Today I wrote a story about a Holocaust denier. It’s still in its first draft, obviously, having only been completed maybe five hours ago. Even in its rough draft form I feel quite good about it – at this early stage I feel like all of the basic elements are there, all of the rough material I need to work with. I’m excited about it. But at the same time, I’m worried about it.
I’m worried because I often worry about the type of messages my stories will perpetuate. This one in particular I worry about because of what one of the pivotal characters in the stories says near the end: in accusing the main and POV character, a Holocaust denier, he accuses pretty much every one ever of not caring about the other populations harmed and systematically eradicated by the Nazis, specifically the Romani, the mentally and physically disabled, and homosexuals.
What I’m worried about here is that someone might read this story and take away from it that the story is saying that the genocide committed against the Jews is somehow a less important genocide than the others, that we should stop paying as much attention to it or something along those lines.
Clearly I do not feel this way, nor do I want to communicate any such a thing, nor would I read such a thing into this story if it had been written by someone else and I was reading it for class or in my spare time. I can be a dick sometimes, but not that much of a dick. Nonetheless, I know people can read really bizarre things into stories, art, shows, whathaveyou – things that don’t always correlate to what the evidence of the text points to. And I am a firm believer in the idea that once my stories are published and in the hands of the reader, they are no longer my stories – they are the reader’s, to do with what they will. Authorial intent? It serves no purpose and is just plain silly to discuss when discussing the meaning of a work of literature – and as John Green says, it’s boring to boot.
But to point out exactly what it is that I’m worried about, let’s look at Sia’s new music video for “Elastic Heart.” If you don’t know by now (and if you don’t that means you haven’t watched it – you probably should. In fact, go do that now!!) the video features Shia LaBeouf (28) and Maddie Ziegler (12) performing an interpretive and highly emotional dance in a giant bird cage, Shia wearing skin-tone briefs and Maddie wearing the skin-tone leotard she wore in “Chandelier” (if you haven’t seen that one either, FIX YOURSELF). The video is emotionally fraught, with the actors swinging between angry and aggressive interactions to tender ones and back again in the blink of an eye. And there’s a whole lot of people crying “PEDOPHILIA” over this video.
Once a piece of art is in the public’s hands, it belongs to the public. What its creator intended doesn’t really matter anymore – it’s the interpretations of the public that matter and that give the video meaning. However, some interpretations are less valid than others.
Remember when I said people can read really bizarre things into a text? Interpretations which have no correlation with what’s actually happening in the text? Well, that’s what’s happening with this video: there is nothing inherently sexual about what’s happening in the video, and yet a lot of people are projecting that onto the interactions between Shia and Maddie. Why? Well, as I am not one of the people in the interpretive camp screaming “pedophilia” I can’t be positive but I can make some educated guesses, my guesses lay primary with the fact that there is 1) emotionally charged physical contact between 2) a male and a female who are 3) mostly naked/with nakedness alluded to 4) who also have a huge age gap between them. These are the facts of the video, but none of those things are inherently sexual nor are they, by extension, pedophilic. Some of these things (emotionally charged physical contact and nakedness or the allusion to nakedness, particularly with regard to a male and a female because heteronormativity) are closely tied to sexuality in our culture.
The naked body is not inherently sexual, yet the western world treats as such and attaches sexualized shame to it. In western culture it’s damn near inconceivable that a man and a woman could occupy the same space in a nude or semi-nude state without the situation being sexual – once again, because heteronormativity. The same goes for emotionally charged physical contact: in our society if such contact is occurring between a man and a woman there is almost always an assumption that it is romantic and/or sexual in nature. As though it is totally impossible for a man and a woman to have a plutonic but deeply emotional relationship. (Can I get a cheer for the continuation of puritanical dogma in the modern era? No?)
It is not Sia’s fault that so many people in western culture are incapable of separating a nude or near nude human body from sexuality. Nor is it her fault that people are incapable of separating strong emotions between a male and a female from sexuality. It is not her fault that such a large part of her audience has been so inundated with previous heteronormative ideas about sexuality, the sexualization of the naked body, or the sexualization of powerful emotions – especially the tender, loving ones. It is not her fault that her audience had already fully bought into those innately flawed ideals before coming into contact with her new video, so that they shout "pedophilia!" just because a grown man an a girl in minimal clothing have an emotionally charged, physical interaction. And yet she is being shamed for her art because of that.
It happens often. People see an artsy performance piece or a new piece of literature and they bring their own baggage into it. They can and should make their own interpretations of said artsy thing, but as I've said some interpretations are less valid than others, and it is inevitable that people’s previous baggage will, on occasion, cause them to have a reading of a text which doesn’t actually, in reality, have anything to do with what is factually occurring in the text.
So am I saying there are wrong interpretations? Hell yes I am. As a writer I am terrified of wrong interpretations going as badly as they have for Sia. But…I still believe people are entitled to their interpretations of a text, right? Well, yeah, but if their interpretation isn’t based on what is factually present in the text and they are wildly off course, other people are just as entitled to point out where they have mis-stepped in their interpretative process.
At least…I would hope. I don’t like the idea of the author or creator of a work of art being forced to explain themselves, as people demanded that Sia explain herself and as she ultimately did. It puts the author back in the place of focus when what should be in focus is the art itself: how we read it and why we read it that way. The discussion about why we are interpreting Sia's video in any given way is interesting. Badgering her into explaining herself is boring but more importantly douchey. (Yeah yeah yeah, she's a public figure and should expect some degree of this behavior/treatment, blah blah blah....No. There is one rule: be chill, don't be an asshole. It doesn't matter if a person is a public figure or not)
But I also just don’t like the idea of me as myself being put in that position because maybe I wrote something that made a bunch of noisy people feel uncomfortable. I am very proud of my story, but I can easily imagine someone reading it and coming to the conclusion that the story and by extension I am saying that the genocide of the Jews in WWII is less important than the other genocides, even though if we were to look factually at the story I wrote there is no basis for that. This “Elastic Heart” event has proved that it doesn’t necessarily matter what factually exists in the text – there are plenty of people who will read into a text exactly what they want to read into it, whether what they want to read into is actually there or not.
And that makes me worry about the things I write, sometimes. Because that could have very bad consequences for what people perceive the message of the story to be. Does that mean I’ll withhold this story for my fear that people will take away a radically warped message from it? Hell no. I’m far too proud of this story. But it’s still worrying.
I’ll try to stop worrying.