Representation, Depiction, and Other Notes from A Developing Critical Perspective
Trying to make sense of the crisis of media literacy and grow as a writer, critic, and audience member while reflecting on social media discourses
I’m a work in progress, relentlessly self-critical, and frequently second guessing. Part of this newsletter-blog’s purpose is for me to be able to talk about my developing journey as a writer. Part of that is my ongoing journey as a reader, the never-ending search for more perspectives, more tones and voices and insights to help me develop my own. Part of it is online commentary, at the center or – more likely – periphery. This in turn leads to me reading more critical writing and listening or viewing other critical reviews that help me contest or refine my thoughts. This piece is a bit of a ramble, and is about depiction, representation, how my perspective has changed, and media literacy. That is, basically, the ability to critically analyze – to think critically and draw conclusions from observations about – media; the practice and skills of looking at what a piece of artwork or media product is doing on literal, metaphorical, explicit, and implicit levels; from the perspective of storytelling, political or philosophical work, and other angles.
A central discourse of late – well, for a long time, anyway – is that of representation; who and what is represented in art; on the screen or page as well as on the byline or in the credits. Who gets an opportunity to tell stories and what stories are allowed to be told? What is the right or acceptable way to depict people? Which actions are and are not acceptable? What does it say about the artist or the society in which the artist exists?
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These are conversations that have long been core to the way I engage with art. For me this is explicitly and intrinsically tied to politics, specifically racial politics that were core to my upbringing. Part of my specific experience as a black man and with my family had to do with seeing and regarding depictions of black life, people, and cultural objects in movies, television. I’ve, at times, chafed at any negative depiction because of the dueling dual concerns of role models and stereotypes. My perception has evolved as I have come to realize that the world, because of the people that inhabit it and therefore the art that they create which reflects it, can demonstrate truth in sadness, in bleakness, in badness, among other things; also that the point of a piece of art is to make you feel something or think about something or both and more. I don’t think good guys are the only version of black people or queer people we should see, for instance. Authenticity comes from nuance, texture, and variety in depictions, not the pristine or the saccharine. Sometimes that means darkness. There are other conversations to be had about what that leads to, and I’ll return to it, but I mainly want to talk about depiction and endorsement for a second. I want to talk about people’s well-earned impulse to look for hidden meaning and unfortunate reflex to seldom meet a piece of art on its level unless it's an intentionally middle brow mass media product, to seldom extend benefit of the doubt to artists.
The short version is that depiction doesn’t equal endorsement. The world is not sanitized. Artists do not have an obligation to present it as sanitized. Artists have the option to present the world as aspirational, but not an obligation. A painting or book or film or game or play or show including a rape scene is not the same as the creator saying rape is good, or raping the audience, or sexually harassing the audience. A movie depicting cannibalism is not “normalizing” cannibalism.
The long version is that we’re amid multiple interconnected crises (like a general longstanding defunding of public education and arts programs across the country) that have led to a dearth of media literacy, executed through a combination of the well-meaning and the ill-intentioned. Part of this is tied into the plague of nostalgia that correlates with the media supremacy, ubiquity, inundation of once-called nerd culture. There is, on the one hand, superhero films and their subsumption of all else, and the flat sort of character they create or, moreover flattening sort of stories they tell, the kind ill-equipped by its market position and the resultant plot conventions which limit what characters can be. And the problem with that is the way that ubiquity, that saturation of a limited sort of storytelling constricts what people imagine is possible in storytelling.
There is, relatedly, the preponderance of resurrecting old titles and intellectual property which leads or is connected to other phenomena of representational discourse. It’s also connected to a sort of stultifying audience gaze – a need for components of art to fit neatly into ideas of what qualifies as goodness or badness, and the need of flat characters, flat morality, and a general lack of complexity. In any case, one example of the representational issues which come out of nostalgia slush is that the preeminence of nerd culture has allowed the most exclusionary nerds – the loudest, meanest, most incurious straight, white males – to think longstanding association of their identity with these cultural objects means they have ownership of what those art objects – or corporate intellectual properties as more precisely suits them – can and should be.
