Having fucked up shit vs. saying fucked up shit

One of the things that always seems to trip people up when it comes to analyzing marginalized identities in stories is the difference between a story that has fucked up shit in it versus a story that says fucked up shit.

This is a very important distinction that everybody analyzing narrative media needs to understand.

So I’m going to help a muthafucka out right quick.

A story that has fucked up stuff in it acknowledges that the bigotry, oppression, abuse, etc. that are seen as normal in the context of the story are actually really fucked up.

A story that says fucked up things reinforces fucked up shit about the real world we live in without calling it out as fucked up.

Consider HBO’s Game of Thrones. It’s an example of both a story with fucked up shit in it and a story that says fucked up shit.

As a show that has fucked up shit in it, Game of Thrones makes it abundantly clear that Westeros is a horrible place for a woman to live. Virulent misogyny is the norm, and women who openly wield power or exercise agency must be truly exceptional. The sexism of Westeros society is presented as detrimental on a variety of levels. Game of Thrones is by no means a feminist or womanist show, but it’s an excellent study in how women try to make the best of a bad situation.

As a show that says fucked up shit, Game of Thrones reinforces notions of faceless brown savages who need white people to civilize them. Now, I love Daenerys Stormborn, and I find her journey among the most interesting on the show. That said, the Dothraki embody the worst stereotypes about the cultures of people of color. Namely, that we live to fuck, fight, and loot. Also, notice how, despite their obvious importance to Daenerys’ journey, we don’t get to know them as individuals the way we do their Westeros counterparts.

“Fine,” you may think, “But how do you tell the difference?”

There are no clear-cut rules to determine these things, but there are things we can pay attention to. There are patterns that often emerge when you stop to think about these things in terms of gender, race, sexuality, class, disability, etc.

  1. Who gets to be normal, desirable, and/or admirable?
  2. Who defines what is good, beautiful, and true?
  3. Who gets to live?

Consider ABC’s Once Upon A Time.

  • Who gets to be normal, desirable, and/or admirable?

Although attractive cast members are the norm, it’s obvious that Snow, Emma, Charming, Ruby, Henry, and the various Scruffy White Dudes define what is normal, desirable, and admirable in that story. Damn, that’s so white I might need sunglasses just to look at it. And we don’t have any openly LGBTQ characters on the show (though Regina and Ruby ping my gaydar something fierce).

  • Who defines what is good, beautiful, and true?

Again, people on Team Snow and Charming are the ultimate arbiters of all truth and morality. Those who oppose or question them are objectively evil. Unfortunately, every person of color is either dead (Henry Sr., Nameless Fairy Godmother, Lancelot, Gus Gus) or playing for Team Evil (Regina, Tamara, Sidney).

  • Who gets to live?

No Black folks, that’s for damn sure.

So, even saying as much, or even meaning to, OUAT says fucked up shit about race, gender, and sexuality. That is, if you want True Love and Happily Ever After, you’d better be white and straight.

I hope that clears things up.

8 thoughts on “Having fucked up shit vs. saying fucked up shit

  1. Definitely – it’s fine to show fucked up shit, in fact, not showing fucked up shit can annoy the hell out of me because it glosses over the shit that’s out there – pretending prejudice doesn’t exist isn’t laudable. But there’s a difference between showing it and perpetuating it – if you’re going to show it, challenge it, show that it is wrong, show that it is evil; and don’t have your entire cast reflect the bigotries out there

  2. I had an interesting encounter with a book that said fucked up shit, but didn’t have fucked up shit in it. It was ostensibly about a new ice age, but was so insanely racist I couldn’t belive it. Funny thing was, the main character of the story wasn’t racist. He was totally cool with everyone even while every black person in the book was a watermelon-eating, white-woman raping untermench. It was a weird parallel.

  3. What you said, and you said it in the best manner possible.

    It basically boils do to what Sparky said, which is showing it straight (no pun intended) and treating it as the norm, or showing it and having the characters themselves call it out.

  4. Reblogged this on Exit, Pursued by a Lark and commented:
    This is something I wrestle with in my plays. It would be very safe for me as a white male, albeit queer, playwright, to write only white (male) characters. On the other hand, if I write female characters and characters of color – which I want to do to ensure there are roles for such actors and because I want to comment on our world and not a tiny subset of it – I have to try. This post is a good guide for the basic issue of what it means to actually try.

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