In Defense of One-Dimensional Characters

In Defense of One-Dimensional Characters

How do you solve a problem like Cassandra?

Behold the Wonkae

Is the three-dimensional Wonka the "better" Wonka?

Last Wednesday on Overthinking It, Stokes published a fine post, “Archetype or Stereotype,” in which he talked about whether his creating a character for a writing project a bunch of years ago was sexist:

“If I’d invented this character out of the whole cloth, we might have something to talk about.  But I can’t be accused of sexism just because I draw on a broadly internalized aspect of our cultural heritage, can I?”

As the corrected article now states, Stokes didn’t create this character himself; not only was it based on a long tradition of mythological and literary figures, it was part of a long-time collaboration between the two of us. Stokes left me out of the article so as not to indict me publicly with his self-criticism, but I certainly didn’t want to lose out on my share of the credit or blame! So I told him I’d write a response. Also, readers love conflict. Right? RIGHT? (Tell me I’m wrong in the comments.)

Hopefully, Stokes and I will someday return to the project (or, more likely, something like it), but in the meantime, here’s some of my perspective on this character, and, more importantly, on the self-and-mutual-flagellation that appears to be surrounding Mlawski’s excellent Female Character Flowchart — as well as the last hundred and fifty years of performing arts in general.

More on truth, the powers of art, one- and two-dimensional characters (SPOILER: There’s no difference between them),  feminism, self-awareness and the moral obligations of writers, after the jump —

Social construct.

Are You a Feminist, or a Feminisn’t?

A quick note up front – I keep reading in various places (not just at OTI, but more across the web) statements about whether something is “feminist” or not, as if being “feminist” were a discernable quality of, say, a person, or an action, or an individual opinion. These statements are then often followed by tons of “true-scotspersoning” and “staw-personing” as everybody argues about what exactly the definitions are of all the terms everybody is using.

Such conversations are tiresome and miss the point. “Feminism” isn’t a virtue or an ethos; it’s a broad area of intellectual inquiry. It’s a way of talking about something — a characteristic of an ideal, not an ideal in itself, that sometimes forms a small part of an actionable political ideology or an ethical or moral framework.

It’s not like anybody just watched Raging Bull and then decided that he was going to become a lifelong domestic abuser – a boxer, maybe, but then that person also probably has to have a preexisting fondness for jumping rope and having people yell at you while you do sit-ups. Right and wrong are still decided by complex, messy, comprehensive sorts of judgements that take a lot more into consideration than Green Lantern comics.

I’m going to go out on a fountain, small wooded hill, or similar yonic symbol and say no one character, no one statement, no one discrete thing, is ever “feminist” or “anti-feminist” (or even “sexist”). What is feminist or anti-feminist is the way we include how we talk about and associate discrete things in a broader discourse, and then what that has to do with how some actual group of people thinks, acts and behaves.

The reason certain characters are seen as sexist is heavily informed by their prevalence in the culture and the role that prevalence plays affecting the choices people make in real life. If a fiction never affected what people did in meatspace, then feminist discourse would have no context in which to operate with regards to fiction. Relationships between perception of things like art and the way people live are often referred to as phenomenology, but usually by the time we start using words like that, we lose touch with how the rubber meets the road in our lives (as we perceive or understand them to be), which creates a problem when we stop speaking in academic contexts and try to overthink things that are closer to our hearts.

Take, for example, the television show Mad Men. Social critics are obsessed with this show. Is it feminist? Does it offer token nods to social progress while titillating us with alluringly-framed anti-feminism? What sort of phenomenology is it representing, creating or reinforcing? We could, and will, talk about it for years! In fact, we have on this very site, here, here, here, and in a bunch of other passing references.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I’m very pro thinking and talking about Mad Men, definitely! Overthinking, even. I want to watch the fourth season really badly so I can talk about it to anybody who will listen. But the broader discussion about the effect of the show on gender politics is a big part of what is feminist or anti-feminist about this show. Much less overthought discussions about it are a big part of it as well. So are all the other shows that are on TV, and the prevailing attitudes and reactions of the people who are watching them. It becomes very hard, almost impossible, to ascertain what a show like Mad Men accomplishes in a political or phenomenological context without stepping back and considering a very large picture.

You don't see politicians blaming video games for making children wear awful button-down shirts.

Another great example of something like this is Grand Theft Auto. Is Grand Theft Auto pro-violence, because it portrays violence as fun and has children act out and imitate violent acts, giving them shots of adrenaline and positive reinforcement? Or is it anti-violence, because it shows the awful consequences of violence (including the death of yourself and other people) and gives children a context for understanding and taking control of their aggressive feelings and placing them in an appropriate place in the culture, so that they don’t lash out at their friends? Is somebody who enjoys or even habitually commits virtual violence more likely to commit violence in real life when they have perfectly good fictional violence at home? What about catharsis – is that a legitimate social purpose for art or not?

These all sound nice. These frameworks all make sense. But they all have a missing piece — you actually have to go and figure out what is happening in the real world for any of them to matter. Then, you have to prove causal links between those things and art. Without evidence, there is no way of really knowing whether Grand Theft Auto is politically pro-violence or anti-violence.

When a political group makes a commercial, you bet they think about how it will affect people’s attitudes in the real world, and they go out and obsessively measure it. Same with private companies that make commercials. For art that is produced outside of a political context, this almost never happens, at least in a reliable, confirmable, scientific, result-neutral, causally demonstrative way.

There’s a lot of nonsense tossed out by one  or another political group where they guess what the effects might be, or they show a correlation that happens to reinforce what they already conveniently happened to believe, or they pick some other factor that is sort of related to what they think might be happening and test to see if there is some sort of small shift in statistical likelihood one way or another in how it affects people that they can then extrapolate to assume it affects everybody in the same way (which it straight-up doesn’t) and that it in turn has the more important effect they think it has, even if they have no evidence to support making any of these leaps in reasoning.

What we can do, though is look at the broader context, look at the broader discourse, make a feminist or pro- or anti-violence critique of the larger system at work here, and try to determine from there maybe what we ought and ought not to do from a political and ethical standpoint if we happen to align with some vaguely defined “feminist” political coalition.

A great example of this is Christopher Nolan’s “woman problem,” which we’ve talked about on the site, and which I’ve already remarked on in the comments for that post. Yes, in a bunch of Nolan’s movies, women are hurt or killed in horrible ways, and the male protagonists are tormented by their memories. This sort of trope seems like it would have a phenomenology of reinforcing female victimhood. Maybe. But the movies also heavily undercut the authority of the male protagonists, depicting them usually as mentally unstable to the point of being literally insane. That seems like it would prompt people to question the wisdom of seeing the heroic man as the proper “other” in which to invest leadership. Maybe.

Look at Mal, and Inception seems terribly sexist. Look at Cobb, and Inception seems very feminist. To get a meaningful result, you have to step back and look at the whole picture, which includes the way the audience interacts with the film.

This is, by the way, why exclusively political and social criticism of art fails so, so hard at understanding art (seriously, there is no more beautiful baby thrown out with the bathwater than when somebody considers a great poem or book or play or movie strictly on its laundry list of phenomenological advocacies), why curricula and canons that are any good are full of politically objectionable material, and why artists really can’t be primarily concerned with the specific political effects of their art if they want it to be vital or interesting.

Oh, you can be inspired by it, sure. You can even have an agenda that drives you or an idea that you seek to propogandize. But it’s very likely that your art, if done sincerely and with skill, will have effects on people you could never anticipate. If you want to change people’s minds or advance a political agenda, art is not the best business for you to be in. Even when you do art for the politics, the result usually ends up being more the former than the latter.

A great example of this is Scarface. Scarface is a baldly propogandistic indictment of the evils of drugs, specifically of the use, distribution and sale of cocaine. And yet, drug dealers love Scarface.

“Is Scarface a pro-drug movie?”

Even more than that, Scarface the character, though he lives a cautionary tale of a life gone horribly wrong that ends in a brutal, lonely, violent death, inspires people in ways I can’t believe its original authors ever intended. He has a broad cultural appeal that runs counter to the message of the film.

“Dude, Scarface isn’t even a pro-Scarface movie!”

The writer decided one thing, but the broader context decided something else, and the tail wags the dog. Oh, we can look back in hindsight and cherry pick the qualities of Scarface that made this possible, but it’s not reasonable at all to expect people to see these things while they are actually making them, and I very much question the sincerity or accuracy of this kind of hindsight, which seeks to retcon our essential ignorance of the random effects of our actions.

This should not be a good thing that somebody actually wants. But it is.

This is why we should be very very cautious when we evaluate art on strictly political terms. It’s like evaluating a chessboard by the quality of its wood — there is so much going on that we miss if we use that as our primary criterion, and it gives us less information than we think about how people are actually going to use it.

Okay, to get back to the topic, let’s define one- and two-dimensional characters versus three-dimensional characters.

51 Comments on “In Defense of One-Dimensional Characters”

  1. Archie #

    Very good, reasonable article and I certainly broadly share your central complaints about how forced and artificial and unbelievable characters so often are in art these days, but I think I’d take issue with your definitions (or perhaps you’re actually using the generally accepted definitions and thus my issue is more with society). It seems to me that that a ‘three-dimensional character’ shouldn’t be simply one we’re told lots of backstory about, but one which APPEARS complex, and deep and believable! You can have contrived backstory coming out of a character’s arse with the character reaming completely flat and empty and dead, and I wouldn’t call that a three-dimensional character.
    That’s just a niggling semantic point though.

    Also, I felt you might have been better off without having the first page at all – it seemed to be arguably contentious in areas, but more importantly almost totally irrelevant. I think your main argument would have been no weaker without it.

    Otherwise great article though!


    • fenzel #


      Thanks! Yeah, I don’t cut down my OTI stuff often enough. Guilty as charged :-)

      And yeah, I understand you wanting to get a certain result when seeing a movie – but, yeah, google three-dimensional characters and you’ll see a lot more than just the result of complexity and believability. There’s a lot of expectation, specific technique, and cultural and economic pressure to make these characters a certain way. That’s what I’m writing about.

      But I do kind of have a problem with “believability” — I think that sense of incredulity we get when we feel like we’re being bullshat on doesn’t necessarily require us to make characters believable all the time. “Unbelievability” is more of a problem than “lack of believability,” if that makes sense.

      Consider Uncle Fester from the Addams Family? Is he “believable?” No, not really. But does he inspire complaints that he isn’t believable enough, and would he be a better character if he were more believable? No, not really – or, rather, only from wet blankets ;-)

      A broader consideration of expectation and credulity in storytelling would go into this in depth, but my first take on it is that it functions a lot differently from how the conventional wisdom (the paradigm, three-act structure, method acting, rules of thumb for writing for the stage and screen) says it functions.

      Thanks for the well-thought-out comment!


      • Archie #

        I fear when I said ‘believable’ I may have chosen my words unwisely, but I think we’re on the same page here.


        • fenzel #

          Yeah, the semantics get complicated. But when you’re actually writing stuff, what people are asking you for becomes a lot more identifiable and practical.


    • Travis #

      While I think his first page may be unrelated to his thesis, I think it very much needed to be said in some context. Even if that context were its own article.

      On this site, as well as in the public in a much less thoughtful way, the “feminist” vs “sexist” issue is debated and scrutinized way too much. It’s almost as if you’re overthinking it, or something.

