|Stone and Circles by George Hodan|
Sometimes I receive comments which cast this point of view in doubt. "Aren't you maybe reading just a little too much into things?" is a response that not-entirely-cordially invites me to examine whether or not I am imagining things in the text. "Isn't it unlikely that older literature like this still influences anyone anymore?" is a query which helpfully ignores the fact that I myself (and others who share my age and subculture) grew up being influenced by this literature -- and that today's children living in the same subculture are even now reading this literature for the first time. (Not for nothing have the Narnia books been re-branded with shiny new covers to Appeal To The Youth!) "Is anyone reading this as anything other than a harmless fantasy?" is a question which neatly dodges the larger social issues in order to ask for a comprehensive examination of every individual reader. "Don't you think it matters that things were different back then?" is a suggestion that handily obscures the fact that social progress isn't always a linear progression.
I do not believe that every woman who reads Twilight goes off in search of an abusive relationship of her very own. I do not believe that every child who reads Narnia grows up to believe that violence solves all problems forever. Those are ridiculous strawman positions and a mischaracterization of what I do and what I believe.
Nor am I valiantly tilting at windmills, trying to convince authors and publishers to stop writing Alpha Male romances and Knight Errant fairy tales, while insisting that all the readers of the world stop enjoying these things. I have noted in the past that I think most-if-not-all art has problematic elements, and that the answer is not to not make or enjoy art, but to instead be aware of the problems once they are pointed out to us, and to use that knowledge of those problems as a stepping stone when working towards social justice.
I believe that society influences art and art influences society. The biases and prejudices and toxicity which surrounds us as part of our culture -- a culture which is often hostile to consent, to autonomy, to choice, and to any deviation from the designated privileged "norm" -- are frequently reflected in the books we write, whether the author intends for those unfortunate implications to come through or not. And in turn, the books which carry those same biases and prejudices and toxic messages as text (or subtext) on the page can influence the thoughts and creative processes of the people who read them.
By pointing out unfortunate implications in a work, I am not seeking to condemn authors. Once I accepted that "Intent is not Magic" and that harm can be done even with the best of intentions, I was forced to redefine my internal concept of Bad Person from "someone who does harm" to "someone who knowingly does harm". I believe that Good People can and do cause harm accidentally, without automatically losing the designation of Good Person; similarly, I believe that good authors can produce problematic works with the best of intentions without automatically being or becoming Bad People.
By pointing out unfortunate implications in a work, I am not seeking to judge readers. I do believe that personal reading preferences are things over which we do not entirely have conscious control. I may never understand why I, a disabled person, enjoy apocalyptic zombie literature despite the fact that the entire genre has an almost built-in hostility to people with disabilities, but I do accept that reading and writing within that genre does not make me a Bad Person and that as an individual I can indulge in fantasy without blurring the line between that fantasy and the actual reality in which I live.
The plain and simple reason why I point out unfortunate implications in a work is so that I and my readers can come to a greater awareness of the biases and prejudices in our cultures. It is sometimes easy to view individual incidents of social injustice as isolated and disconnected from one another, as though one abusive relationship or one public shooting occurs in a cultural vacuum from everything else. I think that it is easier to draw the cultural lines between these incidents in order to point out larger trends when we look at the popular media that our culture produces. The end goal is not to condemn or judge authors and readers, nor even necessarily to alter their writing and reading habits, but to raise awareness of problematic trends. Once we are aware of those trends, we can push back on them in our daily reality while still enjoying our nightly fantasy of choice.
I live in a world where abusive relationships are normalized as tender and romantic. I do not think that rape fantasies and fantasies featuring abusive romance partners are objectively wrong to read and enjoy. I talk about Twilight not because I condemn those fantasies, but because I want to raise awareness of why those fantasies work as fantasies only and why they are unsafe in real life. I do not subscribe to the insulting belief that women cannot tell fantasy from reality and that Twilight fans are all in search of an abusive relationship of their own. Yet I do recognize that I live in a world where a startlingly high number of people consistently fail to give aid to women caught in abusive relationships because those people cannot or will not recognize abusive relationships for what they are: abuse.
