manifesta: (Mischief Managed)
manifesta ([personal profile] manifesta) wrote2010-08-02 05:31 pm

sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the cigar is actually a cannon

A huge thank you to everyone for your thoughts on my last two posts. It was certainly an interesting weekend.

The idea of even having to compile this list makes my stomach turn, but I figure it will be useful in future conversations. These are variations of statements I've seen made in recent discussions that were used to dismiss someone's concerns or objections about the potential negative implications of a book's content and minimize their argument. In my response to each I've included reasons why I believe these statements were made and why they are not the best choices for a conversation, particularly one that involves discussion regarding inequality. I write this because all too often it's the people who bring up issues about power and privilege that are not given the benefit of the doubt in a discussion and are forced into defending their position instead of hosting a conversation about it.

(1) Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. AKA, you're reading too much into it. I think this one crops up so frequently because high school English classes in the States try very hard to emphasize the apparent symbolism in every single book they can get their hands on (truly, I love Elie Wiesel's Night, but I'm not convinced there's symbolism in the snow) and after being told over and over again to look for the deeper meanings that seem to exist solely because you wanted to find them, the whole concept becomes silly. Combine this with (a) the internalization or lack of awareness of systemic inequality and (b) the societal norms that perpetuate and disguise systemic inequality, and the idea that the text is more than just the text is rendered unfathomable.

Saying "a cigar is just a cigar" is quick and easy. Responding isn't. Sometimes a cigar isn't just a cigar, because something that appears to be innocent actually reflects implicit societal norms that privilege one group over another. If you find yourself thinking that maybe something isn't as big a deal as someone says it is, or that you just don't see how the text could possibly convey that implication, take a step back and consider the possibility that the other person is coming from a perspective that may allow them to see things differently than you do. The results of privilege, inequality, and internalized -isms permeate our books as much as our thoughts.

(2) You're deliberately misinterpreting the text. This one is particularly hurtful because it automatically dismisses the person who voiced their opinion as irrational and, worse yet, intentionally attempting to cause trouble. Usually this statement is made out of anger, or their own hurt, because whatever the OP said challenged their perception of the author, the book, or their own world view. Instead of discussing the issue's implications, the rest of the dialogue centers around whether it's legitimate or not. While calling into question the legitimacy of a point of view is certainly relevant, it can completely derail a conversation.

Instead of making accusations or blanket statements, ask clarifying questions. Pinpoint where exactly you the OP lost you and your emotional reaction to what ze said. If the OP uses terms like privilege or internalized sexism, look them up. Don't jump into a discussion about privilege without attempting to unpack your own first.

(3) Neither books nor authors are obligated to foster morality in readers or encourage model behavior. I've discussed this before, but it bears repeating.
"I don't think that writers are obligated to teach readers appropriate beliefs and values. I do think that they are responsible and should be held accountable for the messages that their books send, messages that are reliant entirely upon the context that either validates or invalidates them, particularly when the content of the message coincides with subtle, real world attitudes and is conveyed in an implicit manner." #
There's a difference between writing something that is explicitly and implicitly discouraged in the real world and writing something that is explicitly discouraged but implicitly condoned.* Serial killers are by and large both explicitly and implicitly discouraged; serial killers might be glorified on TV (I'm looking at you, Dexter) but in reality they're feared and hated, and the legal system reinforces this perception by punishing them harshly once caught. The killer's victims are not blamed for being killed, because it's clearly the killer's fault. The culture surrounding serial killers and their victims is simple, unified, and straightforward.

Rape, on the other hand, is explicitly discouraged but implicitly condoned. The culture surrounding rape is mediated by rape apologism, victim-blaming, gender roles, and low rates of conviction for rapists. These are not isolated issues but are instead symptoms that represent a wider, systemic problem. We all agree that rape is bad, but a lot of our societal beliefs and behaviors announce otherwise.

While both of these examples can reaffirm negative beliefs about a stigmatized group when put into writing, the second one is contradictory. When a serial killer is portrayed as good in a book or TV show, the viewers might associate more positive feelings with serial killers in general, but at the end of the day their explicit beliefs (I know that serial killers are bad) and their implicit beliefs (accumulated from the social, political, and legal climate that frowns upon serial killers in both beliefs and behaviors) outweigh those positive feelings.

In contrast, when victims are blamed for the violence inflicted upon them, regardless of whether or not that violence consisted of rape, or when rape itself is portrayed as not-rape, explicit beliefs might remain intact (I know that rape is bad and the victims aren't at fault) but the implicit beliefs, having been accumulated from years of exposure to socially condoned sexism or internalized sexism and a society dripping in patriarchal values, are reinforced (rape is bad, but this isn't rape/she was asking for it). That but is what allows someone to resolve the cognitive dissonance between society's explicit and implicit beliefs; coincidentally, it's also what rapists use to justify their actions.