      Characters are. That’s that. Unless the intent of the creator is to push an agenda, no character is “feminist” or “sexist”. They serve a purpose in the story. One may not like the purpose, or the character. They might not be “good” characters. But I think “sexism” tends to get pulled into these debates way to quickly.

      Instead of crucifying, demeaning or psychoanalyzing artists for how they use female characters (i.e. Christopher Nolan), I think the broader question that should be asked is why is it so effective? Most of society doesn’t think of Rachel Dawes, Mal (no last name?) or Leonard’s Wife (no name at all?) as weak on first viewing. It usually isn’t noticed until you start looking for things like that.

      Instead, when most people watch those movies they don’t give gender roles a second thought. Instead, the buy in easily to the idea that the loss of each of those characters would cause the mental decline of the lead. (Harvey Dent’s fall is a bit more difficult to swallow, but only because there relationship isn’t as firmly established. They don’t have the implied history of the other two). So if you don’t like these characters, ask the larger social question of why they tend to evoke the responses they do instead of bashing the artist who used them.

      If anything, I think Christopher Nolan’s movies are incredibly positive portrayals of women. For many of his male characters, the women are pillars of their lives. The women seem to be a vital foundation in the male characters’ very sanity.

      Now imagine a movie where the female lead goes crazy thanks to the loss of her male counterpart. If anything, Nolan is sexist against MEN! Guys, get your pitchforks!


      • Gab #

        It usually isn’t noticed until you start looking for things like that.

        That depends on the perspective a person is coming from. A working-class woman of color, having experienced the world very differently from a rich white man, is going to view any bit of pop culture she comes across through a different lens than he. She may not even be actively seeking out or “looking for” signs of sexism or racism or whatever other “ism” she sees, but if something resonates with her inside, on a deeper, personal level, she’s going to notice it. I wouldn’t call putting a name to a feeling like that seeking it out, but rather conceptualizing and identifying it. And I wouldn’t say the rich white guy is an asshole for not seeing any of the isms she sees on his own, either, because expecting everyone to view the world the same way is absolutely ridiculous.

        I think this is where a lot of trouble with discussions about “isms” develops. I’ll admit fully that there are times where people are looking for things to be morally outraged about. But the trouble is, if a person thinks something is “ist” in some way, they aren’t wrong, per say. “Isms” are non-tangible and can’t really be proven or disproven, I don’t think. I mean, sure, you can rack up the testimony of a thousand Native Americans that says the American government is racist against Native culture, but you can just as easily get a bunch of people to justify every accusation or bit of tribal law the American government has enabled or codified. Who’s “right” depends on who you’re talking to. I’d side with the Native Americans, but I know plenty of people that wouldn’t- and while I may feel right in that because of my background and family history, they would feel right in their opinion because of their own history. See what I’m getting at?

        Now, I realize the flaw in my logic (if one can call it “logic”) here is thus: Not everybody that says something is _ist is part of the group being discriminated against/belittled/whatever. That’s a legitimate claim. My response is still that people view things differently, but with the added notion that sometimes people assume the viewpoint of others. Some do a better job of it, some not so much. But just as how there are different levels of, I dunno, activism within a minority group, their supporters on the outside have the same range of thought as well- as do retractors. For example, there are some women that are so “feminist” that they flat-out hate and distrust all men (which, ironically, is in itself sexism- I don’t believe in reverse-isms), while there are some women that are so “anti-feminist” they think female prostitutes don’t deserve rape counseling. Obviously, the former is going to be pointing her finger all the time, but, conversely, the latter will never have it cross her mind. Likewise, men picket outside churches for abortion rights, and men picket outside abortion clinics for anti-abortion support. I’m not saying either is “right” or “wrong.” I may have my opinion, but opinions are not facts. To sort of get at what I was saying elsewhere in this particular discussion, all we can hope for is that society will, as a whole, eventually shift to opinions that do not harm others.

        My other thing to say is that Nolan’s female characters exist within the greater politcal and (popular) cultural landscape, even if considering them within the worlds of the movies they’re in. They are interesting, yes, and one can say it’s a source of empowerment for women that they’d have that much of an impact on the men they love. However, the counter is, that’s all they are, that’s the only purpose they serve. Their existence depends entirely upon whomever it is that’s supposed to fall apart because something happens to them. They are plot-points or plot-enhancers, not plot-makers– there’s a difference. This is why some say Nolan’s female characters are, most of the time, sexist. Not because they say or do sexist things as characters, but because their existence as a character serves no other purpose than to somehow enhance a male character.

        This can get tricky, because, well, what about a male love interest in a hetero-normative “chick flick,” right? I’d say sure, that’s sexist, too. Again, I don’t believe in reverse-sexism, and I don’t think writing flat male characters for the benefit of the female ones is a good idea, either. So I can see where the idea that Nolan’s movies are sexist against men comes from- yeah, it’s kind of more than a little emasculating for a woman to be a man’s soul claim or link to sanity. In Nolan’s case, I don’t see why it can’t be both at the same time: the men look useless because they can’t function without their women, and the women look useless because they have no identity outside that relationship. But I’d say your inability to see what the big deal is comes from the same place in you that in me, enables me to see why it is (or at least could be). Different experiences can (but no, not always) lead to different interpretations of the same thing. Like the story about the blind dudes touching the elephant, each comes at it from a different place and interprets it as something completely different from all the others. None are right, none are wrong. They just are. I realize this sounds a lot like what you said, and that’s alright (I’d like to say it was on purpose, but I’ll be honest, it’s not- my train of thought just kind of went that way). The characters are, but I don’t really think it’s “just that” because people are going to view those characters. I think we agree there- it’s how those characters are viewed that makes them what people interpret them as. But understand everybody is going to interpret those characters their own way, and a person isn’t necessarily asking for trouble just because they saw something someone else didn’t, whether they personally identify with the _ist character or piece of art or not. Yeah, it’s okay to get annoyed or irked with people that never shut up, but disagreement doesn’t mean wrong.

        But back to Nolan, sorry: The audience is taking that broader social context into question when questioning his characters- that’s why the lens making them think those female characters are sexist even exists. The next step, then, is for Nolan to ALSO take a look outside himself and his movies and think of that broader context. And give himself an honest answer when asking himself, “Is this character well-written, and if not, what’s lacking?” And if Nolan keeps doing the same thing with his female characters, and they keep getting the same criticisms, even without the sexism thing and just focusing on the fact that they’re characters without purpose, maybe he does need to reassess his writing. If he was always being accused of writing dull characters in general, wouldn’t one say the same thing? It follows, then, that he should, if he loves his craft so much, look for why he gets the same criticism a lot, and try to do something about it. When you’re learning to play a string instrument, if your finger constantly falls sharp and your teacher tells you, you fix it. Same thing. If the accusation were that all his male sidekicks have no personality, that would be a big deal, too.


        • Travis #

          First off, it’s awesome that this site has comments that you can post something thoughtful, and get more than one-line replies and insults. Kudos.

          I was speaking too broadly and very much over-generalizing when I was speaking earlier. It’s absolutely true that you could show a movie to a hundred people, and get 99 different interpretations plus one guy who fell asleep so he just repeats what his friend said. And that mostly relies on personal experience.

          Also, on the male characters, I myself said the women were their sole foundation of sanity. In reality, that wasn’t fair to the men. The women tend to act more as a catalyst or amplifier to an already extreme set of circumstances (The Joker, Memory Loss, Sleeping).

          But I think another important thing to consider is the intended audience or impact of the work.

          “Chick Flicks” are actually probably the perfect lens to look at this through. These movies have plots that revolve around pushing this one dimensional storyline as not only realistic, but ideal. They tend to push ‘sexist’ male characters as the fantasy women aspire to. Actually, thinking about it, that’s pretty sexist towards women too.

          So I think the “chick flick” is the perfect example of all around getting it wrong. You’re just using bad characters, you’re portraying them as better than reality.

          I was actually gonna say here that I don’t think “sexist” should even be applied to chick flicks, but I think I just reasoned myself out of that one. They’re pretty bad.

          I don’t think Christopher Nolan movies rise the level of ‘sexist’ though. I guess my biggest beef is I think that term needs to really earned. We can absolutely say that those are poor characters. And we can look at trends and say that Nolan struggles writing three dimensional female characters (though we also have to be fair and put a fair share of the blame on Jonah. Three of the 4 films to which we’re referring were written by him).

          And you’re right, there are people noticing. People who read websites with names like “Overthinking It”, or people who get Ph.D.s in this stuff, which I think defines “overthinking”. If you went out and polled the population on if they thought Inception was sexist, you’d get an overwhelming majority that said no. And if you could go into their brains and find out what they thought without attempting Inception on them my merely asking the question, you’d get an even higher number say ‘no’.

          So we the overthinkers should continue to look at and discuss this. I just think we should tread carefully before labeling people word that end in ‘ism’ or ‘ist’. We should look at it more in realm of “refining your craft” and less as judgments on authors prejudices. Or at least think a bit more about using such strong labels before choosing to apply them.

          And if I write a novel with two male leads. And then, at the end, I decide to swap the gender of one of the males because gender isn’t really important, am I actually honing my craft? Or am I altering my story as I envision it to appease a sense of political correctness and preempt critics? A gender swap might be something to consider IF it improves the story I want to tell.

          Gotta stop for now. I feel a bit jumbled still on what I’m trying to express, so I’ll probably be back.


          • Gab #

            This is one of the few sites I feel cool with commenting on, because there aren’t trolls and idiots. You won’t see a “FRIST!11!” ;p

            This is for clarity’s sake, not to be argumentative. I should add that I don’t think Nolan’s movies are entirely sexist. A part of (and actually, I’d argue a main point of) Fenzel’s piece and what I have been saying that I think may be getting lost is the label “sexist,” at least in this context, isn’t meant to be an evaluation of the entire work. It’s meant to describe a particular aspect- a character. Not the whole movie. I’d be one of those people in your survey that says, “No,” if you asked me if I thought his movies are sexist. But then it becomes an issue of framing and interpretation. It depends on the question you asked, and then how you interpret it. If you ask me, “Is Inception sexist?” and I say no, you could then interpret that as me believing there are no sexist portrayals or incidents in the film. Similarly, however, if you asked me, “Is Mal in Inception a sexist portrayal of a woman?” and I said yes, you could alternatively interpret that as me believing the entire movie is a woman-hating piece of garbage. I’m not saying I think you would jump to those interpretations, mind you. And I’ll admit, I can’t quite say where the line would be that would drive me to say a movie is more sexist than not- that’s sort of an I-know-it-when-I-see-it kind of thing.

          • AnneBonney #

            “I just think we should tread carefully before labeling people word that end in ‘ism’ or ‘ist’. ”

            On some level, I get this. If your basic understanding of those terms is in an extremely negative sense (either because you yourself are against all the various _ism, or because you fear the social repercussions of being labeled _ist), I can understand being defensive about those labels. But if you’re falling in the first camp, if it upsets you because you actually are trying not to be party to prejudice, why wouldn’t you be more accepting of a criticism that may be showing you where you are failing in that regard?

