A Tale of Two Writers: Or How to Apologize Properly

Two writers, working on the same show, make a mistake. The decision is made to kill off the lesbian love interest of the main character. This in and of itself is not a problem, the world is a post-apocalyptic society where literally a crap ton of characters have died. However, they decide to do it after a love scene, one of the most tired tropes in media.

This is where their paths diverge. One of our writers is Jason Rothenburg, or JRoth, or JRot as he is known depending on how much you like him, and the other is Javier Grillo-Marxuach. Jason, the showrunner of CW’s series The 100, which heinously killed off a lesbian main character in Episode 307, has done an abysmal job of apologizing for the hurt and pain inflicted on the LGBT+ community, whereas Javier, aside from the very beginning of the backlash where he tweeted some things defending himself and the writer of the episode in question, has done an amazing job of taking stock of why the narrative choices were so hurtful, and why LGBT+ viewers are so affected by it and are choosing to no longer watch.

To begin this, we have to have a little bit of understanding of what happened with the marketing of the show. As many people know, LGBT women have a horrible history of actually getting a happy ending in television. Autostraddle actually has an article discussing all 148 LGBT women killed in television history. When that’s your background, you start to get wary of any media that has openly lesbian or bisexual woman, especially in a world like The 100’s. And they voiced that, and this is where it gets hairy. Writers on the show, not just JRot, actively sought out this community to get more viewers and to get those that were trusted in the community to believe that they were going to take care of them, and that they weren’t going to hurt them. One of the writers actually went on a Lesbians Only forum to reassure them, at one point saying “If you can’t trust us by now you need counseling.” So they believed them. This was going to be different. Some people still voiced concerns based on shooting schedules and the fact that Alycia Debnam-Carey, the actress who portrayed Lexa, was a series regular on AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead”. Jason responded to those concerns by saying that they were reading too much and that they were being silly. He even invited fans to the filming of the finale to try to reassure them that all was well.

Well, all was not well. Lexa was killed off and the backlash was immediate, it was fierce, and it was angry. It was large enough that the BBC wrote a freaking article on it. Jason’s twitter follower count went down faster than a mafia member turned informant. His reaction was to call the fans bullies for calling him out on his bullshit. Javier initially tweeted out a defense of his writing, but eventually came to understand why it was so harmful, and what he had done.

Jason’s actions in the weeks since episode 307 have been classic “I did nothing wrong, why are you guys being such bullies?” He’s complained about losing twitter followers, he defended his actions in interviews before someone with an inkling of PR spin experience got a hold of him. Then he posted an “apology” on Medium that some in the industry took at face value (looking at you with disappointment The Mary Sue) when it was nothing but “please don’t be mean to me at WonderCon”. His “apology” (which I won’t link to because I refuse to promote anything he’s done related to this) does nothing to discuss the baiting of LGBT+ viewers, nor actually apologizes for using the tired and harmful “Bury Your Gays” trope. It’s “I’m sorry you felt hurt” instead of “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

On the other hand, our friend Javier Grillo-Marxuach has been a true champion in regards to his apologies. Almost his entire Tumblr has been him taken questions from fans that have been hurting and wanting an explanation or given them an explanation as to why it went down. One of his best posts is here and it shows how much he has learned, but really, almost every single one of his posts recently has been about the shitstorm and how he is sorry about how it went down. Additionally, he follows my rules for apologies that I laid out back in “Why Writers Need to be Careful with Minority Chacters”, in that he not only recognizes what he did wrong, but also admits to it, and has promised to do better. Now, he can’t do that on The 100 because he’s no longer a part of the show, but he is the man responsible for bringing Xena Warrior Princess back to the small screen and has promised to do better by the fans. Of course time will tell if he a) is allowed to do that as he’s still writing the script, and b) if he actually does so. I personally have faith in him to actually have changed, but if you don’t, that’s your prerogative.

To conclude, if you do mess up as a writer, or heck, as a person, follow Mr. Grilo-Marxuach’s example, and not JRot’s. Listen to what the people you hurt are saying, and adjust your actions to keep from hurting them again. Don’t make it about you and your feelings, because honestly? Your feelings aren’t the most important at that moment.

