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Pop culture lists are not activism

Art by marginalized communities exists for reasons other than educating others.

HBO Max lists movies that viewers can watch featuring Black voices.
HBO Max was one of many sites to put together a special streaming catalog for Black History Month.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Surely you’ve noticed the pattern: A tragedy befalls members of a marginalized or traditionally disadvantaged community, or there’s a month dedicated to the history of that community, or there’s a renewed call for understanding of that community. It doesn’t really matter which; if the people in the community at hand aren’t white, cis, or straight, there’s an assumption that it’s incumbent upon people who are white, cis, or straight to better understand them.

Eventually, writers for sites with culture coverage and a vaguely progressive lean (like this one) start making lists. Here are some books that will teach you to be anti-racist. These are the movies you can check out to better understand queer people this Pride Month. Are you interested in learning more about transness? Have we got a recommendation of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl for you!

Art is a great way to build empathy for people who aren’t like us, so I understand this impulse. I even indulge it most of the time. When a cis ally asks me what art will help them better comprehend the trans experience, I have a handful of go-to recommendations. Whipping Girl, of course, but also Hazel Jane Plante’s novel Little Blue Encyclopedia and Torrey Peters’s novel Detransition, Baby. FX’s Pose can be cheesy, but it does capture certain aspects of trans history well. And I love trans director Isabel Sandoval’s new film Lingua Franca on Netflix. (Also, if you have kids, Michael Hall’s Red: A Crayon’s Story is a pretty solid picture book primer on transness, even if the author didn’t intend it as such.)

And yet these requests, no matter how well-intentioned, carry an unsettling burden: the implication that art made by marginalized communities should educate others about what it’s like to be part of that community. It robs that art of its aesthetic value, its mystery, and its sense of wonder, in favor of how it can best explain the experiences of our lives to the people who don’t live those lives. It’s a dead end of artistic expression, and it flattens too much art made by anyone who’s not white, who’s not cis, who’s not straight, into an overly simplistic dialectic that promotes either empty celebration on one side or tortured suffering on another.

“With film, especially, it seems backward to point to narrative fiction as a way of understanding the plight of people who exist in our world, instead of actually talking and interacting with our communities. The impulse behind a list like this, on the surface, seems like a good one,” said Angelica Jade Bastien, a critic for Vulture. “But below that, what it’s saying is all that matters about these works of art, is the identity of their creators, not their perspective, not what they were doing visually, not what they’re trying to say. They matter, not because of their voice, but because I can get something from it as a white person, as a straight person, as whomever. It’s very transactional.”

What is a list for anyway?

A scene from Do the Right Thing
Do the Right Thing often turns up on lists of movies one could watch to better understand Black life in America.
Universal Pictures

Broadly speaking, a pop culture list is an attempt to define some larger topic through a handful of works. Such a list might attempt to educate people on a specific subject, offer a quick rundown of a genre or type of work, or just declare what’s best in any given realm.

As a relatively value-neutral example, consider the “best films of the year” lists that are published every December. These lists boil down individual movies to one specific element — their “bestness.” Then they collect those movies to paint a larger picture of both the year in film and what the critics who wrote the lists valued about the year in film. That my top three movies of 2019 were Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Midsommar, and The Farewell hopefully tells you something about 2019 in film but also about my taste; meanwhile, the fact that I didn’t write a similar list in 2020 reveals that I fell way behind on watching movies last year. Ideally, any list I write will be a starting point for whoever reads it, to explore the works I’ve selected.

Where I think the value of a list starts to break down is when it’s presented as something of a skeleton key to understanding a specific topic.

If I am suddenly interested in learning more about prison abolition, I can consult such a list for a variety of works to consider. And in situations where books are written, or films are made, or podcasts are recorded about an extremely specific policy idea, the “educate yourself by consuming this media” list can work. But the efficacy of this approach falls apart the more a list pushes toward conflating works of art made by artists from marginalized communities, often featuring sociopolitical topics of interest to those communities, with an understanding of those communities.

