Push(back) at the Intersections: Transgressive or Fauxgressive?

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.

s.e. smith's headshot. they are wearing blue and their short, curly brown hair halos their head.
by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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28 Comments Have Been Posted


This is a youthful expression of many things, appropriated by one of an older generation which is not appropriate.
Beautiful writing and so filled with truth.
One cannot know what another/other is or experiences without being in those shoes, no matter how much education, understanding, and meaningful experiences one gets. There was a grad student who decided she wanted to know what is was like to be working class, her choice of things to do was to wear working class clothing every day to school... How she thought this could identify her with working class I have yet to figure out.. She did not grow up working class nor had she ever lived working class, and yet she was applauded by some professors and an innovative artist because she wore the clothing of the working class.. I sat with another professor both of us having grown up working class and are the only ones in the family to go through higher education and we were both stunned by her talk and paper.. Again the privileged parading and not truly understanding what it is like and to actually be something one is not, and now professing an understanding they can never have and being rewarded for it.

Pitch Perfect

<em>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.</em>

This hit me in the old "right there". What I love about this series is how it clearly demonstrates effective (and productive) ways of exploring how we, as feminists engage in thoughtful discussions about pop culture and our own relationship to it.


"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Thank you! I have really

Thank you! I have really been appreciating your engagement in comments, since you're one of the pop culturalists who gets it when it comes to engaging with media, in my humble opinion!

Great post!

Thank you for this. I work in the publishing industry and often have trouble voicing what is "problematic" in people's writing, but this helps a lot and I will be using this article at work!

As a writer as well, I do struggle with representing identities that aren't mine, and worry about depicting or representing traditionally marginalized characters for the very reasons you listed above. I want to be respectful and acknowledge my privilege, but I also don't want to keep writing stories about white, cis gendered able-bodied people.

Couldn't agree more!

Awesome post, s.e. One thing that particularly irks me is that when transgressive work IS done by a marginalized person, there seems to be an attendant ton of handwringing about whether that work will or can "sell"--I don't think people with more privilege who are creating fauxgressive work about people without privilege get *nearly* the same amount of scrutiny when it comes to marketing their work (though they probably get some scrutiny and handwringing anyway, just not as much as a marginalized person creating work about zie's own experiences might).

Yes! Saleability is often

Yes! Saleability is often used as an argument for not producing work by people living in marginalised bodies, and it's a real red herring, I think. It's clear that the public likes consuming works about marginalised identities, so the issue here isn't that people won't read/watch something about marginalised people, but that they don't want to be challenged by a work created by someone living the experience articulated in the work. Maybe if more of the arbiters of what gets published/produced/aired were willing to confront this, we could debunk the saleability myth.

And maybe we wouldn't be forced to consume fauxgressive work if we had truly transgressive work to watch! Perhaps we would reach a state where the question about whether stuff will 'sell' will flip and publishers will say 'I dunno, we've already published one book by a white guy writing about Black women this year, I don't think we can really get away with another one...'

Are we really forced to consume fauxgressive work?

I mean, I totally understand what you're saying, but it seems to me that if we all really look for it, truly transgressive work is out there. It may be very hard to find at times, but sometimes the best things are those you find in unexpected places.

I think a lot of people who consume any kind of art (or hell, any other products) can be lazy, especially in this culture. If it's not easy or in your face, they can't be bothered. Those who are willing to look will be richly rewarded. But what's sad is that a lot of truly great artists don't make any money while other artists will never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator.

I disagree

I disagree with this article. While personal experience is the ultimate creative insight into creating transgressive art (or art of any kind), and that the majority of the time people creating art from the outside perspective often and routinely fail to do justice to the topic (which does do harm), I think art should be judged as a piece by itself with no background, inside or outside. Sometimes it can be just as powerful and creative to observe as to live. Are we all so sure that a blind experiment of media you could guess transgressive from fauxgressive? If a great, insightful film about a disabled man is written by an able bodied female, are we to somewhat discredit her work when we see "Sally" roll down the credits instead of "Sam"?


Can you point me <em>to</em> an insightful film about a man with a disability written by a currently able-bodied woman? Just so I know what you mean when you talk about one?

It was hypothetical example.

It was hypothetical example. However that doesn't mean there aren't examples of great films made about minorities or anything else by people who haven't lived the experience. My favourite recent one is the short film "Dennis" about a bodybuilder, you can watch it on youtube. Whether the director was female, bodybuilder or disabled it did not change the validity of this film and what it had to say about the way we look at people.