Advertisements

Shocking != Well Written

“…I have little regard for an art that deliberately aims to shock because it is unable to convince.” – Albert Camus

So, to continue on our current path of “Nick rants about the stupid things writers do.” today we’re going to talk about the seeming need for writers to make “shocking” decisions about what to do with their characters. Because here’s the thing, it’s not that shocking anymore. Or, it’s shocking because all indications were that they were¬† going to go in a totally different direction and we’re shocked because it’s nonsensical based on what we were led to believe.

I got the quote that started this from an article written at Fandom Following by the wonderful Gretchen Ellis. (Follow her on Tumblr here. Seriously, go follow her, she’s amazing.) There she’s mainly talking about Game of Thrones, but there’s a larger point that she’s making and that I’m making here. Writers, especially on television, think that they need to produce these shocking swerves in plot and characters in order to keep their viewers interested. Which is fine, I like a good twist as much as the next person, but it needs to a) not be telegraphed, and b) not be so poorly written that it’s impossible to see coming.

What’s a shocking twist that’s done well in the movies at least? Well, first off spoiler alert for Fight Club, a movie that came out in 1999, but yes, Fight Club’s reveal that Tyler Durden isn’t real is a well done twist that when you go back on subsequent viewings you can see where it was being set up. Mind you I’ve only seen it once, but it’s not hard to look back on my memories of watching it and see where they set it up. Also, there’s plenty of articles online that a quick google search will find and they will inform you of the foreshadowing that took place throughout the movie. And, the best part of this twist is that it doesn’t come entirely out of left field at the cost of the plot or past characterization.

Now, what is a “shocking” twist that comes at the expense of previous characterization and decent plotting? Pretty much any stereotypical death in a television show. Lesbian shot by accident? Shocking only in that it still happens. Black guy killed off? Ho hum. Woman is murdered to further a man’s pain. Tell me more, I’ve never seen anything like it. Anything David Benioff and David Weiss do on Game of Thrones? Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting that, but that’s because your previous writing led me to believe that you were going in an entirely different direction. Usually, these shocking moments come from the fact that the audience is stunned that the writers actually went ahead and used the damn trope.

Look, I get it, writers like to keep their consumers on their toes. But there’s a good way and a bad way to go about it. You want to truly be shocking? How about you reverse or just refuse to even use some of these tropes? That will truly be shocking to your viewers and readers. Lesbian survives the series and has a happy ending? Hell, have adequate LGBT+ representation and you’ll have the LGBT+ community beating a path to whatever network will be showing your next show. Well written racial minorities that are fully fleshed characters rather than moronic 50’s stereotypes? You will be drowning in advertising money, literally drowning. I know you guys can do it, but maybe I have too much faith in your abilities.

So clearly I didn’t make this clear enough two weeks ago

*SPOLER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT FOR THE WALKING DEAD! SPOILER ALERT FOR THE WALKING DEAD EP 6×14!*

 

Ok The Walking Dead, I get it, I don’t watch your show, but I understand what kind of world you’re writing in, no one gets a happy ending, it’s the end of the world, humanity sucks, same old same old post-apocalyptic universe. Yes, people die in the Zombie Apocalypse, and yes lesbians shouldn’t be protected in such a universe, but as I mentioned back here you need to BE CAREFUL WITH HOW AND WHEN YOU KILL THEM OFF! Mind you, I haven’t watched the episode in question, but what I’ve read you done goofed. Joanna Robinson, writing for Variety here, discusses why Denise’s death is so problematic.

First! Denise going out on a supply run. Why is this a problem? Because apparently just two episodes ago, she made a big point about not going on a supply run because she’s the only doctor around. That’s a good point right there, you shouldn’t send your only doctor on a supply run in a world like TWD’s. People have a tendency to drop dead in such a world. Maybe you should make sure that your only doctor is as protected as possible, maybe left in the compound taking care of injured people. But what would I know about what doctors do, I have a liberal arts degree. So what does she do this episode? Goes on a supply run. What does she get for her troubles? An arrow in the eye.

