Among Alexander Gaultier’s many criticisms of Lords of the Sith, one that we didn’t really get into in our discussion piece was Paul Kemp’s portrayal of Moff Mors. Alexander is among a group of readers who feel that Mors’ role as the first LGBT character in Star Wars canon was mishandled—and while the exact nature and extent of that mishandling appears to vary a lot from person to person, it’s certainly fair to say she’s been controversial.
The general flavor of the controversy is that a character who was destined to represent an important and oft-ignored demographic is first introduced to us as slovenly, lazy, and repulsively overweight —and that this presentation was at a minimum damaging to her overall character, and at worst a vile, body-shaming lesbian stereotype. While I can at least agree that Kemp’s descriptions of overweight characters can be somewhat more colorful than necessary (“overstuffed sausages” being a good example), I have to concede that it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that it bothered me at all when I was reading the book. It didn’t. I’m used enough to Kemp’s writing that moments like that (and both Mors and Orn Free Taa were victims of it) barely even registered as I breezed through what was for me a largely enjoyable reading experience.
Once I had finished reading, I read Alexander’s review and began to familiarize myself with some of those other early reactions, and after giving it some thought…it still didn’t bother me. To my mind, Mors’ initial introduction is entirely mitigated by Belkor, the subordinate character through whom we first meet her, and by her ultimate narrative arc—which I wouldn’t go so far as to call a redemption, but is at least a getting-her-shit-together. Handing the LGBT mantle to such a flawed character was certainly a very ballsy move on Kemp’s part, but for me at least, it paid off.
But that’s just me—and it’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Over at the Jedi Council Literature forum, I started the original Diversity Thread back in 2009 in response to the appalling demographics of the Legacy of the Force novels, and have been “running” a string of them (in that I’ve tried to keep them sane and on-topic) ever since. Over the last six years, I’ve debated all sorts of diversity topics with all sorts of people, and excluding those for whom no help or reasonable disagreement was possible, the overwhelming majority of critiques the discussion has received has been along the lines of “this [specific cause/complaint] doesn’t bother me, therefore it’s not a valid cause for offense”. It seems to me that there are a lot of pleasant, open-minded people out there who are turned off by diversity complaints simply because they view them as occasionally going overboard. At this point I’m kind of seen as the “diversity guy” over there, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret—sometimes I think so, too.
People don’t need to agree on everything
As the impetus for this particular piece, obviously the “stereotype” and “body-shaming” complaints levied against LotS are one point where I differ with the (possible) common wisdom of the diversity set. But hey, let’s call this article my anti-coming-out: there are others.
It is very likely I will never add another character to the term “LGBT”—at a certain point, ease of use trumps inclusivity.
I refuse to use the term “African-American”—it’s every bit as unwieldy, reductive, and sloppy as “Caucasian-American” would be; just ask a black person from Europe.
I stand behind the term “retarded” as a pejorative when applied to something other than a person. “Retard” is a despicable slur, but “my bus was retarded this morning” is a grammatically correct sentence.
And circling back to “LGBT”, I don’t know that I ever need to see an overtly transgender character in Star Wars—because gender dysphoria is a medical diagnosis, and I prefer to think that the GFFA’s medical technology could detect it in utero and ensure that everybody is born in a body they’ll eventually want.
These are personal opinions of mine. What they are not, is policy positions. Some portion of them is likely to surprise people who nonetheless know me pretty well, because they fall under a category of beliefs that, while taken seriously, I have zero desire to advocate for. I would never, ever tell someone they were wrong for feeling differently about any of the above subjects. If you reacted negatively to any of that, chances are I agree with you on a wide range of other issues that I do want to advocate for, so it strikes me as more constructive to focus on those. Or in other words…
Learn how to just shut up sometimes
To disagree with something does not have to mean it’s completely wrong. For someone who identifies as asexual, say, to be eliminated from the terms of a discussion that’s ostensibly about them can understandably be offensive. For someone who identifies as African-American, “black” can strike the ear as a word of the white power structure, or worse, fundamentally synonymous with “bad” or “other”. For a trans person, the value of being represented in your favorite media could very reasonably be more important to you than whether there are logical in-universe alternatives. And neither I nor any of my friends or family are developmentally impaired, but if I had experienced the kind of abuse that those who are can experience, it’s entirely likely that the word “retarded” would carry offensive or even triggering associations in my mind. So while I’m prepared to defend my use of it from a philosophical standpoint, I rarely have to, because I have the sense not to use it in spaces where it may not be appreciated.
