Why must everything be politically correct?

When I was in my early twenties, I told a young white guy how sick I got of all (non chick-flick) movies being mostly populated by white men, with other types of people only showing up as sidekicks, romantic interests or acknowledgments of how gosh-darn difficult it was not to be a white man. His initial response was,”Oh, god, why does everything have to be politically correct?”

At the time, I was naive. I didn’t realize how prevalent bigotry still was throughout the world. So I said, “because homogeneity is so damn boring” and gave several examples of how interesting women can be. He agreed, but countered: “What do you care? If you know women are more interesting than that, what do you care how some movie makes them out?”

Yes, why didn’t I take comfort in my secret truth? Because it shouldn’t be a secret that “person” does not begin and end with Mr. Hetero Honky, IV.

But I told him this, and now I’m posting it for all to see, in case anyone who stumbles on this site cannot understand why anyone would be bothered by the fact  that film screenwriters I talk to are still being told, “But why does your lead have to be black/a woman/etc.? What if we could get Brad Pitt for this role?”

Imagine you’re a child. You’re at a the movies, watching a blockbuster. It’s a sci-fi story about these white women who have all served times for crimes they didn’t commit, and they decide to go after the woman who framed them. They hire a space pirate to fly them to somewhere, and she ends up joining them. They go to the officials on this planet for help – who are all white women – but one of them turns them in. They get chased by white women soldiers working for these officials and end up on a freighter. At this point, one of them has a dream about this man – he’s gorgeous, and he fawns all over her and they’re talking about getting married. Then she goes out to get cigarettes, and some white woman breaks in and brutally rapes and murders him, so now we feel bad for that main character. And then they land at this spaceport and go to a bar, and you know it’s a really weird bar because the bartender is a man! Only it makes sense after all, because he’s got a tiny little scar on his face, so who the hell would marry him? They find out from the bar’s owner – a white woman, of course – that the government – entirely stocked with white women, we know, even though they never show up on screen – is in cahoots with this crime cabal – again, presumably entirely stocked with white women…

I could go on, but do you see what I’m doing? This is pretty much the exact opposite of how I saw gender portrayed when I was a kid. George Lucas made three culturally and industrially cataclysmic movies with one woman (I’m not counting the five minutes’ screen time for Aunt Beru or Mon Mothma). And because she was important and got listened to, at least until Han broke through her hormone blockage and she got a proper dose of estrogen and calmed down like a nice girl, we thought she was a really feminist breakthrough at the time. Despite the sex slave thing. How sad is that?

What I learned from all this, as a child, was that men were the hostile gatekeepers of my fortunes. No matter how hard I worked or how well I performed, actually getting whatever I’d earned would still require the approval of a man. And it seemed men didn’t like yielding anything to women, since we mainly only appeared in Important Mainstream Movies to be screwed, raped, killed or impregnated with the Chosen One. I saw blockbuster movies as men’s fantasies, and in men’s fantasies, I didn’t count unless I was beautiful, and then I only counted if I was up for getting screwed, raped, killed or impregnated.

It set me up to believe the white male power structure was, I dunno, hostile to me. I must be some crazy man-hater, huh? I would guess that men of color, disabled people, gay people, and all other marginalized groups got similar messages about their “Don’t call us, we’ll call you – Sincerely, Mr. Honky” place in society.

And it’s not like reality was wildly different from Star Wars. There were precious few women in politics or making movies or rock music. I’ve heard there is one movie in the history of the universe scored by a woman, but I don’t know what one it is. Women lawyers, doctors and cops seemed like a myth. I didn’t see them around town. I didn’t see them on TV. I got the message.

This young man who didn’t see why things like this matter answered, “I just wouldn’t go see movies, then.” But I don’t think he was grasping that when he encountered that raging sexism in other fields – like work – opting out wouldn’t necessarily be an option.

I think the term “politically correct” has lost all meaning. But if you wonder why we need diversity in entertainment, it’s because entertainment is one way we teach certain children early: you don’t count. It’s also the way we reinforce the feelings of those few white men who really are hostile to sharing the pie with everyone who has earned a slice.

Comments

  1. says

    Re: “I just wouldn’t go see movies, then.”

    Funny thing is that’s essentially my solution. I don’t watch all that many movies, and the main reason is that I just find the studios’ standard plug-n-chug formulas so damn boring.

    It’s true, though, that “opt out” isn’t really an option for many aspects of life…

  2. says

    I, too, have pretty much stopped watching movies. Once I realized that all I had to do was watch the first act, determine which formula they were using, and then I could reliably predict the entire rest of the movie, I decided it wasn’t worth wading through 100 movies that put me to sleep with their predictability to catch 1 that actually surprised me.

