Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Dark Matters: Your One-Stop For Diversity in Genre Media


We've arrived at an intriguing crossroads in popular media. Audiences, consumers, fans and the like are getting a consistent headcount of people of color in film, television, novels, and games, but struggle with the reproduction of old tropes and tired practices that make these characters nothing but window dressing masked as progress, while adding more weight upon the promise of meaningful stories and multi-dimensional bodies (I'm looking at you, Sleepy Hollow).

There's so much to comb through and even more to preserve. The women behind Dark Matters are Cate and Erica; "genre-lovers exploring issues of race and 'other' in various arts, media, and academic disciplines, in the context of science fiction, horror, fantasy, the supernatural, and all things geek-friendly". This digital platform operates as a resource and tool to drive the need for cultural and racially multiplicitous voices in genre media.

After chatting with Erica face to face weeks back, I realized that Dark Matters has a much greater agenda that revolves around the importance of preserving information and the legacy of current and future communities with an interest in its content.

Discuss your beginnings. What was it that made you build a friendship with each other, then maintain it?

Cate and I met on MySpace of all places years ago and hit it off. We lost track of each other, though, until Cate spotted me on Facebook (FB) in 2013, and made contact. We hit it off immediately (again) and one day I saw a message in my FB inbox telling me about her idea for a project about race and diversity in genre media.

Besides simply being a mixed/black person in the U.S., I’ve done writing and academic work in African-American studies so I already knew I enjoyed the analytical part of asking questions about race. I read sci-fi as a kid and later developed the kind of affinity for horror that I only had a kernel of as a child. (It’s hella scary after all, and I was a sensitive kid!) I love cult movies, graphic novels—there’s so much. So, when Cate presented the opportunity to do this together, it felt perfect.

At first glance, Dark Matters feels like a catchall for much of what arises in the world of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. What do you want your audience to gain from this project?

I hear you. I’d say that we want to shine a light on what people of color have contributed to these genres in the past, what we’re doing now, and what a future looks like where people realize that we’ve always been involved in and have loved genre media. We also want to help communicate to the general public and to the entertainment and publishing industries that there’s value in taking POC genre media seriously. If we’re able to provide access to information for people, they can use what they learn in any way they see fit. We want to promote POC creators and creations. We want to highlight how genre media plays seamlessly into issues of social justice and advocate where we can. And we want to engage in community. We’re hoping that our audience can see these things in what we’re doing now and that we’ll be able to do it in a more thorough way as we move forward.

How are efforts split between the two of you? Where do your individual passions lie in the realm of genre media and where do they converge?

I think Cate and I do a great job of being flexible with tasks, yet also cover each other when we need to and respect where the other person has more experience and knowledge. That said, nothing is off-limits to either of us. We both look for things we find relevant and interesting and post on the Dark Matters site every day. We both love engaging with people we’ve met in the online community. I do the live tweeting because I have cable and can watch in real-time! Lately, I’ve been spending more time looking into increasing our resources and visibility. But there’s nothing that either of us can’t do or don’t. We just talk and divvy up tasks as they come.

Cate has years of experience in fan fiction and is always on top of anything having to do with fandom. She also has a more dedicated history reading comics than I do. I think I might be a little more into B movies and retro stuff than she is. And I’m a big Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan. I think different things scare us too. We’re both horror fans: except for the exceptionally gruesome and anything involving torture or cruelty, I love it, and Cate’s not as freaked out by the hardcore stuff as I am. I’m a sucker for anything having to do with demons, angels or possessions/exorcisms. But we both were in grade school in the ’70s and teens in the ’80s, so we share a lot of cultural memory—meaning we do a lot of dishing and reminiscing. Hysterical laughter often ensues.

Cate, as a content generator that focuses on the diversity in genre works, what has been some of your biggest challenges in regards to your own identity?

Finding ways to work around internalized racism. Having some degree of consciousness doesn't immunize me from it. I went through a defensive spell, wanted to stay in denial. Because it's like finding out you have a tapeworm. Like: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Denying it is just something I had to get over to keep moving towards sanity and reality. Or else I can't be on guard against how it gets in the way of our work at Dark Matters. 

Why do you think it's important that non- people of color engage in critical analysis that doesn't center only on white identity and characters in genre works?

Because genre stuff can teach people things that other kinds of stories can't. Like “Star Trek” in the 1960s operating on the premise that a truly advanced civilization would take racism apart. That was radical thinking, not a message you could drop on white America through the mainstream media unless you put it in the context of genre.

What makes me nerdy is that overthinking shit is part of how I enjoy things. Looking for the subtext, the symbolism, the message behind stories. When everything is about white heroes and white stories, the message is that heroes are always white, the stories that matter are white, that white is the default setting for humanity. Leaving POC (People Of Color) out sends the message that they're not included because they're not those things; not heroic, maybe even that they're the opposite of heroic. Even if you're not consciously thinking "POC don't matter" as a white person, if your stories never represent POC, that devaluation still gets communicated. It ends up reinforcing some sick ideas that can carry over into real life. Invisibility sends some loud, ugly messages.

Plus, come on. The best genre work has a foundation of reality, feels like real life at least enough for the suspension of disbelief to take place. And in real life, shit is not all about white people. You gotta ground the fantastic in the truth or it sinks under its own weight. Magic is always a blink away from being ridiculous. Why get pissed off that Guinevere is played by Angel Coulby when you don't think twice about Merlin getting advice from a fucking dragon?

Erica, has your identity as a person of color influenced the ways in which you engage with media texts? What have been some of the main points of interest in your exploration of "race and 'other'" in genre works?

Co-creator Erica Freeman
Like a lot of people of color in my generation, I know the experience of being a nerd and having to enjoy and experience genre movies and books/comics on my own, or at least not with other people of color. I think being female, too, narrowed the range of possibilities. I didn’t really know many other girls or people of color who liked geeky stuff. The term “blerd” didn’t even exist.

I see value in all we do, but some things that really stick out for me are the ways genre works provide room to envision a future that our past tells us we can’t have. This can be used for advocacy and activism, but also just as a means to give people of color “permission” to dream in front of the whole world—stereotypes of people of color in the West tend to keep us imprisoned in public identities that are only about struggle.

What is your vision for the future of Dark Matters?

Cate and I are hoping for great things. One of the best parts of Dark Matters is how we’ve been able to engage with people and help connect people in the community to each other. We’d like to become a larger hub of interaction for others, as well as a clearinghouse for information (perhaps Wikipedia-style, complete with “edit-a-thons”), a place creators can promote and even sell their work, and an organization that’s active in advocacy and social justice efforts. We realize it’s a tall order, but ultimately, we just want to know we’ve gone as far as we could, because we think it’s important and we love doing it.


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