            There is such a knee-jerk reaction to just deny when confronted with ones own privilege or prejudice. Like Bush saying Kanye calling him a racist was the worst thing that happened to him in his presidency. The idea that being made aware of the ways you are hurting others hurts you worse kinda prove the point: you are more concerned with your feelings than those of others, which is the whole damn problem. |I think, once you open up to the idea that actually, yeah, there are distinct ideas about gender, race, ability, etc. that are ingrained in us in such subtle ways and that there are flaws to the social structures that are actively making shit harder for certain people, once you see that, you have to do your damnedest to hold back that automatic reaction and actually listen to the argument being made. Because in a big way, it’s not about you, it’s about a broader system of oppression that you’re going to probably play into at some point without thinking about it. And hearing out a person who’s got a _ist critique at the very least should make you start to think.

            [Now, I’m not equating “listening” with “always agreeing all the time”. But I worry when we put the onus on those critiquing to always have a slam-dunk case (“He didn’t say the n-word, so he’s can’t be racist!”) made before speaking their minds about any _ism is just perpetuating ignorance. I disagree with Gab that there are tons of people running around looking for things to get upset about; it’s more like, once you start noticing the ways in which things are unfair or messed up, you can’t unsee it, and frankly there’s a lot of (sometimes little, but no less important) shit to see.]

            Essentially, I’m saying that there is for a lot of people, and should be for the rest of them, a definite difference between unintentionally expressing prejudice and being a bad person. Unthinkingly writing a sexist character doesn’t make you Hitler. (Ha! Reverse-Godwin’d!) So if someone brings it up, don’t take it so damn personally, use it as a chance to think critically, check yourself and your attitudes, because even if you don’t automatically agree with the assessment, what do you lose by reflecting on it instead of immediately getting defensive? We pick up some insidious shit out there, and at one time or another, no matter who we are, we all got it coming.

          • AnneBonney #

            Oh, and also: there’s a big difference between labeling a person and labeling a thing, or idea, or element in or work of art. Labeling a person does imply a judgment on their character; critiquing a thing they created does not. In my mind, it’s practically useless to use “_ist” to describe individuals. A person is way to complex to be just a sexist or a racist or whathaveyou. It also makes it about a person when it’s really about an idea, and relies on intent when intent isn’t the point.

          • Travis #

            So this is a bit slow. Been a crazy past couple of days.

            But I think I managed to articulate my concern. It all goes back to the notion of distinguishing between a a ‘sexist’ character, and a ‘bad’ character who is female. When analyzing a character, it think there should be a gender swap considered before reaching a conclusion.

            The Cassandra character, for example, is (roughly) a character who knows a truth, is hysterical (often because no one believes her), and dies early. These two posts were about a character who might be sexist because of those traits.

            But put a male there instead. If a guy knows a truth, is hysterical because nobody believes him, and then dies early, we don’t give it a second glance. It’s not sexists, it fits. It might be a trope, but those aren’t inherently bad.

            I think a ‘sexist’ character wouldn’t fit that ‘smell test,’ if you will. If you swap genders, and alter the circumstances reasonably to match gender (like the gender of characters involved with the one you’re testing), there should be something funky. If you do that, and all of a sudden the actions of your character ‘smell funny,’ then you have a problem.

            By swapping genders, you’re helping isolate honest character traits from ones based on gender stereotypes. If, after doing this test, you feel your characters actions are still reasonable, I don’t believe you have a sexist character. And really, this would probably help you weed out a lot of sexist male characters as well, who I believe generally go on unnoticed (by myself included).

          • AnneBonney #

            “But put a male there instead. If a guy knows a truth, is hysterical because nobody believes him, and then dies early, we don’t give it a second glance.”

            1) As Stokes discussed, the nature of hyseteria, the way it is often portrayed and it’s etomology, is a gendered emotion. How many hysterical men do you see in film or theater, really? (I can think of only one offhand, Louis in Ghostbusters, and he’s a secondary character is definitely feminized and portrayed as weak, not capable of carrying a main story.) And I think that that’s why your smell test might have problems: it’ in the difference between “plausible” and “realistic” characterization (where realistic /= “3 dimensional that Fenzel treats with here) that a lot of potentially harmful attitudes lie. I can see a lot of creators who are not very well versed in social justice, or who don’t look very carefully at their own bias squeaking by. That said, if you yourself are a creator, and it helps you to write better, less douchey characters, that’s awesome.

            2)I think maybe the point of Stokes’ piece got a little muddled: yes, there are archetypes which are founded on sexist ideas, and done poorly or without consideration will be shitty and harmful. Doesn’t mean they should be abandoned or stoned to death, it means they should be handled with care. It is possible to write a non-sexist Cassandra (or Evil Stepmother, or Femme Fatale or whatever).

            I think the test shouldn’t be “would this make sense if a man did it”, because there are some totally non-transferable experiences between the two, I think we should move towards an interiority test. What sense of character’s inner life do you get? Are their actions reasonable and believable for a person in their situation, or does it seem like their following farfetched authorial cues? When they’re not around, do we get a sense of what they would be doing without the audience looking (and it’s not sitting on a couch with a glass of chardonnay waiting to fight with your family–I’m looking at you, Lily Bass-Humphrey!)?

            You can rescue an archetype from being a sexist cypher simply by thinking of the female character like an actual person, not just a place-holder woman, I think.

          • Travis #

            But I think we’re beginning to let the notion of “social justice” encroach on fair critique. It really seems like the only way you can have a character not be considered sexist is to have them be the center of the story and be as complex as any other leading characters. But that’s just not fair. Stories are FILLED with secondary characters, and it’s become clear to me that just the act of a female character being secondary is bringing out the “sexist” analysis.

            For example, Memento gets mentioned as an example of a movie with a ‘sexist’ character, Leonard’s wife. But what about Carrie-Anne Moss’ character? She has (serious) flaws that don’t conform to a stereotype, and she does undergo a personal arch. If anything, she’s a STRONGER person than Leonard, because she’s able to direct him. Is she as interesting as Leonard? No. Because she doesn’t have a fractured mental state. And if she did, you could argue that THAT’s sexist. And in the end, she’s not the protagonist. But I think she was well done. But she gets entirely ignored because there was a female who dies before the events of the movie. She gets forgotten in this movie because of a character that wasn’t even a character.

            You can argue that there’s a sexist trend in not having enough strong female characters in storytelling. That, however, is really a separate debate. You can say that broadly speaking there should be more strong female leads. But that doesn’t make every female who isn’t a lead “sexist”.

            Now the immediate response to that is, “but if you don’t criticize at the micro scale, the macro scale will never change.” And I agree…to an extent. But I really still firmly believe ‘sexist’ is getting way overused. Male characters that wouldn’t even be considered “bad” are being labeled “sexist” if there women. And that’s a problem.

            And the dirty little secret that I’m sure will win me no points: a lot of these stereotypes exists because there’s a kernel of truth to them, male and female. Look at sitcoms. The “heavy-weight screw-up husband and the crazy but attractive shrew wife” sitcoms are IMMENSELY popular, despite how incredibly offensive they are from an objective standpoint. But sitcoms work because they exploit something “critics” never want to talk about, because it’s not politically correct. They’re popular, because they ring true. And often times they’re hard to combat, because there is a kernel of truth there. And it’s not just male/female. In laws, nerds, old people, democrats, republicans, children. All of these get stereotypes associated with them.

            But the only one anybody seems concerned about? The shrew wife.

            That’s my problem. If you’re gonna start labeling, it sexist to ONLY label the women. Start labeling everything. It’s almost impossible to find a character that doesn’t largely fit into one box or another. But those others get ignored by anyone.

            I mean, look at that chart!?! That covers pretty much every female ever written, and because you could break it down into those boxes, you could argue it’s sexist. And I don’t think that’s the authors intent. And nobody has really quite said it yet.

            But you said yourself. The Cassendra archetype needs to be “handled with care.” It’s a box that is mostly applied to women, therefore it should be handled more carefully than male counterpart archetypes.

            That’s bogus. 100%. It’s not that sexist characters don’t exists, it’s that male characters are being treated as less important than female characters. Because there is a larger trend in fiction, every female character gets held to a higher standard than the male ones.

            I think that’s a problem.

          • AnneBonney #

            Travis: Please correct me if I’m reading you wrong, but that last post sounds to me like you’re saying that you see that there is a problem (with sexism), recognize the use and validity of one way to solve it (calling out sexism in the arts), but are personally tired of hearing about it and miffed that it’s happening so much, and want everyone to just stop for a minute and be quiet, because, damn, are you done hearing people complain about sexism. Also because you think some sexist things are true.

            If that’s what you were getting at, it seems a little silly, no?

            As for sexism hurting men, yes, absolutely. By creating boxes that say “This is a Real Woman” and “This is a Real Man” and then defining them against each other, society is actively harming people of all genders. And most people who take sexism seriously take the damage done to men seriously as well; not in every conversation, not when a specific topic concerning women is on the docket for the day, but one shouldn’t expect men to be the centerpiece of every convo, certainly not every convo about gender. But yeah, there are tons of resources about men’s issues in the feminist blogosphere, and MRA sites usually do a pretty decent job of pointing out things like the slob husband archetype in sitcoms (though I absolutely disagree with their assertions that those are women’s/feminism’s fault and goal).

            That said, you specifically pointed to characters that are showing only negative stereotypes of men, and I can’t recall any specific place or article focused on that. So you know what? Here’s my email. Let’s collaborate on an post about this, like a “Top 5 Worst Characters for Men” or something. I’m sure if it doesn’t suck, we can pitch it to the good folks here, or even at some of the feminist blogs that take guest posts. I feel strongly that when something important is being talked about, the answer is to speak up, not shut others down, and I think this would actually be fun and useful. Let’s do this thing.

  2. dylan #

    Good article!

    You discuss how feminism isn’t a discernible quality or virtue, and, correct me if I’m wrong, you seem to suggest that film or theatre lives in some sort of social void until people watch it. They watch it and that is when ideologies are put upon it because that is when they can relate it back to their social and political framework. I agree that feminism is intellectual inquiry, but artwork can be created with that in mind. Mad Men has gender conflict written in and thus is very partial to be under feminist critiques.
    For me, feminism in artwork isn’t about having a very strong women, it’s about discussing gender conflict. I think any show that deals with that conflict, be it internal or external, can be labelled feminist, even if women don’t come out on top. Take Mad Men for example again, if Peggy decides to quit her job, marry, have children and be a housewife, it still could be considered feminist because it specifically addresses gender dynamics and explores the conflicts within.
    Sorry, back to the point. That conflict is written in the story. Obviously some things don’t have meaning until people/society give it meaning, but not in the case of art because someone has created in, already instilling in ideologies (that, of course, are barely ever cohere to how the audience reads it). A lake, for example, is not feminist. It’s only when society places meaning on it that the water becomes something feminine (still though, not feminist).

    I might be rambling so I will move on to your points about characters. I agree with most the actor/writer relationship, but not necessarily on the benefits of one-dimensional characters. I think that they extremely useful and appropriate depending on what you’re going for. I agree that the way we look at what makes a 3 dimensional character is ridiculous; large amounts of backstory generally makes the character flatter and the writer lazier. But there are good ways of writing 3 dimensional characters. A character with no backstory, no clear and stated goals or motivation I would argue would be a lot more interesting. Real people’s goals change all the time, few people would have only one goal or motivation (another reason why backstory does not make a character more 3 dimensional – only having one reason, one (or very few) significant moments in your past that make you who you are? Unbelievable). It’s the conflicting goals and actions that make someone interesting and believable. I think some of those conflicts would have to be hinted at in the writing of the script/screenplay and not solely put on the actor to create. I think alot of the time writers give characters one goal of the entire play/film, and one major conflict per scene, and it would be hard for an actor to work against that.


