This is a statement I’ve seen several times over the past year or so, and I want to break it down and address some of the issues surrounding it. Primarily, I see “fiction affects reality” specifically for content involving underage characters in sexual situations. Very occasionally I’ve seen it in reference to violence toward marginalized groups, and that’s an issue as well but not the majority of the discourse.
First of all, fiction and reality have some interconnectedness. What we see in TV, film, and written works is predominantly white, cis-heteronormative, allosexual, neurotypical, monosexual, and, most importantly, kyriarchical. Kyriarchies are systems that distinguish the population into oppressors and oppressed. Most Western societies fall under this category, and they bleed in to marginalized spaces as well, frequently.
These features appear in fiction because they are dominant in reality, but their prevalence also means that appearing in fiction reinforces their existence in reality. Moreover, we can see that as more queer fiction enters the mainstream queerness becomes more acceptable.
However, there is a distinct and separate concept that can also be described as ‘fiction affects reality’. This other concept asserts that people enact what they consume, and is leaned on by people opposed to, for example, violence in video games. To the extent that we synthesize what we consume in media, there is some basis for this assertion.
It is incredibly rare for people to see bad behaviour in fiction and seek to emulate it. When the news reports that someone who committed violent acts played the violent bogeyman video game du jour, they’re trying to imply that the video game is why the person is violent. In altogether too many cases, however, white supremacy is the actual motive and the news media doesn’t want to address that.
One of the companion arguments to this interpretation of ‘fiction affects reality’ is normalization, where increasing prevalence of a particular thing makes it ‘normal’ for the thing to happen. This is what drives e.g. queer acceptance. Part of this process is the demonstration that being queer doesn’t harm people, whereas queerphobia does. It’s hard to normalize harmful behaviour, because the natural instinct upon encountering such is to reject it.
We see this with violent behaviour, both online and offline. Queerphobia gets amplified so much in order to try to keep it from becoming rare, unusual, and unacceptable. It has steadily become less normalized even over the course of my lifetime.
So why is so much of the discourse around ‘fiction affects reality’ focusing on the depiction of underage sex in fiction? Why isn’t it talking about, for example, rape culture? Or the prevalence of ableism, racism, and misogyny in popular media? And why is so much of that focus on some obscure fanfiction on Archive Of Our Own instead?