Early warning: I’m sex-positive. To tongue-in-cheek (eh heh) illustrate the point of this blog, I’ve got pictures of gorgeous people to objectify freely. It’s fairly safe for work, but if you’re somewhere super conservative, it may not be. Scroll with care!
There are some excellent discussions out there—everywhere—about the role of the creative in everyday life. How far does our responsibility as “makers of consumed creative product” stretch, and is it in our best interest to—in essence—practice what we preach? What does that even mean when it comes to writing and art?
There’s a lot of heavy stuff out there. At the core, most revolves around equal rights—the right of any person, of any color, class, gender, sexuality or creed, to be treated the same across the board.
We are inundated every day with causes—most of which are important. The right for women to be treated as something other than a convenient receptacle for a man’s sexual urges. The right for POC to be something other than subjugated by white, oh, let’s call it “concern-trolling” to stay modern and hip. The right for LGBTQ people everywhere to be something other than “lesser” beings, to be allowed the same freedoms and happiness as their heteronormative straight counterparts.
There are more—many, many more. So many that it’s easy to look at the world we live in today and start to feel a little overwhelmed by the, dare I say it, unfairness of it all. "We have to be very careful about what we say out there to the masses in the entertainment industry because people are listening to every word, and they take it to heart."
— Jennifer Love Hewitt
The Role of the Creative
Content creators are in the unique position where the things they create—art, stories, movies, video games—are consumed by what we’ll call “the masses”. Readers, TV watchers, movie goers, video game players; everyday folk with everyday hobbies that include consuming our material.
Consuming, and more of than we like, absorbing it at a remarkable rate—and not always the bits we hope they do.
Between the covers of our books, in the fantasies we write, there are messages that are not always meant to be messages. How we treat our characters, how we paint them, how we shape them, transitions to a reader like a slow, steady drip IV—not all at once, but drip by drip, book by book, author by author; until the message they learn is the one that shares the same common denominator as the rest.
That is a lot of responsibility for a content creator.
Or, it isn’t.
The alternative is the other extreme: the one that says what we do is art, plain and simple, and we are under no obligation to shape the world with it unless we want to. That what we write is done for fun only, and that it’s not up to us to hold the hands of our audiences.
Both strong arguments in their own right.
I don’t have an answer. I just have a trapeze wire I shuffle back and forth across.
Write The World You Want to Live In
I was talking with another author and she said, paraphrased due to time lapse between that conversation and now, “If you have the means to create a better world—where racism and sexism aren’t the norm, for example—then why wouldn’t you?”
Authors are in a fantastic position wherein they can, in some small to fairly large fundamental ways, change the way the reading world looks at themselves and their surroundings. By creating a protagonist that is not white, a reader might see themselves in that role for the first time. By creating a cast that is racially, sexually, and gender diverse, readers who aren’t part of the easymode echelon might see in themselves the ability to overcome—just like they read in the book.
If someone struggling with their needs reads about a successful BDSM relationship, and not one fraught in tragedy and villainy, then that reader might feel comforted to know that they have a shot at the happiness they want.
You can create an example for almost any genre, any role. What we write matters, and with this sometimes greater than average power, there is a school of thought that says we have the great responsibility of bettering our communities.
Write the World That You Know
On the flip side of this ideal is the world that we see around us. Whether it’s set in a paranormal world, a fantasy, a contemporary, or anything off this planet and beyond, there are recognizable challenges for our characters to face: racism, sexism, hatred, intolerance. The underdog is the POC community vilified for their traditions, the woman mocked for her desires, the gay youth hunted for their “unnatural ways”.
There’s more to pick on in this world we know—poverty, religious hatred, political shenanigans; you name it, it exists as fodder for a book.
Authors are in a fantastic position wherein they can, in some small to fairly large fundamental ways, make the reading world aware of themselves and their surroundings. Through the challenges of an underdog similar to a real world’s injustice, a reader might “wake up” to the way this injustice is allowed to unfold.
Whether it’s intentional or not, by outlining the stories the way we do, we are depositing a seed of “what if?” in our reader’s heads.
And yet, there’s a third option, one that I posit is just as important as the above.
Write the World That Fuels Your Fantasies
I was once sharing my distaste for the 50 Shades franchise with a peer at a convention, and in the middle of a rant wherein I bemoan the (dare I say it) dangerous examples the book outlines in BDSM practices, she asked me, “Why should I be held responsible for a reader’s personal choices?”
That gave me pause.
It’s been over a year since this discussion, and I still think about it.
Here’s what I eventually put words to in my everyday existence, even as I always on some level knew it based on what I write:
No matter what else is happening in the real world, there must be room for fantasy. And fantasy, as we well know, is not always docile, polite, clean, or politically correct.
And that’s okay.
Because the people who fantasize about monster porn, dinosaur erotica, Bigfoot sex, rape (yes, even being raped), public sex, orgies, and so on aren’t, by and large, broken. And to suggest that those who fantasize without fear of acting on it are broken is so very much not okay.
