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Sherlock and the Case of the Diversity Problem (and why representation matters)

The creator of the BBC Sherlock reboot is none other than Steve Moffat, who also is currently helming another popular BBC show – Doctor Who.  One of the things that has always impressed me about Doctor Who as I began watching it was the diversity of the show.  When we first meet the reboot Doctor, number 9, he takes a decidely white Rose into space and time with him, and sometimes her very non-white boyfriend joins them.  After Rose, the Doctor is accompanied by Martha, also not white.  And they have several adventures with Captain Jack Harkness, who later gets his own show called Torchwood, who is very white but is also decidely not straight.  In fact, there are a wide variety of characters that appear in both Doctor Who and Torchwood and the most amazing thing is – no one every comments really on their non-whiteness or their sexuality (I won’t say never, because it does come up in context a couple of times), because it is understood that we live in a diverse world and there is no need for commentary.

Early Doctor Who Reboot
Sarah Jane, Mickey Smith, Jackie Tyler, Rose Tyler, Doctor, Martha Jones, Donna Noble and Capt. Jack Harkness
Check out this article at The Mary Sue as the BBC responds to critics of racism in Doctor Who
So we have Mickey, Martha Jones, Tosh (on Torchwood), Captain Jack, Ianto (and they kiss – a lot), and a variety of supporting characters who pop in and out and THERE IS DIVERSITY.  Then Steven Moffat took over, and things changed.  And then he rebooted Sherlock.

So what happens to Sherlock?  Well, Sherlock lacks diversity.  All of the main cast of characters is decidedly white male, most of the supporting characters are as well.  But here’s the deal, later day Doctor Who and Sherlock are under a different creator/writer.  And this change has brought about some diversity issues.

To make matters worse, there is an undercurrent of homophobia running throughout the relationship of Sherlock and Watson, as if being a couple – gasp – would be THE. WORST. THING. EVER.  I mean, they feel the need to stop in the middle of murder investigations and make sure that everyone understands that there is no way in hell they would ever be a couple as if that is more important than the fact that people are dying.  I understand that there are men in real life who would definitely not want to be identified as homosexual, what I don’t get is why we feel the need to write it in as a running gag and a source of amusement on a show that already has so much going on.  It’s unnecessary and contributes to the continued harassment and stigmazation of a people group that has spent centuries being persecuted.  Keep in mind that identifying as GLBTQ in today’s world is one of the leading causes of teenage bullying, homelessness and suicide.  Making them the butt of the jokes on a popular show contributes to this ongoing epidemic.  And whatever one may personally feel about homosexuality, I don’t think it is okay to create a hostile environment for them.  Full stop.

Infographic Source

Of course Sherlock did try and give a nod to diversity once in an epic fail of an episode called The Blind Banker.  For a variety of reasons, this is my least favorite episode of the series to date.  Mostly, I simply don’t really care all that much for the story.  But also, this episode is one of the few episodes where we get some main characters of color and they are full of stereotypes.  There is a good discussion of the problem of diversity in The Blind Banker hereOr this post which points out that the script for The Blind Banker calls for “Soo Lin Yao, a fragile little porcelain Chinese doll; a stupid brute of a Sikh warrior; Japanese geisha nicknacks for sale in a Chinese…not a shop…the script calls it an emporium…”  It’s like the writers reached into their grab bag of Asian stereotypes and threw them all against a wall to see which would stick, and apparently they all did.

Molly Hooper: BBC

Then we come to the character of Irene Adler, which Christie already talked about on Monday.  I have such mixed feelings on Irene.  She is definitely shown as being a strong female character, a woman who confounds and beguiles Sherlock.  But her power comes primarily from her sexuality.  In fact, when Sherlock first meets her she appears in her birthday suit, she is using her nudity as a powerplay.  So although I love that we have a strong female character, I wish that her power could come somewhere other than her sexuality.  It seems as if our popular culture continues to assert to young women that they can only be powerful if they can harness and exude their sexuality.  In comparison, we have the character of Molly Hooper, who is once again a stereotype.  Molly is a smart girl, the token science geek girl if you will, so of course she must be mousey and socially akward and pine after Sherlock.  Imagine for just a moment if we could have had a strong, intelligent science minded woman who found power in her intellect and ability to help Sherlock as opposed to the only real female representation of power that we get in Irene Adler.  This is an interesting look at the character of Irene Adler, and more interestingly about how the role of Moriarty undermines the role of Irene Adler.  And perhaps my favorite comment about Irene Adler can be found here: “Well, to be fair, BCC Sherlock did turn Irene from a master of disguise and all-around genius who easily saw through Sherlock’s ruse into a pawn of Moriarty who needs to be told how to deal with Sherlock.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: ABC

