“Asking every female artist to represent 3.3b women in every project she does is a crippling and unfair request.” -Caitlin Moran, tv critic & columnist
As a writer, as a storyteller and artist, I feel that I have an
ethical responsibility to be cognizant of the larger trends of
representation in the culture I participate in. Does that mean I always
tell a story about POC? Or that a woman is always my protagonist? No. It
does mean that I analyze trends in my own work and ask questions like
“why is this character a man?” “why is this character white?” “when was
the last time a First Nations or Inuit person appeared in my work?”
My work is primarily poetry. Not many people will ever engage with
it. And yet I wrestle with questions of representation and
appropriation. Because it’s important. Because I have the privilege of
reading a book or watching a tv show and seeing myself in it.The
so-called universal is often produced with a person like me (white,
middle class, cis) in mind.
Not always. There is no perfect center. (Almost?) no one sees their
perfect representation in media. The center is a lie; we are all
marginalized in some way (queer, woman). But some of us are closer than
others. When it comes to storytelling, this matters so very very much.
It matters because it dictates the casual choices of the artist, of the
writer, of the casting director. It matters because some of us are lucky
enough to not have to struggle with certain questions, like questions
of class or race or gender or ability, on a regular basis. Because we
are taught to see these things as difference, as “add-on” identities
rather than as part of the (urgh, this word) “default”.
That’s a lie. They are default. But our culture works to obfuscate that fact.
How much more important, then, is it for producers of mass media and
culture to engage with these questions, particularly when they claim to
speak for or represent a whole group of people (in this case, women).
When generalizing like this, representation becomes even more important.
Because failure to recognize the long tradition of unequal
representation is complicity. Failure to engage with these questions is a
choice. An ethical choice.
And criticizing that choice is always valid.
Culture does not exist in a void. It is always political. It always has ramifications.
And isn’t that a point of making art? To connect with people? To
perhaps make them feel, or grow, or think? Maybe to incite or inspire
some kind of change?
Even fluff has the goal of making people feel good, or providing an
escape. Even fluff reflects ethical decisions on the part of its
Because art and culture have meaning, critique is essential. Culture
isn’t stable; critique is a means of invigorating, changing, and pushing
culture to better reflect something it lacks, or to expose the
assumptions that it is built on. Critique is a means of cultural
production just as surely as creative writing, or drawing, or acting.
So for a writer (a critic, even) to dismiss valid critique so
flippantly, well it speaks to her own ethics and politics. Just as
creating a show without any POC speaks to the ethics and politics of
that show’s creator. All art, all writing, exists as ethical and
And as an observer and participant in culture, I get to say your ethics suck.
I don’t even think that the writer necessarily has to respond to the
critique with an immediate change in the work (though that, to me, is
the sign of an active and thoughtful engagement); it is okay for flawed
work to exist. It’s okay to say “well, I didn’t ask these questions in
this interview, but maybe I’ll think about it next time.” Because
ethically, we are always doomed to a certain degree of failure. The
interesting thing is trying to minimize that failure while still
producing. Sometimes that means listening to critique and moving on to
the next thing. Sometimes that means listening to critique and changing
the current project. Sometimes that means listening to critique and
scrapping the current project entirely. Often it means apologizing. But
note how every step requires a combination of listening and
It is always interesting to see critics who deal badly with
criticism. I wonder how they see their own role within the realm of
cultural production? How do they see their relationship with the
creators they are critiquing, and the audience that they are talking
(to) (with) (for)?
Caitlin Moran will probably continue to not “give a shit” about representation.
But that sucks. And we* should do better.
And I would say something about the worth of this whole racist mess
being found in the discourse that has grown, but really, that’s shit.
Why should we continue to condone this bullshit, whatever its source?
So critics, writers, artists: stop making excuses for unethical work.
Stop dismissing criticism just because it is about race (or class, or
gender, or ability). Participate in the project of equal representation.
It’s not new. We aren’t pioneers here. Look for cultural traditions
that support this project (they exist in all genres), and think of them
Recognize that your work is an ethical and political project.
Because it is. And it always will be.
*read that "we" as as me+Moran, or you+me, or writers, or critics, or artists, or white people, or feminists, or human beings, or