Friday, 16 December 2011

You're reading too much into it

AnnalyticaPosted by Annalytica

In case you hadn't noticed, we are rather fond of deconstructing popular media and culture. Whether it's beloved childhood films, television shows we love or shows we hate, advertisingporn, comics, or magazines - we care about the messages sent by popular culture.

This kind of deconstruction is premised on the idea that there are certain assumptions and messages that are conveyed through the mass media. We pick up ideas about how people are or should be, how relationships work, how certain kinds of people behave in certain kinds of situations, and what we can expect from ourselves and others. The media conveys ideas about what is normal and acceptable - and even what kind of people exist at all. We can accept these ideas unthinkingly, or we can examine them and challenge them and ask whether what we're seeing matches up to what we and others experience in our own lives. If it doesn't - does that mean there's something wrong with us, for not being "normal" - or that there's something wrong with the media, for not representing people like us? I would argue that the less time we spend deconstructing the popular media, the more likely we are to believe the former.

Anyone who spends any amount of time talking about these things comes up against the same arguments over and over, from people who don't think this kind of analysis is a worthwhile activity. Discussions about specific cultural messages become arguments about whether there are any messages, and whether it matters what they are. Here I'd like to address some of the most common ones.

"They're just reflecting the way things are in the real world."
The relationship between media representations and reality is not one-way. The fact that media representations are based on reality doesn't mean that reality can't also be shaped by the media. It goes both ways. Advertising - and any media that is funded by advertising - has an incentive not only to appeal to people's existing desires, but to create new desires and influence people's perceptions of what is desirable.

"That's not what the creator meant"

Ah, intent. People who think there's nothing mad about political correctness tend to get into rather a lot of discussions about intent. In this post I'm mostly talking about mass media, but I want to go on a slight detour to talk about intent in the context of face-to-face interactions to show how the two are related. So, let's imagine your friend says something that sounds pretty offensive to you, and you tell them what you understood from what they said and why you are offended. There are various ways your friend could react.

1) "Yes, that is exactly what I meant. Tough luck if it offends you - that's my opinion and I'm sticking by it, and I don't care how you feel."

In the extreme where this is their response, it should be clear that intent does matter to some extent. It would probably have a pretty big impact on your friendship.

2) "Of course that's not what I meant. How can you think I meant that? God, you're so over-sensitive. Stop reading things into everything. You must have some kind of victim complex."

This scenario is marginally better than the previous one, but still shows a startling lack of concern for a friend's feelings. No, they didn't intend to hurt you - but now that they have done, they don't seem to care. If someone accidentally walked into you and then refused to apologise because it wasn't intentional, it'd seem not only rude but nonsensical. This is the kind of situation when we say that intent isn't the point - if you've hurt someone you need to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions, not just your intentions.

The response you hope for would be something like this:

3) "I'm so sorry, that wasn't what I meant at all! I can see how it might have sounded like that. I'm sorry I expressed myself so poorly. What I actually meant was....."

In this situation, the damage is limited. Because you're having a dialogue, you're able to express your reaction and they're able to apologise and clarify what they meant immediately, and you don't have to go on feeling hurt for long. Since your conversation is not being recorded and broadcast, the only person who might be hurt is you, and if your friend is a good friend they'll be trying their best to minimise that.

On the other hand, when someone produces a film/advert/TV show/magazine that's going to be seen by millions of people, most of those people won't get to have any kind of dialogue with the creator. Most of the time we don't know what they intended, and we can't let them know if they've hurt us. OK, in the age of Twitter ordinary TV-watching people occasionally get to communicate directly with the people behind the shows - but the chances are that most people who see the show won't see the conversation, and won't know anything but what's in the show. At any rate, people who say "That's not what the creator meant" rarely mean "and I know what the creator meant because I asked them." They're just assuming that whatever was their first interpretation must be the "correct" one, because, well, it's just obvious isn't it?

Even when you know that someone didn't mean to offend, it's not as though the only thing that can hurt you is the knowledge that someone was deliberately setting out to hurt you. Maybe no film maker ever intended to convey the message that only thin, white, young, currently able-bodied, straight, rich people find love, but that doesn't really address the problem that the cumulative effect of a hundred romantic comedies gives that message.

Whatever the creator meant - and we usually don't know - once they've created something, it's out there to be seen and interpreted by other people. Pop culture critique isn't about trying to figure out what the creator meant, it's about examining what the viewer or reader can take away.

"Most people wouldn't see it that way"
How do you know? Have you done a survey? Or are you again assuming that whatever interpretation seems most obvious to you must therefore seem obvious to everyone?

