Open thread: Does intent matter?

Readers, I’d like your opinion on the following.

When you point out that the work of someone in the media contains elements of sexism, racism or any other -ism, one of the knee-jerk responses you get from a lot of people is a defense of the person whose work it is. They tend to assume that what you really mean by saying “This scene portrayed women in a bad light” is “Writer [Insert Name Here] is a bastard from hell who hates women.” It would be really nice if human beings actually responded to the words you said instead of what they imagine you mean, but since experience suggests we shouldn’t hold our breath for that, I thought we’d just jump right to the part about the creator’s intent. Not only are we not claiming to know the writer’s (or director’s, producer’s or network’s) intent when we criticize their product, but I would go one step further and argue that intent doesn’t matter.

My reasoning:

The professors and professionals who told me we had to pander to prejudice because the audience was a bunch of ignorant bigots did not treat me in any way that suggested they had issues with women. Many of these men were, in fact, very supportive. They were trying to save my burgeoning career by getting me to see the system couldn’t be fought, and we must all – men included – bow down and pander away. They meant well. Their intent was good and kind and free from gender bias. That didn’t stop them from perpetuating the rotten system through their own perceived lack of options.

Years ago, shop owners with white clienteles felt pressured to ban African-Americans from their shops for fear the white customers would stop coming if they were expected to mix with another race. I doubt all the shop owners were virulent racists. I imagine some of them regretted having to ban any paying customer from contributing to their profits. I don’t doubt that a few of them even wanted to change the system. But that didn’t stop them perpetuating it.

In the case of writers, I think it’s even less conscious than that. Most people in film do not ever hear “Your protagonist has to be a white man, I’m sorry to say – that’s just the reality of our demographics” because they’re not asking the questions I (and some others) asked. Most writers just automatically made their protagonists white men without ever wondering why. I did that myself, until I was a teenager and wondered why I had stopped going to movies, and realized it was because I could no longer relate to (usually sexist) male leads like I had as a kid, and after Alien, there was nothing left for me. How does a white male writer get a wake up call like that? Even a woman writer who fits in better with traditional female gender roles than I do (and, perhaps, related to Molly Ringwald’s characters while I was bored to death with movies)  might not see anything amiss. A person who hasn’t had this wake-up call in a society that’s designed to avoid triggering it does not have to be a bad person or have bad intentions in order to unintentionally create something that perpetuates the crap.

This is why 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.

What do you think?


  1. SunlessNick says

    I think it makes a difference whether you do something accidentally or deliberately – which is what the intent question comes down to – but not enough of a difference to negate the fact that you did it.

    Further, if your intentions are not sexually prejudiced, they presumably include a desire not to be sexist, which implies that criticism of sexist material would serve that intent – when people use good intentions as a defence against criticism, that tends to mean they don’t care about being sexist, or want to be, but don’t want to be called on it.

    Also, it’s not the injuring party who gets to decide whether their motives make it better, but the injured one’s.

  2. says

    Back when I was an English major, we were mostly taught to critique the text and that the author’s intent doesn’t matter. That’s usually the way I react to things, and the way I criticize them.

    It’s a little different these days, when the Internet has shrunk the world a lot, and when the creator you’re criticizing may well show up on your site to defend her or himself.

    But still, I’ve seen one too many angry blog discussions devolve into “You’re calling me racist!” “No, I’m not, I’m pointing out the problems with what you said,” and so I really, really wish we could get to a point where criticisms were not taken personally, but were taken as directed at the work.

  3. Betsy-the-muffin says

    Building on what Nick said above– I would say that intent matters, but not in the way that apologists usually argue that it does. Typically, what they’re saying is that good intentions, or a lack of bad ones, make problematic portrayals of [marginalized group] better. I think, rather, that good intentions/the lack of bad ones are neutral w/r/t whether something is problematic; the only time intent matters is when bad intentions do exist–then, obviously, they make things more problematic.

    I would also say that if someone has good intentions, then when problematic aspects of their work are pointed out they’ll respond to criticism in a productive way. If someone doesn’t, their intentions aren’t really as good as they think/say they are.