We might laugh a little at stories of the horny, hungry T-Rex and the cavewoman he wants—seriously, how does he use his tiny arms?—but it’s fantasy. It’s always, always a little ridiculous. Even the generally accepted attainable ones (like princess weddings—I mean, think about it).
Pushing the Boundaries
When I look back on my body of work, I see various kinds of fantasy. In my Dark Mission series, I feature incredibly intense sex scenes between naturally aggressive people in a dangerous world, including a borderline-consent sex scene that we almost softened. Almost. I showcase violence, including violence against the repressed, and good people doing terrible things.
It’s a series where intractable alphas can be jerks for all the usual reasons, and strong-willed women can still want them, jump them, make them crazy, have sex for all the right reasons, have sex for all the wrong reasons, and be flawed and loved and weak and stubborn and unpredictable and not expected to change who they are.
And yet, there are places where I could be accused of promoting rape-culture simply by putting words to a common fantasy shared by as many (at least in studies) as 4 out of 10 women.
All I can continue to say is that everyone deserves the opportunity to fantasize. If a woman’s fantasy includes being taken hard and fast and rough against a wall in a dark alley without being called a slut, a whore, or accused of just wanting to be raped, then who the hell am I to tell her she’s wrong?
And yes, this does go in every direction, every gender, every sexuality. Because fantasy =/= reality. Everyone has fantasies; everyone dreams. Everyone thinks about the dirty little things they shouldn’t.
Not every body of work has to be literary genius—although given the nature of Lolita, I don’t think there’s all that fine a separation between the two. It also doesn’t help when it feels like the most pervasive fantasy out there is “man dominates all that he sees”—a legitimate fantasy with the added bonus of being the one propagated by the majority. So when I spin my fantasies, and it includes a real Tarzan of a man, I put a kink—eh heh—in that common fantasy that gives the woman more power than we are led to believe we have.
That’s my nod. That’s my fantasy.
I am a minstrel. I peddle fantasies, sing a sexy song for my supper, and I relish in the chance to fuel those fantasies—and have a few of my own.
I am an equal rights activist for those communities that I ascribe to, and an advocate for the same across those communities I am not part of. I am a feminist.
And I completely encourage everyone to fantasize about whatever gets their rocks off.
How Far is Too Far?
I don’t have an answer for this. I’m not sure I want one. To create a line is to put a cap on art—and to put a cap on art handicaps those who could tackle a subject with the finesse it needs. It could be said that not putting a limit on it allows too many people who think they can tackle it—see most “my strong female character is strong because she was raped” books—the freedom to keep doing so.
It’s like every First Amendment debate ever.
Suggesting that art promotes negativity is eerily similar to the “video games promote violence" debate—which I feel is definitively closed. There’s the theory that a majority of written works feature common stereotypes despite the historical truth because society continues to promote the concept that this is truth—it’s own version of fantasy, if you will. Suggesting that authors have a responsibility to educate the masses is a heavy burden that skims too close to the pop culture fanaticism that has us taking medical advice from celebrities, but at the same time, it does provide an excellent opportunity to put a little bit of equality out into a world that occasionally feels like it doesn’t want any.
They tell you that you cannot write about different cultures because if it’s not yours, you do it wrong; they tell you that you must have more diversity because there isn’t enough; they tell you that you can’t victimize X, Y or Z in the pages; they tell you that the way you glossed over the realities of victimized X, Y or Z was inappropriate; they tell you that you must be as true to life as you possibly can; they tell you that life is miserable, so why perpetuate it?
They will always tell you something.
What it all boils down to is personal choice. What you can live with.
Move Like U Carefully Considered It and Made an Educated Choice
Those of us in some kind of minority—women, POC, LGBTQ, poverty-stricken, and more—feel every day what it takes to operate in a world primarily run by the rich and the WASPy. We know what’s out there. You know what’s out there—or should make a valiant attempt to learn.
Because when you write what you write—when you create and put it out into the world—you should at least have an answer for why you chose to set a series in a world where racism is alive and well, where the women are muzzled, where LGBTQ characters are penalized. Know why you make this call, and you will be miles ahead of those who do it simply because “that’s the way it is”.
Making the Effort
With my admittedly un-objective eye, I look back on my various works and ask myself if I made an educated choice.
Honestly? I have no idea.
I can’t say that my intent is pure; I don’t know that I set out to send a message when I write my stories.
But I do know what I did wrong—as it pertains to me and my feelings, and the reactions that most impact me from readers—and I know where to improve. I know that I peddle fantasies, and I know that some fantasies have the potential to share great messages. I choose what work promotes what, and that is, in the end, all a creator can do.
If you choose to infuse your work with all the vigor of your social values, that is your choice.
If you choose to ignore all the causes and write the fantasies and stories you want to write, bedamned to social values, that is your choice.
If you choose to do a little bit of both, depending on the work and the time, that is your choice.
But choose. And then you’ll never be caught off-guard when somebody asks you why. And know that no matter which way you go, there will be people telling you—explaining to you—how and why you’re doing it wrong.
This is the necessary hypocrisy of a working author. To not, in some eyes, practice what we preach. Or, in the yes of others, to do exactly that.
No one can decide this but you.