Insidious (adjective) – operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect.
The particular space in fandom that I tend to inhabit the most (that being tumblr) has a large crossover with the social justice movement. This is, by and large, a good thing, as it generally raises awareness of some of the more problematic aspects of the media and genre fiction specifically, in regards to the representation of women, ethnic diversity and gender and sexuality issues. However, I feel that it sometimes results in something which leads to works of fiction being judged by criteria that they really shouldn’t be judged by, and that’s a strange desire for utopianism in fictional worlds.
What do I mean by that? Well, it can be most commonly witnessed when fictional characters engage in behaviour that can be seen as contrary to the ideal. I often see people complaining about characters expressing problematic views, and it being assumed that the character is acting as a mouthpiece for the author. Now, while it is entirely reasonable to expect the creators of a work to not reinforce sexual, gender or racial stereotypes in the creation of their work, for example, in casting choices…it is not reasonable to expect every character to be perfect. People are flawed, and even the hero, or main protagonist, of a work of fiction can and should be expected to have some views and opinions that might be problematic. The important thing, however, is that these behaviours must be shown to be the flaws that they are. For example, if a character has a habit of inappropriately kissing other characters without their consent, that character should expect to be on the receiving end of a hard slap to the face or a sternly worded rebuke…however well intentioned that character might be. The point being that you can still be flawed and engage in problematic behaviour and be a hero.
Let me give you a couple of examples from my own work that work in different ways. My graphic novel, Hero: 9 to 5, is a work of satire, and plays with many of the tropes found within modern comics and the wider media, and so it’s been a perfect playground for exploring this area. If you haven’t read it yet, I’m about to spoil the ending of the book, but, really…if you haven’t read it yet then you really need to re-evaluate your life choices. Anyway…towards the end of the book, one of the female characters, Pink Girl, has been attacked and our protagonist, Flame-O, decides to go off and exact vengeance on the culprit. Flame-O displays typical “white knight” behaviour, a device that we see in many comics, and beyond, where violence towards women is used as nothing more than a means to motivate a male character. Is Flame-O being a bit sexist here? Yes, totally. However, Pink Girl arrives mid-fight, and the situation is twisted and becomes a moment to develop her character and progress her arc, and, perhaps more significantly, she calls out Flame-O on his behaviour.
That is, essentially, a very simplistic example. A more nuanced example from the same book would be that of The Loner. At one point during the first book The Loner says that the love of all women is cold. One reader expressed shock that I would say that about women. However, I didn’t, The Loner did…and The Loner is a misogynist. He’s also a hero, but in a book that satirises the tropes used in modern super hero comics, how could I not include a misogynistic super hero? Does The Loner get directly called on his misogyny? No, he doesn’t…but the book is, at its heart, a love story, and the central theme of the transformational power of love should, I believe, clearly signal that The Loner is wrong. In the second book I begin to explore some of the character’s background, and you start to learn that his issues stem from his own sense of inadequacy when it comes to both women and love. The point here being twofold. Firstly, it’s okay to have flawed characters who hold problematic opinions in a heroic role so long as their problematic opinions are clearly shown to be wrong. And, secondly, and more importantly, it’s important to separate the views of a character from the views of the author.
Indeed, the second book includes a character who is an abhorrent misogynist. He says, does and thinks things that are utterly anathema to me. He’s a character that was wholly uncomfortable to write. Importantly here – he’s the villain. This is where this desire for utopianism in fiction truly becomes insidious, I believe, where what seems harmless can actually have a grave effect…when we’re no longer talking about the protagonist, the hero, who it could be argued can function as a role model, but we’re talking about the villain.
I read a discussion online about a fairly recent episode of genre fiction that dealt with the issue of robots created to look female specifically to pleasure men – or “sexbots,” if you prefer. One of their complaints was that the episode was very “male gazey” …well…yeah…that was kinda’ the point, but I digress. The point where they lost me was the sentence that began, “I know that character was supposed to be the villain, but…” So…the villain…in an episode of a TV show that was about the exploitation of female robots by men…shouldn’t have been sexist? This, I feel, strikes at the heart of the problem with this desire for utopianism…because even the villains in fiction are supposed to be enlightened and, essentially, good people. So where is the conflict supposed to come from? Conflict is the fuel of all drama, there is no drama without conflict (other than, apparently, in some obscure and experimental forms of manga and slash fic, as it seems is always pointed out to me when I raise this point…by people who are very intent on missing the point…). When he created Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry insisted that there could be no conflict between members of the crew, that by the 24th Century humanity would have moved beyond that. This meant that any conflict and, by extension, any drama, had to be generated by external forces. This left the relationships between the main crew feeling somewhat…stale. It’s also why every subsequent Star Trek series mixed Federation and non-Federation crew members together, or was set before humanity became so “enlightened.” Was Star Trek: The Next Generation a great series? Undoubtedly. Was it hampered by its own utopian vision of humanity’s future? Certainly. Now, imagine if that utopianism had been extended beyond the crew itself to everyone they encountered? The show would simply have been drama free. A group of friends would travel the galaxy, exploring, and meeting nice people wherever they went for tea, Early Grey, hot.
Finally, it is this desire for utopianism that has led to an increasingly strange phenomenon in genre fiction – the villain as protagonist. It is precisely this utopianism that has no problem with, and actively desires, a Loki movie. That welcomes TV series in which the main character is a serial killer or a cannibal. It’s a perverse form of moral relativism that casts the power mad and the murderous as merely misunderstood heroes of their own stories. Why is that such a bad thing? Why is that so insidious? Because it leads, in turn, to online posts, such as one that continues to do the rounds on tumblr, suggesting that Hitler was, at heart, quite a nice bloke who had his country’s best interests at heart, even if he was wrong in the way he went about it. To infer that because Hitler was nice to his girlfriend in a home movie that he therefore thought that everything he was essentially a good man at heart who simply went about trying to achieve good ends in the wrong way shows a fundamentally oversimplified and misguided understanding of history. Sometimes people do bad things, knowing that they are bad, wilfully and deliberately for their own selfish ends. I am by no means saying that empathising with certain “evil” characters makes you as bad as the Nazis…I mean, these are just movies and comics…I’m just trying to explain the way that I have seen the same logic that people have applied to the likes of Loki applied to real world historical figures, and it troubles me.
Ultimately, some characters are evil, nasty, sexist, racist pigs…and some heroes are deeply flawed…because they hold a mirror up to ourselves, they show us at our worst, and at our best…and remind us that even at our best, we’re not perfect. Perfection is, after all, boring, and personally I have no interest in reading about or watching perfect people who never make mistakes, who never get things wrong, who have no room to learn and grow…because we can learn and grow along with them. Perfect people have nothing to teach us, it’s the flawed characters, who show us who we are and prove to us how much better we can be, who can teach us everything.
Ian D Sharman
Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Fandom Wanderers.