Second, on our list of “Reasons why this is jacked up.” Writers, once again, have killed off a lesbian when she was starting to get a moment of happiness. She was about to admit her love for her girlfriend. While this isn’t nearly as egregious as Lexa’s death on The 100 two weeks ago or Tara’s death on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (14 years ago! Writers, can we not improve?) it’s still a bad look.

Thirdly, I can hear some comic readers piping up from the back “Denise dies in the comics!” Yeah well, she dies differently in the comics first off, and second, the person who does die in this way in the comics is a straight white male. Whoops, another bad look there TWD.

Look, these kinds of things are easy to stop, whether it’s increasing the diversity of the writer’s room or, I don’t know, actually talking to and listening to those that will be most affected by this bullcrap when you pull it. This is getting frustrated, I believe the count for just the last three weeks is three lesbian characters killed. One per week and yet they account for some of the smallest percentage of primetime television characters. Straight White Male Writers, why is it the lesbians that have to die and in often the same context? You can do so much better. We can do so much better. Hopefully our friendly Orca from last week can help you.

I came out of the ocean because you need to stop

Why Writers Need to be Careful with Minority Characters

Before we get into the meat of this post, there’s some things we need to define. First, what do we mean by “minority” characters. For the purposes of this post minority characters are those that are either not straight, not white, not male, have a mental illness, have a physical disability, or some combination thereof. Second, I, as the writer of this piece, need to acknowledge that I fall into approximately none of those areas and have had some privileges living as a straight white man living with fairly good health. Coming from a place of privilege such as that can often lead to someone thinking that their experiences are everyone’s default and that we can speak for everyone on every subject. That’s wrong. When we assume our experiences are default, we can wind up either hindering, or actively harming communities that we are trying to portray and represent in our writing, and we become immune to hearing criticism from those communities as well.

When writing stories, be they for the movies, books, or television shows, writers have many decisions to make. “What’s the ratio of women to men going to be?” “Am I going to include LGBT+ characters?” “What about racial minorities?” “Are any of the characters going to have a disability, mental or physical?” Now, when it comes to movies and television those decisions aren’t solely up to the writer. Producers, directors, show runners, and the money people can and often do make changes to the best planned story lines. But for right now we will just talk about TV, where the showrunner is the sole person in charge of answering those questions. They may have a staff room full of writers working on various scripts and the like, and the overall plot, but ultimately it’s up to the showrunner to make the final decision of where the story is going. The problem that comes from this though, is that most showrunners are straight, white, and male.

The fact that most showrunners are Straight White Male Writers (SWMW) is not a problem in and of itself. The problem becomes when these SWMW fall back onto lazy tropes in their writing, most often at the expense of characters that belong to marginalized groups. Often times what happens with these characters is that SWMW will fall back to either racist, sexist, or homophobic stereotypes and tropes associated with them, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes only because that’s how they know how to write people of color or gay people or transgender people or someone with a mental illness. This especially becomes a problem when they claim to be progressive and that they’re staunch allies of the community that’s being represented. This usually leads to these groups creating large fandoms, especially in this day of social media, that give exposure and hype that the creators use to get additional seasons from their networks.

And this is where the problems start. These communities that spring up around can at times be insane, and for good reason. They finally get characters that they can relate to, and they devour everything they can about them. Interviews, fan fiction, gif sets and photo sets from the show, and official social media accounts. Often times though, this comes crashing down when the honeymoon phase ends and either long running issues that fans hadn’t taken notice of start to become a lot more prominent or are brought to their attention, or a truly shocking incident happens that snaps fans out of their revelry and reminds them all of the other instances of that trope and why they always get hurt. Or, it could be a combination of both, often times it’s the shock of one scene that causes the long standing issues to actually come up to the surface.

A good example of long running issues is what usually happens with racial minorities on television shows. Plenty of times there are no people of color on a cast, or the writers fall onto tired stereotypes of their race. Black men are tough and intimidating. Any lady from south of the U.S.-Mexican border is a fiery, sassy, and sexually liberated or the maid. All Asians are super nerds that can hack into any computer system known to man. This doesn’t mean that those characters can have certain aspects of that used in their characterization, what it does mean is that those traits can’t be their only characterization. Using tired tropes like that ultimately is damaging to minorities because it pushes stereotypes that lead to real life consequences for them.

