Diversifying your media life

This week on the bookish internet, it was #diverseathon – a readathon where people were encouraged to pick up diverse books. To me the controversy which caused #diverseathon to be born (a ranting, incoherent, hate-filled video which is definitely not worth your time) is in part a testament to the incredible work that has been done in the book community – especially online and with younger audiences. The virulent response against advocacy for diverse authors and books reflects the frustration of some people that conversations about diversity in literature are having a meaningful impact on the community, as well as the publishing and books industry.

While I follow conversations about social inequality in a range of contexts, I honestly feel like the book community is pretty unique in how it addresses this issue. There is a greater emphasis on the personal responsibility to ensure that we are reading diversely and actively supporting diverse authors which I haven’t seen as much elsewhere. This isn’t to say that the community doesn’t face numerous issues in its attempts to increase diversity, of course it is nowhere near perfect. But outside of this community, having a sustained personal commitment to diverse media consumption isn’t really something we talk about all that often.

I think it’s important for individuals who care about social issues to have a commitment to equality and representation reflected in what media we consume. I’ve been passionate about diversity in media for a long time, but I only really started putting in effort to make sure that I was giving creators of and works about people of colour and the LGBTIQ community their due space in my media consumption a little over a year ago. It’s not that there wasn’t any diversity in what I read, watched, and listened to – but diversity was the exception rather than the rule. Because it was based on whim rather than made a priority, I was still mostly hearing from white and straight voices.

So, as we come to the end of #diverseathon, I wanted to write this post to provide some pointers on how we can continue to integrate and prioritise diversity as an everyday part of our media lives. These are strategies and methods that I’ve found helpful, and that I hope it will also be helpful to people who are new to this conversation and are unsure of where to start. And while many of my examples will focus on books, I hope that my experiences will be transferable and valuable to other media as well.

Figure out where the problem lies

The truth is that it’s everywhere. You are going to find barriers to encountering diverse media at every stage of the process you use to select whatever you’re going to read, watch, or listen to next. There are certainly structural issues that are incredibly difficult to overcome – who’s work is chosen and whether it’s released by a big conglomerate or a tiny independent company, what work gets a strong promotional push and what doesn’t, so on and so forth. But as a modern day consumer who has access to a wonderful thing called the internet, you also have a lot of power to overcome these barriers.

I have used a couple of strategies to improve the diversity of the books I read. The first was changing how I discovered books. You may have noticed from my previous posts that I’m a little obsessed with Book Riot. That’s because they have a great track record of promoting diverse authors and having meaningful conversations about diversity in the publishing industry. By choosing to follow publications that prioritise diversity, it improves my chances of being introduced to diverse authors and their books. I also follow a lot of creators and commentators on Twitter who are committed to diversity in all kinds of media, and will signal boost anything that look great.

Another was changing how I acquire books. I am a big fan of buying books in person – not only are bookstores one of the closest things to heaven on earth, but the ability to screen physical copies for any flaws before I purchase them also satisfies my perfectionist tendencies. But unfortunately, even when I had a sizable list of books by authors of colour and LGBTQ authors that I was interested in reading, they often weren’t stocked in my local bookstores. There were books that I was desperate to get my hands on but didn’t pick up for years for this reason. So I started to use online shopping to get my hands on these books, and it’s been a great help in diversifying the books I buy and read. I also try to keep track of the books that I’ve bought in the year, and if it looks like I’m a bit short on books by authors of colour, I’ll use online shopping to even up the scales. I have also started to pay closer attention to how well the bookstores that I frequent have been doing on the diversity front –  some seem to actively try to ensure that they are carrying and supporting books by diverse authors, while others do not.

Be reflexive

By this I mean, take a moment to think about how trends in your own media consumption may reflect inequalities in the industry that you want to see changed. For example, at the end of last year I realised that almost all of the books I had read on religion in 2014 and 2015 had been by white men (with two exceptions by men of colour). What?! No women, at all, with one book by a man of colour in each of those years. And unfortunately, there were definitely books by female writers that I was neglecting on my shelves, for no good reason! So this year, I aimed to deliberately include more women and people of colour in the books I read on religion this year. So far, I can happily report that this has been going pretty well!

Another example is, when I began thinking about the diversity in literature, I was prioritising both authorship and representation equally. To my mind, a ‘diverse book’ was any book that had an author and/or a protagonist who is a person of colour, has a disability, or is a member of the LGBTIQ community.

