So-called "Millennials"--the current young-adult generation, folks who typically range from 22-35 (or, at least, that's the time frame I consider)--are typically given a lot of flack for being the "obsessive" generation. We're the first generation to grow up with computers as a commonplace commodity, we take wireless internet speed for granted (anyone remember the horrible screeching noises of dial-up?--relatedly, there's a "Friends" episode where Chandler impresses everyone with his 12 MB of RAM), we complain that our iPhones aren't advanced enough despite the utilization of space-age technology. We're the spoiled generation. Our mothers and grandmothers are the true feminist generation, not us--they had to fight for workplace rights and voting rights and the right to not have their husbands present when they wanted to withdraw money from the bank.
And we? Western Millennial women? What do we have to fight for, with our internet and our video games and our ability to speak freely and have our own religion, to live in the golden American sun* with very few people calling us whores when we wear Daisy Dukes, with our one-bedroom apartments deliberately lacking screaming children if we want, and no one criticizing us for husbandless lives, our ability to climb the corporate ladder if we so choose? We didn't have to weed through all that legislation. There are no laws enforcing women to have domestic lives.*** We can read and write and vote and spend our money however we want.
And read we did. Many of us--perhaps even most of us--grew up on Harry Potter, one of the most influential book series of our generation. We grew up loving Hermione Granger, the exemplar of everything a girl should be: intellectual, courageous, ambitious, and kind. She's bullied, and perseveres from it (I remember being extremely satisfied watching Emma Watson sock Tom Felton in the nose [sorry, Tom], and later finding it on the internet and watching that clip on repeat [this was before the days of gifs]). And most of all, she knows everything. She's clever. Really, she's almost OPed.
I remember becoming friends with my high school BFFs, Dree and Alex, over Harry Potter. I met the [chronological] first one, Dree, in summer school (before ninth grade, taking the first required year of Latin, because I was an overachiever--much like Hermione, I might add). We always like to tell the story about how we hated each other when we knew each other before high school, in ballet--I had made fun of her, and naturally she didn't much like that--and how I maybe, possibly, forced my overexcited friendship on her because I had entirely forgotten I didn't like her. But I think our friendship started, really, with our love of HP. Latin summer school was four hours a day, five days a week, and our teacher was kind enough to let us get out of the classroom to do declension and conjugation practice. It was during these outings where we would find a spot--usually in Fresno State's Student Union, on the standard university lounge couches, looking out the tall windows to the outside where we wished we could be free--and do our work, intermittently peppered with discussions about the latest HP book (Order of the Phoenix), which had just been released. We talked endlessly about it, since we didn't agree on much else (fashion, music, computer games), and decided to form a club once school started. And of course we each had our favorite characters we identified with: Dree had Hermione, and I had Cho Chang.
Now, most people heavily dislike Cho Chang. Most people who know me are aware of my habit of loving the characters that most people dislike--Donkey from Shrek, C3PO from Star Wars, Jacquimo from Thumbelina, Vanellope* from Wreck-It Ralph. They're not unlikable characters because they're disloyal, or have horrible morals, or are murderers--rather, they're the side characters who have voices and are generally annoying because their voices are so loud, and/or possibly because they're annoyingly optimistic. But I identified with them. Perhaps I identify with them because I'm also loud and/or annoyingly optimistic--regardless, they're the ones with which I identified. Unfortunately, side characters are not necessarily well developed. We see glimpses of them and fill in the rest of the details. It's very possible--probable, even--that I did this with Cho Chang.
How I saw it: Cho was pretty, and she was a good athlete, and an intellectual. She was the apple of Harry Potter's eye. That she was Chinese was only ever mentioned once or twice in the entire series, and Harry didn't have a thing for her because she was Chinese. For the most part, her Chinese identity was totally irrelevant to the story. It had no plot value. When it comes to giving "persons of color" (or POCs, as they're called, though I have problems with this term that I might express in a later post) voices in literature, exposure as characters--in this modern world where racism isn't (read: shouldn't be) a thing, and in a story where race isn't an issue (though bloodlines certainly are), I think this is the right way to go. For her race to have nothing to do with her story plot--as was the case for the Patil twins, and for Dean Thomas, and for Seamus Finnegan--means that she is not placed in the story in order to bring attention to racial issues. She exists as a character because she's a character, not as Chinese Tolerance Awareness Plot Device.
But some folks partially disagree, and I think they're onto something. I've never been one to put a POC in my story for the sake of having racial diversity; rather, I tend to leave physical descriptors to shape and size, not to color--big, small, tall, average, round, pointy, freckled, pale, dark--and I almost always steer clear of defining a character's skin color. There are some characters where I will define a racial or cultural background, but these are not generally characters I have connected to an original story, and lately racial identity doesn't seem to have as much importance to my characters so much as cultural identity does. Sometimes culture and race are linked, and sometimes they aren't. In the case of Harry Potter, they don't particularly seem to be, but on the other hand, the folks who have noticed that certain racially defined characters subscribe to certain stereotypes, whether intentionally or not, have a point.
Diana Lee, a student of USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, wrote a blog post that pointed me to writer-slash-slam-poet Rachel Rostad's apparently wildly popular spoken word performance, "To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang":
...which promptly got a lot of flack, to which she responded with this video:
...about which I thought two things that made me absolutely pleased with my existence in history, the larger feminist identity, and my categorization as a Millennial:
1. How cool is it that the internet is actually a legitimate discussion forum (after sorting out the flamers), and people across the globe can participate in this conversation?! I know this isn't new or revolutionary, but man, when you stop to think about it, it's cool.
2. A young Asian woman spurred this much critical discussion regarding the issues she brought up. There used to be a time (and I'm sure this still exists, depending on where you are) where this would be unthinkable. If that isn't modern female empowerment casting aside the expectations of our predecessors, I don't know what is.
Major, major respect to Rachel for this set of videos, which prompted me to Google "Hermione Granger" to see if she was really the character I remembered her being, which somehow redirected me to a concept called "racebending."
Racebending is when one artist re-imagines a pre-established character as a different race aside from the one as which he/she has already been portrayed. In this case, I was led to a bunch of fanart of Black Hermiones, all of which were awesome.
Of course, that begged the question of whether there were any Latina Hermiones (hint: not really), but that's a different post for a different time.
TL;DR: I'm excited that there are people on the internet who envision racebent characters. I'm excited that people are having these conversations that define who we are as a culture. I'm excited that, despite the racism and prejudice that still (unnecessarily) exists today, there are a hell of a lot of people utilizing the internet to fester new cultural ideas that seem to be progressing toward an attitude of tolerance and minority empowerment--even if it's a slow-and-steady sort of race. And I think a lot of how all this is possible is due to the unhealthy attachment the Millennial generation has with its devices.
Rock on, folks.
*lol sorry Michiganders, Bostonians, and other East-Coasters, looks like you're not getting much of that lately. My bad.
**Debatable as to whether Vanellope's considered a side character.
***Of course, common practice and law are different battles.
PART OF THIS COMPLETE BREAKFAST
Blog not recommended for sober consumption.