Monday, November 01, 2010

The reality of our world

First, some random business.
-Our contest is still ongoing, so if you haven't commented for the chance to win books and cookies, you have until November 10th, so comment here!

-My company celebrated Halloween last Thursday in the office. To take a look at some of the great costumes (and to see who I dressed up as this year), check out my post over at bloomabilities here.

-The NYPL has posted the audio of last week's "Reflections on YA" panel. If you missed out on the discussion, hear what went on here.

And now on to our regularly scheduled program.


There have been two blog posts that have lit up the internet (well, my internet, at least) for the past week that have both saddened and enraged me. One is this blog review of a Middle Grade novel, Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder. The blog's author, Noël De Vries, liked the book until she came to a depiction of a character who happily lives with her two mothers. De Vries finds some interviews online of the author's motivation for including these characters and writes:

As Snyder writes on her blog, "if more books represented diversity this way, simply, without it being a big issue all the time, more kids would understand that it isn‘t always a big issue. I’d like to think that children’s books are a wonderful way to begin the process of educating people about how varied human experience is, and about how all of it, all of it, is normal." (emphasis mine)

The only problem is, being a lesbian is not normal. It's not something that "just happens" to people, like being poor or brave. In fact, when you look through Biblical glasses, homosexuality is, well, an abomination.

Characters like Willa and Jenny, however, with their happy little family, show elementary-age readers that Christian beliefs are hateful and silly. Add these characters to the full-blown assault of politically-correct propaganda that is molding America's children.

The second blog post is a dating blogger named Maura for Marie Claire Magazine who wrote a post entitled "Should "Fatties" Get a Room (even on TV)?

She writes about the show Mike & Molly and answers this question that her editor asks her: "Do you really think people feel uncomfortable when they see overweight people making out on television?" 

She writes:
My initial response was: Hmm, being overweight is one thing — those people are downright obese! And while I think our country's obsession with physical perfection is unhealthy, I also think it's at least equally crazy, albeit in the other direction, to be implicitly promoting obesity! Yes, anorexia is sick, but at least some slim models are simply naturally skinny. No one who is as fat as Mike and Molly can be healthy. And obesity is costing our country far more in terms of all the related health problems we are paying for, by way of our insurance, than any other health problem, even cancer.

So anyway, yes, I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other ... because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I'd find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine addict slumping in a chair.

Holy moly. Where do I start? First of all, I also read much of the comments on both blogs, and I have to say, the kidlit community is, for the most part, much more civil and reasonable, even when confronted with beliefs many found extremely offensive and disturbing. On the Marie Claire blog, on the other hand, a large chunk of people hoped that the blogger would die, and both sides resort to immature name calling.

What I'll say about both posts is that they are pretty clear examples of bigotry. And, mind you, I'm talking about what was written in the posts, not about the authors themselves. I'm also not suggesting that homosexuality and obesity are similar in terms of categorizing people, except in the sense that they are both demographic groups, and the groups under attack by these two blog posts.

Although there was much to object to in both posts, there was something that Ms. De Vries wrote in her own defense in the comments that particularly spoke to me. She said:
But my concern is the “writing in” of publicly visible “diverse” characters, when it is done, not because the characters are necessary to the story, but because an author likes “to think that children’s books are a wonderful way to begin the process of educating people….”

As a children's book editor, I can certainly understand how something in a work of fiction can feel forced or contrived so as to take you out of the story and affect your reading and enjoyment of it. That is something all authors strive NOT to do. Everything should feel very fluid and natural and realistic.

However, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for authors (and TV producers, and movie directors, etc. etc.) to put in diverse characters to reflect the reality of our world. And yes, that includes overweight people. I've said it a thousand times, and I'll say it again: as an Asian American growing up in a very white community, I hungered to see depictions of characters in books and TV and movies that reflected my reality, and sadly there was very little.

When I became an editor, it became one of my missions to publish books featuring underrepresented people. So, I guess I became what the first blogger would call part of the "politically-correct propaganda that is molding America's children." Oh boy. Hide your children from the books I edit!  For a series I was working on a long time ago, I made the suggestion of adding in another minority main character, and the author responded with something to the effect of, Well, we already have this character and that character and this character and wouldn't it be a little too obvious/overkill to add in yet another? At the time, I let it go, because that wasn't the author's reality and if she had forced it in, it would have felt that way: forced (although perhaps not to the child of that ethnic group reading the book...). But the sentiment of it has always bothered me, because the answer is no, it shouldn't be too obvious or overkill, because that exists in reality--in my reality, in other's realities. I've always hung out with a diverse group of friends. A former colleague of mine who was Mexican-American said that when he was in high school, his two best friends were an Asian guy and a black guy. And that was how it was. That was their reality, not a fake depiction of diversity in a book or TV show. And so, as an editor, I now try to find a diverse array of voices whose realities reflect our diverse world.

