There are a lot of facets to the liberal response to the new Beauty and the Beast movie. On the one hand, some people think it’s great that there is an overtly gay character in a G-rated Disney Movie; on the other hand, some people are irritated by the fact that the gay character is a sniveling subservient stereotype of an insecure gay guy who has an unrequited crush on the straight alpha-male hunk.
But I’m not interested in either of those angles right now. What I’m fascinated by is the liberal reaction to the teeny, tiny marginal fraction of conservatives who are angered that an overtly gay character appears in the movie at all. I will describe this reaction as a play in three acts.
Act 1: Ha, Ha, Hypocrisy!
The triggering events seem to have been a call for a boycott from some evangelist named Franklin Graham, and an announcement that an Alabama theater canceled its plan to screen the movie. The movie theater made their motivation completely clear: “If I can’t sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me then we have no business showing it,” read their Facebook post.
Of course, Liberal Internet exploded with mirth. The best summary of the reaction probably comes from an article by the satirical comedy website The Chaser, entitled “Outrage at inclusion of gay character in film about woman-buffalo romance“:
“Conservative pundits and cinemas alike are protesting the ‘unnatural’ inclusion, with concerned parents asking how they are supposed to explain to their children that a film featuring a talking candle has a character who falls in love with another man.”
Even without reading the article, the title of the article kind of says it all: How stupid is it that conservatives would be upset at a gay character in a movie that also has a woman falling in love with a big old monster thing? Does that mean they are more upset by homosexuality than by bestiality? Ha, ha. Stupid conservatives.
But then I started thinking about it a little more.
Act 2: Do you even speculative fiction, bro?
Not all representations are equal in speculative fiction.
For the uninitiated: “speculative fiction” is an umbrella category that includes science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and horror. It is the category that sits across the table from “realistic fiction” which includes any story where the characters, events, and locations are made up… but are realistic. Go figure.
By its very nature, speculative fiction always has assumptions built into the fabric of the “universe” being described that don’t work the same way things work in our real natural world, or contain elements that we don’t actually have any reason to think exist. Maybe there is magic. Maybe there are aliens. Maybe there is time travel. Maybe there are vampires and werewolves. The story that emerges in this genre of fiction is essentially a “what if” kind of story: if we take this particular set of unnatural assumptions about the universe, and set up the situation and characters just right, what is the most compelling and realistic way that the story might unfold?
For speculative fiction to be sensible and compelling, it has to have two distinct kinds of fact baked into the story: the fanciful assumptions, and the realistic consequences. In Star Wars, fanciful assumptions include the existence of the “force” or the fact that weapons made of beams of light extend exactly 91 centimeters from the handle and then just stop for no apparent reason. Within the mechanics of the story, given these assumptions, the rest of physics plays out very normally: fire makes things burn, people get hurt when they fall, and so on.
I wrote an article called “Weird hangups about realism in science fiction” about the fact that I react differently to different types of “unrealism” in science fiction. When something seems to be part of the set of fanciful assumptions that form the foundation of the fictional universe, I accept it without question. A universe where genetic mutations can lead to human beings who can manipulate metal objects of almost any mass purely through mind power and will? No problemo! But when something is unrealistic in the incidental consequences–like depicting an SR-71 Spy Plane hovering in mid-air over the water–then I’m like UH EXCUSE ME THAT COULD NEVER HAPPEN!!11
Yes, I’m a geek like that.
But based on the response I got to that article, other people feel this way, too. (In general, not specifically about the SR-71.) Elements in speculative fiction fall into two categories: bits that are supposed to be unrealistic, and everyone can tell they are the “magical” bits (whether they come in the form of talking candles or light sabers); and bits that are supposed to be mundane, the “realistic consequences” of living in an unrealistic universe. That’s why it feels “weird” when the realistic bits are wrong, but doesn’t feel weird to accept the fanciful bits.
If you understand this basic characteristic of speculative fiction, you know the conservative Christians–bless their bigoted hearts–aren’t actually being hypocrites. The talking candles and the romance between the woman and the enchanted beast-man are part of the underlying “fanciful” foundation of the story, whereas the sexual orientation of Le Fou is not.
Le Fou’s sexuality is quite clearly one of the “realistic” elements of the story: it is part of the natural mechanics of the made-up universe once you have already accepted magic as one of the “givens”.
So while objecting to the portrayal of a gay character is still bigoted and reactionary and stupid… it’s not made more stupid by the fact that the movie has talking candles and “woman-buffalo romance”.
From this perspective, mocking articles like the one in The Chaser are being intellectually dishonest. If we want to be taken seriously when we talk about the prejudice and bigotry of the right wing, it’s important that we not tilt at windmills or jump at every shadow. If you mock people dishonestly, over time all it does is make you seem dishonest. It undermines the underlying truth of your position, and that’s not helpful.
Act 3: Hillary’s health
Over the course of 2016, liberals watched an online campaign based on pure gaslighting and fabrication get Trump elected to the White House. Or at least, that’s how things looked from one angle.
If you were a frequent user of social media through that time, you saw wave after wave of blatantly ridiculous claims mocking Hillary Clinton, deriding her, insulting her, and cutting her down. They were based on nothing, and most sane people saw that they were blatantly fabricated.
The most obvious example was the “Hillary’s health” issue. Right wing social media trolls loved it and took to it with a fervor: everything from long and detailed conspiracy theories to photoshopped images of Mrs. Clinton looking like a zombie were spread over the web for weeks and weeks.
I remember at one point someone tweeted to me, “Hillary is at death’s door! She might be dead right now!” I replied in a Direct Message, “Look buddy, I love a good debate, but you know that isn’t true.”
He replied: “I know… but it sure is fun to say it.”
Pause for a moment and re-read that. That single sentence encapsulates the entire pro-Trump online movement.
Now, I won’t say that this strategy alone got him elected. There was a lot going on in this election cycle. Democratic in-fighting, enraged Bernie supporters, Hillary’s corporate baggage… the entire thing was a shit-show from beginning to end. There was way too much multicollinearity to ever point to a single “reason” that Trump won.
But for many people immersed in social media, the perception was this:
The right wing said stuff they knew was untrue just to piss off the other side… and somehow it worked!
They mocked and they sneered and they gaslighted (gaslit? who knows) and said outlandish things for no other reason than they knew it would get liberals upset; and because of the way the election unfolded, there is now a segment of the population who views this as legitimate, functioning political strategy. They think it works.
So what good is my think-piece about “intellectually dishonest humor” in that world?
I’m an idealist in many ways, and I still want to believe that we will build the best world by staying true to our morals and being honest about our beliefs. I still think the pathway forward is to doggedly and against all evidence continue to behave as though people are fundamentally rational and educable and good.
But can I really criticize my fellow leftists who want to take the gloves off and get a little dirty… especially since it’s possible that–in some sense–it “works”?
Let me know what you think.