Doing Diversity in Writing

Season 1 Episode 6 - Essentialism and Affirmative Myopia in Literature

November 3, 2021

In this episode of Doing Diversity in Writing, we—Bethany and Mariëlle—talk about two very common pitfalls when representing diverse characters: essentialism and affirmative myopia.


More specifically, we talk about:

  • what essentialism is and what makes it problematic
  • the fact that a lot of stereotypes that persist today are based on pseudo-scientific practices we don’t consider science anymore
  • what affirmative myopia is and why we need to avoid it
  • how the movies Stonewall (2015) and Carol (2015) both fell into the affirmative myopia trap
  • why bringing down the dominant group upholds the structures we are trying to overthrow


Some quotes from this week’s episode:

From Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin: “Essentialism is the assumption that groups, categories or classes of objects have one or several
defining features exclusive to all members of that category. Some studies of race or gender, for
instance, assume the presence of essential characteristics distinguishing one race from another
or the feminine from the masculine.” 


“If we believe people are determined by their biological make-up, we’re basically saying that the way the world functions and our positions and situations within that world can’t really be changed. If existing power relations are in place because there is some inherent logic in our DNA that defines our place and role within society, how do you challenge the status quo?”


“Those essentialised stereotypes, which are often based on science we no longer consider real science, are still running rampant. We still have so many assumptions about the ‘other’ – those with different identity markers – floating around in our collective unconsciousness.” 


“This doesn’t mean we can’t have late black people, angry black women, violent Muslims, perfectly styled gay guys and butch lesbians in our work. But, whenever we write a character, we should make sure we didn’t give them these characteristics just because they are gay, lesbian, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Muslim, young, old, poor, rich, and so on. We need to give them solid reasons and explainable circumstances for why they are being this way or why they are acting that way, one that goes beyond mere biology.” 


“If we, in our attempts to elevate those voices by representing them in better ways, fall into the affirmative myopia trap by, for example, negatively depicting those who’ve always been in power, we’re perpetuating the same structures that created that status quo in the first place. We lift one group by bringing another down.”


And here are the (re)sources we mentioned on the show:


This week’s bonus material can be found here:


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