What are We Owed from Art?
In my last blog, I asked a semi-rhetorical question: What Are We Owed From Adaptation? In it, I concluded that whether an adaptation is faithful or not, ultimately doesn’t matter; it should be treated the same way as any other piece of art.
So, that begs the next logical question:
What Are We Owed From Art?
And the answer is: Nothing.
Oh, what’s that? I have to explain what I mean? Oh, okay.
Then let me start by saying it.
ART OWES YOU NOTHING
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are certain expectations we have from any piece of fiction; those things that we’ve been conditioned to look for. Maybe they’re presumptions, or tropes, or just payoffs for whatever has been established. And if those aren’t met, the audience could easily get frustrated.
In the words of Dustin Hoffman in "Wag the Dog," paraphrased: "It's the contract Spielberg makes with the audience. 'If you give me two hours, I will produce the shark.'"
For example, when we watch a movie about a serial killer, we want to see the killer captured and brought to justice, or killed before he can kill again. That’s how most of these stories ends, so it stands to reason that we would consider that the only satisfying ending.
But art isn’t a checklist. “Zodiac” is a marvelous true-crime film about a serial killer who, technically and officially, was never caught or brought to justice. The cops in “Seven” catch the killer, but then the story turns in such a way that what we want - for him to suffer for his crimes - would actually prove him right, and would mean the heroes lose.
If these films treated our expectations as a requirement, they wouldn’t have had the complicated, interesting endings they got.
Movies, television shows, novels - all of these can be bad for a lot of reasons, and sometimes, yeah, it’s because it betrays the promise it made when the story began. It may have pledged at the beginning that you’d receive one sort of story, and given you something very different.
But just because something is bad, or even just different from how you expected… doesn’t mean it broke a vow to you.
Because, technically, art owes you nothing.
If you don’t like a painting or a sculpture, either because they’re not made in a style you enjoy, or you don’t like the subject matter, or maybe it’s just overrated when you finally see it in person… that’s fine. You didn’t get the emotional reaction the artist hoped for. Or maybe you did, but you’re not happy about it.
But we’ve all been there, and we all know that it’s totally fine. Art is subjective. This piece of art didn’t speak to you, so you move on to the next one.
If you could talk to the artist, it’s possible they might not understand your complaint. They might scream and shout that you “didn’t get it,” or that you don’t appreciate all of the work that went into it.
But the art doesn’t care. Art owes you nothing.
George R. R. Martin May Or May Not Be Your Bitch
Ten years ago, Neil Gaiman posted an email he received, where a fan very respectfully asked whether he was being unreasonable in the way George R. R. Martin’s apparent lack of progress made him frustrated. He ended the email by saying:
“Is it unrealistic to think that by not writing the next chapter Martin is letting me down, even though if and when the book gets written is completely up to him?”
Neil Gaiman answered in a blog post that has been circulated quite a bit in the past decade, summed up by the phrase: “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch,” where he explained that buying the first book is not a contract, that he’d rather an author be healthy than overworked just to produce something they aren’t happy with, and that many fans don’t understand or appreciate that authors have personal obligations as well as professional ones.
Author Brent Weeks responded to this with his own post, pointing out that there may not be a contract, but there was an obligation. And most importantly, that when someone like Martin doesn’t meet their deadlines and makes the audience wait, the audience stops reading series that aren’t complete… and that affects mid-tier writers in a tangible way, people who can’t coast on success or residuals the way high-profile authors can.
(He also acknowledges that Martin might just be bad at PR, which is why he’s not able to give satisfying answers when asked about the deadline.)
Before I weigh in, I actually want to admit that the fan who emailed Neil Gaiman essentially knew what sort of answer he might receive - he says in his post: “if and when the book gets written is completely up to him.”
He understood that his frustration might be out of line. Maybe he was emailing Neil for validation that it’s okay to be pissed, or maybe he was appealing to his better angels and trying to cut Martin a break.
Now, the elephant in the room - yes, Martin is late. Considering how late he is, he’s probably seriously broken his contract with the publisher. But honestly, how does that affect us? We don’t work for the publisher. We haven’t pre-ordered the novel. Yes, it’s late. So what?