Until I saw this:

Multicultural Stat Bar Chart 2015.jpg

What this graph basically shows is that diverse racial representation in youth literature is at least twice as likely to be produced by authors who are not from that racial group. (And by the end of 2015, the gap actually increased.) And, while these statistics can’t confirm this, it’s likely that the majority of the authors that are benefiting from this discrepancy are white. As appearing diverse becomes more lucrative, it becomes an opportunity for privileged writers (and publishers) to exploit rather than fundamentally challenging white supremacy within the publishing industry. (And we’ve certainly seen this dynamic in more shameless ways as well.) This was incredibly disheartening for me, particularly as someone who found so much solace in young adult fiction growing up but didn’t think about the ways that it failed it represent me until much later. Seeing this graph permanently shifted the way I think about ensuring diversity in my reading. While I will still read  books by white, straight, and cisgender authors with diverse protagonists, they don’t count when I’m looking at how diverse my reading is. Authorship, rather than representation, takes priority for me at the moment.

Also, on an anecdotal note, I’ve always felt that it was easier to find authors of colour in contemporary young adult rather than speculative young adult fiction. I much prefer the latter, so I often relied on other genres to find books by authors of colour that I was interested in reading. But as someone who cares deeply about seeing young adult literature improve (for the sake of marginalised communities, as well as all young people) and knows the buying power that the genre has, this graph emphasised for me how that isn’t really enough. With a bit more attentiveness and digging through Goodreads, I have found more books by young adult authors of colour and am really enjoying the ones I’ve been reading so far.

Support what you love

As someone who spent her teenage years deep in fandom I’m pretty enthusiastic when it comes to supporting my faves, whether it’s live-tweeting television and podcasts (sorry not sorry), aggressively liking posts from promotional Facebook pages, or sharing the things I’m enjoying on Instagram. This takes on greater importance when it comes to diverse media.

It may seem like a small thing, but it can snowball to have a pretty significant impact. It’s no coincidence that the overwhelming success of Scandal, in large part powered by its Thursday night domination of Twitter, made room for other television shows with black women in lead roles, such as Sleepy Hollow, Minority Report, Empire, and How To Get Away With Murder. When Scandal began airing, it was the first network drama in almost forty years to star an African American woman. It was only given a seven episode run for its first season. Now, it has encouraged many other networks to consider projects with black female leads. While the progress has certainly been imperfect (Fitz is a garbage monster, I am so glad I stopped watching Sleepy Hollow before they shoved my beloved Abbie to the side, and it is a little disappointing that many of these shows rely on male and often white co-stars), there has been progress here that hopefully can continue being built upon in the future. Smaller-scale creators have also identified this kind of support as being vitally important. Nayyirah Waheed recently raised awareness about the #digitaliscritical campaign, which advocates for people to write and share online reviews for independent writers of colour.

Now, this isn’t some ironclad imperative to take to social media if that’s not your thing. Supporting the media you love can take all sorts of forms and should always be loads of fun. For example, this year I tried to make sure that half of my gifts and personal recommendations to friends and family featured diverse creators. It’s been a fun and interesting way to challenge myself to think more creatively about what the people in my life would enjoy. Just give a bit of thought to how you already share what media you love with others, and make sure that you’re including diverse media in that.

***

Obviously, there’s no perfect way to approach these issues and there are always going to be challenges. For example, authorship and representation are usually relatively easy to make note of, but there are other elements of diversity in media creation which are important too. Unseen contributors to the creative process – such as film and television writers, directors, and producers, or the staff of publishing houses – can make the process of evaluating diversity in media and transforming the landscape of the entertainment industry much more difficult.

But given the significant barriers that diverse creators face to having their work published and publicised on the same scale as white, straight, cis, and able-bodied writers, I think it’s worth our time to think about how we can show our support and play a role in improving diversity in media using the small and imperfect power that we have.

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August Reading Wrap Up!


The Cursed Child, by Jack Thorne – 3.5 stars

Oh, The Cursed Child. I’m a little heartbroken that I didn’t get to spend the release day like I used to for a new Harry Potter release (buying the book at the crack of dawn, and then spending the rest of the day ploughing through it) due to silly adult responsibilities. But when I finally got to read it, I really enjoyed it. It certainly had its issues, especially in the beginning. Just after the fifty page mark I was convinced it was going to be a huge mess but, even if it wasn’t anywhere near perfect, I do think it redeemed itself. It gave us a bit more time with the characters we love and a delightful introduction to the next generation of Hogwarts. I’ll admit, I do think JKR probably needs to stop here. But I can’t get over how adorable Scorpius is, and how sweet the relationship between him and Albus is. I also need so much more Rose Granger-Weasley in my life. So, against my better judgement, my heart is very open to seeing more of these precious kids.

