For the entertainment industry, one of the biggest threats to success is the reviewer. A reviewer is someone who watches movies in the theater multiple times, no matter how terrible they are. This is the person who constantly has a book in their hand, who has their finger on the pulse of Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. A reviewer is trained to play an entire album on a loop–without skipping a single track. Their job is to save the audience money and time. They categorize content into “fresh” or “rotten” based on a list of desirable and undesirable traits. They are the gateway to a great time and the harbinger of bad new seasons. Lately, however, there have been arguments over just what a reviewer should consider when determining what’s good.
Shauna, book blogger and bookstore owner who goes by the moniker of B00kstore Babe online, is one reviewer who’s been met with push-back regarding her methodology. In March, she wrote a lengthy (around 8,000 words) review of the YA fantasy novel–The Black Witch. The book, published by Harlequin Teen, was “the most offensive book [Shauna had] ever read.” Her review went through each page of the novel and pointed out the author’s racism, homophobia, and ableism, complete with receipts in the form of snapshots of the actual pages in the book. When Shauna posted her review online, she received what some would call standard replies: people who were appalled that someone (considering most novels go through an editor) had such a warped, white-hooded view of the world. These people wanted a statement from Harlequin Teen; they wanted the publisher and the author to face some sort of repercussion for the offensive story they shared.
However, there were some who were upset with Shauna. For these people, The Black Witch’s fantasy label should have made it immune to real-world “social rules.” The book, which has references to “half-breeds,” “mixed-breeds” and unironically includes the sentence, “They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed,” is not technically discussing human beings. Instead, the book’s protagonist who, despite living in fantasyland, has the social views of an 1861 Southern politician or a 2017 White House politician, meets the Lupine people, the Urisk people, the Vu Trin, etc. What’s more is that, apparently, the point of the protag’s fantastical prejudice is to show the journey of unlearning the inclination to think that your skin color makes you better than someone else.
The Black Witch is not the first time audiences have asked reviewers to ignore the prejudice or inequality in fiction. A few weeks ago, Paramount was under fire for Ghost in the Shell, an American movie remake of a Japanese animation. The company and the movie’s lead actress (Scarlett Johansson) gave excuse after excuse for what critics described as whitewashing. What was surprising was that commenters were not only buying into those excuses, they were creating their own. Aside from the age old, misinformed declaration that anime characters are essentially white people, commenters across sites like YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr argued: that there were no Asian actresses who could carry such a huge film; that the movie’s protagonist is raceless because she has a prosthetic body; that Johansson had tried to cast an Asian actress but couldn’t find a company to back the film unless she, herself was its star, and that the movie was science fiction. For these reasons, commenters concluded that reviewers had no right to critique a movie based in Japan on its lack of prominent Japanese characters.
What those commenters don’t understand is that, from the beginning of time–and now more than ever–fiction and reality have been intimately intertwined. Jaws, the 1975 thriller about shark attacks, is credited with the antagonistic attitude people had towards great whites that contributed to their over-fishing. The 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation, popularized the KKK. Mae Jemison, the first African-American astronaut in space, was inspired by Star Trek. The power of entertainment to change people’s perception of reality cannot be understated.
So yes, even though The Black Witch takes place in a fantasy world, the way it describes its version of people of color is important and should be subjected to critique. The messages that Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell, Matt Damon’s The Great Wall or Netflix’s upcoming Death Note remake sends–that categorically Asian stories won’t sell without a white face–should be pointed out. Hollywood’s penchant for paper-bag passing heroines has real-world implications that should be noted at every instance of occurrence. Because by not calling these things out, or refusing to label them as wrong or misguided, reviewers would be co-signing a dangerous line of thinking.
Reviewers work with handfuls of content constantly. In their day-to-day they critique anything from plots to sound effects, to word choice, to casting decisions, to cover design, to the level of villain evilness. Anything that a consumer could possibly be interested or disinterested in is fair game. As society becomes more empathetic and understanding of people’s disinterest in offensive or obtuse portrayals of marginalized or marginalized-coded people, reviewers will naturally begin to center their reviews on those topics. While some may think this unfairly restricts fiction, I chalk it up to the nature of the industry.
By Lilian Uzokwe