October 6th, 2007


Not Getting It

Sci-Fi’s (re)running their two-part miniseries The Legend of Earthsea this weekend. `Hm,’ I thought to myself. `Have I seen that? I don’t think I have. I certainly want to. But it’s opposite The Chronicles of Riddick, which I think I also want to see. I wonder if Earthsea is any good? I seem to recall hearing something about Ursula not liking it . . .’

Well, that latter is an understatement, to be sure. But I’m not moved to post because Hollywood failed to do a good job adapting a great literary work. That’s not news. No, I’m writing because I found an essay by Pam Noles by following a link from Ursula’s site, an essay entitled Shame, which says, among other things, “This I believe: If Hollywood has taken a groundbreaking, universally acclaimed, multicultural novel that has been in print for over thirty years and turned it into a white-boy romp, that is a news story. . . . If the genre news outlets exist to serve their subculture in a way more than pimping for the publishers and the production companies, the deliberate omission of characters of pigment in the Hollywood adaptation of Le Guin’s Earthsea is the sort of news story a genre news outlet should notice and write about. . . . The mainstream media broke this story, while our media played catch up by linking to Slate. What this says to me is My People Still Don’t Get It.”

She’s right. I read this and realized that I Still Don’t Get It.

I read Ursula’s original protest to the Sci-Fi production and was surprised to find that, of all the things they’d done to the story, chopping it up and rearranging the bits to all-but-obliterate the original story was not the thing that had upset her the most. It was the fact that they’d cast people with different skin color than the book’s characters had had.

I haven’t actually finished reading Noles’ essay yet, actually. I had to stop and write this right away, because her essay made it much clearer to me the distinction, and particularly the importance, between Getting It (Ursula) and Not Getting It (me).

What really molds my cheese about this is that I’ve been putting extra effort into Getting It for a bit over five years now, since falling in love with somebody of the same gender as I. Until then, I’d been sitting at the top of pretty much every list one would care to make of characteristics that can be ranked in terms of privilege and opportunity, through no fault of my own. White. Male. Anglo-Saxon/European descent. Protestant. American. Not overweight. Tall.


Wow, look at those dust bunnies in the corner. If I didn’t have this 500-watt light bulb over my head at the moment, I’d never have seen them.

OK, I have to digress for a moment. I was about to digress anyway, to do a little mini-essay on how strange it is that, all other things being equal, tall people will be paid more for doing exactly the same job as short people. It seems so absurd on the face of it; absurd enought that you might think it a joke, but it’s well documented that salaries increase by 1–2% per inch of height. Why this would be the case has always been quite mysterious to me.

Another mystery was why I look so good in my Matrix coat. Those of you who’ve seen my coat can vouch for the ‘looking good’ part; I constantly get compliments when I wear it around. But it occured to me to wonder “why?” Partly it’s the flowing billowy effect when I move, but why do we think that a coat (or a cape) that’s billowing is cool? We obviously do, or Batman wouldn’t have one. However, just being billowy doesn’t explain the reaction to my coat, or rather, me when I’m wearing my coat.

I now understand that the primary factor is simply that it makes me look even taller than I am. Eric overheard somebody at the Toronto WorldCon say (as I passed them in the hall), “He can wear that because he’s tall.” On the face of that, it’s ridiculous. A male friend of mine who’s shorter than average has a very similar coat that, like mine, was custom-tailored to his frame, and it looks very good on him. He can wear “that” without being tall, but it simply isn’t as striking or dramatic when he does it as when I do; because the coat’s style emphasizes height, and I have more height to emphasize.

Being thin makes me look taller too, of course. Last time we checked, I was the same height as my brother to within a quarter inch, but unless we’re standing right next to each other, people assume I’m taller because he’s proportional, and I’m not. That is to say, he’s right around the “normal” weight for somebody our height, and I’m around fifty pounds below that. Without the width, all that’s left is the height.

I wouldn’t have figured out that the coat’s magic is all about making me look taller if I hadn’t figured out why being taller’s such a big deal in the first place. That happened when I tried to find links to support the height salary bonus, and instead ran across a Seattle Times article that reminded me of the correlation between height and nutrition. Bam! Light bulb.

There’s also a salary bonus (and many other benefits) to being beautiful/handsome. And what makes people think somebody’s beautiful? Symmetry and proportion. What adversely affects a human’s symmetry and proportion? Genes, yes, but also nutrition. If you see somebody ugly (read: “asymmetric”), your brain whispers “poor nutrition” and “childhood disease” in your ear. Poor nutrition does more than make somebody less beautiful, though. It also makes them dumber, weaker . . . and shorter.

So everybody’s got a little voice in their head that says that if somebody’s tall and handsome, they’re also probably strong and smart. As it happens, recent research says that the voice is even telling the truth. The Case and Paxson paper reveals:

As early as age 3—before schooling has had a chance to play a role—and throughout childhood, taller children perform significantly better on cognitive tests. The correlation between height in childhood and adulthood is approximately 0.7 for both men and women, so that tall children are much more likely to become tall adults. As adults, taller individuals are more likely to select into higher paying occupations that require more advanced verbal and numerical skills and greater intelligence, for which they earn handsome returns....we find that the height premium in adult earnings can be explained by childhood scores on cognitive tests. Furthermore, we show that taller adults select into occupations that have higher cognitive skill requirements and lower physical skill demands.

The authors strongly imply that taller people earn more because they get higher paying jobs because they’re smarter and thus more qualified. I must say that I doubt that this adequately explains why taller people doing the same job get paid more; I think we still must look to a species-wide bias to make up the difference.

