As we seek to broaden our culture, we’ve found ways to tame what we bring in. It’s a process that’s problematic but also useful, and like so much of being human, it can be understood in terms of control.
This is the realm of the manageably exotic.
Difference on Familiar Terms
I came across the term “manageably exotic” following my post on Christianity in sf+f. My friend Marios suggested that the prevalence of Catholicism in the fiction of Protestant countries is partly down to it being manageably exotic – different enough to intrigue, but familiar enough for people to cope with.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the manageably exotic is a huge deal. For example, when American and British culture looks to the far east it seldom shows the more alien parts of foreign cultures. It’s Chinese businessmen in western suits, Japanese kids remixing American pop culture, and of course the once exotic but now terribly familiar ninja. We usually look at the manageably exotic rather than the truly unfamiliar and different.
There’s something similar going on with the co-opting of elements of other cultures, and the watered down way diversity is achieved. The upcoming Star Wars film Rogue One has taken flack from the culturally conservative for its more diverse cast, yet even in this case, five out of the eight racially identifiable characters in the trailer are white. As for its allegedly over-female casting, six of those eight are men. The film-makers are increasing diversity, but in a manageable way – mostly white and male still, and using familiar faces.
Picking the manageably exotic – even when ‘exotic’ means something as trivially different as Anglo-Americans with a different skin colour or set of genitals – waters down the representation of more diverse people and cultures.
That said, making things manageably exotic is also useful. By making culture more varied by tiny inches, it expands people’s comfort zones. We all become uncomfortable with stories that are too different from what we expect, whether in subject matter, genre or structure. My dislike of James Joyce’s Ulysses isn’t the same as some racist idiot complaining about diverse casting, or bigots complaining that Chuck Wendig has put homosexuality in Star Wars, but some of the same emotional drivers are there. “This thing is not what I’m used to – take it away.”
Making things manageably exotic makes them palatable, and after a while not exotic at all. It leaves people feeling comfortable with the new elements. It can expand minds.
I’d love to be able to turn our culture upside down tomorrow, to see race, gender and sexuality representative of our complicated reality. But I also know that attempts at radical, sudden change create resistance. Gradually revealing the manageably exotic has done a huge amount to make our society more diverse and tolerant.
I’m not even forty years old, and I can remember when gay marriage was a dream even more unimaginable than a black American president. Our very awareness of intolerance is a symptom of tackling it. The shittiest edges of our world are being eroded by a slow but accelerating agenda of not just accepting but embracing difference.
This isn’t to say that our acceptance of the manageably exotic comes from a good place. Let’s face it, the sign of decency is our ability to cope with people and beliefs completely different from us.
No, the manageably exotic is about that vital but ugly human motivator – control.
By shrinking down the exotic elements, we make them appear as something that can be incorporated into the status quo, and by extension be controlled by it. Like 18th century aristocrats commissioning paintings of their country estates, our portrayal of the unfamiliar lets us feel control over it. It creates a sense of ownership – “that’s OK, it’s part of my thing now”. And let’s face it, trying to control others leads to some terrible places, from dysfunctional relationships to horrible social inequality.
Our collective desire to make things manageably exotic means we compromise values. It comes from a dark place. But it still does good, and that’s worth remembering, even as we reach beyond its limits.