(Open discussion) What does it mean when fandoms routinely isolate systemic and institutional oppression from its analysis of a character or story?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of seeing any kind of analysis or critique of marginalized characters (particularly women of color) focus on why someone likes them or hates them, or why they’re good or bad.

Honestly, it’s so bland, and having had my community organizing goggles readjusted, I realize that it’s not nearly as important as how systemic and institutional oppression are reflected, reinforced, and/or subverted in the story.

I know that not everybody does that. Hell, even people I find to be usually on point seem to deflect or ignore this shit, especially when it comes to characters are sit on the intersections of marginalization (race and gender, disability and sexuality, etc.).

Rather than talk about why this is or isn’t fucked up, let’s unpack it. Let’s figure out what’s going on when even the people who have an anti-oppression analysis fail to apply it when it comes to shows they watch, specifically in the case of characters who are marginalized in ways that we aren’t.

For instance, as much as we may want to deny it, there’s a reason why Sansa gets a lot of hate while Tyrion is beloved by so many that have less to do with Sansa or Tyrion themselves and more to do with the things we’ve been taught about gender. Even the way we frame our analysis of these characters is a reflection of the things even us smart motherfuckers like to pretend don’t affect us. And so it goes with characters in every fandom.

Now, I know it’s tempting to talk about other people and how fucked up they are, but let’s not do that, shall we? Let’s turn inward and reflect on why even us smart motherfuckers forget our smarts when it comes to analyzing how systemic and institutional oppression plays a role in how we are encouraged to identify with some characters, interpret a story, analyze a character, and so on.

I don’t care what fandom you participate in. I want you to dig deep and share.

8 thoughts on “(Open discussion) What does it mean when fandoms routinely isolate systemic and institutional oppression from its analysis of a character or story?

  1. I’ve been reading “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum (on the advice of some smart people I know) and at one point she talked about how a lack of discussion of racism and oppression, power and privilege is all part of this smog we breath in everyday. Everyone breaths it in and we have different reactions to it, but for the most part, it keeps us from really discussing and analyzing issues surrounding entertainment and it can blind us to a certain extant no matter how hard we work against it.

    I do my best to educate myself on these matters, and I like to think it’s always at the forefront of my mind, but cripes, sometimes I come across blind spots that are revealed to me when I come across someone else’s analysis of a story and its characters.

    Sometimes I think that people, especially those with the most privilege, just want to not think about everything when they watch a movie or read a book or play a game. They consider it too much trouble and that to think about it would make nothing alright for consumption.

  2. Speaking for myself, I find that when I really like a show, I want to enjoy it in a way that doesn’t make me personally uncomfortable. Complicated is fine, because I can wrap my head around complicated, but uncomfortable is different. It makes it more like work to dive into systematic oppression in what is supposed to be at least a bit of escapism.

    E.g., it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t matter that The Walking Dead barely skitters through the shallows of racism, even though it’s supposed to be all about fucked up human interactions in a fucked up situation, than it is to talk about it. The persistent bubble of privilege around possibly the only remaining traditional family goes very rarely questioned. Instead of reflecting how that little family takes priority over everybody else and asking why (sometimes this is asked by another character, but not seriously explored, at least not through season 2), we instead are asked by the POV of the show to root for them. And I go right along with it. I want to root for them, because I’ve got a little traditional family, too. I fear more for their losses, which are not nearly so acute as everybody else’s. It ramps up the stakes for me, personally, so I just go with it.

    I guess, to generalized beyond one show, it’s harder to lose myself in something when I’m being analytical and critical about it with regard to systems of oppression. It stops being fun.

  3. For one thing, I catch myself not noticing some things in the first place. When it comes to issues that do not involve my demographic as a white, cis straight woman, I sometimes don’t even notice when something is wrong, and something only occurs to me when someone who is affected by it catches it and calls it out. I realize that the reason why I miss things is because I’ve been trained to do so by white culture.

    For example, if people had not brought up Regina’s (Once Upon A Time) treatment in the show as a race issue, I would not have noticed it. Honestly, the discussion centered around Regina has opened my eyes to a much more complex view of intersectional feminism.

    Earlier on, I would feel uncomfortable at times when confronted with the discussion of racism and Regina, particularly when they would defend some of her actions, because I really had no concept of it. I would think people were overreacting, or they were really over the top fans of Regina who would defend her no matter what. At that point my feminism was really in the White Feminism territory, because I had not been exposed to much intersectional discussion.

    I still find myself sometimes only noticing something after someone else points it out.

    So I think a major reason why some people end up separating analysis of institutionalized oppression from their analysis of a show/character would be that sometimes people just do not notice it at all. When you are privileged over another group, it’s easy not to see it, because you’ve been blind to it since childhood, and training yourself out of it takes a lot of intricate, continuous and dedicated unpacking.

    Furthermore, many times that unpacking comes with uncomfortable emotions. A lot of times when I see derailing attempts, or angry denials, I see my past self in them. I see who I was when I wasn’t listening. That person was someone who did not want to ever look at herself like she was a bad person, and so she would roll her eyes or get defensive towards anyone who attempted to show her that yes, sometimes she fucks up. It’s a child’s response, it’s the response of a person who does not know how to take responsibility for their actions, and who most especially does not know how to be self-critical on a meaningful level.

    • Yes to all of that. So many things I completely fail to notice until it’s pointed out, or that I’d self-righteously defend when I was younger.

