A while ago, I wrote an article about fan entitlement, where I touched upon the responsibility fans and media creators in the context of today’s open lines of communication between the two. The article sparked a discussion about whether there even is responsibility involved, and about the limit of policing the content on television or film, so as not to limit the creativity of artists.
There is nowadays a watchfulness about the types of stories being told, who is represented in them and how, and therefore what that says about the people behind the screen. This can be writers, producers or executives. As I mentioned in that article, I consider this mostly positive, though I would add that how we read content also says something about us.
In The Fandomentals, we often analyze and discuss stories in terms of the ethics of storytelling, Gretchen wrote about at length, where she discussed the importance of stories in the individual and collective lives of their viewers. We focus, specifically, on diversity and representation, and that is no accident. It is my belief and that of many others that there is an inherent responsibility in the creation of these stories we consume.
Before I go on, you should know something about me. I am a bit of a sociology nerd. See, when I was 18, I wanted to go off and study film, but due to circumstance, I had to stay in my hometown. So, I picked what I (and many) perceived as the closest to my interests, a program called Communication Sciences—essentially a branch of Social Sciences. So, I spent four and a half years reading and thinking about and analyzing media from a sociologist’s perspective.
Sociologists Use 200 Words Where They Could Use 20
I apologize in advance.
The perspective of social scientists, as viewed through theories of communication, principally focuses on how media affects its audience. For the most part it focuses on audience collectively, as a society or community, but it also borrowing some elements of psychology to look into the individual. It is impossible for me to shake this line of thinking, whenever the discussion of films and television shows comes up. I even began a study, back in the day, about the effects of a certain vampire love story on teenagers.
Now, in the olden days, when the first theories about mass media emerged, we had something called the Hypodermic Needle Model, which basically stated that the public were empty shells into which any ideology might be injected directly. Spectator sees, spectator does, basically. Now this was in a time where mass media was fairly new, and the Soviet Union’s propaganda techniques were freaking everybody out.
Later, academics remembered that the public was made up of individual human minds and not empty cartons of milk, and said individuals were growing used to—and not as astonished by—mass media. That meant that people became less and less likely to believe everything they heard on the media. Psychology, life experience and culture were brought in to play, and thus studies of audience and media became a proper pain in the butt.
It is complicated, and inexact, because there are so many factors to it. However, there is unequivocal proof in it that film and television, and the stories and characters portrayed within it, have an effect on how we view the world, each other and even ourselves. This, aligned with my philosophical beliefs, means yes, I think there is a humongous issue of ethics deeply entwined with storytelling.
“But wait,” someone says—even I say, as I’m writing this, “what about art?”
What about art?
Before film theory even existed, film was already considered an art form, and treated as such. Television, for a long time, was considered a lowlier form of entertainment, but it has slowly gained the respect awarded to film. Although some might argue that not all films or TV shows are pieces of art, it is undeniable that all have some artistic elements to them, and they are, by the critics and the theorists and sometimes their fans, judged on those terms.
This poses a problem, when it comes to analysis, because the ways we analyze and discuss media are different than the traditional ways of analyzing and discussing art. While media studies are interested in reciprocal social effects media and audience have on each other, art is concerned with things like aesthetic, structure, and theme. Those three are things we can more or less measure, but for something to be art, it does not only have to look good, it has to mean something, and as Robert Stam says in his book Film Theory, an Introduction, this is a standard to which film and television, must also be held against, if it should stay in that category.
Art has to transcend its time and place. If you think the study of media sounds too subjective, it does not even come close to art. A piece of art may mean something to you, but it has to stand the test of time. In that sense, it might be useless to ponder whether Supergirl or Game of Thrones or The Handmaid’s Tale will transcend. Only time can tell.
That does not mean that the fact that those shows mean something to you or to me is unimportant. The idea that comes up when art is brought up in fandom discussion is that how we care personally is not as important as the purity of art or the creativity of the writers. Art should not be tied down, it is said, by the individual fancies, traumas or feelings of any given person or group.
Art Should Not Be Tied Down…?
Are we who talk about the responsibility of creators, about representation and equality and diversity, limiting artists’ freedom of expression? The most aggressive-slash-defensive arguments for that come in the shape of “you can’t censor art” and “you can’t force diversity.”
Now, censorship has been a thing when it comes to art for a very long time, as structures of power have effectively dictated what can and can’t be in art since its origins. From Pope Paul IV ordering the removal of penises from the sculptures of the Vatican, and their cover-up with fig leaves, to the Hollywood Hays Code. Structures of power, often defined by money, have been the gatekeepers of artistic expression from times immemorable. Presently, in Western countries they cannot be as open about their censorship and control, as we live in a society that purportedly endorses and enforces freedom of expression. That does not mean it is not happening, only that it is harder to spot.
BUT! We must keep in mind the dictionary definition of censorship, which describes the suppression of content that is objectionable to a power structures. Authorities, governmental or economic. The definition of censorship can become muddled with the nature of capitalism, for example. If you can’t get your foot through the door for lack of money or connections, that is not necessarily censorship. Then again, by definition, a marginalized group simply cannot enforce censorship, period.
You may have heard of the controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a transgender character in the film Rub and Tug. The outrage for it was quick and loud, and the pressure became so great that Johansson opted out of the role. Shortly after, the news came out that the film might be dropped entirely, as, without the pull of fame and name of the would-be star, the film would have poor economic prospects.
