Creating More Accurate Media Representations of Stigmatized Identities

Greta recently wrote about Yes, We’re Open, a new indie film about a couple in an open relationship. She wrote:

A lot of why it was frustrating can be summed up in the question I asked the filmmakers in their post-film Q&A: “Given that the template of San Francisco poly culture is that it’s hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death… why did you choose to make the poly couple in this movie so skanky, and not particularly ethical?”

They clearly understood the question, and the context for it. They agreed about poly people, if anything, tending to be hyper-ethical to the point of relentlessly over-processing everything, and hyper-honest to the point of being TMI and never shutting up. In fact, one of the filmmakers is himself non-monogamous. But they were making a comedy, they said, and unethical people are just funnier. For a long-format story, anyway.

She later says:

I don’t want every poly character in every TV show or movie to be a perfect paragon of sensitivity and high-minded ethics. I’m okay with them being flawed and human. The need for role models isn’t a need for one perfect hero: it’s a need to see that you have options, other than the ones your culture is unfairly slotting you into. (Not to mention the need for the rest of the world to see that as well.) I don’t think every producer of pop culture has an obligation to single-handedly fill that entire gaping hole. And again, I don’t want propaganda. Propaganda is boring.

But given that there are so few poly characters in pop culture, and even fewer who don’t fall into the stereotype of unethical seducers and skanks with no self-control, I think producers of pop culture do have an obligation to not actively perpetuate that stereotype.

I left a comment there but subsequently realized I had way too many Thoughts for just a comment, so here we go.

It’s true that creators of pop culture are (and should be) primarily concerned with telling a good story, not teaching us morals or otherwise educating us. When the latter goals take priority, you end up with the insipid morality tales that comprise much of children’s media.

However, when media presents a false or misleading portrait or a group that is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the public, that’s a negative externality that should be dealt with. But how?

I think that one way the entertainment industry falters in presenting characters who have a stigmatized identity is by making their entire character all about that identity.

Sometimes they do this by having the character confirm a stereotype. In the film Greta wrote about (which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen), the poly characters are unethical and obsessed with sex. Another film might have, say, a flamboyant gay best friend or an uptight Asian student who’s obsessed with her grades. Even if that character also does a bunch of other stuff, the prevalent stereotypes keep the audience focused on the character’s polyness or gayness or race.

So that’s one way. It’s the most obvious way, so many people rightfully attack it these days. A less obvious way is making that character’s entire story arc–or, indeed, the entire film or show–all about that stigmatized identity. That’s what Yes, We’re Open is. It’s not a film that happens to have poly characters or that references polyamory in some way. It’s a film about polyamory.

Because of that, the central conflict of the film has to be about polyamory, too. And that means that the filmmakers have to exaggerate. After all, if you made a documentary about my open relationship or that of one of my best friends or all the other poly folks I know, it’d be boring as hell. Making it interesting requires making it unrealistic, and because most people don’t spend much time reminding themselves that entertainment is not reality, they’re going to watch the film and think, “Oh, so this is what polyamory is like.”

The same thing happens to a lesser extent with any film that’s primarily about relationships. Romcoms are unrealistic because their writers have to create an unrealistic amount of conflict in order for the film to be interesting and funny. So you see massive failures to communicate, glorification of abusive relationships, and other crap.

The most realistic portrayals of romance in film tend to be the stories that are mostly about something else. For instance, Eric and Tami’s marriage in the show Friday Night Lights has been praised for its realism. Eric and Tami love each other and their children and work to improve their relationship, but there’s still conflict in it. It’s just not enough conflict to base an entire show on, which works because the show is primarily about a small-town Texas football team, not about the relationship between two characters. That’s one of the reasons it’s realistic.

That’s why I believe that the best way to improve representations of stigmatized individuals and misunderstood identities in the media is actually to make the story about something other than those identities. Make a spy thriller where one of the main characters happens to have two partners. Make a sci-fi film in which the main character turns down a potential love interest because the main character happens to be asexual. Present these possibilities as just a part of life.

This approach won’t fix all of the problems. It also doesn’t have to be applied universally. There should be films out there are are about polyamory or homosexuality or whatever, although they need to be made by people who know what they’re talking about. These films can serve their own purpose.

But in order to really normalize a lifestyle or identity, you have to present it as realistically as possible, and that means presenting those characters as fully-formed individuals who are not defined by that particular identity. If the subject you’re addressing (polyamory, homosexuality, etc.) is the only source of conflict in the film, you’ll end up having to exaggerate that subject for the sake of entertainment.

When something like this happens in movies that address very common and accepted things–such as, in the case of romcoms, monogamous heterosexual dating–misrepresentation is still a bit of a problem, but at least people can draw on their personal experiences and those of friends and family, as well as on their knowledge of the dozens of other films and shows that address that experience, in order to evaluate whether or not the film is realistic.

