The topic of this post has been bouncing around my mind for a few years, but it seems so utterly stupid, I feared I’d just be writing a bunch of obvious sounding things. I suppose it may turn out that way after all, but given that it’s come up in the community today, I thought I might as well.
Regardless of the medium, art is powerful. It can transport us to a completely different place. The escapism it provides, or the ability to live vicariously through something that would otherwise be unfeasible or plain wrong in real life, is of tremendous, irreplaceable value. From my earliest childhood I knew this was precious, and for this reason, I defended the right to any and all media to exist, as long as no person or animal had been hurt to make it.
Even when I was little, there were many types of media I didn’t like –music with violent undertones, gory horror movies are just some examples– but I never would have thought that they shouldn’t exist simply because I didn’t like them. From the first time I covered my eyes at something I didn’t like on the screen and my mom said “it isn’t real” I was reassured of the difference between real and imaginary. If I didn’t enjoy the content, I merely looked away.
And I always knew what happened in a game, comic or tv show wasn’t to be taken as an example of behavior. Had I allowed that to happen, I would have had my privileges to enjoy said content removed until deemed mature enough to enjoy them. But I know my parents would have never had the gall to blame the media itself for my poor judgement. That would have been risible.
Sometimes, once in a very rare while, I’d hear something like, this person killed another in a Satanic ritual, and they listened to a lot of heavy metal music with Satanistic undertones before doing it, or this kid thought he could fly like Superman after watching the show and jumped off the roof of his house (I think this one actually happened a few times around the world, but still an unbelievably minuscule percentage when you consider the huge number of people exposed to the character/story.)
You know what my feeling was when such a thing happened –and the reaction of everyone around me as well? It was either “something was deeply wrong with that person” or “that child’s parents never spoke to them about the difference between reality and fantasy”. It was never to blame the media/artform itself. I’m not saying no one did, but by FAR the common sense reaction was “what was this person thinking?!” because MOST rational people, with their full faculties, even very young people, even young children, have some level of grasp of the difference between real and fictional.
Naturally, a child might be more easily confused by implied messages in fictional media, and is also more easily influenced, and this is why we have general guidelines for content, and it is for parents to determine if their child can handle a specific work of fiction. But adults, by and large, can tell the difference, and for those few who can’t, the solution should not be to sanitize and dumb down media for the rest of the world.
In a comic, we may get the chance to see an asshat character get a comeuppance that would not be ethical, moral or legal in the real world. We can enjoy that guilt-free, because it’s fiction. The moment upon which we look at a fictional work and say “hey, this is a guide on how to handle my real-life situations” there is a problem, and the problem is with us, not the fictional work. It means that at some point, we didn’t get the “real life is different from fictional stories” lesson.
A work of fiction is often trying to reflect the real world, its problems, and its multi-faceted inhabitants, which often make wrong decisions and choose improper courses of action, or take actions that are wrong but can be sympathized with. If we as writers are always constrained by the “I need to make sure things go completely wrong for this person for taking X course of action” the stories we create run a risk of becoming stiff, moralistic and one-dimensional, or a PSA.
Don’t get me wrong: media is powerful, and part of the power it has is that of influencing its audience under certain circumstances. For this reason, it is of utmost importance that we teach our young people what is a good and a bad influence; what is real and what is imaginary. They should not get that from a book, video game, or comic. Our failure to teach children to tell these two things apart should not come at the cost of restricting the freedom of stories to go wherever the writer will take them. Do not expect a creator of fiction to do your job for you, or society’s job, in that regard.
There is an exception, however. Sometimes a work, fictional or otherwise, is specifically created with the intention of teaching a moral or lesson. There are plenty of such works that are very much deserving of this sort of criticism and scrutiny. I know, in particular, how many there are in regards to children’s media, because I collect religious books for children. The more obscure the religion the more fascinating I find these books –and the more disgusting in the messages they implant, and the freedom they take away from children to make their own choices.
Media is indeed a tremendously powerful tool when it comes to the shaping of malleable young minds. If you combine it with telling a child “this fictional work is a guide on how to live your life” things can certainly get a little screwed up. And in that case, the fault is also with the writer who wrote the work/s specifically with this intention, even if those works are fiction. They are works written very specifically in a form that will influence someone to believe “this is how you base your morals.”
But even such works, if you read them as an adult, with a solid idea of reality and right versus wrong, will not touch your morality and ability to follow the law and be a good human being, UNLESS something else is wrong to cause you to be so easily influenced. Most people shouldn’t be.
The biggest proof I can give you in this regard is this:
I was raised to believe in the Bible as the unequivocal word of a just and loving God. Naturally, I was not given the parts to read as a child that would have thrown this completely out of the window. I don’t mean the wild inaccuracies and hypocrisies, I mean the utter, violent cruelty, repeated again and again.
As an adult, I no longer believe in the Christian God because my moral compass and sense of right and wrong is just not compatible with the things that book says. It took me a long time, because I refused to read a lot of it, afraid of what it would do to my beliefs (and rightly so!) But still, because of a book, as a child and young adult I grew up homophobic and even misogynistic (all internalized, being a woman and pansexual, the latter of which I wouldn’t realize until fairly recently.)
Even so, and in spite of almost twenty years of indoctrination, six of them at Catholic school, my basic sense of right and wrong managed to steer me away even from a book that was full of messages drilled into me as “no, THIS is actually right and wrong, no matter what your gut says.”
If we are taught properly as children, we can all make this distinction. I believe most adults are able to make this distinction. I realize I perhaps picked a poor example as I’m sure many of my followers are Christian, as I once was, and unless they are fundamentalists, surely they have their own hoops and such that their minds jump through to ignore the really terrible stuff in the Bible (I had lots myself, probably the same ones as many of you, until it just wasn’t good enough, I’m afraid.)
However, this can apply to any and all media. You know what is right and wrong already, and if you base your unethical, immoral life choices in a work of fiction, well then, you were probably just looking for an excuse to make those choices already.
We all should know what is and isn’t real, and what is right and wrong. It’s not a tv show’s job to teach us that (unless it’s Sesame Street or the like). It’s not a novel or comic book’s job to teach us that. Their job, unless they are purporting otherwise specifically, is to entertain us.
That, I think, has tremendous value. It should be treasured and protected.