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The Sacred Texts of Geek Culture} ?> There are certain texts (and I am using the word “text” here to encompass TV shows, movies, books, and games) within geek culture that have achieved “sacred” status. Some of these include The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Firefly, Chuck, The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Offer any critique of these texts and the fandom takes up arms, calling for the heads of those who dare to say a bad word about them.
But can’t I critique something and love it at the same time?
Engaging a text critically means asking questions about characterization and representation. How are women, people of colour, and body types portrayed? Do the female characters have agency? For people of colour, how many of them appear in the text? Do they have meaningful dialogue, or are their lines just filler? (See these videos of “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in ‘Harry Potter’” and “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in ‘The Lord of the Rings’“). In terms of bodies, what types are included; are fatness and ugliness signifiers for evil characters?
“Critical” also means being aware of the privilege and biases you bring to a text. For example, I recognize that, as a white person, I will read any character as white unless they are assigned a specific race. This is because “white” is my bias, and “white” is also the default race in the majority of books and films.
Big Ideas vs. Subtle Codes
I recently had a conversation with a friend about how the portrayal of women as weak in early sci-fi contributes to the larger problem of misogyny in geek culture, and his response was that those books were about big ideas and so the characterization shouldn’t matter. I disagree. The big themes of a text do not negate the validity of the more subtle aspects of characterization. The best sci-fi explores alternative histories and questions about humanity, like what would happen if we lived in a world with robots or artificial intelligence. These big questions are valuable and should be explored, but they don’t discount the importance of the other, more subtle aspects of the text.
For example, most people can read the Harry Potter series and see that it’s about the dangers of bigotry and prejudice. However, a more close reading focused on our beloved Ron Weasley might show that he’s actually a bit of a misogynist: he adheres to the patriarchal ideas that he has to “protect” his sister from possible suitors; the only reason he sticks up for Fleur when Hermione and Ginny are making fun of her is because she’s pretty (it has nothing to do with her intelligence or personality); and he gets angry at Hermione and Ginny, but not Harry, when he learns that they have all kissed someone and he hasn’t.
This reading of Ron isn’t meant to put him down. Rather, this makes him a great example of how misogynist behaviours creep into our daily lives even when we are all-around good people. And, recognizing these qualities in Ron can help us see where they pop up in our own lives.
“But it’s just fiction.”
This is something I hear a lot: The way characters are portrayed in books/movies/video games shouldn’t matter because it’s just fiction. This implies that fiction doesn’t have any bearing on our lives, that we can read or watch something without it affecting us at all. I argue we wouldn’t become so protective of our favourite texts if they didn’t affect us in some way. The books we read and movies we watch have real power to colour our perceptions of other people, and that can be a detriment when the portrayals of others are problematic.
There’s been some recent controversy around Rowling’s new stories about the history of magic in North America. These were meant to be a lead up to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which takes place in New York in the 1920s. In doing so, Rowling has appropriated Native American culture and beliefs into her world, and relied on tired tropes to portray Native American witches and wizards: they didn’t use wands until European witches and wizards introduced them (which has underlying implications of European colonialism), and they were adept at plant and animal magic, playing on the trope of the “noble savage.” Rowling also incorporates the Navajo belief of the skinwalker into her world.
So many Native American scholars, who are fans of Harry Potter themselves, have responded to this by saying that it’s a problem. Their basic argument is that they have to fight every day to be seen as real people with living beliefs because they are so often portrayed as fantasy in the media.
A common trope in many TV shows is to have some ancient, mystical Native American power rise up, often looking for revenge for past wrongs, that the heroes then have to defeat: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and Smallville all have episodes centred around this very storyline. (The podcast “Metis in Space” does effective analyses on many of these episodes).
These portrayals are a problem because we are so heavily influenced by them. Those Native American scholars received so much backlash for their critiques because fans were ready to defend their favourite author without understanding that they are continuing to silence an already marginalized people group.
I absolutely understand the impulse to defend a text. My most sacred of texts is The Lord of the Rings, and it is so easy for me to ignore anything that might be wrong with it. And yet, one of my own critiques is that it is not a feminist text: the narrative is dominated by men in a world where men go on adventures and women stay home (and before anyone brings up Éowyn, remember: she is the exception and does not prove the rule). The depiction of the only people of colour in the text (Easterlings and Haradrim) as evil is also problematic: there is a long history of depicting darkness as evil, which has fed racist ideas that people with dark skin are also evil.
Really thinking about a text can only make us better participants in geek culture. Once we understand our own privilege and biases, and how representations affect our real-world perceptions, we can work towards making geek culture welcoming, inviting, and safe for all who want to be a part of the community.