Following Jesus in Invaded Space, by Chris Budden – 4 stars

In this book, Chris Budden (a white Australian author) attempts to establish a ‘second people’s theology’ for the non-Indigenous church, exploring our responsibility to the Aboriginal community given our complicity in the invasion, dispossession, and oppression of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. I really appreciate the introductory feeling of this book – it retraced some familiar ground for me, in terms of discussing the social construction of our racial narratives and how racial inequality operates, but also served gave a more detailed understanding of Indigenous history and how these issues operate in an Australian church context. I thought that this could be remarkable tool for introducing a critical perspective to how people go about their lives and approach their faith – and there’s no place more appropriate to start than interrogating colonisation, which is fundamental to how many of us came to be here and defines our relationship with this country’s First Peoples. The book explained complex topics in accessible language, and laid out the foundation for further critical thought in a way that could be useful to many people and communities of faith.

Heat and Light, by Ellen Van Neerven – 3 stars

I was hoping to like this a lot more than I did, but judging by all the positive Goodreads reviews, I think that this book and I just weren’t the best match. It was mostly contemporary literary fiction with some magical realism and speculative elements. Literary fiction can be a bit of a hard sell for me so I try to be discerning with my picks, but sadly this one didn’t come through. Of the three novellas in this collection, my favourite was ‘Water’. (Which is unsurprising – I was convinced to buy this book because someone described the story as ‘Orphan Black femslash’, something that we all need more of in our lives.) A really fascinating dystopian vision of an Australian future, exploring colonisation, environmental degradation, institutional corruption, the failures of paternalistic politicians, and Indigenous resistance. I would be curious to see more from this world, or this story told in a more fleshed out way. ‘Water’ was also the most consistent story in the book, staying with the same characters the whole way through. The stories in ‘Heat’ and ‘Light’ followed a range of different characters, and it felt really fragmented to me. In ‘Heat’, I found the first character and Pearl the most compelling, and while Pearl did return in a couple of the later chapters, we also spent a lot of time with other far less interesting members of the Kresinger family. The stories in ‘Light’ were even more disconnected from each other so I found most of the stories dissatisfying, although I really enjoyed the final story. I will keep a curious eye out for more of Ellen Van Neervan’s work.

Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis – 4 stars

Nolan and Amara share a psychic connection – whenever Nolan, who lives in our world, blinks his eyes, he is inside Amara’s head. He sees what she sees, hears all of her thoughts, and feels everything she experiences. Amara comes from a universe with magic, feuding mages and ministers, and a dethroned princess on the run. When Nolan is suddenly able to exercise greater power over Amara than ever before and his presence becomes known, the two have to work together to save each other and confront the conspiracy engulfing Amara’s world.

Before discussing this book, I have to quote my favourite review because it always makes me smile:

I think we’ve all seen those posts where some douchebro is like “not every thing needs a bisexual low-income mute woman of color who use sign language or a one-legged epileptic Latino guy”. Those examples are done in the spirit of spiteful condescension, like it would be TOTALLY RIDICULOUS to have a story like that. Which is why it gives me exceptional pleasure to say:

Go home boys, Corinne Duyvis has just pwned you all.

I think the best thing about the diversity of the main characters in this book is that it makes perfect sense in the context of their lives, and their identities are fully formed on the page. Their disabilities and racial backgrounds are not the point of the story, but it is impossible to imagine Amara and Nolan without them. And I think it’s doubly special given how ‘difference’ is often represented allegorically in speculative fiction (especially for a younger audience) – instead of having diverse characters, it is not unusual for fantasy novels to use magical creatures to explore issues of discrimination and oppression. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the potential that speculative fiction has to challenge us through such imaginative storytelling is one of my absolute favourite things about it – it also disappointingly often means that diverse social groups are not given actual representation. Other than this, Otherbound felt like a fairly conventional young adult fantasy novel. Although it didn’t quite hit the mark for me, I also couldn’t put it down. The plot was compelling, the world-building was interesting, and I really enjoyed the time I spent with Amara, Nolan, and Cilla. (But also, I need more Amara/Cilla pls & ty.)

Educating for Action: Strategies to Ignite Social Justice, edited by Jason Del Gandio and Anthony J. Nocella II – 4 stars

A primer on social justice activism and community organising. Some of the content was quite introductory – addressing the basics of things like writing, public speaking, and using social media – but I appreciated how comprehensive a guide this was for beginners. As someone with a little more experience, I don’t believe I’ve seen anything which pulls information on activism together like this before, so I think this is a really valuable and accessible resource.