This now brings us to one of the stupidest, laziest, most tired tropes in all of Televison. Bury Your Gays. (Warning, the page image is very gory.) Especially on television, a gay character, often a woman, will be killed off to introduce angst in their partner or allow for a different relationship to go forward. Writers and showrunners seem to use it to be “shocking” or “edgy” with their characters, and pat themselves on the back for doing so. The problem is that just because something is shocking that doesn’t mean it’s well written. The fact remains that it would actually be more shocking if the gay couple were to make it through the whole series and have a happy ending! Members of the LGBT+ community, especially women, either never see themselves on television, or if they do it’s as angst and for the purpose of temporary wish fulfillment on the part of the writers.

Now, straw man I have conveniently erected for the sole purpose of answering your question, I can hear you saying “But Nick, does that mean you should never kill a gay character, or never have an Asian hacker?” No, what it means is that you need to be careful with how you write these characters. Recently, a television show callously killed off the only openly lesbian character, and how did they do it? Accidental bullet meant for someone else because they loved that someone, immediately after they had a sex scene that had been hyped up all season by both the fans and the writers. You know what one of the most common instances of burying your gays is? Shooting the lesbian with an accidental bullet immediately following her having a sex scene after a bunch of build up. The reaction was swift and predictable, especially considering the long history of the trope.

Again, I can hear you convenient straw man, “Why should it matter? It’s just a fictional character, it doesn’t matter that much.” First off, to paraphrase noted philosopher Louis C.K. “When someone tells you they’re hurting, you don’t get to decide that they’re not.” Members of the LGBT+ community are noted in many studies to have higher rates of suicide, as well as higher rates of mental illness. When you kill off a character in such a stupid way it just reinforces the belief in many of your fans that all that characters like them are good for is being killed off for shock value. It hurts them, they get to see all their straight friends get healthy relationships that last, or characters that are killed off in a meaningful way, whereas they get killed by an accidental bullet to the stomach meant for another character.

It’s similar when it comes to racial minorities. They don’t get to see themselves as full fledged characters often, and when they do they’re the ones killed off instead of the (typically) white main characters. (See,¬†Black Dude Dies First) Again, similar to the LGBT+ community, when you do that all it does is tell them that their lives aren’t meaningful and that all they’re good for is being a stereotypical side character, or dying first, and that’s not okay. It ultimately comes down to respecting the historical and cultural contexts that surround your show.

This now brings us to my second point, and the second problem that comes from SWMW writing these types of storylines is when they try to defend themselves. Often times, you’ll see the showrunner after such an incident trying to justify his use of the trope with statements similar to “They weren’t an x character, they were a full character that happened to be x.” And that’s well and good, if the character had been treated with respect. When you’re not a member of the group, it is very hard to understand why they get upset about damaging tropes. That misunderstanding usually comes from just looking at your show in a vacuum and assuming that nothing else informs the viewing experience, when in reality every other TV show, movie, and book all inform the viewers’ experience. That is why I have two rules for SWMW.

Rule Number One: If you are writing characters that are members of minorities in the real world, you cannot make the story about them being a member of that minority. Let them write their own stories about being a black woman in America, or gay, or trans, or mentally ill, or disabled. Do not write those stories because those are not yours to tell.

Rule Number Two: When writing minority characters, make sure you treat them with the respect they deserve. Do not use tropes that have a history behind them that are harmful to members of the community.

And finally, what happens when you mess up? First, listen to what the criticism is. Second, apologize and promise to do better. Third, and this is related to number two, don’t act like your crap don’t stink and keep digging yourself into a hole. Fourth, and finally, do better! Actually improve on how you write these types of characters in the future.

In short, Straight White Male Writers, if you feel the need to write off one of your minority characters and decide to do it in the most harmful and lazy way imaginable, here’s a friendly Orca to help you.

I came out of the ocean because you need to stop