    • fenzel #


      This is good stuff – I want to clarify that I’m mostly talking about when people praise or pan a work of art because of its politics – or when people ascribe to a work of art a political agenda or purpose – not just when they outline the sort of things the work of art might be about. For the latter, yeah, considering the work on its own is enough to gauge its general topic. But for the former, you really need to see its impact on the real world and its interaction with the broader discourse.

      And as for the three-dimensional character stuff — the article is written from the assumption that people think three-dimensional characters are better than one-dimensional characters and that one-dimensional characters can be improved as a rule by making them into three-dimensional characters. That’s the starting point for me in talking about this.

      I think recognizing that we should allow ourselves flexibility to do what we think best serves our piece without worrying about these terms and the normative claims they make is the right way to go.

      I don’t quite follow the second half of what you’re saying, but yeah, never giving any character a backstory ever would also probably be a pathological way to go about crafting stories. It’s more the obligation people seem to feel to always do it and the sense that it is a good thing to do for its own sake that I have a problem with.


      • AnneBonney #

        What bugs me in this comment and in the article is that you seem to be setting up an unbelievable high burden of proof with regards to making statements about phenomenology, especially when it concerns gender. You seem to want formal studies about figuring out how exactly things that are perceived as sexist influence their audiences in order to validate an opinion about whether or not that sexism exists. As you point out, that is nearly impossible, because of the diffuse influences that folks draw from media and art; but then you seem to take those many points and layers of influence and conclude that because of that complexity, “political” messages never actually hit home and become integrated in the audience’s point of view. Which I think is really myopic.

        Mostly, to echo and draw on Dylan’s point, there needs to be a greater distinction between art that contains uninterrogated sexist elements (in my mind, “is sexist”), and art that makes those elements it’s topic (“is about sexism”). Essentially, we’re talking about the difference between Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Social Network: one draws on and reaffirms nasty, sexist ideas about women in an uncritical way, while the other presents those same ideas, not as mostly unseen and “normal” buttresses for the story, but as part of the story, part of what we the audience is supposed to be questioning. (What makes Ripley work as any gender is that the character wasn’t written with any of those kinds of underpinings, the “Women are like this, men are like this, bluh bluh” stereotypes that are mostly lazy characterization to start, which is certainly not not how many, many plays and films are written to start.) Whether a work of art is one or the other can certainly be debatable, but so many critics and creators seem to have false equivalence between the two, because oftentimes they have a similar outcome: ladies with different opinions start talking about the lady-stuff in the art, maybe not in a complimentary way. Which should be avoided at all costs, of course, in some minds.

        That’s what irked me most in this article, and seemed to point to a very defensive vein in the tone and argument, is this: “it might not be politically and ethnically (sic?) appropriate to do this to women.” This basically sounds, in the larger context of this article — and perhaps in the context of the Cassandra archetype post and the blowback that mlawski’s flowchart got in the feminist blogoshpere maybe? — that you think it is completely artistically valid to write one-dimensional, perhaps even one-dimensionally sexist, female characters, but you’re advising writers not to because those fucking feminists — who don’t have any proof that such characters hurt women, other than their own experiences of sexism — might get pissy about your art and make a fuss. Maybe I’m reading that wrong and you can elaborate or clarify, but from where I’m sitting, that seems to be a very curious argument running through this piece.


        • fenzel #

          “What bugs me in this comment and in the article is that you seem to be setting up an unbelievable high burden of proof with regards to making statements about phenomenology, especially when it concerns gender.”

          I’m not. I’m setting a very low standard for making statements about phenomenology. Make all the statements you want – discourse is important and good — more important, even, than the work itself.

          But I am setting very high standards for morally impugning a writer specifically (particularly self-impugning) because of the effects of his work.

          There’s a difference between saying something is good or bad or helpful or harmful and setting up a moral indictment of the person who did it and taking action on that indictment.

          And, furthermore, it is one thing to make a phenomenological statement about a piece of work, but it is another thing to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong – exactly whose fault it is, because the social and political impact of art happens collaboratively and is not the sole act of the auteur.

          Like, when I say a certain character has a certain affect on people, maybe it’s a creative statement. This might be something I’m inventing and throwing out there myself to connect to the piece as part of my interaction with it as a reader.

          And then, if I have an argument with somebody else about this one work, maybe the real political work being done – the real influence the art appears to be exerting – is really the creative work of myself and the person I’m talking to that is associated with the work of art, not totally the work of the writer or writers of the work we are referencing.

          “[T]hen you seem to take those many points and layers of influence and conclude that because of that complexity, “political” messages never actually hit home and become integrated in the audience’s point of view. Which I think is really myopic.”

          I don’t think they hit home on their own – I think they hit home as part of larger, collaborative discourse, and I think the truly myopic viewpoint is that these writers are doing all this by themselves – that they deserve all the credit or blame – and that the people discussing art have no influence or responsibility over the effect that it has on people.

          “You think it is completely artistically valid to write one-dimensional, perhaps even one-dimensionally sexist, female characters”

          Correct, I am saying this. “Whether this is artistically valid” and “whether this is the right thing to do” are not the same question.

          It is totally artistically valid to depict evil or to even acknowlegde one’s own evil. It is totally artistically valid to make art that advocates that people do evil things. It might not be ethical or politically appropriate, but somebody’s art doesn’t become invalid just because I disagree with them or they are bad people.

          Dante, for example, is still totally artistically valid despite being tremendously objectionable by current moral standards for a whole bunch of reasons.

          “but you’re advising writers not to because those fucking feminists…”

          Okay, this is not what I am saying. I don’t locate any of the moral force of this argument in one faction or another – I’m talking about writers considering for themselves the consequences of their specific actions.

          When I say it may or may not be politically appropriate to write a character in a given way, I don’t mean “because you will be criticized.” I mean “because it might hurt people or advance a harmful agenda.”

          You mention “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as if it’s a war crime. It’s not, it’s just a movie. Outside the broader political discourse, it doesn’t hurt anybody. If there weren’t a lot of other movies like it, nothing it did would be bad. But, of course, it doesn’t exist outside the broader discourse, and a lot of movies do things just like it, so the context changes the moral and political impact of the piece.

          Once you consider where it lives within the prevalence of these sorts of works of art and what function it might be serving in the public discourse, maybe you should consider writing it differently for political reaons — political meaning “involving the exercise of power,” not “involving political enthusiasts and their feelings abuot your work.”

          It’s important to note, though, that these are separate considerations from those of making “good art,” and if all you worry about is politics, you will probably not be very good at sincerely and vitally communicating as a writer.

          Politics here refers to the social consequences of your actions as a writer in the broader exercise of power. This is not just done by feminists or even just by wonks and politicos – it is done by everybody. Everybody is involved in politics.

          So, I’m saying a writer has to consider separately whether what they’re doing is artistically valid and whether what they’re doing is involved in a broader exercise of power that is hurting people.

          “might get pissy about your art and make a fuss.”

          I clearly don’t mind people getting pissy and makig a fuss. I say that a bunch of times through the article, so I definitely thank you for your criticism :-)

          My main call to caution here is for writers to be careful about how mad they get at themselves, and whether they let the perceived political effects of their art make them overly cautious or ineffectual writers, when maybe what they’re doing isn’t so bad.

          “Maybe I’m reading that wrong and you can elaborate or clarify, but from where I’m sitting, that seems to be a very curious argument running through this piece.”

          Yeah, it is curious. It’s pretty controversial, and I don’t expect a lot of people to agree with it. I’m kind of old-school when it comes to literary criticism and writing and think that writers vastly overestimate their own direct, controllable influence over the good and evil things that happen in the world – and that critics overestimate it even more.

          Thanks again for commenting. I appreciate your passion on the issue, and for reading the article in the first place :-)


        • fenzel #

          I guess one of the things that’s kind of confusing about what I’m talking about is that I’m saying it’s okay for somebody to call something sexist, and that act is totally valid, but that other people can disagree with that assessment and not share it, and still have that be totally valid as well.

          This isn’t about “agreeing to disagree” or anything like that – it has to do perspectives and relationships to text – the very statement “this is sexist” varies in meaning and agency a lot depending on who is saying it and why.

          This furthers one of my recent themes, which is that the exlusion principle doesn’t work with art – that people can say “a is b” and “a is not b” at the same time and both be not just “agreeing to disagree” but correct and justified in their assessments at the same time.


  3. Chris #

    In regards to the likability of characters, I think the issue when people discuss this topic is than likable is probably an inapt word oftentimes. What I feel like you were saying is more that characters who aren’t likable can still be enjoyable characters. You don’t like the characters as people or what have you, but you do like them as a character. However, by using the word like in those two different instances, things get muddled.

    Also, everybody hates conflict, and I’ll fight anybody who says otherwise!


  4. Kyu #

    I think you may have stacked the deck a bit there with your example comparison between the two Wonkas. The difference between the two sequences is that one is scary and one is not; but this is not the result of the difference in performances between Wilder and Depp; it is because of the difference in Burton’s direction.

    In each scene there are essentially 3 characters:
    -The aggregate of one-dimensional bratty kids and their two-dimensional over-permissive parents
    -Charlie/his grandpa

    Wonka provides the context for each scene, and the other two “characters” react.

    In the Gene Wilder version, Wonka provides a glimpse into insanity. The sequence (and particularly his song) tell us, after a long series of scenes in which he has led them around his factory, that Wonka is no longer in control. Nobody is in control. They are hurtling down a terrifying tunnel in a boat whose yoke has been abdicated by a madman.

    This scares the hell out of the “bad” kids and parents; Charlie and his grandfather, on the other hand, are excited and interested, enjoying the ride. But crucially, our identification at this point is with the “bad” kids and parents. They’re afraid, we’re afraid, and while we see and acknowledge that Charlie’s having a blast, we don’t share his enthusiasm. The scene is the clearest statement in the film about the horrors that underlie and power the rest of the story. (There’s a good OTI article in there somewhere about how Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is essentially a slasher film for children, where the blood has been replaced by surrealist nightmares and the sexual politics with more basic didactic lessons on “how to be good.”)

    Now look at the Burton version of this same scene. It’s not scary; but it clearly isn’t trying to be. Empirically, the scene is (or attempts to be) first exhilarating, then funny. The first part is less like a slow boat to WTF and more like a roller coaster; the second brings in some of the humor from the original’s Inventing Room scene.

    The reactions to the roller coaster ride from everyone but Charlie are half-hearted at best. One little girl is nervous at first; everyone else seems vaguely bored. Charlie, on the other hand, is excited. The same dichotomy exists with the jokes–one of the mothers doesn’t get the Hair Cream pun, whereas Charlie instantly realizes the significance of the whips in making Whipped Cream, a leap in illogic that Wonka immediately defends.

    Basically, the point of this sequence is to suggest (or reinforce? been a long time since I saw this version) that Charlie is the only one of the children who really gets Wonka. And since Burton feels the same way, our identification is with Charlie, and not the normal folks in the boat with him.

    The difference in intent and execution between the two scenes has everything to do with differing interpretations of the same material (think of it as the difference between a slasher movie where the Final Kid wins via moral victory and a quirky bromantic comedy between a younger and an older, misunderstood child) and only tangentially to do with the way the respective Wonkas are written and portrayed.


