Even in pop culture, the oppressed can become the oppressor

There’s a disturbing meme I’ve been noticing of late when it comes to criticisms of marginalised characters, and it basically goes like this: ‘Oh but the creator is also marginalised.’

No really, that’s it. Apparently if the creator also comes from a marginalised background, that shuts this whole discussion down, because how can you argue with that? The creator knows what it is like to be oppressed, has lived this experience. To criticise a representation is to deny the creator’s humanity and experience. What kind of monster are you?

So I’d like to take this apart, and there are two different issues here.

Even when a creator is writing their own experience, they can still create a depiction that is harmful to other people who share that experience. For example, I, a trans person, could write a shitty transphobic character who reinforces horrible stereotypes about the trans community. Maybe it’s because it mirrors my own experiences and my own conception of transness, but it doesn’t reflect trans experience as a whole, and it actually actively harms people. That’s shitty. People would be right to raise eyebrows over it.

The thing about marginalised experiences is that even two people with a similar background can experience it totally differently. For example, a Deaf white woman might write a character that Deaf Asian women think is horrifically hurtful and awful. They’re all Deaf, but they have different experiences of Deafness. It’s not that the author’s experience is invalid, but that she didn’t think through the ramifications of what she was writing about.

And sometimes this is a situation where a depiction is totally authentic and true to life, but because there are so few available depictions, it carries an unfair burden. A television series about a wheelchair user searching for a cure, for example. Some people with paralysis and other issues that lead them to use wheelchairs for mobility absolutely do want to be cured and that depiction would absolutely mirror their own experience. Others do not — and a narrative that reinforces the idea that disability is a tragedy and all disabled people are in a continual state of suffering would be harmful. Yes, even if the creator used a wheelchair.

You can’t write universally across all people who share an experience. You can write your experience and hope for the best. You can research your shared experience with other people to learn more about how other people live, and to talk about the issues that trouble them in pop culture depictions. And then you can write and hope for the best. It’s not that people shouldn’t even try, but that people should be aware that citing a shared marginalisation doesn’t get them off the hook when they do something harmful for the collective — just because you are writing about your experience doesn’t mean the lens you present it through is sound.

Which brings me to my second issue: Being marginalised in some way gives you absolutely no frame of reference, experience, or context for other marginalisations. Period. Citing your experience to weasel out of responsibility when people criticise you in this context is extremely slimy.

Say I write a book with a Black character and some of the things that happen around her are actually pretty racist. And my beta readers all missed it, and my agent didn’t say anything (not that this would be likely, hi Bri), and no one at the publishing house caught it, and it went to press. And Black critics said ‘uhhhhhh.’ I don’t get to say ‘oh well I’m disabled so I totally know what it’s like to be Black.’ How does that even follow? I know about the experience of some marginalisations and their intersections with privilege and oppression, for sure, but none of those experiences are ‘being a Black woman.’

There’s a lot of conversation about who should be writing what, and it’s not my place to tell fellow white people whether they can, say, write characters of colour. I’ve seen thoughtful, passionate arguments for and against and I encourage you to check them out for yourself. But I will say that if you do not share a marginalisation, you should think very carefully about how you want to approach it, even if you yourself are marginalised.

To return to my own lane, as a trans person, I find myself incredibly irritated by most cis narratives surrounding transness. There are a lot of reasons for that, and one definitely is that cis people tend to carry more weight, and therefore crowd us out when we try to tell our own stories, and that is not okay. Another is that many don’t do their homework, and present distorted, awful, gross versions of trans lives, which is also not okay. But I am not categorically opposed to cis people writing about trans characters — I just think that it needs to be done with care. (And also that you should not use me as your get out of jail free card in arguments with trans people who don’t share that view.)

Even if you are, for example, disabled, and have a sense of what it is like to be marginalised and profiled by society, to have a government that makes war on your body, to be in a community that denies your humanity. Being disabled is not the same thing as being trans. Your experiences as a disabled person can’t map neatly over onto trans lives, though they may have spurred an interest is diversifying representations because you know what it’s like to struggle to find yourself in pop culture. If you make some random stuff up and write a bad trans character and say ‘oh well I have severe depression,’ that ain’t gonna fly.

Within identity categories, there are even further nuances: I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans woman, for example. I can write trans women and girls with the help of research and care, but I don’t get a ‘trans pass’ just because I share some common elements with them. Likewise, ‘disability’ is an incredibly broad category. So is something many white people think is simple, like ‘race’ or ‘religion.’

It’s important to talk about these things because there is an incredibly complex culture surrounding representations and marginalised people in media and pop culture. That culture is tricky to unsnarl, but it’s important to establish ground rules. Marginalisation along some axis does not magically make you immune to criticism, nor does it lend you weight and authority when you are depicting other people’s experiences. The oppressed can become the oppressor, yes, even within the same community.

Image: Trans*March Berlin 2014, Franziska Neumeister, Flickr