It was in this moment that I realized the true economics of what’s going to drive the storytelling change. See, it used to be the only media you could consume was the racist, sexist, homophobic sort. That was simply all there was. So you either ate it, grimacing the whole while, or you opted out of it (I opted out of comics. I read pretty much no comics until the last six or seven years, as finding things that weren’t punching me in the face was hard). But these days? Well, there’s a LOT of media out there, a lot of entertainment, and there are, increasingly, more diverse stories and choices we can make.
–Kameron Hurley on the poor economics of problematic stories.
This is one of those ones where I agree with Hurley’s premise but then wince when she goes into apologetics a few paragraphs down over things like True Detective and Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s been occurring to me more and more recently–in no small part prompted by writers like Hurley herself–that we seem to be in a sort of… pop culture transitional period. That is, the point where more and more people seem to be realising that so much of the media we consume is tainted–by sexism, by racism, by slut-shaming and rape culture and transphobia and homophobia and heteronormativity and ableism and the works, you name it–and more and more people are pointing that out…
… but then not doing anything about it.
And, like, this is a tough thing to hear–I know, because I like problematic things too–but the reality is none of the financiers who churn out the Guardians of the Galaxys and True Detectives and Bioshock: Infinites of the world give one single crap about articles suggesting they should maybe tone down the sexism or the racism just a teensy bit next time, so long as people keep buying their shit.1
That’s the reality of it. If you are buying the film/book/show/game, if you are participating in its fandom, if you are writing essays about it–no matter how critical or meta or transformative you’re being–then you are participating in the problem.
No one likes to hear that. I don’t even like saying it, but… but I’m starting to, more and more, think it’s true.
As Hurley herself has said in the past, over a different issue: burn it all down.
It’s not easy. I’m not good at it either. Sure, I avoided GotG and haven’t watched Doctor Who for years… but I also do, sometimes, in moments of weakness, play World of Warcraft. And, in a painful irony, it was writing and reading posts critical of the sexism in WoW that got me playing it again.
Yeah. Just think about that for a second. Do you think Blizzard really cares that I wince every time I get to one of its toe-curlingly embarrassing all-male cutscenes, so long as they’re getting their subscription dollars?
There are better games, ones from companies who do try and that I don’t feel guilty for playing; Guild Wars 2 comes immediately to mind.2 What excuses do I have, then, for continuing to send my dollars to things that, at best, deny my existence?
It’s not just games. There are better books (cough like Hurley’s cough). Better comics. Better films. Better podcasts. Better media.
They’re smaller, for the most part. They don’t have the zillions of marketing dollars, don’t have the hype, don’t have the fandoms.
One of those things can be changed. You can change one of those things. And have done; Ms. Marvel was, after all, for a bright, brief time, Marvel’s leading digital title.
Think about that: a rebooted superhero comic about an unknown teenage Muslim girl was the most popular title from one of the Big 2 in comics publishing. Who did that? Tumblr, basically. Fans, more broadly.
This is the power of opting-in. It’s also why I have, recently, started thinking more seriously about opting-out.
Because media can do better. It has done better and it does do better. But where is this generation’s Alien? How did we get to the place where the rebooted Star Trek is less progressive than the series it’s based on? Not even on any kind of relative then-versus-now scale, either; just flat-out, straight-up less progressive.
And yet Star Trek Into Darkness, which took an iconic character of colour and re-cast him as a white man, still made something like $70 million on its opening weekend.
So maybe you wrote a blog post about the gross, racist whitewashing of Butawhiteguy Cantbekhan. Okay, great. But was it a seventy million dollar blog post?
Opting-out is a choice. And, sometimes, it’s a choice that sucks, particularly when you’re the only critical voice in a room full of your friends’ squee. But…
Because that one single purchase? That one single purchase means more than a thousand articles on TOR.com. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t.
So this is what I’m saying: if a piece of media is problematic, then opt-out. With money. Maybe not everything, all the time, and everyone’s gonna have a different standard; my Guild Wars 2 is going to be someone else’s TERA (and I’d totally understand why that would be the case). But, at minimum, look critically at where you’re spending your money and your time and ask yourself–really, truly ask yourself–if you’re supporting the things you want to support. Develop strategies to diversify; a month of no TV shows with white male protagonists, perhaps. Or a year of no movies that fail Bechdel. Reblogged a photoset from something problematic? Reblog something else from something, probably a less-known something, that isn’t.4 Spend all those freed up dollars and hours diversifying your media and your fandoms. Spread it to your friends.
This is how change happens.5 There are other options. We just need to do better at finding them.
I’m trying. Are you?
- The devs/writers/actors/whatever? Yes, sometimes. But the people with the money? Not so much. They invest in what sells. And if “what sells” is toxic bigotry? Well then. ^
- Despite some, um, early flubs, particularly with character models, ArenaNet have been awesome at supporting diversity in GW2. Also, the game’s just fun to play. And, okay. Now I’m making myself want to pick it up again. See what I mean? ^
- And racialized slut-shaming at that. Yes, Zoe Saldana was covered head-to-toe in green paint, but let’s not be using that as an excuse to forget the ugly history of the white sexual violence towards women of colour, hey. ^
- Or is less so. I’m not convinced than “100% unproblematic to 100% of people 100% of the time” is even A Thing. ^
- I’m hardly the first person to think of something like this: noted tech journalist and blogger Anil Dash did something similar on Twitter. ^