  4. Scarlett says

    I think intent only matters when the person demonstrates a genuine understanding of why people found their words/actions offensive and actually try to rectify it. I realise there are far more people out there who are ignorant, cowardly and lazy as opposed to downright bigoted and malicious but if the ignorant, cowardly and lazy do nothing to rectify the product of their actions, that makes the effect no less powerful than that of the bigoted and malicious.

    In RL, I had a friend who was compulsively lied to me and ditched me if a better offer came along, and always managed a justification for his behaviour rather then take a good look at himself and admit ‘yeah, that’s not a nice way to treat someone’. In the end while I realised his behaviour came from cowardice rather than a delight in hurting me, since he wasn’t willing to admit to his shabby behaviour, the effect was the same and I walked away from our friendship. I don’t see his actions as different to writers and such who can’t recognise their own flaws because even though there might not be actual malice or bigotry behind their writing, if they aren’t willing to be open to their flaws as writers, they might as well be malicious and bigoted because the effect is the same.

  5. SunlessNick says

    In the end while I realised his behaviour came from cowardice rather than a delight in hurting me, since he wasn’t willing to admit to his shabby behaviour, the effect was the same and I walked away from our friendship.

    He may not have intended to hurt you, but neither did he intend not to hurt you, as he continued his behaviour while knowing that it did.

  6. says

    I’ve actually done some blogging on this matter as well.

    It gets its own section in my “Check my WHAT?!” post; Intent Isn’t an Excuse:

    For the most part, I believe that all human beings have the best of intentions. Most of us don’t go about our days seeking to hurt people with words or actions. But, the result of our actions can be that it causes hurt/offense to others. So, while malicious intent may add icing to the cake, it does not dictate whether or not an offense has been made. “That wasn’t my intent,” all too often translates into “your reactions to what I did are invalid because I didn’t mean any harm.” The result is that it’s a defensive reaction that silences discussion on the issue and puts the words/actions above criticism. It, in essense, privileges the sayer/doer’s opinion/feelings over that of the non-privileged person or group that they have offended.

    I also included it in the FAQ entry on sexism I wrote up for Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog: Unintentional sexism

  7. sbg says

    I think not having outright malicious intent doesn’t really mean that damage cannot occur, nor do good intentions gone awry make a get-out-of-jail free card.

    If I say something which offends someone else, even if I didn’t mean to, that person is still offended, no?

  8. Scarlett says

    Tekanji, I think that’s it exactly. Often, by saying ‘that wasn’t my intent’ is meant as a way of voiding the hurt/offense done to someone by your actions, especially if you have no intention of taking a good look at said actions.

    Having said that, I have known people – and they are by far in the minority – who have used being called on hurtful/offensive actions as a means of self-awareness, how they come across as opposed to how they INTENDED to come across, and actually try to recitfy their behaviour. But for the most part I think people don’t like to admit that maybe they were wrong and that’s a massive hurdle to rectify hurts/offenses you commited without intent.

  9. Dom Camus says

    I would go one step further and argue that intent doesn’t matter.

    And even if it does in some way, it certainly won’t invalidate the original point.

    That said, I think the “You’re calling me sexist!” accusation sometimes arises from the manner in which problems are drawn to the attention of their authors. The feminist community (or perhaps I should say “feminist communities”) have superb communication these days thanks to the internet. Consequently the person raising the problem likely has dozens of hours (and frequently hundreds or even thousands) of debate and discussion of similar issues under their belt. Unsurprisingly, this often has an impact on the tone of their delivery and they come across sounding like a parent telling a child how best to cross the road.

    Leaving aside entirely whether this presumption of righteousness is always justified, the core problem is that it creates conflict because the listener’s starting point is more likely to be one of symmetric debate. Or even – in the case of some authors – an asymmetric debate in which they hold the upper hand by virtue of their status as creator (!).

    If our aim is to persuade (and I believe it should be), the best strategy is to be way more diplomatic. This doesn’t mean using a lot of flowery language. It means raising issues with authors as though we might be wrong. Encouraging someone to think about a possible problem is way more effective psychologically than asserting the presence of a problem in their work. The latter is criticism, to which most people experience a negative emotional response even if intellectually they know it might be valid.

    Part of the problem is that dialogue on the subject of sexism in media usually begins right after we ourselves have been annoyed by the media in question. But really there’s no field of human debate which is improved by channeling our anger into it. Our goals require that we be calm, strategic and diplomatic.