  4. there’s a LOT of things.

    the commenter right above me has a point that i don’t think he realizes – we’re asked to identify with X character(s) – and that means those characters tend to be the ones who end up being “rewarded” by oppression, for lots of reasons starting with the fact that they tend to be white able bodied cis-men who are straight. so the black best friend sacrifices his life for the POV character we’re expected to “identify” with, and the woman goes through whatever horror to motive that character, because it’s ALL ABOUT HIM, because doncha know we silly consumers can’t UNDERSTAND what happens except through that lens?

    i don’t know if i, as a writer, am any better? i try, gods know that i try – i’m female and non-white and disabled, you’d think that i wouldn’t fall into the trap, right?
    except… i don’t THINK about things i don’t deal with. take LGBTQUI issues. all of them. *I* don’t care if person X is gay, in my head this is an UTTER NON-ISSUE, so when i have LGBTQUI characters [okay, not T. not yet. every time i try, i cringe at what i’ve written, i’m having trouble there. i think because i only know a few trans people, but i know lots of everyone else? gah, it’s annoying me] i write the situation *as i wish it were*

    which is nice and all, because everyone deserves that. but does nothing for an accurate depiction, na da?

    we all do that, on both ends – if it’s on an oppression we know well, then we don’t know it well enough [generally] to accurately portray it as creators, or to notice the flaws IN it’s portrayal as consumers. and having to analyze it means we’re taken out of the experience.

    i don’t know about anyone else, but i tend to think about these things AFTER i’ve read or watched something. if it’s noticable while i’m watching or reading, i don’t enjoy it at all [and so i don’t watch TV at ALL anymore] because it bugs me. but if it’s something not obvious, i won’t think of it until later.

  5. Fanpoodling. Worst thing ever to want to just clutch something and cry “I looove it I loooove it” but KNOW that is problematic at hell and then have a little internal war between wanting to declare ti PERFECT DAMN YOU! PERFECT! HOW VERY DARE YOU INSULT MY PRECIOUS! While I know it REALLY ISN’T

    I find that doubly hard when it is one of the few few few books that gets sexuality right, it becomes harder for me to realise it has got gender or race etc really badly wrong and I’ve noticed the flip side elsewhere

    I also have to struggle between “this strong female character is nothing but a damn weapon with no personality” and “this male character is a fun, whacky power fantasy – yet is nothing but a weapon with no personality”

  6. I’ve found this to be a major reason why I’m working hard to avert these problems in my own writings. It’s hard to avoid reflecting the kind of privilege and bigotry people are raised in even when we (using we here to refer to people with white male privilege) think that it’s not. But this is why I actually intend at some point to do a story that’s intended to be both allegory and deconstruction of the ‘Guns of the South’ style of alien space bats alternate history where a bunch of time-traveling fauxgressives (as Neo_Prodigy aptly terms them) go back in time to the US Civil War intending to uplift the past and force 21st Century white liberalism on the Civil War era.

    Things go downhill when they discover that the AK-47 is a horrible weapon for use in a US Civil War context and that black slaves both do not look like they always believed they did, and want no part of well-intentioned white men intending to shoulder the white man’s burden. Like the abolitionists of the 1860s they react poorly to this and things really go downhill from there. The problem in writing this story is that I do not intend in writing it to come across as sympathetic to the time-travelers, or for it to read like it’s bashing the concepts of liberalism (as people in the USA mislabel not-Republicanism) to the stupid people who’d want to make it into that.

    Likewise with the Omniverse Tales my Bizjarran Empire has only black Africans as humans…..because the Archaic species that we humans collectively rendered extinct tens of thousands of years ago never went extinct, and Neanderthals, due to population pressures developed agriculture first before all the other species did. And the new Imperial system Uplifted Homo erectus and the African and Asian Great and Lesser Apes. However I do not intend to use this as an end-run around race insofar as replacing differences between alien species for racial differences (because 1) this is intended to be hard sci-fi with only some soft sci-fi elements whose impacts on the otherwise hard setting bound by our laws of physics *are* the plot, and 2) that means most aliens look more alien than Lovecraft’s and as such racism couldn’t work as an analogy even if it were ham-handedly forced in the setting, or in terms of using the white-skinned red and blond haired-Neanderthals and the other species of hominin and apes as substitutes.

    The very existence of the biological barriers factor means that the Empire uses its Baranir (humans) to interact with worlds where our species is the dominant lifeform on the planet. In timelines where racism exists as a historical phenomenon, the expectation of the WASPs that the only Earths to have this technology are led by other WASPs meets a rude slap in the face when they discover the existence of timelines of ultra-advanced technology in the hands of what is to them not only inferior humanity, but inferior humanity from the continent these people always expect to be a backward militant mess (which is noted in-universe to be a bunch of humbug based on racist ideas). The misunderstandings and convolutions that follow make for quite a few storylines that explore racial issues, but from the POV where the POCs are reacting to the very ideas of racism as the absurd and privileged concept that it actually is, and where the racists fear the POCs when they aren’t even doing anything at all to earn the kind of hysterical fearful reaction that they receive, as well as projecting onto the POCs their fears of what an ultra-advanced society will do when all the POCs in question want is to trade and get rich.

    How to do this without falling into these issues is a major reason why human characters have yet to appear in the Omniverse Tales in a major fashion as I do not want to avoid one set of issues with racism to replace them with others that could and should be avoided. Nor do I want to be that guy who simply says ‘Well there’s aliens X, Y, and Z and they’re analogous to racial issues so I don’t even need to acknowledge them.’ As reading about privilege and its associated issues has convinced me that’s nothing but a cop-out to avoid dealing with complex issues without clear resolutions much of the time.

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