It’s human nature to use metaphor as a way of understanding our world; that’s why they put so many of those frustrating analogy questions on the SATs. So if your world, like mine, is full of some very geeky people, then surely you’ve also noticed an influx of jokes and references that tie our geeky obsessions to the current political climate on social media — you've no doubt seen President-Elect Donald J. Trump compared to Voldemort from "Harry Potter," for example, or the Republican party to the Empire from "Star Wars."
As all things that happen on the internet tend to do, this has caused some backlash. The Baffler, most notably, referred to the exercise as a “retreat into juvenilia,” and on a personal level I’ve seen more than my share of people complaining about the reductiveness of comparing the current presidential transition to a movie or young adult novel. Doing so, they suggest, distracts from the fact that we’re not living in a story; that there are flesh and blood people who will be affected by the rise of hate crimes and impending policy shifts that have already marked Trump's oncoming presidency.
(ASIDE: My personal favorite so far, which I have not been able to locate since, was a tweet depicting a scene from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where an alien who speaks only in his own culture’s metaphors tries to communicate with Captain Picard, except the alien’s dialogue was all replaced with “Trump is Voldemort!” One imagines the person who created this image was being intentionally facetious, or else they were spectacularly missing their own point.)
Absolutely, we should be wary of how often we make light of the very real dangers Trump’s election pose. It strikes me as odd, though, that in all of these conversations about whether or not it’s acceptable to draw comparisons between fiction and real world political events, I never see anyone complaining about references to George Orwell in political conversations, of which there have been just as many.
True, there’s never been a billion dollar blockbuster movie of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” on par with those adapted from “Harry Potter,” and Orwell was writing a much more grounded reality than J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World — but Winston Smith never existed; neither did Julia. We have never been at war with Eastasia, because Eastasia is not a country. The man known as Big Brother is a myth.
So why don’t these critics protest the evocation of “Big Brother” as much as they protest Voldemort, or Darth Vader, or Sauron? Why do they have no problems borrowing from Orwell, or Aldous Huxley, or Margaret Atwood, or Joseph Heller, but pulling from Rowling or Suzanne Collins makes them scoff with disdain?
Is it because we were all required to read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in school, so it automatically has more merit than the books we read for fun? Is it because they’re letting the predominantly young (and often female) fandom for these works cloud their judgement? Or is it because they truly believe that modern popular fiction is nothing more than an opiate for the masses?
Either way, these naysayers need to realize that pop fiction is just as capable of inspiring readers as high art — possibly even more so.
Of course, it would be wonderful if the nuanced dystopias deemed acceptable by the literary canon were as universally beloved as the "Harry Potter" series. Or even better, if we made learning about activists like Ida B. Wells or Cesar Chavez in school a whole lot cooler, so we’d have some real-world role models to look to instead of, say, Katniss Everdeen when something like a Trump election goes down.
But that just isn't the world we live in, and for some folks, the Young Adult fiction they grew up with and the movies they currently watch are the strongest tools they have to make sense of the world around them. Condemning them for it won’t somehow make them smarter or more thoughtful, it will only make you feel superior to them for liking "better" books.
And fiction alone does not have the power to change the fate of a nation, this is true; as much as fans of literature and art love to wax poetic to the contrary, fiction is not a living, breathing entity capable of making active decisions. But people are. People can create works of fiction to spread specific messages, and other people can pick up on them and organize around them, regardless of what side of the literary canon those messages came down from.
In fact, although the fiction we attribute with making the most significant changes to American culture are now part of the canon, back in the day they were just as maligned by literary elites — and just as popular — as "The Hunger Games" is now. "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which is widely credited with advancing the Abolitionist Movement in pre-Civil War America, was the second bestselling book of all time in the 19th century (the first was the Bible), and was thought of by many critics to be sentimental drivel. The public uproar over Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" led Congress to pass its first series of food safety regulation laws, despite the fact that Sinclair was a dreaded socialist and President Theodore Roosevelt once called him "hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful."
Even the type of fiction we still consider low-brow once had a direct and progressive effect on our country. After the KKK experienced a resurgence following World War II, a writer named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the group and used the intelligence he gathered to write a 16-episode radio drama, vilifying the Klan by exposing their deepest secrets. A few weeks after the broadcast finished, Klan recruitment all but dried up in the South. That radio serial was “Superman.” Yup. Superman, the non-existent Last Son of Krypton, fought the real-life KKK — and won.
We don't remember these stories because they’re nuanced cultural works that withstood the test of time on their own artistic merit — seriously, has anyone actually read “The Jungle?" We remember them because they were compelling enough that activists and political organizers seized on their ideas and made shit happen.
And that’s where critics DO have it a little bit right: we can't just stop at fictional comparisons.
It’s not enough to draw a line between Trump and Death Eaters, just as it’s not enough to wear a safety pin and expect marginalized people to give you a pat on the back for it. This isn't a movie; these are peoples' lives, and if you are going to compare yourself to the Rebel Alliance, you have to do what those Rebels would be doing in your place. You have to act.
Donate to non-profits that will work tirelessly to achieve your shared goals, like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, or the National Center for Transgender Equality. Get comfortable with calling your state representatives; keep up to date with the legislation that will affect you and learn how to talk to them about it. Meet with other likeminded people in person and make plans. March in protests. Speak out the next time you see a woman in a hijab being harassed in public, or a transgender woman denied entrance into a bathroom, or a person of color being targeted with racial slurs.
And if thinking of Katniss Everdeen or Kamala Khan in the moments just before you act helps you steel yourself for what’s to come, all the better. Fiction has power — but you have to be the one to wield it.