But when it happens in movies that deal with unfamiliar and misunderstood experiences, like polyamory, the audience is much less likely to have other sources of information about that subject readily available. So they end up with glaringly inaccurate ideas about that subject.

Feminism and Victimhood

What’s this I keep hearing about feminism promoting “victimhood”?

Anti-feminists often suggest that feminism encourages women to “see themselves as victims,” that feminism is actually insulting to women because it suggests they need “special rights” in order to be able to compete with men. The concept of programs that encourage women to pursue STEM professions or that teach men not to rape, therefore, implies that women are poor defenseless victims.

But does it really?

I never really understood this critique of feminism because I remember how powerless I felt before I became a feminist, and I know how powerful I feel now. Maybe there are feminists who feel like hopeless victims of the patriarchy. I don’t know; I haven’t met any.

You know what really sounds like victimhood to me? Anti-feminism.

Anti-feminism says that women must act “feminine” and men must act “masculine,” no matter how they personally feel like acting.

Anti-feminism says that sex and romance must follow certain scripts, and if you don’t like those scripts, too bad. If your desires fall outside of those scripts, again, too bad.

Anti-feminism says that all-male (or mostly-male) legislative bodies can make laws telling women whether or not and on what conditions they may obtain an abortion and how they may acquire birth control. If women don’t like that, well, they can just run for elected office themselves because this is a democracy after all. How they’ll do that while popping out all those babies they didn’t want? You tell me.

Anti-feminism says that men can’t control their sexual urges and refrain from raping women that they find attractive. It says that women do have the power to prevent their own rapes, but only by not having consensual sex, not drinking, not going out alone, not flirting–pretty must just staying home where it’s safe.

Anti-feminism says that if a dude keeps making inappropriate comments to you at work, you should suck it up and learn how to take a joke. Guys will be guys.

Anti-feminism says that if you’re a woman who wants to have children, you’ll have to accept the fact that caring for your children will reduce your career opportunities while the man you had those children with continues advancing through the ranks. If you wanted a more successful career, you shouldn’t have had children.

Anti-feminism says you should spend hours of your day putting on makeup, removing your body hair, fitting yourself into uncomfortable clothes, and tottering around on high heels–in fact, many of these things are often required of women in the workplace. It says that appearance is a reasonable factor to judge people by, because if you’re ugly, you can just choose to take better care of yourself.

Anti-feminism says that if you’re fat, you should spend your time, money, and energy on getting thin. Otherwise it’s acceptable to discriminate against you.

Anti-feminism says that you’ll be happier, a better woman if you marry a man and have kids. Even if you think you won’t. Do it anyway.

Anti-feminism says that if that man abuses you, you should make an effort to be a better wife.

I can’t think of anything more disempowering, more victimizing, than to live by an ideology like this one.

I know why people think feminism is all about victimhood. The reason is that feminism, like all progressive ideologies, rejects the idea of meritocracy. Feminism acknowledges the fact that while hard work and perseverance matter, some people still start out the race already ahead, while others must run the race dragging weights behind them. Acknowledging this reality, documented by decades of academic research and personal narratives, isn’t promoting victimhood. It’s lifting a rug that we’ve swept so much crap underneath.

The meritocratic worldview can be beneficial both to individuals and to society. On an individual level, it maintains the “just world hypothesis,” the idea that the world is fundamentally fair, that those who deserve success will get it and those who get screwed over must’ve deserved it somehow. It can be much more comforting than believing that sometimes people get screwed over for no good reason. And not just because of bad luck, either, but because our society may be set up in a way that screws over certain groups more than others.

On a societal level, the meritocratic worldview keeps people working hard. After all, if you truly believe that hard work is all you need to succeed, well, you’re probably going to work pretty damn hard, unless you’re just lazy and don’t deserve success anyway.

But understanding that hard work isn’t all there is to it doesn’t mean that people won’t work hard. It means that people will try to fix the world’s broken parts rather than pretending they’re not there. Feminism is empowering to me and to so many other people precisely because it shows us that we don’t have to accept the world as it is–even if some of the realizations it provokes are uncomfortable and jarring.

Most people will feel like victims at some point in their lives. Life has a way of putting almost everyone through shit that’s completely reasonable to feel sorry for yourself over. For what it’s worth, I’ve never felt like a victim as a woman. I’ve felt like a victim as a child who was bullied by her own teachers, as an adolescent who lived with untreated depression for nearly a decade, and as a young adult who sometimes feels like there’s just no way to get anywhere in this world without tons of money. Sometimes.

But there are people out there who have had their lives irrevocably altered by sexism in ways so horrible I try not to think about them. If those people feel like victims from time to time, I think they’re completely justified.

And that’s not something that can be blamed on feminism. That’s something that feminism, unlike the dogmatic pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps crap we keep getting fed, is actually trying to address.