on “Puppygate” and challenging our default assumptions

Picture a random person. Well, that’s rather vague, isn’t it? My apologies— picture a main character, someone you can imagine starring in a story, whether written or filmed. That gives you something more to go on, doesn’t it? There are certain qualities that we tend to associate with protagonists, even in our modern era with its love of antiheros and all things dark and gritty. Your imaginary person probably has a certain arresting air about them, commanding attention from all onlookers. This is someone you want to know more about, someone whose story has got to be riveting.

What do they look like?

Odds are, regardless of gender, race, or age of the person reading this— setting aside whether they themselves are able-bodied, cisgender or transgender, thin or not, visibly “queer” in some way, or visibly a person of faith— the first thing that leaps to mind when asked to picture a person, and particularly a protagonist, is a mishmash of “normative” traits. A white, cis, leanly muscled, able-bodied and gender-conforming straight man in his prime (that elusive age range between roughly twenty to forty-five) with no indications that he practices any sort of faith (though he’s probably some form of Christian).

I’m not judging anyone who pictured something similar to (or precisely like) this man. This man is the Default Human Being. Or so we have been told, over and over in a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, ever since we were old enough to absorb such messages. Anyone who fails to fit this norm in some way is a deviation, their differences things to be noticed and remarked upon, often things to be judged. This is true even though the vast majority of humanity deviates in at least one respect from this Default Human. This is the cultural script we absorb, even as we frequently pride ourselves on being less sexist, less racist, less overall prejudiced than our forebears.

Some people have put in the work to train themselves out of reflexively imagining this Default Man; I’m one of said people, who tries to get beyond this default. I’m better at challenging some assumptions than others, and I suspect that’s true of most of us who try. It’s a process, unlearning the forced associations we are fed between more privileged traits and humanity itself. Between these traits and goodness, and worthiness. Because this Default Human Being, this Default Protagonist, is a good guy, isn’t he? Maybe troubled, sure, maybe even morally ambiguous in some ways, but he’s the hero, so he’s generally, at his core, a good guy. I didn’t ask you to picture a villain. (I could have, of course; there are certain assumptions with the “bad guys,” too, aren’t there? And they reflect on our ideas of humanity and goodness just as much as our Default Protagonist does.)

Why bother trying to get away from the default? Well, because this Default Man isn’t the only kind of person, and he’s not the only one worth reading about. Other kinds of people deserve to see themselves reflected on the page, and Mr. Default has had plenty of stories told about him already; he shouldn’t mind sharing the spotlight from here on out. There’s another reason, too, that should matter to any writer, regardless of their stance on these issues: it’s boring to go along with the default anything in storytelling. To use my genre as an example, if you are writing yet another Tolkien-inspired fantasy novel with the usual cast and the usual plot, what’s the point, really? There are already tons of these stories out there. Do something different. Explore new terrain, as a writer. Your readers will thank you.

One of my most beloved professors in college (a published and acclaimed author himself) had us do an exercise, as a creative writing class, wherein we drew up a list of the stereotypical traits associated with authors, and then challenged that stereotype. Our Default Writer Man was pretty interchangeable with the Mr. Default I’ve been talking about here; the character we created as an exercise to get away from that was an old, Chinese-American, deeply religious trans lesbian (with no stereotypical writerly daddy issues or alcohol troubles). Would it be hard to write such a character without coming off as trying too hard, as striving to be “politically correct?” Maybe, especially for us, a group of mostly white, cis or cis-ish young women, who surely weren’t all lesbians, though I didn’t take a census on our sexualities. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who would meet the description of that character (and might write about themselves, as many authors do). The idea of being so far from Mr. Default is not the laughable, impossible, figment of the PC imagination that it is often treated as. People like our imaginary elderly Chinese-American trans lesbian exist, as do others who deviate in multiple ways from the expected default, and their stories are worth telling as much as anyone else’s. Plus, wouldn’t you be interested in such a character’s journey? I sure would!

(Disclaimer, because I’m sure someone will misinterpret me: I am not saying I think every writer should sit down and consciously create a whole cast of characters that vary wildly from Mr. Default each time they go to pen a novel. That would be ridiculous. I’m simply saying, open yourself up to exploring differences when crafting characters and plots, so long as you can handle such things with care and empathy and not simply write caricatures, or copies of Mr. Default wearing masks of different identities.)

So. How does all of this connect with Puppygate, you might ask (assuming you read my title)? And what IS Puppygate, anyway?

For those who remain blissfully ignorant of this nonsense, Puppygate is a controversy (as one might imagine given the “-gate” suffix here) involving the 2015 Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy writing. There are several excellent articles written about this; I’d recommend this patheos article, this slate article, and this take from the amazing fantasy novelist N.K. Jemisin, if you want to read up on it. Basically, several conservative authors and their admirers, who due to their “unpopular” beliefs likened themselves to the sorts of sad puppies begging for attention and love in the ASPCA TV ads, gamed the Hugo Awards in favor of themselves and others who were ideologically like them. These self-proclaimed Sad Puppies are tired of us Social Justice Warriors ruining all their fun, and they want to reclaim the sci-fi and fantasy genre!

