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Are you offended yet?

“I met another girl called Marta once.” Pause. “But she was Mexican.”

Or maybe they say Russian.

I’ve also had this conversation.

“Where are you from?”
“Florida.”
“No. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Florida.”
Exasperation. “But your name is Marta and you talk different. Where are you from?”

And this.

“Wow, Marta. You’re English sure is good.”

Or people call me Martha. Marty. Maria. Marie. Marla. Marsha. And my name is never on a key chain or coffee mug, which bothered me when I was a kid. When I was a teenager I decided it meant my name was classy.

The other day my son and I were watching his favorite show–iCarly. For this one episode there is a character named, that’s right, Marta. She’s is horrible. She is crazy. She is the worst girlfriend in the iCarly universe and she’s got my name. The last time I heard my name on TV was one of the daughters in The Sound of Music. Her part was kind of dull.

Anyway, the Marta Episode is my least favorite episode of iCarly. It is weirdly difficult not to take it personally.

So earlier I read someone’s blog rant about Doctor Who. She was upset about the way a favorite female character was written out of the show. I agree that the end was cruel to the character. A fate worse than death. Yes. But in her view it showed Russell T Davies to be sexist.

Now Doctor Who has a man as its lead and this man always has a female companion. Some sexism may be inherent in such a part, but for me the women were amazing.

Out with the 10th Doctor

The thing is–when is treating a character of a particular gender, race, religion, the result of bias and when is it story. I’m going to assume that the writers of iCarly don’t hate women named Marta (though maybe the name of a writer’s ex?). Stereotypes abound on TV, in film, and in books. How do you tell the difference between hatred for Martas and a Marta who is crazy?

That sounds dumb, but is Russell T. Davies sexist because bad things happen to female characters? A former friend of mine used to complain that Harry Potter wasn’t a girl. She thought JK Rowling was sexist. Well, so what kind of world would it be if Harry had been Henrietta? How are we to stand over a writer at the moment of creation and say, “No. That’s not what we want.”

But stereotypes need to go. Stereotypes are lazy at best. Offensive at worst. Tell me a film/book/show filled with stereotypes that made you especially angry.

When you feel attacked by the image you see on screen or in print, are you being observant and smart or overly sensitive?

And in your own work, how sure are you that you’ve avoided stereotypes and prejudices? (It is a stereotype when it offends me but the truth when I offend someone else!)

15 thoughts on “Are you offended yet?

  1. I may be one of the world’s least offensive people. If I let myself, I could probably be immobilized (or at least silenced) by not wanting to upset anyone, offend anyone, add to someone’s existing pile of woe. But there’s too much else to worry about. And ultimately, you do what you can to consider other people, just accepting that everyone has hot buttons and that you can’t anticipate them all — let alone avoid triggering them all. You’d end up with a novel consisting of nothing but prepositions and articles. 🙂

    The WIP has a half-dozen protagonists in the late-20th-century main story. One of them is a woman. Four of them are old enough to be retired. None is black, Hispanic, Asian. One of the protags is married to another. None is gay. The two-centuries-old back story is about a Welsh brewmaster with a legitimate chip on his shoulder about the English. There are so many possibilities for offense here: what have I included? excluded? what am I oversimplifying? does the fact that A, B, and C are true of my fictional retirees imply that I think they’re true of ALL retirees? should I have made more of the main characters married? how realistic is it that none of them is hearing-impaired? I could drive myself crazy. (No offense to the differently-psyched readers out there!)

    Characters’ names are tricky. I’d hate for anyone I know to see themselves in my fictional characters because of something as superficial as a name, but I can see how they might — especially if the character shares real traits with the real person. Once you start naming characters you’ve got a choice: (a) use really common names like John (gasp) and Mike, which tend not to carry much real weight as names and thus might be more easily confused with other characters’ names; (b) use less common names, like, oh, say, Marta and Rowena, and risk triggering some unintended association in readers’ heads exactly because there so few people with those names (“Wait — you mean ME?!?”); or (c) walk the narrow middle. I’ve known guys named Al, Larry, Pierce, George, and Wayne, and know OF a couple women named Bonnie (though neither of them was born a “Bronwyn” as far as I know). But none of the real people with those names are in the book. Last names are harder, to me; it’s almost impossible for my own ears not to prick up when I encounter a character named “Simpson,” and I assume other readers react similarly to their own surnames.