Author Jackie Dolamore stated it very succinctly in her comment:

My books reflect the world around me. I only have one book published so I can't say there is a HUGE amount of diversity there, but I know wonderful people who are gay, I know wonderful people who are devoutly religious. I know lots of different people in life, so when I write, if I didn't reflect that, it wouldn't feel real to me. I don't think all writers who include gay characters are trying to push a pet agenda, many of us are just reflecting the world we live in, just as if I write about a devoutly religious character I'm not pushing a religion because I don't belong to one, I am reflecting my world which includes many wonderful devoutly religious people.

Sorry to be preachy, but to Noël and Maura, I will just say: we have all kinds of people in the world, and we need that to be reflected in our media. Please, just practice tolerance and acceptance. Or if not acceptance, then I'll settle for tolerance. If you don't want to watch, if you don't want to read, then just look away. But allow others who do want to read and do want to watch do so. And allow those of us who are lesbians or obese exist and be happy, even. Your reality is not my reality, but we have to live in the same world. As Roger Sutton stated so succinctly, "not everything is about you, dear."

Note: after writing this post, I came across author Laurel Snyder's excellent response to the review.


Meghan said...

On the first topic: I'm SO glad that the majority of the people commenting did not agree with the blogger about the lesbians. This person is awful! Thank goodness some of them said that it's not their kind of religion. Ugh.

On the obesity topic: I don't agree that it's also bigotry. It's not quite the same thing. We're talking about TV characters not people in books for one thing and we're talking about something people cannot help vs. something people can help (sort of). It's just a different thing. TV is all about image. I mean, let's face it, most of the time we do want to watch good looking people on TV and in the movies! Reading a book about people is different. Why do you think Brad Pitt gets top dollar? If he were 400 pounds he wouldn't be getting the big roles. It's not bigotry it's reality.

Anonymous said...

Besides these people attacking just simply realistic representation and inclusion of diversity in the media, what both the bloggers also had in common was that they used very disingenuous "reasons" to hide behind behaving like nothing more then online haters. The first used the bible [or, her "bible glasses or whatever!] to then very selectively condemn an entire group. The second used "health" as a smokescreen to go on to be just simply insulting and cruel. I am quite glad people are calling out this type of behavior.

Another weird common point: they both seemed to have a serious personal issue with the fact that the characters they attacked were represented as 'happy' and 'normal' in the book and the show. As if their "inclusion" would be actually be OK if the characters were shown as marginalized in some negative way? Eww.

Grace Lin said...

First blogger--I have no words, except if she can jump from "happy muslim/jewish families=an attack on christians" then it's a very small step to "happy Asian/Black/Hispanic family=an attack on caucasians" which is really scary and sad.

Second blogger--I disagree with you Meghan, I think the obesity comments ARE bigoted. Many would argue that homosexuality is something you can help/choose and many obese people have health issues (ex.thyroid disease) that make them overweight. So I don't think the "something you can help" argument is a strong one.

And just because TV is mostly about image doesn't make it right. And it's also fairly recent reality that the media is filled with only "pretty people." The TV show "Roseanne" had overweight people on it and lots of people watched; and I remember watching TV shows like "The Facts of Life" which had girls that actually looked like real girls (am I showing my age?).

I really worry for young girls these days who are bombarded by images of beauty and perfection--the point being, even if it is not bigotry it should not be reality either.

Nikki Shannon Smith said...

I would really love to write an eloquent response here, but I am just too offended by the bloggers referenced. Ugh!

I will say that I write, in part, to make sure ALL children see themselves in books. That includes gay children and fat children. Growing up, I saw very few books with Black characters and that bothered me. I'm glad that things are slowly changing, despite the bigots out there.

Additionally, I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which causes metabolic problems and weight gain. I did not choose it. And believe me, because of people like that blogger, I would do something about it if it were that easy. Weight loss is the ONLY thing in my life I have not been able to achieve. And to think that someone is disgusted by my very existance, or by the sight of me walking across the room, or by me being LOVED, pisses me off.

