Sometimes this is merely a bad-faith attempt at distraction, but a lot of people are genuinely confused. I know because I used to be one of those people. Back in the day, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young Oren read up on social-justice discourse and wondered why a story about battles and war was fine, but a story about American plantation slavery was a problem. Fortunately, an older, flint-eyed, cynical version of me is here to explain the issue, so you can have a less painful growing process than I did.
We Care About Some Things More Than Others
A basic misunderstanding many of us have to overcome is the idea that every event can be neatly categorized into a certain value of good versus a certain value of bad. It’s this fallacy that leads people to think a villain who kills must be worse than a villain who tortures, since a person being dead should lead to the most badness points, right? Let me show you why that logic doesn’t hold up.
When you watched Star Wars for the first time, there’s a good chance you were sadder about Obi-Wan’s death then about Alderaan exploding. But how could that be? Obi-Wan is just one person; Alderaan was home to billions. Are you some kind of terrible monster who doesn’t care about human life?
Of course not, you’re merely experiencing the way human emotions don’t conform to mathematical values. Obi-Wan was a person you knew and cared about, whereas the population of Alderaan was just a statistic, so their deaths didn’t make as much impact. Even the film presents Obi-Wan’s death as the greater tragedy – Leia comforts Luke after they escape the Death Star. Leia lost her whole planet; Luke lost an old man he’d known for maybe two days.
This is hardly a groundbreaking observation, but it’s important for understanding why we recommend leaving out some subjects but not others. There are countless other examples to choose from. Many people can’t stand to watch a pet or infant die* but are fine watching a gore-fest of adult murder victims. Others are grossed out by body horror but have no issue with war stories.
It does no good to tell people they shouldn’t feel what they feel because what upsets them doesn’t score high on your badness meter. No matter how well-calibrated your badness meter is, it’s not a conversation worth having, and trying to force the issue will make you look like a jerk.
Bigotry Makes Some Things More Sensitive
In the previous section, we looked at how people feel more strongly about some things than others, and we did it without ever considering bigotry or social justice. But of course, real storytelling is never completely divorced from bigotry and social justice, so let’s take a look at how those factors play into this discussion.
The bottom line is that there is no pro-murder lobby. There is no political party dedicated to the idea that soldiers should die in wars,* nor is there a super PAC trying to push through serial killer rights. On the other hand, there is an entire political party laser focused on taking away pregnant people’s bodily autonomy. Companies are constantly lobbying for the right to discriminate against Black and queer customers. Women can’t look at the news without seeing some court case where a victim of sexual violence is blamed over the length of her hemline.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. Yes, murder is bad, but that’s something that as a culture we all acknowledge. A story about murder isn’t reinforcing existing attitudes that murder is fine. Of course, a story that portrayed murder as good would probably still have a problem,* but simply including a person being murdered isn’t harmful on its own.
The opposite is true for bigotry. Even if a marginalized person has never been the direct target of violence, they’ve almost certainly had to endure secondary effects. These might be microaggressions at work, catcalls when walking down the sidewalk, or hearing celebrities and politicians call their religion evil. Including bigotry in a story can bring all that bubbling to the top.
Perhaps worse, privileged people who are already disposed toward bigoted views can have their ideas reinforced by fiction. Even if the bigoted character is a villain, it’s easy for audiences to get the message that said villain is supposed to have a point, or just that they’re cool. This makes including bigotry in your story extremely risky and is one of the reasons we recommend against it in most cases.
A lot of authors add bigotry to their stories because they want to make some point about it, but here’s the hard truth: unless you have lived experience with the bigotry in question, it’s unlikely you have anything new to add to the conversation. These issues have been discussed for a long time, and including real-world bigotry in your story will probably do more harm than good. That’s why we always recommend making your point by portraying a world that doesn’t have the bigotries we’re used to in real life. It’s inspiring, and it doesn’t risk harming anyone.
Overused Tropes Make the Problem Worse
So far we’ve looked at how individual stories are affected both by people’s emotional preferences and the broader context of marginalization. But there’s something else that affects how stories are received: other stories. Normally, this isn’t controversial. We can all feel Harry Potter’s influence on the magic school genre, or see how Game of Thrones’ success has created a new wave of high-budget fantasy shows.
But this has a huge influence on which subjects are most sensitive as well. People react more harshly to some tropes because they’ve seen those tropes over and over again. Rape is the most well-known example. Rape or the threat of it is featured in countless stories, many of which don’t even meet the incredibly low bar of portraying sexual violence as a bad thing. And for those that do, a disturbing number still use the opportunity to sneak a little titillation in.
Naturally, rape isn’t the only trope that gets overused. Buried queer characters is another, along with countless more from the Magical Negro to the submissive East Asian woman. Most of the stories that use these tropes do not use them well, if such a thing is even possible. Consequently, audiences are extremely sensitive to seeing these tropes again.
There’s always a one-in-a-million chance that your story actually uses one of these tropes to make an important point, but audiences aren’t likely to give it the benefit of the doubt. Considering how many times they’ve been burned before, it’s an understandable suspicion. Including such sensitive subjects makes life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. There are plenty of ways to say something important that won’t put marginalized audiences on edge.
In case you were wondering, the solution here is not to collect a bunch of data trying to prove that some of these tropes might not be as common as they’re perceived to be. If you do collect that data, I’d love to see it; it might be useful. But it won’t change that these tropes feel overused, even if that’s just because they’re overrepresented in the most popular stories.
But Can’t Anything Bother Someone?
Whenever we talk about avoiding certain subjects out of respect for others, someone will ask, “When will it end?” Then they’ll go on to make a slippery-slope argument about how if we stop putting bigotry in our stories, soon we’ll have to take out anything that might possibly bother someone, and then there won’t be any conflict! Every story will be about fluffy bunnies eating cotton candy – such is the path of a social justice storyteller.
That’s pretty silly, but it does accidentally hit on an important point. While no one is seriously asking for all stories to be written with their personal situation in mind,* those situations are still valid. Someone who recently lost their parents could very well be upset by a story in which the parents die, even though that situation has nothing to do with structural oppression.
This is why we’re such big fans of content notices. You might have noticed that we put them on all our fiction, and we tag everything we can think of that could ruin someone’s day. We hide these notices from being accidentally seen by people who don’t want them, so there’s no downside. Not every format has that option, but when it’s available, there’s no reason not to do it. Being inclusive to as many people as possible only increases your audience, which is good for everyone involved.
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