    • Mark #

      I second the proposal for an OTI article on ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ as a slasher film for children, and I nominate Kyu to write it. The new-post rate has slipped a little recently, so we need to encourage more guest writers!


  5. AnneBonney #

    @Fenzel (Sorry, kinda hate the nesting comments.)

    “There’s a difference between saying something is good or bad or helpful or harmful and setting up a moral indictment of the person who did it and taking action on that indictment.”

    I agree, but am confused as to where you are seeing this moral indictment in general. Is saying this or that in a work is sexist necessarily obscuring the collaborative nature of creating art, or the fact that it is only within a wider, sexist culture that such a statement make sense? Because I don’t think that recognizing sexism in things is always a judgment on originator(s), nor a knock-out punch thrown at their character. But it often is an important and imperative act of beginning to deconstruct both that individual instance and the wider culture that builds on and protects sexist attitudes. (Likewise, I was never saying “hey, don’t ever write a ‘politically-incorrect’ character or story”, nor was I arguing for any sort of purging of historical works based on contemporary political thought, so Dante is safe, but yeah, the wider attitudes that go into making a piece should probably be considered as well, lest those attitudes continue to go unexamined.)

    I understand your desire to protect creators from being impugned generally based off of unintended sexist elements in their output, but by trying to scale back the individual’s responsibility to check these attitudes in one’s work, it seems to me like you’re marking off one of the few places that an individual, especially an artist of some kind, can actually chip away at the wider political atmosphere. The statement “Everybody is involved in politics.” is something I agree with, but I worry that one can take that diffusion of responsibility not to mean that people (who are concerned with this sort of thing) should watch what they create, but that since there are so many different cultural inputs and so many ways to interpret a work, that one little piece of sexism (or racism or whatever) is not worth critiquing. There can be such a fine line between self-flagellation and being conscientious. I was concerned that in the original article, you were advocating so hard against the former, you were trying to move folks away from the latter; you comments have mostly shown that that was a misreading on my part.

    “You mention “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as if it’s a war crime. It’s not, it’s just a movie.”

    Heh. Jason Segel isn’t Pol Pot, but he did manage to make (with the help of many, many others, including a structurally sexist film-making system) an absurdly bad film, which was also absurdly sexist, and that sexism added to and reinforced how terrible it was. I don’t know that fellow, so when I say his movie is sexist, it is only a personal criticism in the most oblique way; I’m also not calling every PA or gaffer an abomination of inhumanity either, that would be stupid. But as the writer, as the lead actor, he is associating his name, his professional reputation, with a product that I object to on both political and aesthetic grounds, and that can and should influence whether I choose to engage with his other work. I don’t presume to know if he’s a bad guy, but I don’t think I want to watch any more of his movies, you know? And honestly, I don’t think whether I do or don’t matters much to him or to any of the other interests vested in that film.

    “…that people can say “a is b” and “a is not b” at the same time and both be not just “agreeing to disagree” but correct and justified in their assessments at the same time.”

    Sure. But this also makes me uncomfortable within this context of sexism specifically, but also other political discussions involving privileged groups: if Person A points out problematic aspects of art, and Person B says “Nuh-uh”, whether or not those interpretations are the beginning of a real conversation about the text and it’s wider cultural position or just a way to shut down criticism depends very much on who Person A and B are, and what the text is. Changing the statement “this is sexist” to “I experience this as sexist” may seem negligible, but, again, the statement’s force depends so much on the “I”. To be clear, I’m not disputing the ability to interpret for oneself, I’m just real skittish about saying that each individual is the arbiter of their own definition of sexism, as that is much less likely to foster real debate and more likely to just shut out certain (traditionally unprivileged) interpretations.

    “Thanks again for commenting. I appreciate your passion on the issue, and for reading the article in the first place :-)”

    Well, thank you for responding, I appreciate the conversation. As for reading, when I found out about this site about a year ago, I pretty much lost my shit. There is nothing I like more than overthinking, and I appreciate what y’all do here.


  6. stokes OTI Staff #

    This is all super-interesting. I have a couple of quibbles. (No surprise there, I guess.)

    First, if you go back over my post, I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that Cassie had not been fridge-stuffed. Rather, she’s a Cassandra, which is not the same thing… overlap is possible, certainly, but I think not in this case. (Conflict, what conflict?)

    Second, Fenzel, how much time have you spent looking for this evidence? I’ll readily admit that my belief that depictions of disenfranchised groups are important is based mostly on received wisdom rather than hard data, which is a little embarrassing. But after reading this, I spent an hour or so on Google Scholar, and the evidence that does exist – though not overwhelming – seems to indicate that stereotypical portrayals do in fact have real-world effects. Interested parties who have access to JSTOR might want to skim through Sheila Murphy, “The Impact of Factual vs. Fictional Media Portrayals on Cultural Stereotypes,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Nov. 1998. Murphy suggests that reading about “hysterical” woman A makes us less likely to trust the legal testimony of woman B. Even if we know that woman A is fictional. And even if woman A, though hysterical, is honest. Now, that’s the dumbed down version… and granted, this is a far cry from, say, doing an analysis of what effect the film Inception, in particular, might have on our belief in woman B’s testimony. Or even from testing the effects of reading about a woman who was merely one-dimensional, rather than self-consciously “hysterical.” Or reading two accounts in a row, one hysterical and one not. And it’s all short term rather than long term, and doesn’t take into account what would happen if they had a discussion with their friends about the portrayal of woman A first, and so on. But I’m not inclined to discount it entirely in the name of… of what, exactly?

    That brings me to point number three. Your goal in all this seems to be defending a certain kind of artistic freedom. Why is that good? This seems like crazy talk, I know, but typically when we’re talking about artistic freedom, we’re talking about freedom from external censorship. It is bad to drag people off to jail because of what they say or write, obviously. No argument there. But the internal censor doesn’t do that. It’s just a little voice on your shoulder saying “Huh, maybe… maybe don’t do that.” No one dies. No one goes to jail. So what’s the problem? One potential answer – and the one it seems like you’re angling towards, although feel free to correct me – is the hedonistic defense. The internal censor makes for crappy art, therefore, to lessen the crappiness we must destroy the censor. Okay great, I’m all for making art more less-crappier. But the problem with this is that it suggests that the natural state of the artistic brain, before those pesky cultural critics contaminate it with their ideas, is one of pure and radical, almost Wagnerian freedom. And I flatly deny that this is the case. For anyone. The aesthetic judgement of “what best serves our piece” is not free. The notion that pure art is apolitical is not free. Ideas about the ethical/political appropriateness of depicting group X in way Y are different in kind, maybe, but they come from the same place. Honestly, I’m not at all sure that they’re even different in kind.

    To put this another way: the choice between art that is free and art that conforms to our political concerns is a false choice. Rather, we have the option of making art that is shaped by our political concerns, or art that is shaped by the politics we aren’t concerned by.


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      p.s. On the way that “psychological realism,” so-called, can lead to godawful writing, I am with you %100 of the way. I wonder though: how do you apply that to the novel? I tend myself to prefer Wodehouse and Fielding (Helen or Henry, actually) to more traditionally “good” and psychologically nuanced writers like, oh… I dunno. Fitzgerald, say, or Stendahl. But I always put that down to my literary taste not being particularly refined.


  7. Lawrence #

    This article is about Deadwood.


  8. dylan #

    “You mention “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as if it’s a war crime. It’s not, it’s just a movie. Outside the broader political discourse, it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

    I would argue that it can be hurtful, from a political discourse and personhood. Of course, not just “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, that movie alone probably did not hurt anyone, but it’s the narratives within it that adhere to the tiny amounts of narratives available for women that can deter from gender equality. Females in movies, plays, books can be (very generally) boiled down to having a marriage plot, a mother plot and an erotic plot. If these plots are the only available ones for women in things that we see over and over again, it can be very constraining and can halt progressions made in gender equality. Newer films with female protagonists that are targeted at a female audience mostly deal with balancing work with love (Sex and the City, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Bridget Jones’s Diary, etc.). It’s made out to be such a struggle to choose between work and a family, or such a struggle to do both, though men barely ever have this conflict. I think seeing it over and over again, having it presented as a huge decision females have to make, can deter from women taking jobs, or women having families. And I’m not trying to say it is not a hard choice, or isn’t hard to balance both, but that it is not a solely feminine decision. Men also have huge pressures to adhere to their gender stereotypes and there are many male characters that play into archetypes.
    I might be rambling again so I’ll try to get back to points fenzel made.

    I agree that one dimensional characters can be useful, but only if the writer is aware that the character is one dimensional and know why that would work for the story. I think that if you write a one dimensional female character adhering to stereotypes or even archetypes, and you don’t do it for a specific reason or even realize it, I think it’s fair to say that can be read as sexist (same goes for male characters). I think to make a film or write a character that could be considered feminist, one would have to know the narratives that surround the gender and subvert them. But this is rare and I wouldn’t go as far as AnneBonney to call the filmmaker sexist or to not watch any of their work again because if I didn’t ever watch anything I would read as sexist, I wouldn’t be watching very much ;)


    • AnneBonney #

      I agree with your points about stereotypes, and I think it’s borne out by Stokes’ research above, which was a great find. But I think you’re mischaracterizing what I said. I think I was very careful not to call Segel or any other individual sexist, because I don’t think it’s a good label to apply to people, and because, again, I don’t know that guy and can’t speak to his personal character at all. And you’re right that if one were to only watch feminist movies, you’d probably only got to the show once every two years tops, I don’t think it’s out of line to choose not to support films for political reasons. Frankly, I just don’t enjoy heavily sexist movies, they kind of raise my blood pressure, and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” isn’t my scene anyhow.

      But that’s all kind of nitpicking. This has been a really interesting discussion.


  9. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    This is all too big to wrap my head around at once, so I’m going to focus on something small. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” seems to be a touchstone in this comment thread. I haven’t seen it, so can somebody explain the sexism and/or one-dimensionality? Is “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” a particular egregious example of something, or is it merely typical of its ilk?


    • AnneBonney #

      While “Sarah Marshall” seems (to me) to be worse in degree though not in kind within the Apatovian type of male-focused romcoms, part of the reason I used it as an example is I had remembered
      this blogpost about it by Sady Doyle
      . She gives a pretty good rundown of the sexist elements; the thing that made me most angry when I saw it however long ago was the blowjob scene, which she describes but doesn’t explicate: I really, really hate the idea that a woman who can’t get you off is evil and the implication behind it that a woman who can’t or does not give you sexual release is not fulfilling her basic function, which is a moral failing as well as a sexual one. Also, Mila Kunis is not going to move from Hawaii to be with you because she was touched by your musical puppet show at the community theater; that is a Silly Idea.

      However, if I we want to take the focus off “Marshall”, I would also submit “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Taken” as my personally least favorite sexist films.


      • Gab #

        It’s kind of sad how “Apatovian” sounds so intellectual.


  10. Chatsworth Osborne Jr. #

    I must point out that the caption for the GTA picture is incorrect. The term ‘button-down’ refers to the collar, not merely the front closure.
    Hawaiian shirts generally feature a camp collar.


