Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More Gray: A Follow-Up

There are certain things this blog is, and isn’t.  I hesitate calling it “my blog,” not because I don’t wish to take ownership for my writings, but because referring to it as such implies that I can just post whatever I want here and use it as some kind of clumsy megaphone with which to broadcast my point of view.

I’m not comfortable with that approach.  So, there are certain things I choose for this blog to be, and that shape usually defines itself in looking at creative choice in popular media.  Every once in a while, I get the fleeting fascination with the mingling of pop culture and social culture, which has influenced my previous two posts. 

But above anything, this blog is a place for thought.  Whether it be critique, appreciation, or pointing out problematic issues in pop culture - in the category of fiction, or current events - it is a space for thought.  This blog is not my megaphone.  It is a place of consideration.

As such, I have a few things I want to follow up on, in light of the comments and reception I’ve witnessed in response to my most recent post.  I don’t wish to be an individual who presents an opinion and all those who disagree are promptly shuffled to the side.  Especially on the topic of my recent writing - the discussion is interesting, and pertinent, and many arguments are valid, and deserve to be talked about.  Shall we?

First things first: I do realize I inadvertently made Dianna Agron seem like some sort of enlightened prophet moving us into a better future, and, well… I didn’t mean to.  This is what happens when I’m nearing the end of a piece: searching for a proper conclusion renders me a bit too grandiose.  Honestly, I wanted to leave Dianna out for most of the discussion, simply because talking so much about the reality of a public figure, and someone I don’t know, doesn’t jive with the modus operandi of this blog.  But, Dianna’s actions link directly back to her, and it’s perhaps naive to try and separate them entirely. 

That being said, most of this follow-up will have little to do with her.  Let the record stand that I don’t actually have a mini-shrine set up in worship of Dianna Agron, but that I respect her.  She’s human.  She seems to have her heart in the right place.  This works for me.  Holding her to any other standard is not something I'm personally comfortable with.

Now, I do want to address a few things involving the phrase “doesn’t matter” and cultural identity.  I stated repeatedly that definitions of sexuality, gender, and race shouldn’t matter.  I confess that unless you already agree with the implications of that general statement, that the word choice is not specific in its meaning.  Cultural identity is important, obviously, especially in how an individual chooses to embrace it as part of… well, his or her identity.  Identity is important.  But forcing identity on others, and providing differentiated treatment based on that identity?  It becomes an issue.

I also stated that the concept of community should fade away, when in reality I feel similarly about community as I do identity.  Community will never truly go away, and that is 100% not a problem.  Humanity is community; it’s natural to look at those around you and say, “Hey, you and I and all these other people are similar; let’s band together in unity of our similarity.”  Community gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of identity.  Community is comfort, and denying anyone that opportunity is problematic.  (It probably also makes you an asshole.)

But community can also turn sour, and people grouping up can lead to an “us versus them” mentality in environments where difference between communities isn’t accepted and embraced.  In the name of community, hate can be spat, wars fought, and trespasses committed.  So how do we keep all the good parts of community and ditch the bad? 

I don’t have the answers.  I’m not an expert on social change.  I don’t have a crystal ball that says what the future will be like.  I have to imagine that as old generations die, we can replace prejudice with something better.  Something that looks more like equality.

Which leads me to my next point - there is a difference between equality and sameness, and poor word choice indicated I believed otherwise.  Equality can happen amongst difference, and honestly that’s probably the best scenario.  I’m not promoting homogeneity, or trying to deny how individuals choose to represent themselves.  Difference exists.  Diversity exists.  And trying to stamp that out is not okay.

But at the same time, I choose to believe that some things are universal.  Someone facetiously responded in comment that I probably believe in the virtue of “colo(u)r blind,” which raises an interesting question.  My background of knowledge lies largely in storytelling and fictional media, where it’s a constant struggle to represent diversity and difference in a fair and inclusive way.  Frankly, putting diversity on our TV and movie screens is an upward battle.  And so when I watch a movie or TV show, I think, “How would this piece of fiction be different if everybody in it weren’t white, straight, Christian, or otherwise shuffling into the ‘norms’ of our society?” 

When faced with that creative choice, as a storyteller, there’s two options: a) write a story about characters who can be related to regardless of their gender, race, or sexuality, or b) write a story where the gender, race, or sexuality of the characters has bearing on their decisions on the events that happen to them within the span of the timeline.

Both are valid.  The first one is perhaps more prescriptive, and more idealistic, perhaps foolishly so.  The second is probably more realistic, and more true to what people’s actual experiences are in a constructed world.  And it begs the question: should life imitate art, or should art imitate life?  The first example that pops into my head, of course, is Burt Hummel from Glee.  Burt Hummel is a blue-collar single dad in small-town Ohio, whose son is openly gay.  They have little in common.  The realistic portrayal would perhaps be to choose for Burt to be disapproving of his son.  Or, there's the choice for Burt to be accepting of his son, despite the fact that it may be an abnormality.

