The Body Diverse

In a recent Guardian article, actress Carey Mulligan is reported to take issue with a Variety review of the black comedy Promising Young Woman, which read: “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her.” Mulligan says about this: “We start to edit the way that women appear on-screen, and we want them to look a certain way. We want to airbrush them, and we want to make them look perfect. Or we want to edit the way that they work, the way they move and the way that they think and behave. And I think we need to see real women portrayed on-screen in all of their complexity.”

“Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as… femme fatale”

In our story, The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, we have Ymke, similarly to Mulligan’s character in Promising Young Woman, set a honey trap for an abusive husband. While Ymke is fairly average looking and disabled, we’ve got no doubt she could pull it off. Of course, she already turned Kaila’s head, and vice versa. And talking of Kaila, she is of course very short but also very muscled. And yes, she’s attractive. Attraction is not the same as beauty, whatever the contemporary idea of beauty may be.

Kaila and Ymke from The Red Man and Others

We’d love to see more ‘non-normative’ body types in our media, and in film and tv in particular. What the reader sees on the page is partially filled in by their own imagination. What we see on the big or the small screen leaves little room to fill in your own blanks. Genre films, superhero films in particular, have not been very diverse. Where you look at the Marvel films, you see some fairly ‘average’ looking guys like Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), the women can all be classed as beautiful – even when they’re shaven-headed, black-eyed and blue, like Nebula (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy). Hopping over to ‘the distinguished competitor’, why is Superman super-muscled and Wonder Woman isn’t?

Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill. One is not like the others.

It’s not like Superman needs to go to the gym every day after work to stay super. It all comes down to classic role patterns, right at the dawn of the pulp- and superhero: Superman’s template is the dynamic tension built Charles Atlas. Superman doesn’t get sand kicked in his face! The notes on the first sketch for Wonder Woman (1941) are revealing. Artist H.G. Peters notes that: “The shoes are like a stenographer’s.” Writer William Moulton Marston writes back: “Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute. I like her skirt, legs, hair.”

No more sand shall be kicked in *his* face!

Some artists draw Wonder Woman as fairly buff, but it never seems to stick. Likewise, much was made of Jessica Biel’s fitness regime for Blade: Trinity (2004), yet I also remember the ‘fanboy’ comments of her being “ugly”. I guess they’d rather stick with the female leads of the X-men movies, Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique) and Halle Berry (Storm), who all started their careers as models! You’ve got to wonder how they’ll handle the upcoming She-Hulk series. Will Tatiana Maslany be set on a body building regime to bulk up like Cavill, Affleck, Bale, Helmsworth and Evans (the harmful amount of muscles expected of nowadays Hollywood leading men is another story)? I doubt it.

“Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute.”

There have been some tentative approaches to the diverse bodies in Fantasy franchises, but these have come with an amount of ‘but’. In Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie was imposing as the female knight Brienne of Tarth, but it was made very clear that she was not attractive. The Witcher‘s Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) was disabled but she could only be attractive once that was ‘fixed’. Only Frøya from Norsemen (Silje Torp) comes to mind as being awesome while tall (1.78), past forty and with the muscle mass befitting a warrior woman.

Norsemen‘s Frøya (Silje Torp).

I’m also thinking of’s Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995), a straight-to-video Terminator-inspired actioner. Its lead is a young woman (Sue Price) who fights against a cyborg bounty hunter from the future. Think of the film what you will, but writer/director Albert Pyun at least had the thought: “Hey, if it’s good enough for Sly and Arnold, it’s good enough for my ass-kicking heroine to be absolutely ripped!”

Sue Price in Albert Pyun’s Nemesis 2: Nebula

Diversity, also in race, age and ability, is still very much a matter of ‘two hesitant steps forward, a frightened leap back’. It’s about time for the audience, us, to enjoy the rich variety of humanity, and not expect conventional standards of ‘beauty’. While typing this, we’re watching Doom Patrol which has a team of anti-heroes who are each, in one way or another, disabled. Vic (Jovian Wade), whose body is partially replaced by mechanical components, just made love with a woman, Roni (Karen Obilom) whose body is heavily scarred. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her, and means it. They accept each other’s disabilities, and invite the viewer to do the same. The next morning, he’s all aglow, while she withdraws, saying they’re just “two fucked-up people, who are trying to forget their shit.” This is the conversation between a woman who doesn’t want a relationship and a young man who is looking for romance. Roni asserts herself, and will take intimacy on her terms. She doesn’t need to be grateful.

Vic (Jovian Wade) and Roni (Karen Obilom) in Doom Patrol, s2e3

On Representation

Discussions about representation in speculative fiction are as frequent as our heads of state lying. To those on the inside it appears that for each two steps forward, there is another step backwards. At least. With each new group of readers, which each new media interest, the same questions about legitimacy crop up. Minorities within fandom still have to consistently argue for their turf, which takes away energy that could be used to create, and enjoy. There are inroads being made – Fiyah is doing pretty well, and bringing a spark of hope and positivity to Black spec-fic. On the other hand, Sword & Soul founding father George R. Saunders passed away without fandom noticing for months.

There’s still work to be done. It’s even more difficult when the undermining of representation, the questioning of own voices’ legitimacy, come from the inside: gatekeeping is is done by those within the POC, queer, disabled, etc communities, and while you can understand the motives, the effects of it are devastating. Own voices are silenced, and may not dare speak again.

