fear of a Girl Planet" shows.)

I'll admit I may not have understood how important race could be, how subtle bigotry, and how pervasive the idea that Everything Is Okay As Long As I'M Not Getting Fucked was if I hadn't spent ten years being a "Hispanic" in a white small town. It was depressing, infuriating and eye-opening.

I bet the feeling Pam got upon seeing the white Earthsea that I got when I saw Cardcaptors had be re-cut to a show that might as well have been called, "Li, Master of the Clow." Somehow, in spite of the fact that the show was about Sakura, a girl, it was promoted to look like her male rival, Li, was the main character.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 06:45 am (UTC)
They were asking her to ask HERSELF "Where am I in this story? This movie?" How is that crappy?

It's crappy because telling a little girl that a superficial attribute (skin color) is the most important thing about a fictional character, implies that the same is true in real life. It's crappy because the assumption that a black girl must have black characters to identify with is the EXACT SAME MODE OF THINKING that has brought us a Hollywood that thinks white audiences can't identify with non-white characters. How can we ever get past racism when well-meaning parents encourage children of all races to think of themselves as members of a particular race first, and people second? The tribal nature of human beings does the rest.

"I've never told my parents that, in a way, they ruined these books and movies for me," Pam writes. She describes how her parents hammered the idea into her head, day after day, that she couldn't possibly find herself in the white casts of the books she read and the TV shows she watched, that common humanity was not enough. How does that make her world better?

When I was a little girl, my very favorite of all my Barbies happened to be a black doll. I named her Lisa. She had curly hair down to her feet. I thought that Lisa was the most beautiful doll in the world, and I think I still have her around somewhere.

Should my mother have told me that it wasn't appropriate to play with Lisa, that I should play with dolls whose skin is pink like my own instead of dark brown like Lisa's? That seeing myself in my black doll Lisa is somehow wrong?

I think it's wonderful that contemporary pop culture draws upon a far wider range of human experience than in the past, that the world that shows up on the screen these days is more representative of the society that exists. And children (and adults) of all races deserve to see a multi-racial world in popular entertainment. Heck ... one of the reasons why I built the Raven's Children world the way that I did was because I was sick to death of European-centric fantasy. As a (white) teenager I was aware that fantasy was overwhelmingly white, and it bugged me. Yes, excluding the experiences of large categories of human beings from the pop-culture experience is wrong. But it is also wrong to insist that a child build their identity upon certain superficial physical traits. I have never had any trouble identifying with characters who were older or younger, different races, different genders than myself. Does that make me some kind of freak? Is that really not how it is for everyone? God, I hope not.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 07:08 am (UTC)
"But it is also wrong to insist that a child build their identity upon certain superficial physical traits."

I didn't get that that's what they were doing. As I said, I saw it as them asking her to question a LACK of anyone who looked like herself.
And it's not a superficial trait when it determines, as it did for her father, opportunity.

"I have never had any trouble identifying with characters who were older or younger, different races, different genders than myself."

Neither have I, but I also like to see someone like myself. I don't always have to. But NEVER seeing oneself? Or rarely? Or as a token?

I read The Three Investigators growing up. I loved them. I could indentify with the adventure, I loved the excitement of them. As I got older, I balked at the lack of anything more than a couple walk-on girls.
I never liked the Hardy Boys books (true), and gave Nancy Drew a try, but didn't like her either.

Part of where I'm coming from, no doubt, is as a parent. My understanding of why her folks did what they did is as a parent. I didn't like my parents rapping on what I liked, either, but I understand their objections now.

I see where it's important to point out inequity in popculture (and other culture), and find a balance between that and, as Girl would put it "disrespecting the kid's world."
(The balance is, "Watch it if you wanna. I'll be in another room.")

Jan. 22nd, 2006 07:29 am (UTC)
I know. I think that we're actually coming from a pretty similar place on this. I disagree with the particular tack that her parents took ... but I can't necessarily say that I would not have acted similarly in their place, especially considering what they had gone through themselves.
Jan. 24th, 2006 12:26 pm (UTC)
I take the tack, "Have you noticed that..." and "Why do you think that is?" with kids. It's called Critical Literacy here. We apply it to everything from picture books to cereal boxes. ("Why do you think the manufacturers put free toys inside the box? Why do you think it says 100% natural?")

I try really hard to avoid destroying the dream, "disrespecting the kids' world," divalea, but sometimes I get so excited about the other dimensions to a work I have to tell everyone about it.
(I'm a wee bit Aspie when it comes to text and art stuff...
For instance, when, as a kid, I finally worked out that some of the costumes of vader's army in the original Star Wars were based on Nazi uniforms, I had to bounce around and tell everyone how clever it was to get people to link those associations with characters who were meant to be disliked and feared. And everyone else, who had worked it out long before, said, "Ummmm... yeah.")

I have yet to perfect my "hold-back" attempt, but I've done very well with my best friends and their joy in the HP books/movies... (curse you, rowling, and your parody of bright girls!)
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 22nd, 2006 06:53 am (UTC)
It's a really good movie, epic in scope, but Freeman is indeed a Magical Negro in it.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 06:57 am (UTC)
What was he in the book then, a magical Irishman? How is it possible for a character to represent a racial stereotype when they aren't even of the race in question? Sheesh!

(Note: I'm not sheesh-ing at you, kalmn, but at whoever came up with the examples for the article ...)

On top of that, the whole movie (as the novella) is about Red, not whatsisface, the Tim Robbins character (can't remember his name off the top of my head). At least that's how I always had seen it. The "redemption" of the title is Red's. The Tim Robbins character is this inscrutable guy who shows up out of nowhere and inspires hope in everyone around him, but you never really get inside his head. If the story has a magical negro, he's it, aside from that little matter of not actually being black...
Jan. 22nd, 2006 07:54 am (UTC)
"If the character's identity is not particularly tied to their ethnicity, I can't see any reason on earth for race to be a consideration in casting."

But how do you determine how much a character's identity is tied to their ethnicity? What it comes down to (for me) is Author's Intent. As an author I know you understand that we create our characters with specific attributes for a reason, even if that reason is only obvious to us. And barring unforseen and extreme hardships, when adapting a written work, those reasons and that intent should be honored. If Arcana Jayne became a movie tomorrow I would be pissed of they made Jayne a buxom blonde, or Padraigh straight, because it's deviating from my intent to accomodate the percieved comfort level of the supposed viewing audience.

If Ged was brown in the book he should have been brown in the movie. It's not as if there aren't plenty of talented actors with brown skin out there.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 08:07 am (UTC)
Author's intent is a good criteria to use, I believe. And in this particular case, I definitely disagree with making the Earthsea characters white. Colorblind casting, my left buttock.

It's simply a matter of the person doing the adaptation taking the time to understand the original work well enough to comprehend what can change and what cannot. Take Kismet for an example ... I can't see any reason why the heck Fleetwood couldn't be played by a black actor, as long as he was short, cute and could pull off Fleetwood's particular blend of obnoxiousness and charm. (One of the inspirations for Fleetwood, in fact, is Lister in Red Dwarf. I think it would be fun to see Craig Charles playing Fleetwood.) On the other hand, never in a million years could he be played by a tall, muscular, humorless, rock-jawed actor, because that is just not the character AT ALL. Fleetwood the action hero would suck, and it would be a pretty clear indication that the person(s) doing the adaptation either hadn't understood the original, or just didn't care.
Feb. 23rd, 2006 08:28 pm (UTC)
I already know about it, and Pam and I have discussed it privately. But thanks!
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )


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