I want to say...

I want to say "The Station Agent" (about a PWD by a temporarily-abled man) but I don't know that its insights are so focussed on disability as much as it's a movie starring a PWD that is insightful about human experience, including the experience of person w/ a disability. As a disabled person myself, but one much less visible than what a little person like Station Agent star Peter Dinklage lives with, I know I get excited every time I see disability portrayed in popular culture in a non "super-crip," non "tragic," non "cripping up" and non "inspirational" way. Hell, I even loved Tripletts of Bellville for its hero with one leg shorter than the other!

The thing is

The thing is, it's not really possible to judge art independently from its context: it relies on particular tropes or conventions, intertextual references, it it created by people with backgrounds, and it's intended to affect an audience with full lives and experiences and backgrounds. As for your last point about a "blind" (oh, I would stick more inverted commas there if I could) experiment, that's a strawargument, s.e. smith didn't say anything of the sort in ou post.

You're right in pointing

You're right in pointing that out, what I mean is that I try and free myself from predjudice if I want to really judge a piece of art on it's merits.

Sure yes as they can be

Sure yes as they can be linked, I guess my original point was I think art is something that can stand alone as being transgressive or amazing without those external factors. The background of a piece of art doesn't change the actual art.


I take issue with the equation of "being conscious of prejudice" with "prejudice" itself (if that is what you're saying?)... it reminds me a bit too much of 'I don't see race so if you're complaining about racism you're the one who is racist!' As for art being separate from its context, I think it inevitably can't be. Apart from the factors I mentioned above, art is a response to its surroundings, it is built on its background, it exists to reflect and comment on and simply be of that background. So we're going to have to agree to disagree on that. :)

I wasn't clear enough - The

I wasn't clear enough - The tone of the article was not about the art itself, but about the creator. You're right, art cannot be critiqued based on it's context in our world. My point is rather I don't think the actual art should ever be devalued or given extra value based on the characteristics of the creator. I think the The Elephant Man is one of the greatest films ever and should be judged as a film, not on whether Lynch has Elephantiasis or not.

Are you aware of substantive

Are you aware of substantive disability critiques of The Elephant Man, which is probably one of the ultimate examples of the tear-jerking exploitative "pitiable crip" trope so common amongst abled creators? (I'm also a little surprised, given your declared fandom, that you say that "Elephantiasis" was the diagnosis. While people have wrangled over whether Joseph Merrick had neurofibromatosis or Proteus syndrome, he hasn't been thought to have elephantiasis for a long, long time.)

Elephantiasis made for a

Elephantiasis made for a better quip than wasting my time on wikipedia. Yes, though to me in the light of what type of film "The Elephant Man" actually is those criticisms are as irrelevant as those of the historical inaccuracies. Not really the place to spill my tropes.

That said it was a bad example for the post, I just couldn't resist a chance of mentioning it.

What "transgressive" means

<blockquote> [T]o me in the light of what type of film "The Elephant Man" actually is those criticisms are as irrelevant as those of the historical inaccuracies.</blockquote>

If we are talking about transgressive works (i.e. works that are specifically supposed to challenge mores and upset the status quo), how are criticisms that a work actually supports the status quo (in this case, by relying on the "poor, pitiful disabled person" trope for a lot of its emotional resonance) irrelevant? David Lynch may do this trope in interesting and unusual ways, but deep down it's still the same story non-disabled people have told about disabled people for years, if not centuries.

Lynch is a poor example of being "transgressive" in the context s.e. smith is talking about, because in a David Lynch movie everything (including disability) Means Something Else. In <em>Eraserhead,</em> Henry Spencer's baby isn't just a baby: it is, at the very least, part of the nightmare aesthetic of the film.

In a lot of work by non-disabled people, disability is used as a tool to explore something they think is "universal." But what really happens is that disability can't just exist; it has to teach the other characters (or the audience) something, whether directly or not. (The director of the film "Adam," which is a romance between a non-autistic woman and a man with Asperger Syndrome, said that he chose to make a film about autism because he felt that autism could tell us things about the human condition, or something. It was definitely a "What does autism mean for non-autistic people?" sort of thing). This is, by definition, not transgressive. Because transgressive art is not about the in-group, and is not really for them. They are allowed to consume it, but they cannot expect the work to hold their hand or accommodate them or make them comfortable.

