Problematic Media Representations Aren’t “Realistic,” They’re Dangerous

Throwing the buzzword “problematic” at media and its creators for perceived political ills has become a cliche at this point. But becoming desensitized may prove to be more harmful than beneficial.

White actor Mickey Rooney playing a caricature of a Japanese man in classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Photo courtesy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Trigger Warnings: rape, sexual assault

I’ve always been outspoken about media representations — racial stereotypes, rampant misogyny, lack of minority presentation, and so on. But problematic representations and nonrepresentation saturate so much of every realm of media and entertainment that even talking about half of what I observe gets me feeling like a bit (a lot) of a killjoy. Why can’t we just watch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them without commenting on the whitewashed population of New York City? Why can’t we enjoy the Avengers movies without discussing Natasha Romanoff’s sexualized costumes? We can’t make everyone happy, after all.

So I tried not to be the annoying social justice warrior and piped down. I attempted to change my perspective and see things from the other side. Maybe some things are just the way they are, and I was wrong to think that everything could and should be fixed. I kept my observations to myself, even when I wanted to crawl out of my own skin as I sat next to male friends and watched actors crack demeaning sex jokes in supposedly unproblematic cult comedies. The jokes just added authenticity to the characters, right?

Seth pretends to hump, jerk off on, and eat out Jules without her noticing in Superbad (2007). Gif via Giphy

But the one thing I’ve learned from quieting down is that silencing myself only serves to perpetuate the insidious effects of such media. TV and movies reflect the themes and dynamics of the real world, no matter how far-removed the stories are from “reality.” Brushing off a rapey joke shown on television says the same thing as being okay with someone telling the same joke in real life.

Now, I’m aware of the difference between character/narrator/writer. What I’m trying to emphasize is the difference between a character doing bad things and a writer normalizing those bad things. I see a lot of people arguing, “You can’t call [TV show or movie]’s treatment of minorities problematic because it’s based in reality. That’s just how it is in real life.”

Sound logic, until you realize that books, movies, and TV shows aren’t meant to merely narrate real life. They say something about our world. As for what they’re saying about minorities? An oft-recited quote by South African activist Desmond Tutu goes, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Sure, some movies thematically highlight injustices against minorities and use these injustices to critique or challenge systems of oppression. But a good many movies don’t. Instead, they take injustices for granted and depict them without taking any steps to denounce or even comment on the systems of power that allow for them to happen. In doing so, these movies normalize the injustices.

Take the example of rape. As the most underreported crime in the US, with 63% of sexual assaults going unreported to police in 2002, rape and sexual assault present a huge crisis for women and sexual minorities. It’s a statistic we’ve heard all too often, but one in six women in the US have been a victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Yet feminists vocally criticize portrayals of rape in TV and film. Why? Because rape is too often used as a plot device to add shock value or to provide background and character motivation. This sort of representation only causes harm to real-life sexual assault survivors, whether by feeding into ignorant misconceptions about rape or by triggering memories of their own assault with graphic imagery.

Yes, there are stories about rape that are worth telling. But without extensive research into the problems, stereotypes, and struggles that rape survivors face—including what makes sexual assault different from other forms of violence—it’s too easy for fictional depictions to contribute to those issues rather than combat them.

Rape Scenes Aren’t Just Awful. They’re Lazy Writing” by Laura Hudson

HBO’s Game of Thrones (spoilers ahead), for instance, garnered negative attention over the past few years for its controversial depictions of rape. Although the show’s literary predecessors feature rape and sexual assault scenes, the show has grown much more irresponsible and callous than the books in its liberal use of rape as a plot driver. They aired a nonconsensual sex scene between Cersei and Jaime Lannister and denied afterward that it was rape, claiming that coercion is a “turn-on” for women; they used rape as a narrative tool to develop Sansa Stark’s character; and they did the same thing earlier on with Daenarys Targaryen, except she was only fifteen when she was forced to consummate her marriage with Khal Drogo. And those are only a few of the more prominent examples found throughout the show’s eight seasons.

Lady Junk Comic via Sam Maggs for The Mary Sue

Writers seem to think that rape is this Dark Thing women go through to come out stronger on the other side. In reality, what’s configured as some sort of one-time turmoil lives with a person for a lifetime, exposing them to stigmatization and trauma that redefines multiple facets of their lives. Writers simply do not capture the complexity of rape and its consequences in their half-baked hero’s journey rape subplots.

 Indeed, one of the most baffling things about so many rape scenes in popular culture is that the people who scripted them felt qualified to do so, despite seemingly knowing nothing about rape except that it exists and it is bad. In short, anyone can write a rape scene—but should they? Chances are, the answer is no.

Rape Scenes Aren’t Just Awful. They’re Lazy Writing” by Laura Hudson

But it doesn’t end at depictions of rape. Rape jokes, “dark” (i.e. offensive) sexual humour, and patterns of nonconsent all contribute to a rape culture that renders acceptable the kind of behaviour and mentality that obfuscates our judgment of sexual violence and its victims. They make it possible to create a world in which rape is a fact of the matter, something that’s bound to happen.

Of course, there are shows and movies that use humour or discourse on such topics to make a statement or to spark or carry the conversation. But when those things are introduced into a narrative just for the sake of it, to spur action, or to decorate a plot or character somehow, it only serves to suppress the voices of those who are actively combating rape culture and its consequences. When we see how “little things” like this can have a much more harmful effect than intended, it’s easier to understand why people concern themselves about media representations. Media producers have a responsibility to their audiences to present thoughtful, valuable content. Rape is a particularly heavy example, but there exists a matrix of topics that media producers handle poorly on a regular basis. Sexualization of lesbians and WLW folks contributes to real-life violence against queer women. Stereotypical depictions of racialized characters spur the hatred and apathy that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour already endure.

But we don’t have to continue accepting this as normal. By being vocal about the problems we see in the media that we consume, we have the power to shift what’s viewed as acceptable. This isn’t to say that we need to disallow ourselves or others from enjoying the TV shows and movies that we watch. All I ask is that instead of taking problematic media for granted, we openly discuss and examine how it affects people and what we can do better.

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