No, really, that’s essentially what this is all about. This is how author Brad Torgersen, one of the Puppies, talks about his grievances with the genre:

“A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.”

Let’s pick apart some of the assumptions here, shall we? The most obvious one is that Mr. Torgersen seems to think (despite all weak protestations to the contrary as this blog post of his progresses) that one cannot have a true “story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do” if it also “merely” involves “racial prejudice and exploitation.” (What a way to minimize the value of such a subject, that “merely” slipped in there so neatly, so insidiously!) You can’t have a “bona fide space opera” that concerns itself with “sexism and the oppression of women.” Such a story just isn’t real sci-fi. It’s not the stuff you expect from the genre, and it isn’t what the genre is supposed to be about. Where’s Mr. Default Protagonist, one of those “broad-chested heroes” who defeats the evil and wins his share of the “beautiful women” that such heroes are supposed to accrue?

The Sad Puppies are whining that Mr. Default has to share the spotlight a bit more frequently these days, a very recent development that if anything has reinvigorated the genre. They are sad that their assumptions about the default protagonist and his story are being challenged when they open certain books, that they are being asked to empathize with characters who might not be what a hero is “supposed” to be. They envy the attention that writers who stray from Mr. Default might get, from those of us readers who hunger for something new or different, or more like ourselves in some crucial way.

Those stories about us, about any of us non-Default types, they’re not real sci-fi or fantasy to these Puppygaters; they don’t matter. There is an insistence here that stories starring our Default Protagonist are universal, that anyone can relate to and enjoy them, but that stories with other types of protagonists are “special interest” stories, that only certain people (who share the protagonist’s specific deviations from the normative Default Human Being) can relate to. To some extent, this is true; we are taught from a young age to empathize with Mr. Default, regardless of how far we ourselves stray from this platonic ideal of the Human Being. But those who more closely align with Mr. Default are not expected to empathize with those who don’t. (“Chick flicks” or “chick lit” anyone? Men aren’t supposed to be interested in these stories about women and their womanly nonsense!)

Here’s a truth we all need to learn and really internalize: any well-written story is universally relatable, regardless of the identity of the protagonist/s. If you don’t find this to be true, the problem lies with you, not with the tale itself. There is no Default Human Being.

A typical defense of Mr. Default rests on the idea that he is common, and that is the reason he is the default. It is true that some of the traits Mr. Default has are arguably more common than his non-default counterparts: being cisgender is more common than being transgender, being straight is more common than the alternatives, etc. But this is not true of all Mr. Default’s traits— it is just as common to be a woman as it is to be a man, for instance, and it is more common to be a person of color in this world than it is to be white. Regardless of how common they truly are, all of Mr. Default’s traits share one thing: they are unmarked, unnoticed, simply taken as is, whereas deviations from these expected traits are marked as such. His identity can be broken down into the same sorts of labeled categories as my writing class’s Chinese-American trans lesbian author character, but it often isn’t, because he is allowed to just be an individual. In the eyes of many who regard him, he’s just a hero, not a straight white male hero.

Speaking of this Chinese-American trans lesbian: many people would think that it’s just “too much” to have a character with even half as many deviations from Mr. Default as this lady does, but let’s reframe that. Let’s stop assuming it’s too much when a character is, say, a disabled woman of color, rather than an able-bodied white man. There are many, many disabled people in this world; when you take the numerous ailments associated with aging into account, most of us will become disabled to some degree or another during the course of our lives (hence the tendency among disabled activists to refer to the rest of the world as “TAB” or “temporarily able bodied” instead of simply “able-bodied”). There are more non-white women in this world than there are white men, by far. Why is this disabled woman of color not the default, then, if she (in her many incarnations) is more numerous than our abled white man, more common? What is normative is not always what is common, merely what is privileged, and more highly valued.

Here’s what I think is “too much.” I think it is too much to open a book and read about another roving band of Mr. Defaults going on another adventure. I’ve had enough, and Puppygate proves that I’m far from alone in that. Because those behind Puppygate are reactionaries, recoiling from the positive changes that have brought non-normative protagonists to the forefront in greater and greater numbers. Let’s keep up the good work, my fellow “social justice warrior” authors. (I’m really more of a social justice mage, myself— not much of a warrior at all.) There’s a wealth of varying human experiences to mine for good story material, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Fantasy and sci-fi authors, we have even more opportunities than those in other genres to mold our imagined worlds into new configurations, so let’s not allow our imaginations to be lazy. Our worlds are what we want them to be, and so long as they have consistent internal rules, anything goes.

P.S.: if anyone knows of a book about an older, deeply religious, Chinese trans lesbian author (hopefully in my genre, but I’ll take anything really), please do let me know, because I’m dying to read it.

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