Allies and saviours: representation in contemporary fiction.

Allies and saviours: representation in contemporary fiction.

My sister and I grew up playing the Legend of Zelda franchise. As much as I love those games, female representation in them was pretty deficient, especially during the Nineties. When our parents decided it was enough videogames for the day and told us to go play outside, it was hard to keep playing Zelda. Zelda is supposed to be wise and powerful, but the only thing she ever does is wait to be rescued. So we had to play that we were genderbent Link, or make up our own characters.

When Ocarina of Time came out in 1998, I was nuts for Nabooru. She was a very minor character that appeared for five minutes in the second to last dungeon but I adored her because she was powerful, proactive and sexy. My favourite RPG as a kid was Lufia II, and I think one reason was Selan was in it. More importantly, I was fascinated by Erim for being the only major female villain.

Girls nowadays have it much easier, as they can play a female Commander Shepard, a female Dovahkiin, Max and Chloe, Ellie or Bayonetta. What I mean is we all like to see people like us in fiction. It makes us realize we are important too and we can play a role as whatever we want. But even more important than personal inspiration is the matter of stopping cultural colonialism.

Lots of people have complained that La la land would have been a much better movie if it hadn’t been about white people. I get where this comes from: I felt something similar about The King’s speech. The premise that I have to feel sorry for a member of royalty was hard to swallow. The premise that I must want to be like them is even worse.

You can’t really judge a movie for what it isn’t: West side story is not scary and they don’t dance and sing in Alien. Still, as a white writer I have been thinking about this a lot. If I only write about what I know, I’m being ethnocentric. If I write about the Other, I risk becoming a saviour instead on an ally, for many reasons.

For some time, I considered making the main character in my first novel a Latina. The reason was that I wanted to help their representation. I could do some research: visit Latino cultural associations, mingle, read about their culture and so on. But soon I realized it wouldn’t work: I wouldn’t manage to imitate their Spanish dialect, even in written form; I wouldn’t know their nursery rhymes, how they celebrate their birthdays, the kind of music my character listened to as a kid, what her school was like, her mum’s cooking, the tales her grandma told her before sleep. I could try to imagine, but I would never know what it is like for her to be Latina in a white country such as Spain. It wouldn’t be honest: what I would produce would be my view of what it means to be Latina through the prism of my own education as a Southern European.

Some time ago, I read a tumblr post by a young man who wrote YA fantasy and complained that his novel had been rejected because the publisher already had another novel with a homosexual main character and a second one wouldn’t sell for being too niche. What really drew my attention, though, was that he made a comment along the lines of: “I’m sure the other author is not even gay himself”. So, if I wrote about a Latina, I would produce a white woman’s version of a Latina and so probably prevent a Latina from publishing her own story. That wouldn’t be using my privilege to help, that would be advancing cultural colonialism.

Westerners, including myself, think we have it all figured out. We think our way of doing things is the best and we need to know nothing else. We see ourselves in every screen and every billboard and don’t think anything of it. We squirm at the sight of someone different. We really need to stop using that lousy excuse in the form of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” to make any trace of cultural difference in our everyday lives disappear. Stop arguing about whether women should wear a hijab or not, bother to ask them what they want to do, and support whichever the answer is.

Some of us feel bad about such state of affairs and want to help. How can we put our privilege to good use? The answer is simple: we don’t. We shut up and listen. Those of us who make art, we keep making art about what we know. And then listen to what other artists have to say. Step aside and make space for their own art. Support it. Appreciate it for what it is, and avoid imposing your own values to it. You might learn something that enriches yours.

We might not like the kind of world we live in, but while it stays the way it is now, it’s much more effective to go to your local cinema to watch movies made by people from other contries, cultures and ethnicities than it is to complain on the Internet about how whitewashed everything is.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)


Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2011).

Score: not surprising.

Drive tells the story of an unnamed stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who sometimes does some getaway driving on the side. He also works as a car mechanic with a man named Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who mingles with mobsters Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) because he wants money to restore a racecar for the main character to drive. The Driver starts a romance with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and adores her little son Benicio (Kaden Leos), but everything goes south when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes out of jail earlier than expected.

The first half of the movie is pretty slow and atmospheric. It can get boring at times. There are just sequences of driving around under the streetlamps, the Driver playing with Benicio, Irene staring longingly at the Driver. I was getting really annoyed at the character. Why does he care? Why do I have to care? What are his motivations? The movie would work much better if it was his wife and his kid, he would have a reason to care then. He has no reason to care about a kid that’s not his, this is making the script more complicated just because. But then, halfway in, it dawned on me.


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Life, animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016)


Life, animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2016).

Score: beautiful and understanding.

Autism, like many other mental disorders, is barely understood by the mainstream. There is a trend in fiction to introduce highly-intelligent, socially inept characters such as Sheldon Cooper (he’s not crazy, his mother had him tested), Criminal Minds’ Spencer Reid or BBC’s Sherlock and people will automatically assume they have an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger syndrome. Even Mark Haddon had to say that The curious incident of the dog in the night-time wasn’t actually about Asperger’s, because he came so close to its popular conception that people assumed he had done extensive research about it.

This is why the existence of movies like this one makes me very happy. Life, animated is a documentary about Owen Suskind, the son of journalist Ron Suskind, who suffers from autism. Using home videos of Owen as a kid, original animated sequences and present-day footage and testimonies from the Suskind family, Owen’s progress to almost total autonomy is charted. In the early years when Owen wasn’t able to speak, his family realized that Owen really enjoyed watching Disney animated movies with the rest of them. He started repeating lines from the movies (a phenomenon called echolalia) and Ron eventually found a way to speak with him using a Iago the parrot puppet.

His therapists explain that Owen’s autistic disorder means he has a very hard time managing as many stimuli as everyday life exposes him to, but cartoons, for its simplified and predictive nature, provide him with a way to perceive the world in a tractable way and act as a gateway to autonomy. Hear me out: don’t we all use fiction in a similar way? Don’t we all use it as a mirror, as catharsis, as a self-knowledge tool? Like David Mamet said, we don’t go to the theatre to forget, but to remember.

This is Life, animated’s greatest virtue: it doesn’t try to make you feel sorry for Owen, it wants you to relate to him, and it’s very easy to do. There is some explaining of Owen’s disorder but the documentary is mostly focused on showing how he has improved and overcome many obstacles in his life, with the help of his therapists and a close-knit community. The fear and reject some may feel towards people with mental disorders would be much smaller if we knew them better and saw they’re people just like everyone else, who want to be happy and loved.

This documentary is a great step towards that direction.