By Isaac Butler
Earlier this week, Dan Harmon linked to this blog post by an autistic writer about discovering Community and, in particular, the character of Abed Nadir, titled Someone Who Moves Like You. It's in a fairy-tale frame which I don't particularly care for, but it leads to the all-important moment where Julia, who has never seen a story that's about her, finally finds one:
Abed Nadir walked onto Julia’s laptop screen, and nothing and everything changed.
For the next seventh months, there was a lot of CAPSLOCKING IN GOOGLE CHAT at C about Community and Abed Nadir, but very few words elsewhere. Which was odd, because when Julia liked things, she tended to talk about them too much. This was one of many things she and Abed had in common.
Except, here’s the funny thing. Abed said “I just like liking things,” and it wasn’t just not-punished, it wasn’t just okay—either of which would have been remarkable and unbelievable—no. It was good.
And Julia, who had endless words for a great many small and unimportant things, couldn’t say anything more about Abed beyond he moves like me.
Abed Nadir, you see, is an autistic character.
It goes on from there and is moving and well worth reading.
I want to confess to something here. In general, I find myself reflexively hostile to the idea of going to art for the experience of seeing yourself reflected back. It feels-- gosh, I don't like writing this sentence-- egotistical, lazy. It feels like a betrayal of art's possibilities to demand it reify you.
But-- and this is an important but-- that is because I have the luxury to feel that way. I see art that reflects me all the fucking time, particularly with the rise of geek culture. I was trying to figure out a moment that I had that felt like what Julia was talking about. A moment where I read something and delighted because i recognized myself in it. And it happens so often to me that I had to go all the way back to reading Spider-Man in 5th grade to find it. Fifth grade! (And if we count non-narrative work, it goes back even earlier to my parents playing Tom Leher for me in the third grade!)
Here we see the subtle workings of privilege. I get this thing-- in this case, recognition that my story, my existence, my journey is valid and worth interrogating artistically-- constantly. I get it so often that, like the leftovers I throw down the garbage disposal, I take it for granted. Worse than that. i then develop a reflexive contempt for people wanting this thing that I take for granted, one that i have to self-consciously work past in order to see and understand the experience being articulated to me.
I mean, there is exactly one network show with a protagonist who is a woman of color right now. One. Criminy.
Today, I'm thinking about all of this and video games. Alyssa Rosenberg has been doing yeoperson's work lately over at ThinkProgress in talking about sexism in video games. I strongly recommend her piece on E3 and "Booth Babes" here and her piece on the new Tomb Raider in which Island Savages will try to rape Lara Croft so that you as a male player will feel a desire to protect her. I've written before about how, as video games embrace narrative, what the narratives are and how they work needs to become more important to gamer culture. I mean, for all we might worry about the torture porn of, say, 24, Call of Duty: Black Ops which is as pro-torture has sold over a billion dollars worth of copies worldwide. Narrative delivered over video games will become only more important to the stories we carry with us, and who we think is valid, whose story we think is worth telling.
And it's pretty clear right now for the vast majority of mainstream video games, women aren't important. Their stories aren't worth telling. For those of you out there who don't play video games, or have contempt for them, this might seem like no big tragedy. But that ignores their increasing cultural dominance.
What this all connects to are the stories we tell (or allow to be told) and to diversity in various media. I don't think, frankly, that most white guys regardless of where they fall down on the whole diversity thing, take this aspect of it seriously enough. That having a diverse syllabus or a diverse theater season or diverse offerings on your TV network serves double duty in terms of both broadening some people's horizons and saying to other people "your existence is valid and meaningful."
In other words, I don't think that us white guys really spend enough mental energy thinking about what it would be like to not see yourself very often in the culture you consume. It's a failure of empathy on our part and if there's one thing we're supposed to do as artists, as workers in the arts, it's expand empathy, not contract it.