Responding to a piece I wrote on Monday about the nature of the relationship between artists, their art and their audience, a reader I respect asked me a question I’ve gotten a number of times in recent months. If I support advocacy to make Hollywood a more inclusive and equitable industry that tells a greater variety of stories about a greater diversity of people, why don’t campaigns to influence specific plotlines or fictional characters’ races, sexual orientations and relationship statuses count as a targeted version of this sort of activism?
The quick answer is that I think these campaigns sometimes use the language of identity politics to add heft to what are fundamentally personal preferences. But more broadly, I don’t see campaigning around specific plot developments as particularly effective, and I believe the idea that artists should be answerable to fans could easily be turned against progressives.
Think of agitation aimed at individual plotlines or characters as the cultural equivalent of earmarks, language in federal bills or committee reports that provide for spending on specific projects, usually in the congressional district of the lawmaker who approved them. Earmarks can do some definite good for the people who are the beneficiaries of that spending. And, until an earmark ban went into effect in 2010, earmarking made it possible for individual members of Congress to argue that they were bringing home tangible benefits for their voters; as with a lot of things in Washington, pork is bad in the abstract until it allows congressmen to bring home the bacon.
But as useful as earmarks might have been for individual lawmakers who were good at obtaining them, and for individual constituents who benefited from them, earmarking was no way to solve much bigger policy problems. Earmarks are temporary and piecemeal; relying on them for major change would be like trying to build a national health-care program by authorizing it district by district and putting the funding for each district up for constant renewal.
In a similar way, getting Elsa a girlfriend in a sequel to “Frozen,” or keeping Lexa alive on “The 100,” or getting a Miles Morales “Spider-Man” movie, would certainly be meaningful to audiences who yearn to see themselves represented in mass culture. But these plot developments would leave the rest of mass culture untouched and might even provide a way for Hollywood to dodge more comprehensive change.
Making a particular “ship” canon — making two characters fans like to imagine as a couple get together in the story itself, for those not versed in the slang of fandom — is not the same thing as more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) artists getting the opportunity to tell their own stories. Having a superhero who is of both African American and Latino heritage on the big screen would be wonderful, but it also wouldn’t necessarily translate into more stories about black or Latino people, or more chances for black and Latino writers and directors to make movies without the kind of corporate oversight and interference that superhero movies inevitably require. And giving Elsa a girlfriend might also give Disney cover for every time it doesn’t incorporate LGBT people and families into its storytelling.
All of these things should end up as the sorts of solutions entertainment companies offer as partial response to an industry-wide problem, not as the end goal of a movement to change the business. What’s immediately meaningful and what creates the conditions for long-term change aren’t always the same thing.
And beyond the question of whether advocating for plot developments is a meaningful form of activism, I think it’s spectacularly unwise for progressives to argue that, as a working principle, corporations and creators should give fans exactly what they want. Because if they did, it’s not at all clear to me that we’d consistently get greater representation of women, people of color, LGBT people or people with disabilities; the list goes on.
This is not to say there aren’t passionate fandoms for Shonda Rhimes’s sexy rainbow coalitions, or for “black-ish,” or for “Steven Universe,” or for Oracle, a superheroine who uses a wheelchair. But box-office numbers and television ratings tell us over and over again that plenty of folks are fine with white, straight male main characters. If dedicated progressive fans and consumers go up against everyone else, they might find themselves wildly outnumbered.
I can already hear the objections, the arguments that studios, showrunners and directors should listen in particular to historically marginalized fans, or to the real, most dedicated fans of a franchise, show or comic.
But if a rule relies on these sorts of carve-outs, I think its doom is programmed in from the beginning. What happens when, say, progressive fans of a franchise run up against traditionalists who have loved a certain interpretation of a character or story for years? Who has the better claim to what they want to see on screen or the page? And whom do we think a big entertainment industry company is likely to side with?
At the end of the day, I think advocates for greater diversity and inclusiveness will do more good, and find themselves on more secure ground, if they fight broadly for a greater mix of storytellers and argue that those storytellers should have the freedom to tell the stories they’re most passionate about. That’s a position that minimizes incursions on artistic freedom* and reaps maximum material benefits for real people who have actually been marginalized in society at large and in Hollywood in particular.
Arguing that artists should be completely answerable to fans is just another way of saying that artists should be completely answerable to somebody. And if we don’t like the results when artists are subordinated to the cautious norms of big corporations, we should be careful what we wish for in suggesting that they should answer to the irreconcilable wishes of the very different people who love their work.
* A side issue, but not an unimportant one: These sorts of fan requests may run completely contrary to the story the artist is going to tell. I understand why people want to see a gay Disney princess. But having the gay Disney princess be the princess whose big, triumphal moment is all about living alone kind of undercuts the message of “Frozen.”