That I would censor myself that way is not a concession of my principles, it’s just common courtesy. These are complicated issues; it’s not hypocritical to have complicated feelings about them. Or maybe more accurately: everyone’s a hypocrite once in a while. I hate to break it to you, but if you’ve ever paid for petroleum products or an iPhone or a pair of Old Navy cargo pants or an Avengers t-shirt without Black Widow on it, chances are you’ve violated a principle or two.
That doesn’t make you a bad person—but what can make you a good person is what principles you choose to fight for in spite of your imperfection. In response to that LotS discussion piece, one commenter actually suggested that I should’ve disagreed with Alexander more; the fact is, I disagreed with him a great deal—but that didn’t make him wrong. Having a worthwhile debate with someone doesn’t mean forcing out a contrary opinion at every opportunity, and I believe that a big part of what’s made the Diversity threads as level-headed as they are is my primary debate philosophy:
Concede early, and concede often
When trying to bring someone over to your way of thinking—especially on the internet when tone of voice and body language and facial cues are off the table—simple acknowledgement counts for a lot. I don’t care how strongly you believe (or oppose) something; there’s almost never only two sides to a story and you’re almost certainly not 100% right. If you’re not just looking to score points, admitting when the other guy makes a valid point, or has an understandable opinion, or made a clever joke, is at a minimum disarming and at most will show him that you’re actually paying attention.
If you read discussion forums a lot, chances are you’ve seen one of those big arguments that devolve into huge strings of quote/response, quote/response, quote/response, as the participants rebut ever-finer bits and pieces of each other’s posts; how many of those bits is actually in service of the original point, and how much further might the conversation get if they dropped the ones that weren’t? Anybody who’s gotten into it with me in a Diversity thread will tell you that I almost always write much shorter posts than the person I’m reacting to—this can come across as glib, I suppose, but the strategy I’m working with there is to Find The Actual Disagreement, which more often than not boils down to something like 20% of the person’s full statement. I like to think I’ve won some people over that way, but even if not, it’s damn sure saved me a lot of time and energy, and from saying any number of stupid things in the name of not giving any ground.
What I’m saying is, Star Wars is ultimately a leisure activity for all of us (not counting the numerous Lucasfilm employees I’m certain follow this blog religiously—hi guys!). Star Wars isn’t going to drive a car into our living rooms or poison our food or send us to war. Making as many people as possible feel respected and included—in the content, yes, but also at cons and online—is pretty much as important as fandom issues get, and I’m tired of arguing with people who agree with me 80% of the time because they happened to like that Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover or thought at first that Sabine was an alien—we need all hands on deck here.
Moff Mors just didn’t bother me. Kemp has caused controversy before as well, and honestly, that didn’t much bother me either. But what’s more important is that I say all this from a position of privilege almost unparalleled in modern life: I am a straight, white, able-bodied American man. Being wrong costs me nothing; not really. I could say all sorts of crap in this space, and no one would threaten to kill and/or rape me. No epithet worse than “SJW” would be directed my way. I would lose no job opportunities, nor soapboxes, nor one shred of my anonymity—and that’s despite writing under my real name, which is so hilariously common as to render me nigh-ungooglable. I’m the absolute embodiment of the “default” person in Western consciousness, and that means my opinions are unassailable in a way that has no connection whatsoever to what they actually are. The least I can do is recognize that—and honor the strength of character of those who choose to publicly express their own opinions without such a safety net.
Even when those opinions are wrong.