You Damned Sadist! You’re Trying To Make Them Think!
Debi has a fascinating post today on ‘the FedEx arrow’ – on the way that once you’ve seen subtext in a work, you can’t unsee it, and the various reactions that can come from that.
Now, I’m not really one to talk about that directly, because I can completely distance my reaction to a piece of work from a recognition of its political flaws – hell, I love Cerebus where for a large part the rampant misogyny and homophobia are text, not subtext. I enjoy the banjo music of Uncle Dave Macon, who recorded songs like “Run, Nigger, Run”. I can distance myself from these things, of course, partly because I’m not in the group being attacked, but also because I can split good art from its message.
However, many people in ‘fandom’ (a group of which I emphatically do not count myself a member ) have real trouble with this. If someone points out, say, that in Star Wars how heroic a character is correlates very strongly with how blonde they are, they go absolutely berserk, asking “How dare you accuse George Lucas of being racist?!” and saying “you’re reading too much into things!” Which is where Debi comes in.
Now Debi thinks, and I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of truth in this, that many of these people are worried that liking something that is (say) racist would make them racist, and since they think (possibly even correctly) that they’re not racist, and they do like those things, then the thing they like can’t be racist. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in this – one should never underestimate the sheer, overwhelming sense of privilege and entitlement in fan circles – but I think there’s more to it than that. I think fans are often fundamentalists.
Many fans (at least the ones who don’t go around trying to find gay subtexts in everything) hate the whole idea of subtext – you just have to look at the people whose reactions to Seaguy we talked about in this comment thread. There is a sizable contingent of ‘fandom’ who hate metaphor, theme and subtext, and who say things like “It’s what it is, you just need to turn your brain off”. Many go so far as to deny, at least implicitly, the very possibility of something meaning more than its literal meaning (which is to say, they deny the possibility of art).
I’ve wondered for a long time what could cause such hostility to the idea of a layered narrative (and if you doubt that such hostility exists, go on to Newsarama and try to discuss Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, or anyone else who’s a relatively competent writer), and why it should show up in ‘fandoms’ far more than in the general public.Because I think, though I may be wrong, that most people’s reaction if you show them that a work they like is one that works on multiple levels, would be to say “Oh, that’s quite clever!” – to use the metaphor Debi elaborates on, they’re pleased to see the arrow in the FedEx logo, rather than thinking the designer was trying to play some trick on them.
In this, fans are like fundamentalists, who believe in the ‘literal truth’ of their holy books, even the bits that specifically state themselves to be fictional (there are people who believe in the literal existence of the Good Samaritan – Fred Clark has a great pair of analyses of their mentality) and who get really angry if you say “Well, the world wasn’t *really* made in seven days”. With the fundamentalists, it’s because they can’t understand the difference between ‘metaphor’ and ‘lie’ – if you say that some of their holy book isn’t ‘literally’ true, you’re saying it’s a lie.
I think some fans have such an intense desire to *actually live in* the DC or Marvel Universe, or the Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who or whatever ones, that any reminder that these are artistic works – any reminder that they were created by a human being with a point of view, rather than just being neutral historical records of true events, is a reminder that they will never really get to travel in the TARDIS or Enterprise, and they react, at least a little, to that. If something isn’t absolutely, incontrovertibly, linear and one-dimensional, then they won’t be comfortable with it.
Which is, I suspect, why so many things created for or by fans are so deeply, deeply awful.
(This post took longer to write than any other post I’ve done, and is fewer words than almost any of my ‘proper’ posts. I’ve no idea why this should be, but thought it worth noting…)