When we look at art, pop culture, and media on feminist and progressive blogs, sometimes it seems all too easy to force the discussion into a simple good/bad debate: See this movie because it has a strong female character. Don’t read this book because it’s full of stereotypes. This work is feminist. This film is misogynist. This story is racist. This song is empowering.
But what do we do when it comes to movies like Up, which tells a great story with beautiful animation, but also comes with the difficult baggage of Pixar’s seeming unwillingness to tell women’s stories? And it’s difficult to know what to say when it comes to writers like Orson Scott Card, who writes great books but is an outspoken homophobe. What do we do when a book empowers one group at another’s expense?
I think sometimes the defensiveness we see from trolls in threads concerning movies that have uncomfortable subtext is that it’s just difficult for people to accept that something they like so much can also be damaging. I find it interesting how vehemently literary scholars will defend beloved authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare against charges of racism, explaining that their difficult to shallow works such as The Merchant of Venice or “The Prioress’ Tale” are social criticism (sound familiar?). There could be truth in these arguments, of course (some of them are pretty convincing,) but sometimes I wonder if it’s just really difficult to accept that brilliant, creative people who write brilliant, creative stories sometimes carry with them disgusting prejudices and blind spots.
And so here’s the point: I’ve realized that I’m sometimes a hypocrite when it comes to which ideas I love and which artworks I love.
For example, I love Virginia Woolf, but I am Jewish. When I told my grandparents that I was writing my senior undergraduate thesis on Virginia Woolf, I hoped they didn’t know that Woolf was a known Anti-Semite. Despite having married a Jewish man, she often wrote in her journals of her dislike of the “Jewish voice” and “Jewish laugh,” and this still hurts me a lot. Not only was it so disappointing that someone who so clearly saw prejudice at work in her society’s treatment of gender roles could be so blind when it comes to race and religion, but it made me realize that Woolf would not have truly liked me. Yes, it felt that personal. Maybe she wouldn’t even have considered me a scholar worthy of her work.
I wish it were simpler. The “problem” is that media is created by people, people who often have a hard enough time fitting their murky gray-area self into their own ideals, more so fitting their creative offspring. In the same way that a strong friendship is often complex–we often have things about our closest friends that we dislike–I’ve started to realize that my love of books, tv shows, movies, and the people who make them, must be similarly complex.
I know I’m not the only one who’s felt this way; I’m sure many of you have beloved works of fiction (any media. There’s got to be a better way of saying book/movie/tv show/song,) but feel uncomfortable with it because of its subtext. I’m sure that many of you, too, have lists in your head of famous people, dead or alive, whom you would love to have dinner with, except you know they wouldn’t respect you, or you hate their political views even if you love their creative work.
So let’s talk about it: We often criticize conservatives for expecting art to fit neatly within their value systems. Art doesn’t work that way. Can you separate art from author? Can you separate story from subtext? How do we learn to criticize what and whom we love? Tell me your stories: How did you react when you realized that your favorite author was racist, or your favorite movie had ablist subtext? Do you love a song but loathe the lyrics? What did you do? I don’t think there’s a “right” way to deal, but it’s important to talk about ways we can deal.
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