So, I will write stories with offensively diverse characters. And hopefully, they will reach the hands of children. And maybe, just maybe, a child will be empowered.

Thanks for this post, Alvina, and for making it your mission to publish books with diverse characters.

Laurel said...

Thanks so much for addressing this!

I just want to say that the very BEST feeling I had, during the whole brouhaha, was one (that you just touched on) of pride in the civility of the kidlit community. I really was blown away by what remained largely a dialogue. People were upset, but nobody openly attacked Noel, or resorted to cursing or ranting. I was so proud to be part of this little world!

Anonymous said...

The issue wasn't watching obese people in roles it was watching them make out I believe (and we're talking obese not just fat right?). I can't recall ever seeing that on TV. (and yes, I can't believe I'm discussing this) I don't know how many people would feel like seeing that too many times. I mean, I don't care if I see... it's not a big shocker... but I'd rather see good looking people make out and that's the truth. I'm just speaking for the masses here. I know there are some small amount of people who can't help being obese but I think shows like the Biggest Loser prove that anyone can lose weight. I don't want to get into a whole argument here but people have lots of excuses not to exercise and that's what it takes. Thyroid problem or not. Do you know how many weight adding drugs I'm on?

All I'm saying is that I watch TV for escape. Most people do. Don't fault people like me for wanting to relax at the end of the day and wanting to do that. I could lie and be politically correct here but I hope you will respect me for my honesty.


Anonymous said...

And Grace, of course I watch shows like Roseanne, but they don't have lots of sex scenes in them. If I want to watch a steamy sex scene show I watch Gray's Anatomy, know what I mean?


alvina said...

There are many people who find larger people attractive. Meghan, I appreciate that you're stating your own personal opinion, but the blogger was making a hateful judgment call on a group, and yes, I call that bigotry. And just because the show MIKE & MOLLY exists doesn't mean it's promoting obesity, as that blogger stated (not that I've seen it).

I'm fascinated with the show THE BIGGEST LOSER, but I think it only shows that yes, anyone can lose weight if they have a personal trainer and are forced to work out all day. And if there's a large cash prize if you lose the most weight. Many of the contestants don't keep the weight off. It's not that easy in real life. Well, maybe for those of us blessed with a good metabolism.

I think it's the individual that is beautiful, not the body type. And who are we to say any person should not be allowed to be depicted as being HAPPY? Not that I'm equating weight with race, but there are many people who find interracial couples kissing to be disgusting. It's the same side of the coin. Or whatever that saying is. (different side of the same coin? You know what I mean.)

Meghan said...

This is the definition of bigotry: "One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ."

Saying "homosexuality is, well, an abomination," is bigotry. Saying "I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other," isn't. The first person is intolerant of homosexuals while the second person is not intolerant of obese people, she simple doesn't wish to watch them do a certain action. So I feel that the word is being used in the wrong context for the second blogger. I should also add that when I said I didn't want to watch obese people make out particularly, I should also add that I don't really want to watch ANYONE make out who isn't really, really hot. So I have nothing against obese people, I just don't want to watch average people doing sex acts on TV. Enough said there.

ALSO, the second blogger apologized: "I would really like to apologize for the insensitive things I've said in this post. Believe it or not, I never wanted anyone to feel bullied or ashamed after reading this, and I sorely regret that it upset people so much. A lot of what I said was unnecessary. It wasn't productive, either.

I know a lot of people truly struggle to lose weight — for medical and psychological reasons — and that many people have an incredibly difficult time getting to a healthy size. I feel for those people and I'm truly sorry I added to the unhappiness and pain they feel with my post."

I doubt the first blogger will be doing so.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting that exclusion of diversity 'as normal' is actually the artifice in these cases, yet [mild!] realistic inclusion is being attacked as being contrived, or having all sorts of strange conspiracy theory type motivations, or far-fetched results [the Mike & Molly characters met at overeaters anonymous, openly struggle with weight issues, yet are accused of "promoting" obesity?? - the inclusion of a gay couple in a book makes "Christian beliefs hateful and silly"?? and is part of a "full-blown assault" to mold America's children???] The book and the show simply have realistic characters that people see and encounter in real life.

I think that this is a very important topic for discussion for people who work in the media. Thanks again for posting this.