As we all know, there are some very loud conversations going on about diversity, representation, and, my favorite, problematic content. To elaborate, that would be: does potentially offensive, and/or triggering content have a place in creative media, (fiction, art, film, etc.)?
The Answer is yes.
The Answer is always YES!
Welcome to the Cerebral Hedonist! I’m your Scholarly Squid and here comes a thought on:
The Diminishing Human Element in Creative Media
The demand for diversity and representation in books (especially from the Young Adult community) has become a cacophony of who is allowed to write marginalized cultures, characters, and experiences and how that should meet an all-positive checklist. This checklist excludes any traits that could be socially negative that would, on the average character, humanize them and make them more realistic. Essentially it infantilizes the character, story, and reader. There are words for these that no one’s using: Tokenism and Gatekeeping.
Tokenism: the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, i.e., recruiting a small number of people from an underrepresented group to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality.
Gatekeeping: the activity of controlling and limiting general access to something.
These are the concrete definitions of these things I will be using for the sake of this article and they are not open to interpretation of any other meaning than the one presented.
With the increased demands for representation and the gatekeeping of how these representations are handled – no matter the personal experience/research accredited to the creator of said character or world – the human element of storytelling is lost. In order to describe the human element of storytelling, let’s look at the key attributes of a Creative Imagination (as told in Wonderbook by Jeff Vandemeer).
The Curiosity – that is, an active interest in the world at large and the people in it.
We live in a time where we are given complete access to the world and all its facets. It is almost to the point that there is virtually no excuse not to know things – notice I said almost. The main conflict of having all the information you need in your back pocket is that it decreases the curiosity and drive to learn. At a certain point, with ease of access, a form of complacency takes place – a sort of laziness that comes from taking something for granted. We have connected ourselves to the world and, consequentially, have become less curiosity about the world at large as well as a loss of individual identity.
To clarify, we are now able to learn the experience of various people that can be and inevitably will be similar to our own. We are confronted with the idea that our experience is minimalized when compared. In an effort to validate and uplift our personal experience, we cut ourselves way from our natural, inquisitive natures to maintain our perspectives. With curiosity decreased, people assume that because they don’t see something it does not exist, or worse, that the experience doesn’t count/is not relevant to their perspective. With constant bombardment information experiences, and collective trauma, it is only natural that our curiosity turns inwards…
Receptivity – that is, our openness and, most importantly, our empathy (the ability to let more than just the facts and information in)
With the way information and events are rushed to our brains through the power of social media, a sort of desensitization takes place. Daily we are forced to emotionally contextualize so many causes, disasters, political events, and criminal acts. The complete 24/7 access to it becomes detrimental to the compassion and ability to empathize.
I, due to my disorder, am considered to have a high affected empathy – external things affect me with such a hard intensity that I spent a week crying and in a state of depression over a little robot trapped on an empty red planet. I still get sick in my stomach with grief of it. Mind you, I am an extreme example, but you can understand how socializing and social media can be debilitating if I did nothing about it. So, I do something about it. I prioritize what affects me. I ask myself mentally how many fucks I can give about a particular thing. I end up choosing what emotionally compromises me to care about and all else is put aside. I do not react to everything, only things that strike a deep empathic urge. This is something I unconsciously choose through years of therapy on how to handle my disorder.
Now, I told you that to tell you this.
Most people do this unconsciously. This is purely on my own observation, but I’ve witnessed the slow shut down of empathy in order to protect the already overwhelmed psyche from the complex emotions and perceived minimizing of their own experience as individuals. After all, when a church burns down, someone’s bitchy microaggressions against you in a one-off interaction suddenly feels trivial.
So in order to cope, instinctually, we prioritize and most importantly, narrow our Receptiveness to the experiences of others. Essentially, we no longer are open to alternate point of views and ally ourselves to the POVs that are not just close to our own, but rather exactly like our own. They become essentially a safe space in which we choose what gets in – which is normal, BUT, recently, we let nothing in…
This leads to a loss of Passion.
Passion – that is, retaining idealism; caring about your work and maintaining your openness…
A loss of passion due to narrowing our receptiveness is a large part of the mass desensitization to other experiences, including that of creatives.
You could argue that people are more passionate – i.e. with the amount of activism and changes people are advocating for – but in the realm of art, literature, and media… Well, I can’t help but wholly disagree.
People are very passionate… about themselves.
“Well Harli, people are doing this to make a better place for people like them. To end discrimination and suffering so no one has to go through it like they did.”
Mm. See, the keyphrase is “people like them.”
Essentially, the change you seek in the world is for yourself, a better place for yourself.