I live in a world where a prolific romance novelist who has been groomed to submit to an abusive relationship can write a non-fictional memoir about a currently on-going abusive relationship with a deeply abusive boyfriend without her agent or publisher ever once attempting to intervene. Multiple people were aware of the abuse in her relationship -- abuse that critics noted in the text -- yet not one of these people in the author's life tried to provide aid to a woman trapped in a life-threatening situation. This failure to provide aid is particularly egregious given that they themselves were not being directly groomed by an abuser to normalize abuse. Even worse is the fact that after the abuse escalated into rape and terrifying threats against the author's life, her agent asked her to cover up the truth of what happened (by deleting her blog posts on the subject) and her publisher shunned her once her real-life story inconveniently clashed with the romantic and ideological ideal of the Romantic Abuser.
There are a number of reasons -- a number of possible intentions -- why an agent, and a publisher, and a disheartening number of popular anti-feminist reviewers like Christina Hoff Sommers might choose to ignore and even encourage the abuse of an individual woman in order to further an anti-feminist agenda. I frankly do not care about their intentions, whether they were good or bad or thoughtless; I care about the fact that harm was done, period. And I while I cannot know what was going through the minds of those people who furthered the abuse of Alisa Valdes through their unwillingness to help her and their implicit encouragement to remain in an abusive relationship in furtherance of the memoir sales and an anti-feminist ideology...
...I can point out that this sort of event is more easily identifiable and more easily averted once we understand that we live in a culture that routinely employs art (like Twilight) in order to normalize abuse to seem romantic.
I live in a country where vigilantes walk public streets armed with destructive weapons. I do not think that Knight Errant fantasies and fantasies where good people with shiny weapons save the world from evil are objectively wrong to read and enjoy. I talk about Narnia not because I condemn those fantasies, but because I want to raise awareness of why those fantasies work as fantasies only and why an attitude that glorifies violence as a solution is unsafe in real life. I do not subscribe to the strawman belief that mere exposure to the glorification of violence through media (whether it be movies, books, or video games) results automatically in violent people. Yet I do recognize that I live in a country where a large number of powerful activists are willing to stonewall meaningful gun reform because they have lionized violence to the point that they see themselves as vigilantes for the cause of good in a dangerous world: literal Knights Errant.
I live in a country where it is not illegal for grown men to carry assault rifles through a crowded suburban neighborhood. Where only in a few select places is it immediately called out as deep, abiding privilege for those armed men to assert that fearful, unarmed people should approach them meekly and ask them their intentions (and believe their answers) rather than call the authorities. Where those same authorities could release a statement chastising the fearful, unarmed people for calling the authorities over something that was not deemed a "true emergency", and blaming those unarmed people who called -- rather than the armed people who made the call necessary -- for tying up valuable resources. And where those armed men literally invoke the fantasy of the Chivalric Knight in order to justify their actions, stating that 'knights wear their weapons on the outside'. And I live in a country where gun activists insist that violence is a one-size-fits-all solution, and that all the atrocities of the past could have simply been solved with more guns for more people.
There are a number of reasons -- a number of possible intentions -- why men might walk armed down the street, frightening unarmed people less than a month after a massacre in the same area, and why a privileged white man might assert that black people were partially responsible for their own enslavement as a combination of their unwillingness to procure enough guns and their inability to effectively use them to stage a sufficiently widespread violent revolt. I frankly do not care about their intentions, or what motivates these activists; I care about the fact that they are advocating violence as a solution in a country where gun deaths are projected to exceed traffic fatalities by 2015. And while I do not want to know what was going through the minds of those men who strolled the streets of Portland, Oregon frightening everyone they passed and causing countless emotional and psychological harm...
...I can point out that this sort of mentality is more easily identifiable and more easily averted once we understand that we live in a culture that routinely employs art (like Narnia) in order to glorify violence as a solution to complex problems and to romanticize privileged men with weapons as always good and protective and never "true" threats to marginalized groups.
