In pop culture, few things irk me more than poorly researched representation. Whether we’re talking about depictions of places from people who have clearly never been there and didn’t even pick up a map, or obviously troped and inaccurate depictions of other people’s lives, the first thing that comes to mind is: Did you even TRY to research? I mean, seriously, am I missing something here? Is it secretly really difficult to conduct research in preparation for film, television, and books? Have I been doing this wrong all these years?
There are so many resources available for research. So many. Now more than ever before, with the internet providing a wealth of research opportunities including original source materials, connections to people who can help with research, and even access to members of populations you’re representing in your work. Honestly, there’s no excuse for not researching now, not when the information is so readily available, not when the populations you are depicting can so easily engage with your work, and not when anyone can do the research you couldn’t be arsed to do and see how wrong you got it.
When it comes to places, history, and other events, a little poetic license is reasonable. Even places are up to interpretation, and sometimes things need to be added or moved around to serve a narrative. If you set a story in San Francisco and make up a bar, that’s hardly a criminal offense — especially if you think carefully about where you would put it and research to find a neighbourhood and a street where it would make sense to find a bar. A gay bay on the Embarcadero might raise some eyebrows — sure, it’s possible, but it seems unlikely. Conversely, a swanky private club that practically requires a stub from the Mayflower probably wouldn’t fly in Chinatown.
Sometimes you need to add people to historical events, to create characters and bolster your narrative — maybe your character herself is an addition, because you don’t want to be locked into speculation about how someone lived. So you’re writing about JFK’s secretary, or a court woman in the Elizabethan era. I’m down with that — as long as you’ve actually thought out the era and made sure that these characters fit in with the times (if your goal is historical accuracy, I mean — if you’re writing a steampunk revisionist history set in Elizabethan England all bets are off, and hey, have you considered writing steampunk somewhere outside white, Western societies?).
Maybe you need to add or change streets, or whatever. These things are all reasonable. But when you start getting all wild, it becomes obvious that you just kind of stuck your finger on a map, or a timeline, and decided that was your setting. You didn’t think it out at all and there’s no particular reason you chose that specific setting. Which shows. If the setting doesn’t fit into your narrative, it’s going to be glaringly obvious, and jarring. Come up with a reason you want to use a specific place or era; if you have a vision in your head, great, if not, build up what you are looking for and find it.
When it comes to populations, this becomes even more important and complicated. It’s painfully obvious when creators do not bother to do even the most cursory of research on the people they are depicting, and it’s extremely frustrating — especially if you are a member of the population being depicted. When people have obviously taken their cues from other pop culture depictions and their own attitudes and random missives from their own fevered imaginations, it shows. It shows not just to people who are familiar with their own communities (no shit, Sherlock), but also to people with some degree of common sense and awareness.
The thing is, thanks to the internet, most communities are extremely active online, down to very specific subsets of humanity. If you are writing a story that features — or includes — a cosplayer of colour, and you’re white, you don’t have to imagine what that’s like or make up a story. You can find blogs and communities to read so you can get a sense of that lived experience, and you can take notes to improve your character. You can also reach out directly to members of the community to ask them about meeting with you to discuss their experiences in more depth — yes, you need to offer compensation, but yes, you’ll get a wealth of information from people who love talking about their passions.
There’s no excuse not to do your research, when in fact an easy Google would get you where you need to go. Don’t make assumptions about communities and the people who inhabit them. Try actually doing a bit of research, and you might find yourself drawn in to learn more about the communities you’re discussing. And don’t think that something you’re doing is innovative, like Ryan Murphy pretending that he invented wheelchair dance, an extremely well-established art form across multiple disciplines. If you’re interested in diversity and earnestly want to do better, that’s amazing — now take the next step, and put effort into making sure it’s done well.
Because if you don’t, it will show. And while no depiction is going to please everyone, one that’s obviously considerably incorrect is going to rankle with many more people, who will be quite vociferous about it.
Image: Grazing Horses, Susan Drury, Flickr