Friday, November 2, 2012

Portraying Bigotry

One of the thorniest issues when it comes to analysing media from a social justice perspective is the concept of portraying prejudice and bigotry. After all, bigotry exists, bigoted people exist, at some point we’ll expect some bigoted characters showing up.

And that’s not a bad thing - in fact, erasing prejudice and pretending it doesn’t exist is far from ideal. To not show prejudice in times and places where prejudiced would be common or rife can be a denial that that prejudice exists, especially if you are showing everyone in that area and era as gloriously accepting of all minorities. In many ways it’s a form of erasure to do this or a rewriting of the world - both present and historic. The problem is portraying prejudice in a way that doesn’t perpetuate it - and too often writers use this argument of “realistic portrayal” as an excuse to produce some severely bigoted work.

So how to portray bigotry without producing a book or show that should come with its own
trigger warning or will make the minority in question want to eat your liver?

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is that prejudiced portrayal really necessary? Sometimes the presence of bigotry is not only unnecessary, but it’s down right confusing, especially in speculative fiction. In an alternate world with an entirely different religion, culture even different species, is there a reason why women are dealing with misogyny? So much else had changed, why not this? Or, in the distant future, between the stars with more curiously-humanoid-aliens than you could shake a phaser at, do we still need racism? This can reach the point of almost parody - I’ve seen avatars of Greek gods - ancient Greek gods - losing their shit over men kissing. The Greeks!

It’s bemusing that, in these worlds where everything can be so different from our own, prejudice is considered inviolate. When all else in history can be changed, when the truly fantastic can be introduced, when we have magic, vampires, aliens and plot holes you can drive a bus through, it seems ridiculous to decide that bigotry is just something that must remain. And I think every social justice media critic in the world is tired of someone explaining the absolute necessity of “historical accuracy” in a series that has freaking dragons.

But even aside from fantasy worlds where you’ve decided to, bewilderingly, include real world bigotry; there is plenty of bigotry shown in works that are closer to our world and we have to ask “why is this necessary?” Does this prejudice actually add anything to the story or development or anything at all? One of the things that annoyed us so much about season 1 of American Horror Story is the amount of bigotry that was presented was completely gratuitous - it did nothing for the story to have the realtor use gay slurs to describe the previous occupants of the house, or even half of the many other problematic incidents on the show. Throwing in bigotry for the sheer hell of it, to an extent where it seems almost out of place sometimes, doesn’t help anyone.

Ok, you’ve looked at the bigotry and it is an absolute essential part of setting the world, the characters and the story. It would be wrong to exclude it - so how to include it without supporting it? Simple - by making it unsupportable.

Don’t make it funny, or casual, or accepted by the whole cast (as was the problem with American Horror Story season 1 in many ways), don’t present it as a quirk or minor issue. Don’t let it go unchallenged. That challenge is what stops a portrayal of prejudice into something that supports prejudice. Obviously that challenge can come in the form of a loud lecture or denouncement - but, contrary to what the objectors say, you don’t have to shoehorn a clumsy PSA into the middle of your story. That's a straw man, there are innumerable ways you can challenge the prejudice you've presented

You could have a character of that minority awesomely overturn the prejudice against them like Tyrion in Game of Thrones; or repeatedly exposing how ridiculous they are Michonne and Andrea being the most able fighters in The Walking Dead comics; or how very unfair they are, like the classist judging of Angel in the White Trash Zombie Series. You can even overtly and comically mock prejudiced thinking, like Alexia Tarabotti challenging gender roles in The Parasol Protectorate. You can have your protagonist ruefully - and even comically - deride the prejudice they face like Peter in Rivers of London, even if he never says them aloud. You can have a character expressing disgust and horror or by presenting the pain and suffering the prejudice causes - as the second season of American Horror Story (ironic, given the problems with season 1) is doing rather impressively - showing us homophobia and misogyny while both overtly challenging it and showing how wrong they are and how much pain they cause.

These are just a few examples of prejudice presented and challenged in different ways. There are an emormous number of ways you can present prejudice, then challenge it - ways you can have your bigoted characters and societies without adding to the bigotry marginalised people face.

I will close with one “challenge” that doesn’t work - making your bigot a bad person and expecting that to be a sufficient challenge. This is commonplace - sure the villain used a slur but they’re the villain! That’s a challenge right? No, it's not. You can’t just say that something is bad just because a bad person did it, life isn’t that simple. It’s a hyperbolic example, but Hitler liked dogs. The fact he was an evil man doesn’t mean everything he did - like owning dogs - is automatically condemned as evil. And so it follows with your unpleasant people in the media - just because they are ignorant, or evil or cruel or whatever, doesn’t mean their bigoted behaviour is automatically challenged (apart from anything else, there can be an issue with deciding to portray prejudice but then limiting it to the villains - but that’s another post). No matter how unpleasant Constance is in American Horror Story, or ignorant Jason is in True Blood, the mere fact they are horrible and ignorant doesn't mean everything they say is automatically challenged.

Books, TV series and films - or any form of media - do not have to be fluffy bunny lands where everyone loves everyone else. Nor do they have to be places where all the prejudice and hatred of our world has magically disappeared (though it’s nice to see those worlds as well). Sometimes the ugliness of the world needs reflecting in ugliness on the page; sometimes the pain people feel do need displaying on the screen. But it is possible to do that without adding to our world’s ugliness or causing those people further pain.