Constructed Worlds vs Civil Rights Metaphors

This post is basically a re-run of a post that I wrote two years ago.  The ideas are all the same.  But Detroit: Beyond Human came out and got all high profile while committing the grave and fatal sin of pressing my pet peeve buttons, so here we are again.  Let’s talk.

I think we can all agree that racism, sexism, all those -isms are horrible things.  Sure, we can come to a whole host of interpretations on what sort of behavior falls under those banners, where the lines are, how much of an impact they have in modern society and how much they should have, what needs to change to get there, and why we’ve let stupid assholes control the discourse on all sides of these matters, but beyond all the battle lines there, I think we can agree that these are bad things.

Lots of creators are moved by this, and want to write about it.  That’s a good thing.  A fair amount of how many people interpret their world comes through the media they consume, and this opens the door to exploration of it.  Lots of creators also like to write about robots and elves and constructed worlds and all sorts of exotic and unrealistic places and people.  That’s also a good thing.  Take us all outside this meatspace shell where everyone has their stresses and their troubles and has to deal with the fact that they will never look as good as I do.  Some creators like to put those two together, and write about the prejudice that their completely different and unusual people face in this world.  That’s also a good thing.  At the very least, explore how rights and social structures and whatnot work in that world, perhaps also getting people to see the mundane matter from a new perspective.  All good so far.

But then some creators take things a step further than that.  They take their constructed race, and try to tie it with the historic civil rights issues faced by some other targeted class of people.  And that’s where it stops being a good thing.  Because in so doing, they undermine the entire point they think that makes, and do a disservice to the whole movement against those issues.

The big, bad thing that so central and horrible about all those isms is that they ascribe a treatment to and a mentality against a people based on mostly immaterial differences.  A person’s race, gender, sexuality, beliefs, etc. has next to no impact on the vast majority of the interactions a person has with the world, and treating them differently according to these factors is injecting a whole host of problems into their lives based on nothing more than your own stupid ideas.  That’s the crux of it.

But a most of these constructed peoples that are used as allegories for real world issues?  They do have demonstrable, practical differences from the rest of the people.  In games, maybe they have different stats.  Or access to different unique abilities.  In stories, maybe they have different physical or intellectual capabilities.  Maybe they’re connected to different living gods or magical hiveminds.  Or maybe they’re robots, and nobody has reason to believe they’re sentient beings.  Whatever.  But they have material differences that go beyond surface level.

Again, that’s fine.  You can still make a lot of points about prejudice when talking about them.  You can make a lot of good, compelling points.  The prejudice against them may still be horrible.  That’s fine.  But by trying to use them as a metaphor for real world prejudice, you’re tying a prejudice that’s grounded in some material difference to a prejudice that’s completely ungrounded, and that weakens everything involved drastically.

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The X-Men probably present the biggest example of the problem here.  So, for a refresher, the X-Men and the other associated titles are about mutants, a race of humans who by a quirk of genetics have powers that they often can’t control and, at least going by the named characters in the series, are generally geared towards combat.   Central conflicts regularly center around the abundant anti-mutant sentiment in this world.  For years, the series called back to the civil rights struggles of its time, but twisted them in a way that was specific for their world.  That was all fine.  They used the real-world stuff to inject realism and explore prejudice, but the mutants weren’t equated with any real group, weren’t intertwined with any real world cause.  This meant all this exploration could happen without undermining any real world groups of people.

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But slowly, that line started to erode.  And the mutants started being obviously equated with real groups.  First with the black rights movements, then drifting over to the sexual equality issue as time went on.  Direct parallels between them were drawn, to try and make that connection clear.  The struggles faced by our beloved X-Men were equivalent to the struggles faced by these other people out there.

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What’s the problem with that, exactly?  It helps people make the connection when they’d normally be barred by their preconceptions, right?  Not so much.  See, there’s a bit too much difference between them.  Specifically, mutants?  When they find out about their powers?  They often do so explosively.  Examples abound in the mutant materials of kids hitting puberty and accidentally killing a whole bunch of people.  Some mutants still can’t control their powers, and do a whole bunch of harm on accident.  Even those who can still misuse their special abilities to the detriment of the mundane people around them.  Yes, even the good guys.  And that’s avoiding the whole issues of evil mutants, entirely, of the fact that there are people out there who can wipe whole countries off the map with a thought and that the only means of stopping them are in the hands of an uncontrolled military force.  So… yeah.  There’s a lot more to justify prejudiced views against mutants than there are against the real world groups creators try to equate them to.  Doesn’t mean those prejudiced views aren’t horrible in result, but they’re a lot more grounded.  Trying to say they’re the equivalent to the ungrounded prejudice real world groups face undermines those groups.  Hell, what’s presented as bigotry in the X-verse has a lot more in common with the gun control debate than it does with civil rights, and writers end up making a very different point than they’re intending to about that.

