You can't show women being hurt. You can't show child abuse. You can't show rape. You can't show incest. Pedophilia, self-harm, intimate partner abuse, necrophilia, violence against children; if you're going to so much as talk about any of these things you need to do so at a 5th-grade level and behind the dual firewalls of safe, pastel-colored animation and explicitly education-based presentation. The art has to show you in painstaking detail the exact way in which to behave. Even then there's no guarantee it won't provoke a public outcry, doxxing, death threats, and even campaigns to strip artists of their jobs and livelihoods.
The idea that by depicting an act an artist is endorsing that act seems baked into the minds of certain left-leaning sets of younger people, particularly teenagers and early twentysomethings. That they have such deep concern for the safety and social equality of their traumatized peers and the traumatized in their own ranks can only be admirable, but more often than not the form it takes is mass harassment and scapegoating targeting not institutions or major studios but independent creators, many of them marginalized themselves. If the whole thing sounds, with its zeal for censorship and its self-righteous hate campaigns against the disenfranchised, a little like the American Family Association with a glittery coat of paint, well, that's kind of what it is.
The usual arguments about internet anonymity and the horrible deformities it breeds in human interaction all apply here, and there's much to be said of the young age and unformed personalities of the people perpetrating the worst of it, but even older, more experienced art aficionados aren't immune to the fervor for purity in art. There seems to be a much deeper affection in these circles for corporate art -- for the Marvel cinematic universe and its bland, calculated inoffensiveness, say -- than there is for art made by artists. Movies like Wonder Woman and Captain America: Civil War are evaluated with a generosity of spirit that borders on delusion, cults of enthusiastic acclaim forming around actress Gal Gadot's onscreen thigh jiggle and the "subtle homo-eroticism" of Thor: Ragnarok.
Corporate art exists to please. It exists to reaffirm the status quo and to build affection for and loyalty to corporations. From the callous Islamophobia of the Iron Man movies to the US Air Force and CIA-approved wokeness of Captain Marvel and Black Panther, the whole enterprise is bent on saying as little as possible while looking as socially conscious as it can. Fandom's fixation on finding gay themes and subtext in these blockbuster juggernauts was more understandable when independent gay art was harder to find, but today you don't even have to brave a convention-- you can dig it up with a quick search on Etsy or Gumroad. When independent artists release material featuring actual deviant sexuality though (author's note: due to repeated misunderstandings I feel compelled to clarify here that I mean "deviant" from a mainstream cultural viewpoint) -- from gay content to incest -- the reaction from these same people is overwhelmingly prudish. There is little to no desire among them to interact with adult work created by adult gay and trans artists. That art -- small art, created for personal reasons -- is too dangerous to touch, too full of moral imperfections and frightening images.
But what's left in art once you scour away the things that make you uncomfortable? What's left for the people who make their living and/or maintain their sanity by approaching our own suffering from a place of skill, assurance, and safety? What's left for readers and viewers trying to grow as people, to find empathy for those they've been taught to despise, to understand their own sexual shame and fear? What's left for people struggling with the isolation of abuse who have no support and no words to help them name it? Art is the lifeblood of human connection and introspection. It is the foremost way in which we can confront our own weaknesses and failings. Sanitized and focused solely on the comfort and entertainment of its audience, it's no more meaningful than a halfhearted handjob from an indifferent lover.
The idea that depiction equates to endorsement has been peddled in our society virtually since its inception. Its modern proponents range from anti-violent video game morality groups to the Westboro Baptist Church's unhinged campaigns to remove television with gay content from the airwaves. Imagine a world where Debbie Dreschler never made her autobiographical comic Daddy's Girl, one of the most scorching, hideous things ever committed to paper. How many people would never have seen their own experiences with parental incest reflected in her work, and thus felt able to finally break themselves open and process their deep pain? When a subject becomes taboo we lose our ability to process the pain surrounding it, to talk about it openly, to understand why it happens.
Another core pillar of this movement is the expression of outrage toward sexual kinks based around transgression. Surviving rape, abuse, and other traumatic incidents is never an easy thing, and it's never clean. You'll carry the marks of it in your sex life, in your sense of safety, in your beliefs about the world until the day you die. In Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden, a 1975 collection of women's anonymously submitted sexual fantasies, multiple Jewish women who had survived the Holocaust wrote with deep shame of their need to sexualize that experience, to relive it with their partners in a safe and loving environment. It's a relatable sentiment for anyone whose sexuality has been shaped by trauma, which can force shame and need against one another until they grow together inextricably. A close friend of mine was attacked as a "vicious anti-semite" for quoting the book.
The same friend was attacked en masse for her erotic comics featuring gay and bisexual men, comics which depict those men with complexity, heart, and loving attention to detail. The argument was that as a straight woman it was fetishistic for her to portray sex between men, a position so mind-bogglingly dense that I'm hard pressed to find a way to fire back at it other than "really?" It's difficult to parse until you realize that the targets of these little brigades of loudmouths and scolds are always, always women. For all that they're marching under the banner of social justice, the people they feel most comfortable threatening with harm and emotionally brutalizing are women. Men both in the independent art scene and in the mainstream make violent, hateful art every day, but screaming at men doesn't satisfy the misogynistic impulses beaten into us by a culture that sees women as weak, stupid, and venally evil.
What you have in the end is a movement which in practice enforces a sort of neoliberal social conservatism, demanding the sanitization of art produced by women and labeling existing art degenerate with the same verve the Nazis displayed in putting the torch to centuries of Europe's artistic history. It's a small, impoverished way to understand the purpose of art and it's fueled by deep, repressed misogyny. If we pretend everything is good, if we act like Marvel will fix racism and sexism if we just give them another four production cycles, if we make our branded dollies kiss and claim it's because the movies portray them in a symbolically homo-erotic context, OBVIOUSLY, then we don't need to look at ourselves or see what we're doing to the people around us. We can close our eyes and slip into the lukewarm water of purposeful mediocrity.
There's nothing wrong with escapism. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to or not being able to engage with art about horrific things. The problem begins when you look at the people who can, who need to, and decide that they can't either, that they're going to have to bend to your worldview or you'll call them pedophiles and nazis and incest apologists and run them out of town. And what then? When you've crushed the hopes and dreams of every woman writing dark erotica or making beautiful, sensual comics about love and loss, what's left but staring at each other in a creative wasteland and waiting for one of your own to show the tiniest sign of weakness so you can recapture the thrill of moral outrage by ripping them apart? It's a cannibalistic cultural dead end where corporations are our friends and other human beings are the enemy.
I stand with sex workers, with pornographers, with artists of all kinds struggling to make something hot, something vulnerable, something raw and sickening and terrifying. If they fuck it up, well, at least they're a person, not some faceless sea of suits trying to get their arms down my throats to pull out my organs. Enjoy your popcorn movies, your Steven Universe and your X-Men comics, but ask yourself, what are you immersing yourself in by not reaching beyond those things? What is prolonged and overgrown childhood doing to your mind and to your moral sense of the world? Growing up is painful, yes, but if you want to learn to love, to open yourself up to others, to touch the deepest, rawest parts of your psyche and your sexuality, you're going to have to suffer.