    (All of which is somewhat hypocritical since I’m quite fond of ranting furiously on my blog! Oh well, nobody’s perfect…)

  10. says

    If one were critiquing a rough draft, intent would certainly matter.

    A critic could say “*A* is the impression I’m getting from this scene, is that what you intended? If you intend *B* instead, you could change this bit of dialog and this description.” Since the work isn’t done, it’s possible to then bring it more in line with intent.

    Obviously in most cases we’re dealing with a completed work, in that case what’s done is done. But if the author is still writing, understanding his or her intent could be used to positively influence future work. Alternately pointing out the discrepancy between intent and result could help readers who might make similar mistakes.

  11. Audra says

    I teach literature, and I rarely bring up an author’s life or intentions, because I find that tends to limit discussion. My philosophy is that the author’s implied or stated intention is only one small factor in understanding a work. For example, Flannery O’Connor said quite a lot about her intentions in writing. I definitely don’t discount those essays as irrelevant; nor do I view them as the irrefutable last word on her work. They provide one lens through which to view her writing. There are many others.

    If we are talking about a writer responding to criticism, I would probably just dismiss a knee-jerk “that’s not what I meant” kind of reaction, but would definitely consider a genuine explanation of intent–again, not as the definitive word on the subject, but as a relevant point of view.

    I can understand getting defensive if you believe someone is misreading your work. On the other hand, a writer with any sort of understanding of the craft knows that literature is an expression of the unconscious as well as the conscious mind. Anyone who thinks she has 100% conscious control over what is on the page is seriously deluded.

  12. says

    When I was at UCLA, I did some concept art for a boy taking the undergrad screenwriting track. The guy (let’s call him John) was Latino and came from a richly ethnic and working class environment, and coming from the working class myself I found him easy to relate to. But then he started describing his characters to me so I could draw them:

    -The lead is a blond-haired, blue-eyed teenage boy.
    -His best friend is a blond-haired, blue-eyed teenage boy.
    -His girlfriend is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenage girl.
    -His teacher/mentor is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman.

    After hearing all of this without a flicker humor in John’s voice, I felt compelled to stop him and ask the burning question.

    Me: John, why are these characters all white? (Not to mention, why is this school apparently set in Sweden?)
    John: Huh?
    Me: I mean, this story is from the heart, right? Very Finding Forrester, story of a boy finding a mentor who helps him put aside a wayward lifestyle to become an upwardly-mobile member of society, et cetera. Plus, it’s coming from you. I don’t know, don’t you think this is a little…
    John: Oh. Well, no one wants to watch a movie with people who look like me, you know?

    Yes, he said that. With all earnestness. Even given my Finding Forrester comparison, and all the unspoken examples that either of us could have listed to counter his reasoning. But this was 1) what his professors had impressed upon him, or 2) what the industry as a whole had cultured him to believe was normal.

    See also: Indian-American M. Night Shyamalan peopling his adaptation of the racially-diverse Avatar with an all white cast.

    Personally, I’m more patient with SWAMP writers who don’t seem to be aware of what they’re doing, but for a minority writer to both commit the same error and then insist it’s just how the system works… well, it frustrates me.

    Just imagine if all the writers in Hollywood woke up tomorrow and decided they weren’t going to compromise on this stuff anymore. The only way things change around here is by force, IMO.

  13. MaggieCat says

    While I agree that good intentions don’t negate a problem with something (to me it comes down to the ultimate expression of privilege: that I don’t have the right to tell anyone what should or shouldn’t offend them. It’s my right to think them silly if I choose, not to tell them to be quiet), I’d also admit that it does affect my own reaction to the end product to a certain extent. If there’s evidence that someone genuinely didn’t mean to offend, it makes me far more likely to watch/read/listen to whatever they do next in hopes they might have learned from the previous instance. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to defend the earlier whatever as unproblematic, just that I may use the “good intentions” in addition to “it gets better” to defend the creator’s body of work as a whole.

    From an “I didn’t mean it like that, quit yelling at me perspective”…. that really only works if you had a reason for using the offensive material that some of the audience is clearly missing the point behind. A Modest Proposal territory, since I’m blanking on a more recent example. If someone honestly thinks that not consciously meaning any harm is a valid reason for ignoring problematic material that serves no purpose (because that always works so well) or saying there’s no value in examining and discussing the end result, then it’s not necessarily the critics that are missing the point.