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith – 5 stars

I fell in love with this book almost instantly. Flygirl is the incredible and moving story of a girl in Louisiana who desperately dreams of becoming a pilot. When the Women Airforce Service Pilots are established during World War 2, she sees her chance. There’s just one problem – Ida Mae Jones is black. Because she is light enough to pass as white, she makes the difficult decision to hide her racial identity while contributing to the U.S. war effort for the sake of her older brother, who is deployed in the Philippines.

The book provides a powerful and nuanced portrait of the racial issues facing young black women in U.S. society, from a range of everyday microaggressions to the significant danger Ida would face if her racial identity was discovered. It also beautifully represents her relationships with other women – her mother, and her friends at home and at the WASP. They are complex and challenging, but ultimately, these relationships are sources of comfort, strength and courage. (And speaking of Ida’s friends, I am about this close to making a shrine to Patsy, I loved her so much.)

As someone who is passionate about the empowerment of girls and young women, reading this book made my heart so full of joy and pride in Ida. She faces incredibly difficult choices and circumstances but she is hardworking and always tries to honour her commitments to both her family and her dreams, even as they pull her in different directions. Honestly, I absolutely loved this book.

A love letter to women’s podcasts

When it comes to podcasts, I have two great loves. The first, as previously discussed, are audiodramas. The second are women’s podcasts, or to be more specific – conversational podcasts hosted by women who are good friends, discussing literally any topic that I am interested in. Self care to Feminism to Literature, I am in. The best thing about conversational podcasts is the intimacy you share with the hosts as they talk about their lives, their interests, and the things that matter to them. Over the course of a half hour or an hour every week or two, you get to be part of their conversations and build a connection with them. And these elements take on a particular significance when it comes to women’s podcasts.

Women have long been underrepresented in podcasting. Men hosted 70% of the 100 most popular podcasts in 2013. My own very quick and dirty, unscientific tally of the top 50 podcasts on the US iTunes charts found that there were 29 male-hosted podcasts (58%), 13 women-hosted podcasts (26%), and eight podcasts with mixed teams. (Dated August 4th in case any of you are particular about your data, which of course you should be.) So the picture may slowly be getting better – but still, two exclusively male-hosted podcasts for every podcast hosted exclusively by women?

It’s also important to note how women’s participate in public conversation is culturally delegitimized in multiple ways. For a start, women’s voices are often deemed irritating – either because they are too high and femininised (up talk), or too low and gravelly (vocal fry). But beyond the surface level, women’s interests and ideas are often treated as vapid and unimportant, when a similar scrutiny is not applied to men’s interests or ideas. Women with an interest in beauty or fashion are treated as vapid, but we hardly blink an eye at men who obsessively follow sport or cars. As a society, we have difficulty reconciling the idea that women who are interested in traditionally feminine pastimes can also be intellectually capable. And of course if a woman is less interested in ‘feminine’ pursuits but is successful in traditionally male fields, such as politics or science, she is either subject to insults and ridicule or assumed to be incompetent.

The beautiful thing about women’s conversational podcasts is that, despite all of this, they make space for women to be fully ourselves. The hosts talk without any regard for pandering to a male audience and make room in public space for a full representation of womanhood. A womanhood unapologetic about her views, unapologetic about the way she sounds, unapologetic about the disinterest of male listeners as she starts to talk about critical feminist theory or periods or anything in between. A womanhood that, unhampered by stifling expectations, is proud and confident and brilliant and joyous.

Whether it’s the ladies of Call Your Girlfriend refusing to apologise for the way they speak, Amanda Nelson of Get Booked rejecting criticism that the show recommends too many female authors, or Marcelle Kosman from Witch Please insisting on including their laughter on the show to celebrate women’s joy and explicitly politicising that decision – every time these women stand up for themselves, or refuse to limit or censor their content, their podcasts become a platform to simply be themselves. And in doing so, they make room for women to see themselves represented and valued in the media they consume.

It is truly hard to overemphasise the value of this in a world where women’s views are dismissed and belittled, where our voices are regularly mocked and derided. Call Your Girlfriend has received messages from women who were inspired to start their own podcasts, and promotes these podcasts on the show. Witch Please recently shared this tweet, which made my heart grow all the sizes:

This is the reason why women’s spaces, why women’s culture, why women’s podcasts matter. They provide a meaningful opportunity to create somewhere apart from mainstream patriarchal culture where women’s voices, perspectives, and contributions are valued and celebrated. Obviously, this is important to women and girls on an individual level – as Miss Representation reminds us, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Representation shifts our understanding of our value and what we are capable of achieving. And as these platforms grow, they begin to shift the cultural landscape. As their reach and influence increases, women’s podcasts challenge our common cultural understanding of the importance of women’s voices and opinions, and broaden our beliefs about which perspectives and subjects are worthy of our attention.