  3. The Other Patrick says

    I still want to watch movies and watch too many boring and typical WASP ones.

    But my question is: Is there ever a moment where the outcry against “political correctness” is not used to further discrimination and privilege? I mean it’s not like people aren’t allowed to say what they think.

  4. Anemone says

    I still want to see almost everything. Or at least almost everything SF/F. I seem to be addicted to the big screen experience. But due to finances I end up getting them out of the library and watching them on my laptop. Then I imagine how I’d rewrite them. Or how the story would go if I were added as a character. Except it’s usually more interesting to write something original completely from scratch, to see if I can do it.

  5. says

    When you described your hypothetical movie where everyone’s a woman, I didn’t understand where you were going with it until you said that I was supposed to have a problem with it. I think that sums up my problem with what you’re saying. Let’s say almost every character in every movie were a black woman. So what? I don’t see why that should bother me at all as an American white man. What I get out of movies is not contingent on the characters in it looking like me.

    I started watching Doctor Who without much exposure to British film of any sort, and I was bothered by everyone having a British accent for all of thirty seconds or so before getting over it. Now I just expect everyone there to have a British accent by default. And why not? It’s made by British people, the characters are going to be British, now enjoy the show.

    But that’s a mild example. I’m not just a white American male, I’m also an orthodox Jew with Asperger’s Syndrome living in Israel. So I fully expect that when I watch a movie, not one of the characters are going to be anything like me and even the characters called “Jewish” aren’t going to bear any resemblance to my culture or my personal identity. Explain to me why I should care about this. Because I’ve never seen any problem in the situation.

    It’s perfectly fair that if Hollywood is run by secular neuro-typical white guys, the movies should revolve around secular neuro-typical white guys. Am I supposed to be so close-minded that I can’t enjoy something just because its creators aren’t like me?! If I only accepted things specifically targeted to me, I’d have nothing at all because no one is exactly like me. Every person is unique, and none of them are well-represented in movies. Even the most boring American pretty-man is not really like movie characters because he’s got an identity of his own.

    Being entertained by fictional characters means overlooking the many differences between those characters and yourself, and finding the aspects which you can relate to. This is not a hardship, and having to stretch your mind ever-so-slightly more to find the relatable qualities is not an offense.

  6. says

    Thefremen, WORD. Excellent, classic, oft-imitated movie.

    This is not a hardship, and having to stretch your mind ever-so-slightly more to find the relatable qualities is not an offense.

    So why not ask white neuro-typical guys to stretch their minds for a change? You assert that it’s because they run the industry, but you’re wrong: Jews are extremely well-represented, as are gays, in powerful decision-making positions in Hollywood. And yet they choose only to represent white WASPS the vast majority of the time, because they and everyone else in the industry believes:

    –Only young white men are worth targeting as an audience. Why? No one knows. Lots of myths have been purported as an answer, but they all fall apart with the slightest reality check.
    –Young white men will be offended if they have to look at someone who’s anything other than a white man in a blockbuster film, and give up going to the movies altogether.

    I think the success of Will Smith and Sigourney Weaver in blockbuster movies suggests that young white men are actually *less* intolerant than the industry believes.

    But you’ll notice, regardless of your response, the guy I was talking to replied that he would be so offended at his marginalization that he would “just stop going to movies.” There IS a problem whether or not you’re part of it.

    You may want to check out our “Getting Started” page if you are new to the site. It may give you a more holistic idea of what we’re all about.

    http://thehathorlegacy.com/getting-started-with-the-hathor-legacy/

  7. The Other Patrick says

    Mory: The problem with your response is of course that you have no experience that even comes close to not being represented or being marginalized in the media. You grew up with 90% (probably more) of all media representations being right up your alley.

    Heck, I can spontaneously think of more pudgy to fat white leading men that black leading men, even if I count rappers.

    Now, compare reactions to films with strong female leads, or minority leads, or homosexual leads, or atheist/skeptical leads, or… Nearly all of these will lead to a communal “Finally! Yeah! More of that!” Because people hunger to be represented in culture. And you can say, “well, I also drive a car, so that counts”, but it doesn’t really. And honestly, why would anyone ever say “Finally! A strong white man as lead! About time we get some heterosexual loving here!”

    I mean, I can only empathize with visible minorites or women who lack representation, because I am a white guy. My biggest problem is with skeptics who don’t transform into believers and maybe sexual deviants ;)

    But even without being on the receiving end, I want blacks, hispanics, women outside of rom-coms, gays, bisexuals, transgendered people, marxists, polyamorous people, non-Americans, whatever. On the one hand because I have had my fill of white male stories, and I want different ones. On the other hand simply because I know it feels good to be represented and not marginalized, and as a white guy, me being represented is not going away soon, so I’d gladly share the spotlight with others.

