Throughout the day, I have been following an ongoing discussion in the comments on Amanda Palmer's blog about the validity of one of her current projects. She's getting a lot of flack for the project because she portrays a person with a disability. I won't go into all of it here, but if you want to check it out, go to her blog http://blog.amandapalmer.net/post/396762227/evelyn-evelyn-drama-drama (once again, I apologize for not being able to do direct links from within the text of my blog - I'll put the link in a box to the right).
One of the underlying threads of the comments seems to be that Amanda is not allowed or entitled to create nor perform as this character because she is not disabled.
I am an educated, white, middle class, middle-aged woman. By this criteria, I can only create characters who are also educated, white, middle class and middle-aged women and that, any time I step outside of these parameters, I am being disingenuous or disrespectful to other groups of people, or that I am suggesting someone from the other group can not represent themselves.
If artists are restricted to representing only their own group, then most works of fiction would have to be trashed immediately, including my current novel.
I have wrestled with this a lot, especially during my time in grad school. The discussion on Amanda's blog seems to turn on the idea of privilege. The idea being that as a white person, or as an able-bodied person, or as an educated person, I have privilege, and am therefore, not entitled or allowed to create art based on non-white, non-privileged groups. Someone even suggested it would have been okay for her to do this character from the perspective of her own privileged position as a non-disabled person. Hunh? Someone else suggested the problem lay with Amanda performing with a disability she did not have in order to make money. Well, let's strip Daniel Day Lewis of that Oscar for My Left Foot, shall we, since he doesn't have cerebral palsy.
The essential part of being an artist is being able to put yourself in someone else's skin. When someone does it well, it can be stunning. Jeffrey Eugenides is not a hermaphrodite, and yet, Middlesex is an extraordinary novel written from the perspective of a hermaphrodite. In fact, it is so well done, many people insist he is part of the intersexual community, but he isn't. By this same token, Dostoyevsky was not a sociopath, nor George Orwell a talking pig or Virginia Woolf a suicidal WWI veteran suffering from battle fatigue. But they all created these indelible characters because they were amazing artists and writers. They did what artists and writers are supposed to do, make these characters real to us as human beings (even the talking pig) so we care about them, so they matter to us. We cannot dismiss them because we care about them, and we cannot limit writers and artists from creating them just because they are not part of that group.
The flack she's getting reminds me very much of something that happened in my very first creative writing workshop as an undergrad. I wrote a story, first person, teenage male narrator who tries to commit suicide because his girlfriend had an abortion. One of my classmates (he was also one of my best friends throughout college), went off on me about how could I know how this character felt? I wasn't male, I couldn't possibly know what it felt like, etc, etc. He was so venomous in his attack, the professor actually stepped in and stopped his tirade and checked in with me after class to make sure I was okay. I was. I realized what happened was actually a compliment. My friend was uncomfortable because I'd hit too close to home, gotten my character too realistic for him to feel safe. He reacted in the only way he could, to attack my ability to KNOW what it felt like to be in his skin. Basically, I'd done my job as a writer.