23 votes

Signs you're a Black character written by a White author

28 comments

  1. [23]
    kfwyre
    Link
    I never noticed just how bad so many skin color descriptions were until I had it pointed out to me. Now I notice it every time it comes up. It's not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with...

    I never noticed just how bad so many skin color descriptions were until I had it pointed out to me. Now I notice it every time it comes up.

    It's not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with describing how someone looks, it's that in so many books skin color seems to be mentioned only if someone is a person of color, and then it's frequently referenced with an often off-putting metaphor -- often candy or dessert-based ("chocolate", "caramel"). Other characters who are presumably white are rarely explicitly conveyed as such, and even if they are we never hear about their "white chocolate" or "undyed fondant" skin. Instead, white characters often get descriptions of their physical attributes while people of color get described by their pigmentation.

    12 votes
    1. [20]
      mrbig
      Link Parent
      That’s because most books written by white authors are about groups of people in which white is more frequent, making it unnecessary to demarcate whiteness. Characters that go against this norm...

      in so many books skin color seems to be mentioned only if someone is a person of color

      That’s because most books written by white authors are about groups of people in which white is more frequent, making it unnecessary to demarcate whiteness. Characters that go against this norm are required to be singled out because otherwise the reader will just assume they’re white.

      This is not necessarily an issue for a particular story.

      It may be an issue for most stories to feature almost only white characters. But that evaluation depends on multiple factors.

      15 votes
      1. [18]
        kfwyre
        Link Parent
        Yeah, I very much treat it in the same vein as I do something like the Bechdel test: mostly meaningless on an individual level but far more relevant when looked at as a pattern/trend across many...

        Yeah, I very much treat it in the same vein as I do something like the Bechdel test: mostly meaningless on an individual level but far more relevant when looked at as a pattern/trend across many works.

        12 votes
        1. [12]
          Comment deleted by author
          Link Parent
          1. [11]
            DanBC
            Link Parent
            No it wasn't. It follows from comments made by Virginia Wolfe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test

            The bechdel test was created as satire

            No it wasn't. It follows from comments made by Virginia Wolfe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test

            8 votes
            1. [11]
              Comment deleted by author
              Link Parent
              1. [9]
                TheJorro
                Link Parent
                Cartoons aren't inherently satirical. There are plenty of serious ones, even if they're tongue-in-cheek. In this case: what is it satirizing?

                Cartoons aren't inherently satirical. There are plenty of serious ones, even if they're tongue-in-cheek.

                In this case: what is it satirizing?

                6 votes
                1. [3]
                  Comment deleted by author
                  Link Parent
                  1. [2]
                    TheJorro
                    (edited )
                    Link Parent
                    As you said, the Hortian satirical part of the comic isn't really the test itself, but how easily it applies across all film media (at the time) despite it being so strict. What I am taking issue...

                    As you said, the Hortian satirical part of the comic isn't really the test itself, but how easily it applies across all film media (at the time) despite it being so strict. What I am taking issue with is the idea that the test itself was created to be satire because it was presented in comic form. It's founded on Woolf's very much non-satirical observation and it seems like a mistake to retroactively declare the parameters satirical when it feels like Woolf's point was to sincerely point out how low the bar was and writers still weren't hitting it.

                    The practical use of the test is pretty much covered above otherwise, yeah, no disputes with that.

                    6 votes
                    1. [2]
                      Comment deleted by author
                      Link Parent
                      1. TheJorro
                        Link Parent
                        Amazing, I had Maus on the mind as well!

                        Amazing, I had Maus on the mind as well!

                        3 votes
                2. [7]
                  Comment deleted by author
                  Link Parent
                  1. [6]
                    TheJorro
                    (edited )
                    Link Parent
                    My issue it that it seems you're suggesting they are retroactively created and designed to be satirical because they were popularized by a cartoon, which seems like a disservice to both Woolf's...

                    My issue it that it seems you're suggesting they are retroactively created and designed to be satirical because they were popularized by a cartoon, which seems like a disservice to both Woolf's non-satirical observations and the format of comics. The satire in the comic was using the parameters Woolf laid out and showing how easily it applied across all film media, not that the parameters themselves were a satire of something.

                    6 votes
                    1. [5]
                      mrbig
                      Link Parent
                      Accidentally deleted top comment because of mobile. Anyway quoting the now inexistent:

                      Accidentally deleted top comment because of mobile.

                      Anyway quoting the now inexistent:

                      It requires enough exceptions to make it useless for any rigorous analysis.

                      1 vote
                      1. [4]
                        TheJorro
                        (edited )
                        Link Parent
                        This doesn't apply to anything I asked about, and it now feels dismissive of the sincerity of the observations.