I live in a state where marginalized people have minimal protection against abuse. I do not think that frontier fantasy and fantasies where hardworking people build homes from the ground up are objectively wrong to read and enjoy. I talk about Little House on the Prairie not because I condemn those fantasies, but because I want to raise awareness of all the other problematic things that are carried alongside those specific fantasies. I live in a state where frontier fantasies are routinely invoked in order to justify the religious and political abuse of marginalized groups, particularly women, children, immigrants, and people of color.
In Texas it is legal to strike children, despite the fact that almost every year at least one child dies in Texas from being struck by an adult. In Texas it is legal for children to marry with parental consent, and without consideration of the age difference between bride and groom, despite the fact that Texas is home to religious groups known for forcing children into abusive marriages. In Texas, hundreds of immigrants seeking a better life across the border die every year, while our legislators quibble over the availability of drivers licenses. In Texas, wealthy churches preach a Quiverfull doctrine which insists that the use of birth control and family planning is a sinful rebellion against a higher power, while the governor of Texas has used political power to limit access to women's health care, to limit women's reproductive rights, and to mandate the state-sponsored rape of women seeking abortions.
There are a number of reasons -- a number of possible intentions -- why privileged men might use political and religious pressure to systematically marginalize women and children, while using that marginalization as a means to reward male supporters by appointing them as minor-but-absolute governing heads in their own homes. I am not in the slightest bit interested in the intentions of these men and the reasons behind their doctrines; I care about the fact that they are misusing political power in an attempt to strip choice from women and children in ways that demonstrably cause tremendous harm. And while I do not want to explore the deep corners of my governor's mind as he continues to wage a costly battle against me in my beautiful home state...
...I can point out that this sort of religious and political abuse is more easily identifiable and more easily fought once we understand that we live in a culture that routinely employs art (like the Little House on the Prairie franchise) in order to glorify strict gender roles and patriarchal family dynamics.
Critics who insist that books from our past like Little House on the Prairie shouldn't be subjected to the same analysis as books written in modern times because of a perceived difference in ideologies between Then and Now conveniently forget that a number of politically powerful groups are right now using those same books as a role model to which they suggest we return. Discussing the implications of physical abuse and parental authoritarianism in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books is not a random pastime designed to make everyone here feel morally superior to Ma and Pa Ingalls -- it is an ongoing treatise on why men like Rick Perry and Doug Phillips are wrong to insist that child abuse and the sexual subjugation of women are good and necessary things for a healthy society.
Critics who insist that religious books like Narnia shouldn't be subjected to the same analysis as secular books because the religious themes outweighed all other considerations for consistency and unfortunate implications in the author's mind conveniently forget that those same books influenced generations of children and hundreds of non-religious fantasy works which rely on the same glorification of violence and privilege in order to defend the patriarchal hierarchy against progressive ideals for equality. Discussing the implications of privilege and power in C.S. Lewis' books is not a hobby intended to allow the reader to feel cleverer than a famous Christian apologist -- it is an ongoing exploration on why using violence to solve complex problems and to empower the privileged few to "protect" the marginalized many with powerful weapons does not actually result in an ideal social order.
Critics who deride the exploration of Twilight because it's merely a fantasy ... well, for the most part, they don't seem to exist. I've been deconstructing Twilight since 2010 and I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard someone suggest that Twilight isn't worthy of discussion because it's just fluffy fantasy rather than something that has meaningfully shaped and influenced our culture. And I think that omission is interesting. Maybe the difference is that Twilight was written by a female author, when Narnia wasn't. Maybe the difference is that Twilight is written for a primarily young adult female audience, when Little House on the Prairie isn't. Maybe the difference in that Twilight is new, whereas Narnia and Little House have the advantage of nostalgia and the mistaken idea that things from the past are somehow beyond the reach of criticism. I don't know.
What I do know is that at the end of the day, I discuss literature here because I live in a fundamentally broken culture that needs fixing, and I think the brokenness within my culture can be more easily identified through the literature that my culture both produces and popularly consumes. And given all that, and given the deep toxicity of the culture I live in, no, I don't think I'm reading too much into things.