In recent months, I’ve had several discussions in which I criticized the way a sensitive topic was treated in a fictional work. The topics in question varied, as did the fictional works, but the course these discussions took was always the same. I’d object to the way the matter in question was portrayed, and would be told that it was just a book / movie / TV series, and I was making a fuss over nothing.
It was just fiction! I should be more open-minded; it wasn’t meant to be taken so seriously, OMG; it was all in good fun, and everybody (except me, apparently) understood that; the only thing that actually mattered with fiction was how good (well-written, well-acted, …) it was.
Except that this is complete nonsense.
Fiction does not exist in a vacuum. Books, movies, TV series: All fiction is both the result of the common views and opinions of the society it is created in, and – inevitably – a reinforcement of these views and opinions. Even the most uncontroversial novel or TV series incorporates countless social mores and generally held beliefs, and it reinforces them simply by referencing them.
Fiction can (and does) perpetuate commonly held ideas, reinforce stereotypes, prejudices and other beliefs, and validate popular opinions. It always does this, by its very nature; it’s a feature, not a bug. Fiction can also bring people to think and reevaluate, of course. Either way, it has a very real and material impact on people’s views, and on their lives. It matters.
A homophobic book or movie will validate the homophobic views of readers or viewers, and support a general air of homophobia in society. A comedy about men being drugged and raped by a woman (and loving it!) will perpetuate the harmful myth that men cannot actually be raped by women. And so forth. It’s the same for all issues.
Treating a sensitive issue in a highly objectionable way in fiction is not just a bit of good fun. Instead, it is both a symptom of a problem in society, and an actively harmful influence that perpetuates the problem.
So, no. It’s never “just” fiction.