No Neutral Stories
There’s a certain section of the population who tend to get furious when a tv show or film casts anyone but straight white dudes. These people tend to be right wing straight white dudes who twist themselves into knots to argue any casting that diverges from their demographic is political. Or some such nonsense. It happened with the Ghost Busters remake in 2016, so much so that one of it’s main stars, Leslie Jones, was bullied off Twitter. It has only really got worse since then.
Most recently, it has surfaced with the cast of The Sandman TV series, which cast a non binary actor as Desire and a black actor as Death. People called it political casting.
I’m not here to argue diverse casting is a good thing. (It is.) Lots of people have done that,1 people with more experience and eloquence than me on the subject.2 But I’d like to push back on this argument that ‘stories shouldn’t be political’ which I hear so often. The Sandman also happens to be on of my favourite works of fiction ever, a rich and powerful work that rewards multiple re-readings, so I feel I can push back on this.
There seems to be a myth that there’s some stories that aren’t political, that are entirely neutral, divorced from the context and the society that created them. I don’t think there is. Every story will be influenced by the current society and will either reflect or critique it. Orwell put it best over half a century ago:
Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
What’s behind this plea for non political stories then? Generally, I think it’s prejudice, pure and simple. Racism and homophobia. If you dig a little deeper into these arguments, people want stories that only feature white people, like a lot of culture up to the last few years. They want stories to feature predominantly men. In other words, they want stories that ignore any voice that is outside the current hegemony. Stories that reflect the existing power structure. In this way, they are entirely political.
The fact this is happening in regards to The Sandman is even more ridiculous. Desire in the comics is canonically gender fluid, switching between her him and it and other pronouns. Death is a pale white goth in the comics, but all the main characters are eternal beings that reflect whoever is seeing them. Their forms are mutable and ever changing, as shown in the shifting art style and when they show other societies. Death even appears as a woman of colour within the pages of the comics!
I’ve seen this a lot in fantasy especially. People are quite willing to imagine eternal gods that are aspects of humanity and exist in multiple dimensions, but are unable to imagine them as anything other than white. In my opinion, it’s a failure of imagination.
These arguments are also ridiculous because I read The Sandman as a meta reflection on story telling. It is keenly aware of how stories can be used as instruments of power, but also how they shift depending on the speaker. The prologue to The Doll’s House story3 is a tale told by two men in a past culture, talking about Dream. But the end shifts the telling and highlights the power of the speaker4:
There is another version of this tale. That is the tale the women tell each other … And in that version of the tale, perhaps things happened differently. But then, that is a women’s tale, and it is never told to men.
So not only is every story political, stories can shift and change depending on the speaker. No story can ever be neutral. It is therefore right that an adaption of thirty year old comics should change. People who argue differently are taking a political stance, whether they acknowledge it or not.
The one shining light is that Neil Gaiman isn’t standing for it. He responded to these bad faith critics in the best possible way:
I spent 30 years successfully battling bad movies of Sandman. I give zero f***s about people who don’t understand/haven’t read Sandman whining about a non-binary Desire or that Death isn’t white enough.
Exactly. It’s wilful ignorance and manufactured outrage. No story can every be neutral. Remember that when they try the same trick again to silence another minority voice.5
Also, as a straight white dude myself I feel it would be weird. It’s not my argument to make. ↩
Just one of the best comic book stories ever. ↩
Of course, by quoting it here you miss out on the incredible art in this prologue. In which, as well, Dream reflects the culture telling the story and is black. ↩
See also this powerful talk , which remains sadly relevant. ↩