There are a lot of terms people use when talking about the depiction of marginalized groups that I think a lot of folks don’t necessarily understand the nuances of. These are terms like visibility, representation, appropriation, fetishization, and stigma. There are plenty more, but for today I’m just going to focus on these five. There are definitely some that people can intuitively understand are separate: representation, for instance, is a good thing, and fetishization is a bad thing. But what about the differences between representation and visibility? What about the differences between fetishization and stigma? And where exactly does appropriation fit into all of this? I hope this run-through can help people sort out these terms and re-envision their approach to writing about marginalized characters and cultures.
Visibility is when marginalized individuals–or content about marginalized individuals–are (respectfully) seen in a certain setting. Usually, these marginalized individuals are not visible because of a widespread fixation on dominant cultures (like whiteness, cisness, abledness, etc.). For example, a woman of color mentioned in the background of a story is a minor form of visibility. In the context of writing, you can think of visibility as the passive details that show that your world is accurately diverse. It’s about a marginalized group being “present” in the setting, so to speak.
Representation, on the other hand, is more active. Representation is when marginalized individuals–or, again, content about them–are engaged with on a relatively deep level. Rather than simply showing marginalized groups in the background, this is about turning the focus on them. To go back to the earlier example of a character of color, representation would be giving that person a speaking role and adding nuance to her character development that is accurate to what a person of the same identity might experience in the real world. While visibility is fairly simple, representation (which has a greater impact on readers because of the level of emotional empathy brought about by it) requires research and bias readers in order to pull it off.
In contrast to both visibility and representation, appropriation is the act of disrespectfully using pieces of a marginalized culture for the explicit consumption of a dominant culture. A very good example of this is the appropriation of dream-catchers by non-Indigenous people. Dream-catchers originate from Ojibwe culture, and likewise they have their own history and cultural importance. Nowadays, they’re made and sold by any joe-schmoe, even though for a long time the Ojibwe people themselves were forbidden by America from participating in their traditional beliefs and ceremonies. So dream-catchers have now become something that non-Indigenous people can make money off of without respecting (and often without even knowing about) Ojibwe culture. In fiction, appropriation might appear by co-opting words from real languages to add flavor to your personal world or by describing clothing or cultural practices of another culture in an unrelated setting. Appropriation, to put it very simply, is about taking pieces of a marginalized culture out of context for the benefit of people from a dominant culture.
Fetishization often goes hand-in-hand with appropriation. Fetishization revolves around objectification and sexualization by marking entire groups as sexually appealing (think of “yellow fever” in reference to Asian women). Like with appropriation, we see marginalized groups being depicted for the explicit consumption of a dominant culture. The easiest way to spot fetishization in writing is when someone uses sexualized language to refer to parts of a person that are immutable. Fixating on a character’s breasts when describing a woman who just entered a scene is a common example (That actually happens. Go check out this Twitter account for more). It can be more subtle than this, though. A blog that I absolutely adore, Writing With Color, wrote an entire piece on the fetishization of skin color by way of food analogies. Fetishization puts a red spotlight on marginalized individuals and makes them objects of sexual gratification for the sake of a dominant culture.
Stigma, while similar to fetishization, can be more insidious and sometimes even appears to be visibility or representation. Stigma, in the context of writing, is content that depicts marginalized identities negatively in a way that often bolsters harmful stereotypes. An example of a stigmatic depiction might be a trans character being aggressive or hostile in their nature. It reinforces the widely-held incorrect belief that trans people are hormone-riddled people who pose a threat to “mild-mannered” cisgender people. That kind of stigma is relatively easy to notice. On the other hand, stigma can also be something like the struggle narrative, which I’ve talked about a few times. Alternatively, it could be the depiction of a Black person as particularly athletically gifted, or of an Asian person as particularly studious, or of a Jewish person as being particularly good with money. These may appear to be positive traits, but they feed into historically harmful stereotypes that don’t add any kind of accurate nuance. Broadly, stigma is about marking marginalized groups as “other” or as separate from a dominant culture.
Okay, so I’ve explored all of that, what now? How can you use this to improve your writing? Like with a lot of writing advice, you’ve got to go read some stuff. Go check out some works that depict marginalized individuals and see if you can pick out some of these five terms in action. Maybe you’re going to read some old science fiction; that stuff is bound to have some appropriation, fetishization, AND stigma. Maybe you’re going to read an #ownvoices work to try to find some good representation, and end up seeing some visibility there! After you do that, try to find some reviews of this content written by people from the marginalized group(s) depicted and see if you caught everything they liked or disliked. Doing this will help give you more experience in understanding how best to depict marginalized individuals and cultures (and how best NOT to!)
I’m trying to engage with my readers more so I’m not just talking into the void of the internet, so I’d love it if you could leave a comment! Here’s something to get you started: Have you written something that you weren’t sure if it depicted a marginalized group well? How did you go about trying to figure out if it was good representation or not? If it turned out poorly, how did you try to fix the issues in what you wrote?
What is this “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing?
I’m glad you asked! I’m a part of this author blog hop where a group of bloggers write about the same theme (in this case, resources & advice for writers). There are some requirements so other participants can know which posts are for the blog hop and which are not. If you want to learn more, you can check out the details and the list of other participants here!