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How to be a fan of problematic things.
April 3, 2012 9:20 AM   Subscribe

How to be a fan of problematic things.
posted by zoo (206 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
This resonates with me as a fan of "Morrissey, composer of depressing songs that are somehow cathartic and life-affirming" as opposed to "Morrissey, casual racist".
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:24 AM on April 3, 2012 [20 favorites]


Awesome! Mein Kampf is going back on the bookshelf when I get home.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:25 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


disclaimer: joke. I'm all for letting the joke stand and letting people wonder, but I'm a bit disgusted with myself.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:27 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


I find following rules like this to be a lot of hard work, so I resolve the conflict by not enjoying anything.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:30 AM on April 3, 2012 [33 favorites]


Faint of Butt: "I find following rules like this to be a lot of hard work, so I resolve the conflict by not enjoying anything."

that's basically my take on it too. I was hoping that this article would help me come to terms with all the problems that make me ashamed of the things I like and deprecate them when describing my favorite works of media to my friends. However, instead this was just another haranguing about how "your X is bad and you should acknowledge that liking it makes people you care about feel bad"
posted by rebent at 9:34 AM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Can we still ban Tom Sawyer 'cause it has the "N word?"
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:35 AM on April 3, 2012


Of course in practice, what happens is either:

1. Social justice warriors in fandom spending enormous amounts of time talking about the problematic aspects of things they are not personally fans of, while technically acknowledging but never actually spending time the issues of whatever it is they're personally into.

~OR~

2. Social justice warriors spending enormous amounts of time figuring out what the "right" way to consume/discuss a particular problematic narrative is, and then yelling at anyone who isn't jumping on board this particular consumption method.

~SPECIAL BONUS ALTERNATIVE~

3. Coming up with elaborate reasons why the thing you like isn't actually problematic but is in fact subversive, cf. that lady who's written enormous amounts of text defending Drive as a deeply feminist film that "inverts the male gaze."
posted by pts at 9:35 AM on April 3, 2012 [45 favorites]


I have shared this article with a lot of people in fandom over the months since it was published. It has actually helped some people move away from extreme reactions to otherwise-entertaining shows that have non-ignorable sexism/racism/etc issues (I'm looking at you, Stephen Moffat)--extreme reactions on *both* sides. Many of the "STOP HARSHING MY SQUEE!" people and the "HOW CAN YOU WATCH THAT?" people who have read it have been able to temper their all-or-nothing stances. It's been interesting to see the discussions that emerge.
posted by tzikeh at 9:36 AM on April 3, 2012 [13 favorites]


It sounds to me like a lot of her argument is specific to fantasy fiction. An author writing about the real world has much less ability to sanitize it, right?
posted by pete_22 at 9:38 AM on April 3, 2012


Compartmentalization works for me.

I'm a fan of Doctor Who because bow ties ARE cool (and long scarves were 40 years ago). The rest is crap.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:38 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


On lack of preview: rebent, pts, those have not been my experiences. It's a bummer that they have been for you.
posted by tzikeh at 9:39 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am not a fan of this highly problematic article.
posted by HumanComplex at 9:40 AM on April 3, 2012 [9 favorites]


I'll have to remember this the next time I go to recommend the LOTR books to my orc friends.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:40 AM on April 3, 2012 [23 favorites]


I feel like the unspoken last rule should be YOU CAN STILL LIKE THESE THINGS ANYWAY AND FEEL OKAY ABOUT YOURSELF.

Because, well, yeah. I mean, people seem to miss that bit. Liking 90% of a product doesn't mean you have to feel awesome about the remaining 10%, and it's okay for different people to have different cutoffs as to what would be 'too much'. Liking something doesn't mean you're necessarily excusing its faults, either.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:40 AM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


I love this message exactly as written. I do fear, though, that in a large number of the brains of the people who read it it will be streamlined to "it's OK to like problematic things" and the net effect will be more Starfire sexytimes.

And so, while I am a fan of this problematic message, I will respectfully listen to and engage with the opinions of people who have a different interpretation of it.
posted by gurple at 9:40 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Almost all the art I like is problematic. Exploitation films, as an example. And I have often argued that for all the genres problems -- and they are legion -- it gave artists who would otherwise have been excluded from filmmaking the opportunity to make movies, and to inject the themes that interested them into movies. And so, allowing for the distressing conventions of the genre, it was still one of the first places that subjects like race, sexuality, sexual violence, etc. were addressed with anything resembling forthrightness. And you find this elsewhere as well, such as in pulp lesbian novels, which were often marketed as though there were pornography but were, in many cases, actually written by lesbian women, who have never had such a forum for their voice before.

Art -- and especially popular art -- often comes fraught with problems. And that's fine; it's fascinating in its own way. I agree with this author. You shouldn't shy away from admitting to and addressing the problems, but, at the same time, it shouldn't preclude you from enjoying and finding value in the work.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:41 AM on April 3, 2012 [13 favorites]


There's something weirdly disappointing about the way that internet fandom has largely split between a game of social-justice "gotcha" and knee-jerk defensiveness. The point of feminist/queer/multicultural criticism isn't to say, "this is bad, and you're a bad person for liking it." It's to say, "hey, let's talk about this interesting thing about that work." Of course a given work of art is going to be problematic on some level. That's because racism, sexism, and homophobia are nearly universal problems.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:42 AM on April 3, 2012 [20 favorites]


"An author writing about the real world has much less ability to sanitize it, right?"

You are aware of sitcoms and romance literature, yes?
posted by oddman at 9:44 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


dinty_moore: I feel like the unspoken last rule should be YOU CAN STILL LIKE THESE THINGS ANYWAY AND FEEL OKAY ABOUT YOURSELF.

Ding ding ding--we have a winner. For me, that's the undercurrent of the entire article. I suppose if a reader doesn't infer that message, I can see how the article could seem blame-y and/or superficial.
posted by tzikeh at 9:45 AM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


A French friend once claimed Notre Dame de Paris should be torn down because it represented oppression by religion.

I'd agree with his comment that the cathedral represents oppression historically speaking, but I disagree that it should be torn down. Instead, we should turn it into a night club, museum, upscale brothel, whatever. And anyone non-facetiously proposing tearing down historical buildings should probably be ignored out of hand.

There is of course a critical difference between the literature of Tolkien, Lovecraft, etc. and the catholic church's edifices, namely those authors' works were created by their own effort, not slave labor.

It follows that advocating against literature based upon historical context is vastly worse than people wanting to tear down old monuments.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:46 AM on April 3, 2012 [10 favorites]


Aha! Thanks, jeffburdges. I knew there was something that was really, really problematic that I really like a lot, but I couldn't remember what it was. Yep, Lovecraft.
posted by gurple at 9:49 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who's going to break this to the YouTube commentariat?
posted by obscurator at 9:55 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I liked the article, but I would have added some advice about trying to expanding your horizons a bit. Read only one or two genres? Try a third, or try some non-fiction. Never seen an OLD silent movie ("The Artist" doesn't count)? Try watching one. Challenge: try "Birth of a Nation," many parts of which go down most people's throats sideways these days. Now THERE is a problematic work of art. Hate old "corny" musicals? See what Grandma thinks of Doris Day and, if she's a fan, make a movie date with her to watch "Tea For Two."

Even if you don't care for that kind of thing, try to see what other people see in it. You'll develop more empathy AND a broader appreciation of film, literature, or the art of your choice in general. All of that may help to defuse the knee-jerk "How dare you?" when people criticize YOUR problematic fave.

Of course, the hard-core "how dare you" crowd will stop reading after the first few sentences of the linked article.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:58 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


I am so glad these people came along to tell me how to be a fan properly. It would just break my fat old if they disapproved of how I liked stuff.
posted by jonmc at 10:00 AM on April 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


Fat old heart, that is
posted by jonmc at 10:01 AM on April 3, 2012


You are aware of sitcoms and romance literature, yes?

Not sure I follow. They certainly sanitize reality in one sense but not in the ways this writer is talking about (sexism, racism, etc).

Anyway I'm really not trying to bait anyone or defend anything. I agree with most of what she writes. In fact, why are we even using the word 'problematic' instead of just 'wrong'? If something is wrong, why not just say so? I understand this language of 'engagement' and 'dialog' but sometimes it can have the effect of softening our real criticisms of a work.
posted by pete_22 at 10:01 AM on April 3, 2012


There is another minor technicality in that we already reinterpret great literature in a modern context, so while old churches should be turned into night clubs, literature can simply evolve with us.

I throughly enjoyed the film Cthulhu for example. It retells Lovecraft's story The Shadow Over Innsmouth with the main character being a gay man who dislikes the pressure his religious family applies in their desire for offspring.

It quite cleverly forms his homosexuality into one aspect of his proper humanity and a strong resistance to the dehumanizing religion of his Deep One ancestors, which happens to be Christianity. Just lovely!
posted by jeffburdges at 10:02 AM on April 3, 2012 [10 favorites]


@faint of butt

i'll go you one better and refuse to feel okay about myself
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:03 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, basically, a form of mindfulness with regard to social issues?

Yep, Lovecraft.

It's easy to pile on Lovecraft, but there are many worse offenders. As far as racism and such go, Chesterton and Conrad are IMHO even more problematic than Lovecraft, and while the problematic elements are less numerous in Shakespeare's work, they're certainly there and they're more prominent in our culture.

And that's before we even get into sexism in literature, which, well.

It's easy to compartmentalize works of the past as having come from an earlier time, but when it comes to contemporary culture, we relate to those problematic elements in another way entirely. I bet if The Idiot had come out only yesterday, people would feel very differently about it, whereas had Doctor Who been a serial in the 19th century, it would be seen as amazingly forward-minded.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:04 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


In fact, why are we even using the word 'problematic' instead of just 'wrong'? If something is wrong, why not just say so? I understand this language of 'engagement' and 'dialog' but sometimes it can have the effect of softening our real criticisms of a work.

Because "problematic" and "wrong" are different words for different concepts. You assume too much when you think that people's "real" criticisms are that a work is "wrong", but that we're simply using the wrong language to describe our real feelings about it.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:06 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Good grief, by this sort of thinking LIFE is "problematic." Wait, no, make that THINKING is "problematic."
posted by trackofalljades at 10:06 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


@faint of butt

i'll go you one better and refuse to feel okay about myself


I do that, too.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:14 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


trackofalljades: Good grief, by this sort of thinking LIFE is "problematic." Wait, no, make that THINKING is "problematic."

Correct.
posted by tzikeh at 10:14 AM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Needs 'beanplate' tag.
posted by unSane at 10:16 AM on April 3, 2012


Good grief, by this sort of thinking LIFE is "problematic." Wait, no, make that THINKING is "problematic."

Welcome to the rabbit hole of contested discourse and narratives as sites of resistance.

See how far down it looks like it goes?

It goes way deeper than that. It goes all the way down.
posted by pts at 10:16 AM on April 3, 2012 [18 favorites]


(I thought the link was going to be about rape fantasies. Phew!)

Barry Bonds is my favorite ball player. Before Bonds, it was Ron LeFlore. The entire foundation of my basketball coaching was developed from Bobby Knight. I frequent the horse track and the dog track.

I know all about liking problematic things.

An author writing about the real world has much less ability to sanitize it, right?

Ha. Riiiiiiiight.

I thought the article was a little simple, but I did like the end:

"As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people. So there’s no need to defend them from every single criticism or pretend they are perfect. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is, not as you wish it were. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the problematic elements of the things you love."

It would be nice for a Mac user to say "yeah, it is fucked up that I can only resize my window from the lower-right corner!" and a Windows user to admit "yeah, DLLs are the suck."
posted by mrgrimm at 10:16 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


2. Social justice warriors spending enormous amounts of time figuring out what the "right" way to consume/discuss a particular problematic narrative is, and then yelling at anyone who isn't jumping on board this particular consumption method.

If I had a penny every time this happens....

I get if the reaction is frustration at uninformed opinions, but these days that seems to be just about 'any opinion that is not mine or the sanctioned groupthink', which then seems to signal the time to shout it all down, nuance be damned. For me personally in my recent history of trawling fannish space, is the casting of Lucy Liu in as a female!Watson in Elementary.
posted by cendawanita at 10:19 AM on April 3, 2012


I've really got no tolerance for stuff that's mean or disrespectful to innocent individuals, or to whole groups, and I've always been like that. It also bums me out, e.g., that LOTR can be full of magic and elves and whatnot...but females are still, just the sidekick sex. Magic swords? Possible! Heroic females? Weeeell...not so much (with a few exceptions).

That having been said, I'm so, so tired of the ceaseless harping on the holy trinity (race, sex, class). Constantly being told that I'm obligated to obsess about any hint of political incorrectness in any of my thoughts or preferences just annoys me. In fact, it makes me less inclined to be scrupulous in this regard. I know that contrarian tendencies are not always good...I'm not proud of this...

It's not that I necessarily even disagree with any specific point in the piece...and the LOTR stuff has bothered me many times. Still, I find myself wanting to say "oh, give it a rest."
posted by Fists O'Fury at 10:19 AM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


it is fucked up that I can only resize my window from the lower-right corner!

dude, upgrade to Lion

kidding
posted by pts at 10:19 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Social Justice Warriors

Is this a thing? Could anyone explain what's being implied by the term "warriors" here?
posted by ominous_paws at 10:20 AM on April 3, 2012


The point that resonated the most with me out of all this was that insistence on someone consuming a work when they've said they're not interested is disrespectful. This was my experience with Heinlein: I disliked his "adult" books, found them sexist to the point of creepiness and beyond, and still my ex kept telling me I needed to read more until I found one I liked. No, I really didn't, and no, I don't need to watch Game of Thrones, and so on.