    Also, just a random thought, people should watch Whip It! I saw it, it rocks. Women being cool and having fun – it’s actually possible, and this film should kick Sex and the City’s ass.

  8. says

    Jews are extremely well-represented

    Secular Jews are extremely well-represented, and the secular Jews of America bear very little resemblance to religious Jews. Having Jewish parents is one thing, having a connection to Jewish religion and culture is quite another. The references to Judaism in Hollywood are usually ridiculous, but I understand that it’s not people like me making it so I forgive them.

    The alternative -expecting them to include Orthodox Jewish characters- would be much worse. Without personally knowing any religious Jews, the secular Hollywood guys would go to the broad stereotypes without even realizing they weren’t being totally realistic. And even if you educated them as to what our culture is like, they’d still be looking at it as outsiders and any little realistic details they included would be awkwardly portrayed.

    If you want to argue that more Orthodox Jews -or women, to get away from the analogy- should be in movies, fine. But as long as Hollywood is dominated by secular white fashion-obsessed men, let them talk about themselves.

  9. says

    Mory, you completely read me backwards, so your entire comment is irrelevant: I said that many self-identified Jews are ALREADY working behind the scenes in film, and have for a very long time, and yet they don’t represent THEMSELVES (secular or any other type of Jew) but rarely because they believe the only audience worth chasing will not accept a lead character who happens to be Jewish.

    It’s true there are not enough women behind the scenes, but that’s not the reason we’re poorly represented in mainstream film, and if you’d perused any of the links I mentioned to you, you would know that. Here, just read this one: http://thehathorlegacy.com/why-film-schools-teach-screenwriters-not-to-pass-the-bechdel-test/

    You are not doing your argument any favors by failing to respond to what’s actually been said. For now, I’m assuming you simply made a mistake, but if it continues, I will have to assume you are deliberately setting up strawman arguments to derail the thread, and take appropriate action.

  10. The Other Patrick says

    The alternative -expecting them to include Orthodox Jewish characters- would be much worse. Without personally knowing any religious Jews, the secular Hollywood guys would go to the broad stereotypes without even realizing they weren’t being totally realistic. And even if you educated them as to what our culture is like, they’d still be looking at it as outsiders and any little realistic details they included would be awkwardly portrayed.

    Yeah, just like men can’t write about women, and authors who never sailed can’t write about sailors, and every crime novelist ever has to have been working in crime beforehand, and… wait, what do you mean? Research? Imagination? What’s that?

    I’m sure that’s why in film or TV series, when there’s a scene with a male and a female character, it’s usually written in tandem by a male and female writer who also have had the same experiences as the characters have… the amount of writers who went through a year or two in a hospital just to get to writing for Scrubs is ridiculous.

    If you haven’t noticed, I think that point is bullshit.

  11. says

    Mory’s later comments, which I did not allow through, asserted that I was insulting him and what he really meant was that secular Jews aren’t real Jews and are just like “everyone else” (really? everyone?) in America. I’m not aware that God elected Mory King Of Determining Real Jewishness, and I just love the homogeneity he paints the US with.

    I knew I shouldn’t have let his first comment through.

    So let’s move on and have a relevant discussion. Mr. Narcissist has derailed the thread enough.

  12. ACW says

    J Kesler,

    One day I want to grow up to be as insightful and as eloquent as you. Until then, I’ll keep reading every post and screaming, “YES! *Exactly!*” at my screen.

    Excellent post.

  13. Ray says

    ““Alien” was one of the best blockbuster films of all time. OF ALL TIME.”

    And yet, I’ve gotten into debates with a friend who claims that men only went to this movie because Sigourney Weaver is hot.

    She is. More power to her. But to brush off any chance that men and women may have gone to see Alien for many other reasons is bullshit…

  14. The Other Patrick says

    No, it’s true. And men only watched Batman Begins because Christian Bale is hot, and Transformers because they want to make out with Shia LaBoef, and Iron Man because they have the hots for Robert Downey, Jr – and who can blame them?

  15. Robin says

    I think “politically correct” as a term is kind of insulting. To my mind, it implies someone or something appearing to represent diversity for appearance’s sake. It has a connotation of manipulation and insincerity. What the entertainment industry should really be striving for is a more realistic representation of society as a whole.

