7 thoughts on “Ben Rosenbaum analyzes…”

  1. Yeah, I figured the “dykes to watch out” for post — which I did link to, somewhat obscurely, in the pie chart post — was at least a first step on gender.

    I thought about class, too, but I ended up somewhat bewildered on how to measure it quantitatively. The thing is, while racial and ethnic categories tend to stabilize into chunks (black, white, south asian…), if only through the operation of strategic essentialism (I have to link to that phrase because I just found out about it and I think it’s spiffy), class seems to me to be such a spectrum. And the non-contemporary contexts make it much harder. Who is what class in Ilmak Dale, or the Valley of Giants, or in The House Beyond Your Sky, or Falling? How do I compare the class of an airsurfer bohemian living in an abundant post-capitalist city, or a parakeet who was once a dreaming cloud of plasma in the heliopause of a simulated star, to a Bronze Age village priest? Does the control of resources relatively in your society count, regardless of your absolute wealth?

    While some of the same questions apply to race, somehow it seems easier there to focus on the modern reader’s reaction — Geoffrey’s diction and the lack of racial markers mean that a modern American is likely to read him as white — for instance, a modern American movie studio would be likely to cast a white voice actor in an animated version of “The House Beyond Your Sky” — even if “white” is an obviously absurd category to apply in-story to a dreaming cloud of plasma 14 billion years from now. Somehow, though, I have trouble doing the same reader-centric operation for class. It’s also odd because for class, differently than for race or gender or sexuality or religion, I don’t actually think “unmarked” defaults to “most privileged category”. I’d be more likely to say that a character not marked as rich or poor (or owning-class or working-class) in fiction, tends to default to middle-class.

    This may be indicative of my own blind spots around class. I think the discussion about class is less well developed in America than, perhaps, elsewhere, and that my own level of sophistication on class is more “101” than on other areas where I have privilege to unpack.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    No, I definitely have more difficult with the class stuff too — it’s a lot fuzzier to pin down. But I do think it’s worth making the attempt. Easier for me since so much of what I do is real world — and a bit painful to realize that basically all of my viewpoint charactere are middle-class or upper-middle class.

    In my space opera short stories, though, I think one of the women is going to be working class, though, and grew up seriously poor. In my fantasy novel, most of the viewpoint characters are upper class. Ouch.

  3. Great thoughts about class.

    I think maybe one way to think about this stuff (I’m feeling my way here; this may not make any sense) is not so much about control of resources as about background and experiences.

    A post-capitalist airsurfer bohemian has certainly never had to deal with the class issues that people in lower classes have to deal with in our society; that means the character has at least some degree of class privilege by the standards of our world. (Side note: to me, the term “bohemian” itself implies certain attitudes associated with a certain socioeconomic class background–my stereotype of a bohemian, at least in fiction, is someone from a relatively class-privileged background who’s choosing to live a less-monied art-focused lifestyle.)

    Of course, in a fictional post-capitalist world, everyone has this kind of class privilege. In one sense, that’s nicely utopian; in another sense, it may be an indication of the author leaving out parts of the complexity of real-world societies.

    I think that’s more problematic in non-post-capitalist contexts–the kind of work where the author leaves out poor people because it doesn’t cross the author’s mind that they might exist, rather than because the premise of the society requires them not to exist.

    …Of course, I’m oversimplifying in all this; for example, I’m leaving out the fact that (as you implied) characters in these very different cultural contexts also don’t have the class issues and backgrounds that upper-class people in American society have. Still, I think post-capitalist characters who can have anything they want without ever having to consider financial issues are more like modern upper-class people (in terms of class privilege) than like modern people of other classes.

  4. I also like your comment about unmarked class being middle-class rather than most-privileged class.

    I think that part of what’s going on there is that the majority of readers and writers of sf are middle-class Americans (or at least think of themselves that way; the issue of wealthy Americans thinking of themselves as middle-class is another topic). They’re coming from a middle-class privilege level, and they bring that privilege level to their reading and their writing.

    Which I think is pretty similar to what happens with white and/or male sf writers and readers bringing their own privilege levels to the table.

    But I may be ignoring the complicated question of exactly how a state gets to be unmarked. ‘Cause I think that even for a lot of female readers and writers, for example, the unmarked state is male.

    I had a fascinating exchange with Delany the day he introduced us to the idea of the unmarked state. He said the unmarked state was white and male. I said something about the unmarked state being straight, white, and male–and he corrected me, saying that the unmarked state was white and male. To him, the unmarked state isn’t straight; to me (and I suspect to nearly all straight readers and writers, and probably a lot of gay and bi ones too), it is.

  5. Now I’m becoming a little hesitant about my analysis from last night, ’cause I’m not sure it works as well if we apply it to race.

    For example: Guinan, on ST:TNG, looks like a black human 20th-century woman. But in the world of the show, she’s a brown-skinned alien living in a quasi-post-racial human society. (Humans still have prejudices (including against alien species), but they don’t seem to have prejudices against other humans with different skin colors. Let’s set aside the question of whether that’s plausible or not.)

    So my analysis would seem to suggest that Guinan has something akin to white privilege, in that she never had to deal with the race issues that black people in modern American have to deal with.

    But I wouldn’t be willing to therefore say that she’s effectively white. For example, the Star Trek universe may be largely post-racial (for humans), but it’s not post-cultural; characters do have their own cultural backgrounds. Also, the reaction of a modern TV viewer to Guinan is a little complicated, because we see her as black, and so (for example) it can be inspiring to see a black woman in a position of equality on TV. Cf Goldberg’s “…and she’s not a maid!” line about Uhura.

    Of course, this particular instance is further complicated by (a) the question of to what degree Guinan is a Magical Negro, and (b) the fact that bartenders aren’t generally of particularly high social standing. But there are other examples that are less complicated in those ways.

    My point, really, is that I think my analysis about looking at privilege for alien characters or characters living in a human semi-utopia may have been a little too simplistic. Just because a character has privilege doesn’t mean that they map in a simple way to someone with similar privilege in the real world.

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