It's OK for me not to consume that media--and it's OK for me not to get involved in fights about social justice in media too, particularly if that doesn't mean derailing someone else's criticisms. (This is where the SJW lose me: it's OK not to pile on.)
posted by immlass at 10:22 AM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


Is this a thing? Could anyone explain what's being implied by the term "warriors" here?

I dunno. All I can imagine is it means "people who forcefully disagree with me and are socially conscious."

I mean, there's no actual group of that name. It seems like a big tent to place a bunch of people with similar ideas and argumentative techniques. But, you know, it's the web. People are going to have opinions and express them, and sometimes be quite forceful about it. Especially in the world of fandom, which is sort of known for strong opinions.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:23 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think some people take this stuff way too far sometimes.
I like the movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World even though it is racist in its portrayal of Matthew Patel, panders to stereotypes in its portrayal of Wallace, and trivialises queer female sexuality in its portrayal of Ramona and Roxy’s relationship. For fuck’s sake, Ramona even says “It was a phase”! How much more cliche and offensive could this movie be? Oh wait, remember how Scott defeats Roxy, his only female adversary, by making her orgasm?
I went back and looked at those two fights. First of all, the Patel character wasn't 'stereotypically' Indian in his personality or mannerisms at all. He was shown as a typical "American", who happens to include a slight amount of Hollywood flavor into a song and dance routine while using mystical powers which also include "demon hipster chicks" who are based on the historical European conception of demons of demons (i.e. having bat wings).

The fight with Roxy was a little weird. But it seemed weird as a way to avoid having Scott beat up a girl. It seemed like they wanted on the one hand to try to normalize lesbian relationships, by making Ramona's having date her no different then the other past relationships.

On the other hand, they didn't want to have Scott physically fighting a girl. I'd forgotten about the Orgasm thing. That was kind of weird.

But hating on this movie (yeah, I haven't read the comic I'm a total philistine) because they tried to be liberal but didn't do it in the "Right way" seems ridiculous. They were clearly making an effort to be "progressive" on race and gender.

I mean, had they removed the few seconds of bollywood stuff from Patel's bit, would they have been accused of trying to erase someone's culture and make him totally assimilated? If they had had Scott fight the girl directly would they be seen as normalizing violence against women? I suppose they could have removed the female entirely, and made Ramoa totally straight, would that have been a 'more' progressive choice?
It also bums me out, e.g., that LOTR can be full of magic and elves and whatnot...but females are still, just the sidekick sex. Magic swords? Possible! Heroic females? Weeeell...not so much (with a few exceptions).
There were only a couple female characters, and they didn't play a big role. But two of the major ones were Arwen and Galadriel, who I would hardly 'sidekicks'
posted by delmoi at 10:24 AM on April 3, 2012 [18 favorites]


Magic swords? Possible! Heroic females? Weeeell...not so much (with a few exceptions).

And yet for me that exception is so awesome that the power of her awesome overshadows the lack of awesome of the other two characters and the movie makes her even more awesome because it writes out that crap about her giving up being a shieldmaiden in order to get Faramir and it keeps the bit where she slays the WitchKing seriously Eowyn is my homegirl and my precious and okay I'll stop now.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:28 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, let me add something. I think this article is for people who are fans of genres, but come from an approach to the world that is discomfited by expressions of oppression. And so the essay is intended to let them know that it is okay to still enjoy the stuff, but with the recognition that the stuff that concerns them is real, and doesn't have to be wished away, or ignored.

If you're not the person who sees the world that way, this essay is probably not for you. And arguing that it doesn't suit your worldview is sort of silly, because not every essay has to be about or for you.

You have no problem with the question of whether or not Tolkein's world is a racist one. Bully for you! Enjoy your Tolkein untroubled! But some people read things differently than you, and may have concerns that you do not share, and it's sort of pushy to get in their face about it and accuse them of being some sort of delusional defenders of political correctness just because they want to make sure that their enjoyment of art isn't hurting anybody.

I sometimes wish people would say to themselves, maybe I'm not the target market for this, and so maybe my opinion isn't needed here.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:29 AM on April 3, 2012 [19 favorites]


But hating on this movie (yeah, I haven't read the comic I'm a total philistine) because they tried to be liberal but didn't do it in the "Right way" seems ridiculous. They were clearly making an effort to be "progressive" on race and gender.
I think you're missing the point of the article. It's not saying that the whole movie needs to be thrown out because it has some problematic elements. In fact, it's trying to say almost the opposite: that even though the movie has these problematic elements, it's possible to a) admit that it has them and b) still like the parts of the movie that aren't problematic.
posted by jiawen at 10:30 AM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are real social justice warriors who actually do some good in the world, often by working for political organizations who do some good in the world, but funny none has ever complained to me about a long dead author.

We should employ the term offense masturbation or similar when discussing bitching about important literature being written in the past, well even the term social justice masturbation is too important sounding for this.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:31 AM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


We should employ the term offense masturbation or similar when discussing bitching about important literature being written in the past

Gosh, sure. What else don't you like that we should affix dismissive labels to? Are you not a fan of baked beans? Because I'd be happy to call them masturbation beans if it helps you.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:35 AM on April 3, 2012 [15 favorites]


I used to avoid problematic things but then I joined Metafilter.
posted by orme at 10:36 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


When I read pieces like this, I find myself thinking about questions of audience - that is, they all seem aimed at the people whose experience is centered and valued by the problematic text rather than at the people who are marginalized/hurt/shamed by it.

So this article seems to be "how to think about racism in fantasy if you are white" and "how to think about sexism in fantasy if you are male" and "how to think about queers in fantasy if you are straight". As per the article, when I say "yes, I acknowledge that the racism in LOTR is problematic, and I agree with your analysis and I will hear you out as you talk about it", well, basically I am positioned as a white person talking to a person of color (or to an ally/family/loved one/etc).

This seems inadequate.

It treats "things that are messed up in books" as "things that break 'the abstract rules of morality' in books" rather than "things that cause actually existing people pain and shame and misery when they read them".

When I encounter a book with a "fat homosexual rapist" villain whose villainy is symbolized by his fatness and sexuality and whose rapist nature is linked inexorably to his fatness and homosexuality...there's part of me that is simply miserable with shame and dismay and pain and sometimes actual despair. As a queer person and as someone whose queer body is always socially positioned as wrong or freakish or at best exotically pornified, I just....I just can't. I remember happening across those hateful portrayals in books that I read as a teen, and it really did affect me. I kept reading, but as a reader I was always positioned as disgusting and outside because of my queerness.

The thing is, when I am bothered because of a fat homosexual rapist villain, or a sexually voracious yet comic, unselfaware and disgusting woman character or any one of the many homophobic and misogynist characterizations I happen across all the time....I'm not upset because it breaks one of the rules on my "social justice warrior" checklist. I'm upset because it's about me and it makes me feel unjustly bad. It uses things about my gender or sexuality to amuse or titillate a privileged audience. It uses things about my gender or sexuality to symbolize evil or disgust. It portrays people like me as just a thing.

As a white person, I don't know how POC experience racist characterizations. But I imagine that it isn't very fun either.

I do not have a tidy solution.

Am I saying that authors should constantly self-edit so they are not racist misogynists? No. I'm saying that if you "naturally" find yourself writing racist misogynist crap, I'm going to think less of you and your work, and past a certain density of racist misogyny, I am going to think "that person is a racist misogynist, do not bother reading". And I'll stand by that.

And honestly, I am very suspicious of people who do not read much by women, queer authors or authors of color finding ways to happily consume deeply problematic work. If you want to read LOTR without feeling bad about yourself, maybe you could break out some Nalo Hopkinson or Angela Hairston pr Samuel Delany's sword and sorcery books or something so that you also get a different perspective. Want to read Dune and not feel ashamed? You must also read some Hal Duncan.

You may sign me "the person who can no longer listen to Le Tigre because every time she hears 'Deceptacon' she thinks of JD Samson being a big jerkface and just can't go on from there".
posted by Frowner at 10:38 AM on April 3, 2012 [61 favorites]


Is this a thing? Could anyone explain what's being implied by the term "warriors" here?

Media fandom is currently warring with itself over how to balance fannish enjoyment with flawed works of fiction against the desire to embody progressive, inclusive values in the world. That is the context in which this article fits.

The most combative and vociferous people involved in this conversation are occasionally referred to (generally with some irony) as "social justice warriors."
posted by pts at 10:39 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


You just wait a few centuries, until mentions of pet-owning, exercise, childbirth, and toilet paper are all "problematical," and everyone who has ever written about them is clearly a bad person.

I don't mean OH NO POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD, I mean that values change over time, and that anyone writing now is going to be judged by a different set of values in the future. Anyone outright dismissing works that are products of the values of their time needs to keep that in mind.
posted by darksasami at 10:40 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bunny, I don't know if the above was directed at me, but I think I'm pretty much in agreement with you, and the article.

Interesting stuff on Scott Pilgrim. When I first saw the movie I was besotted with the books, and was horrified when my partner complained the film was sexist. Now, looking back, having him defeat his only female opponent by orgasm? Yeah, coulda been done better.

The Bollywood stuff, on the other hand, made me cringe hugely even at the time.

(still love both film and books on the whole)
posted by ominous_paws at 10:40 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


everyone who has ever written about them is clearly a bad person.

Who are you arguing with? Nobody in this thread, or the original author of the piece that was linked to.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:42 AM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah, the orgasm thing in Scott Pilgrim leapt out at me as well.

I mean this as an honest question, though: what would have been the better way to play out that scene? They didn't want Scott to physically beat her up the way he had beat up the other exes. Should there just not have been a female ex? Personally, I think it would have been funnier if they'd hung a lampshade on beating her up - Scott makes a stand about not hitting women, but then she hits him in the face with a chain, so he says "fuck it" and goes to town on her as he had with everyone else. It's not as if the movie is about literally beating up all of your crush's exes, and it's not as if a man should have to hold back from a woman who's walloping him with a big frackin' chain.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:47 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


You just wait a few centuries, until mentions of pet-owning, exercise, childbirth, and toilet paper are all "problematical," and everyone who has ever written about them is clearly a bad person.

See, this is again where questions of audience come into play.

People who are centered by problem texts tend to understand the problems in a very abstract way as "broken rules" or "in poor taste". So naturally, they tend to think "why all the fuss? It's just words on paper." I do this myself when it's not my identity in question.

When writing about problematic texts, I would rather imagine my audience as those people who are marginalized by the texts - I would rather imagine that I am writing to people of color about LOTR, for example, than imagine that I am writing to white fans. Even if I would be writing to white fans to denounce LOTR, it's still assuming that the important audience is white people.

What I'm saying is that we live now, under the conditions of now. Let's imagine that in two hundred years, only an underclass of impoverished, exploited body slave surrogates gives birth. In that future, honestly, it would be kind of shitty for a non-surrogate to cheerlead about how wonderful childbirth sounded in those 21st century novels - it would be shitty because, to those people living then, it would be a safe and free person cheerleading about a painful and difficult experience that the free person themself did not have to undergo. Those people in that particular dystopia would read books (if they still had them) really differently than we do - what would not change is the idea that whooping it up over other people's oppression is lousy and clueless at best.
posted by Frowner at 10:47 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm not arguing with anyone in particular. Except the people from the future, of course. Shifty bunch, the lot of them.
posted by darksasami at 10:47 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is why I can only watch the anime I like while alone in my office, because I recognize the problematic stuff enough to not even attempt to sell it to anyone in my circle of friends.

Me: "It takes the form of a murder mystery that re-tells itself over and over revealing more and more of a greater mystery that exists in a meta-narrative. All the while you have to interpret and reinterpret fantasy scenes that are inserted by meta-authorial entities to cover up mundane tricks and secrets."

Friend: "This sounds awesome!"

Me: "Just, uh, try to excuse the weird incestuous breast grabbing that occurs early on. And the, um, rather unhealthy fixation one of the characters has towards minors..."

Friend: "Never mind. And I'm changing my phone number. You can't have it."
posted by charred husk at 10:48 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Stitcher: IIRC in the books he tickles her knee to save Ramona, and then eventually just kicks (katanas?) her ass straight up. Oh no, maybe now I have to go and read the books again to check.

Love your idea for the film, though.
posted by ominous_paws at 10:52 AM on April 3, 2012


I thought the article was a joke.
posted by Invisible Hand at 10:55 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


We're all problematic to someone somewhere. Stop feeling guilty for enjoying what you enjoy.

What you do is important. What you consume is not.
posted by snottydick at 10:57 AM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Personally, I just get so burned out by the criticism that it's harder and harder to care. Whatever literature or film you enjoy, someone is ready to scold you for it. If it meets with the approval of a Women's Studies professor, Rush Limbaugh is ready to hector you for it. If I can't please everyone, I'm happy to simply please myself.

I cringed at Scott Pilgrim. Game of Thrones doesn't bother me at all. Inconsistent and problematic? Probably. But I have bigger personal faults to give my attention to for now.

But no, I'm not going to try and sell anyone else on Higurashi either, charred husk.
posted by tyllwin at 11:00 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, let me add something. I think this article is for people who are fans of genres, but come from an approach to the world that is discomfited by expressions of oppression. And so the essay is intended to let them know that it is okay to still enjoy the stuff, but with the recognition that the stuff that concerns them is real, and doesn't have to be wished away, or ignored.

If you're not the person who sees the world that way, this essay is probably not for you. And arguing that it doesn't suit your worldview is sort of silly, because not every essay has to be about or for you.


