“If [the Black individual’s] repressed emotions are not released in non-violent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From “A Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Since the murder of George Floyd in late May of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has picked up momentum. With that, however, is the expected push back. No protest that is covered by the media can escape association with riots. With that said, is it better to express the need for change peacefully rather than violently? Of course! However, writing off the rioters does not help us get to the change we need. In order to understand why people riot, we need to understand that rioting comes from anger, and we need to understand where the anger comes from.
The irony of this lack of understanding, however, is that many individuals who cannot talk about the peaceful protestors without bringing up the rioters seem to understand where the desire to rebel violently comes from when enjoying their favorite stories of the speculative genre.
In the 2012 film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the audience witnesses the heartbreaking murder of a child, Rue. Along with this, her father is seen witnessing this atrocity take place on a screen several districts away. This scene is hard to watch, because there is absolutely nothing her father can do. His government had selected his daughter to participate in a competition in which she would have to battle for her life against other children all for the entertainment of the wealthy and powerful. Understandably, he is angry, and his anger triggers a riot.
In Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, the villain, Captain Vidal, is a high ranking member of a fascist military regime. The hero is not only Ofelia, but also the rebels camped out in the woods and using whatever little resources they have to fight against his military. Captain Vidal is a very dangerous man who tortures his victims and abuses children, so it should come as no surprise that it is highly satisfying to see him get stabbed and shot in the face.
Both of these stories take place at a point where people are past the ability to simply talk through their problems with their enemies. It is obvious that one simply could not walk up to the likes of Snow or Vidal and simply ask politely, “Could you please stop killing us?” This much is obvious to general audiences, so why is this so hard to understand when applying it to real life?
To understand why there is such a disconnect between the themes these stories promote and some of the fans, you have to understand that people often cannot identify with experiences they themselves have not had. If a person has benefited from oppression — knowingly or not — they often will not recognize the parallels these stories have with real life. Someone who has not been a victim of racism, classism, etc. will not see the trials and tribulations of someone like Rue or of Vidal’s rebels as allusions to real life oppression. They will simply view them as entertainment. Someone who has experienced these things, however, might find themselves identifying with these characters in ways others cannot.
Quite often, the more privilege a person has, the more uncomfortable they are made by the idea that anything should change the status quo. For example, white people are more likely going to feel uncomfortable by the idea that things should change to make things a little easier for people of color. Able-bodied people are more likely going to feel uncomfortable by areas being redesigned to be more accessible to people with physical disabilities. People who have a better shot at receiving a good education are likely to feel uncomfortable with programs designed to give marginalized individuals a chance at the same education. When ideas are brought up to make things equitable for underprivileged individuals, privileged individuals are confronted with the fact that something is wrong and perhaps they are part of the problem. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that these same individuals often reject the idea that there are sociopolitical themes present in their favorite stories.
For many privileged consumers of fiction, the oppression that takes place in their favorite stories is like a tourist attraction. They don’t realize that there are people out there fighting similar battles to those of the rebels in Pan’s Labyrinth, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc. — only without the presence of faeries, bows and arrows, magic wands, or lightsabers. Some of these same consumers are probably also under the false impression that oppression is a “thing of the past.” They can consume these stories and think to themselves, “I’m so glad no one has to go through something like this anymore,” and once they are finished, they can put down their book or television remote or leave the theater unscarred.
Speculative stories hit differently for people of one or more marginalized groups. In many cases, the characters of some of the most famous stories were created as the result of a need to give said people hope. Captain America, for example, was first created as anti-Nazi propoganda. Yet, ironically, it is characters like Captain America who the most privileged of fans complain has become “too politicized.” The Empire in Star Wars is a not-so-subtle allegory for fascism, yet fans were up in arms about the presence of Finn, a Black character who escaped enslavement under the Empire and joined the rebels. Del Toro’s Oscar winning film The Shape of Water (2017) is literally a story about identifying and falling in love with an “other” as they are, yet even that seems to go over people’s heads.
All of this is not to say that privileged people are not allowed to enjoy stories of the speculative genre. However, the ability to enjoy these stories without seeing the real life parallels does not erase said parallels. Art has always been used as a tool for protest. Marginalized individuals who identify with the struggles of popular characters and use their images in protests are not “making” said characters political — they were always political. The inability to see such might be a sign that a fan is more like the villains of their favorite stories than the heroes. This is not to suggest anyone who has this difficulty is a bad person, but identifying the problem is the first step to becoming more like the heroes.
In The Hunger Games, the riot that takes place in District 11 comes at a breaking point. The people have had enough of watching their children die for entertainment, yet there is nothing they can do under the thumb of the elite to make an immediate change. The riot occurs as a result of this frustration. Rue is not coming back. None of their people who fell victim to the game are coming back. It is violent, but it is arguably the first sign that a revolution is about to occur. One does not have to agree with the real life riots that have taken place — not even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with riots. It is, however, crucial we understand where they come from. Riots come from people who feel silenced. They are, as King put it, “the language of the unheard.” It comes from a people who feel like they have followed every rule and have done their best to do everything right, yet still face the punishment of being unfairly profiled by law enforcement which can result in wrongful arrests or even death. Like Rue’s father, they are tired of seeing their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, etc. die at the hands of people in power.
Much like riots, the speculative genre also serves as a voice for the unheard. Storytelling can promote empathy, and it is empathy that can help us create a positive change. One might choose to continue to ignore the sociopolitical themes or pretend they are not present, but those who choose to do this should also come to terms with the fact that they are not the heroes of these stories. The heroes of these stories stand for what’s right even if it’s unpopular and they have little support. They do not argue in favor of upholding the status quo, they work to dismantle it. Enjoy the heroes however you want, but know that if you are not part of the solution, these heroes were not made for you.