THE DAWSON DIVERSITY TEST
Posted by James Dawson on September 23, 2014
OK! So last week I did this big speech for the Children’s Book Circle. It’s REALLY long, but you can read it HERE. In a nutshell, I asked the children’s publishing industry if they’d make a nice spreadsheet recording how diverse their books were.
Why? This was not, you may be surprised to learn, a 1984 Big Brother plot to invade the privacy of Google or some such. I just think there’s so many fantastically diverse books out there but we don’t have any evidence. So when someone stands up and says books aren’t diverse enough, we really have no idea.
That said, a recent American study found only 3% of children’s/YA books featured a black character, so maybe we DO need to try a bit harder on both sides of the editor’s desks.
After the speech, lovely agent type Hannah Shepherd suggested I devise an EASY system for checking a book’s diversity credentials much in the style of the BECHDEL TEST for feminism. Now the Bechdel test is not perfect – after all the loathsome SUCKER PUNCH passes the Bechdel Test, but it certainly isn’t feminism friendly. What I’m suggesting here isn’t perfect either, but if a book were to fail you might wonder WHY.
It wouldn’t tell you anything about the WRITING or HOW MUCH YOU ENJOY IT, it would merely tell you how diverse the book is.
I suggest, like the Bechdel Test, a three stage system.
Think about the book you just read. Select the three MOST IMPORTANT characters.
1. Is at least one of them female?
Women are not a minority group as such, but this is important because we must acknowledge the voice and stories of female characters are as important and valid as those of male ones.
2. Does at least one of the three lead characters fall into one of these groups?
- A person of colour or from a minority culture i.e Gypsy/Roma/Traveller, migrant groups.
- LGBT or queer or curious or asexual or gender fluid.
- Physical or mental disabilities inc. mental illness.
- Low socioeconomic background.
- A faith group.
This is important because, as minority groups, the voices and stories of people from these groups are seen less in mainstream media. This is silly because while we are in very few films, TV shows or books, we do exist in quite large numbers. We buy books, we read books. We want to read books about people like us.
It isn’t enough to have a minority character on the outskirts of the plot – this reinforces the idea that culture is for and about one type of person. That’s why it has to be one of the three main characters.
3. Are the minority characters represented in a non-tokenistic, fully-rounded way? Do they reinforce stereotypes about that group?
Stereotyping occurs because we tell one type of story about a group. If we continue to perpetuate myths, groups continue to be dehumanised making prejudice and discrimination more likely.
Like I said, this test isn’t going to work every time. I do however think that it’s helpful. It’s an aid-memoire to me, an author, to ensure I am helping, not hindering understanding of minority groups. I also think it would help editors and agents reflect on the makeup of a novel.
I mean, this does and doesn’t matter. I KNOW it won’t improve the writing. I KNOW it won’t make the book more FUN or PAGE-TURNY. I KNOW most readers really don’t care one way or another. I mean half of the Harry Potter films fail the Bechdel Test, but I still love them. But I care as an author, and speaking to people since the talk last week, I think the industry cares too.
For LOLZ lets take a look at some recent hits:
The Fault In Our Stars: PASS (Augustus has a disability but is still able and sexified.).
Twilight: PASS (Jacob is Native American and while CLEARLY Native American people are not mystical werewolves, many white characters are also mystical).
The Hunger Games: PASS (All three characters are from poverty but are capable, intelligent and skilled).
Divergent: Hmm…depends on whether you select Christina as one of the three main characters.
As a reader, I doubt this will come in very handy although there are lots of people who actively seek out books with diverse characters because they like reading about a variety of characters. As authors, editors and agents, though, it might come in handy! Use it as a tool, DON’T take it too seriously. There will be no book burning here!
In fact, I bet MOST books will pass – and that’s down to the excellent work of authors and editors. If we were to look and films and TV shows with the same test, I imagine mainstream media would be doing far worse.