As the parent of a very curious and physically rambunctious three year old, I’m looking at my favorite entertainment in a new way these days. It’s kind of disturbing how much of the stuff I like has a crapload of combat in it–including combat using realistic-looking or even actually real firearms. I keep the kid away from all of this, of course, but I am a giant nerd, and he knows who superheroes are and why I like Rey, Finn and Poe, and why I play video games and have decorative swords hanging on my wall. I don’t let him watch anything with “fighting” in it, but he’s peripherally aware.
As a grown up, of course I understand the fantasy/reality thing and can understand moral complexity. As an SFF writer, I have to think about violent things like war, murder, combat, deadly super powers, etc. But I also have lately found myself getting deeper into questions of how pop culture portrays good guys vs. bad guys, and it’s made some of the stuff I like a bit harder to watch.
One of the cool things about The Force Awakens for me was that it humanized Stormtroopers. With Finn, we got to see that there really were real people in there. We knew this already because of the clones–who are in fact real people, even if they’re brainwashed–but Finn gave us a perspective we didn’t otherwise have on that. (And that’s even aside from the impact of seeing a Black man taking leave of a group of supposedly mindless killing machines.)
If you look at most big combat scenes, whether in movies or TV, you’ll notice two things: Our Heroes rarely wear face-covering helmets or other headgear that would prevent us from being able to pick them out in a crowd (which of course is as unrealistic for combat as boob armor and long hair flying in the wind.) On the other side, everyone but the Boss and a few of his special toadies on the other side gets hidden. They’re in head-to-toe armor, like Stormtroopers, or they’re aliens, machines, monsters, or some other not-human-like creatures that generally have a uniform look, so we won’t see them as individuals. In the rare cases when the enemy is human and has a visible face, they’re usually played by actors with very similar physicality, and are in uniforms that are completely identical. Only when you’re watching a story about a real or realistic war (or a metaphor for it, like the Battlestar Galactica reboot) will you see enemies that have unique features that can allow us to recognize them as unique people. Otherwise, we just see the occasional individual pawn when Our Heroes go into one-on-one (or one-on-a-few) combat.
This isn’t by accident.
Dehumanizing the enemy is how we reconcile our glee at the fact that our heroes are (usually) killing or at least beating the living shit out of other beings. If Captain America was mowing his way through a bunch of people that looked like folks you might see eating lunch at Burger King, you’d be horrified. Give him an army of aliens, and it’s a totally different story. Are those aliens individuals? Do they have names? Families at home that might mourn them? Were they volunteers for this invasion, or conscripts? No clue. We don’t care. They’re pests to be exterminated.
While I do believe adults have the ability to understand that killing people in real life means killing individuals, kids who are seeing this stuff over and over and over again are getting the message that it’s OK to kill someone as long as they aren’t a recognizable individual. Next thing you know, some decide that since some unquestionably bad guys wear religious headcoverings, everyone who wears a similar, unfamiliar “uniform” is part of the same army and therefore expendable. Kids who are exposed to diversity along with dehumanized enemies in their entertainment can usually make those distinctions (having a lot of adult guidance helps), but a kid who grows up around people only like himself is going to have a much harder time seeing people who look different as a human being just like him.
And that’s how we get Trump. It’s also how we get a majority of white Millennials–supposedly a liberal group–voting for him.
I don’t at all think that any sort of censorship is warranted. I love my superhero and space-war and sword-banging stuff as much as the next geek. Hell, I’m building a career on writing those kinds of stories. However, I’d also like to see SFF entertainment make an effort toward humanizing more of the bad guys and making it clear that the good guys don’t kill unless there’s an active attack going on. Having greater diversity among the good guys also helps, especially when trying to reach people who don’t see that diversity in their everyday lives. It’s way too easy for some isolated white kid from a small, homogeneous town to think all non-white people are the same, and have no problems considering their lives of no greater value than an army of orcs. On the other hand, if the entertainment he gets into has characters like Cisco Ramon, Poe Dameron, Nick Fury, Curtis Holt, Melinda May, Nyssa Al’Ghul, and (yay!) many others, it definitely helps him see the real people who look like those heroes as a lot more human. Representation is good not just for the kids from marginalized groups, but the ones from privileged groups, too.