With the need to shut down and filter the new abyss that is our connection to the world at large, there is no passion about those things outside of our experience. The outcry for being able to see ourselves in all our media, art, and literature is one that stems from this self-imposed safe space.
Slowly, we’ve stamped out the most meaningful part of having a passion for anything: maintaining openness. This has brought us to what, by all observations, can be considered a regression. In reality, I feel you would call this a “standstill.” Due to the loss of these attributes and the damage we’ve done to the final attribute, we’ve stopped all movement and have loss the human element.
Immediacy – that is, fully experience everything that is going on around you (this includes the good, the bad, and the discomforting); living in the moment…
Living in the Moment.
Living in the Moment…
Our imaginations have become stunted because we are living in the same moment over and over. In our safe spaces, we are only living a fraction of life without ever viewing it as whole and the way we consume art reflects this. This is especially detrimental when we’ve cultivated our perspective in a tightly sealed vacuum to the point that we only know that perspective. We can’t imagine anything else.
And escapism… has changed.
We want to see ourselves…
And at last you are here.
With the insecurity of being insignificant, we want to see the ideal images of how we perceive ourselves in our books, media and art. We want to see ourselves reflected to perfection based on who we are as an ideal, not who we are as human beings. Thus, “good rep” is not a human being with flaws baggage, and perspective unique to themselves or to the creator. The tunnel-vison approach to expecting only representation of yourself/your experiences are in affect an unwilling–no, a lack of imagination. You can’t imagine any other experience outside of your own, even if those experiences are about people who are objectively like you.
You can’t imagine any experience other than your own.
You can’t imagine anyone gaining/finding meaning in certain ideals that do not parallel or worse completely counter your own.
You can’t imagine a world being able to accept an underrepresented group if they show any traits deemed undesirable because you are unaccepted and unaccepting and not inclined to be empathetic towards people with those traits or experiences.
You can’t imagine because you’ve cut yourself off from the human element of life.
This feeds into authors writing inorganic inclusion for fear of being exclusionary. This causes even authors of color or of atypical lifestyles to pull their work at the very idea that their telling of their experience and perspective is not palatable to others. If the rep/diversity is not palatable, it is not “good” rep/diversity… because you can’t imagine someone of an underrepresented group being a villain, can’t imagine a story where the experience is not… about… you.
“Not every book is your safe space.”-Bookish Pisces ~ Reviewer and Book Twitter Extrodinaire
Not every book is for you. Not every book can be nor should be tailored to your ideals. You seek the escapism and comfort of your own experience, perspective and ideals. Thus, you are drawn to misrepresent and admonish things that contradict, attack, and/or are alien to your perspective, to you. Further to your detriment, no one is telling you that you are wrong because doing so would “invalidate your experience” as you crush someone else’s experience. So when there is no challenge, the human element diminishes and all that’s left is ideals.
Ideals are pretty. Ideals are great. Ideals are important.
However without the complexity that comes with being human, a character is just an ideal that talks – a token of a group of people who merely exist to be Black, Asian, Latino, Queer, Trans, Mentally Ill, Disabled, etc., etc., etc. The marginalization now solely defines them, rather than it just being one of their very many humanizing traits.
Ideals do not inspire empathy. Humans do.
The human element in storytelling is not the black and white of rape, violence, misogyny, homophobia, and other themes as Right/Wrong. The human element is showing you these things within the circumstances of a person – a living breathing character with their own personality, thoughts, and experiences. It is not a heavy-handed message put into concrete words where you don’t trust the reader to understand that this [insert problematic thing here] is bad. It is creating experiences with these things and contextualizing them through humanizing experiences – even if the Main Character isn’t human at all. It is giving the reader everything they need to ground themselves to the characters who are very real people that bleed, do questionable things, and make mistakes that contradict with the ideals they are meant to represent.
This allows subjectivity rather than constrained idealism.
If you remove the human element – if you go in trying to say something rather than just telling a story – you don’t allow for your ideals to organically weave within your characters and narrative.
You end up saying nothing at all.
And, as a reader, gatekeeping who is “allowed” to tell these stories – because no matter what they are or how bad they are, they are just stories – hurts representation and diversity of thought.
I will close with this now.
If you cannot take yourself out of your own perspective, if you cannot accept that others can share your experiences differently – in less palatable ways than you have, then you’ve done your intellect a great disservice as a consumer and lover of creative media.
They can’t all be perfect rep. Someone must be human at some point.
It can’t all be palatable. Something must upset, anger, and disquiet you for you to fully understand your relation to the world.
Broaden what you consume and don’t hinder others from doing so.
Your imagination is staving! Feed the damn thing!
Don’t stop others from doing so as well.
Stay Well-Read, my Squidlies.
For More Ruminations: Tentacle Files
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-Harli V. Park –