In general, I find myself far more in agreement with Lauren Michele Jackson, an English professor at Northwestern, who wrote the following about anti-racism reading lists for Vulture:

I suppose the anti-racism reading list is exactly for that person, the person who asks for it. And yet the person who has to ask can hardly be trusted in a self-directed course of study, not if their yearning for gentle education also happens to coincide with their earliest exposure to books written by people who are not white. Anti-racism reading lists fail such a person, for they are already predisposed to read black art zoologically. Whether the stories are fact or fiction is irrelevant — no one either knows or cares why certain writers express themselves in certain forms at certain times.

These lists, too often, make it easy for a pop culture consumer to equate reading a lot about a topic or watching a lot of movies about a certain subject or community with actually engaging with that subject or community. It’s a kind of self-congratulatory back-pat — “I might be the whitest person alive, but I’ve watched a whole bunch of movies by Black directors, and that is enough to dislodge my privilege in some small way,” goes this reasoning. The sense of consumption as a stand-in for engagement also drives the idea of increased representation being a stand-in for actual equality.

“Representation isn’t enough. The way people talk about representation, I don’t think matters as much as they think,” Bastien said. “We need more creators of color, queer creators, trans creators, not because we’re trying to redress a moral failure, but because we need other perspectives for art to be rich and exciting. We should be caring about the voices of these artists, not just that they’re checking off a box.”

As a culture critic, what I find especially pernicious is the idea that art made by members of disadvantaged communities only exists to educate people who don’t belong to those communities. Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, for instance, has frequently been held up as a movie that will help non-Black viewers better understand the nature of police violence and the reasons Black communities might react to that violence by destroying property.

But that idea reduces an entire two-hour film to its last few scenes, in which police violence leads to a riot. It robs the film of Lee’s brilliant framing, of his audacious use of bright pops of color, of the way Do the Right Thing evokes an endless and incredibly hot summer day. It flattens the movie — which is mostly about the people in one specific neighborhood spending that long day together — into a story about one topic that’s been in the news a lot lately. Suddenly, Do the Right Thing is no longer art; it’s an educational opportunity for white audiences.

To be clear, appreciating the many elements and layers of a work and learning a sociopolitical lesson from it, or coming away with a better understanding of someone else’s lived experience, are not mutually exclusive. If you watch Do the Right Thing and you are spurred to think more deeply about over-policing of Black communities, that’s amazing. It’s clearly one of the takeaways Lee is going for.

But any suggestion that Do the Right Thing is primarily about over-policing of Black communities also subtly argues that the primary goal of art made by those who are not white, straight, cis men is to show everybody else what it’s like to live a less-privileged life. Do the Right Thing would still be a great film if it didn’t have an ending that earns it a spot on lists of great movies that explore police violence.

“Films are limited in what they can do. They signify lots of things that then are too often just reduced to one theme of people’s experience,” said Jacqueline Stewart, a film professor and scholar, a Turner Classic Movies host, and the chief artistic and programming officer for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. “It’s wonderful if you want to look at Do the Right Thing to think about police brutality. But then look at other Spike Lee films. Look at and read other things that take up questions of police brutality. And it’s important to understand that films are works of art that are made by many people. So, look at Ruth Carter’s costume design, or many of the other different facets of the artistry of a film. It’s a real oversimplification to hone in on just one aspect of a film.”

The notions that underlie lists of “movies/TV shows that explain [x]” or “books to read to learn more about [x]” can take away the pleasures of art’s creation and consumption from these communities and emphasize a dangerous belief that art exists mostly to affirm the prejudices of the curious or well-meaning folks who might read such lists.

“There’s a 2020 movie called Supernova where Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play a couple, where one of them is dealing with dementia. To call that movie a ‘gay movie’ is missing the point of the film, because the sexuality of the characters is secondary. It’s also doing the movie a disservice,” said TCM host Dave Karger. “Or Sound of Metal, my favorite movie of last year, to call it a movie just about deafness or substance abuse would be to miss half the movie. It can be a good thing to list-ify movies for someone who wants to dive into a particular topic or issue. But it’s important to remember that movies can be a lot more than one thing. I would argue a movie that is only one thing is probably not a very good movie.”

Art about underprivileged communities is about more than just educating people from more privileged ones

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
Get Out was a fantastic film — but I thought director Jordan Peele’s follow-up, Us, was even better.
Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out was an atom bomb in the culture, facilitating a whole new way of thinking about racial tensions in America via horror movie tropes that created a world where white people longed to literally possess Black bodies. The film was thoroughly dissected, pulled apart, and discussed in the media, typically in the most literal of terms. Its themes and ideas were deconstructed but not its images, its edits, its atmosphere.