Was there censorship, in this case? What about the general censorship of the trans community, who continue to be sidelined even when it comes to portraying cis characters as well as themselves? It is complicated, when there is no one saying, outwardly “you can’t show this on-screen.” And isn’t there some of that, here? “You can show this, but only on my terms” is what I hear.
Now, I want to catch that thought you maybe just had in the air. What happens when a community that is marginalized, discriminated against or has been victimized, speaks out against a piece of media art and its representation of them, or lack thereof, and especially when their criticism is met.
When Rub and Tug is potentially cancelled because of backlash, when superheroes are recast as POC, even when old pieces of media are retroactively criticized and denounced (such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s portrayal of an Asian man, for example), there are those who argue that the policing of art by the media’s audience is excessive, that it might be repressing or limiting artists in the representation of situations they would want to write about, such as racism or sexism. Some might say it’s even forcing creators to include aspects of life or peoples that do not fit into the stories, because of the push for variety of representation.
And that should not happen, is the argument, because art should be free. But… should it? Pure, unadulterated art maybe, but what is that? Is it even possible? To be pure it would have to be made with no commission and no economic prospect in mind. That may exist, but it is not so visible.
The thing is, TV and film can be art. But they are always media. It seems to me problematic that those who make it seem to forget that sometimes.
We Keep Discussing Them Separately!
Here lies the heart of the issue.
I have noticed that when fandom debates about media content, there is often a clear divide on the line of thinking. People are either talking about the shows or movies they discuss as art or as media. They even use arguments of one field to rebut and debunk claims from the other side, and–
That just won’t work. I wonder, then, how we are supposed to approach these discussions. Do we delineate the limits of every conversation? That seems redundant, and would get us nowhere—or more specifically, the very place where we are now.
How do we even begin to talk about both, at the same time?
Art and Media Meet…and Clash?
Full disclosure: I don’t know the answer. I have no idea. It’s hard for me, even now, to reconcile these two things in my head, when I think about the content I like to consume. But I do have a theory. It is that art and media coexist in a symbiotic relationship, and it is us who forcibly separate them in study and discussion.
I might use the example of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a 2017 film by Martin McDonagh. The independent movie gained traction when it started getting Oscar Buzz. It won its star an Academy Award and was a favorite of many for Best Picture. From a communication perspective, this gave it sort of prestige with the audience. It became the kind of movie many people want to go see to feel smart and might be compelled to praise even if they disliked or didn’t understand. It happens, the human mind is gullible like that.
From the perspective of art and film studies, Three Billboards is a masterpiece. Every measurable element in it was well executed, from the writing (in terms of structure and style) to the acting, direction, photography and production design. The film, by every objective standard, is practically flawless, and many critics thought the execution of its themes was, too. As for being transcendent, only time will tell.
However, it did spark a small controversy. It is the story of a grieving mother who lost her daughter to a horrible act of sexual and physical violence. She is outraged that the police department has failed at bringing the culprit to justice. The film takes place in a small town in Missouri, therefore presumed to be equally small-minded (read: racist, sexist and what have you). Under the banner of depiction, there is liberal use of the “n” word, demonstrations of senseless violence against women and men, and the last-minute redemption of the character, played by Sam Rockwell (very well, might I add) who demonstrates both.
Now, I really enjoyed the movie, from my standing as a film student and aspiring screenwriter. But when Sam Rockwell’s character did his 180, I did have a disconnect, because my mind went to those issues immediately. My brain rejected it.
One of my favorite film critics, Fernanda Solórzano, argued against my reservations saying that McDonagh, a true artist, was really free and honest and paid no mind to the overly restrictive concerns of today’s politics. Art should not be political, was basically her argument, one that many people use.
If you trust film theory, that is quite simply, not true. Stam says that film cannot just reflect reality, that it is necessarily “discourse”. Writing guru Lajos Egri says that within the narrative, the author must necessarily pick sides, otherwise the work will not be any good. So, what gives?
Should Art Really Be Free?
Art is necessarily political. But then, should the artist be free to take whatever stance they will, even if it is one that might be discriminatory or harmful?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think McDonagh intended to take a pro-violence or a racist stance in his film. He simply was representing a reality, just as Quentin Tarantino said when he made Django, where the “n” word is so frequent my ears almost bled. The same may be said of D&D on Game of Thrones, who claim to make commentary on medieval times… the problem is, it may just not be that simple.
Because like I said before, art and media are not separate, even if their study has been. It is hard. I find sometimes I separate them in my head for periods of time, just because it is how I was taught it. This could also happen to the creators of media, that they forget that they are always taking a stance, even if they do not realize, even if they may deny it.
Creators are using artistic expression to say something about themselves, but they are also saying something about their audience. Because the audience is the subject! They “reproduce the viewer as a subject” and basically ask them to agree with what they are saying about them. And that’s not something I said, but a guy named Hansen on a book called Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film.
Even though the fancies of the arts and their classical form of analysis may clash with the nature of storytelling as media, this condition is undeniable. In my opinion, cannot and should not be divorced from it. I understand this is so ingrained that it’s hard for these two to converge fully in public discourse, and particularly in fandom discussion. It will take a while. I do not know exactly how it should be done, but I think we ought to find a way.
Of course, I don’t presume to have all the answers, and these are just my ruminations on the subject. I have some but not all the information, and so we need each other to form the complete picture. I’m not entirely sure all this spiel made much sense, but if it did for you, please share your thoughts!