There’s been a movement of late, pushing to recognize the importance of #OwnVoices. But what is it, and why is it important?
As we start to recognize the importance of diversity in fiction and mass media in general, we also need to recognize its failings. The culture in the US has been dominated by cis white perisex heterosexual/romantic neurotypical able-bodied middle to upper class allistic monogamous dudes (apologies if I left anything out, it’s not my intention. Comment below and I’ll update it. – Thanks S.H. for monogamous!). Even as we acknowledge the need to stray from that in fiction, we haven’t set up the systems in which marginalized communities can easily become content creators. Because of this disconnect, we still have those same dudes introducing diversity into their creations.
Of course, they don’t know what it’s like to not be them, they don’t have much media to guide them, and generally they’ve never had to be empathetic towards the “other”, and so their attempts at empathizing with us are bumbling at best and outright harmful at worse. And while I’m pointing towards those privileged dudes right now, it’s a problem that virtually anyone trying to write outside their lived experiences face. While a person of color might do well when introducing character of their own race into a story, if they’re cis, they may still fuck up if they introduce a trans person.
This is where the concept of #OwnVoices comes in.
The #OwnVoices movement is an attempt to give a voice to minorities by having them create characters and fiction that accurately represents them.
#OwnVoices serves a two-fold purpose. The primary purpose of supporting #OwnVoices is giving members of that group an accurate representation of themselves when they look for media to consume. This is something that everyone wants. I still remember the joy I felt when Rey and Furiosa were revealed, back when I still thought I was female. It felt so good – it gave me hope. This movement goes beyond just women who otherwise mimic the dudes mentioned above – this movement wants to reach out to people from all minorities to give them a voice, representation, hope.
There is a secondary effect as well, and that is to educate privileged people on how to write a specific minority group.
When all you have are bad representations of trans people in media, you’ll end up with things like Scarlett Johansson playing a trans guy in a major motion picture – and then having her defend her own actions by the cis actors before her who did the same thing. Outrage isn’t enough in those cases – we still have plenty of shitty moments that never go resolved despite the outrage (*cough* Adam *cough*). #OwnVoices serves as a teaching moment for people of privilege – it says “This is how you do it right.”
But in order for it to be a teaching moment, you can’t step in and demand a spot at the table – you can be supportive, and help, but you need to know when you’re not welcome at the table.
So how do you help?
Well, buying things that are #OwnVoices is a great start. You should look for the tag on Kickstarter, social media and more. If you’re reading a book that features a minority heavily, find out if the author is speaking from a place of privilege or if it’s #OwnVoices.
Think twice before criticizing a piece that is #OwnVoices, especially if your critique revolves around the minority character(s). For example, a “critique” where you lambast the author for having a character use they/them pronouns helps no one and just shows your ignorance.
But primarily, remember that you are a guest. You may have been invited in, but if you aren’t a member of the marginalized community it’s created for, you are a guest in their home. Be polite and try not to set the house on fire on your way out. Go in with an open mind, and try to connect with the characters presented to you.
We’ve spent most of our lives empathizing with you – the least you can do is return the favor.