Why does this matter?  Sherlock is a reboot, an updated take on the popular character.  In the original works, these issues would make more sense because they were written in a time period that thought differently than we do today.  But this Sherlock appears in modern day London.  As we update the setting, we also need to update the representation of people who are not white men to reflect modern day sensibilities.  Look around you, the modern day world is not as white as the world of Sherlock would lead us to believe.  And this is important because it affects how we perceive the world around us and how people who are not white men perceive themselves, and each other.  People often say that entertainment entertains but it does not influence.  But I can’t help but wonder, if we know that marketing works, and we do, then how can we suggest that what we see in our media doesn’t influence how we think about our world, ourselves and each other?  The answer is, I think, that we can’t.  Diverse representation matters because people need to know that people of color can be strong, intelligent, and powerful without being a bad guy, a red shirt, a token, or – gasp – a maid or gas station attendant (or a fragile porcelain Chinese doll).  And girls (women) need to know that they can be powerful because of their intelligence, their contributions to society, and in their friendships – it doesn’t have to come from sexuality, it isn’t all about sexuality.

Here’s the thing.  I really, really love the BBC’s Sherlock.  I love the way it looks visually, how you see how Sherlock is processing the evidence and coming to his conclusions.  I love the quirkiness that is Sherlock, and how he is kind of a despicable, arrogant character but has glimpses of humanity, often in relation to Watson or Mrs. Hudson.  Mostly, I love that it is intelligent drama that asks you to pay attention.  But I can’t pretend it is perfect even though I am an enthusiastic fan.  Just as I can’t pretend Doctor Who is perfect.  I want my tweens and teens to grow up in a world where they are represented in healthy and realistic ways so that they develop healthy images of themselves and their place in this world.  Sherlock needs to do better.  And yes, my teens are watching.

P.S. All these same arguments hold true for our MG and YA lit.  Diversity is important.  Representation matters.  Readers need to see realistic representations to have their existence, their place in this world, affirmed.  And readers need to have realistic depictions of those that are different from themselves so that they develop realistic and healthy ideas about those that are different than them.

“If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”
Beth Revis: I See You, Representation Matters (great post, read it)
Ramp Your Voice: Why Representation Matters in Children’s Books and Media
Actually, just Google “representation matters” for lots of great posts

More Diversity at TLT:
Racial Stereotyping in YA Literature
Race Reflections, Take II
Building Bridges to Literacy for African American Male Youth Summit recap, part 1
Friday Reflections: Talking with Hispanic/Latino Teens about YA Lit
See also the Diversity in YA Tumblr by Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo

More on Gender and Sexuality at TLT:
I’m Just a Girl? Gender issues in YA Lit
Girls Against Girls
Teach Me How to Live: talking with guys about ya lit with Eric Devine
Let’s Hear It for the Boys: Boys and body image
Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens
The Curious Case of the Gender Based Assignment 

You want to put WHAT in my YA?
Taking a Stand for What You Believe In
Annie on My Mind and Banned Books Week on My Calendar
Queer (a book review)
Top 10: For Annie and Liza (Annie on My Mind)

Friday Finds – June 14, 2013

The Friday Finds is your spot for a summary of topics we’ve covered this week. We will have a list of things you may have missed here on TLT, as well as an item or two from the archives you may want to revisit. Each week’s recap will conclude with some links to interesting reading from the web.

This Week at TLT:

Karen writes about damaging stereotypes and the lack of diversity in YA literature.

Robin writes about her (rather disastrous) experience with this year’s World Book Night. 

Mermaids get the Teen Program in a Box treatment.

Karen reviews Thousand Words by Jennifer Brown and goes behind the scenes of reality TV with a look at two compelling reads.

Keeping track of sequels is an endless job. We have a list of popular YA sequels coming out soon.

Kicky (Karen’s tweenage daughter) recommends 5 audiobooktitles you should try. And June is Audio Book Month! Enter our audio book giveaway!

Everyone loves Top Ten lists! We have a chance for you to win a whole book of them.

Previously on TLT:

Summer is a time when teens have traditionally had more time to get involved in their communities. Teens can often feel disconnected and at loose ends (or have an excess of energy looking for an outlet.) Why not steer them towards one of these opportunities to get involved and make a difference?

Around the web:

Wondering where all the good teen female role models are? The Mary Sue has an awesome (and convenient) list of “9 Female Characters We Wish We’d Been More Like In High School” including some of my favorites!