    I very much like your example of a default female-populated film because it did strike me as being an unlikely scenario, which is rather irritating, but it makes the point really nicely. Also, it allowed me to imagine a whole elite military squadron made up of Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Kara Thrace, Sam Carter, Teyla Emmagen, Zoe Washburn, Sarah Walker, Olivia Dunham, Ziva David, Fiona Glenann, Myka Bering, Kensi Blye, Ashley Magnus, Jo Lupo, Martha Jones, Cameron Baum, Aeryn Sun… okay not all white, but you get the idea. :)

  16. says

    Until you pointed it out, OtherPatrick, I never noticed that there are no explicitly atheist characters in any of the media I watch, unless they’re going to go through some sort of conversion process.

    *ponders*

    Like others, I’ve mostly stopped consuming mainstream popculture. I got so excited when I learned what The Good Wife was about, and have been eating it up with a spoon ever since (okay, so I’m four episodes in), and the same thing with Castle, where Beckett, Alexis, and Martha are all very important characters, even if they do exist in orbit around Castle himself.

    I mean, I can look at both of those and have some very long conversations about various places they fall down (and badly), but they have women in them, and not just as cardboard cutouts (to me), so I’m thrilled enough that it will probably be a bit more before I can start really digging into the problematic aspects of it. Women! AWESOME women!

  17. says

    Good essay. The thing is, even a thought-experiment about one movie doesn’t really cover it. The next step is to imagine that almost all movies are like that. When you’re a kid you look to movies and books to tell you about the grownup world. If movies and books say that girls are always and only secretaries/nurses/teachers/wives, that’s very discouraging. And if all of popular culture tells you that you are the only girl in the history of the world who isn’t happy being support staff, that means there must be something wrong with you.

    This seems like an appropriate time to recommend The Paper Mirror, by Cathy Leamy. It’s a short, graphic-format statement on “the power of validation by example”.

  18. Robin says

    “And Helen Magnus!”

    Well, Helen’s more science than military. Ashley’s the real ass-kicker. And I’ve already got Amanda Tapping in there as Carter. :)

  19. miles says

    Great idea! I didn’t even clue on until the bartender with the scar.
    The problem with political correctness is that it attacks the symptoms rather than the cause of inequity. Like trawling, it scoops a lot of innocent or at least naive people, people who are most likely victims themselves, into the net.

    I thought the comments of the Mory bloke (the narcissist..as you put), to be unexpectedly (though laterally) enlightening. In a society filled with white american jews (israel), he still feels so on the outer that he can’t ever imagine himself being represented in pop culture. That is the very idea.. the idealised homogeneity that hollywood produces is to convince you that you will never be quite white and perfect enough. The joke is the men who run this industry are not anything like the images they portray.
    That they are men is incidental (politically rather than historically..historically it is no accident). Women in power can and do act in the same self interested manner that typifies this ruling propaganda class of… producers in this case (though they don’t have a boys club to support them).
    Our energy should be focused on breaking down those power structures rather than political correctness – which encourages us to complain that we aren’t a part of them or that they don’t represent us.

    I guess that is why I liked your piece.. it showed just how thin the veil is.

  20. Charles RB says

    “I’ve gotten into debates with a friend who claims that men only went to this movie because Sigourney Weaver is hot.”

    Wait, for Alien? She was part of an ensemble cast and not on the film poster, which focused instead on this scary unseen alien that makes You Scream. _Aliens_, he could make that argument if he was willing to ignore that the marketing wasn’t “look how hot Ripley is” and “look, this character you liked before is WARRING WITH THOUSANDS OF ALIENS DUUUUUUUDE”.

  21. says

    Hey, this is Cathy Leamy, the cartoonist behind “The Paper Mirror” – thanks for the link, Kathmandu!

    I blogged a similar little thought experiment a few years back turning Lord of the Rings into Lady of the Rings. I love your Star Wars example and I still can’t believe how clear (and how depressing) a statement this kind of turnabout experiment makes.

    To everyone who asks “Who cares if you’re represented in TV/movies/books?”, I point to examples like Mae Jemison, a black American astronaut who was inspired to join NASA from watching Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. It’s not just a matter of “Can I enjoy this story if it’s not about people like me?” Storytelling is our mythmaking and our example-setting. Stories don’t just entertain us; they inspire us and show us different ways that we can be.

  22. Stephen says

    This gave me a different perspective on political correctness. I always saw it as mostly an inadequate attempt to atone for imagined and unimagined guilt.

    Many minority people see it as an attempt to make the majority group feel good about their efforts to help the lesser quality people, which is an insult. Two people at my work were called in for a special plan for disabled people; they were highly insulted – they see themselves as being like the rest of us. Sure, one can’t walk much faster than a ball rolling uphill, but we and she see her as one of us. Management saw her as an opportunity to enhance their self-importance.