I think it's either a) impossible or b) <em>extremely</em> difficult for a member of the in-group to make a truly transgressive work about members of an out-group. Their portrayals of out-group people may be Not Screwed Up, or Less Screwed Up than Usual, but that is not transgressive. It's what they should be doing anyway.

"Lynch is a poor example of

"Lynch is a poor example of being "transgressive""

Yes I agreed to that point. I had two seconds to think of a second example and I chose one of my favourite films. Again, I'll judge transgressive art by the art itself, not who created it.

s.e. refers at times to art

s.e. refers at times to art and at times to creators, tone really has nothing to do with it. My point wasn't that art can't be critiqued based on its context in the world, but precisely the opposite. How can you tell if art is transgressive or fauxgressive without that context? Without the context, it can't trangress, because there is no context to get all transgressive with. As for the idea that art should be (de)valued based on the characteristics of the creator, again, s.e. didn't say anything of the kind and explicitly intervened in that idea.

Frustratingly, my post

Frustratingly, my post should have read "You're right, art cannot be critiqued <b>without</b> context in our world." Don't ask me how I messed that up! :)

My very initial points still stand. Do we have to wait to find out if the creator of a film is part of the minority depicted before we can label the art transgressive? If yes, then that to me is a farce - if I'm profoundly affected by a film that depicts something I relate to I need no other confirmation. Otherwise whether or not art is transgressive is not reliant on the creator, but the merits of the art itself (to which of course, experience brings fruitfully).

Then you are hardly

Then you are hardly disagreeing with the article as you initially said!

I think that s.e. smith's

I think that s.e. smith's point was, if the work is great, it doesn't matter who made it.

However (i think she is saying that) if people who have lived through the experiences the work refers to or is about, feel that the work negates their experience, it would make sense to question whether it was appropriate for someone who had not lived that experience to "represent them" by making work from the point of view of someone who had.

For me, a good example of art made to represent others in a genuinely understanding and compassionate way was a photo exhibition called "What Remains" by Alison Locke and Chris Anderson, recently on at the Oxo Barge Tower in London, to document the impact of cluster munitions on ordinary people around the world.

This is a great post

I really like the direction this blog is going. Awesome job, s.e.! I agree wholeheartedly.

Truth vs. Talent

I feel that many people with extraordinary experiences may not be the most qualified to turn that into a work of art. This is why I have a problem with so many documentaries today. Too often they overlook the aesthetic qualities under the belief that the honesty of the material will carry it. While the audience in me may be captivated by the story, the artist in me always finds fault when I feel they didn't try hard enough to elevate an interesting and honest tale into a masterfully crafted piece that stands out.

When I was in art school, it seemed like there were too types of storytellers: those who could care less about honesty and dignity and simply wanted to force their perspective of the world down the throat of their audience, and those so wrapped up in the "but it really happened this way!" trope that they often overlooked simple matters of story coherence, narrative weight and pacing. Both made pretty unwatchable efforts, but it seemed like it was always the latter group that became way more defensive when their work was criticized.

For example: A kid made a short film about the turmoil he went through when he came out to his parents. And while I'm sure this was a painful experience that strengthened him as he grew, he nevertheless fell into the hackneyed screenwriting trap of depicting his parents as boorish, one-dimensional hatemongers and himself as an angelic saint martyred on the alter of love and tolerance. It was excruciating to watch and unfortunate that, for something based on a personal, true life story, it smacked of dishonesty.

I believe you can separate your respect for the person's trials while also giving an honest critique for whether or not their story was presented in a meaningful way. This is one reason I am such a huge fan of Errol Morris.

He, arguably, has not lived half as interesting a life as the subjects of his films. Yet I feel he never steps wrong, never patronizes or glamorizes, never judges or assumes. He does what all good journalists and artists do when tasked with bringing someone else's story to light: he listens. When I watch a Morris film, I do not feel he is trying to impress me with his own knowledge of the subject or convince me to agree with his argument (although, obviously, any work of art is going to reflect the creator's point of view, intentional or not). I feel he respects his subject and their story enough to let them tell the truth, and he respects his audience enough to package it in a way that is aesthetically and cinematically captivating. This is why his films stand out, to me, as works of art and not simply good reportage.

Experience is always susceptible to skewed perspective, especially our own. A great artist has to balance subjectivity and objectivity at the same time, and that's quite difficult. Those who can tell their own story with that level of grace and skill are indeed special, but I also believe there are great artists who can tell another's story if they truly understand why it should be told.

I truely am enjoying this blog.

Keep up the good work!

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