Mirrors, Windows and Privilege

I touched on the concept of mirrors and windows in my last post, and I think it’s a subject that bears more discussion.

I’ve been thinking about privilege recently, and how it isn’t just about the big things, like the gender pay gap or racial profiling, but also the small things, things so tiny you probably wouldn’t notice it unless it happened to you. One of these things, which I’ve mentioned in the past, is the gender/ethnicity/race of the main character. And it hit me that privilege, in terms of fiction, can be described in a simple sentence: the privileged will find more mirrors than windows in an average sampling of books, while those lacking in privilege will find more windows than mirrors.

Sometimes the question of what qualifies as a mirror or window isn’t clearcut. For instance, I’m a straight, white, middle-class woman. Take two imaginary stories, one in which the protagonist is a straight, white, middle-class man, and one in which the protagonist is a gay, black, working-class woman. Which of these two people is a mirror for me? Do they both? Do neither? Obviously it’s not as simple as this, because a major factor beyond identity and privilege is general personality traits (while Hermione and I do both have the same privileges/lack thereof, at least in the Muggle world, I adore her and identify with her because, like me, she’s a nerd who’s passionate about justice and doing what’s right, not because she’s also female), but I still think it’s powerful because it can serve to either tell the audience the author acknowledges their existence, or vice versa.

In the above example, I’d probably see a degree of mirroring in both characters, though probably more strongly in the woman, because people notice more when they don’t share someone else’s privilege than when someone else doesn’t share theirs. There would also, however, be more of a window in her story, because there are aspects of her experiences in life that I am unfamiliar with. In the man’s case, however, I’m not sure that applies. Sure, I’ve never directly experienced what it’s like to be a man in the world, but I see it so often in fiction that there’s nothing new to his male-oriented experiences. It’s not a mirror, but it’s not really a window, either; it’s more one of those one-way mirrors in a police interrogation room. This is a big part of why I think it’s so important to include more diverse protagonists in fiction, because there’s more to be gained from creating a less-priveleged character than a more-priveleged one; audience members who don’t identify with the character’s background will get a window-type insight into someone else’s world, while those who do identify get the rare chance at a mirror.


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