I love Get Out, but to my mind, Peele’s 2019 film Us is better in almost every way. Peele is far more confident as a filmmaker, and the story’s themes are less easy to distill into a quick piece about the hidden symbolism of its many spooky doppelgangers or something (though Lord knows I tried). Us does what I love most about great art: It opens up a door into somebody else’s head and lets us walk in and look around for a while. With Get Out, I felt like Peele told me a really great, really clever story, and I got to see American racism filtered through his brain. But Us made me feel as if I actually saw the world through his eyes for a couple of hours, and it turns out that through his eyes, rabbits are kind of terrifying.

To root this discussion more explicitly in my own experiences as a trans woman, the 2020 Netflix documentary Disclosure dissects a century of trans people appearing on film and TV screens. But the documentary mostly concerns itself with the actual depiction of trans people and with our representation onscreen, not with the ways that trans people might see ourselves in other narratives, or the ways that transness is expressed by trans filmmakers in more metaphorical terms. (The Matrix, probably the most famous movie made by trans directors — Lana and Lilly Wachowski — is glossed over incredibly quickly, because its treatment of trans themes remains subtextual.)

Disclosure’s focus on how trans people are depicted onscreen is fine, so far as it goes. Such depictions do affect how trans people are seen out in the world. (The documentary contains a long montage of men in movies and TV shows vomiting after finding out they’ve slept with a trans woman, and it is particularly effective at conveying just how quickly tropes calcify into stereotypes.) And it’s useful to talk about those depictions strictly in terms of whether or not trans people are allowed to have onscreen lives that don’t limit us to our most miserable or most emptily celebratory moments, because a lot the time, we aren’t.

But Disclosure consistently relies on the overly narrow approach as the pop culture lists I bemoaned above. It sorts individual depictions of trans people into “good” and “bad” columns, then doesn’t bother asking if the ones in the “good” column might have qualities beyond good representation, or if the ones in the “bad” column might have any notable strengths or other elements that make them worth re-contextualizing. The Silence of the Lambs, for example, is one of my favorite movies ever made. It also popularized a trope of trans women who are serial killers, even though it took great pains to say that its crossdressing villain wasn’t a trans woman.

As a trans critic and artist, I would hate it if the main reason people wanted to hear stories from me stemmed from my ability to fruitfully explain to cis people what it means to be trans. That kind of logic shrinks my existence to empty buzzwords and avoids any real attempts to create empathy for my lived experiences, in favor of letting me tell you what it’s like to live my life. I do enjoy writing about myself, and I will gladly tell you what it’s like to live my life. But I also want more from the stories I tell, and from the stories I consume.

Sooner or later, all great art has to plumb the human subconscious in ways that can’t be neatly broken down into a few themes or topics that put it on a list of stuff you can check out to better understand a community you do not belong to. Great art should scare us, concern us, work us up. That doesn’t mean it must dwell on the moral bankruptcy of the world or rub it in your face; the greatest art is too slippery for that.

But it does mean that great art should feel a little unsafe and make us realize the ways in which our empathy for others has only extended so far. The purpose of my life and the lives of all artists from underrepresented and underprivileged communities is so much more expansive than to make you feel better about yourself for listening to our stories. We have stories to tell beyond the ones you might want or expect to hear, and those stories might really push you to rethink the world. And that’s when true learning can begin.

“People need to come from a place of curiosity, to sit and think, what perspective am I not seeing in my own life and my own community? How can I readdress not just the stuff that I watch but who I put in my life and put in my circle? Let’s be 100: If you’re not watching Black films, you probably don’t have Black friends or Black people in your life, point blank, period. That’s true of every other mark of identity,” Bastien said. “The people needing these lists are the very people who need to address this in their personal lives, not just in the art they consume. People need to think about what they’re absorbing and fill in the gaps. But let their curiosity drive them. If you like horror films, start by looking at horror films from across the globe. It’s easier to let passion and curiosity guide you, and it’s a far healthier way to handle things than being guided by shame.”