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Genre Discrimination Hurts History

6 min read

by Sarah Buhrman

Genre discrimination is the systemic tendency to ignore or snub books, movies and other media because the subject is embedded in a genre. The alternative to genre fiction is literary fiction, mainstream fiction or contemporary fiction.

I’ve blogged about genre discrimination before, but facing it caused a surprising amount of anger. I’d seen it before but it still shocked me. I was re-watching “The Body” (Ep 5-16, Buffy the Vampire Slayer[TV]) with my husband, who had never seen it before. He was blown away.

I had warned him.

I’d done much the same thing with “Hush” (Ep 4-10, BTVS). And, as before, I went to the interwebs to find out how the episode had been received when it first came out. Unlike “Hush,” “The Body” didn’t even get an Emmy nomination, which surprised me. All of the quotes from critics were pretty much the same – it was one of the best episodes of Buffy, and possibly of television as a whole.

Then I came upon one quote that shocked me. Actually, it wasn’t at all a surprise, but it was infuriating.

[It is due] to the Emmys being a “bastion of conservative popular taste”, automatically rejecting television shows in the fantasy/science fiction genres.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Body_(Buffy_the_Vampire_Slayer) – Referencing Rhonda Wilcox and her book Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock (10337894b) Emmy statuettes appear on stage prior to the start of the 71st Primetime Emmy Nominations Announcements at the Television Academy's Saban Media Center, in Los Angeles 2019 Primetime Emmy Nominations Announcements, Los Angeles, USA - 16 Jul 2019
Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock (10337894b) Emmy statuettes appear on stage prior to the start of the 71st Primetime Emmy Nominations Announcements at the Television Academy’s Saban Media Center, in Los Angeles 2019 Primetime Emmy Nominations Announcements, Los Angeles, USA – 16 Jul 2019

Now, I’m not a rabid BTVS fan. I don’t actually get rabid about any fandoms, but I do enjoy many. But in this case, good (TV) writing is good writing, and that episode is a waterfall of tears EVERY SINGLE TIME because the writing, the acting, and the cinematography are that well done. It shouldn’t matter if it’s part of any genre or not. It deserves recognition for what it is.

(Ironically, “The Body” also stands out as one of the few episodes of BTVS that has virtually NO paranormal creatures or “action” scenes – just a brief vamp attack at the very end.)

The thing is, this isn’t unusual. Books, movies and TV shows are ignored for being genre (specifically SFF), while mainstream, contemporary (read: “normal” or literary fiction) works get the spots in the histories of awards and accolades.

Why is this a big deal?

History is based on records. The winners of the Grammys, Emmys and Oscars, not to mention the Hugos, the Nobels, the Pulitzers – those are the works held up as the greatest works of their time. Often, that simply isn’t the case.

The Grammys

The Grammys has a race problem, ignoring R&B, Rap and Hip-Hop, and even rewarding white artists in those genres more often.

There are, however, plenty of opinions over who should have won but didn’t.

The Emmys

The Emmys are virtually identical in issues. They even made the subject its focus of tongue-in-cheek humor for 2018. They failed to make us laugh about it.

Aside from often overlooking people of color or shows that confront race issues, the Emmys have also ignored genre-based masterpieces of television. In addition to BTVS, Star Trek: the Next Generation has never won, despite seven seasons with several epic episodes, such as “Measure of a Man” in season 2, the iconic “There are four lights!” in “Chain of Command” (Ep 6-10 & 6-11), and “Inner Light” (Ep 5-25).

Quantum Leap is another SFF show that got far fewer nominations and wins than it should have, as well as the original, groundbreaking Star Trek, which had no wins. The Twilight Zone was honored for writing, but not as a series.

Even Westerns, which are not my particular favorite, got shafted a few times, showing it was genres as a whole, not SFF in particular.

The Oscars
The Oscars

The Oscars began the way it has continued, ignoring genre films and people of color. It seems to be yet another award that seems more bent on pleasing the rich, white establishment than on rewarding excellence, with some exceptions. In the 2nd Academy Awards in 1929, In Old Arizona, the first “talkie” Western movie and the origin of the popular character, the Cisco Kid, was passed over for the win.

In what is likely the most telling of these arguably “wrong moves,” 1939 showed the beautiful but ulitimately problematic Gone With the Wind taking the win from the gorgeous genre piece, The Wizard of Oz. Dr. Strangelove lost to the more mainstream My Fair Lady in 1964.

This continues in 1968, when Oliver!, a musical take on Oliver Twist, took the win while genre classics Rosemary’s Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t even see nominations. Annie Hall beat out Star Wars in 1977, and 1982’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial lost to Ghandi.

Both are notable in that most people have seen the genre pic that lost, but not the more mainstream movie that won. Again, people have opinions on what should have won, but some are based on slightly more objective numbers.

What about the books?

While most art forms are showing signs of becoming more (or more obviously?) problematic, books are free from on this.

Book Awards framed

Many genre authors simply won’t bother with the big name awards unless they have a genre category. Many of us who write genre know the futility of putting SFF up against literary fiction. The mere mention of a spec-fic aspect is enough to discredit the work.

The 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalists for Fiction and Drama have blurbs that read like a Non-Fiction or Memoir. The message is, if you’re going to make it up, make sure we can’t tell. The winner for Literature, The Overstory by Richard Powers, has been criticized for the very things that genre authors tend to steer clear of. This includes lecturing, info-dumping, tangential characters/subplots, etc.

(Never mind the huge problems associated with describing a character as “borderline autistic” who is “devoid of empathy.” This autism stereotype has been debunked by science and autistic people multiple times.)

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2019 was won by a man who has been criticized as “a fine writer, who combines great insight with shocking ethical blindness.” This continues a long tradition within the major awards programs. They ignore problematic behavior to reward authors for pretty turns of phrase in very literary works.

Genre-Based Has Issues, Too

When faced with the gender and race issues of the genre-based literature prizes, such as the Hugos (they are getting better – Woot!), the RWA, and others, the systemic problems become more complex. Women and non-binary authors of SFF have more difficulty getting read and recognized. This is partly because the ones deciding who gets published, promoted, or nominated, shy away from the “controversy” of diversity.

Reflecting Our Real Preferences

Ironically, I more often hear about books changing people’s lives, being formative forces, when they are genre books. People are transformed by elves, gunslingers, and aliens. Genre is where people become a chimera of ideas, a blend of cultures.

I, personally, recall an aha moment in a book when one (alien) character says (paraphrased) “why would you think that all of us share the same religion?”* Mind blown. Why would I assume that an “other” culture is homogeneous? Why would there not be variations in them like there are in mine?

That was a major first step in being a straight, white woman who is also a rabid ally to disenfranchised groups.

Instead, despite some improvement in some awards during some years, the records are filled with non-genre, non-diverse wins. Genre works by authors of color, of gender non-conformity, of neurodiversity – those works are more likely to disappear into the unknowns of history. And that hurts us all.

* The book was Saturn’s Child by Nichelle Nichols, aka Nyota Uhura from Star Trek TOS.

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