I disagree. There is an implied unlimited scope--that is, unless there is some reason to restrict the universe of discourse, it's normally assumed to be: everybody. It's not that people are *illegitimately* interpreting this to be about them. That's the most straightforward interpretation.

Also, it is not that people who disagree with the piece necessarily aren't "discomfit[ted] by expressions of oppression."

Speaking for myself, I have always been angered by oppression--and that means: since before it was cool. However, I've grown weary of/annoyed by the obsession some people have with allegedly rooting out every possible bit of possibly incorrect possible attitudes that we might possibly have. It's close to what Kant calls "moral fanaticism." And too morally fanatical for Kant...whew... Think about it!

OTOH, I can imagine someone saying "ok, ok, I know it's a little crazy and obsessive but what if we thought hard about retrograde attitudes in the fiction that we like? What might we conclude about the proper attitudes about it? Yes, I know that there are much bigger fish to fry...and I know that down this path lies some kind of madness, wherein I disappear in a puff of self-criticism since even my decision to be on the internet is using electrons that might better be directed toward making medicine for children in Africa... But, just out of curiosity, what if we *did* think about it?"

OTOOH, I'd probably say: if I hadn't had to hear a bunch of irrational, morally fanatical stuff about race, sex and class for the last twenty-odd years, I might be interested. But it's just all become such a parody of itself...

OTOOOH, I actually think that many of that particular points in the piece are pretty good.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 11:11 AM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Those are all things in entertainment/popular culture. I don't understand the urge to justify/explain why you like a thing in entertainment/popular culture. "I find it entertaining" pretty much covers it.
posted by headnsouth at 11:19 AM on April 3, 2012


Why does this person feel that they can tell me how to enjoy things, and whether or not they are problematic?

I'm just going to like what I like, and let other people like what they like.
posted by empath at 11:21 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


So this article seems to be "how to think about racism in fantasy if you are white" and "how to think about sexism in fantasy if you are male" and "how to think about queers in fantasy if you are straight". As per the article, when I say "yes, I acknowledge that the racism in LOTR is problematic, and I agree with your analysis and I will hear you out as you talk about it", well, basically I am positioned as a white person talking to a person of color (or to an ally/family/loved one/etc).

I'm male, cis, white ... I have a fair amount of passing-for-straight privilege, too, although I'm queer. The stuff that really bothers me tends to be disability-related, particularly (though not exclusively) dwarfism. And "midget" is something that pops up a fair amount in media. Not to pick on Joss, but there were two Whedon-show lines that just really made me feel funny - one in Buffy, where it's an in-passing line ("it must be bunnies ... or maybe midgets") and one in Firefly (where Early talks about apprehending an arsonist: "You know, with the exception of one deadly and unpredictable midget, [River] is the smallest cargo I've ever had to transport). These are admittedly minor infractions, but they feel awkward.

And yet, both of those episodes are among my favorites in his ouvre. How do I reconcile that? This article approaches that. Now, I don't have to prove that I'm cool and not uptight by liking these episodes and shows; certainly, there are things I just can't bring myself to watch. Like Million Dollar Baby, which comes off as a pretty hardcore defense of euthanasia at the expense of any sort of disability positivity. (Austin Powers falls somewhere in-between - it's much "worse" in it's treatment of dwarfism, but I found it hilarious.) So there is relevance to those of us in marginalized groups.

And hey, it's important to talk to allies about how this affects them - that they don't have to give up all the popular media they're used to just because they're allies.

If you find media of non-trivial length and depth that isn't problematic in some way, let me know, I'd be fascinated to see it.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:22 AM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


We should employ the term offense masturbation or similar when discussing bitching about important literature being written in the past, well even the term social justice masturbation is too important sounding for this.

I think this is very apt, and contra Bunny not just a bad word for something you don't like. A lot of things on the Internet can be thought of as forms of pornography, in the sense that pornography is a sexual "superstimulus" that provides direct rewards without any of the effort, friction, and real-world consequence historically associated with the stimulus. People want to experience sexual stimuli (and since pornography seems to work better for men, we are mostly talking about men); if they have access to the firehose of Internet pornography they may spend a couple hours a day on it. Modern society has found a way to cut out the "middleman" of behaviors that lead to sexual intercourse and supply the reward directly instead.

A lot of the Internet is similar superstimuli supplying different kinds of reward. You can look at pages and pages of cute puppy pictures, for example -- again, it's just the payoff; no need to even walk a dog. A term like "cute porn" or something would seem quite apposite.

Similarly, there are sites and forums and loose networks out there that exist solely because at some level, people really love the feeling of outrage, or really love the feeling of superiority to wrong-thinking evildoers. And the same competitive pressures that have produced free, instant-access porn optimize these sites to produce the most outrage for the least effort. And so "offense masturbation" as a term may not have that swing, but I think it gets at something quite real.

None of this is to defend, say, the Lord of the Rings, which I think is both great and troubling. But the enterprise of attacking (say) the Lord of the Rings often does have something in common with sitting alone in front of a glowing monitor with your hand shoved down your pants.

The point is perhaps clearer when we observe outrage and anger mostly divorced from substantive criticism. A couple months back, I got into it in the comments of a fantasy blog I then followed, which had linked to a blog called "Requires Only That You Hate" -- an aptly titled outpost that basically exists to turn up the level of vitriol on "problematic" SFF works, and follow dissenters to their Internet "homes" to harass them. Here is the comment thread; there is a whole ideology of how being cruel and nasty to people is really enlightening, and how any objection is a "tone argument" -- but at bottom what matters is that people love the rush of anger and cruelty.
posted by grobstein at 11:22 AM on April 3, 2012 [33 favorites]


But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise ourselves without systemic prejudice, nor can we connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots.

This doesn't follow. At all.

Realism isn't a tool to help people relate to anything. Exaggeration seems to work better most of the time. Shy nerds relate to Ender because they see themselves as being hated for the useful talents they have, not because they literally want to go to Battle School (some exceptions apply). Certainly not because they think it's likely that they could have been recruited to Battle School in real life.

Realism is a world-building technique that changes the context of the story from one where sheer competence or the Power of Love can defeat armies, into one where those things might improve your odds, in some contexts, but good people who don't deserve it still end up disappointed and dead. Science fiction being how it is, a lot of fans find realism appealing for its own sake, and so get pissed over Downton Abbey's failure to show any genuine misery in the underclass.

None of that means that realistically-handled discrimination is actually appropriate for any given story, and fans often have weird ideas about what realistic discrimination looks like. But this type of justification is not quite so cynical as to consider prejudice an inalienable part of human nature.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:22 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was a bit turned off by her examples. Yeah, LotR is underpinned by a racist mindset. But now is it canon among the hypersensitive that SoFaI is racist and sexist? And Scott Pilgrim...very debatable to say the least.

I'm not such a fan of the advice, either. I am all for accepting works that may not have a certified perfect rating on their representation of identity politics, but this article advises us to foreground and engage these issues. No thanks, I'd just rather enjoy the work. If someone else wants to make a big deal out of it, I'll discuss it then, but for those of us who aren't full-time social activists, this is a bit tiresome. If you don't think so, try complaining about the lack of refutation of the patriarchy next time someone raves about "Game of Thrones" at a dinner party.

Not only that, but I have to make allowances for the fact that my condemnation isn't enough, and that other, deeper condemnations are (presumably) equally valid. The only example the author gives is of when her interpretation was more negative than that of her friend, so I'd be interested in hearing her response to the notion that SoFaI is a secret endorsement of the KKK. I don't see any room in her advice for simply disagreeing with a problematic interpretation. What should I do if I really don't think that SoFaI are either racist or sexist? Should I just shut my mouth, or are we not even allowing for the possibility?

Also, is "problematic" the right word for this? There are lots of other ways that something can be problematic.
posted by Edgewise at 11:27 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


edgewise is it really that stressful to consider that stuff that comes off as benign to you may come off as hurtful to other people?
posted by beefetish at 11:34 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


But now is it canon among the hypersensitive that SoFaI is racist and sexist?

....I don't think you have to be hypersensitive to see SoIaF as racist and sexist. At all.

All non-white characters are barbarians whose only salvation is a woman so white she's practically an albino?

Nearly every episode features at least one instance of completely gratuitous female nudity, including real or simulated sex acts explicitly intended to titillate a straight male audience?

I mean, I think the show has a lot going for it, but I find it borderline unwatchable sometimes. And I'm hardly in a tiny minority of viewers.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:35 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The bit about Roxy getting defeated by orgasm left me scratching my head. If your partner explodes into a shower of coins every time you bang, you will get pelted with them, you won't get any orgasm yourself if you haven't already, and then there's no cuddling. I doubt it'd have gotten that far, though, because if Roxy knows that she'll end up respawning back at the mall after sex with some of her money missing (possibly her clothes as well. Not sure how that works), I imagine it would be something of a disincentive for her. Maybe if she drank, like, an invulnerability potion beforehand?

I don't think that gimmick had anything to do with not wanting to show Scott beating up a girl, because he PUNCHED THE HIGHLIGHTS OUT OF HER HAIR.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:43 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


i mean getting srs for a second, this is part of this ongoing argument of a sort that i have with mrs. bees, who is forever vexed that i do not uncritically like a lot of shit, that i usually have something grumpy to say about some media thing's quality or the fucked attitudes it conveys. and i don't get why this is a problem. it seems like more of a problem to demand the right to uncritically enjoy shit with gross ideas in it, that you somehow don't have to engage with the ideas that are in a work just because they make you uncomfortable. sorrryyyyyyy
posted by beefetish at 11:43 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


you somehow don't have to engage with the ideas that are in a work just because they make you uncomfortable.

You don't have to engage with any idea. I mean, I can't make you. I think it'd be a good idea, though.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:44 AM on April 3, 2012


Talking about ASoIaF but only using examples from the adaptation gets to be confusing.
posted by rewil at 11:46 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


dash you know what i'm getting at. that it is somehow offensive or incorrect to engage with the stuff that's in a work, because it is "normal" to "just enjoy" something
posted by beefetish at 11:52 AM on April 3, 2012


Talking about ASoIaF but only using examples from the adaptation gets to be confusing.

Yup, because there's a judgment implicit ... and there should be. If someone writes something really, really racist, that reflects badly on them as a writer (and a person).

In terms of ASoIaF (the books) and AGOT (the TV), the problem comes when people discuss what a sexist jerk George R. R. Martin is because of simulated lesbian sex in Episode 5 (or whatever). HBO, maybe. George? Naw.
posted by Myca at 12:00 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


And as far as the books go, I think tarring ASoIaF as overly sexist is a pretty extreme stretch in a series of books that's almost entirely about how fucked the feudal world is for people who don't fit certain criteria (wealthy, trueborn, male, able-bodied).
posted by Myca at 12:04 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


And as far as the books go, I think tarring ASoIaF as overly sexist is a pretty extreme stretch in a series of books that's almost entirely about how fucked the feudal world is for people who don't fit certain criteria (wealthy, trueborn, male, able-bodied).

Definitely agree. A lot of critics elide the portrayal of vile acts with endorsement, but they are not necessarily the same thing. We talked about this in a recent George R.R. Martin thread. Pardon me if I link to my own comment. A lot of criticism that is outwardly about politics is really about the censorious disapproval of "icky" modes of expression.
posted by grobstein at 12:11 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


that you somehow don't have to engage with the ideas that are in a work just because they make you uncomfortable.

You actually don't have to engage with them if you don't want to.
posted by empath at 12:22 PM on April 3, 2012


thanks empath, dash didn't mention that upthread. but feel free to jump on the phrasing that seems unclear instead of engaging with my comment in good faith.
posted by beefetish at 12:23 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, there's a strange prudery of representation at work here, as though one needed to certify one's rectitude by constantly and vocally disapproving of every fictional representation of something that, if it existed in reality, one might find distasteful or uncomfortable. It really does seem as though the author hasn't thought at all about what fiction actually is, perhaps because he/she's arguing with an imaginary legion of thoughtlessly defensive fans who think "it's just imaginary" is some kind of universal get-out-of-interpretive-jail-free card.

The whole piece seems based on a bizarre faux-naive approach to media criticism, in which the only art above reproach would be some sort of perfectly anodyne wish-fulfillment fantasy, whose world had all its "problematic" elements — indeed anything that might make anyone think or feel anything potentially uncomfortable — ironed out. I mean, who says things like this:

After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect.

...and what on earth does it mean? What wouldn't be "problematic" and why is the only permissible response to a "problematic" thing contrition? This is the rhetoric of penance-granting at the confessional, not of a serious form of aesthetic critique.
posted by RogerB at 12:24 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


edgewise is it really that stressful to consider that stuff that comes off as benign to you may come off as hurtful to other people?

Consider? Stressful? No, obviously not. I didn't say that there was any problem with considering things, or that any of it is "stressful," per se.
posted by Edgewise at 12:37 PM on April 3, 2012


In movies and books, they don’t show that very much, because it’s boring and gross. Well, guess what: bigotry is also boring and gross. But everyone is just dying to keep that in the script.

This is about moral hygiene, not political criticism. It's an argument for sanitizing fiction, because god forbid a work of art should make someone uncomfortable. What would this person possibly do when confronted with the thought that, for a lot of very good art, making the audience productively uncomfortable is the work's entire point, its reason for existing? (Say "that's gross" and run away?)
posted by RogerB at 12:39 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does any of this discussion apply to stuff like the Bible?
posted by fredludd at 12:40 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


fredludd: "Does any of this discussion apply to stuff like the Bible?"