There’s no easy answer to this question.  Personally, I tend to support the choice for a character like Burt to be supporting, because he is a character on a hit show on a major network with some serious visibility.  I see more value in providing a fictional example of an accepting father that may communicate the idea that even though Burt and Kurt are wildly different, they love each other and accept each other for who they are.  It’s a pretty solid message.

In many pieces of fiction, it stops there.  The difference isn’t acknowledged.  And that’s problematic as well, and more indicative of homogenization, and “sameness” as opposed to “equality.”  For me, it seems best to tell stories that are about universal emotions - humanity - without losing the cultural context entirely.  In continuing the example, Kurt and Burt don’t ignore their differences.  The narrative presents the reality of Kurt and Burt’s situation, without letting it defeat their relationship, and honestly it’s perhaps the wisest approach when it comes to portraying cultural identity in fiction: different, but equal.

Or, there’s the question of author.  Steven Spielberg, a Jewish man, was selected to direct the film adaptation of The Color Purple, written by Alice Walker, an African-American woman.  The book deals explicitly with gender and race, historically embedded in the context of 1930s Georgia.  It raised the question: can a Jewish man effectively tell that story?  It’s logical to be skeptical - what does Steven Spielberg know about being a black woman in post-Depression Georgia?  Even Alice Walker had reservations, but apparently shelved them after seeing E.T. and the treatment Spielberg gave the alien as a minority character of sorts.

It’s an interesting discussion.  Is Spielberg fundamentally unable to tell a story about an existence he knows nothing about?  Is it condescending for a storyteller from a different contextual identity to presume to tell the story of another contextual identity?  Or are there enough universal truths in any context to allow any human to relate to them in some way?

These are, of course, just musings.  Basically, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to handling identity and equality when it’s complicated with the construction of a privileged world, especially where the privileged people are more often than not in charge of the media being produced.  But I wanted to open up to more of this gray area, considering the point of my previous post was that it’s usually not helpful to reduce something to black and white.  And beyond that, we are still living in black-and-white world, so it begs the question: when can we start to mix the two together?  Is there a "right time" to abandon the constructs that are still standing?  Or do we have to keep kicking at the foundation until it gives out?  And do we build new constructs in its place?  I don't know.  It's a fascinating discussion, though.

To those who took any issue with my last post, and would like me to be more informed with different points of view, feel free to link any good reads in the comments.  I’d love to check them out.


  1. Interesting. Emily Dickinson. To some extent I really disagree with the
    "Write about what you know" mantra, maybe start with a central theme or character that's ripped from your real life experiences if you need a comfort zone, but after that to hell with it.
    Buffy is one of the greatest feminist icons to ever exist, and that's a story about a teenage girl who fights vampires and monsters written by a middle aged man. (I know Joss likes to point out the metaphor for high-school and stuff, but that will really only take you so far) Also I totally don't believe you about not having a Dianna Agron shrine. You should be proud of it and encourage others to follow your lead instead of implying it and then denying it.

  2. Oops, totally just realised that last sentence sounds like some catty "DIANNA LIES!" metaphor, it was just a dumb joke, her sexual orientation is her own personal business no matter what she does or says and at the end of the day it doesn't concern anyone except her and the people she loves, and anyone who thinks she owes it to young gay fans should really step-up and find a way to help those fans themselves, join PFLAG, set up some community based help-line or club, troll the internet for sad gay blogs and post your love and support, there's so much stuff every individual can do, it's really nice that Dianna cares, people should be happy with that and pay it forward.

  3. I definitely agree with the arguments you and Dianna make in your writing, and I'm so glad the ideas of a transcendent society are developing more ground. I think the Brittana storyline fits this message well too - it makes the most sense, and is the most interesting when it's not being categorized as two girls who love each other, or a lesbian and bisexual girl who love each other. I hope the writers continue to go this route.

    I wrote an article about this viewpoint today, should it interest you and your readers. It's a Tumblr article, which is where I typically post my "first draft" work. I hope to write a more polished article on Mug for Thought as well.

  4. I get the feeling that it would be beneficial to better integrate race and class into your analysis, especially when discussing the female characters on Glee. It's just a suggestion, but I believe integrating the feminist theory of intersectionality might help. Your posts are smart and perceptive, but they failed to resonate with me for that reason. I also think others have commented on this. I feel like your analysis was always left sort of undone in your blogs and many points have been missed. Gender is often addressed, but that was half the job....Please don't freak out..I'm not calling your prejudiced or racist..It’s a suggestion on how to improve...:)

    1. Danielle - it's definitely something I need to work on. Thanks for the feedback!


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