Fictional Utopias: Erasing Oppression in Pop Culture
SPOILER WARNING: Warnings for general plot points in the movie Happiest Season as well as the television shows Schitt'$ Creek, The Dragon Prince, and The Queen's Gambit.
This month saw the release of the star-studded lesbian romantic comedy Happiest Season. Starring the ever enchanting Daniel Levy, Kristen Stewart, and Aubrey Plaza, the movie has been lauded as an LGBTQ+ triumph as a major Hollywood backed holiday special. I really enjoyed the film - it was well-acted, fun, and charming. As someone who rarely watches Christmas rom-coms, I felt it was a stand-out hit in the genre.
However, whenever a piece of media offers rare representation in its genre, it stands to be critiqued not on the merits of its own intention but on how well it managed to encapsulate the experience of being a part of a given marginalized group - in this case, the lesbian part of the LGBTQ+ community. This is an impossibly tall order that often sets work by marginalized creators up to be criticized more harshly than their counterparts. This was certainly the case with Happiest Season, with the movie's release sparking online discourse on the prevalence of coming out stories in LGBTQ+ media.
Happiest Season was, to be fair, perhaps unwisely marketed as a happy, feel-good film when the movie's actual content dealt heavily with the difficulty of being your authentic self in a relationship when one partner is not out to their family or friends. This is an interesting and important topic to be discussed on screen and is certainly prevalent in the lives of many LGBTQ+ folks. However, based on the upbeat marketing, many fans were hoping for a lighter story for the holidays, focusing more on the relationship between the two leads and less on homophobia and coming out stories.
(Though, it must be acknowledged that many fans were also just rooting for Kristen Stewart and Aubrey Plaza's characters to get together).
Many excellent points have been made in this conversation, including the need for more coming-out stories that centre on characters with different intersectionalities - such as race, class, and religion - and the ways these identities impact the way they reconcile with their sexuality. The general consensus many in the conversation have reached is that while there is certainly a market for more and more diverse coming-out stories, there is also hunger in the LGBTQ+ community for stories that don't position suffering, trauma, or oppression at their centre. We want to see LGBTQ+ characters end the story happy and in love after dealing with conflicts unrelated to their sexuality. Both of these types of stories can and must coexist in the future of the film and publishing industries.
So today, I want to take a deeper look at what it means to erase oppression from the narrative, analyzing some examples that have done this exceptionally well and some that have fully missed the mark.
To open, when I say "erasing oppression," I am discussing stories that willfully or inadvertently minimize or ignore the experience of oppression from the narratives of marginalized characters. When done intentionally, this style of storytelling recognizes that the experience of being a person of a given gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, class, ability, etc., is culturally significant in shaping identity beyond the impacts of detractors. This tool highlights that while oppression may be a common shared experience for people of a given identity, it does not define their belonging to that group. As white, straight, able-bodied, and male are not defaults, no identity can be defined by the absence of, or persecution by, another. Doing so allows creators to feature a diverse cast in plots that are not rooted in trauma or suffering. When done poorly, erasing oppression can make characters seem like identities have been plastered over a stock white male character or may work to further real-world othering or stereotyping against a given group.
One way to erase oppression from a narrative is to acknowledge its impacts in the wider world and then isolate your characters in a supportive and inclusive environment.
I would argue that the show Schitt'$ Creek is a masterclass in this narrative style. Schitt'$ Creek is a Canadian sitcom created by Daniel and Eugene Levy. The show features the fictional Rose family, an affluent family that loses their fortune, forcing them to settle in the small town of Schitt'$ Creek. Some of the show's running plotlines are the relationships of the Rose siblings, including the pansexual David Rose (played by Dan Levy) and his romances with Stevie Buck, Steve Lund, and Patrick Brewer.
What is brilliant about Schitt'$ Creek is that it acknowledges the real-world impacts of homophobia while never subjecting its characters to it. Because the characters are isolated in a small town, we can believe that this is a place where the LGBTQ+ community is openly supported and included without negating the ways ongoing homophobia has had disastrous implications in the real world.
