So yesterday my attention was drawn to this opinion piece on Polygon about whether or not we can rely on men to write good female characters. I assume, by extension, that women must therefore be unreliable as authors of male characters, African Americas of Asian characters, Jewish persons of Christian characters, and so on.
Which should tell you just how idiotic I find that question to be.
Of course men can write good female characters. Women can write good male characters. Cispersons can write good transpersons. Transpersons can write good cispersons. White people can write good people of color. People of color can write good white people or people of another color. Members of one religion can write good members of other religions.
The whole point of being a writer – says someone who does in fact write for a living, although not primarily creatively – is to adopt a specific persona for a specific audience. I do not write the same here as I do as an formal academic as I do as a friend or a daughter or a wife. When I do write creatively, I often take a male perspective, and I’d like to think that I don’t do it too badly (although I’d have to actually put it out for publication to get a true barometer of that, which I haven’t done).
Does a woman have more of a sense of what it is like to experience life as a woman? Of course she does. The same goes for any gender, orientation, belief, or color. But that does not preclude a good writer from doing research and attempting to represent the experience of another in a way that is meaningful, respectful, and “good.”
It’s the “doing research” part that’s important, here. Colin Campbell – author of the above-linked piece – suggests that “The skill required to convincingly write across genders is pretty high, and not commonly found.” I would beg to differ. While it may be true that writing across any lines does take skill, professional writers of all stripes have that skill. What most of them lack is the wherewithal and/or the time (in the games industry time is a very valuable commodity that its workers often do not have nearly enough of) to put in the necessary research to do so.
Research is a vital component of any writing, or at least it should be. As an academic, I could blather on incessantly about what I think about Hamlet, but unless I do the research to have a clear understanding of its context, otherwise known as where its author is coming from, I can’t possibly hope to write about Hamlet well. And it’s that qualifier that’s important, here. I might have impeccable syntax, but if I don’t do the research, what I have to say is irrelevant.
The principle, while slightly different in methodology, is applicable to creative endeavors, as well. If I wish to write from the perspective of a 15th century Frenchman, I’d better go find out what it is that 15th century Frenchmen do. If I want to write as a woman of color, I need to read a lot about what women of color experience on a daily basis, talk to women of color about their experiences and fears, and then try to be as respectful of that as I possibly can. Is it easier (for me) to write as a white woman from the twenty-first century? Of course it is – because I’ve already done that research simply by living. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t do another perspective well – it just means I have to work harder at it.
And, here’s my real point, the experience of doing that work is ultimately invaluable in so many ways. It introduces empathy where empathy may not have existed. It broadens the horizons of both artists and consumers by exposing them to the lived experiences of those who are unlike them in some way. It enables artists and consumers to break down the harmful social barriers that exist in any culture by virtue of their ability to identify with someone Other than themselves. It creates change. It enables justice.
So while I absolutely think that the cultural industries of gaming and mass media do need to include more women, queer persons, transpersons, and people of color, I also think that there is a lot to be gained from having everyone do the work and take the risk of adopting voices that are different from their own.