Shaker Koach sent me this piece from Geek Dad at Wired, "Top 10 Bad Messages From Good Movies." And I appreciate what the author, Matt Blum, is trying to do, but there's a real some of these things are not like the others problem with his list, which starts out with:
10. If you're not born with special abilities, you're never going to be any good at some things, no matter how hard you try (from the Harry Potter movies, and of course books). - In the world of Harry Potter, there are those who are born with magical abilities, and those who aren't. There's even a word, "squib," for people born to wizarding families who can't do magic. It's made very clear in the stories that, if you're unlucky enough to be born without magical talent, you're never going to amount to anything in that world and might as well not try.—and ends with:
1. If you're not a member of the elite, you're basically inconsequential, even if you die heroically trying to save your people and your way of life (from the Star Wars movies). - This crops up time and time again in the series, but nowhere is it more clearly demonstrated in the assault on the first Death Star. We mentioned it a few months ago, but here it is again: There are somewhere between twenty and thirty one-man fighters in the assault, right? And of all of those guys, only Luke, Wedge, and some guy in a Y-wing make it back (and Han and Chewie, of course, but they weren't part of the original team). So that means that in this fight, despite its amazing success, the rebels lost somewhere between seventeen and twenty-seven of their very best, bravest pilots. Yet all they can do is cheer as Luke descends the ladder of his X-wing. Luke cheers, too, hugs Leia, and is absolutely ecstatic… until he realizes that R2-D2 got badly damaged in the fight, at which point he is nearly distraught. Losing fellow human beings, including a good friend of his, that doesn't matter; possibly losing a cute but replaceable machine, now that's sad. And of course then there's the whole matter of Vader being redeemed because he saved his own son's life, never mind the thousands of people whose deaths he was responsible for.Most of the other entries are of a similar tone, but stuck right in the middle is this:
6. Kissing sleeping women whom you don't know will wake them up and lead to them falling in love with you (from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). - We don't really need to explain this one further than that, do we? I mean, we all know the stories.That's it. He offers more than 200 words on redshirts, and precisely 20 on the rape culture, just enough to say it's not even necessary to talk about. He spends more time on every other "bad message," including arrogance vs. competence and even prejudice against geeks.
4. Unconventional creative play is very, very wrong (from Toy Story). - Sid, the kid next door, is portrayed as basically evil. The movie makes him out this way because he pulls toys apart and reassembles them in strange ways, and likes to blow things up. In other words, he's a GEEK. If the toys weren't alive — and Sid can probably be forgiven for not realizing that they were — his behavior would be perhaps a little extreme, but not in any way wrong, especially for a boy his age.Especially for a boy his age, huh? It's just painful to find that sort of gender essentialism in a post in which the author is ostensibly trying to root out precisely those sorts of "bad messsages" from good films:
3. Even tough women who aren't afraid to fight aren't as important as the men they fight alongside (from the Star Wars movies). - Princess Leia, despite being very comfortable giving orders and shooting at stormtroopers, always hands off the really important jobs to men. Luke tells her that she's his sister and Darth Vader is their father, and by the way he's going off to confront daddy to try to turn him back to being a good guy, and she doesn't insist on coming with him or joining him later. On Hoth, Luke and Han are out scouting on Tauntauns, but she's back at the base where it's nice and warm. And then there's Padme, who kicks a fair bit of butt, but only until she and Anakin get secretly married, at which point she essentially vanishes except to talk about her pregnancy and her worries about her husband. As we know, of course, pregnant women are incapable of doing anything except sitting around worrying, right?If it's possible to recognize why that's problematic, how does Blum miss that attributing Sid's "geekery" to his being a boy is just as problematic for precisely the same reason?
And finally there is this:
2. It's OK to completely change your physical appearance and way of life for the person you love, even if he makes no sacrifices at all (from The Little Mermaid). - This movie has the single most appalling ending of any Disney movie ever made, which is a shame because, apart from that, it's a great film. I just cannot comprehend how anyone could make a movie in the late 1980s with this message, which is not exactly subtle: Ariel gives up her home, her family, and BEING A MERMAID because she loves Eric so. And he gives up… nothing. Yeah, that marriage is off to a great start.Apart from the appalling ending which effectively makes the moral of the story that girls should do anything for love, it's a great film?! I guess I don't understand what Blum's definition of a great film is, because a film that overtly endorses the anti-feminist trope of female self-sacrifice for marriage and packages it for little girls as romance (and let us not forget that Ariel also has to literally give up her voice to woo the prince) doesn't qualify as a great film in my opinion, no matter how stunning the animation may be.
I can get on board with "Harry Potter was a good story that had a problematic element with regard to squibs," but not so with The Little Mermaid, in which the sexist narratives were not incidental but central to the story. That the two are being equated is a "bad message" all its own.
And because Blum doesn't just stick to problematic human tropes generally, but includes a few specific to women, it underlines the omission of any "bad messages" about racism, disablism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other bigotry on the basis of intrinsic characteristics.
That's the problem with viewing, for example, "7. Arrogance, brash self-confidence, and having had a heroic father are much more indicative of a competent leader than are experience and knowledge" as a bad message for men, rather than a bad message for humans, or "4. Unconventional creative play is very, very wrong" as a bad message for boys, rather than a bad message for children.
Women are leaders, too. Girls are geeks, too.
But when we're not thought of in that way, inclusively, items specific to women get included for balance, and then two things happen:
1. Tropes based on behaviors (arrogance) are equated with tropes based on intrinsic characteristics (being a woman), which inevitably and unfortunately diminishes the gravity of the latter.
2. The lack of acknowledgment of tropes based on other intrinsic characteristics becomes glaringly evident, which inevitably and unfortunately communicates that a sop was thrown to women. (And no one else.)
The solution is not difficult. If you want to write a post about "bad messages" that all humans get from "good films," make sure you're writing to all humans. And if something is specific to marginalized humans, or privileged humans, note that explicitly.
Take a moment to add to "Arrogance, brash self-confidence, and having had a heroic father are much more indicative of a competent leader than are experience and knowledge" a simple qualification like: "Especially when you are a straight white cis male, because, if you're not, you're not going to be able to bluster through on genes and charm and bravado."
Take a moment to add to add of the end of "Even tough women who aren't afraid to fight aren't as important as the men they fight alongside" a note like: "As with so many tropes about marginalized people, this is not exclusive to women, but in fact is a character flaw repeatedly embedded in characters from oppressed classes. Leia is but one example."
Note limitations and similarities. Write for humans.
Otherwise, you're just writing more bad messages.