Tuesday, August 31, 2010

(Insert Disenfranchised Minority here) Best Friend

I've been trying to get a grip on this trope for a while. Most of my WIPs do not have the semi-required gay or black best friend and I feel like I am shirking some societal responsibility. I can't do a legit MC from either perspective because honestly, I'm not that good. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it takes a better writer. I'm whitebread through and through. I still like Third Eye Blind. There is no hope for me.

Still, I do have friends who are not white. Or straight. I like them. I respect them. So why don't these folks pop up in my MSs?

I had an epiphany yesterday. I saw an article on the internet about the "Black Best Friend." She is everywhere and always portrayed favorably. Her qualifications are: sassy, grounded, cooler than her white Main Character counterpart. She offers the words of wisdom that Ms. Whitey must embrace to achieve her goal of career and relationship fulfillment. The Gay Best Friend does the same thing but with more swishing and better fashion advise. Occasionally the best friend is Latina, but she is interchangeable with Black Best Friend. Earth Mother hip types who enjoy the spiritual gift of perceptive insight into humanity.

I think it's degrading. It is a shortcut purely for the development of the white character. The reader/audience knows that our hero is a good, non-prejudiced person because of the props in place, in this case a minority best friend. It's also code for the writers/producers to pat themselves on the back and say to the world: "I'm not a racist homophobe! I like you people!" I haven't thrown any of my real life non-white/alternative buddies into stories because I do not want to reduce them to props.

Now that I've put my finger on the source of my reticence, I feel better able to tackle it. For a while I thought I just disliked the cliche of it all but I have other cliches that crop up here and there, so that really wasn't it. When I look around at my own circle of friends I notice two things: each one is an individual, not a representative of a group. And I have more than one friend whose first language is not English, who not too long ago would have been denied membership to the Country Club based on race or religion, or whose marriage is not legally recognized by my state.

The trick to populating fiction with characters instead of cardboard cutouts of acceptable minority roles is to make the MC's circle of friends match reality. If her best friend is black it seems unlikely that this person would be her only black friend. People don't take applications for friends, assigning one slot to each minority and filling the rest of the positions with faces that look just like theirs. Ensemble casts in books and movies do. There is a reason they call it the "token" whatever friend.

Why can't our forward-thinking, enlightened MCs have a more checkered clique of homeys? In reality, people tend to be either very segregated or very desegregated. It's either all white folks at your dinner party or about half of them aren't. I'd like to see this revolutionary concept incorporated more widely. Maybe even an MC who is the token straight, white kid surrounded by "other" people good enough to overlook it and judge the individual by her merit. That I could pull off...I've been that guy. I'm bored and annoyed with the MC who is a kind enough person to look past differences and have A friend from another background. It's just a reinvention of the benevolent white protector who always gets to be the hero.