    • fenzel #

      This might be my favorite “well actually” I’ve seen yet :-)



  11. atskooc #

    though i like the 2005 version of “chocolate factory” better than the wilder one, i hated the back story given to wonka by burton. and the main reason i hate it is because burton explains in the movie why it’s unnecessary.

    in the glass elevator, charlie explains to mike teavee (is that how it’s spelled…been a while since i’ve read it) about how the whole wonka-verse works. mike is complaining that nothing in the factory makes sense. charlie says (something along the lines of), “candy doesn’t have to make sense, that’s why it’s candy.”

    willy wonka has become synonymous with candy…it’s what he is and what he lives for. candy doesn’t need explaining, and neither does wonka. why does he do what he does? because he’s willy-freaking-wonka. that’s all the reason he needs. and we certainly don’t need to know anything else.

    wonka needs not the third dimension. in fact, he works better without it.


  12. Gab #

    I think I understand the spirit of the article, and the comments thus far have definitely assisted in that. But I’m concerned, as I think a couple other commenters are, that the argument(s) you’re making open the pathway to insensitivity. If Person A’s opinion about artwork a piece of artwork is completely different from, yet just as valid and substantial as, B’s, and we’re supposed to leave it at that, how is that not “agreeing to disagree”? Please elaborate on this for me.

    As of now, my interpretation is thus:

    What you’re asking for sounds like pluralism, but in a kind of surface, level way, one that is dismissive of the oppositional viewpoint- by accepting its validity and moving on, it becomes more like a hand-wave than true understanding. Which can lead to simply turning to look the other way in the face of something bad, to sitting back and allowing for wrong to continue. This kind of pluralism is dangerous yet promoted by some political theorists and philosophers, while others criticize it. Personally, I believe in pluralism in the sense that Isaiah Berlin champions, meaning agreeing to disagree, but also recognizing and taking note of the differences and then adjusting one’s own opinion accordingly by (and this is somewhat Millian, too) sort of not-doing-what-they do (Marcus Aurelius: “The best form of vengeance is to not do likewise.” or Sitting Bull: “It is not necessary that the eagles be crows.”), or using the intellectual exercise of cataloging those differences as a means of enhancing your own position (and I’m really butchering Berlin and Mill, here- like any political philosophy, there is a lot more to the argument).

    I guess my point is if we aren’t supposed to call each other out on things we disagree with, we run the danger of allowing for truly morally repugnant, genuinely hurtful behavior to continue. And if a person isn’t willing to adjust their behavior at least a little because of the potential of being called out and (and this is the crux) they willfully and knowingly produce a work of art that could hurt someone or a group of people, they are, imo, a pos. If it’s on accident, it’s forgivable, especially if they express remorse when called to answer for it and, again (and especially), adjust their behavior/artwork in the future accordingly. But producers of art that perpetually make the same “mistake” aren’t making a mistake, they’re doing whatever is is they’re doing consciously and deliberately. Even if the intent isn’t to hurt, per say, if you know what you’re doing is hurtful regardless, continuing it is just not okay with me.

    (So while I haven’t seen that Sarah Marshall movie, I can’t watch Judd Apatow films any longer because his movies always feature the shrewy, bitchy female roles that get under my skin and make me feel like a cheese grater is rubbing up against my skull. He has been called out on it before, and he still does it- so while at first I’d be on the same page as AnneBonney and say it’s the art I find sexist, not the man, the fact that he keeps doing the same bloody thing, and, further, laughs it off whenever called out on it in interviews, says to me he himself is sexist and believes women are really like that. Which only makes me want to watch his movies less. Which makes me sad, because I heart Paul Rudd.)

    ::end moral high-horse::


    • fenzel #

      “But I’m concerned, as I think a couple other commenters are, that the argument(s) you’re making open the pathway to insensitivity.”

      Think about the risk presented by this for a second. I mean, we’re not even talking about being insensitive (which is stil a very venal sin, especially if it happens incidentally). We are not even talking about “taking the pathway to insensitivity.” We are talking about opening the path so that at some point in the future, some person might move from point A to point B and, horror of horrors, become insensitive.

      On the contrary, as a writer, I’d say closing the pathway to insensitivity shuts out a huge, legitimate swath of human experience. So many people are insensitive to so much! Can we really not portray this in art? Are we expecting art to not pariticipate at all in this commonplace attitude? I think if we demand art never be insensitive, we are putting some huge limits on it, that, frankly, aren’t generally worth the cost, since people are going to be insensitive anyway.

      But at the same time, I recognize that your statement is really part of a long tradition of building semantics around “cultural sensitivity,” which doesn’t really mean faculty of emotional perception, but really refers to holding certain social norms and beliefs about people’s ability to coexist and get along.

      So, if I support those norms and beliefs, then I should make a political choice to buy into the term “cultural sensitivity,” because it’s a sticky part of the discourse that gets things done, even if I don’t really agree what it means or think its principles should be applied as a rule to the work that I’m talking about.

      The urgency and importance of taking the political stand has to do with what is going on in the environment – the broader context, it isn’t something we should think of as an eternal rule we should always obey or part of the nature of art.

      “If Person A’s opinion about artwork a piece of artwork is completely different from, yet just as valid and substantial as, B’s, and we’re supposed to leave it at that, how is that not “agreeing to disagree”? Please elaborate on this for me.”

      Well, we don’t leave at that – it develops and evolves over time into a discourse.

      A lot of language doesn’t overtly state it’s purpose and assumes a lot of information. Take this example, which is sort of based on a Dinosaur Comic I can’t quite remember.

      “Hey, what does Luke want for his birthday?”
      “He doesn’t have a leather jacket.”

      The second statement pretty strongly implies a relationship with the first statement – that this information is somehow relevant to the discussion.

      Now, let’s say Luke in on a five-year trip deep into the Amazon rain forest, and that he is allergic to chemicals they use to treat leather. Let’s say I know both these things, and know that getting Luke a leather jacket for his birthday would be a terrible idea.

      By saying “He doesn’t have a leather jacket,” I’m not _saying_ you should get him one. I’m not even _saying_ anything about his birthday at all. I’m just _saying_ he doesn’t have one. Right?

      Wrong, dingbat! Because of the context, you are definitely saying that this leather jacket has something to do with Luke’s birthday!

      Well, you didn’t _say_ it!

      Well, that’s not how _saying_ works!

      This kind of argument happens on the Internet all the time, and of course it is tiresome. The main takeaway is that a statement or judgment does not mean the same thing in different contexts. In one context, “Luke doesn’t have a leather jacket” can mean “You should buy him one for his birthday.” In another context, it could mean “Luke is a pretty cool guy, but he’s not _that_ cool.” In another it could mean “Um, Luke’s clothes-vegan or whatever you call it.”

      Consider writing and talking about the same play. Say that Stokes and I are watching a play, and he leans into me and whispers, “That character there is sexist.” Implied here is the subtext, “Hey, here is my opinion on this thing. I want to hear your opinion; let’s start a conversation about it.” Because of the context of the conversation, we’re almost certainly not going to do anything – if this conversation has an impact on anybody, it’ll be as part of some broader social aggregate way down the road.

      Now say there’s a married couple next to us, and the man leans in toward the other man (Ha! Look at me break expectations!) and whispers, “That character is really progressive!” about the same character. This statement also means “Hey, here is my opinion on this thing. I want to hear your opinion; let’s start a conversation about it.”

      The important thing being said is, “Let’s talk about this art in this context.” Despite being opposite to one another, the two statements mean close to the same thing in their contexts. Relative to the functions in their respetive conversations, the differences in the judgements about the character are relatively minor.

      And, on top of THAT, it’s extremely possible that both conversations will end with the EXACT SAME RESULT. The conversations end up beign really similar, and the people afterward have been reinforced in very similar ideas, even though their evaluations of the character were different. The phenomenological impact of the piece on the population is the fact that the conversation exists — from the standpoint of results – the standpoint of real-world impact, in this case, the actual character doesn’t really matter that much and isn’t a big part of why the discussion is happening and what it is doing.

      Think about a person this conversation actually affects — say, a 12 year old girl who is deciding to enter an advanced math class or not. That’s a real world impact, and phenomenology is going to affect her. This is the kind of person we worry about when we are applying feminist discourse to a problem.

      I would say that feminism in general isn’t synthetic or a priori – it is concerned with _real people_. If a sexist character prompts a conversation that gets people to think seriously about this issue, and then these people talk to this girl’s parents at a party, and then the dad goes home and says something encouraging to his daughter about standing up for herself, there has been a ripple effect in the discourse that has extended far beyond the initial character.

      These ripple effects are what matter. Feminism is not an abstract realm of discussion – it is motivated by needs in the real world. And in this example (and humor me when I say maybe it works out this way – I am saying it possibly works out this way) even though the disagreements and points made in the original discussions about the character were not pluralistic, the conflicting judgements have the same result in the culture and end up playing far more similar roles in the goals and framework of feminist discours than the attendant disagreement would have one believe is possible.

      When people talk abotu knowledge not being black and white, it doesn’t just mean there are shades of gray – it’s more like saying there are shades of “up” and “F sharp” – ways in which operates on completely different axes from the dialectic set up in the initial disagreement.

      Now imagine Stokes and I are _writing_ the same play. We’re at the Coffee Pot on 9th Avenue, and I look up from my notebook and cafe au lait and Stokes say, “Pete, I think this character is sexist.”

      This statement in this context is _very very different_. In this context, this statement means “I think we need to change this character.”

      It calls for immediate action, it makes a strong value judgement, and if I instead defend the character and say it’s progressive, it results in a conversation with a very different purpose to it than the social/critical conversation of the same work, because it affects the piece we are writing a lot.

      And then maybe this character turns into the character we talked about in the first example, where changing the character, while important by one judgment, doesn’t actually end up having a different result in the world or in the discourse, so maybe there wasn’t really a moral reason to change in the first place.

      This is what I mean when I say an individual character can’t be sexist. Sexism is a posteriori (pun intended) – it depends on what the work actually does, and there are a lot of moving parts between the character and the effect it has in the world.

      You might say “Well, I didn’t _say_ you had to change the character!”

      And to that I say, “That’s not how _saying_ works.”


      • AnneBonney #

        “So many people are insensitive to so much! Can we really not portray this in art?”

        This is a red herring. I don’t believe that Gab is saying that there are topics of the human experience that aren’t available as subjects; I interpret her to say (and I am saying myself) that the problem is not in what you are saying, but how you are saying it. After all, this discussion originally wasn’t about a play in which a character was an insensitive playwright writing a sexist character or play. Unless the author is inserting hir own “insensitivities” purposefully in the art, to display those attitudes as a point of discussion, then the work is not ABOUT those problematic points, but just HAS them.

        Personal anecdote: I’m homeschooling my teenage sister who is interested in (pop)art, so I took her last weekend to the local museum. There was an installation piece of a rabbit-like costume made out of what looked like medium brown mosquito or bee netting. We looked at it and discussed it and then I read the note with the author information beside it. It mentions that the work is about changing identity because the dark color of the material would hide the wearer’s skin color. I was struck by this, because while true for me and my sister (we’re both white and fair-skinned), it is flagrantly false for a whole host of people of a lot of people of color, who would be the same color or darker. I took a minute to process, and then I pointed the blurb out to her, asked if she saw anything strange about it. She didn’t, and then I explained: the curator who wrote the blurb (and perhaps the author as well) had assigned meaning to this work from a place of privilege, assuming that whoever would wear the suit (it also weirdly pointed out that it was not wearable) and whoever would read the blurb would of course have lighter skin than the brown material. That was my fun “Oh look! Some white privilege!” teaching moment of that day.

