Thursday 7 May 2015

Creators and the Progressive Pedestal

The Joss Whedon thing is still young but there are a few things I want to tease out of it because I think they have value in a broader context. As I said yesterday I don't want to dive too far into the specific scene that started all this because I've only seen it once whilst half-distracted by people around me texting, eating and being generally annoying. No, I want to discuss some more peripheral aspects of this whole thing, first of all the tendency we have to put creators on an unsustainable pedestal.

Let's get some distance from Whedon first because emotions there are running hot and that's never useful to a conversation. One of my favourite webcomics is Go Get A Roomie by Belgian writer-artist Chloe C. One of the most notable aspects of the series is the amazing diversity of its cast which features a surprising variety of sexual and gender identities, each explored in interesting and considered ways. There's even a character (currently) portrayed as asexual and, let me tell you, as someone who identified as asexual for years it is refreshing not only to see that identity portrayed but portrayed with a clear understanding that there's nothing socially or medically wrong with the character. Once the context of her sexuality is understood by the other characters its accepted and any “pushing of boundaries” is either done by her own agency or in reference to the still open question of whether she's aromantic.

(I'm summarising hugely here, by the way, and the character may turn out not to be as asexual as she currently seems but, hey, I'm intimately aware that sexual identity can change so yet again we're in “Yay! Representation!” territory as far as I'm concerned. Seriously, read this comic, its cool.).

Okay, so apart from a two paragraph fanboy plug how does this relate to our subject today? Well, because Chloe C. has several times addressed concern about how people put her on a pedestal when it comes to queer issues. It isn't hard to see why people are inclined to do this, she's a fantastic author and I've learnt things as a direct consequence of her work so I definitely see why its happened. For the record she's expressed her discomfort with the pedestal both on her Tumblr where she's cautioned people that any advice she gives on these issues should not be taken as a definitive statement and in the strip itself through the title character Roomie having insecurities surrounding other idolising her.

(Tumblr, by the way, is probably the worst blogging system that exists for when you want to quote something: posts don't have titles and the archive system uses this not all that useful thumbnail method and though I can't find the post I want to quote, this Ask one pretty much sums up the whole shebang).

So what's wrong with the pedestal? Well, its unsustainable, frankly. People screw up. Everyone. You, me, Chloe C., Whedon, the lot of us. There's no amount of editing or self-critique that's going to stop someone someday putting out something that will play poorly to someone out there, maybe to a lot of someones. To use another example, one of the braver creative acts I've seen on the internet was when Jeph Jacques, writer-artist of Questionable Content, revealed one of his characters to be trans and openly said in a news post:

I have to admit, I am nervous about posting this comic, because including a trans person in my cast is something I have wanted to do for years and I really, really want to do a good job of it. One of the major themes of QC, I think, is of inclusion, and this seemed like a pretty important thing to include. I have given it a lot of thought and done a lot of research, so hopefully I won't screw up. I'll do my best, anyway.”

This brings us to a second issue I want to bring up, a sentiment that I've seen in a few quarters and that I'm going to paraphrase because I don't want to look like I'm calling anyone particular out. This has been expressed in a lot of different ways and to a lot of different degrees but the basic sentiment is this:

If Joss Whedon can't write good female characters he shouldn't bother.”

Sidestepping the question of what “good” even means in this context because I could write a dozen posts on that alone, the idea that a perfect portrayal is the only one that can be worthwhile is intensely problematic. Jacques introduced a trans character and expressed his concerns that he might not be able to do the idea justice and in other places he's solicited criticism to help him improve that portrayal. In an ideal world criticism is about a social conversation, not necessarily involving the creator under critique but that's a nice bonus if you can get it, about how art can be improved. Just yelling “Stop!” when something isn't perfect defeats the whole point because how does anything ever improve under those conditions?

Also, why would anyone create under those conditions? There's no incentive to take risks there. All the creatives I've mentioned in this post have one thing in common: they're progressives (or liberals or social justice types or however you want to express it). Jacques and Chloe C. identify inclusivity as a central tenet of their art and Whedon came to prominence through creating Buffy The Vampire Slayer which is perhaps most notable for its female and queer characters.

As a not unnatural consequence the fans of these peoples' work are also generally progressives because people tend to latch on to things they agree with. In the dim mists of long ago when I started writing this post I mentioned how I identified with the sexual identity of one of Chloe C.'s characters and that's a big part of why she became a creator I took an active interest in to the point of, say, reading her tumblr and looking up her Deviantart page instead of just reading that one project of hers.

And because progressives are interested in progress (not, y'know, unnaturally) when one of these creators takes a retrograde step, intentional or not, it can make the progressive fan very angry. Progressives are usually politically engaged and by the nature of that we're often politically enraged in what feels like an increasingly conservative culture. So when one of our heroes, one of the people we've emotionally invested in for agreeing with us when so much mass media doesn't, makes a mistake we can take it as a very personal betrayal.

We're not unjustified in feeling let down, I'm not suggesting anyone gets a free pass here. Criticism is an important force that should be applied to all art as a matter of course. Its just that I think we would all (creators, critics and consumers alike) be better served by remembering that no one and nothing is perfect and never will be. Mistakes should be brought up and discussed but by no means should they be reason to disregard all work of the author, let alone future work that could be improved by a reasoned conversation about those mistakes the creative could learn from. 

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