This in turn leads to the exclusion of nonwhite/non-male/non-straight characters (a long-regarded problem in the two big comic book movie brands as well as Star Wars, but also genre pieces and properties with smaller fans generating similar toxic online cultures) or their inclusion seemingly built on irritating hateful fools rather than serving an audience referred to as under-served. These are customary issues of race, gender, sexuality and inclusion. But it isn’t limited to right-wing adjacent comic book fans, and in fact can also at times come from the incuriosity or defensiveness of certain people from marginalized groups. An investment in the success of a project because of its meaning to an individual might lead to that individual being supsicious of the motives for another audience member or critic disliking that project. I greatly enjoyed Everything Everywhere All At Once, but people can dislike it without holding racist prejudices against Asians or Asian Americans.
These issues overlap with the problem of people in marginalized identities who have such a deep attachment to a corporate art project (which EEAAO, relative to the big-budget moviess that tend to dominate the box office, is not) because of its meaning in their childhood that they overlook any flaws and react with hostility to critics. Few of us are entirely safe from the threat of the brain poison that is wrapping ourselves up in the things we buy and enjoy. And, limited as our political imaginations have become, the crux of so much rhetorical (that is to say not practical, not praxis, not working in your community) politics is in the meaning of media rather than in the action of creating a better world. An ongoing chore of internet grandstanding to prove purity of heart without effective action as its necessary and superior supplement. An obsession with depiction and how representation *might* affect people’s future action supplants looking at the structures that create limited possibility space for action that improves the world and creates equality and justice. An interest in aesthetics, and the morality or politics of art has an intrinsic value to it, but it’s clearly fraught and has its limitations, which become most apparent when the tonal difficulties of short social media posts lead into arguments of escalating anger and vitriol.
The depiction-endorsement issue, the idea that some audience members conflate something taking place on stage or screen or page with endorsement of that action or ideology by the author, writer, director, production company, etc. This spills out from what I have already said I consider a legitimate impulse. Art should be analyzed. It’s valuable to consider both context and intent when looking at the content of a piece. However, there’s not just one definitive read on any given work, for one thing. As much as I appreciate people’s confident assertions about what a given thing means, and arguing it with evidence and allusion, the idea that people who disagree with you are necessarily intrinsically bigoted is limiting and uninteresting. There are reasons to dislike Black Panther or Judas and the Black Messiah besides being a racist, and reasons to dislike Captain Marvel or Blonde besides being a sexist. And the assertion that, because a given audience member objects to some content within a piece that content should no longer be made is a facile argument. Delicate material based on real life phenomena should be handled with care, but there are no blanket rules for dealing with it or who gets to create it. Something making you uncomfortable does not mean we should limit artistic expression.
While Game of Thrones success is a notable outlier, ‘darkness’ and ‘grit’ are hardly the hallmarks of the most financially and culturally domineering films, shows, and books in the world. It’s certainly not the mark of most superheroes. And there is neither a preponderance of sex nor sexual assault on television or in the cinema. To the GoT point specifically, I’d recommend Gretchen Felker-Martin’s article “The Innkeeper’s Daughter,” which is on her patreon and made me rethink some of my own problems with the show’s depiction of sexual violence and what it’s saying about the world it exists in and the one we inhabit as relates to the interrelated nature of male terror and political power. To the sexlessness of Hollywood writ large, I recommend Raquel S. Benedict’s “Everyone Is Beautiful And No One Is Horny,” a piece that helped me recontextualize my relationship with the MCU when I had slipped too far down the rabbit hole of permissiveness in my qualitative valuing of art.
For whatever it’s worth, I think sex happening in movies is fine at worst and great at best. It doesn’t have to ‘advance the plot,’ for one thing. For another thing, every sex scene in a movie, show, or book, tells you about the characters and the world they inhabit – it tells you about who they are in their most intimate and vulnerable moments. That’s all beyond titillation, which isn’t so bad on its own either. In visual media, it also tells you something about the way the actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, designers, set dressers, costumers, interpret the motives of their subject characters as given to them by the writers, and what they think audiences want to, or ought to, see. What matters, as Lincoln Michel reminds us, is not what is necessary – “The Unnecessary Is the Only Thing Necessary in Art.” And what we want and need aren’t always the same thing, even and especially in art, regardless of how the flattening of the relationship to art through the streaming era has caused us to see everything flatly as content. Bites of information, no, pieces of light and sound to be consumed, to wash over you and numb you between shifts of producing excess value for others. But I’ll return to that.
