“When you love something, you can’t be happy all the time, can you? Like, that’s why you love it. It makes you feel all kinds of things, not just happy. It can hurt, it can make you fucking mad, but… it makes you feel something, you know?”
We’re nearly four months past the third season finale of Sleepy Hollow, and you still don’t get it.Let’s set aside Abbie Mills’ death a moment (don’t worry, we’ll get back to it) and get some things straight.
1) Network television shows are commercial products, created, produced, and distributed in a multi-billion dollar global media industry. Like other products, they involve creative labor, but they do not represent an “artist’s vision.” They represent a delivery mechanism for eyeballs to advertisers, and advertisers bought over $9.25 billion at the five biggest broadcast networks this year for the 2016-17 TV season.
Every time I see the defense of a creative choice on network TV couched as, “I trust the storytellers” or, worse, “the writers are telling the story they want to tell,” I cringe. That’s not true. They’re telling a story that makes business sense and it is a fundamentally collaborative enterprise. Budget, labor, product placement, international distribution, audience demographics, studio and network goals and notes, weird writers’ room dynamics, etc. all shape and constrain the “story” choices you see, good and bad. (You’ll notice that TV writers are quick to distance themselves from unpopular choices and say, “you don’t know what goes into these decisions!” but happy to claim creative agency when something is going well or is praised. Cognitive biases are so exhausting.)
Not that you can’t still enjoy TV as an entertaining or even meaningful commercial product, but this counter-criticism that rests on a bizarre fantasy of creative agency of writers is bogus all the way through. TV isn’t like novels; it isn’t even like indie films.
2) Still, even if it were the case that the writers’ room had a strong vision for the season and executed the story they wanted to tell, the story the Sleepy Hollow team told was terrible. It was bad television along every dimension.Again, ignoring Abbie’s death, what are some examples of the poor storytelling in S3? The way the timeline couldn’t be kept straight? Dropping the magical/supernatural system and Biblical backbone from the first two seasons? The wackadoo and inconsistent Sumerian/Greek/Norse/WhateverTheFuck mythology? The villains–Pandora and the Hidden One–who did nothing, acted without motivation, stood around a lot, and were boring to boot? What connection did they even have the Witnesses? All of the artifacts? The Betsy Ross storyline? The bizarre introduction and story for Daniel Reynolds, who flip-flopped between being a mere cipher and a nasty abuser? The “demon convention” that never happened? The boring monsters? The FBI conspiracy that wasn’t? The sudden romance between Joe Corbin and Jenny Mills? Ezra Mills and the stereotype fest of the absent Black father? All the things signposted that never came to fruition, or just sort of petered out, like saving the Archives?
Plots holes, inconsistencies, doubling-back, missing character motivations, random pick-ups and drops, major misfires in dramatic irony and the use of foreshadowing, an unsure tone, etc. dogged the season.
And it wasn’t even “crazy.” It wasn’t even fun. It was a slog.
If you want to defend that “vision,” great. More power to you. But don’t pretend it was competent, let alone good, and understand you’re apologizing for poor storytelling and creative work. You’re letting the studio, the network, the producers, and the writers off the hook for a truly subpar product.
3) White male writers, producers, and executives do not need the support or protection of women, especially women of color. White men are statistically overrepresented in Hollywood, and the White male experience dominates TV and film production. Here are some voices from the field:
“In general, men can and frequently do
fail up, and women can and frequently do succeed down — and you’re just
aware of the fact that as a girl, you can’t screw up,” says Nina
Jacobson [The People Vs. O.J. Simpson].
They say write what you know. But if what you know is not the
experience of a middle-aged white male, good luck getting a greenlight.
Yes, even in a 400-plus-series universe that has made considerably
bigger strides than the film world, that white-guy voice remains the
loudest and most often heard. “If I waited to write only for a Persian
lesbian, I’d still be waiting,” notes Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, 42. “But I can write for straight white men because those are the jobs.”
White men employed at network TV series are not marginalized, are not disempowered, do not need advocates in fandom or in Hollywood. Neither do the stories–the voices, the experiences, the biases, the assumptions–of White men need advocates in fandom or in Hollywood.
4) The Sleepy Hollow fandom has always been fractured, and it’s always been full of racists. People who are flagrant racists, of course, have been all over the fandom, but the racism presents mostly as folks biased toward the story of Ichabod Crane because he represents a familiar norm. (See above: the straight White man.) Here’s the thing: with the death of Abbie Mills, the racists in the fandom “won”–including the unconscious racists, the one who would swear up and down they don’t harbor biases against Black Americans.
You know why you think there are more stories to tell? Because you think, and you’ve thought all along, that Sleepy Hollow is a White man’s story.
If you think, or thought, that it was Abbie Mills’ story or the story of Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane, you wouldn’t be saying there were more stories to tell. Because there aren’t. Abbie is dead.
If you find appealing the show’s take on sanitized Revolutionary “twistory” or the adaptation of the Washington Irving story, and consider the characters secondary, you’re still guilty of racial (and gendered) bias because those are White stories. Coding your bias doesn’t eliminate it.