    (Did I ever tell you that I’m in one of Diana Gabaldon’s books? By name? For real? I feel more famous about that than I’ll probably ever feel about seeing my own name on a book’s spine.)

      • Your massive comment is appreciated.

        I’ve been meaning to read Gabaldon. Guess I’ll have to now!

        Writing and not offending anyone… If you don’t offend someone, you haven’t written anything. But I hate to upset people. Add to their woe, like you said. I sometimes wonder why people who get offended can’t just accept that someone see the world differently. But then again, hate mongering, writing that is used to manipulate people into harming others, well, you can’t be silent about that either.

        Tricky stuff. The world is full of land mines!

  2. I”m not sure how I’d know if I’d fallen into stereotyping a character. I think I’d know if I behaved in a sexist way, and better still, my first reader would probably be unable to help. We both have very traditional values and that doesn’t seem to hold water in film and entertainment today. Movies don’t want traditional people unless they’re portrayed as strange, weirdos who don’t belong. Likewise, as a Christian the portrayal Christians and Christianity receive in film and books (outside of CBA literature, of course) is pretty much a stereotype. And wrong.

    That used to offend me. Now I realize it’s ignorance and hatred for the core values which cause it in the first place.

    My son likes iCarly too. I’ll have to watch for the Marta episode. Thanks, Martha. Where’re you from again?

  3. I don’t think showing a woman in what you refer to as a traditional role is automatically sexist. I mean, the real world has women in traditional roles–although I’m not sure what that means sometimes. My mother-in-law has many traditional values, is evangelical Christian, but was forced to be a single mother (thanks to her philandering husband). All characters ought to be complex and well-rounded.

    When I was a kid, a neighboring family was extremely religious in the go-to-church-lecture-us-about-hell sort of way. Their granddaughter, who told me on a regular basis that I was going to hell, stole from us. Now, I’ve got enough sense–and know plenty of other Christians–to know that being Christian doesn’t make anyone a thief. Hypocrites come in every religion. But sometimes I worry that if I have a Christian character who is also a thief, I’ll be accused of hating Christians, which I like to think is not the case.

    (I lived in a country where the government enforced atheism, and I don’t want to live in that world any more than I want a world where religion is forced either.)

    I don’t want a writer to make every woman weak and helpless, nor do I want every woman to be brave and wonderful. I’m willing to accept great and evil women characters. Where is that line between showing bias/hate/condescension/negative adjective here and allowing characters from all walks of life to be in the wide range of human experience?

    oh. And see. This is why I introduce myself to people as MarTA.

  4. It’s funny that John used my name in conjunction with yours, because, name wise, I had the same experience as you growing up. Nobody knowing how to spell it or pronounce it, no one else having the name, no little license plates or mentions on Romper Room. And people were always intrigued by my background, too, but my name is rather waspy and my looks are rather exotic. “What ARE you?” was often the question people asked me.

    When I write I don’t know if I think about offending people. I usually write female characters, either girls or young women. Sometimes I wonder if I should be writing boys or young men. But it’s not so much that i think I’m offending someone as if maybe I have some blind spots I should be exploring. And sometimes I think I should write more multi cultural characters, as my life has been very multicultural, so sometimes I shake up my minor characters by making them a different race than I had originally planned. That actually usually makes them more real, gives them a place to start a back story, and such.

    As for naming characters, I go with my gut. Sometimes choosing names randomly, sometimes choosing them for mythological references, sometimes just picking the name of someone I know or once knew… and that’s when I get nervous. What if they read the book and think that character is them, when really I just wanted a particular type of name from a particular culture with a particular resonance. I often change those types of name to something similar, but not quite. Say, Jed to Jeb. (I hope Jed doesn’t read this.)

    • Must admit that no one ever asked me what I was until I lived in eastern Europe. German was always the first guess. Russian after that.

