This week's post was inspired by the two events that sandwiched it: Banned Book Week and a panel that I'm doing at Can-Con: All Your Genre Faves Are The Worst. There's a real challenge when we look back at our favourite shows, movies and books. Stories and characters that were absolutely pivotal to our experience haven't always aged well, so what are we supposed to do when we recognize the flaws in our favourites?
Molly Ringwald wrote a powerful essay about her own conflicted feelings about The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Both stories feature developed female characters and looked at the challenges of the everyday teen experience. A lot of people felt those movies were the first time their voices had been heard and the films launched Molly's career. But they also used racial stereotypes as a punchline and portrayed sexual harassment as part of the courting process. (In Sixteen Candles, the drunk girlfriend is traded to the horny nerd and when she wakes up, she is enamoured of him and the implication is that they will start dating. And in The Breakfast Club, Bender looks up Claire's skirt and it is implied that he touches her inappropriately and by the end of the movie, they're dating.)
For myself, I used to love Ender's Game and Pastwatch by Orson Scott Card. Since then I've become more aware of the author's own homophobia and bigotry and seen how that seeps into the stories (male on male attacks that happen in the bathroom, a "cured" homosexual character, and solving the problems of colonialism by Christianizing the natives before Columbus shows up). I now no longer can enjoy those stories but they did have an influence on me that I can't ignore. There were good messages in them: the power of working together with people you can trust, authorities don't always tell the truth and it's up to the individual to do their own research, true understanding and compassion comes from understanding someone's story from their own point of view, and it's worth sacrificing your own comfort to right the wrongs of the past. But in my view, those good messages don't overshadow the negative ones. (And it's possible to find other, less problematic examples of stories with those same positive messages.)
We rarely call for books to be banned because of the hatred they promote or the hurtful insidious messages they include. In fact, you're far more likely to hear people championing their personal favourites and classics as somehow immune to any criticism. People dismiss concerns as irrelevant because the author didn't know any better or because the art should be separated from the artist. In fact, the books that tend to be targeted for banning are the ones that would encourage compassion and understanding by exposing readers to different points of view. I don't think I would support banning hurtful books, but I certainly would want to make readers aware of the issues within them. There's a difference between choosing not to promote a particular work and calling for it to be completely removed from the shelves.
I've recently begun watching the original seasons of The Simpsons with my son and I'm finding myself having to interject to tell him that some of the jokes are hurtful and not funny. It allowed us to have conversations about how sometimes comedians and storytellers use negative stereotypes for a quick laugh but that has a real impact on the people listening.
Sometimes it really does seem as if everything is tainted. The people who were raised up as heroes and role models keep getting revealed as predators and bigots at worst or indifferent to others' suffering at best. The stories that I used to read or watch over and over have negative messages about a wide variety of people. It can feel hopeless and make anyone with compassion question whether it's possible to escape.
Here's my point of view on the whole matter: the first step is to be aware of the flaws. Don't dismiss the potential harm just because a story was personally important or because it's a tradition.
The next step is one that will have different results for everyone: decide whether or not the flaws outweigh the positive. That's a personal decision and it may change depending on where a person is and what they're going through.
The last step to continue to acknowledge the flaws and the impact those flaws have on people. That might mean not recommending the story to anyone else but continuing to enjoy it privately. Or if it is recommended, including a content warning so that no one is caught by surprise. And as part of the acknowledgement, do frequent reality checks to make sure that the stories aren't reinforcing unconscious bias and your actions.
Art comes from people and that means that it's going to come from problematic people which means it's going to contain problematic aspects. Art is a reflection of culture, society and viewpoints, and that means it reflects the good and the bad. Expecting art to only be compassionate, encouraging, and uplifting is probably not entirely realistic. But at the same time, we shouldn't give up on that as a goal. Most artists create art because they have something they want to say, a message they want to send out into the world and thus share a little piece of wisdom or compassion. I still believe that stories are what will make the world a better place.
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Related posts: Why Books Get Banned and Separating Art from the Artist