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Art and Social Change

Nostalgia by Flickr user TMAB2003

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately. If the popularity of books and movies like Ready Player One, as well as the constant stream of remakes, reboots, and sequels are anything to go by, I’m not the only one.

It makes a certain amount of sense that we, both individually and as a story-consuming community, feel drawn to nostalgic books and movies. Engaging with the world right now often feels like death by a thousand keystrokes. It’s so much more pleasant to lose ourselves in the pleasant memories of a simpler time.

It wasn’t actually simpler, of course.

The world has always been a chaotic mess of inequality and resistance and fear and injustice. But, for most of us, the world felt simpler because we were simpler. Our problems were more of the “will my parents let me go to the movies this weekend?” kind, rather than the “how can my single voice ever make a difference to this gross injustice?” kind. So it’s easy to look back and think everything was easier — and, therefore, better — in those days.

But this is not an essay about the tricks nostalgia plays on the past; this is an essay about the tricks we can play on the future — a future where, undoubtedly, there will be people who look back on our current days and say things like: “Remember the good old days when you couldn’t spit without hitting someone making a superhero movie? Those were good times…”

Raymond Chandler

It may surprise many people who know me to find out that Raymond Chandler is one of my favourite authors. His way with words makes my skin tingle.

Hair like steel wool grew far back on his head and gave him a domed brown forehead that might, at careless glance, have seemed a dwelling place for brains.

Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.

“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.”

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

But, here’s the thing.

Raymond Chandler wrote his books in the 1930s. They’re littered with casual sexism, racism, and homophobia. Hidden between the hard-boiled detective and the glorious prose, Chandler’s values are both obvious and discomforting.

And yet… I would still argue that his works are a joy to read. The language is beautiful, although the subconscious biases are not. But that was the world as it existed eighty years ago, and a sense of discomfort is, in its own way, a valuable teacher of empathy. (I say, as a white woman, fully aware that other people may have different perspectives.)

Raymond Chandler’s books are a product of their time, and thank goodness that time is over.

Star Wars

George Lucas’s Star Wars is the consummate space opera, full of heroes and damsels in distress; battles between good and evil; and a plucky band of rebels defeating an evil empire. Star Wars was a masterpiece of special effects and storytelling when it was released, and forever changed the landscape of movies. What’s not to like?

Well…. A lot, actually.

There’s the atrocious way Han Solo treats Princess Leia in the scene where he forces a kiss on her despite her telling him to stop half a dozen times. There’s the vomit–inducing lesson that comes out of that scene when Leia immediately falls in love with him — because there’s nothing more romantic than a man forcing himself on a woman without her consent.

But beyond that is the Jedi Order itself.

The first six movies present the Jedi as the heroes that we should all aspire to be like. There are very clear instructions given to both Anakin and Luke: never show your emotions, never let your emotions sway you, and never form close connections to other people.

Both Anakin and Luke are told they should let their loved ones die rather than help them, because disconnection is the Jedi way.

Both Anakin and Luke are shamed for feeling grief and fear when they lose their families.

Both Anakin and Luke are given the “advice” that showing their feelings is not only weak, but will lead them to the Dark Side.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the Jedi’s whole manifesto reads, to me, like a how-to guide for toxic masculinity. Push those emotions way, deep down, never cry, never admit vulnerability, and stay emotionally disconnected from the people who love you.

The main difference between Anakin and Luke’s journeys are that Anakin fully internalises this message and beats himself up when he can’t achieve complete detachment (his suppressed emotions eventually exploding in rage and violence), whereas Luke brushes off the Jedi teachings when he disagrees with them.

(YouTube’s Pop Culture Detective has a fantastic video essay [2] on this subject that really helped clarify my thoughts. It’s well worth the watch.)

But, hey, those movies were made in the 70s and 80s…. and 90s and 2000s. That was before we really talked about negative effects of telling boys to hide their emotions. Now we have new Star Wars, with a female Jedi and a diverse cast and no more George Lucas at the helm. Things have changed, and that’s a good thing.

Lucas’s Star Wars was a product of its time, and thank goodness that time is over.

Game Over, Man

Last week, I had the misfortune to watch Netflix’s movie Game Over, Man. It is, to put it bluntly, the worst movie I’ve seen in…. possibly ever.

It’s billed as a comedy-action flick. Three geeky losers find themselves trapped in a hotel that’s taken over by terrorists, and they need to save the day and free the hostages, becoming heroes in the process. The description reads like a cross between Die Hard and a stoner comedy, and even the title of the movie brings a wash of nostalgia. What could possibly go wrong?

Um…. everything.

Leaving aside the fact that it’s a laugh-free comedy that relies on bad tropes and vulgarity, this movie is chock-full of racism, sexism, homophobia, and more outdated and offensive stereotypes than I have time to list them. For example:

Our heroes are three loser white guys who have no interest in hard work, but nevertheless spend their time complaining about how they deserve fame and fortune. Not because of anything they’ve done–just because of who they are. They get sucked into a ridiculous terrorist situation, spend their entire time acting like the worst stereotypes of frat boys, and somehow manage to fall over themselves to accidentally save the day. Whereupon they’re rewarded (by a an old rich white dude who appears out of nowhere) with fame, fortune, and a yacht full of beautiful woman in bikinis. Just livin’ the dream, boys.

There are exactly three female speaking-roles in this movie. (1) The fat woman we’re all supposed to laugh at, who’s on-screen for an excruciatingly awkward four minutes. (2) The modern-day femme-fatale who oozes sexuality, literally emasculates a man, and behaves in a more and more unhinged way before being defeated with a good old-fashioned impaling. (3) The meek, mild, and modest girl who is told to calm down, and that “boys will be boys”, and is rewarded for her quietness at the end of the movie with the offer of a promotion.

On the other hand,  it’s got a terrible score on Rotten Tomatoes (I wish I’d checked before I watched it!)  and both the critical and general reviews are scathing.

Game Over, Man is a product of its time, and– Wait.

This movie was released two weeks ago.

This movie is a product of its time, but its time is now.

Life Imitates Art

I’ve just talked about three completely different stories, of different genres, in different mediums, from different time periods. The time periods thing is important.

See, many of the people involved in writing and making Star Wars grew up at a time when Chandler and his contemporaries were writing, and when his books were being made into movies. Meanwhile, those people involved in the writing and making of Game Over, Man grew up with Star Wars  and its ilk in their formative years.

I think that cinema and the arts are central in our lives because we grow up and learn about the world through our exposure to stories. Parents use them as a tool to teach their children fundamental truths and values, much as adults can view them to gain exposure to cultures and individuals that they’d never be able to view in their own lives.
— Forest Whitaker

We learn what the world and people are really like by reading books and watching movies. The stories we’re exposed to, particularly when we’re young, become part of who we are. They teach us about the world, about ourselves, about “the other”. They create our values and beliefs. They become our guiding principles of what’s right and wrong.

And that’s where we, as writers, come in.

We are the vanguards of tomorrow’s values. The beliefs and ideologies espoused in our books, and the movies that will inevitably be based on them, are the ones that will shape the formative years of tomorrow’s leaders. Every word, every sentence, every character we write will make a difference to somebody’s life.

I am feeling nostalgic. I think we all are. But rather than approaching our storytelling with nostalgia for a simpler world we half-remember from our youth, maybe we should approach it with a sense of nostalgia for today’s world, as we’ll look back on it in twenty years.

Everything we write matters.

No pressure.

What books and movies influenced your values and beliefs in your formative years? How would you like your stories to influence people?






About Jo Eberhardt [3]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.