The Always/Only Test

Lo these many months I've been using a quick rule of thumb to explain how I identify offensive, stereotypical, or even just atrociously thin characters through a variety of intersectional lenses. And I thought I would share it with you! It's called the Always/Only Test. It is very simple! Only two questions! They are:

Does the character always have that attribute?
Is the character the only one to have that attribute?

For our purposes "a character" can also mean "a class of characters in this story." So: people of color, fat people, disabled people, you name it.

Let's see how this plays out with, oh, sexual objectification of women. If your women always have sexiness as their role in the story, then what you have is not a character so much as the embodiment of a fantasy. If you only ever have women who are sexy, and none of the men are ever sexualized at all... hm. Hmmm. Yeah that's pretty sexist.

But if you have a story where men and women are both viewed as sexual objects and they also have more character traits than that.... awwwww yeah that's what I'm talkin' about.

OK, let's try this one: If black characters are always drug dealers; if black characters are the only ones to deal drugs.

If fat people are always eating donuts; if only fat people eat donuts.

If Fundamentalist Christians are always violently racist; if only Fundamentalist Christians are violently racist.

A yes/yes answer is potentially problematic and stereotypical, depending on what the character type and attribute is that you're using. If you all your lesbian characters obsessively love flying kites, this doesn't play into an existing stereotype, so it might be shallow characterization, but it's not actively hurting anyone. Fine! Sometimes shallow gets the job done.

Yes/no and no/yes can be a little trickier. They are by and large better than a straight yes/yes, but can still be kinda not OK. If you have a Wall Street film where all the Jews are greedy, but actually all of the characters are greedy, that's less troubling than it would be otherwise, though it probably still bears extra scrutiny. Or if you have a single greedy Jew who hoards food, rejects close relationships with others, and engages in self-harm behind closed doors, you have a complex and multi-faceted character who isn't a caricature of the avaristic Jew, though again: still bears extra scrutiny.

And then no/no means you're probably looking at an awesome, super interesting, complex, and non-hurtful character. 

This rule of thumb can't completely solve the thing where media is sexist, racist, ableist, all the -ists. But as a writer and a consumer of media, this tool helps me to put my finger on what it is about some media that bother me, and also where I may be falling into hurtful stereotypes in my own writing, too. Maybe it can be useful to you, also! Let me know what you think.


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