In truth, I think we have a general conflation of art for children’s consumption with art for everyone else. In part because the things that were important to kids in the 80s are being reproduced ad infinitum, and in part because the prior exclusion of some groups – women, queer people, people of color (sometimes what was rather a perceived exclusion or, in fact, a qualified inclusion) leads to films, shows, books, games being hailed as important or groundbreaking when they’re anything but. And now I’m thinking about a brief internet dust-up I saw about the movie Devotion in response to someone complaining that Jonathan Majors was stuck in Marvel Hell now. Aside from the fact that he’s got Creed III coming out the week after Ant-Man and the fact that I can usually only feel so bad for people making millions of dollars (I would in fact be sad if we never saw his excellent talent and skill in more emotionally grounded, character-driven work), no one’s obligated to see or read or play things they don’t like because someone involved shares broad ancestry or other identity markers. Moreover, the purest expressions of the reality of those shared identities usually isn’t coming from big studio works, but from independent spaces – from writing to painting to movies to videogames, it’s usually not presumed-blockbuster movies and AAA games giving us the most nuanced, textured, authentic reproductions of human experiences, which is not to say they never do.
Conversely, or perhaps more closely related than that, are the ideas that any sort of tokenizing inclusion is valuable and its fraternal twin the idea that only kitsch, wholesome, or heroic depictions are valuable. Is corporate inclusion valuable, with all the attached limitations? Is a passing remark of affection or an embrace between two women as in the respective ends of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and The Rise of Skywalker valuable queer representation? Do our head-canons about Finn and Poe really add up to anything at all? If there is value in this corporate representation, it’s surely not everything, and it demands as little from its funders as its audience as far as understanding the breadth of human experience and expression.
Which is the point of art. For people – painters, photographers, poets, authors, filmmakers, singers, game designers, writers, and so on – to relate their human experience to you. Art is the process of seeing something cool and not being sure if it’s the lens or the frame or the picture that makes it brilliant but trying to convey it to someone else. It’s the process of being like “wow, that sunset was magnificent, don’t you think?” And maybe someone is more impressed with the darkness of the clouds than the orange and the purple, or maybe someone’s eye catches on a leave that was floating by as they watched, or the tops of buildings at the bottom edge of the painting.
The combination of concern about messages and propaganda have lined up alongside the right-wing propelled pearl-clutching bigoted culture war to create a compression mechanism of putrefaction labeled as purification. There seems to be a puritanism from some progressives or progressive-adjacent or people presenting themselves as progressive simultaneous to denunciation of degeneracy from the actively and expressively regressive – the self-proclaimed conservatives and the obvious reactionaries.
I do think the question of what is valuable in art is worth asking. I just worry that the conversation too quickly turns to what is dangerous and harmful where those words have come to mean “made me feel some measure of discomfort.”
Recurring to all my conversations about the content of media and what is related to the question of how we analyze the corporate calculations of the business is the flattening of all art and media as content, sludge to be consumed. This complicates the analysis of the social phenomenon of discourse around art because art, in peoples’ minds, has been flattened and simplified to a mere product. Movies have always been a business, so has TV, so have games, so has literature. Art requires patronage. And while movies have come to be seen as art, it is not often high art, and TV and games even less so.
Regardless, conversations that marshal the language of activism to make it seem high minded to demand artists smooth out their work of its dimples and scars – perhaps its very reason for being – and make everything smoothly family friendly do a disservice to the makers of art and their audiences. It is insidious even if not intentionally so because it uses a framework of protecting people to limit people. As far as ‘intentionally so,’ there are actual conservatives calling for a revival of the Hays Code, which – in the early 20th century – was film studios opting to self-censor to upkeep the country’s moral value, but which in execution led to a lot of racism.
Their unwitting partners are the aforementioned progressive-adjacent, a rising tide of mostly entirely adolescents though many are also in middle age. People who have been alternately babied by media and trained to be hypervigilant against sexualization that they perhaps interpret pornography as the only way people can consider, contrive, or experience sex in media. (Which, again, like the previous mention of sex for sake of titillation is perhaps a dismissal of the artistic merit of pornography or erotica, but I don’t have space or wherewithal to get into all of that here.) It just seems a real shame to fall into traps of exclusion because of seeking a marketplace where every object is equally, flatly accessible to every consumer rather than an art environment where everyone gets a chance to feel the variety of human experience in art. Those are bad circumstances to sleepwalk into, and worse to champion.
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