When We Think Different is Brave

I use Pinterest for a couple of reasons. It’s a think-ahead, a place to put ideas for things I want to own, because I tend not to be an impulse shopper. I like to know that if I’m spending my money it’s on something I’ve wanted for awhile, not just to fill a void at that particular moment. I use it to collect book covers I like, so that I can be inspired when I’m designing. There are recipes for drinks and food, some of which I’ve tried. There are also reference boards, with links to info on types of shoes or knife blades or the fancier ways to knot a tie.

While it isn’t the sum of human existence, it is an example of something I’ve been pondering for a while.

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers curate collections of “characters”. Photo reference for costume, inspiration for writing–there’s nothing wrong with the idea, on the surface. I have boards of images for reference. I’ve been collecting one for my Mythos noir story, so that I can get the prices, clothes, cars, and buildings right when I write. Visual models are great for adding true detail to a story when you’re no longer (or never were) in that time or place.

The problem is, many of these boards are filled with women or people of color, and labeled things like “fierce female characters” (or “fabulous”, or “tough” or “strong”–something implying they’re acting in a way that the bulk of the population wouldn’t). When the images are of women in armor, appropriate (or not) to their native land, then okay, an armored up person of either gender, of any race, is pretty fierce. They’re ready for battle, and as long as we’re not talking about chainmail bikinis or something like this*, it’s a segment of the population I think we can rightly label as impressive.

But what about a woman wearing a traditional hat, the same as any other woman in her part of the world? How about one standing outside, smoking a cigarette? Or a little girl standing in front of a bed? How about a woman who is laughing, carrying a baby, or the thousands of other images you find labeled the same way?

What makes all of these women similar is that they are doing perfectly normal things, without being afraid to do them. And we think of that as “special” and “strong”, because we expect women and people of color to be afraid, to blend in, to be unseen and therefore not making a target of themselves. Anyone acting differently, even if it is to simply be themselves in an unflashy but unafraid way, well, we call that “brave”. We decide that it’s fierce and strong and bold. We mean it in a good way, don’t we? We’re proud of their courage, we salute the fact that they’re not just bowing down… but that’s because there’s still an expectation that they should.

It’s a tough situation because as long as there are people who oppress anyone who stands out, then it can take bravery to be different. But we shouldn’t be encouraging a world where that’s true. And we definitely shouldn’t be writing new worlds where that stupid idea gets perpetuated.

Start with this: stop collecting pictures of women or people of color under the banner of “brave”, if you don’t know their story. Instead, give them accurate labels. Write down the real reason that photo moved you. “Woman wearing a hat I would never wear” or “little girl wearing a dress that took her mother hours to make, far more than my mom would spend on me” or “I wish I was brave enough to wear those earrings without being afraid someone would laugh”. At least then you’re admitting what you really think, and giving yourself–and others–a chance to consider that truth.

Note: I left out the women athletes, actresses, artists, musicians, or activists–people who we know something about. Though it’s more accurate to call someone strong when you know their personality, my point was about incorrectly labeling images without context. You want to say Joan Crawford, Frida Kahlo, Sigourney Weaver, Octavia Butler, Hazel Ying Lee, Bessie Coleman, or Elsa Avila are strong? Yes, I’m sure that they are. But we know they accomplished things that most people–regardless of gender or race–don’t ever do.

*Not “viking woman”, as the tag I found it under said, but Skyrim cosplay. In case that wasn’t obvious.