Do books that include rape scenes or victim-blaming dialogue create rapists? It's hard to say. The more significant question is whether what's written reinforces societal norms that legitimize rape as socially acceptable in the first place. This goes beyond fostering model behavior and into whether or not the text perpetuates pre-existing social structures that give some groups of people power over others.

(4) Why can't characters be sexist/racist/ablist/etc. or generally judgmental, regardless of whether the author intended it? This is interconnected with the last statement and involves whether the text validates or invalidates the belief. There's a difference between character Y being explicitly sexist and saying/doing things that are clearly sexist, and character Z being implicitly sexist and saying/doing things that are sexist but socially acceptable. 

To use the Sisters Red example, if the author wanted, a character could be explicitly sexist by either a) behaving in a way that that most people would automatically identify as sexist (calling women sluts for dressing a certain way, for instance) or b) blaming the women for any violence perpetuated against them because they are dressed a certain way--and then making the reader aware through the narrative or another character that the victim-blamer is, in fact, being sexist. Simply blaming the women for any violence perpetuated against them would consistute an implicit sexist behavior and imply sexist beliefs, but because blaming women is socially acceptable, many, many people would not identify it as sexist. The debate regarding the interpretation of rape culture in Sisters Red and many other YA books proves this. These norms are implicit, sinister, and heavily guarded, even by the people who explicitly declare they don't believe in them. When portrayed in our books and media in an equally implicit manner, they become all that more dangerous.

(5) It was never my intention to...

(6) I know the author personally and ze would never, ever say or write something like that on purpose.

and

(7) I'm a feminist, but even I disagree. 

As I've discussed above, someone can still hold negative beliefs about marginalized groups of people without realizing it, and those beliefs can be reflected in subtle behaviors even if that person does not consciously agree with them. The author is probably an wonderful person who doesn't condone rape or racism (or serial killers) and genuinely believes that they didn't do anything wrong by writing x. Unfortunately even the best intentions can have negative consequences, and it's important to acknowlege the impact of these consequences and learn from them, rather continue to contribute to a culture has already taught its people to value some groups more than others.

Likewise, feminists are not perfect. Feminism is an evolving movement that has more than its shares of flaws. Being feminist does not make one all-knowing or exempt from societal power structures. We are equally susceptible to making privileged statements or statements stemming from internalized sexism. We still hold implicit biases, the same as anyone else.

What we can do, what anyone can do, is consider the complicated web society has woven and where we sit within it. Think about all the angles you aren't seeing. Take a step back. Breathe. Rinse and repeat. If you still think the OP is wrong, maybe they are--but can you honestly say that because you know they're wrong, or because what it would mean if they're right?



*If you're confused about contradictory implicit and explicit beliefs, look at this way: When a parent tells a child not to do something but then does it themself, the child's explicit beliefs ("don't do that") are contrasted with the implicit beliefs (the parent does does it anyway, so it must be okay) and the child walks away with the impression that mommy said it's not okay to do XYZ, but if she does it then it must be. One might argue that we aren't children, we're well aware of the rules ("rape is bad"), but the same thing occurs when our society quietly condones violence against women through every possible social outlet (the objectification of and violence against women in movies, shows, magazines, books) and we walk away with the impression that rape is bad, but...

Someone's going to inform me that there is symbolism in the snow, I just know it.
naraht: Illustration of Tennyson's "Mariana" (art-Mariana)

[personal profile] naraht 2010-08-03 01:12 am (UTC)(link)
As an author I'm always struggling with the implicit/explicit distinction. Intent strikes me as a bit of a red herring, because "I didn't intend to step on your foot" is never really sufficient defense.

So we're down to reader reactions and this is even more sticky because there is no single entity that is "the reader." In writing stories I end up wondering how much I am justified in aiming my writing at a narrow subset of readers, who somewhat inevitably end up being those who think and interpret in a way similar to me. Trying to subtly cue readers in to implicit *isms in the text is really, really hard, and whether an author succeeds or fails seems to come down to authorial talent (or the lack thereof).

It doesn't help that I just read a book of literary criticism about "Lolita" and every essay offered a completely different version of what "the reader" concludes from the novel. (Maybe I as an author am aiming too high by pondering Nabokovian levels of ambiguity.)

[identity profile] theinkymuse.livejournal.com 2010-08-04 07:53 pm (UTC)(link)
It seems to me that all these comments stem from a want to turn a blind eye to things we deem unpleasant because we just don't want to acknowledge them, and it's a shame. Fact of the matter is, we--writers included, or perhaps especially--are responsible for what messages we incorporate into our works, whether intentionally or not. It's why we must be so careful and wary when story-crafting. :/