    I’m glad to realise there are practical reasons for including the non-majority or non-stereotype, at least in movies and books, and I would hope that those implementing these trends do so for the reasons you explain, not for the reasons I’ve always attributed to the phenomenon.

  23. Charles RB says

    “I always saw it as mostly an inadequate attempt to atone for imagined and unimagined guilt”

    I too always saw it that way – it was always presented to me as that when I was younger, and still is. As I got older, I got suspicious as there seemed to be an undercurrent of “there’s a non-white/non-male character, that’s PC”.

    The example I remember is the 90s cartoon Extreme Ghostbusters, which often gets referred as PC, affirmative action etc because one of the heroes (Garrett) is in a wheelchair. The clear implication here is that he’s a big ol’ token and having him is silly. Except the animation studio showed the episode to focus groups (i.e. little kids) to judge their reaction and when they asked who their favourite character was, Garrett was the clear favourite across the board and the Ghostbuster the kids said they’d most like to be. Older viewers saw tokenism; young kids saw this wisecracking, can-do badass.

  24. says

    Charles RB:

    I actually don’t recall anyone my age ever going ga-ga for Sigourney Weaver. I kinda wondered if the person claiming they did was just scrambling for a way to dismiss her importance to the franchise.

    But there’s another consideration. I argued with film professors: you’re sure young, white, heterosexual guys would rather watch Ahnald terminating than some gorgeous actress in a tight suit? Because if that’s what they want, than either (A) they’re all gay or (B) what they’re looking for in a lead is NOT sex, and the PROBLEM with women is actually that they’re served up as sexpots and that distract young men from the action or whatever it is they like about blockbusters. In which case, Sigourney Weaver’s no-makeup jumpsuit kick-ass appearance in the Alien movies makes complete sense: boys failed to notice she was A GIRL, GASP because it wasn’t highlighted to them in a sexual manner.

  25. Quib says

    The way I see the term “PC” used most seems to be as a sort of straw-man for performers to feign rebellion, or opposition to authority. What would otherwise be uninspired, bigoted, or just plain obnoxious, gets to label itself “un-pc” and pretend that it’s edgy or daring, as if it isn’t well in step with cultural norms.
    Even the title of this post “Why -must- -everything- be politically correct” reflects the idea that it’s something authoritative or invasive, rather than a chance for giving equal voice to different groups.
    The underlying sentiment I fully agree with, there’s no reason a subset of the population should get a monopoly on leading roles, but the term itself has in many unfortunate ways, been re-purposed.

  26. says

    Yes, Charles RB, exactly. I’m deeply suspicious of any of those self-proclaimed renegades, since they’re almost always already really bloody privileged. What they’re fighting for is in fact largely the ability of the privilege to define and ridicule minorities.

    But I mean, I’m a trans woman, and with only one exception I can think of, trans characters are not even PLAYED by trans people. Which means we get shitty portrayals written by cis people who rarely know squat about actual lived transness, performed by other cis people. Which is so off I don’t even know where to begin.

    So I mean, it’s a miracle if I see a trans woman who isn’t a punchline, a sex worker, murdered or a murderer herself (we’re all out to GET YOU, y’know. Preferably after “tricking” unknowing innocent straight men into sex). Depressingly, romantic comedies would be a gigantic step up really.

  27. says

    Hmm, I just watched an episode of “New Tricks” (British cop show) with a trans woman. I need to watch it again with these tropes you’re talking about in mind, but I *think* it sidestepped them?

    She was definitely played by a male actor who typically plays men, however.

  28. SunlessNick says

    There was an episode of Sea of Souls with a transwoman who was just living a normal life, until the characters blundered in, looking for the “man” who had “disappeared.” She didn’t want her transgender status getting out, due to fear of transphobia, which of course meant that people looking for the former identity made her afraid – which they interpreted as suspicious behaviour, even suspecting she’d killed “him”.

    I won’t speculate on whether that’s a good treatment or not but will say the episode made no bones about the pain the characters caused her being not ok despite being an accident. I’m pretty sure it was a man playing her though.

  29. says

    Hmm, haven’t seen that one, Jennifer.

    Actually, I thought of another time a trans woman was played by a trans woman – Alexandra Billings had a guest spot on Grey’s Anatomy, and Candis Cayne was a cast member on Dirty Sexy Money for awhile.

    But yes, I think basically the casting of cis men as trans women stems from the blithe (incorrect) assumption that trans women are basically cis men plus female clothes and a bit of slap. So besides the plotting, I just look at the characters and boggle, because we *don’t look like that*.

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