There’s a fine line that gets walked in pop cultural depictions of oppression. On the one hand, you have depictions that are in themselves oppressive; they reinforce social attitudes and beliefs that are harmful, either by presenting them without criticism or by actively celebrating them. On the other hand, you have heavy handed condemnations that feel out of character in the context, or forced, or just plain awkward.
And then, you have depictions that strike the right note. They show oppression in a way that fights oppression, and there are a lot of interesting ways to do that. Sometimes it’s resisted by other characters in context. Sometimes it’s presented to make us dislike a character. Sometimes there’s embedded commentary about the oppression, even if it doesn’t come from other characters. Often, it takes a form that makes people deeply uncomfortable because it forces them to confront the darkness within themselves.
This naturally brings up the question of what transgression is. When is art transgressive—breaking down barriers, challenging social attitudes, and forcing people to confront their own beliefs—and when it is simply a run-of-the mill reinforcement of stereotypes? A lot of oppression is described as ‘transgressive’ by creators and fans as though this lets them off the hook—it’s ok, for example, to depict sexism because it’s making a statement, even if a lot of people aren’t reading that statement or internalizing it, if the statement is poorly presented, or if it’s actually a harmful statement.
I think that a key element of truly transgressive art, for me, is that it is created by people who have shared lived experiences of oppression. Work by a nondisabled person that claims to challenge beliefs about disability often falls short of the mark, for example, while disabled creators can create really transgressive and challenging pop culture because they know that of which they speak. They are integrating their own experiences into the work.
Some people challenge this view, arguing that lived experience shouldn’t be a factor and that anyone has the potential to depict oppression sympathetically and sensitively. These same individuals are often quick to condemn criticisms of work that are rooted in lived experience; it’s kind of a double-whammy of devaluing experiences. Not only is it not important for us to make art about our own experiences, but our opinions on depictions of our experiences don’t matter.
The attitude that anyone can make transgressive work about anything suggests that the actual lived experience of oppression isn’t very valuable. And it ignores, again, the problems with appropriating experiences and the long history of doing just that in the name of all kinds of things from art to political action. This isn’t to say that I don’t think people should ever make art about experiences they have not lived, but that they should do so with extreme caution, and when it is criticized by people with that lived experience, they should pay attention, especially if they are claiming to be doing something progressive or radical.
When it comes to critiquing pop culture from an intersectional perspective, there’s often pushback when people write about the depictions of their oppressions and challenge those depictions, especially when it involves a show that is popular in the feminist community. Glee, for example, a show we will be returning to in the coming weeks, is a big hit in the feminist community, but not in some disability circles. When disabled feminists try to discuss the show, we are silenced and told our opinions don’t matter.
The people judging whether pop culture is truly ‘transgressive’ should be the people depicted in it. I, for example, do not get to decide when pop culture addressing racial issues is ‘transgressive;’ people of color and nonwhite people do, and when they have things to say about work I like, I shut up and listen.
People who have not lived a particular oppression can never fully understand it. They can explore it, in detail, they can think about it, and they can educate themselves. All of these things are important and all of these things should be done. But, ultimately, they will never know. And thus, I wonder why people who don’t have a particular lived experience in their own lives to draw upon should (and are) viewed as authorities on that lived experience, often to the cost of people who have actually lived that experience.
Why should, say, a heterosexual creator make art about queer experiences? There are lots of talented queer creators who could make art about their own experiences. The appropriation of their experiences by heterosexual creators makes it harder for them to make an impact and to reach people, because the people in power prefer the comfort of queer issues viewed through a heterosexual lens to the reality of these issues depicted by queer creators. The same holds true for the depiction and exploration of other oppressions.
Truly transgressive art should make us uncomfortable. It should challenge us. Yet, a lot of supposedly transgressive art is created within very safe boundaries, by creators in positions of power, and it often reinforces harmful social attitudes and beliefs at the same time. People living in marginalized bodies who could produce groundbreaking work are only allowed to enter the pop culture sphere when they conform to certain expectations, and they are well aware that a lot of pop culture consumers will tune them out if they cross the invisible line.
After all, people with privilege have lots of alternatives made by fellow people in positions of privilege to consume and pat themselves on the back about.