“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

politicsaiweiwei

Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

lexica

Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

daisyridleycarriefisher.getty

Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

forestfloor

“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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14 thoughts on ““Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

  1. thosestubbornwaves says:

    A few points on your article:

    ”Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense…”
    Unless you give me specific examples that this was a racism, you can’t claim racism without proof. More than that I find it irresponsible. If there are proof of this, I’ll be happy to state that you are right, but just because you have experience in the field of casting- which is gigantic industry, so someone’s experience might be better than others- doesn’t mean you can claim racism at face value.

    ” Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.”
    The problem here is that you actually think kids understand it this way. It’s a children animation movie based on a fairy tale. The goal of the creators was not to ascribe this sexist narrative (unless you can prove this) but their half-assed writing probably created this message.

    ”Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“?”
    Do remember that this male outrage came from a lot of comments on the internet. The majority of men didn’t agree with that. I know this example furthers your narrative, but the bunch of losers who were offended by Rey’s presence does not repressent all men.

    ”Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,””
    I miss Carrie too.

    ”White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles.”
    Again, this is just a bunch of people on the internet. Not the majority of white males.

    ”What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.”
    I’m not saying don’t listen to people but the problem I have with this and many of your kin who obsessively focus on pop-culture films, is:
    1. Art is not supposed to be about pleasing every demographic. A film starring a lot of white people is not necessarily only for white people. ”Straight Story” is a film about aging and death, could be enjoyed by people of every color, because it’s a universal struggle. Same that I always enjoyed ”Friday” despite there barely having any white people in it.
    There are a lot of whiney people in the world but they are on both sides. On the SJW level who go nuts with outrage and the Alt-right snowflakes who seem to live in a bubble and think that there is no such thing as racism or sexism.

    2. Since when are multi-million dollar movies examples of social justice? People all upset about the casting, yet nobody seems to complain about the salaries of these players- oh yes people started complaining that Gal Gadot didn’t make enough, even though she made more in the months she made that film and will make even more money now- than regular women make in thier lifetime. These are blockbusters made by people with TRUE priviledge, who couldn’t care what is going on with normal people. Hollywood is not a normal industry, it’s an absolutely insane place full of ego and excessive money.
    Maybe you should focus more on the special effects/animation crew, the real workers of the industry? But no, most people just focus on the stars or the movie itself because that’s easy.

    Anyway that’s my statement. Best of luck to you.

  2. smirkpretty says:

    Yes yes yes! I’m bumbling through this piece I’m writing about Twin Peaks right now and keep finding myself frustrated about having to answer this very question. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

  3. Loz says:

    Thank you for this essay; it will be relevant in my AP Lit class which focuses on Dominant and Resistant Readings (as we move into our unit on Marginalized Voices).

  4. Anni Atwood says:

    I LOVE THIS and I love you, but I completely disagree with your read on The Little Mermaid as a queer woman. The original fairy tale was written as a gay narrative about how Anderson wanted to be a woman so the man he loved could be with him, and as such a lot of trans people have also found a home in that. There is a really core, insistent belief that Disney did take a lot of this into account. Queer coding was all we had until the past couple of decades, and as a closeted queer child when I saw the movie even at 6 I related to Ariel in a way I was uncomfortable voicing and couldn’t put words too.

    Furthermore even in your interpretation WAY before Eric Ariel is obsessed with humans and wants to be one. Her having that dream fulfilled seems more urgent when she meets Eric but that was literally always what she wanted.

    The Little Mermaid is absolutely not apolitical, but not for the reasons listed here.

    • Honestly, I think both reads are valid because the work can contain both messages at once. As a young cis girl, I read TLM as anti-feminist. As the mother of a transgender girl (well, young woman now SUNRISE SUNSET), I can absolutely see the validity in the read you’re giving, and have encountered it before. I actually considered including it as part of my basic “consider how this reads to people different than you” message, but it was already getting wordy, and I ended up cutting that and a few more things to boot. Thanks for your perspective! It’s important and welcome.

  5. I never heard the whole thing about BLACK PANTHER being considered “militant”, but it doesn’t surprise me. That’s hilarious when you consider that Iron Man is a government-subsidized military weapon-maker, Capt. America was an Army private-turned-Super Soldier, Black Widow has been an assassin for both the Russian AND United States governments, the Hulk of the MCU was made that way attempting to perfect the Super Soldier program that created Cap, and Thor led the Asgardian army into SEVERAL wars. But Black Panther? Oh yeah, a Black African king is “too militant”.

    The mere existence of someone non-White is enough to make most White people freak out about race. For evidence, one need look no further than the last guy who was in the White House. Time after time, countless White people (from everyone in Congress to Camille Paglia speaking on PJTV) called him a racist and said that he “did more to set back race relations in this country” than anyone who came before him. Whenever anyone asked them to elaborate, they could never provide an example and just doubled down on saying he, not they, was the real racist. And all he did was be born Black.

  6. OH MY GOD. Fellow white dudes. SHUT UP. No one has to prove to you racism is real. SHUT YOUR GOB-HOLES FOR ONCE and just listen.

  7. PS: I took exactly ONE comment for the #NotAllMen to show up. You’re holding us back for fuck sake.

  8. No.

    Thanks for reading Bitter Gertrude! Next time, read the article before you comment.

    • doomed liberal says:

      You said all work that is “apolitical” reinforces the dominant culture and all work contain messages about how we think of marginalized people. So I read the post–this is not an article–and by your own definition a new apolitical Bjork album would reinforce the dominant culture. Or does abstract work or music not count? Which would refute your argument that every work is political? It’s your logic and you’re bitter at me for finding it false on its face?

      • The thesis of the essay above is: “There is no such thing as apolitical work” not “apolitical work enforces the dominant culture.” Abstract work is, last I checked, a subset of “all work” and, as such, is created within a sociopolitical context. The idea that the music industry is apolitical is quaint.

        I approved your first comment because you pestered me by submitting it over and over, but this is the last comment of yours I will approve about this matter. Thanks again for reading Bitter Gertrude!

    • doomed liberal says:

      I did not submit it over and over, I would be aware of that, so you can feel free to not approve this comment, but you’re lying. But no one will ever see this, so I guess you win, right?

      You literally said people view apolitical work as that which reinforces the dominant culture, and then answered my question as to if an apolitical work by Bjork would reinforce the dominant culture with a kurt “No”. I never said music was apolitical.

      So in closing, you are a liar, your ideas are logically retarded, and you’re disingenuous and frankly a bitter dickhead.

      Best of luck!

  9. I like this article a lot, especially since several times now, commenters on critical pieces I’ve written have responded with that exact phrase: “Why do you have to make everything political.”
    I think it legitimate to apply a political analysis to any work of theater whether or not the play is overtly or intentionally advocating for or depicting a specific cause or party or worldview. But I’m talking about an analysis that uses “politics” in its broadest range of meanings — “the total complex of relations between people living in society.”

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