A short post about gender, fantasy and artistic choices.
I’m drawing a total of twelve concept character illustrations for a steampunk video game and I have tons of classes and vocations to choose from, and nearly complete freedom as to how they are imagined and what they look like. I’m only 4 sketches in, but it hit me like a bucket of cold water: I’d imagined the whole cast as white.
I have now moved on with resolve to make sure that my cast doesn’t favor a merely caucasian aesthetic. In creating material I have the editorial control to correct what is clearly a bias in my own thinking about characters, and the overwhelming whiteness of fantasy/sci-fi genre.
I mean, just count. Star Wars. Star Trek. Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. Firefly. Battlestar Galactica. Who are the non-white characters in those stories (if any!) and what are their roles?
This little revelation was a teensy bit shocking to me, since I feel acutely aware of how left out I feel as a woman in those genres. Do the same count again. Who are the women in these series and what do they do? (Honestly though, in the gender department, Firefly and Battlestar do the best by large margins.) So in feeling so often excluded in sci-fi/fantasy, I entered into the steampunk project with that wholly in mind. The project required that half the characters be female, but I wanted to make extra sure I didn’t make them fantasy/sexy and I didn’t restrict their roles to the ‘clothies’ of the genre.
So when I realized that I had harbored a white-only bias in my own imagining, I set resolutely to correcting my thinking, and have planned out a much more diverse cast for this project.
The subject of diversity in fantasy/sci-fi is an issue close to my heart as a writer and a lover of these stories. Growing up I was always aware on some level that all the coolest characters were boys. Who did I get to be when we played pretend? Who did I relate to as I read the stories or watched the movies? Sci-fi/fantasy does not need to be a white man’s world – it’s fantasy! We get to make it up! We can create new realities where in anyone can see someone like themselves reflected back at them. Why is Captain Janeway alone in the ranks of leaders and starship captains? Why is Kara Thrace as Starbuck such an anomoly? Why are the black characters in Star Trek so often aliens and cyborgs? Gender and race are much more diverse in the supporting characters, but much more can be done to spread the protagonist love.
What are other groups that I’m overlooking in my white privilege? Older people? Disabled people?
I think it’s worth looking at my role-playing characters to really point out my own trends.
White, male, hetero, 50s
White, male, hetero, teenager
White, female, gay, 90s
White, female, bi, 30s
White, female, asexual, 50s
Asian, female, gay, 40s
Ouch. I’m as much a part of sci-fi/fantasy whiteness as the whole genre around me.
So while I had relative success in handling my own issues in terms of gender and sexuality, clearly I still see white people as the characters populating fantasy. That’s certainly not what I want. And the way to change that in myself is to make deliberate choices otherwise.