      Yes, I want to know my blind spots. I can’t worry about offending, but I do worry about being blind. Sometimes I worry how I portray any character not white. Maybe all that white guilt gets in the way of clear thinking.

      Names… sometimes easy. Sometimes hard. I get names from all kinds of places. Love thinking a good name.

  5. I think the laziest form of stereotyping for writers is when they use physical characteristics as a shorthand for personality types. When the good guys have strong jaws and the evil or wimpy guys have weak chins, for instance. When people who are honest have large, wide eyes and people who cheat have small, “piggy” eyes.

    As for me, I hate stereotypes of people who have freckles, as I do and my daughter does. Or red hair, as my daughter does. Think of all the redheads in movies, esp. redheads with freckles. It was hard to watch my daughter deal with that. The best they can hope for is to be perky, the best friend, the joker. Never the romantic lead. At least in American fiction- other cultures sometimes- Agatha Christie had a fondness for women with freckles, even describing them as lovely :).

    And I love the name Marta.

    • For so long I’ve wanted red hair–even before Molly Ringwald. Physical stereotypes are absurd. People ideas about tall women drive me nuts. Recently I saw a car add where a short guy’s girlfriend was really tall–and it was clearly meant to be a joke about his manhood and her sincerity.

      In Doctor Who redheads are so cool!

  6. Re: Doctor Who

    I think I know which Who character you speak of. I’ve seen this argument many, many times in the Who fandom and I’m still not sure what to make of it. At the character deaths panel at Gallifrey One this year, Paul Cornell said something that made a lot of sense. He said that too often fans are quick to label something in fiction as racist, sexist, or homophobic when what they really mean is that they didn’t like it, or they didn’t want it to happen that way. I think this is true a lot of the time. Not to say that there aren’t plenty of examples of racist/sexist/homophobic literature floating around out there, but saying something is incorrect provides more validation that saying you wished things turned out differently.

    On the other hand, I think it’s important to look at what we read and watch with a critical eye and be observant to how others might view it. I don’t think about that much when I’m writing a draft, but it’s something I ask my readers to point out in critique. But I also ask them to offer evidence. I don’t think you can label one bad thing happening to one character of a particular race, gender, or sexual orientation with an -ism, but if there are trends there, it’s something to be mindful of.

    • Well said. Now that you said that, I think I do remember that Cornell quote. I haven’t known what to make of the accusations that Davies is sexist because of the companions or that he is homophobic because of what happened to Ianto. I’ve never seen Davies in these ways. he tells the story he wants to tell. Like it or not.

      And good for him. As a writer I want to be as brave.

      But you’re right. Negative stereotypes exist and need to be looked at. If I ever write something from a distorted point of view, I’d want to know–and see the evidence.

      Thanks for the comment, Shellie.

  7. The odd thing is, that so many people really are stereotypical – which is why there is such a thing as stereotypes in the 1st place, because whole bunches of people really act like that.

    Someone is going to be offended, no matter what you write or how you write it. That’s just life. Some people actually like always living in that state, just as others go out of their way to avoid it. So just tell the story and don’t worry about the offendees. If a complaint is legitimate, then it can be addressed at that time, but I would say don’t worry about that beforehand. Don’t let “PC-ness” keep you from telling a story the way you believe it’s best told.

    Tell it, then let the chips fall where they may. 🙂

    • Oh, I agree that many of us actually have bits of stereotypes within us. Sure. I hope I’m thoughtful about what I use for a character and what I don’t. I want a character to be believable and interesting.

      As for the rest–ab-so-bloody-lute-ly. Writers should write that story they want to tell. Sort chips later.

      Thanks for that!

  8. If and when you do read Dragonfly in Amber, Diana G’s second novel, don’t do it because you’re looking for me — “I” appear on only a page or two. She tells the story about naming her character after me in The Outlandish Companion, in a section about inserting real people into her stories. (You can see it here on Google Books.)

    (Oh — my dad’s also in it, as she says. At the time she wrote Dragonfly, I was using — or trying to use — the “Jr.”; but my editor thought it made the name too long on the book cover: to include it would require reducing the font or something.)

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