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On the Politics and Teaching of Erasure

To start with, there's an upset in Agent Carter fandom on the absence of POCs in 1940s NYC. Tamora Pierce stepped into it by stating that "If you mean the cast is primarily white, it’s the 40s. Which is more offensive to you: black help and blacks in service, or no blacks? I would like to see more POC, yes, but that was the time, and I’m not sure I’d like to see more POC if they’re always going to be in service" and it was one of those moments of OH GODSDAMMIT YOU TOO?! (Seriously, my love for Alanna is now muchly sullied. Anyway) So I wanted to blather on a bit.

So, first of all, the erasure of women and POC from everything is very much a narrative of our culture--in history, in writing, in art, everything. (I've promised myself that one day I'm going to write an essay called "My Invisible Labors" on every time my participation in something high-profile had been erased by TPTB.)

First off, this happens because of a straight-up devaluation of contributions, or what I sometimes like to refer to as "the magical elf narrative." This is when things happen magically, without people "doing" anything, because the people themselves are invisible. Think of it as like hotel service, right, you check into a room, it's perfectly clean and neat, you leave the place a mess, and come back later, and--everything is magically clean and net again, the bed all made up, the towels replaced, etc. You sometimes catch glimpses of hotel staff, but most of the time you don't think about it, because we don't value their labor. I tie this directly to Pierce's statement, because she is devaluing a specific kind of labor--but THE SAME THING HAPPENS ACROSS THE BOARD.

Think of the books that are "magically" ordered and shelved in libraries, of the author-less blocks of text in various circulars and so forth. (I remember once being scolded by a faculty member for not buying a book for her. I apologized and started looking in my records, then asked when she'd put in the request. "What do you mean?" she asked. "You wanted me to buy a book for you but I can't find the record of when you asked for it--usually I keep those on file for when I buy stuff." "Oh, I never told you about it, I just assumed you knew." "..." Yep, actual story, and a useful reminder that I don't actually have psychic powers.) There are an awful lot of things that are done anonymously--or rather, without acknowledgement, because the work is not valued.

Now, when it comes to the idea of POCs as only "the help"--well, 1) that is a very specific, privileged point of view and 2) easily disproven. Like, voila. That we don't see other roles for POC in film speaks more to the received knowledge of filmmakers--people "don't" want to see POC in lead roles, people "won't" find it believable--than to any kind of historicity, and this is problematic. I've written about this before, but once when I was in a fiction seminar and had given folks a chapter of my in-progress novel about a black girl in 17th century England, a ridiculous amount of time was spent--by white people--telling me that it wasn't realistic because "there weren't black people" back then...which led to me reciting population statistics in London and so forth because, well, me, and then finally the teacher just telling me that "even if it's realistic, it's not believable because it's too much," like there's this intellectual yard stick and it has some kind of quota system to it.

Which, you know, ALL KINDS OF BULLSHIT, BECAUSE FICTION.

[And it's funny, as I'm writing this I'm participating in a discussion on Facebook on the issues of class and poverty and elite universities, with someone decrying this as kids "feeling sorry for themselves" and others (including me) arguing that social and economic isolation have very real effects on the academic performance of students, and how there are programs developing to help with this. So, you know, a nugget of hope in the world, as it happens.]

The other thing going on is, well, how all of this is still going on. TPTB still try to limit opportunities for POC and women based on the received knowledge WHICH THEY HAVE BEEN TAUGHT. It's a full, ugly circle of power, and privilege, and really the only way to break it is through education, new texts, and (clearly) sheer stubbornness.

Plus the other thing is--aren't these erased stories just simply more interesting? I mean, think about how everyone freaking loves Downton Abbey--because the bulk of the emphasis of the story is on the less privileged. Hell, they even dabble a bit with diversity with the gay dude, even though they basically made him Neutral Evil. But--can't we hear the stories of ALL the gays, and ALL the POC, etc. etc.?

Anyways, I'll conclude this messy ramble: I didn't get accepted into a prestigious conference, and was feeling rather bummed about it, and I talked to my dissertation chair about it. Her response was basically "lol of course not--because you're writing about women, and that group has always been invested in ignoring them as much as possible. Be patient and get the last laugh!" My chair, btw, is pretty literally a rock star for writing THE book on women's writing in history, so, yeah, she would know, wouldn't she?

