WARNING: This post will contain spoilers for many, many things.
I know this is a controversial topic, and I periodically keep coming back to it. But I can only read so many reviews that make these types of arguments before needing to say something myself. The main thesis of this post is that it is never a valid form of art criticism to say: this work is bad, because people with trait X ought not be portrayed doing Y.
Before going any further, I’d like to make the argument to show I understand the point of view I’m criticizing. Suppose Group X (women, blacks, gays, mentally ill, etc) has a negative stigma attached to it that manifests in real world discrimination. The claim is that making media that reinforces this incorrect stereotype causes measurable harm to society by perpetuating this discrimination indirectly. It also harms people in this group (particularly children) by not giving good role models to show the stereotype is not true.
I’ll even grant most of this argument by giving an anecdote from my own life. When I was growing up, I experienced a lot of frustration trying to find a positive portrayal of gay people in media. They either ended up dead from AIDS (Philadelphia, Longtime Companion, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Jeffrey), dead from gay bashing or suicide from bullying (Boys Don’t Cry, The Laramie Project, Brokeback Mountain, Defying Gravity, Bent), were pedophiles or molested as children (Mysterious Skin, L.I.E., Bad Education). It seemed the only option to live a life where something terrible wasn’t happening to you was to live a lie (Maurice, Far From Heaven, De-Lovely).
So believe me when I say I get that this style of criticism is coming from a good place. Here’s some examples of articles that use this argument from the recent past (I’ve read more, but didn’t save them anywhere). Avengers: Age of Ultron is bad because instead of having Black Widow killing men all the time, she also has a subplot of flirtation and romantic interests and concerns over her infertility. This pegs the whole movie into problematic territory, since group X (women) ought not be portrayed as caring about thing Y (men or having babies? more on this confusion later).
A recent, highly creative and interesting game Her Story was recently criticized for, can you guess? You’re wrong, because it has nothing to do with women! The game dared to allude to the main character having dissociative identity disorder (though many people believe she does not). The main character also committed a murder. Thus, it is clearly flawed because we ought not portray group X (mental disorder) doing thing Y (committing crimes).
And on it goes. Do you see the pattern? Let’s start with my opinion on the matter before breaking it down and giving better ways to go about this sort of thing. There is a divide between mass media and art. In the age of the internet, this divide is almost impossible to find. I think the argument for this type of criticism almost works for mass media. It fails miserably for art.
Art is art. No matter how good your motives, it is never, ever valid criticism to deride art because the artistic content has material you disagree with. To make that criticism is to say that certain topics are off limits for artists: a character with trait X can’t do thing Y. What if the character must do that thing in order for the art to be the best it can be?
It is hard to articulate exactly why this is not a valid form of criticism. The best way to invalidate it is to try to come up with any sort of plot where this type of criticism cannot be leveled against it. You can’t do it. You almost can by trying to make it have absolutely no conflict or drama. But as soon as any reasonably fleshed out character has any sort of conflict, you will be able to find a criticism of the above form. We’ll come back to this double standard with the Avengers example later.
Many people have embarrassed themselves by trying this exercise. The most prominent being Anita Sarkeesian who makes her living off criticizing video games from a feminist perspective. She sketched a game idea that she thought would be free from sexist tropes, but as soon as it appeared, people were able to throw her own tropes right back at her. It is easy to criticize, but to create something free from this form of criticism is impossible. That is why it is not valid. If it applies to everything, it applies to nothing.
The other reason is that these criticisms are nothing more than saying the work is not politically correct. When phrased this way I think everyone can agree it is poor criticism. An artist’s work is bad because it is not politically correct? When we see something like this, we should laugh at how lazy and dishonest this type of criticism is.
So where does this leave us? I think there is a valid way to raise these same issues. A valid form of criticism is to point out cliche and lazy uses of tropes. Doing this requires effort and justification. For example, in Her Story, if you try to phrase the criticism in these terms, it falls away as baseless. The use of dissociative identity disorder is done in an original way. In games, it is not a trope that mentally ill people are criminals. Such a subtle use of the disorder to create depth and thought-provoking moments is wholly original in games (and also it isn’t even clear the main character has the disorder!).
The Avengers example is a little more tricky. I alluded to a difference between mass media and art earlier, and something that grosses half a billion dollars enters the public consciousness in a way that an indie game does not. Maybe there is some ethical responsibility there. But I think this becomes much easier when we remind ourselves it is a superhero movie. The new Avengers movie could possibly be the least believable movie I’ve ever seen. It is hard to go a whole minute without thinking, wow, that is fake.
As I’ve pointed out, part of these types of arguments hinge on the idea that people will think the trope is real which will reinforce a harmful stereotype. Forgive me for not being able to put a kid who watches a teenager get beat up and tied to a fence to die because of who he is attracted to and thinks, “That could be me,” on the same footing as world where a human turns into a giant green killing machine and Thor exists. In other words, context matters.
But let’s get back on track. My main objection above is that this style of argument never ends. What could have been done differently? If Black Widow has children and a family, the complaint will be that the male superheros don’t have to split their time (though Hawkeye does!). This reinforces the idea that women can’t have it all but men can (or something? why has taking care of a family taken on such a negative stigma again?). But then if she doesn’t have children this reinforces the negative stereotype that if a woman has a career she won’t be able to have a family even if she wants one. Do you see how once you let this style of argument in, it never ends. It is lose-lose for the artist. The critic can complain no matter what choice is made.
If you want a real critique of Avengers you need only point to the cringeworthy damsel in distress trope that occurs 3/4 of the way through when Black Widow is the one captured and needs to be rescued. But for some reason, people focused on her romantic interests…
Anyway, I’m sick of reading these critiques that take this form. They had a bit more validity in the past when it was harder to find positive portrayals of certain groups of people. With our current technology of Hulu, Youtube, Netflix, Amazon, and on and on, it is just as easy to find the blockbuster as the indie film. Mass media doesn’t drown out diversity in the same way it used to. So let’s move on from this lazy, invalid form of art criticism to something more substantial.