The Crossley Test and Evaluating Social Messaging in Media - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Crossley Test and Evaluating Social Messaging in Media

Alexander Wallace explores the importance of powerful storytelling when a book, TV show or film makes a social statements.
Some people cry over the fact that popular media, even the most money-making thereof, have the gall to make social statements. They will cry that there is an invasion of the ‘woke’ into their sacred spaces. Others will cheer them on, saying that these are bold and necessary moves towards the betterment of society.

I’m going to sidestep that debate entirely. I’m not going to talk about how useful they are, or how deserved they are. I’m going to discuss that aspect of media that oftentimes seems to be the least discussed aspect thereof: the storytelling. For media that are by definition stories, their natures and attributes as being such are so often neglected by the chattering classes (but they like to neglect many things, so what’s new?).

For evaluating media that has a strong undertone of social justice, I would like to propose what I call the Crossley Test. I have referred to it a number of times in my writings on Warped Factor, and I would like to explain it in more detail so that I don’t have to note its criteria in every article I write on the subject.
Robert Crossley is a Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. I was exposed to his work when I read a library copy of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is hands-down one of the best novels I’ve ever read: I behoove you to read it if you have not already done so. It is a book about a black woman in then-contemporary Los Angeles who finds herself repeatedly sent back in time to a plantation in Maryland, where she has to live as a slave. It is an incisive portrayal of the horrors of plantation slavery, one still deeply necessary decades after its publication in 1979. Crossley supplied the afterword to such an important book. In said afterword, he wrote a statement about how Kindred handles its central theme: (I paraphrase) a book like this needs good storytelling, not just good issues to be effective.

This is a sentiment that could clear up a lot of the frustration in discussing media with heavy social themes. I have suspicions that a number of the complaints about ‘forced diversity’ come from the fact that these things are often handled poorly by writers who are not familiar with their nuances (some of it, of course, is simple bigotry, but many well-meaning people oftentimes don’t have the language to describe poorly written media). Let me give you two examples in popular superhero visual media of the past few years.
Exhibit A is X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Take the scene after the daring rescue in space, and the various members of that superhero team are talking with Professor X. They are angry that he is risking their lives without taking many risks himself. Raven, one of the heroes who is dispatched on this mission, says the following to him with great spite:
“By the way, the women are always saving the men around here. You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.”
It is ultimately a throwaway line. It is cheap. Nothing in this film explores where women stand within the broader organization of the X-Men. It is cheap pandering and nothing more. It fails the Crossley Test.
Compare this with Exhibit B: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I have already reviewed that show for Warped Factor; long story short, I absolutely loved it. So much of the plot is about the implications of a black Captain America in a country where racism against black people has been vicious and murderous. It would have been disappointing had there been but a throwaway line addressing this, but the writers of that show were far more bold in their ambitions. They ruthlessly interrogate every aspect of that situation, most memorably with the character of Isaiah Bradley. This conversation about race is an integral part of the show’s narrative; without it, it would have been a very different, and in my opinion, far lesser work. This passes the Crossley test.

What divides the two, ultimately, is intentionality. Dark Phoenix failed because it had no ambitions with the discussed line that were anything more than cheap pandering. It’s just that - cheap. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, on the other hand, was very deliberate about what it included in regards to race, and integrated it, rather than shoehorned it, into the narrative. This is why one succeeds and the other fails.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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