Social responsibility, fiction writing, and you!

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I talk a lot about Hollywood movies and the space they occupy in the wider culture, but since I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately today I’m going to talk about us. You and me and everyone we know.

We put up a blog post last week regarding the impulse in Hollywood to include female characters with the caveat that they must be someone’s love interest; as always, when gender roles on the Internet are discussed, there was some pushback. In particular I had more than one guy respond with something to the tune of, “I hate that people get mad at stuff about this; this means I’ll be labeled as a chauvinist in my writing as well.”

Disregarding the part where I think we made it pretty clear that the issue was not with individual works but in the frequency the wider media sphere, I find it fascinating how often guys, gals, and generally anyone who feels like a finger is being pointed at them for making the world worse when issues of social iniquity is brought up makes the issue about them. About how they’re being oppressed by someone else being oppressed and I hate that chivalry is dead and why can’t we just go back to the way things were??

 

Guys, you’ve really got to stop doing that. The changing dialogue re: representation is not the world “being more PC for the sake of being PC.” People aren’t oppressing your right to free speech by pointing out social iniquity.

And for God’s sake, stop using the term “politically correct” unironically! Set it on fire, burn it, kill it a lot! Damn.

So it’s very frustrating for me when I talk about the representation of women (as a group), you often find individual men who turn it around and make it about them, and how they’re oppressed by our oppression and how they hate being demonized because of blah blah blah… In this case the issue was about a work of fiction, what you create and what you enjoy, but obviously it’s not limited to that.

You’re right, there are societal pressures placed upon you, random guy, and you’re right, it’s not fair to you personally, but you are not a part of the marginalized group being discussed here, and a good way to make that rain of ragefire stop falling on you is to stop making it about you. False equivalency. Google it.

Did I just tangent? My bad. Sorry.

Now, all that said, and while I find the impulse to stamp your feet and complain about how terrible our PC world is when issues of social iniquity in media are brought up a childish one, it’s, well, it’s not completely unfair. No, hear me out: “I have a story in my head, but I want to be progressive and socially responsible. I want to challenge societal norms, not support them, but what if someone reads something in my story, something sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. that I didn’t intend, or even consider?”

My point is, I think that when people stamp their feet and whine and complain, they are afraid of the possibility of being labeled a bigot by creating or liking something that someone somewhere finds offensive; rather than funnelling brainthought towards this, they turn their brains off and rage against the system of “politically correct” offense-taking. I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.

I spend a lot of time critiquing mass marketed stuff, but it’s not all I do, I write screenplays and prose fiction as well. And I can’t tell you how many times I have gummed myself up thinking not about the story flowing organically, but what I want it to be based on the place I want it to fill within the cultural dialogue. I don’t want this character to fall into this cliche. I don’t want this character to represent this ideal. I don’t want this character to fall in love with this other one. So on into infinity.

Where does one find the balance between telling the story you want to tell, and being mindful of the space it occupies in the greater culture as well?

Well the truth is…. ! 

….I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out yet. No one has. I know, shock, terror! No one has a definite answer! 9/11 wasn’t an inside job! There is no New World Order!

Anyway.

The story you want to tell is sometimes at odds with what might be socially responsible. It’s easy for me as a critic to point out instances and trends that are questionable, signify something I don’t like or shit that’s just been run into the ground and needs to stop. But as a writer? Framing everything through a lens of “does this align with my political worldview?” is death to creativity! Death, I say!

Well, it can be death. It certainly has been for me in the past. It can also make you think harder about your themes, help you develop something more interesting. That train of thought can bring about depth or interesting turns you may not have anticipated.

I’ve spoken about this before at ye olde blog, but it is an issue that fascinates me because it’s one I often grapple with; where, if at all, do you reign in your creativity in the interest of what you perceive as social responsibility? Or hell, maybe you’re not even a writer, maybe you’re just a fan of something that other people deem- and I’m only going to use this word once because it is a noncommittal word has been abused to the point of meaningless and I am sick of it- “problematic”.

These things exist on a spectrum, but I think this is true for everything; there is not a single work out there, not one with any modicum of a substantial audience, in which someone is not going to find an element or a theme that is questionable. Even if it’s not agreed upon by most academics, social justice activists, men’s rights activists or whatever, someone is going to take offense at something in everything. What tends to make it a Thing is an issue of volume of that response, and the kind of conversation in the critical sphere that follows it.

I think Twilight is an interesting study in the socially implications vs. what the author wanted/what the reader enjoys dichotomy. Much ado has been made about the abusive, possessive relationship between Edward and Bella, the irresponsible way the romance is handled, how it has shined a light into the fact that this appeals to many, many women.

The first Twilight novel I find particularly fascinating because of how gratuitous it is. He saves her from a mysteriously careening-through-a-parking-lot car, and then saves her from rape! Why go with only one save-me cliche when you can have both!