Maybe if you're doing some biblical hermeneutics.
posted by charred husk at 12:42 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Narrative Priorities:

I mean, I think the show has a lot going for it, but I find it borderline unwatchable sometimes. And I'm hardly in a tiny minority of viewers.

A Song of Ice and Fire is the name of the books...the TV series is called Game of Thrones, after the title of the first book. While they are pretty similar, they are not the same. For instance, all those scenes of gratuitous nudity are much more of an issue for the screen. While those scenes don't bother me, I can see how some people might feel that lots of unclothed women is sexist.

Also, I do believe that you are in a tiny minority of viewers. Not that this bears on the rest of what you said, but you might want to be aware of this.

As for the stuff about Daenerys: you are entitled to your outrage, but I think it is unfair. I'm not really inclined at this time to get into a deep analysis of why I disagree with you...which is part of why I disagree with the author's advice about foregrounding these so-called "problematic" issues; it's tiresome. I mean, consider this quote from beefetish:

it seems like more of a problem to demand the right to uncritically enjoy shit with gross ideas in it, that you somehow don't have to engage with the ideas that are in a work just because they make you uncomfortable. sorrryyyyyyy

I can't judge who is "right" or "wrong" here, but mr. beefetish sounds like he must ruin a lot of shows for mrs. beefetish. Not everyone wants to come off their favorite show to a somber discussion of which groups were treated fairly by the narrative, etc. My girlfriend goes to church every Sunday; I don't find it necessary to tell her that she's worshiping a nonexistent entity in an institution responsible for bloodshed and misery. I say "have a nice time at church." If I'm feeling cheeky, I'll add "say hi to jesus for me," and if I'm still in bed, the whole thing comes out sounding a bit more like "mrmph."
posted by Edgewise at 12:56 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Oh boy, DIY propaganda! Who needs those expensive big gun PR firms to spin the populace now...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:10 PM on April 3, 2012


It's sad that "fans" are so insecure that they need an essay like this. Perhaps they ought to take a closer look at their personal investment in "fandom."
posted by borges at 2:13 PM on April 3, 2012


I don't think that gimmick had anything to do with not wanting to show Scott beating up a girl, because he PUNCHED THE HIGHLIGHTS OUT OF HER HAIR.

That wasn't Scott Pilgrim. It was Todd, Evil Ex # 3.
posted by not that girl at 2:20 PM on April 3, 2012


Well, guess what: bigotry is also boring and gross. But everyone is just dying to keep that in the script.

True, Do The Right Thing and Mississippi Burning were boring and gross. What nonsense! Bigotry and racism are actually very useful subject matter for literature, whether major themes or not, and works on a number of levels for advancing plot and character and setting, etc. Could there be other ways to get these things across in the fantasy genre? Possibly, but the fact bigotry and racism is a real-world phenomenon that exists does not mean it's simply a lazy way out for writers in the fantasy genre. It's a useful touchstone to something that most people understand about how society works and has worked in the past. Which has often been pretty terrible about race.

I sometimes wish people would say to themselves, maybe I'm not the target market for this, and so maybe my opinion isn't needed here.

Me too, but somehow I doubt we're talking about the same people. If you're (not you personally) too "discomfited by expressions of oppression" to allow people enjoy Scott fucking Pilgrim without bringing up dubious claims about how terrible it is to Indo-Canadians or something, yeah, I'm going to question whether you're playing "is this offensive Bingo".
posted by Hoopo at 2:24 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you're (not you personally) too "discomfited by expressions of oppression" to allow people enjoy Scott fucking Pilgrim without bringing up dubious claims about how terrible it is to Indo-Canadians or something, yeah, I'm going to question whether you're playing "is this offensive Bingo".

Well, fortunately nobody in the original essay or in this thread is telling anybody else what they can or cannot enjoy. And, in fact, the original essay's theme was "go ahead and enjoy it anyway."
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:28 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


And, in fact, the original essay's theme was "go ahead and enjoy it anyway."

I wouldn't characterize it that way. I'd say it was more "you can enjoy it anyway so long as conform to this set of progressive-thinking strictures about how you do so," which is a very different animal.
posted by tyllwin at 2:42 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, the least charitable interpretation is always a different animal.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:48 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fine. In charity then, replace "strictures" with "suggestions for things we should try our darnedest to do as self-confessed fans"so as to conform to "the only way to be a good fan of problematic things."
posted by tyllwin at 2:56 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't judge who is "right" or "wrong" here, but mr. beefetish sounds like he must ruin a lot of shows for mrs. beefetish. Not everyone wants to come off their favorite show to a somber discussion of which groups were treated fairly by the narrative, etc.

How is that "ruining" shows? Maybe someone's favorite racist show just ruined my day, I don't think it's rude to talk about that.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:56 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


If the only correct way to be a fan of problematic things is to avoid actively offending people, shutting them down, or lying to preserve the notion that it isn't problematic, you know, I'm okay with that.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:59 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


"you can enjoy it anyway so long as conform to this set of progressive-thinking strictures about how you do so,"

Progressive-thinking strictures like not condoning racism and sexism and homophobia, maybe. Somehow I'm okay with that.

What I don't get is why people who don't care get such a bee in their bonnet. Like, just enjoy your show. No one's stopping you. In fact, a bunch of people made the show, just for you.

Seriously though, all that's at stake here is not getting pissy when someone points out that something you like has some nasty attitudes in it. In other words, growing up.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:02 PM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


Fine. In charity then, replace "strictures" with "suggestions for things we should try our darnedest to do as self-confessed fans"so as to conform to "the only way to be a good fan of problematic things."

Well, the only way for this to be a problem is to deny that, say, Game of Thrones is problematic. Since problematic just means "constituting or presenting a problem or difficulty," Game of Thrones is undeniable that. The significance of the problem will vary from person to person, but the fact that people raise the issue means that a problem has been raised. And it happens in art. Game of Thrones deals with incest, rape, race, violence, and a wealth of other issues, and that's going to invite analysis -- I would argue that art inherently problematizes things.

This essay argues that we don't have to feel bad if we feel there are unaddressed problems in a piece of work, or if we are not satisfied with the way the piece solves those problems. That we can enjoy the piece nonetheless. But that, if we really care about the piece, we don't deny that the problem exists, but address it, and recognize that this is part of investigating a piece of work we care about.

But, jeez, I suppose that can also be interpreted as the PC brigade telling people how they have to enjoy art. Because, yeah, that's a fair take on it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:05 PM on April 3, 2012 [9 favorites]


Is this where I get to complain about the racist characterizations of Ferengi? Because, at least according to my recollections, throughout Deep Space 9 more efforts were put in to "humanize" Cardassians than Ferengi, and the Cardassians were built up to be some sort of space nazis.

Plus, all the Vulcan and Klingon taunting that goes on in the various Star Trek series. Not cool. And not something I noticed or that bothered me when TNG, DS9, and Voyager were airing.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 3:09 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you want to be SUPER literal about it, shows as such are never problematic, but they might represent something that is. Because of that, they might offend people, and they might make useful propaganda for the people who believe in whatever's represented. Those sorts of problems vary by context, so there are very few if any cases where you can have certainty that a show does or doesn't cause problems for somebody.

This is the case for communication in general, actually. We try to communicate helpfully anyhow. I mean, I hope you do. One part of communicating helpfully is, whenever someone has a problem with what you said, you don't have to agree or admit guilt, but you shouldn't outright dismiss it; instead, you should evaluate it and come to your own conclusion. It's a bad idea to try and finish the argument, because this isn't the kind of argument that gets proven.

The linked essay just takes that principle and applies it to discussions about entertainment. In doing so, it speaks as though the problems shows cause are measurable properties they have, even as it also insists that you should accept others' reactions. It does this for much the same reason we tend to talk about fictional characters as though they have personalities and motivations. It's a very useful lie.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:11 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


How is that "ruining" shows? Maybe someone's favorite racist show just ruined my day, I don't think it's rude to talk about that.

How is it ruining shows, you ask? Try it and see...whomever you are talking to will probably let you know either explicitly or non-verbally that your comments are annoying them. By the way, this is a strange question to ask after you have suggested that your day could be ruined by a TV show. As if you could imagine the latter but not the former.

...and if your entire day is being ruined by racist shows, I would wonder how often this is happening. If it's happening more than once every year or so, then I think you are probably one of those people who mentally checks everything that is said or written for proper political correctness. And if that's the case, then you should know better than to watch TV in the first place! Just turn away when you get offended. If you're constantly exposing yourself to objectionable material, in addition to being oversensitive, you're obviously looking for reasons to be angry. And if all of that is the case, I can see why you wouldn't understand how following someone's favorite show with a round table discussion of race might be considered obnoxious and self-righteous. In other words, I hope that your example is purely hypothetical.
posted by Edgewise at 3:37 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Game of Thrones deals with incest, rape, race, violence, and a wealth of other issues, and that's going to invite analysis -- I would argue that art inherently problematizes things.

Why does the fact that a show "deals with" certain subject matters make them "problematic" from a PC point of view? "Dealing with" and "condoning" are two very different things, especially when many of the behaviors you mention are committed by characters who should be considered to be antagonists.
posted by Edgewise at 3:41 PM on April 3, 2012


Honestly, if I ruin a show for someone who'd rather lie and cover up racism than admit that it exists, that is not a huge problem in my life.

And yeah, if I have a problem with how TV represents women, my option is to never watch TV. Because that makes a lot of sense. All problems with race and sex in the past have been solved by the people who were hurt by them withdrawing as much as possible and never talking about it.

I agree with Bunny Ultramod, because yes, when you depict incest, rape, race and violence, there will be things to say about that. Sometimes critique, sometimes praise, but I am failing to see how talking about it is ruining a show.

How often is one of your beloved shows ruined by what you see as restrictive, outrageous PC behavior? Is it more than once a year? Maybe you should tone that down.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:46 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, the proposed equivalence between being annoyed that someone is talking about racism and being hurt by actual racism is pretty tone deaf.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:46 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why does the fact that a show "deals with" certain subject matters make them "problematic" from a PC point of view?


Well, I don't know how to answer that, since nobody here is talking about a PC point of view. Except, I guess, you.

As to how these shows might be problematic, well, Game of Thrones has absorbed from Tokein a sort of racial essentialism, where people born into one race or culture will eseentially have the characteristics of that culture. This is a complicated discussion, and not one we need to have here, but it's an example of how the text might present a problem to a reader or viewer.

How big a problem it is is up to the reader -- some are going to take more issue with it than others. And some of that is going to be a matter of taste, and some is going to be a matter of whether the subject affects you directly. But, regardless, if this raises a problem for you, the essay offers pointers as to how to still be a fan of the work, even while acknowledging that it raises those problems for you.

The fact that this sticks in anybody's craw is frankly astonishing to me.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:59 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


The reason to be a fan of "problematic" works is precisely that they can be both excellent and problematic. Many great thinkers, artists, etc. throughout history have held ugly biases. Indeed, many otherwise great cultures have endorsed such biases. What does that tell us? Well, it tells us that bias and othering have been seductive throughout the course of civilization, and remain seductive, even to intelligent, talented people who produce objectively excellent things. The way to excise this kind of thinking is not to condemn anyone who has harbored it, but to acknowledge that many people just like us, and many people who we would otherwise aspire to become, have been, in their ways, hateful. To just turn a blind eye to anything that falls short of some progressive ideal is, I think, to refuse to recognize how far we ourselves are from that ideal.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:10 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Though I suppose my approach works better with, say, dead authors, where there's a one-way relationship; Shakespeare is not going to roll over and say, "Fans have voted with their dollars, Caliban is totally cool!" Not quite as well with, say, a TV channel whose multimillion-dollar franchise you are further enriching with your viewership.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:18 PM on April 3, 2012


As to how these shows might be problematic, well, Game of Thrones has absorbed from Tokein a sort of racial essentialism

Sure, you can argue that. You can equally argue that the characters have no racial essence at all, but are all utterly products of the culture in which they were raised. I don't think it's that interesting a discussion. since I don't see any such supposed essentialism as central to the narrative. I surely don't think it's most worthwhile discussion that can be inspired by it. If you wanted to discuss the notion that Game of Thrones (the TV adaptation) is overly drenched in a sort of casual sexism even beyond the books, I'd call that much more accurate, but that's neither here nor there.

But what "sticks in my craw," as you put it, is that when I that assert that any racism in Game of Thrones is under the background level for any American production, I'm categorized as "tone deaf" to racism and lectured about the different way I need to engage with the work.

Note, I don't say that you specifically are categorizing anyone in that way -- by saying that all art is inherently problematic, I think you come at it from a different angle.
posted by tyllwin at 4:20 PM on April 3, 2012


This is a really good thread, and I'd like to ask a question. I'm having a lot of trouble grasping a point made in the first section:

Alternatively, some fans may find it tempting to argue “Well this media is a realistic portrayal of societies like X, Y, Z”. But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise ourselves without systemic prejudice, nor can we connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots. Um, yikes. YIKES, you guys.

And even if you think that’s true (which scares the hell out of me), I don’t see you arguing for an accurate portrayal of everything in your fiction all the time. For example, most people seem fine without accurate portrayal of what personal hygiene was really like in 1300 CE in their medieval fantasy media. (Newsflash: realistically, Robb Stark and Jon Snow rarely bathed or brushed their teeth or hair). In real life, people have to go to the bathroom. In movies and books, they don’t show that very much, because it’s boring and gross. Well, guess what: bigotry is also boring and gross. But everyone is just dying to keep that in the script.


