In storytelling, context matters

How does context affect the pop culture we consume? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as the growing call for more diverse representations is also paired with reminders that it’s critical to have diverse creators, too, that seeing creators put their own lived experience on the page or on screen is important. Historically, I used to try to approach media without knowing anything about the creator, so I could think about it independently before delving into the factors that affected it, but recently I’ve been doing the opposite, wanting to know where a story is coming from, making a conscious note of it in reviews and conversations about the work, because it feels acutely relevant.

A story about tragic queers has very different meanings when it’s told by queer people versus straight people, for example. Those meanings are often difficult to disentangle, and can make for very interesting but also complicated and sometimes stressful conversations. The identity of the author gets dragged into the text even over cautions about how books are not authors, and authors are not their books, and opinions expressed in texts don’t necessarily reflect the views of the people who write them — in fact, sometimes just the opposite.

There a lot of inherent tensions bound up in storytelling. Everyone has a distinctly different experience, and thus a book by a trans person about a trans character might ring true to some, while feeling anachronistic and offensive to others. Does that make it a bad book? Is that person wrong for having a lived experience that differs from those of some readers? What if the author isn’t out, and readers are interpreting it as a book by a cis person when it isn’t?

These are snarled, thorny things that I see complicating discussions about media and pop culture — some creators may feel pressured to out themselves so they can participate in conversations about their work, for example, even if that makes them extremely uncomfortable. Others find themselves defending their lived experience from critics who aren’t just discussing how things are handled in their books, but indirectly holding referenda on their own lives, at times seeking to invalidate things that feel very real and personal.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that with a limited number of representations to choose from, everything carries more weight. Someone isn’t just a trans character, but viewed as speaking for the trans community, because there are only a handful of pieces of media to choose from. Thus, something that is very applicable and intensely truthful for some trans people gets snarled up in a fight over the ‘authentic’ experience and whether creators are behaving irresponsibly as they depict their own lives, especially when it comes to discussing how depictions influence the views and beliefs of outsiders.

Context is important. Context is complicated. Does deeper context excuse or justify texts that some people find offensive? That’s something I’m hesitant to comment on, because of nuance — one person’s authentic lived experience doesn’t carry over to all, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be depicted. Sometimes sorting through representations reveals more layers; perhaps a disabled person is writing a book with a depiction that appears superficially disablist, because they’re exploring themes of internalised disablism and the ways in which society pressures disabled people to think about themselves. But maybe it’s too subtle, and readers aren’t picking up on the complexities there. Or maybe it’s not subtle at all, and readers are choosing to ignore it.

It’s popular, these days, to complain about ‘identity politics’ and how it is ‘ruining everything.’ Certainly a heightened awareness of identity is appearing in analyses of media and pop culture, and sometimes that analysis, and conversation, feels limited and narrow. Lacking in nuance and careful thought. At other times, that’s not the case, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference — especially for outsiders who may not understand the layers happening inside the conversation because they aren’t part of the community affected by those depictions.

Explorations of cultural and social identity inform discussions about works of media and pop culture, turning them into something richer, deeper. Humans create art, create things, tell stories, because we are trying to understand something about ourselves, because we are trying to spark feelings in other humans, because we want to comment on the things around us in a language that feels comfortable and familiar. Every text should be subject to layered, thoughtful analysis, and since texts generally revolve around identity and representation to some degree or another, whether biographies by neurosurgeons or fantasy series about princesses, these things inevitably become part of the conversation, and thus, inevitably, context has to appear as well. What we think, and how we think it, matters, and is informed by who we are.

This is something I struggle with when I encounter something that I find harmful, with characterisations that reflect dangerous social attitudes, and I learn that the author belongs to the groups depicted. Does that change how I view those representations? Of course it does — and it also haunts me when I read texts where the author’s status is ambiguous or unknown, as I am reminded about the dangers of making assumptions about creators. How many times have I trashed a text without realising that I’m actually trashing someone’s lived experience?

Image: stories, paolobarzman, Flickr