In this installment of “Dear Devin,” we discuss helpful and not-so-helpful ways to apply social criticism to pop culture and fiction. What’s the difference between not liking something and finding it truly offensive? What’s the line between valid criticism and finicky quibbling? Read on to find out!
I’ve noticed this trend on the internet for a while where a particular group of cultural consumers – whether it’s readers of comics or watchers of TV shows and movies, etc. – seem very quick to call works of fiction out as misogynistic. For instance, say there was a Marvel comic in which the Avengers are holding a formal party; Carol Danvers walks in wearing a really spiffy dress, and Tony Stark greets her with a playful, “My god, Carol, you could make a good dog break his leash!” Carol retorts with something equally teasing, and yes, I’m stealing this example almost line-by-line from The West Wing, but here’s the thing: most readers would probably find this an amusing show of camaraderie between two friends and teammates who stand on equal footing with each other, but others would call this out as an example of Tony demeaning Carol based on her sexuality – and worse, of Carol letting him, because she chooses to tease him back instead of calling him out on it.
Now more than ever there seems to be a contingency of readers who purposefully search for “misogynistic” examples in popular culture to criticize and militantly advocate against, and yet most of those examples tend to be lifted out of context. I’m not saying these readers are always wrong – when they’re right, I get just as mad as them – but these days they do it so much that more often than not it comes off as crying wolf and also feels like a really unpleasant way to read comics – not just for the person reading them this way, but for the people who enjoy the comics they criticize. So my question is this: when it comes to labeling a work of fiction, where is the line between legitimately misogynistic (or racist, or homophobic, or any prejudice you can think of) and not? Is it just a matter of perception, making it too subjective to really define? How does a creator’s personal views fit into it?
- Fan of Racy Banter
Dear Fan of Racy Banter,
I love this question. You’ve managed to clearly describe a growing phenomenon that vexes and confuses many while usually stemming from a fount of good intentions. Though perpetrators of this activity are often flexing newly formed mental muscles and gesticulating in the general direction of hugely needed and completely valid social criticism, their efforts not only fall short but often unintentionally muddy the issues to which they’re trying to call attention. Let’s file this under “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” (or, “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” to accurately quote Alexander Pope’s 1709 An Essay on Criticism) and explore some legitimate parameters for judging the social consciousness of fictional work.
Authentic misogyny (and/or racism, homophobia, etc.) in fiction is not subjective; it can be identified by the pervasiveness of the problematic representation in direct proportion to the lack of alternative representations. As the saying goes, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it probably is a duck…but less likely so if you just happen to see it wearing feathers once. It is totally fine and sometimes even desirable or necessary to show a female character being dumb or victimized or have her being treated dismissively. In addition to entertaining, one of fiction’s main jobs is to sidestep the muddle of reality long enough to guide us toward emotional truths and insights. What’s not fine is to have every female—or even the vast majority of females—that you write be presented that way or, equally bad, not have any females at all. Nit-picking tends to uncover examples of bad character creation and unsuccessful writing. The problems we’re supposed to be watching for are configurations of substantially harmful depictions and exclusions.
This gets tricky when we’re looking at, as an example, mainstream superhero comic art. Taken on the whole, it’s flagrantly obvious that the physical representation of females in this medium is problematic. But what’s the most effective way to call attention to and cite that? Finding one overly sexualized representation of a female in one panel of an otherwise mostly benign artist’s work can actually detract from the issue, since it leaves that artist and his or her fans room for appropriate righteous indignation. They might in turn point to an artist who draws every single female in broken back position every single time—and indeed, that guy is a problem, but he’s still not the problem. The problem is the ubiquity of that vision, and although responsibility for fixing it rests on all of our shoulders, social critiques of it are most effectively directed toward industry leadership. The people who can create the most pervasive change are not just the guys who draw that way, but also the editors who approve those pages, the creative directors who sanction those choices and, especially, the publishers who steer that industry.
Getting back to individual creative responsibility, though, I do want to acknowledge that constructing and sustaining fictional worlds is difficult. If I’m introducing you to a universe of my own making and I fail to mention or in any way acknowledge the existence of porcupines, there are no porcupines in my universe. If an unusually literate porcupine were to point this out to me, it wouldn’t be enough for me to just say “hey, look, there was a cat, which is a mammal, and if there were mammals you can infer that there were rodents and a porcupine is a rodent so get off my case.” I would have to acknowledge that porcupines were just not on my mind when I was writing my story. Though it’s a little trickier to trace base culpability, the same is true, to a large extent, for any work I do in a previously established universe such as Gotham in the DCU. In that case I might say, “Really? No one ever did a Batman story with a porcupine in it? I could have sworn Chuck Dixon covered that once…” But the porcupine (he’s prickly, get it?) would still be correct in asserting that the representation of porcupines in my work was wholly inadequate. And what if, meanwhile, Mark Millar wrote six comics with porcupines in them, but five of those times, the porcupine was raped—er, I mean, run over. The porcupine might fairly conclude that Millar’s work frames porcupines as, first and foremost, road kill.
