I don’t quite know how to start this, so I’m just going to start. It feels like it’s a tangle of things, but maybe there’s a knife to cut this Gordian knot.
A friend told me last week that he doesn’t like first person POV because he doesn’t like being forced to experience things from another person’s point of view. I can kind of go along with that, but his example really upset me. He said he doesn’t want to read from inside the POV of a teenage girl.
Quelle horror. I mean, what could be worse than being a teenage girl? Apparently nothing.
He went on to justify his stance by saying that third person POV is okay, because it allows him to empathize alongside the character. First person forces him to be the character.
I’m going to go on a slight tangent now. In the last couple of years there have been a lot of calls on social media for diverse representation in fiction, television and movies. More recently there has been a call out of whitewashing, which is using white actors to portray characters that were originally non-white. (Hashtags: weneeddiversebooks which spawned the site We Need Diverse Books; whitewashedOUT is from the Asian-American community. More on that in this piece from the NYT. ownvoices is another hashtag commenting on the need for people to tell their own stories.)
I said this on Twitter the other day, because there were some people who expressed a desire to see Captain America get a boyfriend.
I’ve seen similar sentiments about giving Elsa (from Frozen) a girlfriend.
Okay, back to my point, and I DO HAVE ONE. When I was in high school, I read Catcher in the Rye. I don’t remember if it was required reading, but it was required in my mind. IT IS TOLD FROM THE POV OF A TEENAGE BOY. OMG. And let me say, further, that almost nothing I read in high school reflected any of my identities or realities. I have read countless stories from the POV of people who are nothing like me.
Gah, this makes me so angry and frustrated. For me, one of the reasons to read is to experience something different than myself, and since most of what’s available doesn’t reflect my identities, I’ve learned to enjoy those things. It is a privilege to have so much material to choose from and still have things left over that all reflect one’s identity.
I’d also like to make the case for reading (and otherwise enjoying various types of media) that don’t reflect white heterosexual cisgendered male realities. As I said in my tweet, we are tired of scraps, of hints, of winks and nods. We are tired of only being sidekicks and punchlines. None of this is new. I’m nowhere near to being the first person to say any of these things.
Since I’m ranting specifically about first person, I’m going to keep it in the first person. I am tired of not getting my happy ever afters, of always being the villain, of being alone, or being the monster. I’m exhausted at being seen as less than, as other, as subhuman. And it’s incredibly painful to not see myself reflected in the world around me. It makes me feel quite lonely. Literally one of the most comforting things I can hear is, “You are not alone.” There are many ways I can tell I’m not alone, and seeing reflections are constant reminders of that.
A couple of years ago there was a fantastic essay written by a woman about how she hated the strong female character.
Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.
Men get to be complicated and messy and all kinds of things in fiction. Women, not so much. Same for other groups. As an aside, I think strong means fully-fleshed out and humanized, but it’s come to mean what the writer above defines.
I want to touch on erasure and ownvoices a little bit more. There is media that is not made for you. I’m not saying you have to understand it. Or like the experience. I’m asking you to consider the possibility of a world that is different and richer for having these representations in the world. There are people, like me, who don’t understand your world, and we are crowbarred into it from a very young age.
I’m also going to recommend a few titles written in first person that fall under the ownvoices umbrella:
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
- Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death by James Tiptree (I’m not going to get into gender identity/policing, if you weren’t aware, Tiptree was a male pseudonym for a female writer)
- Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
- Tides by Betsy Cornwall
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemison
Although these works aren’t written in first person, I recommend checking out Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno Garcia and Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, too.
Consider this an invitation, my friend, into my world. The lenses may feel uncomfortable and alien, but I can pretty much assure you this: it isn’t going to kill you, but the lack of representation makes it a hell of a lot harder for the rest of us.
If any of you reading this have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments! My preference would be to for works that are written by a member of the group presenting that POV. Thanks!
*The title of this blog post is an oblique reference to the fantastic work of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward: Writing the Other, which is a program to help writers understand how to better represent people who are different from themselves in their writing.