        Now, yes, that conversation with my sis was a good thing, and I hope that it gives her something to think about and she will be able to recognize that sort of unthinking racism herself. But not just in others, outside in our culture, but I honestly hope she can learn to recognize it in herself, in her own art. I used to think a lot of stupid shit when I was a kid, and I still do have attitudes that are harmful to others, and where I see this social conditioning pop up in my own thoughts, I play a little “Don’t be a dick” wack-a-mole. That, I think, is the point here. You claim there is no a priori sexism, and I think that robs individuals of evaluating their thoughts and actions and preventing themselves from harming others in sexist ways. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to be hurt by what we say or do to be able to evaluate it.

        In your example of the play and the conversations between those two groups of people, I agree that those conversations are loci of reflection and change, and that the political discourse around art is incredibly important, even on small scales. But it sounds to me like you are defending the right of an artist to make sexist art in order to bring about those conversations. Essentially, it sounds like you are arguing for the right of artists to troll their audiences.

        I believe firmly in the ability of art to provoke, to provoke emotion, thought and discourse. But willfully flaunting sexist or racist or homophobic stereotypes isn’t provocative. It’s reinforcing the dominant narratives, and the conversations that’s going to provoke are not of universal value. This:
        A: “Women hate sex, that’s why there are no real lesbians and they all get alimony in divorces!”
        B: “Uhh, that’s verifiably, both with data and anecdata, wrong. And sexist, I think.”
        A: “No it’s not! You don’t have a sense of humor and need to get laid!”
        is not a conversation I think will really touch people and cause them to reflect. It is not a discourse that has phenomenological value. There is no work that’s going to be done. And frankly, I think it does cause actual, personal harm to Person B.

        What I need, in my real world, from feminism, from art and from other people, is to move the starting point of the conversation. Move it away from “Do women really have thoughts?” and “What do all women want?” to “What does this woman think?” and “What is this individual woman like?” Because one of the phenomenological outputs of sexism is making me really goddamn tired of defending positions, like that not all women are shrieking harpies nor sexbots, that should be obvious, but somehow often are genuinely disputed in the general culture.

        So, sure, an artist has a right to create art with sexist elements if zie chooses. I do not dispute that. That artist, when confronted with the apparent sexism of the art, can also deny that sexism, or disagree with the claimants. That’s all true too. There’s no imperative to change the art, if the creator doesn’t want to. But the next step is then that the audience gets to decide for themselves, like Gab did, what it means that the artist didn’t listen to the critique, or listened but just didn’t care. Their response is then based on the art and the actions of the artist, and is just as valid, because that disagreement is _saying_ something too. But it’s not saying that the artist is doing the audience a favor with hir sexism by “fostering debate”. Because that’s essentially saying that it’s more important to have one more argument about what is sexist in the world, than to have one less piece of sexism, and I can’t understand how anyone could _say_ that.


        • fenzel #

          “the work is not ABOUT those problematic points, but just HAS them.”

          Okay, again, there’s “has” and there’s “has.”

          From a mimetic standpoint, “has” is a subset of “is about.” One of the ways art can be about something is to portray it. Unless you’re insisting on art being really pedantic, in this instance, I don’t think there’s a clear line between the two.

          For example, consider a play about alcoholism that just has one scene, where an alcoholic beats up his family. That’s it. Guy, let’s say, comes home, drinks half a bottle of whiskey, and hits his wife and children. That’s the entirety of the play.

          It is “about” inhumanity and violence.

          It “has” inhumanity and violence.

          Not really a difference. But in the broader discourse, we still don’t really know what the phenomenology of this play is in a vacuum. Is it pro-violence or anti-violence? Context matters, because we’re talking about a real-world effect, not something synthetic in the fiction – and the audience reaction to it has a lot to do with the effect it has.

          Another great example of this is “Reefer Madness.” Reefer Madness originally had anti-marijuana phenomenology. But now it very certainly has pro-marijuana phenomenology.

          I think since we care so much about fiction in our hyperreality, there’s a tendency to be essentialist about the politics of art. I really don’t think that essential thing is there. I think you disagree and think it really can “have” this normative, real-world applicable quality without considering the relationship between the work and the audience. But I don’t really buy that.

          Oh, it looks like you came out and said something I can be clear and simple about!!

          “Essentially, it sounds like you are arguing for the right of artists to troll their audiences.”

          Yes, definitely. This should be something artists should not be forbidden from doing.

          “I believe firmly in the ability of art to provoke, to provoke emotion, thought and discourse. But willfully flaunting sexist or racist or homophobic stereotypes isn’t provocative.”


          I think this is probably where our difference of opinion is clearest. To me this sounds like a prudence you are bringing to the table that doesn’t meaningfully encompass all of art and is needlessly restrictive and limiting as to what art is capable of doing – as well as a bit of wishful thinking about human nature.

          I don’t think it fully encompasses what our differences of opinion are, but it’s a pretty big difference if you actually think that.

          I guess the example that comes to mind most quickly (although there are more examples of this than I can count – all you have to do is go to a drag show and you’ll see like a dozen of them). Is the famous prodution of The Emperor Jones by the Wooster Group, which they’ve done a couple of times.

          “It’s reinforcing the dominant narratives, and the conversations that’s going to provoke are not of universal value.”

          Can’t you see, though, that the “dominant narratives” are qualities of the outside discourse, not of the art itself? That if the “dominant narratives” aren’t there (and there’s no essential reason why they have to be there – remember how much the interpretation of art changes years after the artist’s death), then this function just plain doesn’t happen?

          And can we really say with certainty what specific conversations a piece of art is going to provoke? I would say no. I would say that if a piece of art provokes conversations that lead to ends that are morally objectionable, then the people having the conversations are definitely part of the complex here that is applying moral force, and that it does not reside entirely in the artist?

          And then, shouldn’t we look not at the kernel in the art as the sole generator of this, but the social environment as the much more powerful engine driving forward all this activity?

          This is all consistent with what I’ve said before — that in creating art, sure, consider the consequences, but also consider what a tiny and limited and unpredictable part of the consequences you are.

          Chopping away at a play because millions of people might react to it in a certain way because of beliefs that they have already developed over the course of decades, generations and centuries and conversations they may or may not have over weeks and months and years seems to grossly overstate the political importance of the play.

          And even so, all that notwithstanding, if the writer does have a clear idea that their art will really do this — will really have this effect — then for political reasons perhaps the artist should not move forward publishing or distributi9ng this art at this time.

          But what we’re talking about here is social discourse, not, say, playwriting. There is nothing essential to any one play that causes all these things to happen. And when you’re writing one play, you have a different perspective than if you’re critiquing an entire civilization.

          “That artist, when confronted with the apparent sexism of the art, can also deny that sexism, or disagree with the claimants. That’s all true too. There’s no imperative to change the art, if the creator doesn’t want to. But the next step is then that the audience gets to decide for themselves, like Gab did, what it means that the artist didn’t listen to the critique, or listened but just didn’t care. Their response is then based on the art and the actions of the artist, and is just as valid, because that disagreement is _saying_ something too. But it’s not saying that the artist is doing the audience a favor with hir sexism by “fostering debate”. Because that’s essentially saying that it’s more important to have one more argument about what is sexist in the world, than to have one less piece of sexism, and I can’t understand how anyone could _say_ that.”

          Maybe the thing missing here is that it’s kind of important for artists, the prime value of art isn’t necessarily what other people think. The condemnation of others isn’t really a strong enough reason for any artist to do anything artistic – oh, political sure, maybe they want to be nice or get out of trouble, but if you don’t write your pieces a certain way because you are afraid people won’t like them, well, that’s a pretty weak and counterproductive way of going about being an artist.

          Also, through this whole thing, I am talking about situations in which the artist him or herself makes a moral judgement about his or her art, which definitely does carry an imperative to change it. That’s how we’re getting past this issue of social condemnation – we’re looking for a moral imperative that means something and isn’t just one coalition advancing a narrative vying for dominance with another coalition advancing a narrative, which, even if it is important, isn’t artistically essential.

          And, though we’re now in the political realm rather than the artistic, sexism is not a disease that exists in discrete chunks that you can get rid of by carving it out of the body like a cancer, piece by piece. That isn’t how prejudice and its effect on society works.

          And expunging all objectionable images through social condemnation and censorship until an idea we don’t like simply doesn’t exist anymore sounds like a great idea when it’s _your_ idea, but there are some pretty huge, massive, ginormous moral problems with anybody systematically doing this.

          Ideas are not arithmetic in their impact. Two ideas or two instances of an idea are not double one.

          I think you have to use a different method for advancing progressive discoure than expecting to exterminate all instances of an opposing viewpoint.


          • fenzel #

            Here’s another example. Let’s take a hypothetical artistic portrayal of graphic sex in the mid-1800s.

            Almost everybody who came across such a thing in a given sort of group of peopl would think this thing is bad. Awful. Immoral.

            Their impulse might be “Don’t publish this! Strike it from every record! Burn the book!”

            But their political goal in doing this is sexual propriety. Strong marriages. Fidelity.

            Have they really demonstrated that depictions of graphic sex cause people to be unfaithful, or are they just assuming that something they think is distasteful and provokes in them a negative emotional reaction is necessarily bad, and then creating a political argument backwards from that?

            What if people’s marriages would be stronger if they were more honest with each other about their sexuality? What if this meant confronting some of their darker or more socially objectionable impulses, which they are afraid to do because of condemnation?

            This is where the artist can step in and be a force that has an independent purpose, but can participate in political sexual discourse in a variety of ways.

            It is not at all certain that mentioning instances of immoral, graphic sex less will make people less sexually moral. That’s intuitive, sure, but I think history and experience confirm it is not correct. Repression does not equal virtue.

            I would cite studies that show how virginity pledges increase the prevalence of STDs:


            Cordoning yourself off from something – shutting out a particular side of human experience – doesn’t necessarily make you a more virtuous person or lead to behaviors that end up contributing positively to the goal you are trying to achieve.

          • fenzel #

            One thing I’ll add, though, is the broader the scope you’re talking about, the clearer the discursive weight of a particular work becomes.

      • AnneBonney #

        And I’m sorry if I’m being painfully earnest here, or missing some tongue-in-cheek aspect of your posts. I do appreciate this discussion, I think it’s worthwhile, but surely you can understand how some aspects of it might be frustrating. You admit to the tiresomeness often found in internet discussions: it’s those kinds of things that have made me more strident and have screwed the calibration on my humorscope. I hope that doesn’t overshadow the goodwill and good faith I’m bringing to this.


        • fenzel #

          Of course not! How many times do I have to say this is okay?

          This is okay :-)


          • Gab #

            I’ve reread this a few times, and I’m sorry, I’m not following how your first response to me relates to the point I was trying to make, so allow me to try again.

