Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Market Doesn't Matter: Why "Isms" in Fiction Is a Problem

I like a lot of fiction. Movies, comics, video games, TV- I even used to read for fun, until I started grad school... le sigh... Anyhoo, as a kid, I wasn't so good at it, but now I'm sometimes too good for my own good at recognizing "isms" in works of fiction as I consume them. And sometimes, I can do the whole cognitive dissonance thing and enjoy myself, but other times, I just can't. As I've talked about before, albeit somewhat briefly, whitewashing in movies is not okay- but  of course, whitewashing actors under any circumstance isn't. And neither is the objectification of women  and  their bodies* in fiction.  But I feel like going into more depth as to why this is problematic. The bottom line  is that it's fiction.

Now here's the thing. "It's fiction," is often used as a reason why it's not important; they're fake, so what does it matter? With this frequently comes, "They're doing what sells." And often elaborations on how the fiction being created is "just" a reflection of the society in which we live, so that makes it okay, or at least not directly harmful. It's the market, not the creators.

Rants about how so often in my life, I want to scream, "FUCK THE MARKET!" and how that's itself a socio-political construct, so ideas about it being "free" are utter bullshit, stop cutting welfare you rat bastard Ayn Randofiles.... aside...

Well, for one thing, when a woman stops playing a game because a female character gets raped in the middle of it, that's harmful. When a person of color feels uncomfortable watching a movie because someone of their ethnicity is being portrayed by someone of another ethnicity, that's harmful. Etc. And that kind of stuff happens all the time. So it's harmful. 

I get really fed up with the "censor monger" strawman arguments from people apologizing for "isms" in fiction(or, really, anywhere). I'm not the only person to notice this, and it happens even when part of the point of the statement or article in question is about how it's not about censorship, but the very sorts of rhetorical and argumentative  strategies that then get employed in those comments. 

Of course, this all revolves around identity politics, and while I do have my own interpretation of identity, one of the biggest difficulties with identity politics is that the "groups" in question, that may or may not be getting marginalized, that may or not be doing the marginalizing, are entirely heterogeneous. Which means that just because some people that may identify with that group are offended, hurt, whatever, doesn't mean everyone is. So then the prolem becomes one of whose feelings and opinions are given more weight, and which way to take it. I'll give two examples.

There are problems with the way ABC conducted this segment: They asked D.L. Hugely, a non-Jamaican, to speak for Jamaicans- not directly, but they bring him on as if  he has some moral authority, here, and thus they're basically saying all black people are the same; so even though Hugely is American, he can totes speak for Jamaicans (this is like how a lot of people assume Korean, Japanes, Chinese, Taiwanese, etc. are interchangeable). (Also, Cool Runnings vs. Fargo? C'mon, that's hogwash- but he's a comedian, so, you know.) Then they let the quote from the Minister of Tourism from Jamaica speak for all Jamaicans, discounting the upset of Jamaicans that didn't like the ad and basically trivializing them. Also, ignoring the fact that not all Jamaicans are black.

This follows the logic behind the creation of the ad itself. Read this if you don't believe me, but VW decided to run the ad because they selected a few Jamaicans to view it and ask what they thought; since these focus groups didn't express offense, VW ran it. 
Barring the fact that they even had to check (which you'd think would be a red flag for any ad campaign), VW was also letting some small focus group of 100 speak for every Jamaican. And since VW is a huge corporation, they have the financial and social capital to put their perspective out there and drown out any differing opinions.

But to problematize things a little, the ad wasn't just offensive to Jamaicans- as Hugely said, a blogger expressed something about "black people." And the thing is, the same reason ABC thought having Hugely speak for Jamaicans is why it's potentially offensive to Black, non-Jamaicans- if the cultural zeitgeist paints Jamaicans and Blacks as the same thing, then something stereotyping one will, by degrees, be stereotyping the other. 

And as Suzanne Persard on Racialicious points out, there are so many neo-colonial things going on in this ad, I don't really have the time, space, or emotional energy to state it all myself- read her article, if you're interested. The "we got some people to look at it" argument is far too reductionist. It's like  saying, "I'm not racist, I have a black friend!" and completely ignoring the history of physical and economic control western, i.e. white, countries have had on Jamaica- the "tourism" that may be "helped" by a joint endeavor between Jamaica's government and VW came from and thrives on that violent history.

