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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Kissing Frogs, and Reader Expectations

December 18th, 2009 at 10:13

tiana-the-princess-and-the-frogNnedi Okorafor talks about the Princess and the Frog – it’s a pretty positive review overall, and she addresses the racially/culturally problematic aspects of the story. Raeli’s been looking forward to this movie for more than six months (it’s out on Boxing Day here!), so I was relieved to hear that it actually isn’t total crap, and that Princess Tiana (whom she is already completely in love with) sounds pretty cool. Nnedi’s commentary on voodoo and how it’s handled in the film was particularly interesting to me, and it sounds like there are parallels there to how Disney presented the Greek gods & myths in Hercules through a ‘default Christian’ lens.

Ask Daphne (a blog I’ve never heard of) discusses the question of how to refer to race/colour in fictional characters without making a big deal about it, with a guest appearance by Maureen Johnson. Maureen’s main issue is about the way that expectations of the reader can conflict with an author’s intentions – the discomfort of throwing readers out of the story by making a big deal out of racial characteristics of some characters and not others vs. the problem of readers automatically assuming all the characters are white. Much though it would be nice to have a simple answer to this issue, there isn’t one, and Maureen acknowledges this, while also doing a good job of discussing the complexities.

Diana Peterfreund picks up on the topic and explores it further, looking at the ways in which author’s carefully constructed descriptions can still conflict with reader expectations, and this is in fact one time when the potential response of the reader *is* something that an author may need to address ahead of time. In particular she talks about Giovanni, the love interest in her latest novel Rampant, who is black. I have to admit I’m one of those readers who assumed that blonde Astrid’s POV descriptions of G as having dark skin and dark curly hair meant that he was Mediterranean-white. “Dark” after all is a very subjective word. It’s easy to see how people of different ethnicities can disappear in fiction, without a visual frame of reference, especially if colour is not directly relevant to the plot or character arcs.

The whole issue of reader expectation is fascinating to me. I have some very firm expectations that I take with me into books and perhaps because I have always been such a fast reader (cough, I miss stuff a lot) it does affect how I read and think of a book. Sometimes I have such a clear image of a character that I can’t change it once the text contradicts it – I just ignore. In the Falco books, which I have been reading in my teens, I became convinced very early on that Helena was blonde. The only possible reason for this is that the first time he meets a ‘Helena Justina’ it is her blonde cousin using her name. But I developed a very firm image of blonde, acerbic Helena in my head and no matter how many times the author (or Falco himself, or the cover art) tells me how dark and serious-looking she is (as most women of Ancient Rome *would* be), my brain shrieks ‘blonde’ at me.

POV can be a good tool for expressing description in a personable, interesting way, especially first person POV, but you’re then stuck with the issue of how to describe your actual POV character. Which is fine if they’re vain, but if they’re someone whose image of themselves conflicts with how others see them, it becomes an absolute minefield. Unless you’re willing to have them look in the mirror and comment on what they see which is Bad Writing, Bad Writing. I recently had the experience of trying to edit a first person book where I had a very clear image of how the POV character looked, but struggled to express that through her voice, because she was the kind of person who didn’t know how cute she was – and also one whose main characteristics were style and personality. Her self-deprecating humour about herself meant that some readers were confused.

How much do you need to know about how a first person character looks? Isn’t their relationship to their body/clothing taste/other people/hair more interesting than a photographic description? Do you need to know what colour a character’s hair is, or how wide her hips are? Are your expectations different in this with male vs. female characters?

Does your knowledge of the author’s gender or physical appearance affect how you read their characters? I know in short stories in particular (unlike novels I’m more likely to come into these cold with no pre-assumptions based on blurb etc) I tend to assume unless told otherwise that a first person POV character is the same gender as the author. Anything I know about the author – ethnicity, sexuality, country where they live, etc. feeds into my expectations until the story tells me differently. Sometimes I can realise after 3-4 pages that I was wrong… which is hugely disorienting. Maybe the author should have established it differently, and earlier. But I have to take responsibilities for my expectations, too.

Ben Peek is currently doing a series of dialogues-as-stories over at his blog. I read this one the other day and loved it, but only realised upon re-reading that it was a conversation between a man and a woman. Peek has been writing dialogues on his blog for years, often between himself (or a pretendy version of himself, sometimes hard to tell the difference) and a mate. The conversations are almost always male-male. This one felt like one of those conversations, so that’s how it ran in my head.

The first line of the dialogue is “Hi, this is the Quit Helpline and I’m Mary, how can I–” Yeah. So not the author’s fault, that one. All me!

Once you’ve had it pointed out, it feels weird and uncomfortable to say that a character is black when you’re not doing the same for white characters. It immediately codes the book as a book by a white author, for a default white audience. But is the only alternative to be so subtle that non-white readers have to put in extra work to see themselves in the narrative, while white readers sail through it without even realising there are non-white characters in the story? There are people who don’t realise that Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys has an all-black cast of characters, despite the fact that the only white people in that book have their race described. And that’s without getting started on covers, and the problem of depicting people on them at all, because they are never what you expect/want to see.

The trouble is that if you are not white, male or straight then your default settings maybe be less likely to fit the default settings of expectation that the author is, consciously or unconsciously, playing to, and that means that the story may fail for you, and the author’s attempts to make things comprehensible may backfire. Which brings us back the Princess and the Frog, and Hercules – Disney assumes a predominantly Christian audience, and assumes that the magic of voodoo or the mythology of the Ancient Greeks will not make sense to children unless placed in a Christian context where good and evil are firmly separated. Which completely misrepresents the culture they are supposedly so interested in milking presenting for entertainment purposes. Kids lean so hard towards simple, binary explanations for the world (girls can’t do that, boys can’t wear that, this treehouse is just for eight-year-olds) and that kind of “simplicity” in popular culture only makes it harder for parents to explain that, no, it doesn’t work like that.

The most important thing an education can do, I think, is train you to question the narrative.  I need to do more of this with my daughter, and I think we’ll be starting with The Princess and the Frog.

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2 Responses to “Kissing Frogs, and Reader Expectations”

  1. Kaia Says:

    I believe Daphne Un… something is Maureen Johnson’s agent.

    Also, awesome blog. The only example of awesomely written presentation of a black person that I can think of right now is in Big Fat Manifesto, where Jamie says “his sisters hate me because I’m white”, from which you gather that she is white, her boyfriend is black, and his sisters have a problem with him dating a white girl.

    I always loved Jasmine best of the Disney princesses because she had TIGERS.

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Ha yes, a lot of unpacking in one sentence.

    I think Raeli loves Jasmine best too. It used to be Belle but she is leaning towards J and I am proud cos she’s the only one who wears trousers.

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