Chuck Wendig runs down the basics of “25 Things You Should Know About Young Adult Fiction” over on his blog Terrible Minds.  The next time someone astounds you with a mindbogglingly incorrect assumption or a false claim to know ‘just what YA is,’ send them here.

Over at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss discusses the biggest scandal in America – childhood poverty. She presents the current statistics and discusses poverty’s impact on student success in education and the failure of federal policy to address the problem.

Got a tip for some great Friday Finds? Email RobinReads at Bellsouth dot net or Tweet her @RobinReads

Friday Reflections: Hispanic/Latino YA and A Discussion with My Teens by Christie G

Christie G and I work at two separate branches for the same library system.  Like most library branches, they each have their own unique clientele.  Christie’s branch, she calls it a “twig”, is a smaller branch that is also part of a recreation center.  It’s a pretty cool set up.  And she has a lot of regulars every day after school.  Christie also has a high Latino population that she serves.  So today she is going to share some of her unique reflections as part of our series on Diversity.
Karen J asked me to write a post on my teens and how they like Hispanic /Latino characters in YA fiction.  And I realized that I couldn’t do, although not for lack of trying.
I live in a RED state.  I work in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.   I talk a LOT with my teens.  When we’re slow, I sit down with them in the back and we talk.  They come into my office and talk.  We are definitely talkers.
We embrace our cultures.  We cheer on the Mexican soccer teams with the same ferocity we cheer (or more often curse) the Dallas Cowboys.   It’s not uncommon to have mariachi music and dancers practicing in the community rooms across the hall, or quinceneras renting out the gym for the night.   
Yet my teens laugh when I try to talk to them about books featuring Latino/Hispanic teens. 
“It doesn’t fit us, Miss.”
We have Alex Sanchez in my collection, when I can keep him on the shelves.  He is VERY popular for the GLBT content, and either I will find his books hidden behind a plant, or they will go on walk-about (my personal term for missing) for a while, then miraculously appear again, very nicely shelved in their proper place, along with other GLBT YA fiction books.  So it’s not the HISPANIC characters that are keeping the interest up.
I can rattle off authors with the best librarian, and we have some of the books off of YALSA’s Lee por el gusto de leer .  They’ve tried them, laughed, and given them back to me.
“Don’t bother, Miss.  When does the next Rosario + Vampire book come in?  Or do you have that one you were talking about yesterday?  Anna Dressed in Blood?  That sounded cool.  And when is the next lock-in?”
So I asked them what they would like to tell other librarians about those books, and how they would like to be seen.  Most of it was that they’re sick of being seen as a group, being painted with a brush so wide that it encompasses everything and everyone, without looking at the whole.
We’re not all Catholic
We’re not all from Mexico
We don’t all live in violent households
We don’t all have sex
We’re not all in gangs
We play Yu-Gi-Oh
We read
We like THIS library
Then we started talking about what they’d like people to know in general.  My teens are that limbo generation that is getting a lot of attention.  A lot were brought over to the US by their parents when they were small, and so they may or may not be legal.  I don’t ask- I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, if you come in my door and want to use the library, please.  They have little in common with the characters in a lot of the YA books that get published- either the historical fiction doesn’t ring with them (it does with their parents), or they won’t connect with the specific culture, or the settings aren’t right ( really, Miss, they all have cars?!??!).
So we got to talking about what they wanted people to know in general about them.  It got evident really fast that while people can think teens are clueless, they are not.  They have real fears, and real dreams, and don’t know how to achieve them.  And they are really tired of assumptions that others place on them.
·         Just because we’re not from here, doesn’t mean you should treat us like dirt
·         Just because we’re Hispanic doesn’t mean we’re illegal
·         Just because we’re proud of our heritage doesn’t mean we’re not proud of        America; we’re just not proud of what’s going on right now
·         Just because we can speak Spanish doesn’t mean that we can’t speak English
·         Just because look like we should speak Spanish doesn’t mean we do
·         I’m scared to register for the Dream Visa because what will happen when it’s over
·         I’m scared what would happen if I registered for it (the Dream Visa) and then it got revoked
·         I don’t know how I’m going to get to college
So why do my teens read?  They read to get away from things.  They can’t do anything about their situation right now because they are in limbo.  They’re waiting for outcomes that they have no say in, but have everything to do with their future.  So they read to escape, and in order to escape, they need to connect.  And my teens, unfortunately, haven’t connected with the books that I have for them.  Maybe I just haven’t found the right ones yet.
Karen J asked me to write a post on my teens and how they like Hispanic /Latino characters in YA fiction.  Maybe I should just get my teens to start writing their own books instead.

More on Diversity:
Racial Stereotyping in YA Lit: a reflection by Stephanie W
Race Reflections, Take II