Now, it should go without saying, that the rest of us should have our last laughs at the expense of those writers who keep insisting we don't exist, or that we are "too much."

Comments

( 20 comments — Add your .02 )
marthawells
Jan. 31st, 2015 11:31 pm (UTC)
TPTB still try to limit opportunities for POC and women based on the received knowledge WHICH THEY HAVE BEEN TAUGHT.

This, so much this. I feel like Agent Carter's depiction of NY is based on movies made in the late 30s and 40s, which deliberately did not show POC except in servant roles. They aren't showing us the reality of what the world was like at that time, they're showing us a deliberately flawed, deceptive image. You have to look at the separate black cinema of the same period (where we see the black lawyers, cops, judges, doctors, detectives, mobsters, theatrical agents, soldiers etc etc that existed then) and sort of try to mentally combine the two to get any real image of what the world was like then. Why Agent Carter is doing this, I can't imagine. It's bizarre and really offensive.
caitri
Jan. 31st, 2015 11:39 pm (UTC)
The way I interpret that is that they are just NOT THINKING, or possibly trying to make a point that is not actually working. (Scott and I were shocked that they went to the trouble of getting an *excellent* black actor for the first ep, only to kill him five minutes and three lines later.) But especially in contrast to 1) Agents of SHIELD, which has a much better display of both diversity of actors and how characters are written, and 2) the Captain America film itself which PURPOSEFULLY showed an ahistorically segregated army force (in both Cap's propaganda films, the camp scenes, and the Howlers themselves). I can't remember who said it, but I really do wish the cute waitress had been black--NOTHING ELSE would have had to change in order to make that work.
matrygg
Feb. 2nd, 2015 05:47 am (UTC)
The Howlers in the Cap movie are taking a cue from the Howling Commandos of the comics, which were ahistorically desegregated without the beneit of Cap's magic Capness.
caitri
Feb. 2nd, 2015 05:55 am (UTC)
Though I don't think Morita was a full-time Howler in the comics; I think they brought him in for an issue or two only.
matrygg
Feb. 2nd, 2015 11:39 am (UTC)
Yeah, he wasn't -- the comic plays out more like television at the time, with Izzy and Gabe being the "ethnic" characters (Izzy being Jewish). It makes sense that the movies would update that.
thistlerose
Feb. 1st, 2015 01:24 am (UTC)
I don't really know Tamora Pierce, but I'm kind of flabbergasted by her ignorance - which I guess I shouldn't be, but still. FFS, "Agent Carter" is set in the 1940s; it wasn't filmed in the 1940s. Does she not understand the difference?

I like the show, but it is glaringly white. I want to support it because how many woman-led action series are there these days? But I don't want to give it a pass because it could be SO MUCH BETTER.
caitri
Feb. 1st, 2015 03:16 am (UTC)
Pierce has written a number of great Y fantasy novels with strong heroines and diverse casts, such she's getting extra flak because, you know, disillusionment. :(

I like your distinction of being "set" in the 1940s and being "filmed" in the 1940s--I think that neatly encapsulates a lot of the frustration inherent in what's going on.

Also...y'know, in the books, Peggy freakin' married Gabe, come ON. What could be more interesting than her kicking ass and taking names and also having an interracial romance on the side. Seriously.

Sometimes I feel like we are backsliding in the media. I think of what Star Trek: TNG did when I was a kid, and heck, even the glorious cheeseball that is Highlander: The Series basically made arguments for equality and secular humanism in every. single. episode. Or even, as I was describing the glories of Disney's Gargoyles--that show's LEAD was a biracial woman cop!! It's just so incredibly frustrating!!
(Deleted comment)
marthawells
Feb. 1st, 2015 07:53 pm (UTC)
I've seen the Nicholas brothers before, but not this scene, and holy crap, that's awesome!
caitri
Feb. 1st, 2015 09:28 pm (UTC)
AMAZEBALLS! *G* And thanks for sharing that link!!!
thete1
Feb. 1st, 2015 09:37 pm (UTC)
Sometimes I feel like we are backsliding in the media. I think of what Star Trek: TNG did when I was a kid, and heck, even the glorious cheeseball that is Highlander: The Series basically made arguments for equality and secular humanism in every. single. episode. Or even, as I was describing the glories of Disney's Gargoyles--that show's LEAD was a biracial woman cop!! It's just so incredibly frustrating!!