Funny when it’s porcupines. Less so when it’s females, or people of color, or members of the LGBTQA community, or the disabled or anyone over thirty. Of course, not every story can or should be fully inclusive, but when you can identify overarching patterns of exclusion you have a legitimate case for calling someone out. Inclusion requires effort—both in our real lives and in our fictional creations. When creators or entire industries fail to make that effort—as happens often enough to theoretically keep all social critics busy all the time—those creators or industries are resting on and actively reinforcing privileged social standings. Inviting someone to explore the way their personal biases affect their work is far more useful than skewering them over a line or two of bad dialog.
Because another complication of fair creative critique is that writing well is difficult. The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, whose work you paraphrase in your question, is amazingly good at penning dialog. Someone else’s efforts might be a little clumsier and therefore somewhat miss the goal of establishing the teasing camaraderie you reference, which might in turn lead someone to read the interaction with distaste and deem it kind of uncomfortably gross. Whether or not they deem it misogynistic, though, should hinge on the frequency of uncomfortably gross interactions in relation to the lack of empowering, or even neutral, agreeable ones.
Which now brings us to artistic intention. Intention is a whopper, because here in North America, at least, we live in a society that prizes and rewards self-reported virtue over witness-reported honor. That means that you can move through the world believing yourself to be a good and decent person even with heaps of evidence to the contrary piling up against you. “Look, I mean well,” you might say. And that’s probably true. What we know about creating good fictional villains is equally applicable in real life: almost nobody believes that they are doing the wrong thing. And indeed, intention does count for something, just not very much of the thing. I talk to my six-year-old about intention a lot, because he has friends who are also six, and six-year-olds, generally lacking in refined agility, have a tendency to plow into, knock over, and otherwise pulverize each other at alarming rates. I want him to understand that he doesn’t have to assume that he and little Timmy aren’t friends anymore just because Timmy accidentally knocked him over. The fact that the action was an accident warrants acknowledgment. But then—and this is the important part—I ask Timmy to apologize anyway, because whether intentionally or not, he has hurt his playmate, and needs to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions. In my six-year-old’s school, first graders do this by straight-up apologizing and then asking what they can do to help the person who got hurt feel better. Can you imagine how quickly we could start moving things along if adults took a similar approach?
Educator, consultant and writer Jamie Utt frames it very lucidly in a piece called “Intent vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter,” (which I strongly encourage you to read). He writes:
…Making the conversation about intent is inherently a privileged action.
It ensures that you and your identity (and intent) stay at the center of any conversation and action while the impact of your action or words on those around you is marginalized.
Genuinely marginalizing a person or people—whether through your words, actions, creations or lack thereof—has an impact that goes beyond you and your intent. And it is that impact that needs to be addressed in any meaningful conversation. This is true in fiction as well as in life. The only exception to this in fiction is when a character, story, era or encounter is intended to reflect something hurtful. You can write about a misogynistic character without being a misogynist. Highlighting, calling attention to, illustrating or quietly rendering a portrait of human failings is absolutely within the purview of art. There are artists and authors who spend their entire creative lives digging up the very worst of what humanity has to offer. That is deliberate, arduous work, though, which can very rarely be confused with the careless stereotyping, consistently disrespectful characterizations and outright omissions of the bigoted.
So what can you do when you come across someone misapplying their (probably newly forming) social consciousness? If this happens on an online comment thread, you should seriously consider closing the page, because comment threads. But if you want to engage, one option would be to jump in to start pointing to a better, more meaningful example of whatever issue the critic is striving to indicate. You don’t have to defend the work they’ve been maligning, just see if you can gently redirect their passion. Most people who engage in this kind of behavior don’t find it unpleasant; they find it energizing and self-affirming. Many of them are people we want on our side; their fervor and drive are finite resources we can use to help usher in real change (conversely, some of them are just haters, and haters gonna hate). Bringing more information to a debate is probably the most effective intervention you can make. Now that you know where to draw the line, feel free to invite others to step up to it.
Here are some great links I referenced and/or wish I had space to reference pertaining to this topic. You should totally check them out:
Video Bonus!: Franchesca Ramsey, Getting Called Out: How to Apologize: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8xJXKYL8pU
Devin Grayson is a writer, a feminist, a bisexual, an atheist, a student of Buddhism, a type 1 diabetic and the step-parent of two amazing boys—one cis and one trans. She also happens to own fourteen books on etiquette, because Alfred. “Dear Devin,” is a contemporary inclusive advice column in which we navigate social graces and political consciousness in this 1st century of the 3rd millennium. Please join us by sending your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.