                        This doesn't apply to anything I asked about, and it now feels dismissive of the sincerity of the observations.

                        3 votes
                        1. [3]
                          mrbig
                          Link Parent
                          Please attribute any erratic behavior to my incompetence rather than bad faith. I assure you that is the case.

                          Please attribute any erratic behavior to my incompetence rather than bad faith. I assure you that is the case.

                          2 votes
                          1. [2]
                            TheJorro
                            Link Parent
                            Fair enough, we are getting into the weeds here. We agree on why it's at least not a great litmus test as-is, at least.

                            Fair enough, we are getting into the weeds here. We agree on why it's at least not a great litmus test as-is, at least.

                            1 vote
                            1. mrbig
                              Link Parent
                              That’s okay! Additionally you can translate my two times above comment as: “It’s quite possible that your objection is correct, but maybe consider this other part of my argument which may remain...

                              That’s okay!

                              Additionally you can translate my two times above comment as:

                              “It’s quite possible that your objection is correct, but maybe consider this other part of my argument which may remain sound even in face of this objection.”

                              Sorry for being cryptic.

                              Regarding the deletion it was accidental and this happens often enough that I created a thread about it: https://tildes.net/~tildes/qe1/maybe_its_too_easy_to_delete_comments_on_mobile

                              Hope it is all clear now!

                              1 vote
              2. DanBC
                Link Parent
                So? What, other than it first appearing in a cartoon, makes you think it was satire? Especially since the cartoon derives from comments by Virginia Woolf.

                So? What, other than it first appearing in a cartoon, makes you think it was satire?

                Especially since the cartoon derives from comments by Virginia Woolf.

        2. [6]
          Thra11
          Link Parent
          Having read through that wikipedia article (I had not encountered the term before), this bit struck me: It seems to me that there is a certain irony in the idea that writers struggling to write...

          Having read through that wikipedia article (I had not encountered the term before), this bit struck me:

          In 2018, screenwriting software developers began incorporating functions that allow writers to analyze their scripts for gender representation. Software with such functions includes Highland 2, WriterDuet and Final Draft 11.

          It seems to me that there is a certain irony in the idea that writers struggling to write realistic, in depth, female characters turn to software for advice. I can't help wondering if this falls into the same trap as any attempt to distil a subtle and complex situation into simple metrics (e.g. You pay people to bring you dead snakes, people start farming snakes, or you punish engineers for the number of bugs in their bug tracker, so they stop using the bug tracker). Are the results genuinely better, or do they just feature large numbers of named women doing large amounts of 'box-ticking' to satisfy algorithms?

          3 votes
          1. NaraVara
            Link Parent
            This starts to seem like they're really bending over backwards to avoid just. . . hiring more women.

            In 2018, screenwriting software developers began incorporating functions that allow writers to analyze their scripts for gender representation. Software with such functions includes Highland 2, WriterDuet and Final Draft 11.

            This starts to seem like they're really bending over backwards to avoid just. . . hiring more women.

            4 votes
          2. [4]
            kfwyre
            (edited )
            Link Parent
            I'm sure there's a little bit of both. I can see data like that being genuinely revealing to certain authors, and not just for the specific case of gender representation but for broader plotting...

            I'm sure there's a little bit of both. I can see data like that being genuinely revealing to certain authors, and not just for the specific case of gender representation but for broader plotting in general, but I can also see it, like you mentioned, succumbing to Goodhart's law and some writers/studios simply using it as a box-checking method. It is trivially easy to pass the Bechdel test by adding a single scene or even line of dialogue; meanwhile, some movies fail it through no fault of their own, and forcing in something to pass it would fundamentally change the story (e.g. Gravity, which only has two characters (one of whom is male), or movies that are intended to focus on primarily male characters and experiences, like Moonlight).

            Even so, it's easy to get into the weeds with the Bechdel test and its application to individual examples, when the spirit of the test isn't about critiquing any one specific movie but about highlighting a cultural trend, so unless the software is taking inputs across many scripts, I don't know how much utility it will have.

            2 votes
            1. [3]
              Thra11
              Link Parent
              I can imagine that it might work where there is a team of writers, in that I expect it is much easier to add people to the team to balance out deficiencies than it is to change the individual...

              I can see data like that being genuinely revealing to certain authors

              I can imagine that it might work where there is a team of writers, in that I expect it is much easier to add people to the team to balance out deficiencies than it is to change the individual writers themselves.

              some movies fail it through no fault of their own, and forcing in something to pass it would fundamentally change the story (e.g. Gravity, which only has two characters (one of whom is male), or movies that are intended to focus on primarily male characters and experiences, like Moonlight).

