What to do when your show doesn’t love you back
I’m just going to give you a simple example that I think we can all pretty much understand, okay?
You love something. We’ll say, for instance, a television show. The point is, you really love it. You’re a fan. You buy the merchandise and wear the t-shirts and watch regularly, because it’s well-written and wonderful and, again, you love it. It means something to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But then, you know, there are these moments where you just feel uncomfortable with the whole thing. Like, certain characters are written in really shallow, two-dimensional ways, like the writers just don’t know what else to do with them. Or it seems like nobody takes them seriously, or that other people feel the need to assert how powerless/useless/irrational/etc. compared to the stronger/smarter/more useful protagonist. These characters are just shells of people that need to be propped up, and it bugs you — like, really bugs you. You love this thing so much, and it’s great except for that part where it just makes you feel bad, because the people being put down happen to look like you.
Because you’re a person of color, or you’re a woman, or you’re queer, or you’re trans*, or you’re Islamic, or you’re anything that isn’t Straight, White and Male.
It’s right there in your face and you just feel frustrated, because it seems systemic, right? Like, how could so much bad, lazy, offensive writing go unchecked for so long? How could so many negative stereotypes be perpetuated without anybody giving a crap? How is that okay? Weren’t we supposed to be passed this? Well, we’re not. Apparently TV can boost the self-esteem of white boys, but negatively impact that of, you know, everybody else. Is that surprising? If you fall into the Everybody Else category, not really. It’s what we deal with every day, in all forms of media representation. If you’re going to navigate popular media, you have to become an informed consumer, and be aware of what’s around you.
As a fan (and even more so as a writer), it’s my job to be aware of problematic storytelling and portrayals, and put it into context. I have to weigh the pros of my favorite TV, movie, video game, comic or book series, versus the cons of how characters and situations are being represented — or in some cases, under-represented, or not represented at all. Ultimately, the decision we all have to make as consumers is how to deal with it, and when to call it quits. When is something so problematic, so uncomfortable, so downright infuriating that you can’t, in good conscience, support it?
That’s the question that has me reconsidering my relationship with the current iteration of Doctor Who.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Doctor Who. I have a huge remote controlled Dalek that can attest to that love. From Nine to Eleven, the last few years have been filled with hours of entertainment and wonder: Watching the Doctor and his companions traipse about time and space, getting into trouble and having warm fuzzy moments. I loved Rose and Mickey, Martha and Jack, Donna and Amy and Rory, and yes, even River. Hell, I loved Canton the most, and am still trying to start internet petitions to make him a full-time companion. (Don’t even get me started.) It’s wonderful, but, at the end of the day, I still have issues with it.
If you’re familiar with the show and fandom, you’re probably well-aware of current showrunner Steven Moffat. I bet you’re also familiar with the debates going on all over the internet about Moffat’s less-than-stellar portrayal of women, or that he has a dubious track-record with LGBT representation (Note: It’s the only comprehensive list I found, even if the title is, uh, slanted), or that he can’t handle criticism. Personally, I am a big fan of his work, not just on Doctor Who but on Sherlock as well. I think his storylines are clever and engaging (some more than others, of course), and I really do enjoy the work he produces. However, after reading numerous interviews and Twitter tirades, it gets a little hard to support the work of a guy who, you know, has me face-palming myself week after week. Because, hey, I do fall into two of those categories we’re arguing about here, and sometimes it can be uncomfortable.
Dumbing down Irene Adler, from brilliant and capable to typical damsel? The so-witty quips and one-offs about sexual orientation that are meant to pass as fair representation? Hollowing out River Song, from a potentially good and well-rounded character into an obsessive and inconsistent cardboard cut-out? Basically building Amy up and tearing her down again every five minutes, as the girl who waited, or the girl who isn’t good enough for poor poor Rory, or turning her into a walking incubator just to take her child away and never show her actually dealing with it? The numerous offhand remarks about female characters being crazy or deranged because, haha, they have lady-parts and isn’t that a funny observation? I got to say: I’m disappointed. And I’m disappointed that I’m so disappointed, because I do love these shows so much.