            First, perhaps “insensitivity” is the wrong word to use, since it gets thrown around so much lately. I’m not sure what else to call it, though, not one word I can use, at least. So perhaps willful negligence? Intentional reckless behavior? I’m not trying to talk about the political-correctness or lack thereof of society. In fact, I do get sick of the hypersensitivity of the far left more often than not. I’m talking about what can happen if all actions and opinions are allowed to float around unchecked while people know some aspect of them could hurt someone else. When a person knows what they do could not just offend, but actually hurt someone, and they do it anyway. *This* is where I believe the self-censorship should come into play, and I believe people that do not practice this self-censorship deserve the public condemnation. I do not abide by arguments that boil down to, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” in reference to the people getting hurt by a message or line of discourse, arguments basically telling people to suck it up because that’s how a free society works, for they implicitly take away that individual or group’s right to respond. This is one step away from metaphorically seeing a person get punched in the face for no reason, then asking them to apologize to the person that punched them (I feel like I’ve said something similar somewhere else on this site before… Sorry if I’m repeating myself, in that regard). Perhaps this is because it is in my nature to be protective of others, but I don’t see how subjecting someone to something painful on purpose, or allowing for it to happen, is beneficial for anyone involved, in an ethical way, at least. Someone may get off on making others unhappy, so yeah, they’d get something out of it; but that is kind of sick to me, and this is one place we fundamentally disagree:

            I loathe the very notion of trolls or trolling. The whole idea of taunting people and treating them as poorly as possible “for the lolz” is morally repugnant to me, whether it’s to their face or over the internet. I know I’m making a lot of value judgments and normative statements, here, but trolling is a practice I find extremely distasteful, and I try to avoid them as much as possible. It also makes me somewhat self-conscious when I do things like I am right now (meaning express my opinion- Lord knows I’m opinionated), because I do not want to be accused of trolling- again, It is not necessary that the eagles be crows. And I’d rather be an eagle. Now, full disclosure: I may give a friend a hard time about something every so often to get a laugh but that laughter is meant to come *from them*, not myself or someone else, first. And if I ever realize I actually hurt them, I feel absolutely terrible and immediately apologize profusely and stop whatever it was I was doing. So maybe I am a hypocrite that way- but only at first. I at least knock the f*ck off. Trolls, on the other hand, would keep going because of some sadistic tendency I honestly cannot comprehend. The difference is, I practice self-censorship, and they don’t.

            AnneBonney has me right in that I’m not really against the message you have, but the way you expressed it, because I think it leads to lots of behaviors and practices that I see as causing harm to people and not really being beneficial to society. It’s one thing to create a piece of art that causes discourse, it’s another to create one that causes harm. What I’m saying is, sure, a person can make a piece of art, but others should be allowed to say it hurts them somehow. I think this last part is what’s lacking in your argument. Maybe I’m being too reductive, but the impression I get is the way you’re wording it, you’d turn the censorship onto the audience, saying the artist has every right to upset them, but that they have no right to say so when it does. I don’t think that’s your intent, but that’s an underlying message I’m picking up on- which makes me uncomfortable. It’s like when you (universal “you”) read a theoretical framework and you comprehend the underlying principle, but there are nuances in the wording or portrayal opening some cracks that could lead to serious flaws in achieving that original principle. I appreciate the forest, but there are some trees that I find rather troublesome.

            Maybe the thing missing here is that it’s kind of important for artists, the prime value of art isn’t necessarily what other people think. The condemnation of others isn’t really a strong enough reason for any artist to do anything artistic – oh, political sure, maybe they want to be nice or get out of trouble, but if you don’t write your pieces a certain way because you are afraid people won’t like them, well, that’s a pretty weak and counterproductive way of going about being an artist.

            While condemnation had come up in what I personally have argued, it is not the fear of condemnation I believe should pull artists or anyone engaging in public discourse from being hurtful- it is the being hurtful itself that should. And again, if they choose to do it anyway, the people they hurt should then be allowed to condemn them. Being conscious of what people may think isn’t quite what I’m getting at. I’m more concerned with a lack of concern for others that artists may be allowed to have.

            Also, through this whole thing, I am talking about situations in which the artist him or herself makes a moral judgement about his or her art, which definitely does carry an imperative to change it.

            As have I. I agree with this 100%. WEEE! And this is why, trolls aside, I don’t think we’re fundamentally at odds with each other.

            And expunging all objectionable images through social condemnation and censorship until an idea we don’t like simply doesn’t exist anymore sounds like a great idea when it’s _your_ idea, but there are some pretty huge, massive, ginormous moral problems with anybody systematically doing this.

            I, at least, am not saying the censorship needs to come from without. I have been arguing it should come from within first- and then, a person affronted should be allowed to confront the source of that affronted feeling. It isn’t outside censorship I believe should bring about social change, since you can’t really change peoples’ ethics or morals by making a law. But if they are allowed to go around hurting other people and never get called out on it, they are never even going to question that what they’re doing may, in fact, be causing harm to others- and here is where society will remain stagnant. Open discourse is what eventually brings real change, not censorship or laws.

            I see the analogy you made with the sex thing, and I get it. But I feel like an accusation of an aspect of a play being sexist is very different from prudish Victorians. However:

            This is where the artist can step in and be a force that has an independent purpose, but can participate in political sexual discourse in a variety of ways.

            Abso-effing-lutely. Art itself can be a source of awareness and change, and if its purpose is to make people aware of a f*cked up set of norms, by all means, make your art that way! BE provocative and piss people off. BUT, people should be allowed to get pissed off at it. Further, there is a difference between a piece of art MEANT to cause social awareness and change and an aspect of a piece of art without that goal that, nonetheless, hurts people. A huuuuge difference. Calling a character in a play “sexist” when the play isn’t about sexism is perfectly legitimate. Especially when, as you said, it can create a dialogue. Your depiction of the two opposing conversations is great, that’s what art at its best does- but that example also construes the point I was making into something entirely different. But I have already said what I was trying to say before, a few times now. And you’re probably sick of me and my circumlocution powers. Sorry. They’re over 9000.

  13. Timothy J Swann #

    I feel the need for something about characters involving network theory – which is coming through in social psychology in a way not unlike how Mr. Fenzel describes the need to consider the full Sisterhood – that people don’t act, especially socially, in isolation. There’s a similar importance of sociological/economic factors in mental health. At its most basic, we’re talking about the Bechdel test. Above and beyond this, we’re looking at character interactions, which necessarily ought to reveal full dimensionality.


  14. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    I’m proposing some sort of award for Outstanding Achievement in a Comment Thread, bestowed upon all participants. I think it should be called the There-Is-No-Godwin Award.

    – Matt


  15. AnneBonney #

    @Fenzel again

    I’m going to take some time to look at your first link (I’m familiar with the second) and respond to it later on, but I wanted to slow you up on the topic of censorship. At no point on my side of this discussion, and I think you would be hard-pressed to point out where I gave the opposite impression, did this leave the level of an artist’s responsibility to hirself, hir audience and hir culture. I did not and do not advocate censorship like you suggest. Censorship is a government act, and no amount of me speaking against flagrant sexism in art and culture will become censorship. Likewise, I don’t think there is much commonality between my position calling for artists to aware of prejudice in their work and erring on the side of not contributing to dominant narratives of sexism/racism/etc. and abstinence-only educators or Victorian moralists.

    Also, while I understand and accept the potential to subvert cultural products (like Reefer Madness), but I really don’t understand that concept’s place in this discussion. Surely if those responsible for creating Reefer Madness knew that it would in fact be received as the laughingstock it became or as part of a pro-drug narrative, they would have reconsidered their art. It is expressly against their desired goals to contribute to that narrative, and if they were aware of that, they’d revise.

    “I really don’t think that essential thing is there. I think you disagree and think it really can “have” this normative, real-world applicable quality without considering the relationship between the work and the audience.”

    I don’t really disagree with you, and I agree with the importance of a context. But I ask, where is this context where sexism doesn’t exist? Where sexist social narratives don’t corroborate sexist political narratives and cause actual oppression in people’s lives? (I would like to get a timeshare there, because this context? It’s kind of crap.) I think where we actually disagree is in view of that context and the pervasiveness of the harm it causes.

    Finally (for now), I’m aware that there is no such thing as a unit of oppression — though, yeah, I’m going to think one up now :) — and that “two ideas or two instances of an idea are not double one.” But if not through the proliferation of separate instances of an idea, if not through the ubiquity and acceptance of certain tropes and concepts, does culture get made? These narratives don’t spring fully formed in armor from the void, nor do they persist tenaciously in the face opposition for no damn reason. Each piece of art plays into or against or around or through these narratives. It’s a complex goo of overdetermination, but I think that you are vastly underestimating what pieces of art can mean, both on their own and in tandem with each other. I think it’s apparent that sexist attitudes are still working through our culture, and when there are conversations about them, “it’s just a joke” or “it’s just a movie” are still common ways to shut that conversation down, in favor of the harmful over those hurt, and I think that’s a conclusion of what you’re advocating.


  16. Gab #

    In Re: Wonka.

    There’s a mashup of clips from the old version and the audio of the newest Tron: Legacy trailer on the tubes of You. They use Gene Wilder’s Willy as the Jeff Bridges character EXCEPT when, during the original trailer, he’s the bad guy. When it’s supposed to be “bad” Jeff, the person making the mashup put in clips of Johnny Depp’s Willy. And that’s the only time there are clips from the Tim Burton version. I think that says a lot about how the person making the thing feels about the two movies, and I have no doubts they feel that way because of exactly what you said about the first portrayal of Wonka.


  17. Hailey #

    This is a very well-written and compellingly argued article, but I think it represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of sexism in film. While I agree with your Grand Theft Auto argument, it cannot be applied to issues like racism and sexism. The whole problem is that they have an effect which is much more insidious and subtle than inspiring outwardly sexist or racist actions.

    For example, Gone With the Wind is almost universally considered a racist movie. I think it would be hard to find an example of someone who watched that movie and decided to go out and buy a slave, or more realistically, though that maybe the film was right and slavery wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Based on your line of argument, Gone With the Wind is not a racist film. But I challenge anyone to watch the film and honestly agree with that statement.

    The same applies to sexism in film. The issue isn’t what people watch happening to women and then go out and do to them, it is the constant, subconscious battery of reminders of what women are supposed to be and allowed to do according to popular culture. Sure, no one is going to watch The Dark Knight and decide to go blow up women in a warehouse. But they are going to watch The Dark Knight and Inception and hundreds of movies over the course of their life that are all saying the same thing: women are ultimately disposable and unimportant helpers on the emotional journeys of the men in their lives. This isn’t a literal emulation like you suggested that it must be, but an acceptance and reinforcement of the general roles that women are expected to play. Archetypes, one might even say. Women are the tragic victims that spur revenge, the jealous, delusional wives, or the loving, and clever proteges that should never use that love and brightness on themselves, but expend it all on the male hero. They have no agency or interest in and of themselves. This is a terrible, sexist message for women and girls to spend their entire life being bombarded with, and I find it a fatal flaw in an otherwise very compelling article.


  18. Felicia #

    Very interesting article. I find I like my one dimensional characters as well. I also find that showing traits in characters via actions they do is a better method than having it discussed in mechanical and forced diolouge.

    A thought on the supposed sexism of one dimensional female characters. It’s bunk. Pure bunk. I am a woman and I am constantly told by my husband that he LIKES the mystery of women. It is one of the things that fascinate men about us. Most men, and this is a generalization from my own experience and what I’ve read, don’t understand women, find us very mystifying but find themselves to be very simple creatures. Hence, men are easily made 3 dimensional, but the idea of trying to add more dimensions to the women in their stories becomes problematic, because they just don’t get women. So they stick to the one dimension they get and leave the rest to mystery.

    I would consider it more insulting to have men making three dimensional female characters left right and center, and I balk at them knowing us so well that they can. We are women, we are SUPPOSED to have secrets, so men can spend their lives figuring us out!

    That’s just my own two cents and please remember, this is a generalization of one issue and in no way ends all aspects of the discussion in my mind. Just saying.


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