“Neutrality” Is Political: Defending the Criticism of Fiction

Part 3 of 3.

The devoted fan or adamantly apathetic’s defense against the criticism of fiction is generally is along one or more of three veins.

  1. It’s just fiction and exists merely to entertain. There is no need to take it so seriously.
  2. The adaptation of this fiction cannot be blamed for elements that are true to its source material.
  3. It’s fiction and is not meant to be a political statement / politically correct.

The last one, like the first, is intended to stop people from criticizing at all. Unlike the first, it isn’t entirely disingenuous. Regardless, the argument is invalid for one simple reason: A lack of overt political messaging does not mean that a work of fiction has no messages and is therefore “neutral.”In the case of the messaging transmitted by fiction, a lack of intention is less than unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Stories are an important part of human socialization and conceptualization of the world. Even ones that we know are fictional affect our brains whether we like it or not. This isn’t to say that there is a straight line from any action leading back to a particular work of fiction; that simplistic assessment isn’t supported by the data we have on the effects of fiction on people. Rather, the works we consume, along with other factors in our environments, help to shape the ways in which we perceive and think.

The ways by which creators perceive and think also affect the fiction that they produce. It’s no coincidence that societal norms regarding matters like gender, sexuality, race, and class are reflected, often without thought or comment, in fiction. It’s not a coincidence that most mainstream protagonists are straight, cis white men. The people considered to be the “default” in society are represented in a diverse and richly-developed ways, while those outside those norms are, relatively speaking, not afforded many chances to attain the same level of representation.

It is the assumption that a certain type of person is the “default” that leads to the argument that fiction featuring that type is not making a “political” statement. White cis hetero male concerns are “concerns” so assumed to be so universal that they don’t even need to be framed as such, while racial/feminist/queer/economic concerns are framed as “political.”

Singling out something for its “politics” merely because it portrays a non-default person and their non-default concerns is very much a political statement in itself. It’s saying that the discomfort caused in a viewer by the deviation from the default that they behold in fiction is more important than a creator’s right to depict what they want. On the flip side, saying that we aren’t allowed to criticize creators for lacking representation (or if their representation is lacking) is saying that certain people do not deserve the same level of representation as others. Last I checked, exclusion is pretty damn political.

“Neutrality” Is Political: Defending the Criticism of Fiction

5 thoughts on ““Neutrality” Is Political: Defending the Criticism of Fiction

  1. 1

    Something might not meant to be a political statement, but that seems to be an invocation of ‘intent is magic.’ A work is going to express political ideas since no author exists in a vacuum. Every choice (if they can be called that) about writing happens in a political context. The fact that writers in some genres tend to choose male protagonists isn’t, perhaps, to them a conscious choice but that’s because their society has chosen for them already.

    Worth noting, I’ve found that some writers and critics like to decide that certain works which could be read politically aren’t political at all. Nabokov tends to decide that no literature was ever intended to make political statements about economic issues, which says more about him and his views than the works. (Dead Souls being one example.)

  2. 2

    The argument often boils down to: “I’m not against having a gay/black/female/trans/whatever character, but ther must be a good reason for the character to be gay/black/female/trans/whatever or it’s just political correctness gone mad and shoved down our throats.”
    Because in real life, people belong to a certain group that is not straight white cis able guy for a real reason, not just the fact that they do, they need an excuse for their existence. If you reverse it and say “what’s your reason for making your hero a straight white able cis guy?” they will pretty quickly start to wail and accuse you of being racist and misandrist because admitting that either minorities just exist and that either you need your world to be different form ours or admit that being not the default person has consequences for your story would shake the foundations of their meritocratic just world.

  3. 4

    hmmm… for example, the idea that “straight white male” is the default setting. My story is about a straight white man, and as such, it is not a political commentary because straight white men are the “norm”… soooo, I’m kinda saying that any character who is NOT a straight white man is in some way “objectionable”. Which is a very political statement.

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