As I’ve been trying (with varying success) to ween myself off of social media, it’s been a little easier to recognize that the internet discourse has probably been a net positive. For as awful as it often is, it has changed the way I think about a lot of things. I tend to think about diversity and representation with more empathy instead of just sympathy, and I’m better at being mindful of my implicit biases and my own tendency to assume white, middle-class male by default.
I have to keep reminding myself of that, because so often I’ll read something that triggers my reactionary The Internet Is Irredeemably Broken, Shut it All Down Now response. The most recent trigger has been the corruption of the idea of “the death of the author,” turning it from something potentially expansive and democratic, into a regressive, lazy, arrogant, and willfully incurious way to approach art.
It’s been annoying me for a couple of years, as I’ve seen the regressive version gain traction and eventually become just taken for granted. When I first encountered the assertion “intent doesn’t matter,” I’d assumed that it was just a typical case of over-simplified hyperbole. Of course they realize that intent matters, I thought. They’re just being provocative, to make the point that a negative or stereotypical depiction can still be harmful, even if it isn’t intended as such.
As I’ve been seeing increasingly literal and shallow interpretations of art and entertainment, I’m not so sure. Especially since it’s so often used in conjunction with my other most hated, regressive trend in popular media analysis, the bullshit idea of “punching up” vs “punching down.” It perpetuates this idea that art and entertainment isn’t actually a dialogue between authors and audiences, but an environment in which powerful creators make products for people to consume or reject.
If you take “intent doesn’t matter” to its extreme, you make it impossible for camp, black comedy, and satire to exist. Or at least, if it still exists, it’s been rendered so toothless as to be inert.
(I should probably mention that I’m talking about actual satire, and not the version in which anybody who’s been called out for being an asshole immediately and invariably shouts “it was satire!” as their first line of defense. Because come on, nobody actually believes it).
Even if that’s an over-exaggeration of “intent doesn’t matter,” the idea is arrogant and reductive at its core. It assumes that an audience’s interpretation — or more often, a hypothetical audience’s interpretation, since it too often looks for potential offense instead of responding to actual offense — takes precedence over the author’s, instead of being on equal footing with it.
That reduces your media analysis to be based on your own assumptions and your own experience, without needing to challenge those assumptions. If you assume that a negative or stereotypical depiction is negative or stereotypical regardless of intent, you ignore the potential for an artist to use that depiction to say something that’s not completely literal. Literal in the same sense as putting disclaimers before cartoons that have racist caricatures, for instance. Having to explicitly acknowledge “this is bad and we, the artists who created this material or the publishers responsible for releasing it, know that it is bad” in a way that can’t possibly be misinterpreted by even the most stubborn person in the audience.
Even if it’s being used to establish a time or place, to consider themes of racial or cultural identity, or to comment on the stereotypical depiction itself. Or all three, like for instance, all of the anti-semitic (and anti-Italian, and anti-Irish, and misogynist, and homophobic) material in Miller’s Crossing. Removing any of that from the movie would cheapen it irreparably. It’s as impassive as its protagonist when it comes to questions of loyalty and morality, and it defiantly resists a literal interpretation, a declaration of who’s good and who’s bad and what it all means.
If you’ve only got the one hammer and approach every piece of art looking for nails, you’re shutting out the potential for art to change how you think. Treating every negative depiction as interchangeable imposes a new sort of Hays Code on art: context is irrelevant, only the depiction matters. Eventually, you end up with a cargo cult going through the motions of progressive representation instead of making actual progress. It becomes a list of approved and taboo depictions, instead of more thoughtful consideration of what makes a depiction negative or how it actually affects people.
And even if you don’t believe in — or don’t care about — the potential chilling effect, it’s still just an extremely shallow and ignorant way to approach art. I don’t understand watching something with such a lack of humility that you refuse to consider that it’s challenging your assumptions instead of just reinforcing them. If you genuinely believe in diversity of representation, then excluding anyone’s voice from the conversation goes against that.