One thing that a lot of people have been doing during this pandemic is going back and re-watching and re-reading old favourites. And many of us are discovering that those old favourites have not aged particularly well.
It is astounding to present-me to see how many of the shows I used to watch relied on punchlines about cross-dressing or sexuality. Not to mention the slurs and attacks on women's sexuality. There were shows that I used to look forward to every week that are now unwatchable. And that makes me sad and it makes me wonder how many toxic messages they installed in my subconscious.
Because that's what problematic content does. It reinforces toxic messages that are already present in our society. Those messages encourage us to devalue and dismiss marginalized people and their experiences. They also incite fear and discomfort around targeted identities.
Sometimes that content is due to the creators being unaware of their own biases and societal influences. And sometimes, it is hard to believe that content is anything other than deliberate.
I am, of course, talking about the latest release by J.K. Rowling. Rowling has been very vocal against trans women, questioning their right to exist and live their lives as they wish. She has equated them with predators and claimed that recognizing trans rights somehow erase or eliminate women's rights. Then, in her new book, she's made the villain a cis man who dresses as a woman in order to stalk and kill other women.
As was noted in Disclosure (a Netflix documentary that I strongly encourage people to watch), a cross-dressing serial killer/predator was one of the more common tropes for a very long time in books and films. Even though, in real life, trans people are far more likely to be the victims of assault and attack rather than the perpetrators, there was a recurring message that they were somehow inherently dangerous.
I think there can be little doubt that Rowling has deliberately created this character and plot as a reinforcement of her own beliefs. Those beliefs have already caused a great deal of questioning and hurt among fans of the Harry Potter series. It can be difficult to reconcile one's own experience of a fictional world as a much needed escape. I spoke in last week's post about how fans become deeply attached to their fandoms, investing pieces of themselves in these fictional worlds and making them real. Having to repudiate those stories can feel like having to cut off a piece of themselves.
I went through this myself with another author. As a child, Ender's Game held a special place. It was the only book that spoke to a reality I was struggling with: that adults could deliberately lie to children and place them in painful situations. In almost every other YA story that I was reading, the adults were absent, ignorant, or secretly supportive. Often the misunderstandings and hard feelings between the main characters and their caregivers/guardians/parents could be resolved by both parties being honest about their feelings.
In Ender's Game, the adults are lying to the children in order to manipulate them into fighting a war. They push the children beyond the point of endurance and eventually make them complicit in genocide. The adults are doing this knowingly and in full understanding of the trauma they are inflicting. In their minds, the ends justify the means. Those with power chose to harm those without it and to pretend they were merely helping.
That meant a great deal to me when I read it. And yet, I will not share this book with my children or recommend that anyone else read it because its author is actively encouraging harm against the LGBTQ+ community. There are deliberately harmful messages about homosexuals in that book and many others written by him.
I've had many people argue with me about where I draw the line. They point out other authors with problematic content, like Mark Twain or Tolkien. They encouraged me to use "death of the author" textual analysis or to embrace the elements I found meaningful and discard the ones I found unacceptable. They've argued that authors' works shouldn't be censored due to their personal opinions.
To which I reply: they have missed the point entirely.
Rowling and OSC are still alive (unlike Twain and Tolkien). They are not merely repeating contemporary prejudices but are actively seeking to alter the current world. "Death of the author" is an academic exercise for interpreting a text, not a build-your-own buffet of selective embrace. And as both Rowling and OSC are making a comfortable living off their intellectual properties, any interpretation of criticism as censorship falls short of a reality check.
There are harmful messages all around us. We're bombarded with them and the only way to change that is to maintain constant vigilance and awareness. It's difficult enough to do when dealing with creators who are mindful and actively trying not to commit harm. When a creator insists on repeatedly pushing a toxic trope or idea, then I as a consumer of media am required to make a choice as to whether or not I wish to implicitly endorse this toxicity and risk reinforcing it in my subconscious by consuming those creations.
It's not possible to entirely separate the art from the artist. Because art is a reflection of its creator and the way they see the world. And that view shapes how fans of that art see the world as well.
And I'd rather see a world where people are respected and included.