(It bears mentioning that Steven Moffat has recently left Twitter. Some fans theorize he was “bullied” off of it by other fans, while others seem to feel he just overreacted to criticism, but apparently he just left it because it was distracting? Who knows. He’s a grown man and a professional writer, in any case, and can do whatever he wants to with his Twitter.)
So, how do you fight back against negative media? Well, blog about it, for starters. Talk to other fans. Talk to The Powers That Be if you ever have the opportunity. If nobody listens, stop watching, and stop giving them your money and time. Stop rewarding writers for bad behavior, and then find something better. I find one of the best (and least brain-breaking) ways to deal with problematic series is to find something more positive and well-rounded, and give that your support instead. For me, one of those shows is Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.
The weird and wonderful brainchild of Pendleton Ward, Adventure Time has this magical way of telling amazing, touching, and sometimes incredibly positive stories under the guise of a silly children’s show. This is something I’ve talked about at length here, from fair representation of women,
Sometimes adventurers and princes can even fall in love, sure. Cue flowers and first dates, and the cute romantic musical segment about true love and junk. But do you know what lesson was waiting for Fionna at the heart of it? You don’t need a relationship to validate you, because you’re fine by yourself. You don’t need a prince to make you feel special, because you’re already special. Americans live in a culture where girls are fed lines from books and magazines, and taglines from movies and on the fronts of glittery t-shirts, about needing boys’ attention twenty-four-seven in order to feel good about themselves. (We’re all familiar with Twilight, yes? Okay, just checking.) So I don’t know about you, but I think telling girls they’re fine the way they are is a damn good message to have on a kid’s show.
Okay, so, Finn loves Princess Bubblegum. When she was de-aged back to a thirteen year old, they had a brief but sweet little romantic sojourn, and it was all rather nice. Now PB is back to her eighteen year old self, and therefore over Finn. Even so, Finn is friends with both PB and Marceline, who PB has always seemed to dislike. Marceline’s feelings for PB have always been rather antagonistic, but it’s been played off as a rivalry. (PB is an uptight princess who loves science, Marceline is, well, the hipster queen of the underworld and such. These things just happen.) Now a lot of fans suspect that the context of PB and Marceline’s relationship is much more complicated than it first appeared. Yes, they’re former friends who now have a rocky association, drawn together again because of Finn, but might it be more?
to gender equality,
Sure, gender-swapping turns up in film and fiction, but usually as the butt of a joke or as the plot of a formulaic body-swap comedy. It’s not taken very seriously in mainstream popular culture, where we still argue about gender roles and cliches, over-muscled male heroes and half-naked women trying to fight crime in lingerie. Even for it, this children’s show is the first that I’ve seen in a long time to throw the rule book out the window and have some fun with their characters. It may not be deep or particularly thought-provoking, but it is refreshing. A girl adventurer with a silly hat, her cat Cake, a pervy ice queen and a prince in need of saving. Oh, and some hipster vampires and anthropomorphic candy-people. It’s Adventure Time, but in a new light. What’s not to love?
Remember Princess Cookie? Remember all he wanted was to be a princess so he could bring joy to the children of the orphanage? Remember how I cried ugly tears? Yeah, okay, so now you see how serious this is. Because, honestly, I can go on for days about this show, but I chose to spare you.
As consumers of media, the best way to combat bad writing is to show how positive media can thrive. Show TPTB that they can make a buck off something with a diverse cast and a decent message just as easily as something exploitative or negative. I’m not saying there’s no hope for shows like Doctor Who, or that you need to burn all your DVDs and t-shirts. (I am very proud of that remote controlled Dalek, by the way; I’ve chased many cats with it.) Just be aware that there are problems in your media, and be prepared to confront them.
And sometimes, just be prepared to walk away, for your own sake, and find something better to spend your time and money on. You’re the consumers here, guys. Make it count.
(Disclaimer: The first person to comment with “If you don’t like it, stop watching!” gets thrown out the airlock for missing the point entirely.)