On the other hand, there is also a tendency for people to defend elements like this by people who like the work as a whole . I get a lot of pushback on the things I discuss, things I’m openly a fan of (such as Lord of the Rings) from people who don’t like to hear criticism about things that they like. A common defense is usually rooted in history; that it needs to be patriarchal/racist/sexist/whatever in order to be true to the thing its homaging, or the story wouldn’t make sense. Here’s an article with some interesting thoughts on the subject:

But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise ourselves without systemic prejudice, nor can we connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots.

Point being, defense of regressive text and subtext is common for the people that like them; calling the text out is equivocal to calling them out. Often this is true; I’ve seen several people decry people who like Cloud Atlas as terrible, irredeemable human beings because they didn’t like a portion of the text. It’s one thing to call out an element that you deem iffy, but to reduce the entirety of a work, or the entirety of the identity of the person who likes that work, to one element that you find questionable and to write off the work (or the person who wrote/likes it) off as a wholly terrible person?

Well, that’s just intellectually dishonest. But it is an easy way to shut arguments down when you really, really feel strongly about something. Believe me, I know, I’ve employed that tactic before and it is terrible and if you use it you should stop. The entirety of the individual cannot be reduced to a few key elements from some work they like/created. That’s just stupid, but it is human nature to reduce people in this manner to such a level of simplicity.

Liked an episode of Tosh.0 = Rape apologist = TERRIBLE PERSON!!!

Ugh.

So it makes sense that some people tend to be a little bit defensive about deconstructing the sociopolitical elements of works they like, or may someday themselves create. People are often conflated with these works, either as fans or as creators. Reduced, even objectified.

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Now, I’m of the opinion that people flying into a defensive rage over something they like being deconstructed tells you more about the person who likes the work and their own personal issues than the work itself, but that does not mean it’s not a Thing. Critical thinking about things that we like doesn’t always come to us naturally. Therefore, in the sphere of the media we consume and the works we create, one must walk a balance between telling the story you want to tell, and not being… (shudder) “problematic.”

And now an anecdote from my personal experience!

I’ve been working on this one book I just finished the first draft of for, oh, years. I’m not sure how many, somewhere on the level of two or… five. It went through many iterations so we’ll say the current iteration has existed for about a year or so before I actually started chipping away at it. I’m a pretty fast writer but when I’m in the outline phase, I marinate like a motherfucker. I mean for a long time. So for most of this iteration, the main character was female, but when I started it in the current outline phase, the main character was male.

A part of me felt like, as much as I complain about representation, that I should write a story with a female main character just to add to the noise, so there would be one more female main out in the scifi world, for good or ill. But at the time, the character said to me, “sorry, I’m a dude.” And I think a lot of this came because I didn’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of all of the implications you make with female characters that don’t come with male ones. After all, if Twilight were gender flipped, and it was a girl doing all that rescuing, people wouldn’t bat an eye. Hell, Twilight would likely be widely praised for being so clever and subversive with its gender representation! (Also nowhere near as popular, but that’s another discussion.)

See the thing is, when it comes to Western media, “straight, white male” is the default, the tabula rasa. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of media that isn’t marketed specifically to women usually features a straight, white, male protagonist. If, say, I were to write a story where a young boy gets caught in a war between a bunch of dragons and the king of the Eviltrollian empire, and it’s a Hero’s Journey type thing where we find out that he’s the chosen one and the prophecy says he has to save the misunderstood dragonfolk from the Eviltrollian Emperor. But then change that to a female character, ho now! Now we’re making a statement! Now she runs the risk of being a Kate Beatonian Strong Female Characterâ„¢. Now you’ve got a whole new level of bullshit you’re going to have to deal with that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And if you want to throw race or sexuality into the mix while we’re at it? Hooboy.

So, yeah, I completely understand why some people shy away from writing female characters. We put an ungodly amount of pressure on them, we spend so much time making fun of tropes related to female representation that we see offenses and cliches everywhere in everything, to the detriment of representation in the first place. This lady character is too weak, this lady character is too passive, this lady character has no flaws, this lady character is unrealistically strong… pressure we rarely if ever place on their male counterparts.

So in my case why flip the gender? Well honestly, it was because the story didn’t really come together until I did, and the thing that started that snowball effect was this image:

I became fascinated with it, with those old archetypes of monsters abducting maidens, the dragon to which the princess is sacrificed, and how that manifested once science fiction became a popular commodity. Ladies got abducted in movie posters a lot. The female’s function in the sphere of popular and pulp sci-fi was so, well, this for so long, and I became kind of obsessed with this sort of imagery. There is some meaning there, something deep in our cultural consciousness, and it became something I wanted to play with.

TOBOR IS ROBOT SPELLED BACKWARDS.

Incidentally gender representation (it was progressive… for the 50’s) is part of the reason I like the original Day the Earth Stood Still (despite using imagery like this in the marketing).

Although I don’t remember Patricia Neal wearing a negligee… or being blonde.

I’m tangenting again. Anyway!

Switching the gender changed the character completely; I effectively spent a good four months “getting to know” her. They weren’t simply genderflipped versions of the same character; gender informs the character, and it was now a completely different person. Moreover just in playing with these tropes you are inadvertently making a statement about gender where before there was none. The gender issue now informs the narrative and the character, however subtly. But what that statement is? I can imagine many lines of thought from many different people. When you’re dealing with female characters rather than the default (male) you’re opening yourself up to whole new lines of criticism you wouldn’t have been before.

So what was my solution? I just didn’t think about it.

Yep, me, of all people. I just wrote the story with these modified themes in the back of my head, and I tried not to think about what all people would read into it. I mean sure, I think about it now. But while in the process of the initial story, I had to turn off the part of my brain that was concerned with what people would read into it in terms of gender politics, or it would have died on the vine. Or be really, really contrived.

As I’ve mentioned before, overthinking it has killed projects for me in the past.

To answer that original guy who tweeted at me about “waah people are going to call me a chauvinist no matter what I do,” is someone somewhere going to call you out on some kind of iffy subtext, in this case your handling of gender? Probably. But that you get so very angry at the mere idea that someone out there might take offense to the way you handle romance… maybe you shouldn’t be writing for an audience. Or at least, not now. Do amateur writing. Write a fanfic. Mature a little. Learn to cope with this stuff. Then go out into the world, and prepare to be blasted for something, because that’s what will happen. And you’re going to have to deal with it.  That’s part of the deal; content creators have to deal with criticism, good and bad.

With any and all media, information and ideals are exchanged and enforced. If you create something, be it a Hollywood blockbuster or a self-published romance novel, you have become a part of the cultural dialogue, and you are opening not only yourself up to criticism but also whatever the ideal people interpret from it, which may be not at all what you intended.

The important thing you have to remember (and I have to remind myself of this all the time) is that it’s not always about you. If someone is pissed at you for something you said, wrote or liked, it’s because there’s a precedent for it in the life of the person giving criticism. It’s all part of a dialogue. Everything is derivative, all media is interdependent, and it’s never completely about you.

Themes, ideas and what people will read into your art is always a balance, and I believe that balance is different for everyone. Everyone’s process is different, what they like is different, their goals are different.

The key is, it is natural for us to get defensive about the things we like, create, or may someday create, but it is important also to fight against that natural impulse to get defensive and to listen to the dialogue others point out. Perhaps you misrepresented a certain viewpoint, or omitted another. Perhaps these things didn’t even cross your mind, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. An important part of our dialogue is to be open to different mindsets; you might learn from this sort of criticism, and end up with a far better product than you might have before.

…unless of course that person is being a miserable, unreasonable cockasaur. Those people suck. You don’t need that.

 

 

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  • MichaelT

    I know this comment is coming way late, but I have some relevant thoughts I want to get out there, so here goes.

    As an aspiring screenwriter who happens to be a member of the aforementioned tabula rasa, I find myself more and more skittish over the idea of writing characters who are demographically different from me, mostly because of how it might be received by an audience.

    This has become increasingly true for female characters. For my whole life I’ve been writing stories with women as leads, co-leads, and key players. I’ve always been more comfortable and more satisfied with my writing when it focuses on women as opposed to men. It sounds counterintuitive, I know, but I also know that this is partially if not mostly a result of my romantic and sexual attraction to women; in short, I’m more attracted in every way to women than men, so I like writing about women more than men. And yet, I can’t help but feel that what I like may not be what’s for the best.

    Case in point: I am currently at work on the first draft of a screenplay for a story I’ve had in mind for awhile. The basic story itself is not especially groundbreaking (a straight-laced square falls for someone from the wrong side of the tracks), but the romantic leads happen to be lesbians. Moreover, there is a very sexy sex scene in the script…or at least, I think it’s sexy, but I’m a dude, so I have no real way of knowing if this scene is an “appropriate” depiction of lesbian sexytimes, if such a concept is even viable. I suppose I could sidestep the issue entirely by excising the scene, but the story as I’ve written it feels incomplete without it.

    And besides, were I to write this same scene in this same way with a straight couple (or perhaps even a gay male couple), the scope of the possibility of failure would probably end with the mere quality of the writing. But it seems, fairly or not, that a straight man writing a sex scene between two women will always be seen as nothing but a pornographic fantasy, and that the associated romantic elements will likewise run an inherent risk of being seen as unrealistic or misrepresentative, even in the context of a completely fictional story.

    And it’s not like I don’t care about these kinds of issues, or take them into account in my writing. I completely rewrote the ending to one of my stories after thinking about its depiction of gender roles. For another story, I chose to make almost all of the characters female possibly just for the hell of it, to “add to the noise” as Lindsay said. But I still don’t know if all that is really any better than what I might have had before, just different.

    I guess, in the end, I just end up in the same boat as Lindsay, doing my very best to balance writing a story that is coherent and engaging while also being progressive, or at least not regressive. I’ll keep working on my lesbian love story, trying to make it romantic and sexy and empathetic and funny and dramatic and good write well. I don’t know how much I’ve really conveyed with this comment, but I still felt like it was something I should get out in textual form. I feel a little better now.

    And great thanks to Lindsay for her writings and videos full of intelligence, humor, and positivity!