Trigger warning – pop culture oppressiveness, slurs, some violent imagery etc.
When we talk about social justice and popular culture, we find ourselves talking a lot about the twin problems of invisibility vs bad representations. Invisibility means the complete absence of marginalised group/s from the piece we’re analysing, and generally from most popular culture as well. That’s things like pieces that are white-only, that feature only conventionally-able folks, that erase non-het/cis folks entirely etc. Bad representations are exactly what it says on the can. Where someone from a marginalised group is present, but is presented in a stereotyped/reductive/negative/comical way due to the inherent fact of their belonging to that group. So we’re talking there the ‘lol chick with a dick haha ur gay now’ transhatred, the all-too-common portrayal of white people as the ‘good folks’ and PoC as the ‘bad folks’, the ‘Smurfette principle’ whereby in a group of men the woman’s only defining trait is her womanhood etc.
I tend to have this vision of myself as not much of a pop culture consumer and therefore tend to stay away from talking about it. It used to be true – until a few years ago, I could count the films I’d seen in the cinema on the fingers of one hand. I still watch basically no TV, and my consumption of books and music is generally confined to certain genres. These days, I’d say that even if I’m not an aficionado, I’m probably well enough up on things to comment in a general kind of way.
The invisibility vs bad representation dilemma is a hard one. I hate both – I want to see rounded, diverse, interesting characters of all abilities, ethnicities, gender/s/non-gender/s, sexualities, classes etc in all sorts of genres and media, placed there irrelevent of their divergences from the kyriarchy’s ideal. But that’s damned rare, especially for something to be non-oppressive in all ways. You can find a book that is queer-positive, but see racism writ large all over it. You can find a film that passes the Bechdel test, but is really cissexist. You can find music that is non-classist, but hear misogyny everywhere.
The distinction between the two types is hard to police. You might have a film that features no non-het characters and no discussion of non-heterosexuality – but it might say, ‘every man needs a good woman’ and blur the boundary by moving from implicit erasure to explicit erasure.
This started churning around in my head because, during a visit to some older members of my family, we saw some 70s comedy and I was told repeatedly that, ‘This is incredibly un-PC.’ Now, leaving aside the fact that PC is a terrible term, leaving aside the fact that there was badness in it even if it wasn’t the specifically-oppressive badness I’m more used to seeing, it was evident that my family expected me to be wildly ‘offended’. And I wasn’t. I sat there going, ‘that’s a bit sexist…there’s no-one in this who diverges from the kyriarchal ideal…that wouldn’t be funny if it was real even if it’s not oppressive…’ but I didn’t get sporked in the eye.
That’s probably partly because I have unfortunately seen quite a bit of mainstream modern ‘comedy,’* and am therefore a bit desensitised. But it was mainly because on the whole the problem was that of erasure rather than explicit bigotry.
I really hate that I find myself having to choose between invisibility and bad representation in popular culture, and I hate that I find myself actively favouring the older, more insidious option. But frankly, I’d rather not see oppressed groups being used for cheap laughs and I’d rather not stop consuming pop culture entirely. Which mostly leaves me with the option of things that completely erase marginalised groups. And I think I would have to say to creators that if they can’t create – if they’re too lazy to create – a character who is a member of a marginalised group without exploitation and bigotry, they shouldn’t be doing so at all. It feels like admitting defeat, and it’s not a strategy to guarantee better representation – the only thing that will do that is creators actually doing their research and making their characters diverse and rounded no matter who they are – but it at least means that we don’t get that terrible ‘I want to punch you through the screen/book/speakers’ feeling.
I don’t think that any representation is better than no representation. If the representation is oppressive, better not have it at all.
* Do not get me started about the modern ‘comedy’ that I’ve seen. Now, I’m not denying, some can be okay. Especially if it favours the ‘invisibility’ side of this equation. However, it appears that a lot of people who call themselves ‘comedians’ prefer getting cheap laughs out of their and their audience’s bigotry and oppressiveness rather than coming up with genuinely funny material. People who rely on oppressive crutches for their ‘comedy’ aren’t funny. (I saw a production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser comedies recently. The company had decided to make it into a parade of gay stereotypes. It was horrible. I squirmed in my seat. It relied on the audience’s misohomy for virtually all its laughs – and then when it stopped being a misohomist shitstorm, they managed to be funny. If they’d steered clear of the misohomy, they could possibly have pulled it off. But it left such a bad taste in my mouth.)