The second  example I have is Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

Tonto sees problem, thinks white men
appropriating his culture, thinks this heap bad
I still haven't seen this movie, so I realize this probably gives me far less ground to stand on, but I know there were lots of outcries about this casting choice from Native American activists ever since it was announced. Then, based off the trailer, I was given no reason to even want to give Verbinski et. al. the benefit of the doubt, given Depp uses Tonto Talk in trailers, and, as I've referenced before, that contrived, insulting mode of  speech is friggin' named after the character in the first place- and its nomenclature is not a compliment; depictions of it are backwards and insulting, and for Tonto to be "revived" in this way is utterly deplorable, in my most humble of opinions.  Watch this, and pay attention to the way Depp speaks- and try not to get distracted by his paint and outfit.

Disney put out similar stuff to VW in its defense, about how Comanche tribal members are okay with it and think it's great. Plus, don't forget, Depp is an honorary member of the Comanche Nation!!! This situation is problematic differently, though, in that Tonto is supposed to be a Comanche, and members of the Comanche tribe are cool with it- so then do other Native Americans, let alone white people, have the right to be upset? 

Well I've perused around, and it sounds to me like it's still pretty ridiculous and there are too many random, weird things going on with this character for all  of it to be entirely accurate/ "true to the culture" or however the blazes they'd like to put it- like that creepy hawk thing on his head. This review does a good job  of really digging deep, so I'll leave it to you to read it for yourself, but one more thing to add: I have suspicions about what's going on between the huge, megacorporation that is Disney and the Comanche Nation. Maybe Disney has some control over them somehow through investment or "donation," maybe the tribe is trying to just gain some positive publicity and Disney is taking advantage of that, maybe they're like the dolls in Dollhouse and feel basically like they have no other choice but to sign off on this shit. I don't know. I just feel like something at least a little dishonest is going on, here.

I'm not Comanche, but I'm of Lakota ancestry. And I know I'd find  it extremely offensive if a white dude, even if he had been given honorary membership to the Lakota Nation, played a Lakota on TV or in a movie. It's hard enough for Native actors to get work, but what about blood quantum? How is it right for a white actor with maybe some vague, "in spirit," I guess, connection to a group to play one of those people- and when hundreds (possibly thousands) of others whose ancestry is legitimately traced back there don't have blood "native enough" to be legally recognized? Movies aren't law, no, but having white people play Native Americans runs parallel to the forced assimilation and cultural appropriation of Native Americans that predates even the slavery of Africans in the U.S. - and, unlike slavery, still goes on.**

And okay, I'll be one of the first to admit that Johnny Depp is hot and a megastar and whatnot. I mean, c'mon, look at this. Or this. Or this. Or this- and notice the tattoo on his arm? I don't want to rail too much on Depp, but actors and celebrities like him that fetishize other cultures do nothing to help. A big reason his version of Tonto has on that ridiculous getup is he saw some painting and was "inspired" by it. Maybe I'm being too universalistic, but seriously, walking around with a dead bird on their head wasn't something any Native Americans did back in the day. What the fuck, dude, what the fuck. Not only did Disney roll with having a white actor play a Native American character, but Verbinski et. al. then rolled with some pretty horrendous ideas coming from that actor because of his star power. Depp has always come across to me as a pretty complex guy, and while he can be really sweet and humble, he also gets some pretty wonky ideas (which isn't surprising, given who he hangs out with). 

The big problem with VW and Disney is they're letting the voices of a few speak for everybody- and those few voices, conveniently, align with their corporate interests. The opinions of the people in agreement with VW and Disney are used as a contra to dissent, and the implicit statement behind flashing the former is that the latter should just shut up. This is  another discourse of silence- since some people are cool with it, there must not be anything wrong, and anybody that  thinks there is is just a prude, or a censor-monger, or an overly-politically-correct douchebag. So no need to listen to people that are upset, because they obviously have no idea what they're talking about. So keep on keepin' on, and let's make more of  X because it's art, and there's a demand for this kind of art!

