Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What's Your Default?

So one of the things that I've discovered since really investing in the online world of social media is that there is a pretty vocal group who want you to know that your default when you read a character in a book is a Cis/White Male. According to these cats any character that you read who isn't specified is automatically a Cis/White Male. 

Obviously I have been reading books wrong all of my life. You see when I read a book and the character's race or sexuality isn't specified I never think about them. Not once in my entire life have I ever even cared. Now you might be asking yourself, "Self, I wonder what he does picture when those things aren't mentioned?" Line drawing with graphite shading.  I grew up drawing and until the author decides to fill in the lines with a skin color they remain blank spaces just like they would if I were working on them myself. 

Anyway, I want to play a game. I'm going to give you a passages from one of my favorite books and I want you to tell me what skin color the character is; and if you give a damn about it (which I really don't) what sexuality they are. Ready?
"When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his sirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of it. But at last a change came over his heart, and one morning he rose with the dawn, stepped before the sun, and spoke to it . . ." (Kaufmann, 121)
So there you have it. What's your default?

Works Cited

Kaufmann, Walter (1976). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (Ed. and Trans). The Portable Nietzsche (103 - 439). United States: Penguin Books. Print


  1. The question is the wrong one to ask.

    All people will see themselves in a protagonist unless that character is somehow unsympathetic. This is not a bug in fiction, but a feature. The author wants you to imagine yourself in the protagonist's shoes.

    So, if you are a white male, then perhaps the imagined protagonist is white male... or perhaps not. If you are an Asian, perhaps the protagonist is Asian in your mind. If you are a woman, then perhaps the protagonist is a woman.

    Does it really matter? Perhaps the better question is if you imagine someone *different* from yourself... why do you?

    I personally like to think of the protagonist as an alternate reality version of myself in many cases. I want to think "What would I do in this situation?"

    That doesn't make me gender or racially biased. It just means I like escapist fiction. I am a Walter Mitty in many ways.

    1. Not to change the subject, but did you see the new Walter Mitty movie?

    2. I actually have not... It's on my to-do as I believe it is free these days on Amazon Prime (I'm assuming you mean Ben Stiller over Danny Kaye... although the Kaye version actually sounds interesting too).

  2. Zarathustra in the example looks pretty darned Persian in my mind's eye. I see what the author describes if the character is in whitey McWhite Land with red hair I'm going to picture a white guy with red hair, if it's Leo Maximus of the Emperors third legion he's going to look a tad roman and so on.

  3. The name invokes a man of healthy brown skin tone. I couldn't tell you about his preference in partners, but assuming the narration is reliable (enough), he at least considers himself male and/or is physically male.

  4. Having read it and knowing a bit about how Nietzsche was taken in his own country, Zarathustra is always Aryan, very Aryan....
    Marty has a good point, engaging books encourage the reader to identify with the protagonist, but I think that's more on an emotional level than physical.

  5. Having read it and knowing a bit about how Nietzsche was taken in his own country, Zarathustra is always Aryan, very Aryan....
    Marty has a good point, engaging books encourage the reader to identify with the protagonist, but I think that's more on an emotional level than physical.

  6. If you look a little harder, I'm sure that you can find some fanatics to condemn you for reading and enjoying Nietzsche in translation instead of learning German so you can read it properly. And I'm more apt to agree with them than the fuckheads you are describing here. I care so little about their bullshit that I actually had to look up "Cis/White". And having done so, I would argue that in appropriating latin chemistry nomenclature terms (w/ which I was previously familiar) for use in describing sexual preference those morons got it backwards.

    And yes, if the author doesn't specify and the setting of the book and general context in which the book came to be written provide no clues, my brain will probably fill in a race, gender and sexual preference similar to mine for the sympathetic characters and something else for the unsympathetic ones. If anyone has a problem with this, come find me and we can discuss it. Bring your second, and a matched set of swords or pistols.

    And by the way I read mostly Fantasy & SF so the characters tend to be pretty well described. Unless you want to try applying that test to something like CJ Cherryh's "Voyager in Night"

  7. I just wanted to anecdotally share that I love the Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins novels from Jack McDevitt but I think I was three books in before I determined that she was a white woman; I'd pictured her in my mind's eye as black and it was very jarring when I finally figured out she wasn't. Weirdly I think part of this was due to Jack's tendency not to describe his protagonist much, but when he did it was often vague on details. Corrected in later books with more precise description of her appearance, but by then my mind's eye Hutch was a black ship pilot.

  8. Yep. Vague shapes that only get filled in as you go along. Same thing happens at the game table - the scene starts as an impressionist work of art. It's only as things get fleshed out that portions of the painting take on more detail, and the things that get detail are the ones important enough to mention. With books, the brain doesn't fill in the race/class/gender of a character until it is important enough for the author to mention it.

    Of course, not being a mind reader or online- crusader-slash-stick-in-the-mud, I can only speak for myself.


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