This week I got in an argument about a movie.
The movie itself isn't important.* There were good things in it, there were problematic things in it. One side of the argument liked the movie overall but didn't like the problematic elements; the other side of the argument liked the good elements, but disliked the movie as a whole. Each side felt like the OTHER side was saying they were a Bad Person for having their opinion. Neither side, as it turned out, actually thought that at all -- they were just trying to have a discussion.
Communication, it would seem, is hard.
If there's one thing I've realized after years of reviewing and blogging about books and movies, I like some things which are problematic. Chances are that you do, too. We almost have to, if we are to like things at all. If there is a work of art, a book, a movie, a musical, or a video game out there that is wholly and entirely without problems of any kind, I can hardly imagine what it would look like. Almost everything has some problem, somewhere.
And yet almost everything has something redeeming, something that the fans of the work find valuable. We have found (and continue to find) elements of feminism in works like Twilight. Twilight is a work that I personally feel has far more elements of misogyny than feminism, and yet they're still there in small supply -- little glittery diamonds in a sea of toxicity.
And this is all complicated by the fact that the experience of art is ultimately truly subjective: so much of the experience depends on the subject who is experiencing it. That which is feminist to one person may be utterly oppressive to another. A story about a callous mother who is using the principles of the patriarchy to oppose her rebellious daughter will almost certainly be experienced differently depending on how closely the reader's experiences align with either mother or daughter. In real life, girls are abused daily by mothers who have internalized the patriarchy, so is it not Feminism to acknowledge that truth and show that girls are hurt by this? In real life, mothers are beat down daily by a society which questions every decision they make, such that no matter how they choose to parent, they are blamed, so can it really be Feminism to show yet another "evil" mother who is doing her best to acclimate her child to the harsh realities of the world? The answer is very likely both and neither and all of the above. The experience of art, too, can be hard.
Analyzing art can be less hard, but still not easy. There are some obvious checklists. Does the work contain any people of color? Does the work contain any QUILTBAG people? Does the work pass the Bechdel test? Does the work depict people of any social class other than Privilege McPrivilegeson? Does the work contain characters with a mix of religious and non-religious beliefs? Does the work depict people who have children, people who are childless by choice, and people who are childless not by choice? Does the work contain people who have pair-bonded in a romantic relationship, people who choose not to pair-bond romantically, and people who are romantically involved with more than one person? Does the work contain people of varying cultural backgrounds?
But once you have those lists, what do you do with them? If a work has someone from a non-white cultural background and yet they reject that background, are they a realistic depiction of a modern teenager who forges her own identity without clinging to a cultural heritage that doesn't contain personal meaning for her, or is she a white-washed minority whose background and heritage have been erased to make her easier for author and audience to connect with without having to grapple with multicultural concepts? More generally, if a work contains no people of color, surely that doesn't make the work automatically racist, does it? If a work contains no women, does it make the work automatically sexist? Have I not argued at length that the value in the Bechdel test comes not from scores for individual works, but rather the aggregate picture formed when we realize how few movies, total, barely pass the test, if at all?
These aren't just hypothetical questions; they're things that many of us struggle with on a daily basis. Do I like "The Wicker Man" because it's nice to see pagans getting to be the villains for once after all those "and it was the Christian Church all along! (dum dum DUM!)" twists, or do I dislike "The Wicker Man" because it's just one more case of pagans being misunderstood and villainized as hyper-sexed, naïve, and callously violent people? Do I like "Mulan" because she represents a rare Action Girl among the pantheon of Disney princesses, a young woman who can actively fight a man in battle and win through superior understanding of battlefield tactics, or do I dislike "Mulan" because she represents another piece of cultural appropriation in addition to being motivated wholly by ‘appropriate' familial love and devotion, instead of, say, wanting to run off to join the army because she likes that sort of thing and finds the gender roles of society constrictive (and wouldn't that latter story, if told, be even MORE cultural appropriation since I gather that's not how the original tale goes)? Do I like "Breaking Dawn" because it's about a woman making a reproductive choice and sticking it to despite the social pressures being applied to her, or do I dislike "Breaking Dawn" because that reproductive choice happens to be the socially-approved choice of carrying a dangerous pregnancy to term because it will hurt the baby's feelings if mommy aborts the pregnancy to save her own life?
