I’ve always been a commentator on media and social justice and that’s only increasing. I’ve said why I think it’s important and why it matters and, besides, at this point I don’t think I could watch/read/play something without being aware of the various problematic, prejudiced portrayals or erasures that will inevitably arise.
But it seems nigh impossible to criticise the various -isms in the media without argument. Now, I don’t claim to be infallible (though do not tell my husband that. As far as he’s concerned I am correct in any and all matters and he should just accept it and do as he’s told, yes yes he should) and if I say something was prejudiced and you disagree – by all means present a reasoned rebuttal.
No, what I object to are the JUSTIFICATIONS for the -isms. They don’t argue that I’m wrong about the prejudice – but that, for whatever reason, the prejudice doesn’t matter. That something else about the work makes the prejudice irrelevant. And I call shenanigans, I do. Because it always matters – and it is never justified. So, I am I am debunking the inevitable excuses that always arise over and over – I am calling out the “buts” because there really is no but here
But but but…. it’s funny!
First of all, it probably isn’t. I have yet to see this excuse used for anything that has made me crack a smile. Of course, the problem is that humour is subjective – after all, I’m sure there are people out there who actually laugh at sitcoms with laugh tracks (and is there ever anything so mind breakingly unfunny as those damn laugh tracks?). Which is a problem, because the “it’s funny” excuse can apply to anything.
But. Y’know even accepting that there is humour there, I still say “so?” Sorry, maybe my priorities are a little messed up but I don’t really see “it made me giggle” as justifying prejudiced portrayals. In fact, I find it faintly demeaning – yes it is damaging, stereotyped, made you cringe and overall reduces your standing as a person – but it was funny so it’s totally ok, right? Um… no.
But but but… think about when it’s made!
So it was made in the 60s/80s/90s whatever. Is it never going to be watched/played/read again? It’s still being consumed, it’s still part of the narrative of our media and our society – and yes, maybe back then such problems were more common place but it doesn’t mean that the prejudiced portrayals are NOT PROBLEMATIC. A deeply stereotyped portrayal is STILL a deeply stereotyped portrayal, even if it was written at a time when such 2 dimensional tokens were rare. It’s still problematic, it still needs commenting on, it’s still not OK even if it was better than most of its contemporaries.
But but but… it’s only fantasy/sci-fi/urban fantasy/YA/Whatever
Genre is irrelevant. If the media is mass consumed then it shapes our culture, our perceptions of people and our lives. In fact, a “trashy” novel or a computer game has far more effect on us as people than a pretentious, over-written, dreadfully dull composition that will be read by dusty English professors patting each other on the back at how impenetrable and highbrow it is.
Prejudice isn’t irrelevant in any genre. It is never unimportant – and the more common the genre, the more widely read, the more people it reaches then the more good – and the more damage – it can do with its portrayals. I believe a simple widely read YA novel that has good respectful portrayals does far more for us than a dozen scholarly treaties about our rights. Conversely – a widely read YA novel with gross stereotypes and prejudice does a whole lot of damage.
But but but… they also did THIS and that was good!
And? Maybe that over work they’ve is good and progressive and avoids the fails I’ve criticised. That doesn’t mean that THIS here that I’ve just read/watched/played has problems. This media I’ve just consumed was problematic – the writer may have made something else that was vastly better but that doesn’t change what I’ve just read/watched/played.
But but but… it’s a great portrayal of Y marginalised group
And I applaud that, it’s wonderful when we see a marginalised character written well. But just because a book has great female characters or great POC characters etc etc doesn’t mean that erasure or grossly awful portrayals elsewhere are acceptable. Just because it isn’t prejudiced one way, doesn’t make it immune to being prejudiced another way.
But but but… This writer is my heeero and you should have seen them at X and and!!!
Well this is kind of why I don’t have heroes. Look, there are some great writers out there and they do amazing things – but that doesn’t mean we’re all supposed to pretend that the naked Emperor is wearing clothes. This is what I hate about heroes – look, no-one’s perfect and you don’t have to pretend they’re perfect and untouchable to appreciate their work – and they probably don’t need the fanpoodles to swarm in yapping at the critics.
But but but… I loooove it!
Yeah, maybe I do too. “What!?” you gasp? Yeah, there’s a good chance I love it to. No, really, I’m not some bitter, twisted grumpy git who hates everything. In fact I know most of the media I enjoy – be they books, computer games, films, series – they’re all problematic. My most favourite of favourite things I love are sadly rife with stereotypes, erasure, damaging tropes and out right prejudiced portrayals.
Of course they are. I grew up in this society too – and no matter how much my own marginalisation hurts me or how much I try to learn about others, I still carry their stains, I still have their programming. Besides, if I wanted to avoid problematic media I’d have to move to a cave in a mountain somewhere and dedicate my life to staring at the wall. And even then there’d probably be an advert there full of problematic elements.
And aside form that, yes some stories are awesome. The plot is immense, the performances are amazing, the settings phenomenal – I am transported, awed, amazed and overjoyed by them and watch/read them over and over and over again. And every time I STILL see the stereotypes, the tropes, the erasure and the plain prejudiced fails and say “I love them… BUT”
And yeah, it’d be really really nice to read/watch/play something and say “I loved it!” without having to include the “but.” But the answer to that is to keep SAYING “but” until there’s nothing to say “but” about – not to pretend that the problematic elements don’t exist or are justified because it’s an awesome story/game/film/whatever.
So, I beg here, please, stop the kneejerk defence. Stop jumping up and down hissing about your precious. If you disagree with something being problematic, if someone has said “this is homophobic/racist/sexist/etc” and you think (with reasons beyond privileged ignorance) that they are mistaken and you have a respectful and well thought out counter then fine – but don’t EXCUSE the prejudice, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.