Ditulis oleh: Indira Sukmariana
Disunting oleh: Zania R Putri
Ilustrasi oleh: Lisa Kalystari
Online activism has brought up previously ignored and overlooked issues. From the deconstruction of gender norms to the realization that capitalism has failed our most vulnerable people, the fight against oppression is now more prominent than ever, with social media as the community pool of online “discourse”. In short, people are starting to think critically and have the platform to share it with the world as they please. This has led to the understanding of different perspectives from different groups, opening the Pandora Box of “Everything is Problematic”.
The media we consume, from the news to the movies, are made and curated by a limited group of people with their own stories and agenda to tell. Every piece of media, after all, is commercialized art that came from a team of artists. The stories told have their messages, cater to certain audiences, pushing some sort of narrative benefiting the artist, and those messages have not always been nice.
Are we not allowed to have fun, then? To turn a blind eye to the underlying narrative a movie has for the sake of our enjoyment —or, yet, our sanity?
For this, then, came the argument of having to “separate art from the artist”, saying that supporting a piece of art does not necessarily mean supporting, say, a bigoted artist. This argument, as you may remember, was used to defend Harry Potter books after JK Rowling’s oppressive beliefs are finally seen.
Separating art from the artist can only be done if the art itself does not represent the artist’s views and beliefs, and is not ingrained with oppressive practices during the making of it. One example is Van Gogh’s Starry Night. No animals or human was harmed during the process, no racist imagery or homophobic illustrations. It was not made with malice in its heart. On the contrary, Pablo Picasso exploited the women in his life and turned them into no more than objects of his creation. Marina Picasso, one of his granddaughters, said this about him:
“He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”
In that instance, we can no longer separate the art from the artist because misogyny and abuse are crucial to his process. The pain and suffering of those seven women are the art, their stories are told in every stroke of the brush and every splash of color.
Similarly, the case against R. Kelly also showed that violence and the suffering of underage girls are ingrained into his art. Surrounded by enablers, the documentary Surviving R. Kelly explained how the manipulation and rape of these girls were essential to his “creative process” and everyday life. Every beat and rhyme is a byproduct.
Hidden narratives and personal beliefs are not easily detected and analyzed in a visual or musical form of art, the latter might be easier than the former, but it is with literature and audiovisual media that these narratives are the strongest and most prominent. Ranging from one anti-Semitic labeling of Sylvia Plath for comparing her depression to the annihilation of an entire religious group in her poetry, to the call out of J.K. Rowling’s bigoted views that are not-so-subtle ingrained in her stories.
The racist and sexist imageries in the Harry Potter series are not hard to miss. To name a few, the fact that the house-elves do not want to be liberated and liked being slaves provided a parallel with real-life slavery, feeding into the white supremacist notion of “Black people are happier as slaves”. Cho Chang, one of the few characters of color, is portrayed as a stereotypical Asian girl, with two last names for her name, being put in the smart house, and her personality consistently described in a negative light. Moreover, the existence of the goblins as a race of hook-nosed misers who are controlling the banks and are obsessed with gold in a series that has some unmistakable parallels with the Holocaust is anti-semitic.
Marvel is not even trying to be subtle with their military propaganda in their movies and shows, showcasing a good-for-TV-and-recruitment enough to make us turn the blind eye to what the military is: a fascist institution that preys on the disadvantaged to enact capitalistic goals. The glorification of soldiers as heroes, the casual mentions of overseas military bases and missions, and the abundant use of high-tech military-grade weapons, to name a few examples. Along with detective shows and buddy cop movies which also put on a false portrayal of how law enforcement works, enough to build an image of righteousness and savior complex that every one of these cops presumably has.
In Picasso’s and R. Kelly’s case, turning a blind eye on the harmful practices done to create their arts undermines the suffering of their victims, deeming such practices are necessary to create art. Staying in blissful ignorance will perpetuate us to glorify abusers, as if “he is a good artist” is enough justification of torture and blood-stained canvases.
Viewers and audiences are not “passive recipients but active interpreters, in a complex process of interaction with other cultural and social practices” (Reinter, 2002 from Ferell et al., 2008). Media influences how we perceive and interact with the world around us. It is especially significant when we are not a part of those portrayed in the media. For example, we Indonesians who have never been to the United States or know anyone from there are likely to assume everyone from the U.S. acts like the characters from Riverdale, or when people assumed that high school was going to be like High School Musical. Unfortunately, this is also how it works with caricatures of Black or Asian people, the violent imagery of African nations, the ruins that are South American countries, and the Middle East. We take those images and assume that they are the correct representation of real groups or organizations. These assumptions then breed stereotypes and unrealistic expectations for everyone involved. It is very dangerous, especially towards young audiences, since the socialization of biases and perspectives starts at a young age.
So yes, it is a little hard for me to enjoy pop culture after those revelations (and yes, I am very fun at parties). However, it is very important to also acknowledge the good, rather than focusing on the bad. Sylvia Plath, for example, is the voice of countless other women who are tortured and abused in their marriage during their time —or even now. J.K. Rowling, through Harry Potter, created one of the biggest fanbases with supporting communities of LGBTQ+, Jewish, and Asian fans. Marvel, similarly, produced some of the best pieces of entertainment out there, and that deceptive detective shows got me, and countless others, to pursue criminology.
So, what one must do after knowing all these?
Well, enjoy what you enjoy, and that includes “problematic pop-culture” because guess what? Everything is problematic. What is important is for us to recognize these narratives and that people are benefitting from pushing them. We need to be aware of who those people are and the fact that these pop culture products are fictional. We need to recontextualize those arts along with the information and realities we know, watching while keeping in mind that other perspective from critical thinking at the back of our minds. Since almost all art is derivative of real life, no matter how realistic, it is not a 100% accurate portrayal of the world. Pop culture is something to be enjoyed, not a factual source of primary information.
Art in every shape and form is a reflection of the artist, and an artist is a byproduct of their society. We can, however, be aware of the hidden narratives delivered in pop culture products, be critical of them, and make informed choices on which media to consume and the artist to support. The world is broken and damage will be done anyway, but it is up to us to at least know what we are getting into. Preventing biases, especially those that are dangerous and oppressive towards minorities, can be done by realizing that the media we consume consists of those biases. From here, awareness can be spread to friends and families and passed on to future generations.
And on that note, excuse me as I cry my eyes out over the latest episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.