The existence of homophobia in Schitt'$ Creek is most directly acknowledged whenever an LGBTQ+ character needs to come out to other characters. This happens in Season 1, Episode 10 Honeymoon, when David's sexuality is first directly addressed and revealed to the town residents, and again in Season 5, Episode 11 Meet the Parents when Patrick's parents visit from out of town. In both episodes, we see the impact homophobia has had on the characters regarding their personal apprehension in how their sexuality will be received and in their need to come out at all. Importantly, after their internal trepidation, the characters are always openly and warmly accepted.
However, between and beyond these occurrences, their sexuality is treated as a normal and natural thing with no screentime being given to microaggressions, harassment, or oppression. Further, their sexuality is never questioned, stereotyped, or made the punchline of the joke. Instead, we get to focus on their relationships and growth as characters.
By framing the narrative this way, Schitt'$ Creek acknowledges that homophobia is and has been a very real form of oppression with disastrous legacies, but erases this oppression from the immediate storyline, allowing us as the audience to enjoy, relate to, and normalize happy LGBTQ+ characters.
The other way to erase oppression from a narrative is to establish a secondary world setting.
Most literary fiction and dramas take place in a primary world, or Earth-Prime, where the landscapes and societal systems are familiar, set in real places like Vancouver, Canada or London, England. They may also be set in fictional towns like Hawkins, Indiana, U.S.A. from Stranger Things, where the town itself is fictional but functions near identically to real-world places. Secondary worlds, or Secondary Earths, are settings that are completely fabricated from the ground up. These are most commonly found in the genres of Horror, Comics/Graphic Novels, and SFF (Science-Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Fantasy, Fantastical, and Fairytales). These include settings like Middle-earth from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Earthsea from Ursula K. Leguin's Wizard of Earthsea, or Discworld from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Because these worlds are fully imagined by the creator, they do not have to adhere to the same structures of power and privilege that govern our own lives.
Many of these examples choose to alter or renegotiate power and inequality to suit their narratives, resulting in societies plagued by oppression in ways slightly different from what we might be used to, either to suit the narrative or to satirically draw attention to specific forms of injustice. There are, however, a handful of secondary world settings that use the invented landscape to entirely erase the existence of oppression to grant characters full respect and participation within the narrative. My best example of this done well is Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond's The Dragon Prince series on Netflix.
The Dragon Prince is an animated series from the same creators as Avatar: The Last Airbender. Set on the fictional continent of Xadia, the story follows two young princes and the elf Rayla as they attempt to return the egg of the titular Dragon Prince to his parents to prevent a war between the humans and the elves.
The Dragon Prince takes full advantage of its secondary world setting to deliver a diverse cast where every character is given prominence and respect. No named character faces barriers to social power or participation based on identity. This includes each of the five human kingdoms being ruled by people of various genders, races, and sexualities - including interracial and LGBTQ+ couples. By my count as of season three, there are at least four LGBTQ+ couples openly shown on screen. One character, General Amaya, is Deaf and signs animated ASL that is either understood directly or through a translator by all the show's characters. Another, Villads, is a blind pirate who navigates his ship with the help of his parrot.
Because of the secondary world setting, all these characters are allowed to simply exist without explanation or oppression. Just as there are dragons and magic, there is no question that the General could be a disabled lesbian woman of colour. There is no question that the Queens of Duran are an interracial lesbian couple or that the Prince of Katolis is biracial. It just is. These characters' identities influence who they are and are given weight in character design, but are not the focus of the plot and are never used as a barrier to the wider narrative.
There is, however, a trick to erasing oppression in a secondary world that The Dragon Prince has executed well. It is not enough to simply declare that there is no racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc. and then disclude plotlines of injustice. This will ring inauthentic. The Dragon Prince works because the creators took the time to understand how systemic injustice functions in our real society and then imagined what the world would look like without barriers. If the creators had said, "Oh, there's no racism," but then did not include characters of colour or didn't give those characters respect, power, and prominence in their portrayal, it wouldn't have worked.
