My year of reading and watching stories by anyone but white men
For 282 days in 2015, I vowed not to watch any movies or read any books that were created by white men from Western Europe, North America, or Australia. I was feeling particularly fed up when I made the decision.
It was April 14, this year's National Equal Pay Day — the point that marks how far into the new year a woman must work to earn the same as a man did the previous year — and I had inequality on my mind.
But when I started thinking about the art I consume — books and films, mostly — I realized that what I'd been enjoying had been mostly made by the same kind of person: white men from western countries. I decided practically on the spot that I was going to do my own modification of a nascent online movement and only spend money and time on films and books by women or people from outside of Western Europe and North America. Be the change you want to see in the world, right?
That said, had someone asked me at the time, I would have said I was already watching and reading broadly. But I'm an obsessive record keeper, holding onto detailed logs of what I've watched and read all the way back to high school (now I keep them on my Goodreads and Letterboxd accounts). To find out where I really stood, it was just a matter of crunching the numbers.
When I did, I found I was doing even worse with diversity than I'd expected: In 2014, only 27 percent of the 210 movies I watched were by women or people outside of the West. One year, 2011, was especially bad — only 12 percent of the movies I watched were by directors who were not white or male. When I looked at my reading logs, they were only a little better: In 2014, I read 64 percent women and nonwestern writers; however, in 2013 that number was only 43 percent. I hated to fully admit it, but I needed to broaden my horizons in what I watched and read.
So I made it my personal challenge that for the rest of 2015 I would avoid books and movies that were made by men that historically dominate the culture that shaped me. I quickly found this was easier said than done.
The overarching rule — no more white men — is more complicated than it sounds, particularly in former British colonies. What to do with J.M. Coetzee, a white South African? My answer: He's out on the grounds that I went with ethnicity over geographical birthplace — the same reason it was within my rules to see Mediterranea by Jonas Carpignano, a black Italian. And what about gay white men? They have certainly been oppressed in western society, but they were nixed, too, if only because discovering a person's sexual identity was not a process I wanted to codify.
But I didn't want to get so bogged down in the details that I lost sight of the overall objective: to spend a year hearing more voices that have been traditionally marginalized. So I hashed out what my rules would be for the challenge, making difficult choices along the way. Here's what I settled on:
1. If a woman wrote or directed it, it's allowed. This was an easy one. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media found that only 7 percent of filmmakers from the world's most profitable movie markets were women. Although it's harder to quantify, female representation isn't a whole lot better in publishing, either.
2. White men from the United States, Canada, U.K. and Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Western Europe are never allowed. This is the group of men who have ruled the canon and academic teachings for countless decades. In other words, I've been reading white men my entire life; I was doing this challenge to discover new people, ideas, and places. They were out. As far as I'm aware, I only messed up once, when I went to see The Iron Ministry, a documentary about trains in China, only to later find out the director was a white man from Michigan.
3. Sexual orientation was not a factor. While certainly people all over the world — and in the U.S. — face unequal opportunities due to their sexuality, I felt uncomfortable trying to investigate the details of people's private lives. To keep it simple, I also ruled out authors and directors who were open about their sexuality. The exception to this rule was trans writers and directors, whose relative rarity in the arts and extreme marginalization put them on my can-be-watched-or-read lists.
4. White men from Eastern Europe and Russia were allowed. I debated this, but ultimately decided to include Eastern Europe and Russia on my can-read-and-watch list due to the fact that their voices aren't often heard by the mainstream American public. Writing for the Chicago Reader in 1990, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that, "One reason that Eastern European films often don't get the attention they deserve in the West is that we lack the cultural and historical contexts for them." Since I was looking to fill in those contextual gaps, this seemed like as good a reason as any. (Note: In this instance, ethnicity didn't trump geography; i.e. I didn't read white American men of Russian descent.)
5. If a work was co-authored, and at least one of the authors fit into my rubric for approved movies or books, then it was allowed.
6. The "author" of a work was considered to be the book's writer or the film's director. In the film world, this gets particularly tricky as it kind of accidentally rules out the agency of the actors and screenwriters, among other essential creative contributors. I settled on using the director, both because they're traditionally seen as "auteurs" and because the directing profession is among the least diverse in the business — 7 percent of films released in the U.S. are directed by women, as opposed to 19.5 percent with women who wrote the screenplays. But this too was an imperfect rule: Just because a woman directed a film didn't mean it was better or more feminist — take Mad Max: Fury Road, which my rules didn't allow me to see, but was widely lauded as being a great feminist work. (Others have tried a similar challenge to mine where they choose only to watch or read stories with women or people of color at their center).
7. These rules did not apply when it came to short films, TV, movies seen at film festivals, or anything seen for purposes related to work or school. I admit this was largely about not failing out of school or getting fired.
While I felt pretty good about my rules early on, it became increasingly clear throughout my project that they were a bit sloppy.
One glaring example of where I failed was that by aiming to reach traditionally ignored or overlooked voices in the United States, I forgot that they might be the very forces of oppression in their ancestral countries. To simplify a very complex situation by way of example, while I was willingly watching films by Han Chinese men, it was in ignorance of the fact that the Han Chinese majority oppresses minorities such as the Uighurs. While a Han Chinese filmmaker may not have had the same opportunities in the United States to make their film, there was a whole separate and unique set of contexts that surrounded their own successes.
That being said, the benefits of the project far outweighed any problems I encountered. I wanted to escape, for however short a time, a world ruled by the familiar and accessible. And that's largely what happened: I found a new, unfamiliar, challenging, and worthy world of art that I would not have otherwise known existed. My top 10 films of the year, for example, include productions from Ukraine, Hungary, Mauritania, Iran, Taiwan, and Thailand that I might never have gone out of my way to see otherwise.
Of course, I can already hear the criticism: All authors matter! Why isn't this project itself sexist or racist? The answer seems obvious to me — but I'll let a popular white male author explain. In response to a similar project, Neil Gaiman said on his Tumblr,
I think [the challenge to avoid reading straight, cis, white males is] a great idea. It doesn't say, never read another author who is white and male again. It says, take a year off and explore the shelves and authors you might never meet otherwise, and you may make some new friends. [Neil Gaiman]
As the end of the year nears, I'll admit that I'm looking forward to January when I won't have to check myself whenever I pick up a book or buy a movie ticket. At the same time, I don't think I'll be going back to when 57 percent of what I read was by white men. I've just made too many new friends.