The first section is about how you should learn to accept criticism of problematic elements in works you like, and so you shouldn't use "that's the way way it was" as a shield to avoid having to address such criticisms. But the quoted portion seems to go beyond this, and seem to be saying that a story shouldn't have such problematic elements at all. But sexism and racism do exist. It's not that one cannot imagine a world without them, it's that the world really does have them, so if you're writing realistically you're going to have to include them.

Am I misunderstanding something here? It seems fundamentally disingenuous to equate less-than-realistic portrayals of non-important elements like personal hygiene with fundamental changes to the structure of the story or world. Or that a story set in, say, the antebellum American South that features accurate levels of racism, homophobia, etc. is wrong to do so.

This is an honest question, because this point is very odd to me.
posted by Sangermaine at 4:21 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Am I misunderstanding something here? It seems fundamentally disingenuous to equate less-than-realistic portrayals of non-important elements like personal hygiene with fundamental changes to the structure of the story or world.

I think the point is, if the story is about racism or sexism, then fine. If it's not explicitly or even implicitly about racism or sexism, but they are merely background elements informing relationships and so on, and the world in which this is occurring is an entirely made-up one, then we should perhaps see this artistic choice as akin to someone writing a fantasy story in which key plot points revolve around bodily functions: aesthetically distasteful and juvenile.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:26 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


But sexism and racism do exist. It's not that one cannot imagine a world without them, it's that the world really does have them, so if you're writing realistically you're going to have to include them.

This is a rather silly argument. The examples used in the article - Scott Pilgrim, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings - do not even approach reality in the slightest. There's no impediment to those works not reflecting the crappiest things about the real world.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:29 PM on April 3, 2012


Incidentally, why is LoTR racist? Orcs are a race of evil creatures. A species, actually. Your a racist if you falsely think that members of race 1 are inferior to members of race 2. So, if orcs were really good, or a mixed bag, and, say, Tolkien made it look admirable to hate them all for their orcishness...well, that would be racist. Or if he made orcs stand-ins for some real race/species.

It's not racist to imagine a species that is much, much better than we are, nor to imagine a race that is much, much worse.

The place of females in LoTR has always bugged me (though, incidentally, I'm male, FWIW). I just don't see the alleged racism.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:33 PM on April 3, 2012


So a fantasy like Tolkein must always reflect a harmonious multicultural ideal or it's on the level of juvenile fart jokes?
posted by tyllwin at 4:34 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's not racist to imagine a species that is much, much better than we are, nor to imagine a race that is much, much worse.

Well, it'd certainly racial essentialism to present that all Orcs, for example, are evil by nature.

One of the problems we have in Tolkien is that, while it is possible for good characters to choose evil, it is not possible for evil characters to choose good. Apparently, if you are an Orc, you are just screwed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:41 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, I don't know how to answer that, since nobody here is talking about a PC point of view. Except, I guess, you.

Don't run away from the term just because it's now unpopular. I believe that it's accurate. If you disagree, I'd be interested to know what you think that the difference is, since it's always possible that I have been using the term incorrectly.
posted by Edgewise at 4:43 PM on April 3, 2012


Incidentally, why is LoTR racist? Orcs are a race of evil creatures.

A valid question. I am guessing that you are more familiar with the movies than the books. Even if you are familiar with the books, it's easy to miss the references, and the most telling references are not in the actual LotR but the "bible" of Middle Earth: The Silmarillion. Anyway, Tolkien's racism isn't reflected by how he treats orcs, which are, as you correctly state, a fantasy species. Rather, they are evident in how he deals with the Southern and Eastern peoples that don't make much of an appearance in LotR. Even then, his racism is not of a particularly nasty variety, but rather a kind of parochial and patronizing racism. They aren't debased so much as just a little bit inferior.

Well, it'd certainly racial essentialism to present that all Orcs, for example, are evil by nature.

Again, it has nothing to do with orcs. Orcs are not human beings, and do not constitute a human race.
posted by Edgewise at 4:44 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the assumption is that all the Middle Earth races are stand-ins for humans. Every race in the book has fixed characteristics that you know as soon as as you know their race. That's bad enough with the Dwarves. But Orcs, however they were technically created in the book, serve in the text as a sort of debased human. A race that is bad and irredeemable by its very nature. A race that deserves ethnic cleansing. Thinking being with free will are being depicted as deserving of genocide. It's not hard to see that as a bit of a problem.
posted by tyllwin at 4:44 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


But the quoted portion seems to go beyond this, and seem to be saying that a story shouldn't have such problematic elements at all.

I have this problem with the article as well as some of the comments here. People are conflating a story that "deals with" certain things to be essentially approving of them, or something like that. The thought line is not entirely clear, so I share your confusion.
posted by Edgewise at 4:45 PM on April 3, 2012


dixiecupdrinkingIf it's not explicitly or even implicitly about racism or sexism, but they are merely background elements informing relationships and so on, and the world in which this is occurring is an entirely made-up one, then we should perhaps see this artistic choice as akin to someone writing a fantasy story in which key plot points revolve around bodily functions: aesthetically distasteful and juvenile.


Why? Since violence and racism are things that happen, why can't an author use them as tools to "inform relationships" and create a world?

His thoughts were red thoughts: "This is a rather silly argument. The examples used in the article - Scott Pilgrim, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings - do not even approach reality in the slightest. There's no impediment to those works not reflecting the crappiest things about the real world."

But this is wrong. Just because a work isn't explicitly set in our world, does not mean it doesn't even attempt to have any realism and should white-wash everything. Again, violence exists. Racism exists. A story in which neither of these things happen in situations where they obviously would would come off as mindlessly utopian.

Can no fictional work ever deal with troubling real-world issues because they are not 100% real?
posted by Sangermaine at 4:48 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Don't run away from the term just because it's now unpopular. I believe that it's accurate.

Well, you're wrong, and I won't have you dictating how we discuss this by affixing reductivist labels that only exist to paint a broad collection of opinions as single-minded and foolish.

But you have been doing an awful lot of paraphrasing and recasting of arguments in this thread so they become what is useful to you. I would ask you to stop doing this, as it isn't arguing in good faith.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:51 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


it'd certainly racial essentialism to present that all Orcs, for example, are evil by nature.

Well, essentialism is just the view that some things have some properties essentially. Nothing wrong with that. The error would be to attribute false and derogatory properties to some race...whether you think they're essential or not. Even in this context, I don't see anything wrong with it. Orcs are evil by nature. No problem with that. They may not have free will or whatever.

I'm not saying that it's a happy view; just that if it's an immoral view, it's not obvious why.

I am guessing that you are more familiar with the movies than the books.

Nope. Don't care for the movies much. Much more familiar with the books.

Tolkien's racism isn't reflected by how he treats orcs, which are, as you correctly state, a fantasy species. Rather, they are evident in how he deals with the Southern and Eastern peoples that don't make much of an appearance in LotR. Even then, his racism is not of a particularly nasty variety, but rather a kind of parochial and patronizing racism. They aren't debased so much as just a little bit inferior.

That's a sensible point. I haven't re-read Tolkien in many years, so that stuff is not that vivid in my mind. I do remember thinking that I was less that 100% totally super-comfy with absolutely all of those bits.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:54 PM on April 3, 2012


Bunny Ultramod, way to lay down the law. I'll try not to cross you again!

In other words, give me a break.
posted by Edgewise at 4:55 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Can no fictional work ever deal with troubling real-world issues because they are not 100% real?

Of course they can. The trouble happens when they reflect and reenforce real-world problems, rather than examine them. A lot of work is unconsciously reflective of the world it authored lived in, and unconsciously reflects the problems of that world. And that's just what it is. How much this is a problem for you is going to be based on your own experiences of the world -- some people can read Lovecraft's xenophobia or the extreme misogyny of Cerebrus without blinking. Some people can't. In Lovecraft's case, he wasn't using xenophobia as an element of character, or to examine the subject -- he was just xenophobic. In Dave Sims' case, he was legitimately misogynistic, and it increasingly became the theme of the comic book.

And so, if you have an issue with xenophobia or misogyny, can you still read these books and enjoy them? This piece argues you can, and I agree. But it's better done with an awareness of these textural problems, rather than pretending they don't exist.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:57 PM on April 3, 2012 [11 favorites]


In other words, give me a break.

I am telling you that I will not participate in a discussion that is framed in terms of political correctness. If you wish to continue to have that discussion, you are, of course, free to, but you're arguing with an imagined enemy, rather than anything said in the original post, or in this thread.

Tilt at those windmills, friend! I shall not use my lawmaking skills to blockade you!
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:59 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why? Since violence and racism are things that happen, why can't an author use them as tools to "inform relationships" and create a world?

They are real parts of the universe we live in, but so are bodily functions. Racial biases influence the way we interact but so does, for instance, the sudden need to take a dump in the middle of a conversation. The latter scenario rarely appears, the former is ubiquitous. Why? Maybe it's because people are using racial analogies often subconsciously. If so, you are not saying anything about racism. You're implying that racism is an intractable part of any relatable world.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 5:01 PM on April 3, 2012


(Which I suppose is, in its way, saying something about racism, but not a particularly positive thing and not one that the writers, directors, and so on likely would endorse were it conscious.)
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 5:02 PM on April 3, 2012


But what is an Orc, really? They're nothing but humans with an ugly face and an ugly label. The notion that some obviously sentient creatures may eat human food, wear human clothes, use human weapons and speak a human tongue, yet be deserving of extinction because of their genetics pretty much defines racism. The victims of genocide are always, always, subhuman.

I don't think you have to view this as the defining characteristic of LotR. I know I don't, but for myself, I can't deny it when it's that clear.
posted by tyllwin at 5:04 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is this where I get to complain about the racist characterizations of Ferengi? Because, at least according to my recollections, throughout Deep Space 9 more efforts were put in to "humanize" Cardassians than Ferengi, and the Cardassians were built up to be some sort of space nazis.

Plus, all the Vulcan and Klingon taunting that goes on in the various Star Trek series. Not cool. And not something I noticed or that bothered me when TNG, DS9, and Voyager were airing.


Interesting. I was just commenting to my husband the other day, when we stumbled across some original trilogy Star Wars stuff on TV, that one of the things I disliked about the new Star Trek was that the aliens were closer to Star Wars aliens aside from Spock. In Star Trek, aliens have always been given fairly fleshed-out cultures. Sure, some of those portrayals are problematic, but species had languages, customs, unique cultural considerations and viewpoints.

In Star Wars on the other hand, the most human alien we get is Yoda--even Chewie has a non-speaking role. Aliens speak gibberish or are grotesque. Most have no semblance of a culture. It was odd to see aliens like that in a Trek franchise for me. It's not just that they were puppety (I think Farscape showed that even puppet aliens can be humanized), but that they were essentially othered through their portrayal.

Fantastic Racism is a useful term.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:42 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, should have probably linked to Space Jews instead. It's more on topic.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:43 PM on April 3, 2012


I really love political-correctness "arguments", which are invariably of the form
1. p ∈ PC
2. PC is bad
3. p is bad
where they never do the actual work of justifying 1). So silly.
posted by polymodus at 5:49 PM on April 3, 2012


Can no fictional work ever deal with troubling real-world issues because they are not 100% real?

I didn't say that. Of course fictional works can deal with real world issues. See: all of fiction ever. In particular, science fiction has a tradition of dealing with real world issues in the context of the fantastic. Le Guin's The Dispossessed deals with the politics of privilege, capitalism, socialism. Butler deals with prejudice and bigotry in her time travel story Kindred, and her vampire origin tale Fledgling. Asimov deals with the nature of humanity in pretty much all of his fiction.

But that doesn't mean that all fiction must perpetuate the most negative parts of our culture, simply because our culture has those negative parts.

Do you, for example, contend that Kirk should not have kissed Uhura because racism existed in the 60s and there was strong opposition to interacial relationships?

Do you really think that, for example, Scott Pilgrim was 'dealing with' stereotyping of Indians and lesbians as part of the text? Or that it was enhanced by that stereotyping in any way? If not, why was it there? I would say that it was lazy and thoughtless writing. That doesn't mean I don't love Scott Pilgrim. It just menas that it's not perfect. I'm OK with that.

If we can't even eliminate casual thoughtless bigotry from our speculative fiction, then we can't eliminate it anywhere.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:05 PM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Again, it has nothing to do with orcs. Orcs are not human beings, and do not constitute a human race.

This is a kind of silly approach to take. None of the peoples of Middle Earth are remotely real, not even the ones that look like humans. For one thing, they live in a world with a an economic system that seems to function without any trade and political systems with an astonishing amount of convenient consensus. So, really, the Elves and Orcs and stuff are no less real that the Gondorans.

It is possible for imagined things to stand in for things that really exist.....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:08 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


But what is an Orc, really? They're nothing but humans with an ugly face and an ugly label.

This was not at all how I read the books. I mean, if you had a story about a sentient aggressive alien species that wanted to kill all humans, would that be problematic? (I guess you'd say so...) The idea that such a species could not possibly exist strikes me as insufficiently imaginative. And if you don't buy into the fictional world because you don't think it's plausible, that's fine. But that's an aesthetic criticism, not a moral one.
posted by smorange at 6:13 PM on April 3, 2012


it seems to me that the best answer to problematic art is to create better art
posted by pyramid termite at 6:18 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mean, if you had a story about a sentient aggressive alien species that wanted to kill all humans, would that be problematic?

Well, if they all, automatically wanted to kill all humans, I would say that was a very essentialist view of race, that people are programmed with characteristics (like, say, blood lust or human-killing) by their genetics. Why the hell would aliens want to "kill humans" anyway? I mean, if that is their goal rather than, say imperialism or religion or something. It's kind of silly for the goal of an intelligent species....