DAMNED SKIPPY.

It's really *painful*. And you know, it's not that those shows were perfect in every friggin' way, as you say, but they make so much of what we have now look *reactionary*.
caitri
Feb. 1st, 2015 09:58 pm (UTC)
There was an interesting paper at PCA last year about how Marvel cartoons have lately transformed black men into black teenagers--eg. Falcon in Avengers Assemble and Power Man in Ultimate Spider-Man. The latter also has Peter Parker as the leader of teen heroes that include White Tiger, Nova, and Iron Fist, so....basically the white dude gets to be in charge (even if Nick Fury shows up now and then as a mentor figure).

And I mean, in contrast there's (really great) shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra which I dearly love, but--both of those are also explicitly fantasies, and also explicitly fantasies of worlds without white people--which, don't get me wrong, still awesome, but--why is it that to have narratives of strong POC it has to be in a world without white people, as if POC can only be awesome if colonialism never was and never could be a thing? Does that make sense?
matrygg
Feb. 2nd, 2015 05:52 am (UTC)
I don't think they got married, unless that's a retcon to explain the new Nick Fury. They were involved (and that's canon as far back as 1975 at least), but I don't remember them being married. Still, they don't ahve to be married for your point to hold.
caitri
Feb. 2nd, 2015 05:54 am (UTC)
It's not a retcon in the comics, but I've seen at least one story where that was Nick's backstory, so maybe that's why I thought they were married.
browngirl
Feb. 1st, 2015 07:47 pm (UTC)
*hugs this essay, and you* Right on, bb. Thank you.
caitri
Feb. 1st, 2015 09:28 pm (UTC)
<3
(Deleted comment)
caitri
Feb. 1st, 2015 09:27 pm (UTC)
I wonder if they planned to "write around it" because the Cap film already shows ahistorical desegregation? Although I realize writing this that I've sort of been waiting vainly for Peggy to say something about segregation as an explicitly AMERICAN thing, that should be utterly foreign to her as an ENGLISH woman!
thete1
Feb. 1st, 2015 09:33 pm (UTC)
*Thank* you. This is so exactly correct and spot-on and slkdjklsdf

This, right here:

I've written about this before, but once when I was in a fiction seminar and had given folks a chapter of my in-progress novel about a black girl in 17th century England, a ridiculous amount of time was spent--by white people--telling me that it wasn't realistic because "there weren't black people" back then...which led to me reciting population statistics in London and so forth because, well, me, and then finally the teacher just telling me that "even if it's realistic, it's not believable because it's too much," like there's this intellectual yard stick and it has some kind of quota system to it.

I think all of us who write about brown people/queer people/trans people/non-binary people/etc. in genre situations have been there, you know? And it's so *fucking* exhausting, and it's honestly enough that I can't even...

Well, yeah. I've reached a point that I go with 'everything is problematic, and if you try to force me to watch your problematic fave? Especially if you do it by saying that I'm 'letting down the side' by not doing it? Then I'm going to kick you in the face.'

We all have our comfort zones, you know? And the fact that some of us can deal with X Problematic Thing while Y Problematic Thing makes us rage? Doesn't make us Bad Feminists. It doesn't make us Bad *Anything*. It just makes us human.

And some of us do, in fact, get a little angrier -- or a lot angrier -- when what we get served up to us special, when the thing which is "supposed to" be for us (like Agent Carter), is just another racist shit sandwich.

Unlike [fill in the blank] crappy, mindless male-driven show of the moment.

And now I'm rambling. Sorry!
caitri
Feb. 1st, 2015 10:04 pm (UTC)
I respect rambling!

And yes to the exhaustion of having to deal with Argument Part Eleventy Billion and Bad Feminism. (I was scolded once for squeeing at length about Pacific Rim because, so I was told, there was only the one woman character and We Can Do Better!)

And sometime I want to do another post about teaching creative writing, because the other thing doesn't come across is issues of genre. I have had SO MANY creative writing teachers literally just shrug at me like, "I don't know how to help you because you write genre" and I'm like, "How does that change ANYTHING about the actual mechanics of writing? Do sentence structure and clarity of narrative MAGICALLY DISAPPEAR because a character is an alien, or there's different nomenclature, or a dragon?! Because I don't think so, and if you do, we need to talk about that!!"
( 20 comments — Add your .02 )

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