I have a degree in cultural media studies. What that means is my university didn’t have a screenwriting degree track, so I had to do “cultural studies” and then focus on screenwriting since that’s what I really wanted to do. But what that also means is that I learned fascinating ways to look at media, “read” it, dissect it, discuss it. These are things I love to do. Not to argue for or against any point of view, mind, but simply to talk about a book or movie or television show from this or that angle. All points of view, if they can be supported by solid example, are valid.
Except not everyone believes that last bit.
Death of the Author
This phrase is used specifically in literary theory, but it can be applied to any media. It’s the idea that, once a text leaves the creator’s control and goes out into the world to be read, the author’s intentions are… I won’t say worthless, but they are not the only valid lens through which to read said text. I subscribe to this belief. As an author, if someone reads a book of mine and says, “This is really about xyz, and here’s why I think that!” and can back it up with concrete reasoning, I’m all for it. Maybe I as the author consciously embedded that theme or maybe not, but I’m always glad to hear that someone took the time to think about something I wrote. Therefore, whenever I hear an author or filmmaker get angry about an interpretation of their work, it puts me off a bit. If the perception is unflattering—if, for example, someone is saying a work is racist or homophobic—I can, to a degree, understand a creator getting his or her back up about such a claim. Particularly in today’s culture of things being construed as either all good or all bad and there being nothing in between. That’s problematic. Cultural studies is about being open to many points of view, but at the same time we don’t “cancel” something based on one viewpoint. To simply discard a work because there is something about it that could be understood as “bad” is… Well, it’s the creation of an ideological echo chamber. It’s the same as saying, “I will not look at anything that I don’t agree with. AND I don’t think anyone else should be allowed to look at it either.” This perspective close-minded and militant, and no one learns anything from it.
That said, there are times when some media should not be given the benefit of that doubt. When a text is overtly harmful to one or more groups of people—that is, it incites hate against that group—that’s just plain hate speech and does not deserve tolerance. Cancel that shit.
The difficulty sometimes comes in knowing whether something really is hate speech. That’s when, if an author or creator is still living, people often turn to them for clarification.
Separating the Art from the Artist
In a world with so much more access to creators thanks to Twitter and other social media, we know more than ever before about the those who write and make our favorite books and movies. That’s not always a good thing.
On the whole, I agree with the argument that a work of art should speak for itself. This goes along with the idea of the death of the author; if a creator wanted to get a point across, he or she must wait to see if they did a good enough job. If many people read a book and come away with the idea (or feeling) the author intended, the author wrote well. If most of the readers miss the point, the author needs to do better next time. In short, a work should not require the author’s input after the fact to make itself clear. It should, in the absence of the author, be the voice of whatever the author wants to say.
But, like with text messages and email, sometimes tone is misconstrued. Authors need to be prepared for that possibility, too.
YET. Now that readers and audiences are used to hearing directly from authors and other celebrities via social media, it becomes increasingly impossible to separate the art from the artist. One might consciously parse a text and not take into account anything about the creator. But a reader or viewer cannot stop knowing what they know. If I read a book, and I know that the author is homophobic, even if I try to take the text on its own merit, I cannot help knowing about the homophobia underlying its construction. I may try to enjoy the book, but chances are I’m not going to be able to.
Which is why so many people, once they learn something about an author (e.g., J. K. Rowling) or filmmaker (e.g., Woody Allen) can no longer bring themselves to read or watch their works. They can no longer enjoy them because in the backs of their minds, they know something about these creators that colors their consumption of that media. It’s like someone has poured poison all over what would otherwise have been a tasty meal. Never mind conscientious objectors not wanting to support and/or give money to certain points of view or lifestyles (for creators still alive and making a profit off their works).
In short, ignorance is bliss when it comes to consuming media.
At the same time, we all want to be educated about the media we consume.
Is there a solution?
Honestly, I don’t know. Because this is such a personal issue—because each person has his or her own levels of tolerance for things like this—there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some may decide to stay away from Twitter and other social media, as though reading info from or about favorite creators is the same as reading spoilers. These people really do just want to enjoy the work separate from the creator(s). Other people may hear things about a book, movie, author, filmmaker and decide to do his or her own sleuthing to decide how deep the rot goes. They must answer this question for themselves: Can the tree be saved? And some may have very strict personal standards that does not allow them to engage with media and/or creators that have problematic interpretations or stances. This is their right and their decision. They may choose to spread the word about what they know, but they must leave it to others to likewise decide for themselves whether or not to continue reading or watching works from questionable sources.
This is, of course, simply my take on this topic.
tl;dr 1. There are many different ways to interpret media and no one “right” way. Even if the creator says there is only one way, that creator cannot stop people from coming up with alternate views. 2. A piece of art (book, movie, etc.) should stand on its own and not require additional, outside input from the creator to explain it. Otherwise, it’s not a very good piece of art. 3. Once a reader or viewer knows something about a creator, that piece of information cannot be unknown and will necessarily color the consumer’s understanding and enjoyment of the media. 4. It’s up to each reader or viewer to decide what they will and will not tolerate from a creator. Those who have opted to “disinherit” a creator should not bully others into doing the same. 5. UNLESS that creator is using his or her power and/or privilege to engage in flat-out hate speech that harms a person or group of persons already at risk. In which case, that should not be tolerated.
A final note that there is a difference between being bullied for one’s opinion and being pushed back on when you’re actively harming others. Anecdotally, someone I know was surprised when her gay friends disowned her after she voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named. “What happened agreeing to disagree?” she asked. I told her that she had not simply “disagreed” with her gay friends—she had taken actual action against them. There is a difference. And it matters.