Eleanor Arnason's A Ring of Swords does an excellent job of presenting an alien race that is not a monolithic block but has plenty of reasons for wanting a war of extermination with humans. They also (and this is the tension in the novel) have plenty of reasons for not wanting it, either, and various alien characters fall at various points on each side of that line (and the humans are similarly scattered). It's a much more satisfying read than the books where all "Z people are like this" while "all Y people are like that," which seems like the preferred mode for many F and SF books.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:23 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why the hell would aliens want to "kill humans" anyway?

Perhaps they've met us?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:29 PM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


Won't someone please think of the Orcs?!?
posted by stp123 at 6:32 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's kind of silly for the goal of an intelligent species....

Silly, yes. But these kinds of aliens are usually narrative devices that are only personalized insofar as that's useful to indicate the nature of the threat. I guess you might argue that you can't really depersonalize them as long as they kind of look like humans and demonstrate some human-like behaviors, but at that point you're basically arguing that narrative devices are essentialist, which...yeah, they are, and we would not have novels without them.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:37 PM on April 3, 2012


I mean, if that is their goal rather than, say imperialism or religion or something.

Are we programmed with those in our genetics?

Seriously. I don't know.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:41 PM on April 3, 2012


I mean, if you had a story about a sentient aggressive alien species that wanted to kill all humans, would that be problematic? (I guess you'd say so...)

I'd say it's a potential problem. I think, like LotR, the book might be worthwhile anyway, but I couldn't deny that it was an issue. Heinlein 's Starship Troopers and Card's Ender's Game both take this on, of course. I think they're both worthwhile, but I also think that this is such a major, major part of the plot that serious consideration has to address it. Unlike, say, the lack of multiculturalism, or racial essentialism in Game of Thrones, which strike me as very incidental.
posted by tyllwin at 6:59 PM on April 3, 2012


snottydick:"We're all problematic to someone somewhere. Stop feeling guilty for enjoying what you enjoy. What you do is important. What you consume is not."

You have noticed that your novel application of the salvation-by-works argument justifies snuff films, kiddie porn, and cannibalism, right?
posted by gingerest at 7:30 PM on April 3, 2012


Well, if they all, automatically wanted to kill all humans, I would say that was a very essentialist view of race, that people are programmed with characteristics (like, say, blood lust or human-killing) by their genetics. Why the hell would aliens want to "kill humans" anyway? I mean, if that is their goal rather than, say imperialism or religion or something. It's kind of silly for the goal of an intelligent species....

LOOKS LIKE SOMEONE DOESN'T UNDERSTAND THE SUPERIORITY OF THE DALEKS
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:46 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


when I that assert that any racism in Game of Thrones is under the background level for any American production, I'm categorized as "tone deaf" to racism

Actually, that is not why I called your appraisal tone deaf at all.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:47 PM on April 3, 2012


Actually, that is not why I called your appraisal tone deaf at all

I was using that as a way of describing general experiences, and not your comments in particular. I actually thought it was Edgewise that you'd called tone deaf, and that I was included instead in the admonition to "grow up."

But if you're specifically saying that I'm tone deaf, and its not because I overlook racism, then, please, why is it?
posted by tyllwin at 8:23 PM on April 3, 2012


That sure is a lot of imperative tense in one place.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:28 PM on April 3, 2012


Oops, no, you're right-- I saw the quotes and thought you were Edgewise. I'd have to hear you hum a few bars first!
posted by stoneandstar at 8:29 PM on April 3, 2012


I'd have to hear you hum a few bars first!

Oh, I promise you'd say I was tone deaf then. Fish in a barrel and all that. Wise people cover their ears when I shower.
posted by tyllwin at 8:44 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seriously though, all that's at stake here is not getting pissy when someone points out that something you like has some nasty attitudes in it. In other words, growing up.

Hrm. "Nasty attitudes" are subjective, though; is it enough to simply give the complaint due consideration, or must one agree with it, too?

it seems to me that the best answer to problematic art is to create better art.

Not going to happen. See, I'm of the "all art is inherently problematic" school. Not because creators of art hold problematic views (they often do, but that's not the issue here); it's because the viewer necessarily brings a problem-attuned reading to the art. I mean, that's art: we impose meaning on it just as much as we derive meaning from it. The danger of metaphorical or symbolic interpretations is that symbols can mean anything with the right framing; they're as bad as statistics that way.

Ask yourself whether there's anything so problem-free that no one, anywhere, could possibly find it problematic in any way. Your answer to that will tell you if just making better art is going to change this dialog.

Well, if they all, automatically wanted to kill all humans, I would say that was a very essentialist view of race, that people are programmed with characteristics (like, say, blood lust or human-killing) by their genetics.

Let's just make this about the Orcs for a second: Tolkien himself didn't have a settled origin for them, but the most common interpretation seems to be that they're fallen and corrupted Elves/Maiar/Men. They don't have free will; their corruption is specifically what makes them Orcs. There's no more a possibility of a "good" Orc than there is of a "good" devil; if they were good, they'd still be angels.

Orcs didn't evolve. I doubt they even have genetics, because magic. Sometimes a square peg just doesn't fit into that round hole.

Besides, it's the swarthy Easterlings that are more off-putting than the Orcs anyway.

You have noticed that your novel application of the salvation-by-works argument justifies snuff films, kiddie porn, and cannibalism, right?

As much as I laud your clever interpretation of "consume," that's not much of a rebuttal (or a good faith argument). I think we can safely say that there isn't much disagreement to be had over the murder, rape, and consumption of actual, non-fictional, human beings, and go from there. Yes?
posted by Amanojaku at 9:19 PM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't think this is really about specific examples in literature/TV/whatever being racist or sexist or homophobic or not, as the LoTR and other discussions here seem to be rather polite. It's about the idea that no one should have the audacity to point out racism/sexism/homophobia if other people are having fun. Because it's annoying or boring or something.

I, personally, have more respect for someone who wants to discuss why/whether or not something is sexist than someone who just thinks I'm a nagging PC woman for mentioning it.

Also, sure, it's subjective. But if you agree that racism and sexism and homophobia are wrong, maybe it is wise to be thoughtful about what an underrepresented group might think about the mainstream media. Also, to acknowledge that they're underrepresented in the first place. In a world where gay characters kissing on screen is still a big deal, I find it mind-boggling that people think that more subtle forms of bigotry are unlikely.

I don't really see the point in defending one's right to keep the focus on "the actual show," or in other words, what straight white men experience, because I am a woman and think about being a woman every day, and I actually like to just admit that sometimes instead of assuming it's always off-topic. I have been noticing how unfair books and TV are to women since I was under 10 years old, this is not solely an internet feminist phenomenon.

It's true that art will probably never not be "problematic," because it delights in being so, but entertainment can step up its game in many ways. More non-straight, non-white, non-male protagonists for instance, is an obvious example of a pretty demonstrable imbalance. That actually can improve.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:00 PM on April 3, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think we can safely say that there isn't much disagreement to be had over the murder, rape, and consumption of actual, non-fictional, human beings, and go from there.

I think the Treyvon Martin case is a pretty good example of how murder is still perceived differently depending on the races involved, and actually there are many many people who defend rape in entertainment in various ways, to thinking it's a believable piece of character development to denying that it actually is rape to maintaining that men are born to rape and she was asking for it.

So while you and I might agree, there's no reason to assume that other people making and watching the same TV shows as us do. The "subjectivity" argument becomes kind of damning when you add that civil rights and the women's vote were issues of much contention in their day, and not because people wanted to identify as evil racists and misogynists, but because it seemed reasonable at the time. Plenty of otherwise enlightened people throughout history have held appalling views which we, in retrospect, view as clear-cut mistakes. There is a pre-existing power imbalance in these discussions, even if we're "just" talking about TV.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:09 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


*and by pretty good, I mean very sad
posted by stoneandstar at 10:10 PM on April 3, 2012


More non-straight, non-white, non-male protagonists for instance, is an obvious example of a pretty demonstrable imbalance. That actually can improve.

I hope so. But I'm disheartened by the prevalence of whitewashing of many of the few available minority roles (see for example The Last Airbender, or the adapation of Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea).

Worse than that, though, is the insane protest that arises when characters of colour are accurately portrayed by appropriate actors of colour; see, most recently, the crazy racist outcry against the casting of "Rue" in The Hunger Games - a character described as having "dark brown skin and eyes" - with a black actress, Amanda Stenberg.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:20 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


My food is problematic.
posted by cozenedindigo at 10:22 PM on April 3, 2012


Those who would like an alternative take on The Lord of the Rings from the perspective of the Orcs should read Kiril Yeskov's The Last Ringbearer. Quite good actually.
posted by wilful at 10:24 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


^Leave aside the cannibalism. I stand by the argument. People don't film the horrible things they do unless they expect someone to witness that film. What we choose to read or watch does matter. If someone is raped, or killed, to produce a film, choosing to "consume" that media, "enjoying what one enjoys" is complicity in the act. It's the most extreme case, yes, but I don't even think I'm slippery-sloping, much less Godwinning, when it's in this context.

As far as problematic literature is concerned, well, I'm basically a socialist feminist whose favorite genre author is Heinlein.
posted by gingerest at 10:26 PM on April 3, 2012


Gingerest, sorry, but I think you are slippery- sloping.

We're talking about fiction here, not documentaries, or news reels or, for heaven's sake, snuff films and child pornography. I don't know how you come up with the idea of a real live person being "raped, or killed, to produce a film" anyway, but especially so in this context. It just is not at all relevant to the discussion.
posted by misha at 11:09 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it was kneejerk anger at the dismissiveness of "social justice is all in what you do, enjoy what you enjoy" and should probably just be left aside.

Next time I want to counter that argument with something equally dismissive I'll just snort, "The unexamined life is not worth living," to myself instead of posting.
posted by gingerest at 11:37 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise ourselves without systemic prejudice, nor can we connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots.

I'm sorry, but that is grade-A nonsense of a level so major that it does not encourage me to read further. Putting sexism, racism etc. into a story for relevant realism is saying nothing of the kind. To claim that it necessarily is reflects a quite staggeringly narrow-minded viewpoint. I find that very "problematical" indeed.
posted by Decani at 12:45 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


LogicalDash: Silly, yes. But these kinds of aliens are usually narrative devices that are only personalized insofar as that's useful to indicate the nature of the threat. I guess you might argue that you can't really depersonalize them as long as they kind of look like humans and demonstrate some human-like behaviors, but at that point you're basically arguing that narrative devices are essentialist, which...yeah, they are, and we would not have novels without them.

Yes, actually we can. There are a ton of examples -- Arnason's work I mention above, the Grindylow (the aquatic monsters from Mieville's The Scar), who turn out to not quite be "mysterious unknowable savages in search of their stolen idol" as much as "mysterious creatures who have clear enonomic and political reasons fro doing what they are doing (although they may have "unknowable" reasons as well)." They are still alien, but their hostility to humans arises out of sensible internal concerns not just because the plot needs "bad guys."

Amanojaku: ...the most common interpretation seems to be that they're fallen and corrupted Elves/Maiar/Men. They don't have free will; their corruption is specifically what makes them Orcs. There's no more a possibility of a "good" Orc than there is of a "good" devil; if they were good, they'd still be angels.

This is pretty much a classic discriminatory argument. Replace "Orc" with "Negro," and it would fit into almost any mid-19th C pro-slavery tract. Replace "Orc" with "homosexual," and it could fit comfortably into many sermons and political speeches today. Add a line about "how we should pity them," and you are a good way towards a "hate the sin, love the sinner" defense of prejudice. (By the way, I am not saying that you are a racist for making the argument, just that you are proving my point that these constructions are, at their heart, racist.)
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:47 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


First, I agree that LoTR is problematic in its treatment of race, especially regarding the dark-skinned humans.

But I'm not sure we're supposed to think that orcs are a race who are evil in their essence.

The whole theme of the Lord of the Rings is that evil spreads as a kind of corruption, especially through the desire and power. (There's a link with the Ring of Gyges in Plato's Republic, where a ring of invisibility is used as a metaphor for how power corrupts).

Gollum was once a hobbit-like creature, who was gradually corrupted and deformed by the Ring, but even after centuries can still show inclinations towards good.

Saruman was good, but was corrupted by evil.

Gandalf cannot wield the Ring himself because the temptations of power would make him evil.

Bilbo shows signs of being corrupted by evil.

So, if characters of a "good" race can become evil, it seems to me that characters of an "evil" race could potentially become good.

We're not presented with any good orc characters. But when we do actually get a glimpse of orc life, I suspect we're supposed to have a little sympathy for them. They don't exactly have a great time, living in squalour and brutality. You're far better off as a typical hobbit than a typical orc. The orcs are victims of Sauron in their own way.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:13 AM on April 4, 2012


The only example the author gives is of when her interpretation was more negative than that of her friend, so I'd be interested in hearing her response to the notion that SoFaI is a secret endorsement of the KKK.

"This is a Godwinesque and wholly fanciful notion, which you do not believe and which has not been advanced by any sane person at any point. It is being advanced not with the intention of shedding any light, but rather to generate unnecessarily emotional heat and smoke in order to sidetrack the discussion."

Possibly. That's certainly mine.

If the question is "what happens if someone suggests that something she likes is problematic in a way that she had not noticed, or does not agree on" - well, why not try reading all the way down? Because that exact situation is discussed:
Thirdly you must acknowledge other, even less favourable, interpretations of the media you like.

