Let’s talk about something that I know everyone enjoys: the media and politics.
More specifically, let’s talk about narratives – whether that be movies, television, or written stories – and their connection to social justice, representation, and politics.
It’s become more and more common lately for people to point it out if something in a narrative is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or whatever. And whenever something like this because common, we’re always going to see a counter-reaction. For example, you might see an exchange similar to this one somewhere on the internet:
Person One: I found this recently released movie to be very sexist/racist/homophobic.
Person Two: Oh my god, how dare you, I can’t like anything anymore!
Now, the reason that I bring this up is not because I want to make fun of either side of the argument. Rather, I’m sort of interested in this idea that a piece of media is inherently unlikeable because it includes questionable politics. I mean, if this was true, then what media could we consume? Is there any media? Would we have no other choice than to reject media altogether – stop buying books, stop going out to movies, all to avoid media that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever the case may be?
Because, after all, all narratives are written by human beings, and they are not written in a vacuum. We exist in a society where ideas that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc., are sometimes considered the norm. Sometimes writers internalize these ideas. Sometimes, by the time that a writer sits down to write a particular story, they haven’t yet thought critically about every last social justice movement that exists out there. And, not only that, but there are many common, historical tropes in writing that rely upon certain sexist ideals – like the trope of the persecuted heroine, or the hero (who is usually characterized not only as male, but as hyper-masculine as well). So chances are, nearly every narrative, even the ones that go out of their way to be inclusive, fail to live up to one standard or another of being inclusive. Maybe they’re very feminist, but they’re also kind of racist. Maybe they’re very pro-gay, but they’re simultaneously kind of classist.
So what does this mean? Can we not enjoy any story because of this?
Well, while different people might have different opinions on this, I’m personally a huge fan of stories. And I don’t think that someone pointing out that a narrative isn’t inclusive enough means that you can’t enjoy it.
For example, I kind of like the 2006 action movie 300. It isn’t my favourite movie or anything, but I like it. I’ll watch it whenever someone says, “hey, let’s go watch us some 300.” And I am also very aware that it isn’t inclusive toward… anybody. At all. 300 is a very sexist movie that doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test (which, for those of you who aren’t aware, is the absolute lowest standard to prove that a movie includes women as active agents in the text). 300 is also a very racist movie, portraying all of the villains as dark skinned while all of the heroes are light skinned, playing on America’s post-9/11 Islamophobia. And, as the cherry on top of this sundae, 300 is also very, very, very homophobic. “Boy-lover” is used repeatedly throughout the film as an insult toward men (something which is not at all historically accurate for the Spartans, I might add). The villains are all designed to look rather feminine while the heroes are designed to look very, very masculine. And, perhaps worst of all, director Zack Snyder also admitted to playing with homophobia as a tool to make the lead villain seem more foreign and more intimidating to the presumed audience, claiming that he intentionally coded the villain as gay because “what’s more scary to a 20-year-old boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?”
So, yeah, this movie is a political nightmare, but I still kind of like it. And why? Because I also think of it as sort of the definitive action movie. It won’t make you think (and if you do, you won’t like what you think), but it does have some good fight scenes, some super macho tough dudes, and visually speaking, the movie is stunning. There’s enough in the movie that, as much as I’m aware of its political faults and I’m not going to forget them, I still manage to leave the movie feeling like I got what I wanted out of it.
And, end of day, I think that’s what we should mostly be striving for when we say that a narrative is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.: awareness. You can still like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs even if you know it’s sexist. You can look fondly on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, even knowing that it’s kind of racist. But end of day, it’s important that you are aware that it is, because if you aren’t, then the entire context of the narrative changes. Instead of accepting that this is wrong, that this is just for the purposes of a narrative and the narrative is entirely fantasy, you run the risk of taking that into the real world, of believing that this is actually how people are. If I didn’t know that 300 was sexist, then I might just assume that women were all passive agents who didn’t really contribute all that much to anything… unless they happened to be Lena Headey. If I didn’t know that 300 was homophobic, I might assume that all gay men were inherently threats to straight men. These are the lessons that the narrative is teaching me, so if I’m not questioning them, then I run the risk of accepting them instead.
And more than that, we seem to be at a big of a turning point for a lot of media. The most recent movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture was about a gay black man (Moonlight). One of 2017’s highest grossing movies was about a female superhero (Wonder Woman), but it wasn’t very long ago that movie studios were refusing to put female superheroes in their own solo movies because they tended to flop when compared to their male counterparts. People are getting more and more interested in seeing diversity in our media, and this is awesome. This gives so many more people the opportunity to see themselves represented, rather than just the same straight, middle-to-upper-class, young-to-middle-age white dude that keeps getting catered to over and over again. And as people get more and more interested in diversity, it becomes more important for us to talk about what kind of diversity. We might see a movie about women and say, “that’s great, but the writing was kind of sexist. Can you give us more of this instead?” and if there are enough people demanding, the media will eventually supply.
We point out that there wasn’t enough racial diversity in something because we want to see more racial diversity in something else; not necessarily because we think that you shouldn’t like the original narrative. You can like the original narrative all you want; just be aware that it can be improved in the future. And hopefully, if enough people can keep talking about it, it will be improved in the future.