              I agree. While these statistics that are quoted in the article are fun, I think they'd be more meaningful if we had the matching data set for some sort of counter-test, i.e. whether a film has at least two men who talk to each other about something other than women. I'm not really expecting it to significantly change the biases and trends which the data suggests, but people seem far too quick to present half the necessary data as evidence of gender inequality.

              2 votes
              1. [2]
                kfwyre
                Link Parent
                I strongly hesitate to endorse a sort of "counter-test" given that so many discussions of women's issues are already plagued by placing men's issues as an opposed counterbalance. It just feeds the...

                I strongly hesitate to endorse a sort of "counter-test" given that so many discussions of women's issues are already plagued by placing men's issues as an opposed counterbalance. It just feeds the idea that men and women are opposites, and that there's some sort of zero-sum equilibrium that forces gains for one to come at the expense of the other.

                The Bechdel test does a good job highlighting the fact that a large number of films either don't have multiple female characters, don't show their female characters interacting, or, if they do interact, showing that it often happens in a very limited context. Those aren't really solved or addressed if we gather data about men as well. Such a test could certainly highlight separate issues (and indeed if you search around you can find myriad variants of the Bechdel test), but it wouldn't really change the issues that the original test surfaces, and it certainly wouldn't negate them.

                2 votes
                1. Thra11
                  Link Parent
                  I think my main issue is with the half-arsed use of statistics. Working out that 58% of films pass the bechdel test tells us nothing without context. What percentage of films should pass the test...

                  I think my main issue is with the half-arsed use of statistics. Working out that 58% of films pass the bechdel test tells us nothing without context. What percentage of films should pass the test in a perfect world? Not 100%: we've already had many examples of films which don't pass the test for valid reasons. Doing a counter or control test would provide some context and show us that we're actually looking at a "womens' issue". It is not dismissive of a point of view to ask that it is presented in a clear and truthful fashion.

                  If I tell you 30% of women in a country are unemployed, it sounds like a womens' issue. However, whether it is or not depends whether the overall unemployment is 15%, 30%, or 50%.

                  I agree that it would be nice not to place men and women as opposites. The trouble with trying to formulate a more 'neutral' control test for a general population is that the bechdel test itself opposes them when it stipulates that the women should talk about subjects other than men. I guess you could test whether films have at least two "characters" who talk each other, and ignore what they talk about. That might at least give you some sort of baseline for a percentage of films which have multiple characters and dialogue in.

                  To be clear, I think the bechdel test itself is a neat device to highlight problems with the representation (or lack therof) of women in films. I don't think the statistics add anything if you're not willing to present them in a proper context.

                  4 votes
      2. grungegun
        Link Parent
        I'd bet that books from central Africa and Asia single out characters as having white skin, just because white skin is in the minority in those regions.

        I'd bet that books from central Africa and Asia single out characters as having white skin, just because white skin is in the minority in those regions.

        2 votes
    2. [2]
      jprich
      Link Parent
      https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/96830966357/writing-with-color-description-guide-words-for That whole blog is pretty great for non POC authors learning to write POC.

      https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/96830966357/writing-with-color-description-guide-words-for

      That whole blog is pretty great for non POC authors learning to write POC.

      2 votes
      1. kfwyre
        Link Parent
        That is a great link, and undoubtedly useful to any writers out there. It's very clear and helpful!

        That is a great link, and undoubtedly useful to any writers out there. It's very clear and helpful!

        1 vote
  2. annadane
    Link
    This reminds me of how Martin Amis wrote a book (I don't remember which) with a black character but didn't say they were black and readers didn't really pick up on it

    This reminds me of how Martin Amis wrote a book (I don't remember which) with a black character but didn't say they were black and readers didn't really pick up on it

    2 votes
  3. [4]
    mrbig
    Link
    I was going to make a point by point commentary but arrived at the conclusion that this was meant as satire. I don’t read many books so I have no idea if any of that is true. Maybe this is...

    I was going to make a point by point commentary but arrived at the conclusion that this was meant as satire. I don’t read many books so I have no idea if any of that is true. Maybe this is relevant for people that read a lot, and also from certain genres. I don’t know. The author doesn’t provide any context.

    2 votes
    1. [2]
      zptc
      Link Parent
      McSweeney's is a satire site.

      McSweeney's is a satire site.

      5 votes
      1. mrbig
        Link Parent
        Okay, then I don’t think it was very funny :P

        Okay, then I don’t think it was very funny :P

    2. [2]
      Comment deleted by author
      Link Parent
      1. mrbig
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I think you make some good points. I also think you arrived at them pretty much by yourself. Props to you!

        I think you make some good points. I also think you arrived at them pretty much by yourself. Props to you!