Sometimes you still enjoy a movie or book because you read a certain, potentially problematic scene in a certain way – but others read it entirely differently, and found it more problematic. For example, consider the scene in Game of Thrones where Drogo rapes Dany (which he does not do in the books). One of my friends feels that it was portrayed like rape fetish porn, sexualising the act and Dany’s pain. But I feel that the scene focuses on Dany’s pain and tears in a manner that is not fetishising them (though even so the narrative is still totally fucked up because Dany and her rapist then go on to have a good, sexyfuntimes relationship…uh, no, HBO). I don’t agree with my friend’s interpretation but I recognise it as a totally valid reading of the scene.
posted by running order squabble fest at 3:34 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd agree that whitewashing by film producers is simply unconscionable, His thoughts were red thoughts, thanks for the links on A Wizard of Earthsea and The Hunger Games. As I noted, we can add to storied by delving more deeply into the topics it discusses, but pandering to racists by removing plot points is simply asinine.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:29 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I, personally, have more respect for someone who wants to discuss why/whether or not something is sexist than someone who just thinks I'm a nagging PC woman for mentioning it.

From a consumer position, I don't always welcome these discussions, because it's always a bit jarring to be told "I can't read [this thing you like] because it's racist/classist/sexist/homophobic/etc." But, as I get older, I find that it's useful grist for my own mill, and it sometimes leads to me going "huh, I don't really like this as much as I thought I did" or "if I consider that, it makes my reading a richer experience."

When I was a teen, first reading Lovecraft, I enjoyed the spookiness and the cosmic ideas and the scares. As I got older, I read more critically (and more criticism), and I started looking at him differently. First, I read some biographical material and some of his letters and I was "Hey, that's pretty racist, thank goodness the writer is not his stories." Then I began noticing that the stories were built on Lovecraft's racist (and classist and male-centric and and and) assumptions, and, for a while, I was like "fuck this guy." Then I came back to it and started rereading it, and I saw a lot about how his ideas were an expression of a fundamental anxiety of his time, which, being the peculiar guy that he was, he expressed peculiarly. You cannot ignore Lovecraft's prejudices and have his writing make much sense. And, once you acknowledge his racism, his later stories like "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Shadow over Innsmouth" develop an interesting ambiguity -- what exactly is Lovecraft saying at the end of those stories? How does that fit in with his racist beliefs? Is it a repudiation? A backwards incorporation? And this makes my experience of his work much more rich than pretending it doesn't exist.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:34 AM on April 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


What is an orc? A miserable pile of secrets!
posted by rebent at 6:17 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


You cannot ignore Lovecraft's prejudices and have his writing make much sense.

But you just said that you liked his stuff before you knew what he was like.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:24 AM on April 4, 2012


Me:You cannot ignore Lovecraft's prejudices and have his writing make much sense.

LogicalDash: But you just said that you liked his stuff before you knew what he was like.

Yes. And I also said that, as I matured as a reader and brought more to the table, my reading was deepened and made more rewarding by grappling with problematic aspects of the writer and his work (as well as a more developed understanding of the time, Lovecraft's influences, the impact he had on the genre, etc). My teen reading was, well, juvenile, and I skipped over and missed a lot of nuance. I don't regret the unsophisticated pleasures of my youth, but I wouldn't go back to them.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:40 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Grrr. Italics tags. The first paragraph is me, the second LogicalDash, the third me again.

I also have to say, I am not ashamed of my unsophisticated love of my childhood and young adult reading, since being ashamed of that would mean disrespecting the relatively limited person I was, although I sometimes choose to avoid reencountering books and films and comics and cartoons I loved as a child for fear that I won't be able to find anything more sophisticated to do with them. Sigh. I am large, I contain multitudes.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:44 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just don't understand why it's so hard to say, "I love aspects of thing but other aspects kinda suck." I've been able to do that since I was 13 and thought Anne McCaffrey was sort of rapey and Mercedes Lackey's gay guys were sort of absurdly tragic and sometimes Frederick Pohl's women weren't great and so on and so forth. Why is it so hard to acknowledge nuance like that? What makes some fans reluctant to do so? I never saw it as particularly less loving. Maybe even more loving--reading critically often involves reading more deeply, a greater familiarity with the source material and an engagement beyond pure enjoyment.

And from a writing standpoint . . . well, look at our example of one-note alien bloodthirsty savages. Aren't villains written with nuance better villains? Isn't it a good thing to argue that we should understand a species' motivations rather than have them be flat plot devices? The idea that our enemies were ever just out to get us for no particular reason was always based on a fairly shallow understanding of the interplay between cultures. It was a privileged viewpoint, too, and that privilege often gets in the way of complexity and empathy, and arguing for less complexity and empathy in modern writers is sorta weird.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:11 AM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, um, when you were reading Lovecraft as a teen, did it make sense, or didn't it?
posted by LogicalDash at 7:14 AM on April 4, 2012


Yeah, it was kneejerk anger at the dismissiveness of "social justice is all in what you do, enjoy what you enjoy" and should probably just be left aside.

Next time I want to counter that argument with something equally dismissive I'll just snort, "The unexamined life is not worth living," to myself instead of posting.
posted by gingerest at 11:37 PM on April 3 [+] [!]


Your inability to distinguish between consuming problematic media (the context of the original post) and and consuming the documentation of actual killing/rape/etc was what made me leave aside your comment in the first place.

How's that for dismissive?
posted by snottydick at 7:30 AM on April 4, 2012


Well, um, when you were reading Lovecraft as a teen, did it make sense, or didn't it?

It made a sort of sense, yes. There were many aspects of it that I did not get, and my understanding of it was not particularly deep, but the stories generally made sense as a narrative, yes.

I am puzzled at your focus on this point, since I don't see what it is supposed to mean. Do you agree that fiction can be read on multiple levels? Is plot the only thing in fiction? Can multiple subtexts, sometimes competing subtexts exist? Is it possible to grow as a reader and see things that were opaque to your previous self?
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:38 AM on April 4, 2012


You said:

You cannot ignore Lovecraft's prejudices and have his writing make much sense

with italics and everything, so I figured it must have been important. It didn't make sense. So I tried to make sense of it.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:06 AM on April 4, 2012


Yes to all your questions, by the way. But none of that has much to do with whether or not something makes sense, although there may be some senses of it that you can only get a certain way.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:08 AM on April 4, 2012


The only way we're not going to have people finding some works problematic is if the audience is absolutely homogeneous and shares exactly the same values, and all authors come from the same group and share those values. Then there will never be a derogatory or demeaning portrayal of the group the audience members belong to because it would never occur to any author to that. And no one will even bothered by negative portrayals of other people because none of those other people ever read books. And culture needs to be completely static so no one ever gets squicked by the attitude of somebody from a different time period.

This is of course impossible. Given that it's impossible, it would be nice if we could discuss thing that annoy in literature without automatically calling somebody a racist if they're not bothered by something as much as you are, and not automatically calling somebody a pearl-clutching ninny if they're annoyed by something that doesn't bother you. (Which I think is the point the author of the article was trying to make.) This, of course, is unrealistic too.
posted by nangar at 8:41 AM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I agree with what GenjiandProust said about reading Lovecraft. I do get a lot more out of reading him knowing something about that time period, and I think reading him gives me some insight into how people from his time and place looked at the world that I wouldn't get without reading fiction from that time period. It doesn't mean you can't enjoy his work without historical context.
posted by nangar at 8:59 AM on April 4, 2012


Lovecraft's racism is interesting because he both was and wasn't a product of his time. While of course racism was much more overt in his time, Lovecraft's especially vivid racism came from a retrograde, almost alien form of snobbery. He was from a "good" bloodline, but utterly without money, fame, or even employable skills. He was like a "Wandering Brahmin," left with only the remembered (imagined?) ideas of inherent superiority. On top of this cultural mismatch, his racism was tightly intertwined with his own paralyzing bouts of horror and anxiety.

His xenophobia became powerful fuel for a unique brand of horror that relied on images of the impossibly dark Other - not just dark because it isn't white, but dark because it's unseeable, unknowable, and not able to be understood. Pretty fitting, considering that H. P. Lovecraft was a meek, bookish shut-in, albeit one who was gregarious when it came to letters.

It's also interesting to reflect on how his mythos asserted that the aliens were the "real" creators and inheritors of this planet. When you really think about it, within the logic of his own work, nice little white men like H. P. Lovecraft himself were the alien invaders, and the Elder Gods were merely taking back what was theirs.

This switcheroo is not merely adolescent irony. The logic of Lovecraft's racism is quite different from that of Tolkein or Chesterton's racism. Tolkein saw the forces of goodness, whiteness, and light as eventually defeating the dark and beastly hordes. Chesterton saw the noble, simple Catholic as eventually defeating the callous, venal Jew. Lovecraft, on the other hand, saw people like himself as dim and tiny dots in a black and crazy sea, with no victory possible; it was only a matter of time before you were eaten, too.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:22 AM on April 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


So I've just listened to my first 2 Lovecraft stories in a podcast that was linked here recently, The Temple and The Hound. Based on how people are talking about him here, is there anything you would say about those stories that would change how you read them? Nothing really jumped out as racist to me, unless...would you say the reader was meant to accept the narrator's bits about his superior German genetic traits at face value? Because I thought choosing a racist German U-Boat captain as the main character was a deliberate attempt to make him unsympathetic.
posted by Hoopo at 9:30 AM on April 4, 2012


You said:

You cannot ignore Lovecraft's prejudices and have his writing make much sense

with italics and everything, so I figured it must have been important. It didn't make sense. So I tried to make sense of it.


There is a difference between being unaware, as I was as a young adult, and actively ignoring. In the first case, you can make the plot make sense (although Arthur Jermyn is just ridiculous and the body horror of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" has less impact); in the second, you need to ignore so much that any reading you come up with is going to be flawed -- you are essentially ignoring the feelings that give the story its narrative pressure (which is not the same as sharing those feelings).
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:32 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pretty fitting, considering that H. P. Lovecraft was a meek, bookish shut-in, albeit one who was gregarious when it came to letters.

Not really that meek, and he was pretty widely traveled for a shut-in (mostly in New England, true, but the man thought nothing of 5-6 mile walks on a regular basis).

So I've just listened to my first 2 Lovecraft stories in a podcast that was linked here recently, The Temple and The Hound. Based on how people are talking about him here, is there anything you would say about those stories that would change how you read them? Nothing really jumped out as racist to me, unless...would you say the reader was meant to accept the narrator's bits about his superior German genetic traits at face value? Because I thought choosing a racist German U-Boat captain as the main character was a deliberate attempt to make him unsympathetic.


The U-Boat captain is, himself, an ethnic architecture created to express Lovecraft's anger at Germany (which had more to do with his intense Anglophilism than any sense that the German attitudes were wrong, exactly). So there is that. In the Hound, I think we are supposed to see these good Aristocratic boys getting dragged, via lack of proper activity, into an increasingly debased lifestyle. There is also a strong whiff of homosexuality in the characters' decadent relationship, although it's a toss-up as to whether Lovecraft would have recognized it himself.

You might see it more clearly in their earlier reading of "The Call of Cthulhu." If you feel like reading stories, "The Shadow over Innsmouth," "The Horror at Red Hook," "He," and even the depictions of degenerate rural folk in "The Dunwich Horror" are probably more obvious places to look. "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family" is also an good example (if not a good story), and it features a boxing gorilla.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:43 AM on April 4, 2012


GenjiandProust said Lovecraft doesn't make "much sense," not that he makes "no sense."
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:44 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not really that meek, and he was pretty widely traveled for a shut-in (mostly in New England, true, but the man thought nothing of 5-6 mile walks on a regular basis).

He might have been a good walker, but staying within NE/NYC is the very definition of not being widely traveled!
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:51 AM on April 4, 2012


and it features a boxing gorilla

SOLD!
posted by Hoopo at 10:05 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The examples used in the article - Scott Pilgrim, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings - do not even approach reality in the slightest

I promise you, Toronto is a real place. I've been there.
posted by Hoopo at 10:15 AM on April 4, 2012


My favorite example of Lovecraft's prejudices is in "The Colour Out Of Space," in which hillbillies are given what-fer. It also happens to be one of his best stories.

Bonus beats: watch the movie Creepshow for Stephen King's fun remix of this story.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:21 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why is it so hard to acknowledge nuance like that? What makes some fans reluctant to do so?

At the risk of people thinking I mean all straight white men, I think it's because a lot of them are straight white men, and they don't notice the bias, and are used to their entertainment not offending them. And when someone brings up problems with the portrayal of women, they don't realize that women are always reading from a position of being female, with female experiences, whether it's conscious or not, &c. They're used to things being made for them. They're not used to scenes full of ornamental scantily clad men who are defined by their relationships to women, they're not used to seeing a male character only able to kiss a woman on top of the head because a kiss on the cheek means they'll burn in hellfire for their "lifestyle," they're not used to a cast made up of people of color with only one white character who acts like an unrecognizable white-bread stereotype and only plays supporting roles. Those might seem like extreme examples, but they're really not, they still happen, and they're what we're all used to.

I mean, some of them are so used to everything being for them that they email death threats to people for objecting to stereotypes about the developmentally disabled in a children's show about ponies. A show for children, some of whom presumably have developmentally disabled siblings and classmates. Even the ones who weren't emailing threats need to maybe examine their lives and their choices for awhile.

Again, not all straight white men are like this, and a straight white woman can be just as blind to homophobia and racism without being as blind to sexism, &c. &c. But ultimately it's usually personal. I mean, if you can watch TV and have fun with the freedom not to acknowledge any of that, why would you want to? Especially when it seems like other people are just plucking it out of thin air?

Okay, I'm done being reverse racist and sexist and heterophobic now. If you're not like this, assume it's not about you.


