Have you ever sat down and made a list of the main characters in books and pop culture you identify with? It can tell you a lot about yourself. Why not grab a bit of paper or the notes function on your phone and do it before you click read more? I’ll wait.
OK, so a few favourite characters of mine, in chronological order:
- Jo March from Little Women – who loves books and writing and affectionately tormenting her siblings. It me, etc.
- Ginger Spice – who, in spite of representing the somewhat problematic brand of feminism that was the Spice Girls, seemed to me at the age of 9 or so to be funny, loud, totally unapologetic about who she was (or possibly who Simon Fuller told her she was), and apparently having a brilliant time singing pop songs with her best girls. I was in primary school when Wannabe came out, and completely unaware of the manufactured nature of much of this. What I saw was a woman who was absolutely confident and didn’t much seem to care what other people – especially boys – thought of her, as long as she had her pals by her side. It was like an early version of ovaries before brovaries. Not a bad message for a tween girl, to be honest.
- Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer – smart, funny, loyal, in the early series of Buffy absolutely amazing at unrequited love (a recurring theme throughout my romantic life) and latterly when she came into her own as a super powerful witch, a total badass. Also, good hair. I once took a photo of her to a hairdresser to ask them to recreate it. Needless to say we looked identical.
- Liz Lemon from 30 Rock – nerd, writer, loves cheese and will eat it to the exclusion of all else, flawed.
- Germaine Garry from Raised by Wolves – another book lover, but also probably quite an accurate depiction of what I was like as a younger person when I was trying to project a mix of Ginger Spice and Willow Rosenberg but was, at heart, Jo March.
Other favourite characters from literature have included: Susan from Narnia, Anne from Anne of Green Gables, Anna from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Lyra from His Dark Materials. Favourite columnists I’ve followed over the years include Charlie Brooker, Caitlin Moran, Tim Dowling, Lucy Mangan and Grace Dent. Favourite TV characters would include Bernard and Fran from Black Books, Daisy from Spaced, Missy in Doctor Who (well, Michelle Gomez in everything to be honest), Sue, Guy and Caroline in Green Wing, and Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation.
So, a few observations.
One, I mainly identify with people who are like me. Almost exclusively middle class white women who like books (and have probably at some point dyed their hair red).
Two, luckily for me, there are a ton of examples of women (and men) like me in popular culture who I could choose from as my heroes. This is not a universal truth, however.
Three, this is a pretty damn narrow way to experience the world.
Why is this a problem?
It’s pretty well accepted that storytelling is central to human existence, and that it happens in every known culture. Stories can also transport you into another world, allowing the reader to see a different point of view, or experience a life entirely unlike their own.
But as YA writer Scott Westerfeld puts it in this blog post, stories are also ‘a tool, one invented to inform, persuade, and entertain other humans. Someone who remains unconvinced after a thousand pages of scientific data can often be swayed by just the right anecdote. Otherwise sensible people will believe absurdities as long as they appear in the context of a compelling tale, like an urban legend.’
They are also a means for us to understand ourselves a bit better, to put our own lives in context, and realise we are not alone.
That being the case, why are so many mainstream stories and central protagonists middle class white peeps?
I am not having a go at these individual authors, but would like to draw your attention to what were, according to lovereading.co.uk, the top ten best-selling books in the UK for the week ending Saturday 25 February 2017 to help make this point.
- Blob – David Walliams (‘the story of how a boy called Bob meets a blobfish fish called Blob.’ Based on the cover illustration Bob is white, and the author definitely is a white dude.)
- Three Sisters, Three Queens – Phillipa Gregory (‘a riveting new Tudor story featuring Katherine of Aragon, and King Henry VIII’s sisters Margaret and Mary.’ So again, a story about rich white people by a white lady)
- Mount! – Jilly Cooper (‘Rupert is consumed by one obsession: that Love Rat, his adored grey horse, be proclaimed champion stallion. Then Gala, a grieving but ravishing Zimbabwean widow moves to Penscombe as carer for Rupert’s wayward father…’ Just in case you get excited about the diversity here, according to the Telegraph review Gala is white Zimbabwean, Rupert is super posh, and obviously Jilly is another white lady)
- A Summer at Sea – Katie Fforde (‘Emily is happy with her life just as it is. She has a career as a midwife that she loves. She enjoys living on her own as a single woman. But she’s also feels it’s time for a change and a spot of some sea air so she goes on holiday on a pufferboat off the coast of Scotland where she must try not to fall in love with a handsome doctor…’ A story for, about and by white women)
- Happy Mum, Happy Baby – Giovanna Fletcher (‘A positive and uplifting book about what it is to be a mother and all things mum and baby by Celebrity Mum of the Year and phenomenally popular vlogger, author, TV presenter and actress Giovanna Fletcher.’ That’ll be a middle class white lady, yo.)
- Grandpa’s Great Escape – David Walliams (‘An exquisite portrait of the bond between a small boy and his beloved Grandpa – this book takes readers on an incredible journey with Spitfires over London and Great Escapes through the city in a high octane adventure full of comedy and heart.’ So, two white male protagonists harking back to the good old days of horrific war and bloodshed, pip pip!)
- Out of Bounds – Val McDermid (‘When a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma, a routine DNA test reveals a connection to an unsolved murder from twenty-two years before. Finding the answer to the cold case should be straightforward. But it’s as twisted as the DNA helix itself…’ DCI Karen Pirie is straight outta Fife and on the case. White protagonist, white author)
- Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty (The Guardian says ‘Louise Doughty’s seventh novel, shares with her previous books a preoccupation with the “what if” territory of ordinary life, those unthinkable events that divide a life into “before” and “after”. In Apple Tree Yard, she gives us the aftermath of an affair, but what begins as a familiar scenario twists away unexpectedly into a story of violent assault and murder.’ White people in Westminster by a white author)
- The Summer Seaside Kitchen – Jenny Colgan (‘Flora is definitely, absolutely sure that escaping from the quiet Scottish island where she grew up to the noise and hustle of the big city was the right choice… til a new client demands her presence back on Mure and she’s suddenly swept back into life with her brothers (all strapping, loud and seemingly incapable of basic housework) and her father.’ White ladies, represent).
- Tom Kerridge’s Dopamine Diet – Tom Kerridge (‘Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge explains how to diet by keeping all of the good stuff and none of the boring stuff.’ So, middle class white dude writes book about food only middle class white people will be able to make and eat).
Now, speaking as a white woman in Scotland hoping to cut it as a children’s writer, it’s pretty great for me that 7 out of the 10 authors on this list are white women, that 3 of their books are set here in the land of thistles and haggis, and that 2 off the books are for kiddiwinks. But what about non-white women and men who want to read something that’s more representative of them? People who aren’t into heterosexual relationships? What about readers interested in body positivity over diets? What about wee girls who maybe don’t want to read about wee boys if they’re to get a book with jokes in? And, selfishly, what if I went to the top ten shelf in the supermarket wanting to read a book about I dunno, something other than 31 years of my lived experience?
The thing is, middle class white voices are often the loudest ones in both publishing and marketing. They’re also the people in government, in media, running further education institutions, running Hollywood. They’re also the gatekeepers for all of these things. So if you’re not white and middle class, the chances are they’re not going to be interested in you – except as someone ‘other’ to scapegoat or dismiss or patronise.
A recent survey by the Royal Society of Literature seems to bear this out, saying that people place high value on books’ ability to promote empathy, but the perspective they gain from novels remains overwhelmingly white, male and middle class. According to the figures reported in The Guardian, “A survey of nearly 2,000 people found that despite 81% of respondents saying they liked literature because it promotes empathy, only 7% of the 400 writers they cited were from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.”
What to do?
Obviously books and TV and movies with non-white, non middle class protagonists do exist. But certainly in the UK books world, ethnic minorities are marginalised and pigeonholed – as the Writing the Future report made abundantly clear a couple of years ago. If you want to read these stories – and surely this is a no brainer, given that reading outside your own experience is actually proven to make you more empathetic – you need to seek them out deliberately. Then you need to shout loud and proud about how great they are, in the hope the gatekeepers will start marketing them to you.
Good writers and believable protagonists will bring you along for the ride irrespective of colour, gender or class. That’s kind of the whole point of a protagonist. Besides which, if you’re reading about people that are just the same as you, surely you’re missing out on the best thing books have to offer? Why read voraciously only to live a thousand other lives basically the same as yours?
But like I say, the way these things are set up right now means those who want to read something that isn’t straight, white and middle class need to do a bit of legwork. After all, according to research by The Bookseller last year, ‘a writer has more chance of making it into the bestseller charts if their name is David than if they are from an ethnic minority.’
I started making a conscious effort to read more widely last year. Turns out it’s really not that hard, especially with this great new invention they have called the internet. When I was a kid, I got my BAME characters from Malorie Blackman. In 2017, debate around the Jhalak Prize longlist has seen hundreds of other amazing recommendations by writers of colour thrown into my Twitter timeline, I’ve got Book Riot telling me how to read harder, The Mary Sue seeking out speculative fiction by women writers of colour, and Mashable with 10 feminist books to read after you’ve gotten through the classics.
Similarly I can’t remember reading about a single queer relationship in any of the books I came across as a teenager, but a cheeky Google now gives me this reading list from Scottish Book Trust, these Guardian Reader Recommendations, and these from LGBT Youth Scotland for primary and secondary school settings. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I really think it’s worth checking out what’s happening below the surface.
If you are a white middle class person reading this in the UK or America, yours is the dominant voice dictating to marketers and publishers what you will buy and read and consume. That means you are in the incredibly privileged position of being able to effect change through your actions. Not only can you improve your own reading life by reading more widely and critically, you can help others by being an ally, by recognising and refusing the whitewashing of your reading choices. And if you don’t want to take it from me, please take a couple of minutes to watch this.