“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.
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.
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.
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.