Women changing the world? What’s not to love.

To Read Yourself Into a Book

If there is one event of internet rage that sticks out in my mind from the past year, it’s the controversy surrounding Meg Rosoff’s comments about diversity in children’s literature. I was actually on Twitter when events began unfolding, when a young adult author raised the alarm and expressed her disappointment that such views were being expressed by such a renowned author in the field. The offending comment, in case you missed it, was:

There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented.

While there are many things that are frustrating about this viewpoint, what hit me most profoundly was the expectation for marginalised people – children, even! – to learn from such a young age to read themselves into texts that don’t represent them, to have no expectation of seeing themselves as they are in a book. The fact of the matter is that children from marginalised backgrounds are already doing the work of bridging the distance between ourselves and a text by necessity. As a girl, I was a voracious reader. And if I didn’t learn to be able to see myself in the lives of white boys and girls, if I didn’t learn to bridge that disconnect between our respective lived experiences, then I would not have been a reader at all. That work was necessary because I had no other option. Actually, it took until last year, when I was reading Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay, for me to look up from a book and think ‘Wow, this actually speaks directly to my experience as a brown girl born to a middle class immigrant family in a Western country. I don’t think that’s actually happened for me before.’

Meanwhile, this expectation – which Rosoff had no qualms about placing on LGBTQ children and children of colour, often children who are facing significant struggles in a society that is heteronormative, cisnormative, and white supremacist – is something that privileged white children, especially boys*, get to live without. Privileged readers (and admittedly, most of us have some form of privilege), who have no need to seek out texts featuring marginalised characters, have the privilege of coming to texts with little responsibility to bridge distances between themselves and the character on the page, often because those characters look just like them. The bridging work that Rosoff lauds is not imposed on all of us equally – it is something that uniquely lands on the shoulders of young people of colour, queer youth, and often girls in more formal educational settings as well. But for the merits of this bridging work to be realised, for all young readers to be able to see themselves represented in texts while also being able to learn to bridge differences in identity between themselves and others, we need far more diverse books to represent all people. So that all children have the opportunity to both see a mirror of themselves in the books they read, and the opportunity to learn to bridge the divides between themselves and others.

But there is another potential pitfall here, to engaging in this bridging work as a privileged reader. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down to begin reading Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. As a young woman who is cisgender, and who had never read a book about trans issues before, I knew I had a lot to learn coming to this book. Which is why it interested me when I began to add quotes to Goodreads. I had a moment, when quoting a passage from the introduction, where I was debating whether to include a second sentence. The first sentence, which I loved and identified with, reflected a more universal experience. The second sentence put the first in the context of Mock’s lived experience as a trans woman. Being aware of my tendency to overpost and to make quotes as long as possible, in that moment I decided to post just the first sentence.

And although I know my intentions and recognise how small this moment was, something about it continued to bother me. Because, in the end, I treated a sentence that I did not identify with as superfluous, as meaningless to me. Because as beautiful as it is to identify with a book we’re reading (or something that we are watching or listening to), to connect with someone else’s lived experience when it is so different from our own lives, there is a risk of overidentifying with that experience and subsuming it into your own. Of failing to take care when you express your solidarity, not to step on the toes of those who have lived with the painful reality of that experience in full. This is the risk that is often betrayed by simplistic statements like ‘I don’t see colour’, like ‘we’re all the same, we all bleed red’, which ignore the particular experience of the person in front of us by imposing universality, and making ourselves more comfortable by negating difference rather than acknowledging and addressing it.

Navigating this tension, of recognising our common human struggles while truly honoring our differences, is an inherently fraught process. I don’t think that there’s an easy way to address it, no simple answer which will allow us to be perfectly considerate, to handle the stories of others, especially of marginalised people, with all the care they deserve. The work of bridging the distance between yourself and a text from someone with a different lived experience will often require drawing some connection between their experiences and your own, their emotions and your own. But like many things, it starts with deliberateness, awareness, and coming to these works with a sense of humility.

* I would argue that this dynamic exists, but differently, with regard to gender. Stories by woman and about girls for younger readers are more common but often devalued, by assuming that their subject matter is less worthy of study and could not be of interest to boys. There’s a wonderful post from Book Riot on the subject here.