And GenjiandProust, I've had the same experience. I read a lot of books as a kid that didn't quite make sense on a psychological level, but were clear in terms of plot and theme. Returning to them now I understand why certain choices were made much better, and they're not as easy to swallow in terms of a straightforward entertaining narrative, but they're much more interesting and complex on a sociological level. And on a very basic level, when you're a girl reading fantasy novels you don't understand why all the female characters are always on sexual display, or why they're demonized for having their own motivations, or why the smart ones are always punished-- until you grow up and realize that that's how certain readers and writers want them to be. That's the part that doesn't make sense until you become a little more jaded.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:49 AM on April 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


Also, for the record, people are raped to make films all the time. Plenty of pornography is made under coercion. Slightly off-topic, but maybe not, since critique of pornography is usually the most incendiary. No "decent" person wants to think about drug and sex trafficking while they're jerking it!
posted by stoneandstar at 11:01 AM on April 4, 2012


in the second, you need to ignore so much that any reading you come up with is going to be flawed -- you are essentially ignoring the feelings that give the story its narrative pressure

I think it's entirely possible--easy, really--to accept the feelings while ignoring the prejudices that inspired them in the author.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:19 AM on April 4, 2012


I think it's entirely possible--easy, really--to accept the feelings while ignoring the prejudices that inspired them in the author.

It's possible, but not always easy or honest or satisfying.

An example is Chinua Achebe's critique of Heart of Darkness, where he argues that Joseph Conrad dehumanizes an entire continent of people in order to depict one white man's consciousness. It's possible and sometimes easy to subconsciously accept the truths that "Africans are less-than" and "Africa is a scary uncivilized world" and "Africans have no real society or art" for the sake of the mood and story, but why? If you're African, I'd imagine it's significantly harder to swallow, despite the fact that you can still read the novel as a study of European psychology. The dilemma of the lead characters still rings true, but the rest is vastly flawed, horrifying nonsense that does not go down easy.

And if Conrad can pin that baggage on a real continent of people, and it's still taught in schools with only the most rudimentary race analysis (or none at all), what makes people think that they can't be convinced to translate racist cultural messages to a fictional race? "Ignoring" the prejudices is easy if they don't affect you, I guess.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:45 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


After reading this thread, I'm a bit afraid that anything I make will be poisoned with a straight white male perspective that I won't even be able to identify. I'd like to make things that entertain & delight people, not things that horrify and offend them. How do I go about correcting this blind spot?
posted by allseeingabstract at 3:25 PM on April 4, 2012


Write honestly, and solicit honest reactions from people around you who do not share your experiences.

Ultimately, write as well as you can, and, if it suits you, try to write outside your experience if your experience is part of the majority, because that perspective is not lacked in this world. It's a difficult task, and not something you must do, but researching and writing about somebody else's experiences can really be an eye-opening experience.

This is also possible in the field of fantastic literature. Ursula K Le Guin wrote about black characters, Marge Piercy made a Hispanic woman her main character in "Woman on the Edge of Time." But if it's not what you want to attempt, write the stories that speak to you. But there are ways to look at what you right to see if there is anything you might consider, like the Bechdel Test, which our own JScalzi discusses in relation to science fiction.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:52 PM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


er, write, not right.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:55 PM on April 4, 2012


allseeingabstract, I think there are a few different answers:

1) Try not to be overwhelmed with anxiety. The creation of art is, in my opinion, one of the most important things humans do. I wouldn't say your works would be poisoned. That's not really, in my opinion, an useful way to look at things. Just try to be open to the possibility that someone reading or interacting with your work from a different perspective might have some important things to say about it.

2) Standard advice still applies. This stuff is hard work even if you're writing the most hateful, racist, stuff imaginable. Revise, plan, start things over, solicit criticism, and think hard about the choices you make.

3) If you're creating fiction, spend a lot of effort thinking about your character's history and motivation. Where did they come from? What are their goals? What are they getting out of what's going on? Do they have any reason to exist other than making someone else look good? If not, what's going on there?

4) Question yourself. Is there actually a reason you're depicting white people? Or is it just habit? Is your villain gay or dark-skinned? What's going on there? In fact, why is your villain villainous? Real people have reasons for the things they do. They might be awful, fucked up reasons, but they're reasons nonetheless.

5) And for real, don't stress about it. Not least because stress is rarely conducive to good work. Try to approach things from a perspective of craft - these are things you're doing to make your work better. But at the same time, you needn't expect perfection from yourself. As the article linked in the OP tries to take pains to say, it's alright to enjoy things with problematic elements. You may make things with a blind spot - that's ok. That doesn't instantly erase everything else about it.
posted by kavasa at 4:09 PM on April 4, 2012


allseeing, i think a really good way to do that is to follow bunny's advice and also try to expose yourself to perspectives that aren't your own, and if that process causes discomforts in yourself to examine that discomfort and try to grow from that discomfort, push your own boundaries, and realize that there may be things that you have been socialized to think of as "normal" that are hella insulting or marginalizing, and that it isn't a moral failing... it's how you choose to react to your boundaries being pushed

i mean shit, my upbringing as a maladjusted white kid in a hick town causes me to cram my foot in my mouth a few times a week yet.
posted by beefetish at 4:35 PM on April 4, 2012


After reading this thread, I'm a bit afraid that anything I make will be poisoned with a straight white male perspective that I won't even be able to identify. I'd like to make things that entertain & delight people, not things that horrify and offend them. How do I go about correcting this blind spot?

Well, the take-away from modern criticism is that everything is affected by that perspective, so we look at literature to understand how that perspective works in culture, not to judge works, authors, or readers to be good or bad.

And my take away from all the recent *-fails that have happened is that you should pick your critics well, respond to them gracefully (if at all), and offer to fix things if you should screw up in a way that's especially painful. As far as I can tell, getting defensive or snarky about criticism never goes well for the author.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:47 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


And my take away from all the recent *-fails that have happened is that you should pick your critics well, respond to them gracefully (if at all), and offer to fix things if you should screw up in a way that's especially painful. As far as I can tell, getting defensive or snarky about criticism never goes well for the author.

Wait a sec, how do you get to pick your critics? Care to expand on this?
posted by grobstein at 8:01 AM on April 5, 2012


Before you publish it.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:53 AM on April 5, 2012


I think we can sometimes make the mistake, as readers, that the opinions or actions of the narrator, or even other characters, are supposed to reflect those of the author.

We don't really think Ian McKellan goes around exorcising evil from infected Kings with his white staff (though that would be COOL), or that poor Sean Bean has died numerous times as the result of some small, very human flaw. We know they're just actors playing their roles.

When I read a book where women are treated badly, I don't assume the author feels women are lesser or deserve to be treated badly, either. That's just not right.

I know there are jerks who treat women badly. I know sometimes women do things about it. Sometimes men stand up against it. Sometimes, no one does. Maybe they feel powerless to do anything. Maybe they don't even realize there is anything wrong because everyone they know lives the way they do.

Exploring any of those character arcs feels believable to me. I don't see any as inherently problematic. I just want the author to be skillful about telling the story.

Authors put ugly things in fiction because good fiction is all about conflict, and if your characters always behave appropriately, there's no conflict to be had. And sometimes the ugly stuff mirrors the ugly stuff in the real world, because even if your world is a fantasy world, you need your readers to be able to relate to that world's problems.

I'd much rather read "problematic" works, honestly, because there's generally some depth to them.

Old horror movies are one example of what happens when you don't explore problematic themes. You could always tell who, as my father would say, would be "the blog's next slurp" in those movies, because the victims were people who did things they weren't supposed to. The first victim was invariably the "slutty" girl who made out with her boyfriend in the back of the car (not the good girl who asked to be driven home).

Those movies sucked. They were predictable morality tales to keep teens in line.

Avoiding stereotypes seems like a good way to go nowadays, but it really is too simplistic a solution. It's the other side of the same coin.

Of course it's wrong to make the villain an albino/crossdresser/dwarf, etc. At the same time, though, if you make every albino/crossdresser/dwarf in your fiction into sterling characters, that's wrong too. Not because it is "PC" or whatever, but because you are not creating a believable world.

We know in our own world that good and bad people aren't easily recognizable. We know that all the bad guys don't walk around with snake faces like Voldemort. In fact, most of us believe there are no wholly good or bad people, just peopke who sometimes do bad or good things. And knowing their reasons for doing those things, even when we don't agree with them, makes for a much better story.
posted by misha at 12:16 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


grobstein: Wait a sec, how do you get to pick your critics? Care to expand on this?

Good point. You can't silence anyone, but you can tune your mental and media filters to pay attention to criticism that's likely to be insightful, polite, and constructive. That's not necessarily people you agree with.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:25 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the any gender or any orientation bit makes Mass Effect 3 quite progressive.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:00 PM on April 5, 2012


Authors put ugly things in fiction because good fiction is all about conflict, and if your characters always behave appropriately, there's no conflict to be had. And sometimes the ugly stuff mirrors the ugly stuff in the real world, because even if your world is a fantasy world, you need your readers to be able to relate to that world's problems.

There is a difference between including ugly things for a purpose and including ugly things, say, to justify the ugly things the hero is going to do later on. And it's usually pretty easy to figure out which the author was going for.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:00 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is pretty much a classic discriminatory argument. Replace "Orc" with "Negro," and it would fit into almost any mid-19th C pro-slavery tract. Replace "Orc" with "homosexual," and it could fit comfortably into many sermons and political speeches today. Add a line about "how we should pity them," and you are a good way towards a "hate the sin, love the sinner" defense of prejudice. (By the way, I am not saying that you are a racist for making the argument, just that you are proving my point that these constructions are, at their heart, racist.)

And this is precisely what I mean when I say that any symbol can be massaged to fit any metaphor. I, at least, don't consider "Replace X with Y" to be a very good method of demonstrating (or ducking) racism, for the same reason "But if it were about white people, nobody would call it racist, so it isn't racist" is a poor defense against it: racism is highly context sensitive. If you depict George Bush as a chimp, that's not racist. If you depict Barack Obama as one, it is. You can't simply replace "Orc" with "Negro" or "homosexual" and have it be a racist tract any more than you can replace "Orc" with "Republican" and have it be a Metafilter thread, or "Orc" with "Corvette ZR1" and have it be an article at Car and Driver. None of those things are the other things, and the differences that metaphors try to gloss over are precisely what do the heavy lifting in helping us determine whether or not something is racist.

I understand your argument, and I don't think you're accusing me, personally, of being racist; no worries there.
posted by Amanojaku at 12:06 PM on April 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


You can't simply replace "Orc" with "Negro" or "homosexual" and have it be a racist tract any more than you can replace "Orc" with "Republican" and have it be a Metafilter thread, or "Orc" with "Corvette ZR1" and have it be an article at Car and Driver. None of those things are the other things, and the differences that metaphors try to gloss over are precisely what do the heavy lifting in helping us determine whether or not something is racist.

Except that "Orc" is a race (although an imaginary one) in precisely the same way that Tolkien would have understood "Negro" (or, I imagine "Black") to be a race -- a subset of people perhaps not entirely unrelated to "White People" (represented in the book as Humans, Elves (with the bonus aristocratic class marker), Hobbits (with the bonus rural gentry or good-hearted farmer class marker), and Dwarves (with the slightly less well defined artisan/engineer professional/class marker)), but "fallen" or "corrupted" into something lesser with cruder, baser nature. "Orc" is neither a political term nor a vehicle name, so I don't think this is as much a stretch as you seem to think it is, and it's worth discussing because it tells us something about Tolkien's attitudes, conscious or unconscious, about race.

Certainly, Tolkien's characters are fairly sexless, and I doubt a critical reader would get far by analyzing his work for sexual cues (Lovecraft is far more interesting in this regard), but there are loads of assumptions about race and class in Tolkien.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:28 PM on April 6, 2012


There is a difference between including ugly things for a purpose and including ugly things, say, to justify the ugly things the hero is going to do later on.

That's a purpose that you happen to disagree with.

And it's usually pretty easy to figure out which the author was going for.

When you "figure out" what the author was going for, do you then ask the author what they were going for, and compare?

If not, then you didn't figure out what the author was going for. You made an educated guess. It might have been correct, but you don't know. And even then, the author's own words after the fact of writing the story aren't terribly reliable as a source of information about what they intended at the time.

Think twice, then, before you make any pronouncements about what the author did or did not mean; and, for the same reason, about what the story does or does not assume.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:27 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I promise you, Toronto is a real place. I've been there.

Lies! Such a utopia could not exist in this sullied world.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:55 PM on April 6, 2012


Awesome! Mein Kampf is going back on the bookshelf when I get home.
posted by Mayor Curley at 18:25 on April 3 [2 favorites +] [!]

disclaimer: joke. I'm all for letting the joke stand and letting people wonder, but I'm a bit disgusted with myself.
posted by Mayor Curley at 18:27 on April 3 [5 favorites +] [!]


No but really: My mother has a swedish translation of Mein Kampf in paperback on her shelf. She found it in the small book section of a supermarket. She's no nazi and this edition was published by someone who considered it an important historical document. The fuss about that was big enough that it was soon taken out of circulation, and I don't think that's the right way to deal with any book.

This isn't exactly what the article talks about, but i'm often amused by how far the "bookshelf as self-expression" sentiment is often taken here on MeFi, as in "Run if you see Ayn Rand in the home of a new date!". Like, did you read Atlas Shrugged in secret and burn your copy after finding out you disagreed with it?

Let me also tell you just from reading a passage here and there: Mein Kampf isn't a seductive document in the same way as, say, the Bible. You wouldn't read it and conclude that National Socialism deserves a second chance.
posted by springload at 5:09 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


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