A guest post by Leigh Hellman
One of the most prominent pitches for the creation and consumption of fictional worlds and stories is that of “escapism”—the idea that we want to make and engage with fiction because it offers an expansion of reality that we can’t get elsewhere. The mundane, petty, irritating aspects of real life can be erased in stories or they can be reframed as epic and visionary clues that lead to universe-defining truths. The theory goes that we don’t want mirrors in fiction; we want doorways. We don’t want to dwell in the rubble and the horror of the Blitz; we want to walk through the coats to Narnia.
While it’s certainly true that the fantasy of fiction is a draw for many people—creators and audience members alike—declaring it to be the sole motivation for creativity shuts out many of the more complicated pieces of the puzzle. Just like the claim that stories only need to be entertaining (in the shallowest sense of the word), the push to fit every narrative into an escapist mold often leads to a collapse in creative nuance and—increasingly—a moralistic anger at stories and characters who defy the comfortable archetypes of heroes and villains.
As in other social systems, it has been white, straight, cisgender men (as both creators and consumers) who’ve been afforded the most leeway with their narratives. Fiction is littered with examples of flawed white male heroes and sympathetic white male villains, and the space between them is filled with the antagonistic white male anti-heroes and anti-villains. Whatever the genre, you can be sure to find a grab bag of these characters and narratives that center them. From Oedipus to Macbeth, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert to Harris’ Hannibal Lector, Anakin Skywalker to Tyrion Lannister—the list goes on and on. None of these characters are prototypical heroes but none of them are simple villains either; they all exist in a discomforting gray space that has been embraced by their audiences. They—and their source materials—have their critics and detractors, but they are nonetheless allowed to exist as valid parts of the creative world.
That is a luxury that’s all too often viciously denied to non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender male creators and characters both from the creative community and their prospective audience members. Characters of color, female characters, and especially female characters of color bear the brunt of these reactionary responses. Paradoxically, these objections usually come in the form of puritanical progressiveness and are framed as these less than pristine characters being offensive or regressive by their very existence. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t important ongoing discussions about and challenges over offensive and regressive stereotypes and tropes; nor am I suggesting that all marginalized characters and stories (and their creators) should be given a free pass as inherently progressive. But there is a difference between lazy and harmful stereotypes and purposefully complicated characters, and by refusing the latter marginalized creators and audience members are also refused the opportunity that their white, straight, cisgender male peers have had all along: exploring and delving into their trauma in creative spaces.
Trauma is the mirror of fiction, the reflection of who we perceive ourselves to be and all the ugly bits that come with that. No two people’s experiences of trauma are the same, whether in real life or outside of it. What some people might experience as escapism in fiction—glorious battles, impossibly-solved mysteries, victories over weakness and evil—others may experience as trauma journeys. Is The Lord of the Rings a rousing quest of hope and loyalty and love that saves the world or is it an examination of the lasting effects of brutality, despair, and cruelty that remain long after the wars are done? Do we see Harry Potter as a chosen hero or as a child forced to grapple with the horrors the adults in his life have left in their wakes? What about the Joker or Batman, Michael Corleone or Walter White? Are these fantasies that allow us to escape the mundane or are they refracted versions of the stories we tell ourselves as we try to understand our own pain?
I would argue that they can be both but—while there’s nothing wrong with just engaging with the escapism—to dismiss the trauma reading is to only acknowledge the shadow of the story. That these examples—almost singularly white male characters and white male-driven narratives, backed by white and mainly male creators—are allowed this duality is implicit, but what about the rest of us?
The parameters for acceptable messiness—an umbrella term that I use here to encapsulate everything that cannot be neatly tied up with a narrative bow at the end of a story—are narrow to the point of strangulation for non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender male characters, in the same way that real life messiness—the existence of imperfect, unhealthy, upsetting, ugly emotions and responses—is aggressively shamed out of non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender male folks. The mantras of universal positivity and nonconsensual reverence are the other side of the ancient coin that objectifies us through deification. Marginalized characters suffer the same fate as their real-world counterparts in these patterns: they are forced onto a pedestal for petrification, and if there are any cracks in their Strong and Good Character façade they will be shoved off and shattered at the altar of moralistic purity.
The problem though is that fiction in general—and trauma narratives in particular—are not the realm for purity politics. When characters and their stories (even those that fall squarely into the uncomplicated hero/villain binary) are shunted into boxes of absolute good and evil and narratives are seen primarily as vessels for moral judgements, fiction becomes parable. That’s not to say that one is superior to the other; they are separate things entirely. We don’t need to pit them against each other, but we do need to recognize the difference. Parables teach lessons and so their characters and stories are archetypal and simplified; fiction initiates journeys, and those are anything but simple. Whether we’re going through the mirror or the wardrobe, we are going to be faced with emotions and decisions that are neither easy nor clean and that may very well linger on unfinished after the story itself ends.
The thing about stories—especially those that dive deep into the wells of trauma—is that they are not always comfortable. They’re not always supposed to be comfortable. They’re not always neat; we don’t always agree with everything in them (whether done purposefully by the creator or unconsciously manifestation by them). We can’t always defend the characters and their actions even if we relate to them, and sometimes that can make us feel like we have to denounce them as a way to stamp down the fear that we many have indefensible things within us too. The truth is that we do; of course we do. We want to be the heroes (whether of the traditional or the anti variety) and we want to see none of ourselves in the villainy. We want anti-heroes with hearts of gold and anti-villains with redemption arcs. We want to believe that we are ultimately worthy of being good, even as we are terrified that we aren’t.
And that—all of it—is okay. Fiction gifts us with the space to swim through these confronting contradictions without judgement from the form itself; any shame and guilt is completely self-imposed. Should all fiction be created and consumed uncritically, and all criticism deflected as moralistic judgement? Certainly not. But the space for messiness must be maintained and—for non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender male creators and consumers—cultivated and protected. Because without access to these mirrors, we lose the options to know and heal ourselves and to find paths to the creative doors beyond our trauma.
About the Author
Leigh Hellman is a queer/asexual and genderqueer writer, originally from the western suburbs of Chicago, and a graduate of the MA Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After gaining the ever-lucrative BA in English, they spent five years living and teaching in South Korea before returning to their native Midwest. They are the author of the YA sci-fi novel Orbit as well as a number of short fiction and nonfiction stories. Learn more about Leigh at their website.