A couple of years ago, for completion of my Masters degree, I centered my thesis around one of my favourite book series, that being Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy (this was before any subsequent companion novels were released). The first time I read the trilogy, I loved it; it was enthralling, made me feel empowered, and as a (very) young adult, there was so much to which I felt I could relate. Several years later, I still really appreciate the series and the way that it empowered me, and while I do confess that studying it so intensely did cause me to tire of it for a while, it’s still one of the more solid pieces of young adult lit that I’ve come across. It incited a lot of questions of ethics and morality, invoked varied perspective-taking, and really questioned the meaning of identity and individuality. Then and now, I am happy to say that I really enjoyed Divergent as a provocative work of fiction.
Oh, and I effectively and mercilessly tore the story to pieces in 100+ pages.
There has been quite a change in viewers’ take on popular media in the past couple of decades, and these views tend to be at their most unforgiving with regard to contemporary works. I’m sure you’re no stranger to the whitewashing debate that arose when Scarlett Johanssen was cast as Major in the live action remake of anime cult favourite Ghost in the Shell. There has also been a lot of discussion around the potentially harmful narratives portrayed in Netflix’s popular original series, 13 Reasons Why. Yet, with every attempt to unveil an underpinning that strongly resonated with someone who felt affected by titles such as these in a way that was more than likely unintended, there have been an influx of fans insisting to excuse the problematic tropes that we are seeing over and over in movies, shows, comics, books, and more. This is because, despite their alleged faults, these titles are still EXTREMELY popular, and we cannot deny that, regardless, people still like them.
And that is just fine. The problem here is not that people are enjoying this media; this isn’t about whether or not you’re allowed to like something that has flaws. Even some of the most critically acclaimed works have their rough areas where they certainly could have done better, and enjoying them for what they are at a whole as a product does not necessarily make you a bad person. The trouble is, people are jumping to the defense of these titles because they find them enjoyable, and that they perhaps don’t feel personally affected by the problematic flaws. As a white woman, I can guarantee that at my first (even my second) read through of the Divergent Trilogy, I did not pick up on the marginalization of racial minorities, and having been raised surrounded by patriarchal values and as such, normalized to stereotypical women’s roles, it didn’t occur to me that the ending (SPOILER!), featuring the death of the heroine, was so problematic. To say it wasn’t a rather heart-wrenching ordeal to acknowledge all of this would be a blatant lie, and I’ll admit, I looked so hard for counter-arguments to soften the blow.
It is these very counter-arguments, however, that have become the heart of the problem in critically discussing popular media. I learned very early on that there was no solid ground to them, thought that, in an attempt to clear the murky waters of internet argument, I’d acknowledge some of them here. So, without further ado:
7 Arguments “Defending” the Problems in Popular Media that Just Don’t Hold
1. “It’s just a work of fiction”. This is probably the loosest (and most infuriating) excuse I’ve come across, for its derailing nature as well as its utter lack of foundation. Since when did being ‘fictional’ absolve a piece of its problems? That’s about as accurate as saying that whitewashing in Hollywood isn’t really an issue because the movies that feature it are fictional. Like it or not, our movies, books, and every other form of art that we create is embedded with cultural narratives. We need to stop looking at a movie or a show and dismissing its problematic tendencies because the story itself isn’t real; that’s not the point. The sexually-active teen who can’t relate to the chaste heroine of 13 Reasons Why because, unlike the ‘fictional’ girl, she is sexually promiscuous, and the embedded belief that she has given up her virtue and therefore isn’t deserving of help or sympathy–that is the problem, and that is what we should be discussing.
2. “But the author didn’t intend it that way”. Of course they didn’t! Do you honestly believe that Stephenie Meyer intended Twilight to carry narrative that romanticized potentially harmful/abusive intimate relationships? Or that Suzanne Collins had always planned to diminish the image of strong, female leads by reducing her own fearless heroine to a stereotypical female role at the end of The Hunger Games Trilogy? Many scholars would argue that whatever the author, the director, or the creator originally intended is completely irrelevant to what their piece represents, especially if it misses its mark. Any piece of media that requests to be taken seriously must be open to analysis and critique, and not limited to that of scholars. In the age of internet and mass information sharing, many fans are making their thoughts and opinions known, and rightfully so, as it is opening up public discussion of troubling hidden narratives in our favourite stories. The author’s opinion is as a welcome as anyone’s, but unless they created their piece in a vacuum for only them alone to enjoy, the messages interpreted by the audience are not only relevant, they’re important.
3. “But [insert relevant marginalized group here] didn’t find it offensive”. Unfortunately, just because your Japanese friend wasn’t offended by a well-known white actress being cast as Major in Ghost in the Shell does not mean it wasn’t problematic. In this case, Hollywood is perceived and therefore assumed to be predominantly white by other non-white cultures, so it goes without saying that people in Japan wouldn’t see any problem with Scar Jo’s casting; after all, it is what they would expect. Not only does this not excuse the problem, but it further exemplifies the inherent problem with white-washing in Hollywood, that being that by casting white people in Asian roles, it is perpetuating the very white normativity that encourages non-white people not to take issue with their lack of representation. The same can be said for young women not questioning that the revolutionary Katniss Everdeen’s heroism is decidedly anti-climactic, as she ends up in a domestic, heterosexual, reproductive relationship. We are not inclined to question what we perceive to be the norm; however, this is exactly why we must continue to question it. Just because a marginalized group doesn’t see the issue does not necessarily mean it isn’t there; it could mean that they’re so used to witnessing it, that it simply isn’t noteworthy.