I don't have answers to these things, by the way.
I don't have answers because I don't think there are answers. Whether I like or dislike these movies is something that only I can decide, by whatever criteria makes sense to me at the moment that I try to answer the question: did you like it? And the answer may still be, simply, I'm Not Sure. I liked some aspects of it, notably the parts with A, B, and C. I didn't like other aspects of it, including the parts with X, Y, and Z. I'm still trying to work out those details in my head. That, surely, is an acceptable answer.
The answer to the ubiquity of Problems in art isn't to stop liking art. Nor is it to go to another extreme and feel that everyone should acknowledge all art as great, simply because of the subjectivity of the experience. There are going to be things that individuals -- people like you and I -- like, sometimes for reasons that make no sense to other observers. There are going to be things that us same individuals dislike, frequently for reasons that may sound utterly silly to others.
And -- just to keep things interesting -- we're not always going to agree on those things.
I'll give you an example, if you promise not to hate me. I like "The Help". I do, I can't seem to help it. I've read wonderfully well-written arguments for why the book is incredibly problematic, and I cannot find fault with those arguments. And yet I enjoyed the book, the movie, and the audiobook. I like the way the story grapples with wage dependence, and the timely-and-necessary depiction of the lifelong sadness and frustration of being stuck in a job you don't want, you don't enjoy, and which is hazardous to your health (physically, mentally, and emotionally) and yet you cannot leave. (And it is surely not a coincidence that I see these themes in "The Help" because I have a experience with them in real life.) I happened to come to "The Help" immediately after re-reading Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" and the similarities between the texts struck me as eerie.
We are still living in a world where employers hold a tremendous amount of power over us. Many of our employers control our access to basic medical services, including whether or not women employees will be allowed to control their reproductive health. Many of our employers can terminate our employment at will and with no notice whatsoever. Many of our employers have a tremendous amount of leeway to discriminate against us based on our body type, our race, our health, our gender, our sexual orientation, even what we write on our private Facebook pages. Many of us simply cannot afford to be terminated if-and-when our employer takes a dislike to us. Many of us struggle with keeping our mouths shut and our heads down while we privately struggle with feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness.
These are the themes that stuck with me the most with "The Help", the sensation that for all our apparent progress, some things are still the same. The racism -- both violent and systemic -- that appears on the pages is still with us today. The classism that is used to separate and divide social groups is still with us today. And the wage dependence that keeps people in perpetual fear for their livelihoods and their lives is still with us today. Reading "The Help" is like using a painting of the past to illustrate the flaws of the present.
And yet none of these things that I enjoy or appreciate about "The Help" excuses or eliminates its many, many problems. The most memorable black man in the novel, the husband of one of the protagonists, is drunken and abusive. The other black protagonist experienced the pain of the father of her child running off with another woman. Those black men who are frustrated and upset about the racism they experience are portrayed as violent and dangerous; the black men who are not violent and not dangerous instead submit with quiet dignity to the atrocities heaped upon them. The stereotype is perpetuated, again and again, that anger -- even justifiable anger -- is wrong, bad, and counter-productive to a cause. And this is, of course, a terribly privileged view of anger and utterly unhelpful.
The abusive husband in "The Help" is only barely kept in check by his wife's threats that she will leave him and not take the kids with her. This framing of the narrative cheapens any portrayal of abuse, because the norm in abusive situations is for the abused party to be fearful for the children and for the abusive party to use that fear to control and manipulate the abused. The addition of this detail to the overall characterization of the situation makes abuse seem funny when it's not, makes it seem easy to get out of when it's not, and makes it seem like a mental chess game between worthy opponents when it's not. Abuse is not those things, but the frequent characterization of it as such leads to all kinds of victim-blaming and systematic denial of justice to abused women.
And the injustices heaped upon the maids in "The Help" are largely injustices of the spirit. The novel makes mention of physical and sexual assault, and a major plot point is the unfair imprisonment and dangerous blacklisting of maids by vindictive employers, but the larger share of the experiences depicted in the novel are injustices of othering, of making people of the "wrong" race or class feel as though they are without worth simply because they are not the "right" race or class. And -- again -- this is very effective as a tactic for showing why racism and classism and wage dependence are actively damaging to self-image and are toxic to a healthy society. But as a historical depiction of the actual history of black maids in white households, keeping the injustices to ‘merely' systematic othering without really accurately (i.e., outside of 3-4 mentions that I can recall) depicting all the other physical abuse that accompanied it is effectively softening history to make it easier to swallow. And that doesn't occur in a vacuum.
