A little while ago*, Nnedi Okorofor tweeted about someone who, although interested in adapting one of her novels (my guess was Akata Witch, but I’m not sure), wanted to change the race of the protagonist to white, with the reasoning that it wouldn’t be marketable otherwise. Nnedi recognized this as a Bad Idea, and the interested party purportedly reacted as though she was being unreasonably attached to something trivial for trivial reasons.
The whole idea of this is mind-boggling to me. Not just because it’s insulting in the extreme, clearly, but because it doesn’t even make sense.
Let’s start with the issue of race swapping in adaptations. Can it be done successfully? Sure.
(I’m not even going to touch on whether swapping to white is a good idea, because that is its own can of worms and not the point I’m getting at here.)
But not when race is an integral part of the character’s identity. One of the wonderful parts of Nnedi’s writing is that setting and world-building are so much a part of the story, and completely integral. Her stories don’t happen in just any place, they happen in a particular place, and that matters, and it shapes who the characters are, and their racial identity according to that place shapes who they are, and it’s all intertwined. Which is good storytelling. Changing the protagonist’s race in any one of Nnedi’s books that I’ve read would literally break the story. The stories flatly would not make any sense, at all, and there’s no getting around that. Adaptation is one thing, but changing her protagonist’s race would be rewriting the whole story. Which, I suppose, you can also do, but call a spade a spade.
That’s a specific problem in this particular instance, and while to me it says a lot about this person’s understanding of storytelling and of Nnedi’s story in particular, it’s somehow not the larger issue for me.
Where does this idea come from that people only want to read stories about people who look and act like them? I suppose it’s about audience investment and the idea that if the audience recognizes themselves in the character, they’re more likely to be invested in what happens to said character. But audiences are composed of many people who have different tastes and interests and thoughts, and making a character so bland as to allow anyone to project themselves onto it makes the character rather flimsy. It also must make the character male, because while women have no trouble investing in male characters, people still maintain the fiction that men are not likewise able to see parts of themselves in female characters.
Can I not identify with a character of a different race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation? Why on earth not? My experience of the world may be shaped differently, but between empathy and the ability to extrapolate and draw parallels, somehow this has not proved insurmountable to me. It’s not as though this requires super-powers; it’s about being human.
Still, however, this isn’t the whole of the issue, because why on earth can’t I invest in a character completely different than myself? I’m very character-driven in my reading taste, but that hardly means I have to like a character to care about them, and I certainly don’t have to bear any similarity. It was fascinating to read Camus or Dostoevsky, but identifying with their protagonists? No, not so much. Look at the popularity of sociopath TV shows in recent years: I’m pretty sure it’s not because the people who enjoy the shows are sociopaths and serial killers. It might, however, have something to do with the idea that being without empathy is so alien to most people who are not sociopaths that they find it fascinating.
Frankly, if all the media out there was only about other people like myself, it would get very tired, very quickly. There’s the old quotation from Fran Leibowitz, “A book is not supposed to be a mirror; it’s supposed to be a door,” which I don’t entirely agree with, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.
If all media were about people like myself, it would probably also go a long way towards making me more self-absorbed, which is what I think the root of the problem here. Making a character white (or male, or straight…) to market more easily? First, that implies that all stories can somehow be made better if turned white, which, while blatantly false, people will still unconsciously internalize. And so they have. It is also a huge cop out, and more than that, it gives the audience too little credit. Our minds are not so small that we can only care about people exactly like us, and even if they were, why would you reinforce that?!
A cynical someone might answer “money,” but that answer falls flat for me. Because, just think, how much richer would we all be if we were expected to enjoy more diverse stories?
*A month ago, maybe? The incident is not quite so recent now, but the boggle remains, and the blog is up and running, so.