Firstly, there’s that word ‘Problematic’. Your work being deemed Problematic, or yourself being labelled so, can get you ‘cancelled’ when it’s attached to you by the community’s taste makers. Of course, the use of ‘Problematic’ is problematic. It takes all nuance out of any argument. The label ‘Problematic’ can (and will) be applied to anyone from Marion Zimmer Bradley to someone who made a clumsy remark. The same goes for representation: between “perfect representation” and “bad representation” there are various shades of grey. Too often, anything not perfect is deemed ‘Problematic’, the perfect is made the enemy of the good. This comes, like so much else, from a place of real hurt. As marginalised readers, we’ve had a lifetime of not seeing ourselves much, or at all, in the fiction we love. This can lead us to place outsized expectations on any one work, so that a single author writing about one facet of experience is crucified for the fact it does not, and cannot, be all things to all readers.

Then, of course, there’s the word ‘Community’ itself. It’s become clearer that there’s no such thing as a homogenous spec-fic community. At best, it’s a large collection of overlapping clusters, cliques, special interests and alliances. When you talk about disability representation, the scope of what we understand as ‘disability’ is vast. Someone who is paraplegic may not recognise themselves in a story in which the protagonist has a personality disorder. And even when narrowing it down, one person’s experience with autism, for example is not the same as another person’s. Representation can’t be ‘one size fits all’, and this unfortunately isn’t always acknowledged or accepted. So, while ‘Community’ may be a useful shorthand, its limitations need to be understood.

There have been instances of autistic people castigating “autism moms” for both actual and perceived instances of them speaking over autistics, within and outside of the community. Yet, middle-aged women with autistic children are a huge, growing category of people being diagnosed themselves. Also, it has been noticed that people who have a real affinity with autistic people turn out to have that affinity for a reason. Many autistic people go most of a lifetime without our autism being recognised. This plays really messily with the anti-self-diagnosis movement, as you can imagine, though the waiting list for getting a diagnosis is up to 4 years. That is, if you can get yourself onto that waiting list.

With gatekeeping usually comes authenticity-policing in fiction: is the author writing from their own experience? Are they themselves queer or disabled? Are they disabled enough? There are reasons why seemingly straight authors write queer fiction. They may be in a happy straight relationship but bisexual, or they may not be ready to be out, or to be out may be compromise their safety or wellbeing. It’s not the reader’s prerogative to demand the author share their sexual resume or their inner thoughts. Neither is it up to the reader to demand details about an author’s disability. We ourselves wouldn’t want to tell any non-disabled person that they can’t write about disabled characters.

We’ve made a point of writing Ymke, in The Red Man and Others, as a disabled young woman. The stories are not about her disability, but are subtly informed by it. Would someone come up to us and ask: “Well, Ymke’s got hip dysplasia. Does either of you have it?” Then, well, no. Does this automatically make us and the stories inauthentic? Angeline sometimes uses a wheelchair, and some of her experience has been useful in writing Ymke. But does the writer need to know this? We decided to make Ymke and Kaila a couple; how far should we justify this with our own dance card?

You want to have characters that are disabled (or queer, or POC, or…) without this automatically shunting your book to the disabled (or queer, POC, etc) shelf, only visited by disabled (queer, POC, etc) folk. We believe that they should be recognised as part of the fabric of society, not merely its margins. Diversity should be the norm instead of an exception. For that, writers in general need to populate their stories with a diverse cast, on all levels, from protagonists to bit players.

That undoubtedly will lead to a lot of bad representation, and we’re sure that there’ll be harmful stuff. That’s a given; the communities (such as they are) work all the time to counteract the fall-out of bad representation and the distorted image it gives of disability, queerness or POC. This, however, is because there’s just not enough of it, or not enough of it is visible. If the one big book from a big publisher with a trans character is written from a place of ignorance or prejudice, then that’s colouring the audience’s view on transgender issues. If it’s one of several books with trans protagonists, then its harmful impact will be reduced by context, and more importantly, those other books will shine a more insightful light on the subject.

What we usually get though is mixed representation: things that work in some ways but not in others. The TV series Atypical is a great example of this. A recent Guardian review highlights that Sam is less a fully-realised character than “a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments”, compared to how engaging and individual his sister Casey is. Yet, it manages to put across a lot of ideas about what the neurodiversity movement is trying to achieve. We are going through such a shift at the moment in the way that autism is portrayed, that good representation often by necessity builds on bad and mixed representation. It would be nice to leapfrog straight to the good stuff, but that’s apparently not how it works.

We feel one of the goals in campaigning for better representation actually is to get to an environment in which people who aren’t like you can write about people like you, without fucking it up. We, disabled writers for example, are never going to be able to be the only storytellers about ourselves. Of course, where we are now, the immediate need is for agents and publishers to prioritise own voices, which is long due. That’s one step that shouldn’t be leapfrogged, lest you end up with the entirely ignorant writer who becomes an authority by default.

In our book, and the stories we’re currently writing, Ymke falls in love with the fighter Kaila. Kaila has been inspired by a woman Remco worked with, who came from Turkey, was very short, but had been in the army and could take care of herself. But here is where representation becomes a really fine line. We don’t have personal experience with racism, as Kaila would have. However, Remco is an immigrant in a country increasingly hostile, and has his fair share of xenophobic violence, ‘othering’, micro-aggression. These adjacent experiences are very useful in writing about Kaila.

There should be some kind of balance between encouraging more and better representation, giving authors room to grow, and acknowledging that we often do not know the full truths of people’s identities and how they relate to their own work. So,

let’s get off the hamster wheel of policing authenticity. We end up shining a bigger spotlight on the bad stuff than it deserves, and the good stuff deserves the bulk of our energy.