“We’re just holding up a mirror to society.”


This is obviously a reflection of the differences in body armor between men and women on actual battlefields. It’s just a mirror of society, right?

There is a certain view that tries to defend gratuitous violence or bigotry in journalism and the arts by arguing that the artist or journalist is “holding up a mirror to society.”

I accept that the word “gratuitous” depends on the meaning(s) you get from an art work or news piece, so this is a somewhat personal standard. But I think there’s plenty of areas where we can reasonably agree.

I think this expression can mean two things. It can mean an honest examination of how society is working. That’s fine and I accept that. But most of the time, I think it’s used as a justification for reproducing something wrong in society without analyzing it in any way.

What’s wrong with that? It is the same problem as for any other reproduction of abuse and violence: all such reproductions are problematic not only because they perpetuate abuse and violence, but because they normalize them as well, and ultimately provide reinforcement and/or justification for the belief in the validity of abuse and violence against women. This is what pornography does, this is what BDSM does, and this is what uncritical media depictions do.

The expression “holding up a mirror” conveys the narrative that the media merely reflects its ambient society in a diaphanous way, that society influences what the media shows but that the media does not influence society.

This is not only incorrect, but mendacious at best. As I’ve commented before, the media, as primary source of people’s knowledge about the world, is a profound influence on people’s beliefs and attitudes, and it mostly does so in support of existing hierarchies. Besides that, it’s simply insipid to try to cast broadcast corporations as poor victims. Television shows are expensive and these corporations act very carefully in spending their precious air time and money.

People want to deny the responsibility of the media because they want to protect free speech. I’d rather destroy free speech for megacorporations than let them manipulate us through television shows, movies and video games. Corporations have no rights, only individuals do.

Talking about video games, Anita Sarkeesian’s work proves not that video games are replete with misogyny, which we already knew, but that conservatives and liberals are united in their belief that free speech and being able to objectify women are more important than telling the truth about misogyny. Granted, their attitudes are somewhat different, in that conservatives are angry about it (“that stupid bitch deserves to die, etc”) and liberals are more contemptuous (“her videos are full of mistakes, her analysis is very primitive, etc”, but the basic principle is the same.

The tropes that Sarkeesian talks about, like “manic pixie dream girl,” “women in refrigerators,” “the evil demon seductress,” “the mystical pregnancy,” “straw feminists,” “damsel in distress,” “the smurfette principle,” and so on, are tropes which exist in all media, not just video games. Many of them are more or less universal archetypes which can only be understood because of already-existing prejudice.

Another example is Beyonce’s handmaiden status, which was pointed out by bell hooks and was the subject of much controversy in liberal circles who lambasted bell hooks for her analysis. Again we see the same pattern: any criticism of media products, no matter how obvious, is met with opposition from the mainstream because free speech is untouchable.

My point is not that we should gloss over or ignore violence and bigotry, or that every piece of art should be a Saturday morning cartoon special. That’s just infantile. And so is the Christian “analysis” of movies and books typified by Christian Spotlight on Entertainment and ChildCare Action Project (which seems to be gone, unfortunately), judging everything with a literal single-mindedness that is the hallmark of simpletons.

I rag about narratives because they’re used to exploit our imaginary and get us to agree with political positions. But narratives are also a part of being human. Honest narratives, which try to get at the truth of a situation, are part of how we deal with moral and existential issues, connect with other people, expand our horizons, and perhaps most importantly provide us with a shared cultural language of metaphors and analogies to talk about complex issues.

And that’s what I want. Artists who seek the truth of what they portray. Not people who lean heavily on hackneyed tropes and the support for authority to tell a story. Yes, by all means, let’s keep talking about misogyny, racism, rape, verbal and physical abuse, and all the things we despise, because we need to keep talking about them. But do so in an honest and sincere way, not in a way that reinforces existing stereotypes, gender roles or false beliefs.

We don’t need more women in refrigerators. We also don’t need more “strong women.” We just need, well, women. We don’t need a mirror. We need people who are willing to actively engage issues and acknowledge their own role. We need equals.

2 thoughts on ““We’re just holding up a mirror to society.”

  1. Independent Radical August 20, 2015 at 00:49 Reply

    You’re right, we don’t need a mirror (as in “look at all this violence and sex, that’s how humans/society naturally are and isn’t it awesome”) and we don’t need a lie (“look at how strong and empowered this fictional women is, if she can do it any real life women should be able to do it to and if she can’t than she’s a weak victim, who deserves contempt.) What we need is a vision of a better future and pathway there.

    What I would like to see more of is films about people fighting back against oppression collectively (instead of bragging about how they are strong individuals who are not effected by it), as well as film which depict egalitarian futures. It makes sense that our society’s role models should be morally better on than we are (on average.)

    That is why I am sick of male main characters who are jerks, but we who are supposed to root for because they are less bad than the villians. It would be fine if those characters actually learned lessons, but usually they do not, because moral lessons are seen as “uncool” nowadays. We need more genuine heroes (male and female) in the media and not the traditional heroes of fairy tales who in fact used just as much violence as the villians, but whose violence is consider okay because it is target at the “bad guy” (often actually a woman), but heroes whose actions legitimately are more ethical than those of the villain.

    If you want to show the horrors of modern society it is important to stress that these horrors are not natural, but a product of social systems (e.g. capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy.) I think it is also more effective to try and evoke people’s imaginations (e.g. by using written and oral descriptions) rather than shoving violent images down people’s throats. These kinds of images desensitise people and become boring. If you let people imagine what will terrify them the most that can be a really effective way to create horror and outrage. Gail Dines says she does not go near the worst when describing pornography and statement is terrifying, because what she does describe is already so bad that it is hard to imagine anything worse. The knowledge that worse things exist makes me really want to combat the pornography industry.

    I think violence is gratuitous if it has no purpose (other than entertainment and profit making.) Most violence in mainstream media is like that, because entertainment aimed at promoting political or ethical viewpoints (or even raising questions about such things) is despised as “preachy”. People don’t like to think and that is a dangerous situation for humanity. We survived by thinking. The term “mindless entertainment” should be used as a badge of honour, by the violent media crowd. They should be ashamed that their “entertainment” is so empty, yet so reactionary.

    • Francois Tremblay August 20, 2015 at 01:03 Reply

      I also do not like the whole “it’s just entertainment” business. Usually that’s a code-word for “stop thinking” and “stop complaining.”

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