Please bear with me. I’m about to use the phrase “some young people of my acquaintance” and make myself sound roughly a million years old, which I suppose in comparison to these people ten years my junior I might as well be. I’m also going to throw out the relevant quote at the beginning of this post and then explain myself as I go along.
I’ve listened to so many life-histories; I don’t know why, I always seem to pitch up when they’ve had a drink too many, or a knock too many, or something. It’s loneliness that rots them, every time. A starving man won’t notice a dirty plate.
The Charioteer, Mary Renault
This comes from the exemplary and heart-rending novel by Mary Renault and is spoken by a disillusioned gay man who has spent a sizeable portion of his adult life interacting with the gay scene of the 1930s and 40s, both in the UK and overseas, as a member of the Merchant Navy. As with many things in that book, I found this line in particular very close to home the first time I read it, but the full impact of the phrase “A starving man won’t notice a dirty plate” has only come into focus for me recently.
I waste many valuable hours of my life on a social media site called Tumblr. Unlike most of the social media sites I’ve wasted my adult life on since 2001, this one has a marked skewing towards a younger demographic, both younger in the sense of age and in the sense of life experience and emotional maturity. It is viewed – not always correctly – as a safe haven for gender and sexual minorities, people of colour, free-thinkers, and other youth whose treatment by mainstream internet society may not always be the kindest. It is fair to say that the dogged bigotry of the internet doesn’t exactly fade away in these circumstances, and the site is also rife with racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, death threats, exhortations to suicide, and the tedious teenage tendency to accuse anyone and everyone of being “fake”.
In my penance for whatever crime I committed that makes me think it’s a good idea to be there (there are lots of nice wildlife photos and some pleasant interior design blogs), I’ve become familiar with sides of my younger friends which I might not otherwise have gotten to grips with in more structured or long-form environments, and one of the major factors is this:
Representation over quality
It had been driving me nuts, and will probably continue to do so for a while even after this particular revelation. A lot of noise is made about the presence (or absence) of characters with whom the above demographics can identify, and in every request post and review no mention is ever made of the quality of the writing beyond whether it conforms to or subverts harmful stereotypes and tropes (such as Women in Refrigerators Syndrome, Magical Negro, Bury Your Gays/The Tragic Homosexual, and so on).
As someone who at least thinks they work hard on the actual quality of their work beyond including characters that represent the astonishing and diverse reality of human society, it’s been very frustrating seeing everything run through various demographic tests and either discarded (understandable: no matter how wonderful the writing, there are only so many times you can read about a white middle-aged man’s midlife crisis without wanting to throw bricks, even if he does cook meth while he’s doing it) or accepted on that basis (slightly harder to countenance as some of the things hailed as the second coming of TV are outright dogshit except for the casting).
But I think now I’m being unfair.
I’ve forgotten what it was like for me, as a teenager, as a younger adult, as an undergraduate, shifting through a world made up of straight white men having straight white crises all through every angle of popular and literary fiction, in every imaginable medium, with women and homosexuals and people who weren’t bloody white or any combination of the above only ever showing up to be subject rather than object – at best. Most of the time these categories were fulfilled by bad guys, tragic dead best friends, romantic prizes…
And when I was their age I did read an unimaginable mountain of shit purely because it had the scarce heroines who didn’t succumb to matrimony, the gay characters at all never mind the ones who didn’t die or who eventually found love; I read god knows how many harrowing and miserable accounts of slavery and racism purely because I was sick of seeing the same faces in my mind’s eye.
And to be fair to this next generation, they’ve been consistent. They want to see their own faces in the mirror of art so badly that they don’t care how revolting the mirror, as long as it doesn’t distort their experiences.
Or to put it in Mary Renault’s terms: a starving man won’t notice a dirty plate.
Getting used to it
The edge has come off the “lack of representation” agonies for me, over time. I discovered the internet at the close of 1999 and fanfic in 2002 and scarcely looked back. DIY media seemed like the answer to the paucity in mainstream media, and if the DIY side carried over some of the same bigotries – if it too looked a bit white, a bit male, a bit heterosexual at times – then that was surely a habit that would eventually recede when the creators started making their own work instead of drawing on properties that were heavily white, male, and heterosexual… right?
The other reason the edge has come off is that there is improvement. There are more properties with the requisite character attributions – nowhere near enough, but more than there were when I was growing up. There is also more access to them – I can watch, conceivably, damn near anything. I can read damn near anything. These were not options growing up a five mile walk from a small library, with a black and white TV that showed four channels and a parent who threw a fit if I tried to watch the actually interesting stuff that was mysteriously only ever on at 2AM. And so because things have improved so much, I can afford to be picky.
Or: the plate is a little fuller than it was, so I notice the dirt.
But we’re not well-fed. The plate is far from full. The generation after mine have grown up with the ability to read and watch whatever they damn well please. They’ve grown up on internet fanfiction not-quite-filling the gaps. Their tastes are shaped by a media that purports to pander to them, and then doesn’t – as opposed to mine, shaped by a media that made no pretence of giving me what I asked for.
Perhaps they’re in a better position to kick up a stink, to notice that their plate isn’t full, and to not tolerate the introduction of three french fries in the name of a four-course dinner. To someone raised on half a french fry it seems ludicrous and greedy and tiresome – won’t anyone see how dirty this plate is? – but I forget, they’re not used to starving for representation to the point where the hunger becomes normality, and until they’re either fed or accustomed to it, they’re not going to give a damn about the state of the plate.
With any luck, they won’t ever have to get used to being starved.