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So what’s the issue with Detroit: Become Human?  They try to make a similar point about the horribleness of prejudice against androids.  To be honest, I don’t know enough of the material to talk about how it’s handled yet.  But what really grinds my gears, is the connections they try to draw to the real world.  The androids’ uniforms, the arm-bands, the ubiquitous triangles, all draw iconography from the way Nazi Germany forced its ‘undesirables’ to dress in real world history.  The racism and classism there should go without saying.  The horrors against humanity there would be absolutely galling for any reason, but they were still based on a bunch of largely imaginary differences between peoples.  The implication that that is equivalent to the struggles of a people for whom the differences are concrete and the general public seemingly has no reason to believe the androids are even sentient of is… well, it’s frustrating to me.  Now, given my lack of knowledge of the material, it’s possible that they develop that.  Turn that connection into something more meaningful than it appears at first glance.  But given the cartoon caliber characterization of its early scenes, I’m not counting on that.

So yeah, that’s my bit.  This isn’t a great horror of modern writing, or even a big deliberate disrespect to the struggles of survivors.  Just a pet peeve of mine, but one I’d love to see be handled a lot more smartly in the future.

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4 responses to “Constructed Worlds vs Civil Rights Metaphors

  1. The problems you’ve had with X-Men are similar to the reasons why I believe District 9 to be a terrible film. The latter featured a plot where aliens landed in the eighties in South Africa and were subsequently thrown into the slums. Basically, the long and short of it is that they attempted to use this as an allegory for the Apartheid era in South Africa. It didn’t really work because they had to take so many creative liberties with basic human behavior that the story only really makes sense from beyond the fourth wall. Things are the way they are for the sake of the message. When attempting to dissect it from within the confines of the fictional universe, it completely falls apart. While some people would indeed be afraid, I’d imagine the majority would be ecstatic to finally make first contact – the eighties were practically a golden age for sci-fi, after all. On a more basic level, it runs into the problem you describe with X-Men in that it really can’t be used as a metaphor for any oppressed groups because the aliens have traits people in real life don’t have. Not to mention that the aliens’ technology is far superior to human technology, it raises the question of why they were never able to fight back at any point considering the actual film takes place twenty years after they landed. It’s to the point where I actively question why the creators didn’t simply make a film about the Apartheid era itself; it’s not as though there would be a shortage of interesting stories to tell.

    For that matter, that’s the ultimately the problem I have with a lot of contemporary satirical works; they don’t really function as stories in their own right – they’re just the author getting on a soapbox and lecturing their audience. There are no real characters to be found; just living plot devices meant to get the message across. Critics tend to have nothing but praise for these kinds of works, and I believe that’s confirmation bias in action. Personally, I think people should be tougher on works whose messages they can get behind because if something needs to be said, it needs to be said in the most eloquent way possible. If the work has a message critics agree with, yet has nothing to offer anyone who also isn’t completely on board with the author, it only succeeds in damaging their credibility and even runs the risk of making the message itself difficult to take seriously. I am generally on the critics’ side when it comes to assessing films, but I do fully acknowledge that there have been plenty of times in which they collectively placed a stinker on a high pedestal just because it did one or two things right.

    Anyway, I might be interested in checking out Detroit: Become Human; just the fact that there’s apparently a flowchart makes things a lot more streamlined. Then again, I wasn’t too impressed with Beyond: Two Souls, and I think you once said that Quantic Dream has trouble thinking through their implications. If they haven’t improved by now, this would be the worst time for their biggest weakness to manifest.

    • Yeah, you really can’t have it both ways. If you want to make a story about the oppression your fictional race of people face, that’s just fine! Well, it wasn’t in District 9’s case, but let’s say if you’re good at it, that’s just fine. You can actually explore quite a bit. You can also make stories about the oppression real world people face, and that’s just fine too. But oppression to a group of people has always been an incredibly complicated cultural subject, and if you can’t deliver nuance to it, assuming you’re going for realistic depth in your story, it often just falls flat. And trying to tie the two sides together, fantasy race to real world groups, often inserts a lot of dissonance into the nuance that should be there for a realistic depiction of oppression.

      And hell yeah, people should be tougher on the works whose messages they support. At least to overcome that confirmation bias there. But yeah, so many people will find themselves enraptured with one thing that agrees with them that they stop paying attention to the rest of the work and start filling in the mental gaps themselves. Then they end up with a difference experience going through it than people who don’t already have the presuppositions of the work. It’s really easy to completely lose the plot in pursuit of the message as well. When everything seems a foregone conclusion in pursuit of hammering the message home, there’s really no room for the plot to deliver.

      I’m still waiting for Detroit: Beyond Human to go off in some really stupid direction. It hasn’t happened yet. It’s approaching its subjects with a hammer, absolutely no subtlety or depth of thought, but it’s all still put together. I just keep getting flashbacks to Indigo Prophecy, one of their earlier games, which had this really really strong murder mystery thing going on until 80% through the game where it blew off the rails in the most completely and totally nonsensical way I’ve ever seen a work do.

  2. Using fiction, as a metaphor, to comment on real life issues can be effective. Star Trek and X-Men have done this successfully. A lot of modern comics fail however, as they aren’t subtle about their message.

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