That's only three Very Problematic Things about "The Help". I could list a dozen more. And yet I still like the damn book. I kind of wish I didn't; it would make things a lot easier. I'd feel better about myself as a person. But what we like -- and what we don't like -- isn't something that we necessarily can control. If I could Conclusively Prove that "The Hunger Games" was the most feminist-friendly YA book on the market today, that wouldn't make those of you who don't like the book magically like it. It shouldn't. And if I could similarly prove that Disney's "The Jungle Book" is the most racist animated film ever created, that wouldn't make those of you who like the movie stop humming "Bear Necessities" in the shower. I don't think it can. I honestly don't think the human mind works that way.
I don't think the goal of artistic analysis is to make people -- or ourselves -- stop liking the "wrong" things and start liking the "right" things. I think the goal is to come to a more nuanced understanding of all these things. Some things are more problematic than others, why? What makes them that way? How do those problems manifest in the larger culture around us? How could those problems have been avoided without substantially altering the text? (Or could they?)
There's no easy answers, no agreement that everyone can all reach. The over-the-top level of violence against women in "The Millennium Trilogy" will always seem to me to be a deliberate artistic choice by a feminist-friendly author who wanted to shock the privileged reader into a better understanding of the oppression of the lower classes that they themselves quietly and unquestioningly support; the over-the-top level of violent against women in "A Song of Ice and Fire" will always seem to me to be a deliberate artistic choice by an author who cared more about juvenile titillation under the guise of being "edgy" than about telling a good story that realistically depicts the effect of violence on women. These are subjective opinions, not everyone is going to agree with them, and I'm probably not going to change my mind.
When I criticize a text, or when I praise another, I'm not criticizing or praising the fans. I find feminism in "The Hunger Games"; that doesn't mean I think all THG fans are inherently feminist allies. I find misogyny in "Twilight"; that doesn't mean I think every woman who loves Twilight is a self-hating anti-feminist who has deluded herself into buying into the patriarchy and who is either an opponent to be defeated or a sheep to be brought to the light. People are more complicated than that.
A few days ago, a very close friend asked me why I'd never been interested in watching "Dr. Who". I thought about that for a long moment. I said, "I know it's supposed to be really good, and just about everyone I know online loves it." He nodded, and I continued. "But, I think the reason given for why the actor changes all the time is that he can be pretty much anything, any race, any gender, any species, any color? If that's so, it bugs me that he is never a woman, or a person of color." My friend gave me a funny look and asked me why that would be a sticking point for me when the ‘explanation' is just an in-show hand-wave for real life actor swapping. He pointed out that my current TV show of choice, "The Tudors", doesn't have any people of color and largely treats the women characters as nothing more than a go-to device to reach the Showtime nudity quota. He asked why I would choose to not watch something really, really good just because of a casting choice -- White Male Protagonist -- that almost every other show I watch also makes.
I thought about this for a moment. "It just bugs me," I said with a shrug.
Being able to like or dislike the things we experience is a freedom of choice that no one should give up or try to take away. Being able to discuss the aspects that we like and the aspects that we didn't is a valuable way to compare experiences and express unique viewpoints. Being able to find something worthwhile in an otherwise-problematic piece reminds us that even bad art can have a purpose; being able to find problems in an otherwise-perfect piece reminds us that even good art is created by flawed humans. Being unable to agree which things are worthwhile and which things are problematic and which things the author intended or not sharpens our communication abilities and our critical thinking skills.
Artistic analysis isn't about finding The Answer. It's not about making a list of Good Art and Bad Art and then having everyone realign their tastes to match. It's not about coming to an agreement. It's about experiencing different viewpoints and understanding why other people think differently from you. And it's about taking those new perspectives with you and applying them to the next piece of art you experience.
And I guess it's also about learning how to passionately express an opinion to your mates without creating the impression that you're being all judgey on them. I'm still working on that one.
* Someone is going to ask, and I'm going to feel impolite ignoring the question, so just to cut past all that, it was Tron. The new one. There you go.