On Villains

by Kwaku Osei-Afrifa

Imagine being mad talented and successful, and part of a global money-making franchise that, whilst entertaining, has all the emotional depth of a sheet of paper. The arrested development on which the series depends means discourse surrounding real life issues is at best clipped, tolerated, thin, and at worst dismissed, discredited, and undermined.

I’m talking about Star Wars. By now you’ve probably heard about John Boyega’s impassioned, impromptu speech at the Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park, where he stated at the three-minute mark: ‘Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that.’

Criticism of his conduct (the person) have come from Star Wars fans thinking he should be grateful to have played Finn (the character) and should have the same (i.e. no) emotional inner life. That, somehow, your comfort level precludes you from talking about injustice. It would’ve been easy for him to stay sheet-of-paper shallow as Finn. Silence as the path of least resistance. But John couldn’t.

In the face of calls to silence, to complicity, we also can’t.

Society has atrophied to the point where we can only move one social justice movement at a time. The casualty of such stultification is nuance, and an understanding of how concepts can intersect. Instead of unity in the multiplicity of identities, we see divisions. One BLM rallying cry is ‘all lives can’t matter until black lives matter’. A non-black dissenter hears ‘so you’re saying I don’t matter’ when the speaker is correctly saying ‘if you value all life like you claim, you have to value mine too’. If you uplift the marginalised who participate in the same thing as you, then by virtue everyone's experience of that same thing increases. Those at the top do not get less from those at the bottom getting more.

The eight minute and forty-six second video of George Floyd’s murder reminded doubters that racism is still a thing and people are dying, even during a time when just being outside was only being reintroduced to a society under threat from a pandemic. But whilst we were now marching for black lives and against racism, one other social movement sought to retake the reins.

‘Gender critical’ feminists attempted to divert everyone’s attention from tragic losses of life and police brutality to their rights allegedly being under siege. What from? A move to modernise the 2004 Gender Recognition Act: an act that allows trans people to have their gender recognised in law and reflected on their birth certificate. Some of this fight has been taken on by J. K. Rowling, whose previous credits include standing with Maya Forstater and taking umbrage with inclusive language. She cites in her blog post on her website — which was titled in the third person, so that should tell you everything you need to know — that the enhancement of trans women’s rights comes at the expense of the rights of women (as a sex-based class).

What follows is a blog post by Rowling of ‘studies’ with no citations or references, and a dog whistle equating trans activism groups to grooming and trans women as male predators in dresses. Oh, as well as an ‘it isn’t my fault you’re angry’ abdication of responsibility after a ‘middle-aged moment’ from the author, where she ‘accidentally’ liked a tweet instead of screenshotting it. It’s not me, it’s you, she’s telling us. She justifies her stance and posts because a) she’s a woman and is also marginalised and because b) she’s a writer and she’s researching a book for her Cormoran Strike novels.

This book is finally out. Troubled Blood, a 900-page tome; more than twice as long as either of the previous two instalments in the series. So we eagerly awaited to see what intellectual fruits have been yielded and transmuted by her pen. A review in the Sunday Telegraph few can access, and some paywall vigilantes with handy screenshotting fingers, have indicated that her research was nothing, nonsense, a smokescreen for a far more bitter, insidious narrative. Imprisoned serial killer Dennis Creed: a cis man who wore dresses to deceive female victims.

We all have seen her demonstrate her opinion of trans women to be similarly damning. We know this cannot stand.

In order to have villains, storytellers have historically made them unconscionable. They profess ideals and ethics that our heroes — and by extension our readers — disagree with. This has been happening for a very long time. It’s also rarely been the case that the storyteller’s views align with those of their villain. However, conversations about representation and intent have now opened further discussion into the words and ideas inside the stories:

- Have they been researched and handled sensitively?
- Are they extensions of the writer'?
- If they are extensions of the writer, what do we do?

This has led in some cases to retrospective attempts to hide or repent past missed artistic transgressions. This has worked in some regard, but it cannot be the answer wholesale. I’m not going to say ‘Political correctness gone mad; you can’t say anything anymore’, because I think villains and their problematic thoughts can and should exist in fiction. They already do in real life, after all. I’m saying we can tell the difference between a sensitive, intellectually robust treatment and a bigoted caricature whose only defence is that it should be allowed to exist.

I’m a writer and I often have a villain problem, in that they’re rarely villains to me. I leave it to the reader to decide based on the evidence presented in the work of fiction and their own feelings about the concepts. That nuance is vital to the work lingering in a potential reader, and to me makes the process interesting. Of course, these characters and I aren’t the same. The difference here — beyond millions of sales and pounds in Rowling’s corner — is you can trace her characters’ reprehensible behaviour back to her own. And that’s the worrying part.

To channel John and call out bullshit: free speech isn’t an exemption from criticism or a free asshole pass. Write villains; don’t be one.