I don’t want to demonize the fans who are patiently waiting for the next installment, only to have to grind their teeth whenever they see Martin start a new project every few days. They, like me, are probably sick to death of the nearly-memetic level of impatience echoing in every corner of nerd-dom, demanding an answer on when the book will be published.
Even if someone is being impatient, that’s not the end of the world as long as they are respectful. But those who harass Martin online, who fill the comments of anything “Game of Thrones” related with messages like, “But where is the next book” - they are a symptom of a big problem in nerd culture.
Star Wars, and the Sense of Fan Ownership
Youtuber Patrick H. Willems made a great video last year called “What Do We Want From A Star Wars Movie?” In it, he talked about the period between the original trilogy and the prequels, the twenty-year gap where fans had to get their Star Wars fix from novels and video games, and they built a language of fandom based on facts and trivia.
This is the Rosetta Stone for modern geek culture.
As he says in his video, fans were trained - by Star Wars - to expect answers to every little question. This started with books about every dude hanging out in the Mos Eisley cantina, continued through the prequels giving us Anakin’s origin story and Boba Fett’s origin story and a scientific explanation for the Force, and reached its zenith when an entire movie answered the question, “But why was the Death Star so easy to blow up?”
The Last Jedi doesn’t care about those sorts of answers. It doesn’t care about Star Wars trivia, it doesn’t care about the trend of repetition where every major Force-sensitive character is related to the same four people. It rejects that narrative. It tells us, in black-and-white, “Hey, the last two years you spent speculating on who Rey’s parents are were a waste of your time. Rey’s parents don’t matter.”
Some folks got pissed about that. Some of them were very vocal about their frustrations. And when some actors who played Luke Skywalker seemed to agree, these folks took that as confirmation that “The Last Jedi” was a bad Star Wars movie.
And they launched a petition to get Lucasfilm - the company owned by Disney, the media conglomerate that spent $300 million to make this flick and made $1.2 billion dollars for their effort - these folks petitioned that company to re-make the film. And this time, they wanted Lucasfilm to get it RIGHT.
They felt the movie owed them something, and that it didn’t deliver.
They were, and are, wrong about movies.
Oh Good, Game of Thrones Again
Last year, the final season of “Game of Thrones” premiered, and it was basically a dumpster fire full of missed opportunities and wasted potential. And unlike “The Last Jedi” (which I think is messy at times and brilliant at others), I really do feel that the writers of Game of Thrones did a bad job. They betrayed the trust that was put in them that they could tell the story with confidence.
But we aren’t owed anything else. Of course, another petition was started to remake the final season, and to get it right this time, but hey, that’s still not how art works.
If you don’t like what the creators did with the property you like, that’s fine. Don’t watch the next thing they make. Vote with your wallets. But to assume that because you didn’t like it, then somehow a contract was broken, that’s hubris in the highest order.
“Game of Thrones” made billions of dollars for HBO, through membership fees and merchandising. It launched the careers of several young actors, and turned reliable character actors into household names. The showrunners absolutely did their job, they fulfilled their contract, and they got a new Netflix deal out of it. I don’t think they did a good job, so I’m not gonna watch whatever they make next.
But I don’t own “Game of Thrones.” They aren’t gonna remake it for me, because obviously that’s not how it works.
From Fans to Stans
“Dear Slim, you still ain't called or wrote, I hope you have a chance,
I ain't mad, I just think it's fucked up you don't answer fans”
Here’s a thing that bothers me about fandom: the term “fan” is being gradually replaced by the word “stan,” like “I am a John Mulaney stan,” It can be a verb as well, such as, “I stan for John Mulaney.” It basically refers to someone who is an obsessive fan - this could be totally positive, and have no negative connotations at all. Except I think it really does.
First, we didn’t need another word for fan. It’s already short for “fanatic,” we didn’t need a version that’s more extreme, more loyal, that lionizes creators even more.
Second, I think it’s just phonically unpleasant. I can’t explain this one, I just don’t like it. (When used as a verb, it sounds like “stand.” Are you trying to say “stand?”)
Third, it’s taken from an Eminem song about a fan who gets so obsessed with Eminem that he hurts himself, and ends up killing himself and his pregnant girlfriend, all because Eminem ignored him.
I know most people can separate the word from its origins, but I actually don’t think I have to… because “stan” is the perfect way to describe current fan culture.
So many online fans can’t separate liking something from feeling that we own it, that it is beholden to us.
We don’t own the things we like. They don’t owe us anything. And the idea that they do is toxic and damaging to the way we absorb media.
The Flip Side
But what about when the fans aren’t toxic? What about the ones who don’t feel a sense of entitled ownership, but just want creators to be more responsible, more aware of their platform?
The film “Avengers: Infinity War” had two dozen main characters and still managed to tell a straightforward, compelling narrative, for which it was rewarded by making a flobbity-jillion dollars at the box office.
But it also included an upsetting scene where Thanos sacrifices his daughter Gamora, claiming that he loves her, and that he’s sorry. And despite her claims, that “This is not love,” the Universe seems to side with Thanos, and he receives the Infinity Stone he sought.
There’s no line like in Lord of the Rings, where we are told that the stone “wants” to be found, or “wants” anything, really. The undead Nazi tour guide doesn’t set this up as a trolly problem to weed out those he deems unworthy: this is simply the cost of the stone.
And this moment hurt people. And as Maggie Mae Fish pointed out in her video on the subject, it is potentially damaging. A child sitting in the audience next to an abusive parent could walk away with the message that this form of toxic abuse is still “love.”
Now, obviously I don’t think the directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, meant it that way, nor did screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. That implication isn’t a message they meant to send. But it is a product of their bias. I’m making assumptions here, but I’m guessing none of them came from a home life where “love” and “abuse” where conflated. It simply never occurred to them that people who had been through trauma might not consider that scene a strong condemnation.
As the marketing was quick to remind us at every opportunity, Thanos is the protagonist of “Infinity War.” That doesn’t mean he’s the hero; he’s clearly shown to do evil things, and the filmmakers aren’t so naïve to think he’s a “good guy.” But we spend more time with him than any other character. We get inside his head, and we see what makes him tick. And I’m not shitting on this movie; I like this movie, and I think Thanos has a lot of depth, and he is a compelling villain.
But this scene still hurt people. And so, how can I claim that they aren’t owed any better?
In “Endgame,” the same sacrifice claims Black Widow, a woman whose solo film had been promised for almost a decade but never delivered. A woman who doesn’t even get a funeral. She doesn’t get to see the payoff of what she had done. This moment hurt people. It especially hurt women who saw themselves in Natasha, and saw her get sacrificed in order to continue the storyline of the least compelling original Avenger.
It wasn’t “her choice” to die, it was a writer’s choice for her to choose to die.
How can I say that the people hurt by this scene aren’t owed better?
Ok, let’s be fair, I am not an authority on being a minority or a member of an oppressed group. I’m an able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual, white male. So, I come at the following subject matter with a big asterisk:
I am not harmed by harmful media.
My life is not put in danger by reckless filmmakers that perpetuate harmful jokes about transgender women. My personal life is not hindered by tropes about Asian men being desexualized. I don’t identify with any historical culture that has been appropriated by a corporation. The sacred traditions of my people have never been turned into tasteless Halloween costumes.
But I’ve spoken at length with people who are hurt by insensitive media, either directly or indirectly. And it’s not my job to tell them, “Well, you just don’t understand art.” More often than not, it’s the filmmakers that don’t understand the cultural consequence of their actions. It’s those creators that owe an explanation, and likely an apology, to groups that are harmed by their work.
And I’m not saying that if somebody doesn’t like a joke, or they don’t like a film for personal reasons, a storyteller should automatically apologize. (I still think it's bullshit that Joel Shumaker apologized for making two semi-watchable Batman movies.) But when a group of historically oppressed people, and currently oppressed people (because let’s be honest, they’re usually the same thing), come forward and say, “We feel you have wronged us,” then the storyteller better be ready to answer those hard questions.
I used to work at a management company for about seven years, representing actors in film and TV. And over the course of that time, I watched the arc of morality bend further toward inclusive representation and accountability for creators. Every year, more and more roles came out for diverse actors, and it became more important for these roles to be cast responsibly. We put a half-Indian, half-Caucasian actor in a Hispanic role, in a film produced by a mostly Hispanic cast and crew. It’s not that the creators didn’t know she wasn’t Hispanic, but it didn’t matter to them. And just a few years later, I know that we’re at a point where that likely wouldn’t happen again, at least without some backlash.
I worked in Hollywood as “Transparent” came out to great critical acclaim, and then over the course of four years, the conversations in Hollywood started to change. I had to convince my colleges not to submit cisgender actors for transgender roles, and then when that advice wasn’t heeded, I had to sit back as they waded through the backlash, which grew louder every time it happened.
How can I, in good conscience, say that art does not owe us better than this?
When working on the adaptation article, one big question loomed over me: What about when they make minority characters into cisgendered, heterosexual white people? Are people of color, and trans people, and LGBT people not “owed” that representation?
The sequel to the “Annihilation” novel confirms that the protagonist, Lena, is Asian-American. Writer/director Alex Garland deliberately didn’t read that book, so he didn’t know that; he assumed Lena to be white because of our cultural defaults, because he’s white and it didn’t occur to him otherwise. That’s a bummer on its own, but apparently nobody in the entire production staff noticed this detail in the book and called him out on it? That actually seems worse.
When Ed Skrein was cast in the new “Hellboy” movie, he then found out – via Twitter – that the character was Japanese-American, and he backed out. And I applaud him for doing that, but also, nobody else making the movie noticed this? Look, I read those comics and I didn’t realize it either, but I’m one dumb white boy who never said the character’s name out loud. Hundreds of people worked on that movie and either nobody noticed, nobody cared, or nobody felt comfortable speaking up.
And that’s assuming it’s even accidental. The “Hunger Games” novel describes Katniss in non-Caucasian terms, and the filmmakers just decided not to do that. In an interview, director Gary Roth addressed it:
Entertainment Weekly: “In the books, Katniss is described as being olive-skinned, dark-haired, possibly biracial. Did you discuss with Suzanne the implications of casting a blonde, Caucasian girl?”
Gary Ross: “Suzanne [Collins, the author] and I talked about that as well. There are certain things that are very clear in the book. Rue is African-American. Thresh is African-American. Suzanne had no issues with Jen playing the role. And she thought there was a tremendous amount of flexibility, it wasn’t doctrine to her. Jen will have dark hair in the role, but that’s something movies can easily achieve. [Laughs] I promise all the avid fans of The Hunger Games that we can pretty easily deal with Jennifer’s hair color.”
Her hair color wasn’t why people are asking you about this, Gary.
There’s two big takeaways from this interview, and they’re both pretty shitty.
1: “There are certain things that are very clear in the book. Rue is African-American, Thresh is African-American.” He’s saying that because Katniss’s ethnicity isn’t “very clear” – as in, unambiguously a specific minority group – then it doesn’t matter how people read it, because there’s nothing set in stone. Katniss isn’t given a defined ethnicity, so rather than extrapolate the writer’s intention, they simply defaulted to white. And they did default to white – they looked only for Caucasian actresses, we’ve seen the casting Breakdowns that confirm that.
2: “Suzanne had no issues with Jen playing the role. And she thought there was a tremendous amount of flexibility, it wasn’t doctrine to her.” First, you’re kind of throwing Suzanne Collins under the bus, Gary. You’re the one casting the movie, and you own the film rights, so when you say you asked the writer if you could cast somebody white, you’re not giving her a lot of options to say “no.” Second, it also contradicts your first point: “It’s not made clear.” You asked the writer if you could cast a white girl, and that’s not something you need to do when something isn’t made clear.
3. Collins isn’t getting off the hook either. According to Gary, Katniss’s ethnicity “wasn’t doctrine” to Collins. Probably that means she addressed the question from a world-building perspective, not an issue of representation. When she developed District 12, the skin tone helps signify the passage of time and the shifting of different racial groups over the next few centuries, and it also serves as a form of contrast from the characters in the Capital. But for the audience members who aren't white, this isn’t a theoretical exercise.
Representation matters. Seeing someone who looks like you on-screen, especially in a lead role, matters.
And yet, I did say adaptation owes us nothing. How can I insist that I hold both opinions? The truth is, my answer probably isn’t going to satisfy you. The truth is, there’s nothing stopping an adaptation from removing any character from the story for any number of reasons, and that includes a character from a minority group. And that’s shitty, but ultimately I do believe that’s their right as creators.
When Jennifer Lawrence was cast in “Hunger Games,” Marissa Lee, co-founder of RaceBending.com, wrote about her disappointment that the creators exclusively looked for Caucasian actresses. They acknowledge that an actress from Kentucky was cast to play someone from Appalachia (which is good), but point out that Appalachia is far more racially diverse than we usually see on film. They also point out that casting a woman of color in this role could be an especially powerful message, as this character rises out of systemic oppression to fight an unjust system.
She ends the article with the following paragraph:
“We do not deny that Lawrence is a talented actress – she was clearly favored by the director and author. We do believe the casting breakdown was a barrier to non-white actors. It was unfair that non-white actors with olive skin and dark hair were not recruited in the same way, influencing whether or not they had the same opportunities to audition as white actors had. We hope the production will become more open to recruiting and casting actors of color in their ongoing casting process.”
This paragraph perfectly sums up how I feel on the subject as well. I don’t believe a work of art can owe us anything. But sometimes, creators do. Not just because we are the audience or the consumer… but because we are all people, and we should all be treated that way.
That may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but it’s how I reconcile this big question. What does Rian Johnson owe the audience? Well, I’d like it if his work doesn’t hurt marginalized people, doesn’t punch down, that doesn’t make people hurt just to watch the way people like them are depicted on screen. I think he delivered that.
What does “Star Wars” as a product owe the audience?
Onward and Upward
Moana is a legitimately powerful, moving, beautiful piece of art, and it made me cry three times in the theater. But it’s also Disney’s second movie with a Polynesian lead, and neither character has a love interest. That’s empowering for young women, but it’s also a trend that exists far outside of these two movies, and far outside of Disney. After the release, some Polynesians, especially Polynesian women, pointed out this fact. Their point wasn’t that Moana was a bad film, or that other people should feel bad for liking it, but there was an aspect of the film that hurt them. They just wanted to make people aware of that fact.
Because sometimes, when you watch as popular fiction decides something about your culture for you, ignoring your pleas that they please just change it, or vary it up, or even acknowledge their feelings, it can feel like you’re shouting into the void. And. It. Hurts.
I grant that not everyone can separate art from artist, and I understand. In some cases, we shouldn’t have to. In others, it’s probably impossible. But here’s where I make the distinction:
A piece of art doesn’t change. A person can.
Context around art can change. What was once considered acceptable can shift with changing attitudes, and with new cultural events.
But even when someone goes in and changes the original piece of art, and hides other versions of that work of art so the new one is considered “definitive,” that’s still just a new work of art. We can judge it on its own merits, but it doesn’t replace the original.
(Looking at you, Star Wars, #ReleaseTheMarciaCut)
Blake Edwards, the director of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was insistent that they cast Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, and as a result, I will never watch the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” He later expressed regret, because of course he did.
In the quote on the making-of documentary, he said, “Looking back, I wish I had never done it… and I would give anything to be able to recast it, but it’s there, and onward and upward.”
Because that’s all we can do. When your art hurts someone, all you can do is ask “Why,” and then listen.
And then, just do better next time.
Onward and upward.
How We Engage With Art
When art is done well, it should elicit an emotional response. Empathy, or sympathy, or joy, or fear, or hope, or embarrassment. Great art can make us think, or can make us laugh, or cry.
And if you don’t like a piece of art, that’s fine. If you want to go online and explain why it bothered you, or what you found upsetting, you’re more than welcome to do so. I will listen, and I’ll probably join you. But don’t harass anyone involved in the making of the art.
I can’t believe I have to say this, but don’t bully people off of social media just because you don’t like the piece of art they had a hand in making.
And there are things we can ask of our artists. We can ask them to be more inclusive, and more respectful. We can ask them to think critically about cultural biases present in their work, and we can ask them not to punch down. And if they don’t treat sensitive subjects with respect, we can ask them to consider the consequences. And if they don’t seem to understand why people are frustrated with them, or unhappy with their work, we can just stop engaging with them, and stop giving them our money.
But art doesn’t owe us anything. So let’s stop acting like it does.
Also, if you’re a straight white man and you’re mad that there are slightly fewer lead characters that look like you, and you blame SJWs for ruining your favorite franchises, you’re a selfish asshole and you don’t get to be butthurt. You aren’t oppressed, you’re just used to hogging the stage. But I'm sure we’ll talk more about that another time.