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.
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?