My, look at the time! So let’s get back to the original topic. No, no need to look back, I’ll remind you of where we were: “I’d been sitting at the top of pretty much every list one would care to make of characteristics that can be ranked in terms of privilege and opportunity, through no fault of my own. White. Male. Anglo-Saxon/European descent. Protestant. American. Not overweight. Tall.” And straight, until one startling day, when the love of my life walked through my door and suddenly I became a member of one of the most overtly persecuted groups in America: gay.

Now, understand I didn’t suddenly become gay. I had been, and still am, bisexual; more specifically, if I were going to make a list of the sexiest people I know, it would include both men and women, and I’ve known for much of my adult life that, if I ever found That Special Someone, that person could be either male or female. Since there are a lot more straight women than gay men, the odds seemed to strongly favor women, so that was what I was expecting, and when I would put effort into actually dating, I was dating women. So the rest of the world mostly just assumed I was a straight guy.

Meeting Eric didn’t change my personal sexual identity, but it sure changed my social one. “Bi” still isn’t a significant category (the LGBT acronym notwithstanding), and admittedly a monogamous bisexual is basically splitting hairs to draw that distinction, so to an awful lot of the people who knew me (including my poor mom), I basically turned gay overnight.

Unlike somebody who’d been born into a category that’s discriminated against or persecuted, I hadn’t grown up with the idea that random strangers might want to beat me up, or that I might be arbitrarily refused service, or fired, or insulted. That took a bit of getting used to. Not that I mean to whine; I still had all my other categories, and it’s much easier to pretend to not be gay than it is to pretend to not be black, for example.

On the other hand, when I proposed to Eric, Canada hadn’t set off the massive landslide of change with their explosive legalization of gay marriage, and I was looking at being gay in a world that had (and still has) hundreds of laws, rules, regulations, and protections to mitigate discrimination on the basis of gender and race, but almost none on the basis of sexual identity. My brother was quite incredulous when he learned that it was perfectly legal here in Washington, as well as most of the rest of the country, to fire somebody for being gay, or be denied an apartment for the same reason. (Of course, that changed about a year ago.)

So when prominent black leaders started insisting that the fight against discrimination against homosexuals wasn’t remotely comparable to their ongoing efforts against racial discrimination, I was astonished and insulted. I’d been supporting their efforts to not be treated as second-class citizens all my life; but they seemed to think it perfectly fine for me to be a third-class citizen. Discriminating against them is unjust, but discriminating against me is totally reasonable, because . . . what? Their ancestors were treated worse than mine? Because they have to be black 24/7, but “all” I have to do to avoid discrimination is lie to people? What could possibly be so much worse about their discrimination that it would be OK to discriminate against gays but not against blacks?

The short answer is, of coures, “nothing.” That attitude is as big a pile of unsupportable bullshit as the attitude that if two people declare intent to spend the rest of their lives as a couple, they are entitled to thousands of special privileges only if they’re of different genders.

On the other hand, I try to avoid short answers that aren’t created from long ones, which is why, as I said many paragraphs ago, I’ve been putting extra effort into Getting It for a bit over five years now, since falling in love with somebody of the same gender as I.

I thought I’d been doing fairly well. I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the history of races in America, current issues of race, and other related material. My brother is a professor of cultural anthropology at a very respected liberal-arts college in the midwest, and I took advantage of that last Christmas to learn even more about how the experience of discrimination varies between different groups.

Maybe I am doing well. False modesty aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if I understood a lot more about what an average American citizen with very dark skin experiences than they do about an average gay American. Still, Ursula’s biggest complaint about the Earthsea miniseries is that they made almost everybody white, and I’m not only surprised by that, but don’t even realize that I shouldn’t be surprised until I read Pam’s essay. That’s pretty sad, and pretty embarrassing.

Overt persecution is so much easier to defy. If somebody says “we don’t allow your kind here,” then I can tell myself that they’re just a sad, pathetic person who is as much to be pitied as hated. “My kind” could be gay, or black, or asian, or female; the point is, I can defy it, even if (especially if!) just to myself, if I recognize it. The same is true if a movie’s Evil Villian is a shifty-eye Asian or a lesbian.

But “copper-red”-skinned Ged fell in love with Tenar, and Tenar’s a woman. Nothing wrong with that; some of my best friends are heterosexual. And, there is one black character (Ogion) on the “good guys” team in the televised “Earthsea.” But the “bad guys” (more accurately, the “outsiders” or “others”) in LeGuin’s story are the Karg, and they’re white. Tenar is of the Karg. In the miniseries, she’s played by somebody with a distinctly non-white (Asian) appearance.

Tenar’s a main character, so is Ogion; so there are representatives of these disadvantaged racial groups present. But the melanin-deprived hide is not the most common one on our planet, nor was it the most common in LeGuin’s stories. White folk are the most common type in Hollywood; I certainly expect most works coming from there to be predominantly white, just as I’d expect a movie from Bollywood to be cast primarily with Indians, even if the movie was about some space colony, or a remake of “1984.” But if Bollywood remade “Gone With The Wind” and everyone was Indian except the slaves (maybe they’re Chinese?), I don’t think I’d be the only one upset.

I’d sure like Hollywood to do a better job of casting multi-ethnically, just like I’d like to see a few more characters who just happened to be gay without it actually being some kind of plot point or intentional story element. But I don’t expect any particular production to make the extra effort to cast against the ratio of skin types showing up to casting calls.

“Earthsea” is different; the story specified racial types. Now somebody is intentionally ignoring the original work. Shame on them for being so lazy and/or for caring about the source material so little, that they couldn’t be bothered to cast it according to spec (and for butchering the work, of course).

Shame on me for not recognizing why that really was the worst part of what they did to it.