4. “But the original author/creator/etc. of the source material thought it was fine”. This is a bit of a mix between 2 and 3, in that: a) Once again, the author/creator’s opinions and views are not the be all, end all in analytical critique, and b) Just because they don’t see a problem doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The original creator of Ghost in the Shell was very impressed with Hollywood’s live action remake, and commented he had never intended for Major to be Japanese. However, that did not change how fans perceived Major, and that in and of itself wasn’t entirely the point. That the original film was a product of Japan and reflected some of its ideologies and culture within the zeitgeist of the time, and although the remake managed to take some scenes straight out of the anime movie frame-for-frame, overall it felt to many viewers like Hollywood chose what they liked about the original, and put their own white, Western spin on it. Again, this is only one example of many, but it all comes down to the same point: that what a piece of art ultimately means to its audience CANNOT be discredited by the thoughts and opinions of the author, alone.
5. “You’re wrong and way out of line because the plot/story/subject matter isn’t about race/sexuality/class/etc.” No. Just… no. To insist that pointing out the problematic points in media is derailing because the piece is not ‘about’ the issue you’re referring it is in and of itself derailing. The whole point of critical analysis is to read into the subtext of media, to dissect it and look at its guts to determine if it harbours an underlying narrative of which it might not even be aware. With regard to the Ghost in the Shell remake, some people clung to the argument that it wasn’t guilty of violating a classic piece of Japanese media because the original author of the manga stated it to be an allegory for the colonization of Hong Kong. It all comes back to the point that we are not discussing what the piece is intended to address, but what it betrays as a result of the culture and time of it development. Whether it’s an allegory for colonization in Hong Kong, or the question of what it really means to be human, this Ghost in the Shell was originally a story, written by a Japanese person, that came out of Japan, and for that you cannot deny that it is inherently a Japanese story; therefore, the criticisms of the remake still apply.
(Also, in case it crossed your mind, I should point out that the infamous plot twist in the Ghost in the Shell remake that tries to explain/justify Major’s white body is in and of itself problematic, but that is worth its own discussion, and other articles have already covered it pretty thoroughly. If you’re interested, you can check some of them out here, here, and here.)
6. “But look at everything it did right!” Great! Awesome! Contrary to what this article might imply, I LOVE pointing out all the good things about my favourite movies, books, comics, and shows. Not only does it make us feel better about enjoying them (not that we should feel guilty for enjoying them to begin with), but progressiveness in popular media is SO important. Its this challenging of social norms that, over time and with effort, can actually change the status quo and better encourage and represent equality, which is ultimately our goal with critical analysis. However, it’s not a balancing act, and just because a movie or a book might be progressive in some ways does not absolve it of the points where it can improve. 13 Reasons Why, for example, features a lesbian character who presents as being afraid of being outed and bullied as a result, something with which many LGBTQI youth struggle. But despite the representation, and acknowledgement that homosexuality can make someone a target for bullying, the resolution of this character’s dilemma is ultimately dismissed in a “so what?” kind of manner. So while the show did have a good thing going for it, in this sense, it could have had a much more realistic and progressive payoff if the main character–a chaste, innocent, heterosexual girl–was not portrayed as the only target for bullying, the only one whose problem was valid, and therefore, the only one to receive sympathy.
7. “You’re just too sensitive/overreacting/playing the X card”. By now, if you’ve resorted to this age-old straw man argument, it’s pretty clear that you are not in a position to being open to critical analysis. Dismissing an issue by chalking it up to someone’s emotions, or by believing they’re ‘too sensitive’, is not a solid argument to excuse progressive problems in popular media, because all you are doing is attacking the person. When privileged people write something off as being ‘too politically correct’ or that marginalized others are playing the ‘X card’, it is usually as a means of not having to think critically about an issue. This is not to say that people don’t overreact from time to time, which is, frankly, just as important to note, but analytical accuracy and emotion over reason is another conversation entirely, and not an excuse to derail a potentially enlightening dialogue. But if you are simply too rooted in the comfort of your privilege to listen to the concerns of those less privileged, then chances are, you aren’t going to be open to reason.
As an aspiring novelist, I will be the first to admit that I am a long way from writing a 100% problem-free story; but, then again, the likelihood of any piece of media being entirely clear of flaws is about as realistic as a human being being void of vices. At the end of the day, it’s not about trashing one thing over another because this thing is ‘better’ or ‘more progressive’ than that thing, and it isn’t about calling people out for their problematic faves. The goal, here, is merely to be open and aware, to welcome discussion instead of dismissing it, and for the love of all that is good, to not take it personally when someone points out a flaw in your favourite movie/comic/book/etc. Once again, it is not about the person; it’s about the piece, what its saying about us as a culture, and what it suggests about where and how we can improve.
(Oh, and if you’re interested in my dissection and analysis of The Divergent Trilogy, you can read about it here!)