This also means being keenly aware that even though the fictional world may not have oppression, the real world does, and real people will see and judge these characters. If marginalized characters are depicted using stereotypes, harmful tropes, or microaggressions, it will be a racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic/etc. depiction, whether the fictional world has these injustices or not. For example, claiming your fictional world is free of homophobia and then killing all your LGBTQ+ characters still plays into the harmful bury your gays trope and has negative consequences for representation in our real world.
Finally, for this to be executed well, the erasure of oppression must be comprehensive. In a world predicated on intersectionality, it would be exceedingly difficult to isolate one identity's influence over another. For example, it would be challenging to show a world where homophobia exists but sexism and patriarchy do not. Similarly, it would be nonsensical to discuss fictional feminism without acknowledging the role racism and women of colour have played in these movements.
This leads us to the topic of erasure of oppression done horribly and harmfully wrong. I argue that the worst instances of erasure of oppression are the unintentional ones, where the creators did not do their research and ended up writing characters that are inauthentic and offensive. Tied with these instances in my mind are examples where creators have willfully removed the experience of oppression from historical plots to progress or enable otherwise impossible narratives without acknowledgement.
An egregious example of this is Netflix's recent record-breaking original, The Queen's Gambit. Set in 1950s-1960s United States, the miniseries follows fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon, on her rise to championship glory. The show focuses on Beth's status as an orphan, financial barriers, and abuse of drugs and alcohol as challenges to Beth's international victories in chess. While early episodes show male characters shocked and surprised that she wants to enter, once she proves her prowess for the game, everyone is polite, encouraging, and supportive of her success. The show even goes so far as to depict Beth drunk or intoxicated with men in private spaces to highlight that she is overtly safe with and respected by all the men she comes in contact with.
In an article about the erasure of oppression from fictional narratives to allow for escapism, it's nice to have a show like The Queen's Gambit where women are respected and accepted based on their merits and not at threat from sexual or gender-based violence. But what is truly insidious is that the world of The Queen's Gambit still upholds the products of sexism without showing the mechanism.
Specifically, Beth Harmon is still the only woman playing chess at championship levels in the show. We know that in the real world, women face barriers to participating in male-dominated fields. Some of those barriers are or have historically been legislated. Others are based on biases in selection committees. Overwhelmingly, though, women self-select out of male-dominated fields when they are faced with harassment, toxic work environments, or overt violence and discrimination. I have previously outlined these phenomena in greater detail, specifically examining how they relate to the political sector here.
In the world of chess, similar barriers have formed a long gendered history within the game. Professional chess is largely still gender-segregated to this day. In response to the show, true women in the sport made statements regarding their experiences with sexism. Judith Polgar, the only woman to ever be ranked in the Top 10 for chess or to play for the overall world championship, specifically noted that men she played were often incredibly rude to her, refusing to shake her hand after matches and making disparaging comments or crude jokes about her.
If there is no sexism in the world of The Queen's Gambit, then why is Beth Harmon the only woman playing chess at a high level? If Beth Harmon never, during the show's run, needs to grapple with barriers to her participation, why aren't more women able to do so as well?
Unfortunately, the show does provide a pseudo answer, showing Beth's inability to form meaningful friendships with her classmates, framing the other women as vapid and obsessed with fashion and boys. It is implied that these women aren't playing chess at the championship level because they aren't smart enough or aren't interested.
This is when the erasure of oppression becomes insidious, when it keeps the products of oppression without its mechanisms, suggesting that the reasons marginalized people are in vulnerable positions are because of their inherent worth or innate dispositions. It's not only untrue, but those assumptions feed into and provide an ideological backstop for real people who do think that way and do use that reasoning to oppress or harm real people.
Escapism can be a necessary respite from the real world. There's a reason I love reading and watching SFF and tend to write in that genre. Not every story about marginalized people needs to be about their trauma and suffering. We need more books and shows with strong, diverse representation in a greater variety of plots. But that representation does more harm than good if it sets out false equivalencies about our world and the systems of injustice that underscore it. There are ways erasure of oppression can be used to tell escapist stories, but only if creators care enough to execute them well.