In reading Daniel Heath Justice’s thoughts on Joseph Boyden for last week’s post, the following quote leaped out at me (emphasis added):
Second, although admittedly an impressive stylist, Boyden’s beguiling style fetishizes violence and replicates savagist stereotypes. While his attraction to violent themes isn’t in and of itself a major issue, especially given how warfare is an important issue throughout the corpus of Indigenous literature, his relentless fascination with brutalized Indigenous bodies is very troubling…
Showing members of marginalized groups exclusively as the victims of suffering, violence, death and extinction is not restricted to poorly considered portrayals of Indigenous peoples. Black characters (particularly African-Americans), LGBTQIA+ and/or gender non-conforming characters, disabled characters, and female characters (and any combination of those) also get exploited in this way.
[Content note: explicit discussion of violence and death under the jump]
While the fictional violence directed at each of these groups is very different in both its historical context and the tropes employed as a result of this context, there are several common features:
First, suffering, or at the very least helplessness, is seen as the defining feature of membership to the group in question. Disability is a major target of this, as many disability movies end with the demise of the disabled character. (Stories in which the disabled character dies are not this trope by default, since there are some that center more around living with joy and dignity while simultaneously accepting the inevitability of death, and that is a universal human problem). The most virulent form is the ‘better dead than disabled’ trope, such as Me Before You, where the disability is framed as inherently unbearable. A quick perusal of fawning profiles on people who murder their disabled family members will demonstrate this idea is far from harmless. (The LGBTQ+ version of this is a throwback to the days of the Hays Code, where filmmakers were forbidden from portraying happy, functional, non-villainous LGBTQ+ characters.)
In the context of race and/or colonialism, this means we only see the characters when they are personally suffering, or after their society has met with some sort of widespread disaster, or both. This isn’t a problem in and of itself– after all, humans have been experiencing wars, natural disasters, and other upheavals for our entire history, so of course this is a subject we tell stories about. The problem comes when we don’t see these characters in the context of prevailing, rebuilding, and celebrating their lives; if they are resisting an occupier, we never see the beauty of the society they are fighting for, or an optimistic vision of the future. Instead, we are shown cultures doomed to extinction (in and of itself an obnoxious and counter-factual trope) so that the main character (inevitably a member of the colonizing group) can have Feelings.
Second, as a corollary to the first, marginalized people only exist in relationship to the main character. The most egregious example may be the ‘women in refrigerators’ trope, wherein a female character is killed off early in the story to supply motivation to the male lead. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a revenge plot (see: the complete works of Quentin Tarantino), the problem in play is that the victim character gets little to no development and their pain or struggles matter only to provide angst and motivation for the protagonist. On a more macro scale, we see marginalized groups only when the main character wants or needs to interact with them, or when they are fawning over the main character.
Third, the character-as-prop also becomes a tool for voyeuristic portrayals of violence and suffering. Whilst the physical suffering may be borne by the marginalized characters, the emotional focus is on the protagonist; at its worst, we skip the cursory nod to the protagonist’s distress and turn the scene or story into torture porn. Whilst I do not advocate censoring violence or denying its prevalence– especially if you are writing about real life historical events where violence against marginalized groups is regularly brushed under the rug– such scenes deserve careful framing and language to avoid turning the character into a vehicle for the audience to gawk at gore or other horror.
This isn’t a suggestion to write nothing but fluff, but to be mindful of how both fiction and our broader culture think about violence towards particular groups of people, and consider whether your own fiction is contributing to problematic patterns. These tropes may work their way into our collective consciousness, but that’s not an excuse to mindlessly recycle them over and over. Instead, it should be a call to leverage our creativity and sensitivity and do better.