There's another element to this argument though, which is the idea that you can only be affected by a given interpretation if you have consciously thought through that interpretation. To take the example above, if I have never really thought about the fact that I never see people with visible disabilities in romance films (or, well any films for that matter), does the fact I'm not thinking about it mean I'm not drawing conclusions about the love lives of people with disabilities? Most people wouldn't watch a film where the only people who find love are able-bodied, and consciously think the film is making a point about disability. But does that mean the message isn't there, or that people aren't affected by it?

I don't believe you have to be thinking through cultural messages consciously to be affected by them. In fact, quite the opposite. The less we think about and challenge these things, the more we unthinkingly accept them. Jean Kilbourne has an excellent series of videos called Killing Us Softly about the representation of women in advertising, in which she discusses the unconscious influence of advertising and the way so many people believe they are unaffected by it.

"Why don't you just stop watching it, then?"
So very many things wrong with this argument. It's not as if the one thing we might have been discussing - let's say it was a TV show - is the only problematic show in existence, and if I were to stop watching that everything would be OK. Kyriarchy is everywhere. Short of refusing to leave my room, I can't avoid seeing or hearing anything that conveys any oppressive cultural messages.

Even if I did stop watching something myself, that wouldn't mean I cease to be affected by it. If the people I date have seen films that imply that behaviour that essentially amounts to stalking is romantic, and that "no" means "keep trying", that still affects me even if I avoid those films myself. If my friends read magazines that reinforce the idea that weight loss should be their most important goal in life, and their conversation often revolves around this, I'm still affected by the magazines even if I don't read them. I can't simply block out all oppressive messages, so it's better to be aware of them and engage with them.

And anyway, I quite like some of the media. There are plenty of films, TV shows, even adverts that I enjoy watching - but that doesn't mean I have to be in denial about their many flaws. There's not a binary distinction between loving absolutely every aspect of something and rejecting it altogether. It's a case of balancing the positives against the negatives. If I think something does me more harm than good then I probably will stop watching it - but if I had to stop the moment I noticed anything remotely problematic, I'd be left pretty short of entertainment.

"They're just showing people what they want to see. It's all driven by the market."
....and the market, of course, always produces the best outcomes for everyone.

"If you had your way nobody would ever be allowed to make films at all."
When I criticise a film for being misogynistic, for example, I'm not necessarily saying it shouldn't have been made, or that nobody should ever watch it. I might say that about the occasional film, but it'd have to be pretty extreme in its hatefulness for me to go that far. No, usually all I'm saying is that I think it's important to engage with the cultural messages - to think about what is implied and assumed and whether we agree with it. The object of this exercise is not to come to a conclusion about whether or not the film should have been made, or whether it's a "good" film, or whether anyone should see it. I don't think it's always necessary to take action in response to this kind of discussion, although in some cases it might be appropriate to provide a trigger warning. Discussion can be a useful activity in itself, without resulting in a recommendation for action.

This argument also assumes that it's inevitable that any film - or other entertainment for that matter - has to convey oppressive messages. To a certain extent that's true: we're all so mired in the kyriarchy that it's probably not possible to produce something perfectly non-oppressive. But it is possible to produce entertainment that is a lot better in that respect than what currently exists. And just as with the media I consume, it's not a binary choice between producing perfection and producing nothing. Lashings aim to put on shows which don't oppress anyone, and other entertainers could make that their aim too. We won't get it right all the time, but that doesn't mean we should give up altogether and not even try.

And finally, that old favourite:
"You're reading too much into it."
Too much for what? For your comfort? I get the impression that a lot of these arguments really just boil down to "I don't want to have this conversation." And that's fine, actually. Productive as I think these kinds of discussions can be, I'm not about to force anyone to engage in deconstruction of popular culture against their will. But it'd make life easier for everyone if people just said "I don't want to talk about this" rather than coming up with spurious arguments.


  1. "I never see people with visible disabilities in romance films (or, well any films for that matter)"

    Two quick examples of romances that do deal with disability in a sympathetic manner: The brother of the main character in Four Weddings and a Funeral is deaf/dumb and is seen using sign language throughout the film, and there are a number of characters with physical or mental disabilities in the BBC drama All the Small Things, all of whom have disability as an aspect of themselves, but it's far from everything about them.

    I really wish these weren't quite the exceptions that they are, but watching these does make me feel there's evidence we can do better.

  2. There's also one of the supporting characters in Notting Hill is a woman in a wheelchair - and I think (full disclosure; I'm able-bodied) it's handled quite well for the most part.

    Though yes, there should be more.

  3. Yes, it was a slight exaggeration to say that I *never* see people with visible disabilities in films, since it does happen occasionally. But like you say, not often enough - and it's even rarer for them to be the central characters. I have never seen All the Small Things but I'll look out for it.