I want to tell you a story about Stephanie in 2013.
In 2013, Ben and I went to see Under the Skin, a sci-fi film starring Scarlett Johansson that was being praised for its evocative imagery and feminist undertones. I left that theater feeling extremely dissatisfied and upset about what I had seen. It wasn’t the eerie, sometimes terrifying imagery that did it (that part was great). It was the fact that throughout the whole movie Johansson had only said a handful of words. She had gone around carrying out the orders of these aliens who had taken seemingly male bodies without having any say in the matter until she broke and sought some means of escape from a life of kidnapping men.
“But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?” Ben said (or said something like that). “It’s supposed to bring into focus the ways that women pursuing men can still be the will of the patriarchy.” And this was I think what the filmmakers intended. “But I already know it sucks to be a woman,” I said, becoming increasingly emotional. “I want stories that tell me how to make things better instead of just reminding me about how shitty everything is.”
At the time, I was working on my dissertation, which focuses on the role that personal narratives can play in adjusting how we view the world. My foundation assumption was something like this: When we encounter something we haven’t encountered before, we use the narratives we’ve heard to make sense of it. Consequently, the dominant narratives — the way that stories about a particular issue are usually structured — deeply influence how we receive and interpret all stories we hear.
An example: For a long time, the dominant narrative regarding abortion was that they were gotten by women who irresponsibly had sex outside of marriage and couldn’t be bothered to raise a child. We mostly assumed that it was teenagers that got abortions after youthful indiscretions. And if this is, in fact, the reality of it, citizens will make certain decisions about how best to deal with abortion, like abstinence-only sex ed in schools. But in the last few years, we’ve seen pro-choice groups deliberately trying to undermine that narrative by releasing statistics that show married women account for a significant number of abortions, including married women who already have other children. In 2013, New York Magazine ran a story of 21 women sharing their abortion experiences, and those women cited many different reasons for choosing to abort, like chronic medical issues, needing to care for other children, or being in bad relationships with the father. These different narratives suggest different approaches to policy — if it’s not teenagers doing this, then we need different solutions.
In my dissertation, I spend a lot of time thinking about common narratives about children with mental health issues and the ways that we judge real-life parents of mentally-ill children based on what we see via movies and television. I continue to believe that the media narratives that are available to us can deeply affect what we see as possible and/or probable in the real world. Which is why HBO’s new show Confederate seems like such a terrible idea to me. Many writers of color have already given detailed criticisms (like Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates) about why they don’t want want to give the show a chance, even with two black writers on the team, and I believe that theirs are the voices that matter most in this debate. But I also want to express my rejection of the show as a white Southerner. You don’t have to look far to see that the people of the South have a hard time confronting their racist past and present. Even those who are well-intentioned often have no idea what to do with themselves, as Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” shows; they struggle to find ways to express their identities as both Southerners and race-conscious individuals (because for some reason, Southerners need to express their solidarity as Southerners in ways that Midwesterners, for example, don’t; I blame the rest of the country for using the South as a dumping ground for making themselves feel less racist/homophobic/ignorant/etc.). I’m disappointed by the basic premise of Confederate because it offers nothing new for us as white Southerners of conscience, no new ways to imagine what a truly equitable society looks like and how we can enact it. An “alternate history” is allowed to remain “fantasy” in our minds, not necessarily forcing viewers to confront their everyday habits and practices. Not to mention it perpetuates the misconception that the South is the root of all racism, instead of the responsibility being shared by all of us who have benefited from white privilege.
I’m not saying that art (including television and movies) shouldn’t be a vehicle for cultural criticism, but there comes a point where criticism is not enough. We need radically new stories because they offer us radically new ways to imagine our relationships to others, and this includes our relationships to and among minority groups. Confederate gives us nothing new to work with.