Does political correctness in fiction really make a difference?
There is a trend I noticed on tumblr, especially in the webcomic and askblog genre, that deeply annoys me. I think there have been multiple complaints about it already, but I doubt any of them had a solid explanation why it is so making people feel that way. When someone tries to address it, they get shut down very quickly and called all sorts of names and get accused of being apologists for rape, sexism, racism and all sorts of other stuff.
I’m talking about self censorship and political correctness. This has been talked about by many people, and lately it has been used by politicians like Donald Trump and thus criticism towards political correctness has been labeled “a right-wing thing to do”. So, let’s talk about that.
I think political correctness is important in politics. You are ruling a country? You better talk to your people properly. You’re on the internet discussing with others? Stay respectful and don’t use slurs or make jokes that could hurt the other. So yes, that’s settled. In real life, political correctness has its place and it shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. So, what about fiction?
This is where I see a problem. Many artists on tumblr see themselves forced to construct their stories in certain ways to please their audience. You can’t have your characters use offensive language, be racist, sexist or homophobic without people assuming the artist shares those beliefs.
Only villains are allowed to show those flaws.
This ruins good story telling and I’ll show you why: what tumblr is focusing on is a Disney-esque story telling with the bad guy and the good guy, where the good guy should teach you a lesson by displaying admirable behavior while the villain personifies all the evil in the world. Thus, the protagonist - who is usually the good guy - displays the author’s beliefs on what is right and wrong and therefore is not independent from its creator. I get no kicks out of reading a story where the main goal is pushing certain ideologies down my throat with the subtlety of a Jehova’s witness.
This doesn’t mean I don’t want meaningful stories that teach the audience a lesson. On the contrary, those are one of my favorites - but they have to be approached a different way. I’ll show you a positive example: Gomorra - La Serie.
This is an Italian show discussing the Naplitan mafia and its structure. This could easily be a boring thriller about cops chasing down criminals, with the occassional moral question. But what does this show do instead? It’s told from the Mafia’s point of view.
It throws you right into a mess of questioning yourself and your own view of these people by simply showing you the reality of being a mafia hitman, No policing, no political correctness. Racism and sexism and all that other nasty stuff are all over the place and yet this show will teach you more about those things than most “friendly reminder"s on tumblr dot com.
It doesn’t give you a safe moral ground. There is no “This is right and this is wrong” indicator. You are constantly forced to zoom yourself out and in again to understand these characters and why they are acting that way, they make you think and ask “Wait a second, am I rooting for a brutal killer?” when there is an epic chasing scene.
You finish this show and you’ll hate the mafia, its structure and what if forces people to do, but this is your personal lesson because you thought about it during the whole watch. Did they need to make a character say “don’t say nigger, that’s bad”? No. They researched tons about the mafia instead and tried to make it as close to reality as possible. This is the real horror of the story. I don’t think this show would have worked with political correctness and self censorship, because it takes so much away from the world building.
Fear, anger, crime, bigotry …those ugly things make your story real because people who use slurs and are sexist exist and they aren’t even “villains”. They’re just characters. This also works in reverse.
Some guys in Gomorra are nice to a trans kid one time when it got bullied, does this make them admirable? Not really, they’re still killers. When finding inspiration for your stories you will be confronted with all sorts of people with motives and behavior and beliefs that are too diverse to cut certain parts off to fit a politically correct narrative. Remove yourself from your story and think of the people in your story as real people, not as a cardboard outcut of themselves to project political ideas on. Like this, you’ll be able to challenge your readers, and write stories that leave them with a questionmark after their beliefs.
This works for comedy too: Just watch french movies like Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu? - “Serial Bad Weddings” in English. Lots of slurs, misunderstandings and prejudice, but in the end the character’s journey will give you enough thoughts about your own stance on racism and its consequences without appearing like a lecture - just by having the characters act human.
And even kid’s shows can challenge their audience by doing just that! Just look at Avatar - The last airbender. The character etablished as your stereotypical villain goes through a long transition, falling back and making mistakes all over the place. Saying nasty things and holding really offensive opinions - but behind this mask, we see a child afraid of being alone. So…what is he? Bad or good? This is up to the audience to decide until his journey is finished.
TL;DR: See your characters as human beings, research lots, try to make your fictional world real and don’t care for the Social Justice Police.