  14. says

    I came across a comic artist’s blog the other day in which in the course of so few posts that they were on the same page (not within a day of each other, it wasn’t quite that ironic) he went from 1) praising how “un-PC” the rest of the world was and how great it was to go to other countries than the US and UK where nobody worried if they “accidentally” offended someone with their speech…to 2) a full-on multiparagraph rant about how MEAN and AWFUL and STUPID the critics of comics were for saying that products were awful these days and asking if the Big Two *wanted* to fail and didn’t the creators realize they were putting out junk because EVERYONE IN THE INDUSTRY just wants to do the best they can and succeed and didn’t these stupid critics realize how much they were hurting comics creators’ feelings by saying things like this?

    Not a clue in sight. (I’m not saying who it was, because it could have been just about any pro blogger…)

  15. says

    I stopped going to movies mostly because I had a kid and I don’t have the time or the money anymore, so I catch up sometimes with what’s out there on cable. My daughter and I have been enjoying The Golden Compass lately, which has a strong female protagonist, which also has led us to the books.

    I think when you talk about media creations you have to consider all the other folks between the author’s intent and the final product. But there are still strong female characters, albeit on dvd, like Buffy.

    Harry Potter of course is a male hero, but Hermione is such a strong (and smarter) character that I have never felt left out.

    I am more of a visual artist than writer, but I know that sometimes an artist’s intentions, even as they create the work, are not always so clear-cut. In the end, all the audience has is the art, from which to draw their conclusions. They might even see things the artist wasn’t fully aware of. It is an interesting question to think about.

  16. Firebird says

    I think in these kind of discussions – where usually the ones crying foul about ‘it wasn’t meant that way’ are not the writer or someone who speaks for the writer/director/producer/publisher – it’s important to remember that nobody is in any better position than anyone else to define intent. I mean, if we say something is racist or sexist or homophobic and the author comes along and says “I didn’t mean it that way,” then that is different than the commenter who says, “It’s a children’s movie and nobody cares about sexism in children’s movies and nobody means anything by it why don’t you people get a life!”

    It’s one thing for me to interpret my step-dad’s crude comments to me as a come-on, and another for my mother to tell me he didn’t mean anything by it and it’s just the way he is, and quite another for him to explain that he meant something else equally vile but different by the conversation. Intent means everything but ultimately, only the offended person can define what offends and only the originator of the action can say what the intent was (and even that is in doubt because people aren’t honest with others or even themselves about their baser actions).

  17. Amy McCabe says

    Writer’s intent can be such a tricky thing to figure out at times. I don’t know the man or woman. Yes, one can get a general idea of character over time, especially now that TPTB can communicate more effectively and directly to the fans over the internet. I’m not saying it is impossible, just that it is sometimes difficult. TPTB might not know or even mean to portray a message they end up portraying.

  18. elsajeni says

    I would say that “that wasn’t my intent” is not an excuse, but can be an explanation — that is, saying “Oh my God, it never occurred to me that that could be read that way” doesn’t negate the fact that (do you think I could use “that” a few more times in this sentence?) you wrote/said something that came off as racist/sexist/otherwise offensive, but if it’s convincing, it may mollify the offense somewhat and restore some of the reader’s faith in the author not to do it again.

  19. says

    If one were critiquing a rough draft, intent would certainly matter.

    A critic could say “*A* is the impression I’m getting from this scene, is that what you intended? If you intend *B* instead, you could change this bit of dialog and this description.” Since the work isn’t done, it’s possible to then bring it more in line with intent.

    You know, I actually ran across this for the first time a week or so ago. Someone had asked me to tell him what I thought of his writing and I found it to be very insulting – and yet I know he didn’t mean for it to be. I really wasn’t sure how to go about explaining to him why I found it insulting – so that he could find my observations useful – while keeping the conversation about making his meaning clear rather than him feeling like I was calling him sexist.

    In the end, I decided that the situation was too complicated, that I wasn’t going to be able to avoid that side effect, and sent him a really long reply explaining my dilemna and asking “are you sure you want my honest opinion?”

    um, no reply back so far.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *