Thursday, August 1, 2013

Character vs thematic representation

I was thinking about fictional representation, partly because there was an FtBCon panel on atheists in pop culture, and partly because there's been some recent bloggy discussion about ace characters.  Actually there's some similarity between ace and atheist representation: many characters seem like they could be ace or atheist by default, simply because they're not shown practicing religion or expressing interest in sex.  But here I focus on atheist representation, just as an example.

Different people seem to want different things in their fictional representation.  Some people just want characters who are mentioned or implied to be atheist, and to not be horrible stereotypes.  The story doesn't have to focus on their atheism.  But sometimes, some of us would like stories that deal directly with atheism, rather than simply having atheist characters.

Perhaps we should be separating out these two desires entirely.  They both have to do with fiction and representation, but they're asking for different things, and have different motivations.

On the one hand, you want people to understand that atheists are just ordinary people.  They can be perfectly intelligent and sociable, or not, as the case may be.  They have flaws, but ordinary ones (depending on the style of fiction) that don't necessarily line up with stereotypes.  If you feel alone as an atheist, it's also nice to see a character you can relate to, or which legitimizes your experiences.

On the other hand, you may be interested in atheist issues, like skepticism or the dangers of religions.  It would be nice to explore these topics through fiction.  And you know, the fiction doesn't even have to have any atheist characters in it!  You can simply depict a religious institution, or some other institution that acts as a metaphor.  Or you can depict superstitions.

Interestingly, the balance of the two desires varies from identity to identity.  For example, when people ask for women in fiction, they usually aren't asking for fiction that deals with women's issues so much as fiction that includes women as important characters.  Similarly when people ask for POC representation, they just want characters, not necessarily entire stories dealing with race.  When people look for LGBT fiction, they're often looking for stories that deal directly with LGBT issues, thus the countless stories about coming out.  But my coblogger Queenie expressed interest in seeing more stories about "space wizard boyfriends", so there's also demand for characters who are incidentally LGBT.

When it comes to atheism, people would like to see both incidental atheist characters, and also stories with atheist themes.  You could say that this reflects the tension between atheism as a personal identity and atheism as a quasi-political cause.

What would I personally prefer?  I like it when there are atheist characters out there in pop culture, but I don't have much of a personal interest in them.  I already know atheists are ordinary people!  But I am interested in seeing more atheist thematic content.  Or at least, that's what I'd like to see in principle.  In practice, I tend not to like fiction that expresses an atheist slant, because it's too ham-handed.  These days I like subtle, serious, "snooty" literature.  Instead of literature that advances certain ideas (that I probably disagree with anyways), I'd rather see literature advance ideas that are subsequently torn down.  I haven't really seen much atheist literature that does that.