Can a Work of Fiction Be Racist? Sexist? X-ist?

“One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work,” writes Harold Bloom in Shakespeare. “God, what a sexist film,” thought I after having seen Catch Me If You Can. But, strictly speaking, that’s nonsense. Racism, sexism and so forth are attitudes*, and works of fiction don’t have attitudes. If I’m not mistaken, usually one or more of the following is meant if someone says that a wof (work of fiction) is x-ist:

1. The people responsible for the wof are x-ists

2. The wof is meant to foster x-ism in the audience

3. The wof is likely to foster x-ism in the audience

4. The wof is likely to be liked by x-ists precisely because of it fits nicely with their x-ism

5. The wof presents (the majority of) the targets of x-ism in a negative way

6. The wof presents (the majority of) the targets of x-ism in a way that is in line with stereotypes typically held by x-ists

I may have forgotten some points (readers?), but I think dialogue about whether or not a wof is X-ist could be more productive if it would be clear which of the above aspects are debated.

*Professional social scientists and amateur social scientists in the humanities and elsewhere spend a nonnegligible fraction of their working life defining words in a way that is not in line with everyday usage, but I contend that Joe Average would agree that x-ism means looking down on, maybe even hating, someone on the basis that he or she is a member of group x. Some readers may object because the word “sexism” is sometimes used when sexuality is put center-stage, especially if it’s done in a crass manner, as in the statement: “She’s got really nice tits!” My theory (no more) is that this usage of “sexism” came into being because many people think that talking about women in such a way is degrading to women; if so, it could be argued that such a statement is sexist in the senses 1-4 above. People who didn’t understand that connection then started to use the word merely to express that sex is put center-stage, without necessarily meaning to say that that’s degrading to women.

No comments: