Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Rule of Three

I found this via N.K. Jemisin's blog, which you should go read for her own comments on it. What Dwayne McDuffie says is striking to me in a number of ways. Listen:




So what's this Rule of Three? McDuffie: "In popular entertainment, if there are three black people in it, it is a black product."

This points to an interesting reality that flies in the face of the rhetoric of the segregationists -- inverts it even. It turns the whole “quota” argument on its head. Where the segregationists faced with arguments for integration will automatically complain about the imposition of "quotas," the reality is that they are the ones applying such quotas. That's what the Rule of Three is: a quota of two black characters max being allowable in a mainstream product before it is perceived as essentially for-the-abject. Which is to say, it no longer belongs in the main supply channel that exists for-the-non-abject.

Tokenism can be understood in the same way. In the segregated medium, when the absenting of the abject becomes unsustainable, a quota system becomes a way of maintaining the essential abjection but masking it with an exception. One character is allowed in as "proof" that the abject is not excluded. Of course, the limitation in number and in nature -- as the token is most often a B character in service to the non-abject A character(s) -- is actually a demonstration that the segregation is still in force. If they make it to full A character status in an ensemble cast -- as a superhero in the Justice League, say -- the non-abject can declare "job done" and maintain the general exclusion.

Where that quota is raised from one to two but no more is revealing, I think. It strikes me that the threshold makes sense as a “one, two, many” way of thinking. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, after all. Two can be collapsed into a pair, a duality. Two black or queer characters can be cast as a couple, a bipartite unity where relationships are either internal (abject #1 : abject #2) or external (abjects #1 + #2 : non-abject.) At one level , it's functionally identical to having one character. Three on the other hand… with three full characters you have the full complexity of inter-relationships -- 1:2, 1:3, 2:3, 1+2:3, 2+3:1, 1+3:2. Three always already represents a community.

So the white reader who abjects blacks is going to see a black group identity in there — a Black Justice League within the Justice League — because the three abject characters can’t by definition simply be part of the larger community. Add the third character and you no longer have a doubled token of the abject within the non-abject community; you have a whole sub-community of the abject within that non-abject community. I'd posit that this is where the spurious notions of an agenda come from. The segregationist reader can't help but see a real threat to the state of segregation. It's not even surprising -- pathetic but not surprising -- that they project a threat of takeover. They simply can't look at an integrated system without seeing an invasion of the abject, imagining themselves as "victims" of a move to usurp their privilege.

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Anonymous Paul F Cockburn said...

To be honest, for some people I don't think the three even have to be there at the same time; it's an accumulative thing. Russell T Davies was sometimes accused of imposing a 'gay agenda' on Doctor Who (I know, that's just so weird) because he happened to include several potentially non-heterosexual characters across a run of 13 episodes. (Despite, as Steven Moffat later pointed out, being the man who put Billie Piper in a maid's outfit.)

1:15 pm  

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