Saturday, January 17, 2009

But They Didn't Mean To

(Warning: Analysis Post! If you don't like Reading Stuff (maybe Too Much) Into Things, then read no further!)

Open thread by Jennifer Kesler at the Hathor Legacy (or: "The Search For Good Female Characters"), asking the question: "Does intent matter?"

"Intent", in this case, refers to whether or not an author meant to stick elements that could be seen as racist/sexist/homophobic/etc into their work. (And if you've had any involvement in race/gender/queer/etc studies, such elements are more obvious, and if not, well, take my word - or Google's - word for it, they're common than you might think.) If the nonwhite people always die while the white people survive*, if women are all simpering weaklings next to male Adonises, if all protagonists ever are white males for no apparent reason, well, something might be off, some would say...

But wait! This is a book you like! Or a show you watch all the time! Racism? Sexism? You assholes! My show's/book's creator wouldn't entertain such a thing! In fact, he/she's a proud feminist, too!

There. You see? You were just talking about intent.

Yeah, that's how it goes. I've done it plenty myself, especially since certain shows I love can be particularly bad about this. (That's a post for another day, though.)

Kesler argues, in short:
...I believe a creator’s intent doesn’t matter. Sexism can occur without the presence of a sexist person, therefore we can talk about sexism without being asked to prove that the people behind the sexism are sexist.

My opinion, tangentially: I'd argue that always putting Straight White Males front and center is as much an artistic issue as it is a social one; I imagine (and Kesler acknowledges in her post) that many or most creators just do this because it doesn't occur to them to do otherwise - a lazy adherence to cliche more than anything else, and as such, something that ought not to be done so freakin' much.

Creator intent should matter to discussion in terms of the goal of pure social change; attacking a creator and branding them as 'racist' (or, I dunno, calling an avowed feminist creator a rapist) isn't gonna get them to listen to you. (This is certainly not Kesler's standpoint, but it's certainly out there.) In terms of pure analysis? It matters only a little, I suppose, and then only so much as you care about analyzing where the author is coming from as part of your critique. From an artistic standpoint, the same also holds true (though obviously with lower stakes, but more pertinent to the supposed point of my blog!).

* For your amusement value, also check out the Sorting Algorithm of Mortality over at TV Tropes. Sorted by age, sexual orientation, love interest (by genre), race, role, race, aesthetics, personality, flaws, 'virtues', species, and occupation! (Yes, I love my TV Tropes. Even if it does ruin your life.)

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