Enter the market again. 

One of the things that drives me up the wall about generic "economic theory" is it can totally swing both ways. And while I'm totally for GLBTQ rights, I'm not for the promotion of using economic theory as an excuse for marginalization, especially when economic theory can eat its own tail. I'm not going to get too technical, here, but there's the theory that the market reflects the demands of society. I don't disagree with that, but I find it entirely cherry-picking to state this is why isms are present in media, but then ignoring another bit of economic theory- that if the product goes away, demand will shift to something else. So by that logic, okay, maybe there would be some loss of profits for a little as products made the shift to ism-less, but in the end, people would buy ism-less stuff because that's all they'd be able to buy. If you change the products, you change the market. If there was only one fruit stand and it switched from oranges to bananas, people would start to like bananas. And there would always be money at the banana stand

No, I'm not saying that changing movies will instantly mean no more isms. But here's the thing. Movies, games, books, whatever- they're fiction. Which means, as whomever is creating them makes the decisions as they're doing this creating. Claiming to be "trapped by the market" is a lame excuse. I don't think there's malicious intent all of the time, but there's at least willful ignorance most of the time, or maybe much, much more frequently than coroporates are willing to admit. Going with "the market" because that market is inherently ism-ridden is a choice for the sake of profit. 

The depictions of people in movies, games, comics, etc., do, indeed reflect society. Isms are normalized in our everyday discourses and activities, so it's only natural they'd show up in media. And it does make sense that those would sell easier than things without them. But choosing to ignore the voices of people that don't like what you're doing in the name of profit, especially when parading a token minority (literally, that's usually what they are, amirite?) that just so happens to agree with you is malicious. Because then you're choosing to continue doing something you know hurts at least some people. And that's unethical.

But the other side is possible- I honestly think that if enough companies and corporations making the garbage we (read: I) consume every day, if they actually put forth the effort to normalize not marginalization and oppression in the worlds they create, but rather equality and- and this is prolly a way too huge-ass stretch- altruism, maybe it would help to normalize those things in the real world.

And a huge distinction that, sadly, is necessary, goes thus: This has nothing to do with censorship. Anyone making anything  meant to be interpreted or consumed by others is thus doing things that have the potential to harm. And while sure, artists and whoever should be given some "creative license," so to speak, it also means they need to be receptive to people saying what they're producing is hurtful or offensive. And while asking  them to always go back and ret-con everything into not having isms embedded within is pretty absurd, they should, ethically, go forward and think critically about their future endeavors and ask themselves  what, if any, isms could be present in their future work. If they realize something could be "ist," and  they go ahead and do it, then yes, they're making a deliberate decision that reinforces an ism. But asking them to be more careful isn't the same as censoring, and I have a lot less sympathy for a dude like Seth MacFarlane, someone constantly called to the carpet but refusing to change, than I do, say,  John Inverdale, who slips up once and then openly apologizes for it. And anyone  choosing to play a video game that has any "ist" portrayals isn't thusly a bad person, either, nor anyone  that likes a movie with some isms, etc. 

Blithely saying something like, "Follow the money," or, "It's the market," as if that's the only explanation needed, oversimplifies the matter. Yeah, following the money would get you somewhere not wrong, but stopping at the money isn't enough  and thus not entirely right. We need to look to the people caught up in the market, consumers and producers alike. Having isms normalized in fiction, even if that's a reflection of "the market" and the real world, gives no counter-example to what's being reflected. Thus, there's no cause to question the legitimacy of the current structures and distributions of power in everyday life. Isms need to be questioned, and their alternatives need to be made more prevalent in the minds and hearts of the public in order for those minds and hearts to change. 

*That's a post from a joint blog I'm doing with a friend and fellow overthinker- have a gander, if you so please. :)

**I love Disney, but it also has some of the most offensive stuff out there with respect to Native Americans. This video explains WONDERFULLY how shitty Disney does when it comes to Native Americans (or at least in two movies- there are a lot more). 


  1. Another reason not to see Lone Ranger: