Wokeature isn’t progressive, it’s problematic
Since the lockdown started, I’ve started watching post-code 1930s films. For those of you who aren’t aware, these are films that were declared ‘in line with American values and morality’ by the Motion Picture Production Code. That means everyone has to get their comeuppance if they are naughty, and every hero or heroine has to love apple pie, mom and good clean heterosexual living. As you can imagine, this means the third act of most plots are either ridiculous, or unintentionally hilarious.
You know what I mean: the free spirited waitress who rejects notions of marital living and middle class America then suddenly develops typhoid and realises her wicked ways in the arms of her good WASP love interest. The intelligent and talented wife learns the error of her ways in overshadowing the ego of her untalented husband. The gifted pianist suffering terminal lung cancer learns to give up travelling and performing and return to the arms of her austere doctor who won’t let her play. The messages are the same, as ever, and rammed down your throat like an impatient mother with a spoonful of Calpol. Get married to a good clean man, fear God, don’t drink or gamble, love America and adultery is bad.
Which aren’t awful values, I’ll admit. But the compulsory nature of turning every film into a moral fable destroys any meaningful discussion on what those values mean for society. In 1932, pre-code, Joan Crawford starred in an incredible film called Rain where she played a sex worker who doesn’t convert to good clean livin’ and apple pie, or die of a tragic illness in the final credits. The upstanding reverend trying to convert her was portrayed as the villain, and when he rapes her, he is the one who dies, and society takes the side of the sex worker in the incident. All of which might surprise you given the tropes about ‘what social values were like’ in the early 1930s.
And let me tell you, the critics in 1932 hated it for showing those exact values we would now find incredibly progressive and powerful. Which, in the age of ‘correcting’ stories and franchises of 2020, I find particularly, eerily relevant. So let me talk to you quickly about my issue with ‘wokeature’: the concept that all art must portray ‘good’ values.
The truth is: morality and ethics are fluid. What people think and feel are morally righteous now will be wildly different in twenty years, and wildly different to what was progressive twenty years before. I’m not in anyway saying you shouldn’t strive to write literature that addresses concerns and issues of the day, indeed the opposite, but sanitising those same issues and concerns in fiction through perfect protagonists or evil antagonists is just as dangerous. We must all fight, as creators, to create problematic protagonists, and stories that don’t have the answers. We must be allowed to get inside the normal minds of our characters, not whitewash them as saints.
The uncomfortable truth is perfect protagonists are propaganda. The perfect superhero who is a feminist, counter-ableism and anti-racist, and written with the same lazy virtue signalling, is simply a cut out paper character to point at and say ‘See? This is how you should behave.” Similarly, the big bad racist, capitalist, sexist banker is just as dangerously underwritten. When we talk about the coding in art, fiction or cinema, we have to understand one thing:
People can read your art and project or reject the messages it contains on their own.
Not every story needs to have you desperately writing ‘of course I understand that smoking is bad for you’ when a character smokes. The audience isn’t stupid. The audience doesn’t need you to hit them over the head with the fact that racism is bad, terrorism is not good, or that being sexist is mean, or that bullying is not okay. You’re allowed to explore those themes in your work, and have your characters behave badly, to tell a story, not a moral manifesto for society. That’s okay. You don’t have to have all the answers. You’re an author, not a social anthropologist.
In fact, I find it insanely problematic to reduce complicated and fraught issues such as the sexualisation of women of colour, or the imposed passivity of Muslim women, down to Stock Racist Character and Righteous Mary-Sue. It means that ordinary people cannot see criticism of their own behaviours because they only understand ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ as pulling off a woman’s hijab or slapping a woman’s ass.
Stories, and indeed art, should be written to explore, to entertain, and to challenge. Demanding that Twilight is rewritten to meet criticism on age related power dynamics, or that all their Disney Princesses loudly announce their autonomy and consent, misses that entirely. When Camille Paglia or Germaine Greer wrote their excellent criticism and readings of women in fiction and cinema, they didn’t mean that we should rewrite Vertigo to have Madeleine give a speech on gendered identity and the male gaze. They were making a point about how society percieves women.
Criticism is good. But it is just criticism.
We should not fear people criticising our art. We should not fear creating exciting stories, challenging protagonists, alarming and unanswered moral problems and scandalous, provocative actions. We should laugh at the people who associate our fantasy and imagination with our personal morality and ethics behind closed doors. Write bad things, write thoughts that should not be thought, write that dark story you heard about the neighbour at number 17, and write from the perspective of the cruel, the corrupt, the complex and the unlikeable.
If you create a dialogue, you are creating change. You do not need to come to the table with a solution to racism, sexism, the male gaze or antisemitism. Anyone who expects you to is delusional. So stop hitting your audience over the head, and stop shying away from stories that need to be written.
The thoughts and actions of your characters do not have to be cookie-cutter good: don’t bow to the demands of wokeature at the expense of telling your truth.