Your preferences aren’t neutral, my friend.
The eruption of the fandom at the end of the third season (and throughout seasons two and three) wasn’t just a response to the TV series itself, but to the White-dominant part of the fandom that the show was catering to, the part of the fandom that lectured the anti-racist and anti-sexist parts of the fandom and called those who criticized the show “haters,” that supported the writers and producers and Fox saying, “wait and see,” that denied Abbie’s full humanity, that thought it was “refreshing” the Black female lead wasn’t cast in a romantic light (especially with her White male partner), that apologized and continued to apologize for the content on the show that was insensitive and even harmful to many folks, that enjoyed and even stole fan work from the more progressive parts of the fandom, and, finally, presented itself as the voice of fans in primary interactions with writers, producers, and actors.
(The show itself did much the same thing. One minute, it’s ship-baiting Ichabbie, the next minute, an executive producer was calling critical fans “haters.”)
We were alternately silenced, dismissed, mocked, and exploited.
Then can you imagine how awful it is to add hurt and betrayal to that mix?
And, in the end, erasure?
The third season of Sleepy Hollow wasn’t just another lesson in whose stories get told, whose stories get promoted, whose voices matter in entertainment media; it was also a lesson in how a TV series can align itself with dominant-group fans over marginalized fans and empower the prior through canon, effectively shucking the latter. If you haven’t been a part of the fandom, you don’t understand what that means: folks weren’t, and aren’t, just reacting to story choices, but to structures of power–in fandom, in entertainment media, in the world.
5) The way Abbie’s death was written, the events leading up to it, and the direction given for season four were textbook misogynoir. The CEO of Fox defended the decision. The creators of the show defended it. Clifton Campbell defended it, an army of White TV writers who don’t work on the show defended it, the Sleepy Hollow writers defended it, viewers across multiple platforms defended it, and a segment of the active fandom defended it.
All of those defenses were defenses of racism.
And Abbie’s death wasn’t the only instance of a) racism or b) misogyny on the series. It wasn’t a fluke.
So, when you offer your support to the writers, producers, and network executives who gave those defenses, when you offer your support to fans who gave those defenses, you are throwing your weight behind some ugly, oppressive worldviews against others that are more progressive and liberatory. You’re not keeping the peace; you’re picking a side.
And that side? It’s the one where misogynoir is okay: it’s defensible and excusable.
6) Telling folks to engage in “intelligent” debate or complimenting interlocutors you like in a patronizing tone (”this is well-argued”) is tone-policing. You don’t get to set the terms of the debate, or the rules for what deserves hearing. Tone-policing is a silencing tactic that attempts to employ a mythical “moral high ground” in order to delegitimize and shut down criticism.
Focusing on tone derails and deflects. For example, if I Tweet, “That’s fucking racist!” and you reply with “You’re a mean troll!” you’re shifting the discussion away from racism and onto the tone or manner of my engagement with you. You’ve also painted yourself as a victim of bad behavior, rather than a purveyor of racist nonsense. Our conversation is then about whether or not I’m a troll rather than whether or not you’re a racist. So, not only is tone-policing silencing, it is also blame-shifting.
This is what happened every time the word “hater” was used to describe fans critical of the direction of Sleepy Hollow, specifically the treatment of Abbie Mills. Critical fans were “haters,” and writers and producers and the “right” fans (those who weren’t critical) had to be protected from the “haters,” which made the critical fans more critical, and thus proved they were “haters.”
So the cycle continues. Exhausting.
Personally, I don’t tolerate being mocked, exploited, baited, and misled, being thought stupid and forgiving, or being purposefully antagonized by a TV series and its production team. That’s the attitude towards fans your defenses are defending, and it is deeply disrespectful. Beyond that, those of you who seek to defend the Sleepy Hollow production team and Fox are also defending poor storytelling, centering White male writers, producers, stories, and viewers, disposable and interchangeable PoC characters (even a lead role), the use of fan labor to promote the show, and shutting down critical discourse.
This is why former fans of Sleepy Hollow get incensed when you pick up your shield in defense of the show, and, in public forums like Twitter, Facebook, or comment sections on news articles, in open letters and comments that writers and producers read, like, and distribute, demonstrate a commitment to a set of practices and values that have been, and continue to be, so toxic. It’s not a neutral action. It’s embedded in an ugly reality, in fan and media and business contexts, in a culture, in a discourse, in a chain of events that you cannot blissfully eliminate because it’s inconvenient to you wanting to look at Tom Mison’s face.
Much more can be said, and has been said, over and over, about Sleepy Hollow’s faults and the state of the fandom. I invite and encourage folks to educate themselves about this larger context, far beyond what’s presented here, if you think you want to engage productively with a fandom burned, a fandom scorned, a fandom erased.
Because, bottom line, if you apologize for the direction of this series and invite a response, that response isn’t going to be pretty. And there are good reasons for it.