ʞ / essays /

on pandering, professionalism, and an artist's boundaries

by Lexi Summer Hale

i was deeply, deeply turned off by and kinda disturbed by Steven Universe from the very start and i think i'm finally starting to get why. it wasn't the show itself, i've never seen a single frame of it. it was the energy around it, the way it was being lifted up as this Thing For Queer People.

because that never once has ended well.

what i am about to say is not a critique of SU b/c as i said, i've never seen the show.

a pattern i hear a lot in discussion of queer representations is the idea of "pandering." "this show's just pandering to flaming queers!" whines a kid from 4chan with an anime avatar and a frog emoji in his display name. "you don't need a reason for representation!!" screams the 15-year-old tumblrite with more labels than sense.

the thing is: this is not about social justice, exactly. at least not where i'm coming from. i try not to involve myself in SJ shit and try to approach things that have to do with fiction first as a writer, as someone who pays attention to plots, tropes, and the interplay between media and fans. from that perspective, there is a very very distinct, meaningful difference between representation and pandering

night vale, for instance, is the definition of pandering. not necessarily because the media on its own does anything inappropriate, but because of the feedback loop between the creators and the fans. people who feel starved of representation for whatever reason understandably lose their shit when something shows up that they can allow themselves to identify with. and that's all well and good for them - but when the authors themselves get caught up in that energy, find a cheap, trivial way to zap the pleasure centers in the brains of a ton of damaged people, the story becomes overshadowed by the flavor.

this isn't the part where i make some grand prescription about how to handle this, because i honestly don't know. i cheat. i sidestep the issue for the most part - Approved News 6 is the only thing i write that intersects even slightly with the real world. a big part of why the stories i care about are the ones set in universes disconnected in space and time from our own is because, as long as you don't fall into the trap of Counterpart Cultures, you don't even face the issue of pandering vs. depth. nobody can ask "why are there no Zoroastrian characters" when Iran, the Middle East, Earth, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Local Group, and a whole chunk of the laws of physics aren't even part of the setting.

is that cowardly of me? very probably.

but i'd like to think we all understand why the Token Minority Character trope is fuckin awful, and that it doesn't become any better just because EVERYBODY is a Token Minority Character.

anyway. let's leave aside the Weighty Matters of Art™ for a moment and talk about what this actually does, people-wise.

what sparked this essay was the news that, to my complete lack of surprise, the Steven Universe fandom was throwing a tantrum about something. i don't know what, i don't need to, and i frankly do not care, because i've seen this pattern happen so much that the details don't even matter. one of the end results of pandering, of, very specifically, the feedback loop between creators and consumers, is that the creators are elevated to a place of heroism - and crucially, to a level of responsibility that a) they can't handle, and b) can hamper their ability to tell compelling stories. eventually, one of two things happens: either the creator fucks up, slips in some unconscious stereotype, makes the wrong character the wrong ethnicity, whatever — or they decide to compromise what the fans want for the sake of a story they want to tell.

to be quite clear, sometimes the story they want to tell is total shit. they're sacrificing something shallow for something terrible and it's just a clusterfuck all around. but sometimes they're sacrificing it to move a story forward. whatever the motivator, the fans, who are generally not the most stable people (surprise, surprise, a lifetime of suffering — or being told that you are surrounded constantly by enemies — will do that do you), feel betrayed. and because they're used to being in a position where their voice is, for better or for worse, ignored, not amplified by zillions of other people like them, their idea of what is proportionate is horrifically skewed. individuals wind up facing shitstorms from furious, hurting people, that often become extremely abusive - and those creators are almost never the bourgeois fucks who are the real enemy. rather, they're working class or starving artists, and they almost always have some bullshit of their own going on. stress, loss, mental illness, drug abuse, poverty, violence — this world is full of innocent victims.

if that makes you think of Tom Siddell and Gunnerkrigg Court, that's because it's what i keep coming back to myself. "marginalized" people who felt wronged, motivated by self-righteous anger, went after somebody who, iirc, was dealing with extremely severe depression, and in the end nearly destroyed someone who's writing one of the most creative, beautiful stories featuring queer characters out there. this wraps back around to SU b/c i saw that same manic, desperate energy from the SU fandom as i have from so many other fandoms. from the very beginning, it felt like this was a ticking time bomb that was going to explode, hurt a lot of good people, and cause a real hell of a mess. and i guess the timer on that particular bomb finally hit zero.

there are particular lessons i take from this. not necessarily the right ones, because telecommunications on the scale we have in the western world that enable and encourage this sort of magnification of voices are very, very new, and not something artists as a class have ever really had to contend with before. it's going to take a lot of people and a lot of effort to figure out in the end the right etiquette to keep things under control, but we will get there. this isn't a prescription, it's just my contribution to something i want to get people thinking about:

separation between creators and consumers is critical. it's not a superiority thing, not a "ugh, the unwashed masses" thing; it's a question of professionalism and proper boundaries.

there is a reason professional relationships are, when done right, very carefully circumscribed. it's because human interpersonal relationships get messy af, and if you bend your rules, even once, errors build on errors and soon you're in a really warped situation that ties in money, personal emotions, and workplace coexistence, and it's hell for everybody. there are very complex situations we have to navigate when it comes to the internet. it's a new environment, one that amplifies voices that nobody used to hear, and it comes with all sorts of new dynamics we couldn't really cleanly integrate with the existing ways we knew how to lead emotionally healthy lives. (i'm lying a bit here because i'm a millennial and the internet is older than i am, but)

the old professionalism was stifling. we knew that, we knew it reinforced capitalist bullshit, so when the opportunity arose to ditch those structures, a lot of us jumped at the chance.

thing is, social structures, like biological ones, aren't tiny, compartmentalized little machines that do one and just exactly one thing and can be excised without impacting the rest of the machine. they are not elegant code. yank one out, and they'll bring the whole creaky apparatus crashing down on top of you. if you're one of those "accelerationist" types who salivate at the thought of murdering the human race, maybe that sounds just dandy to you. personally, i'm in the harm reduction camp.

it's a tale as old as the counterculture: we saw a fence someone built in a silly place, and instead of examining that fence — watching the movements of animals and people, learning how that fence shaped the world and created order around it, how that order interacted with the many interlocking systems around — instead of carefully strategizing how to cope with the removal of that order, we simply resolved to do away with the fence, and the predictable ensued.

in general, this is a thing that it is good to not do.