Feminist show with promising storylines hijacked by straight white men
Monday February 20, 2017
A television series known for its overtly feminist themes was commandeered last night by a white heterosexist writing team. The program had shown initial signs of inclusivity, developing a queer relationship and adding two characters of color to the series last fall. Since then, the lead female protagonist has been dogged by hackneyed romantic tropes, with several compelling storylines derailed to devote additional scenes to the abusive white men vying for her affections.
Key narrative opportunities for the three black characters this season were wasted, as the woman has been written off the show entirely and the remaining two men are being gradually sidelined. Character development for the widely unpopular white male romantic lead continues to dominate screen time. Meanwhile, queer women remain grateful for scraps of visibility.
Four decades of feminism later I am reading the comedian Angela Barnes’ blog. “I am ugly, and I am proud,” she writes. She goes on to say: “The fact is I don’t see people in magazines who look like me. I don’t see people like me playing the romantic lead or having a romantic life.”
At the top of the blog is a picture of Barnes. And the thing is, she isn’t ugly. Neither is she beautiful. She’s normal looking. She’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, just like lots of women you see every day in real life.
It made me think of this year’s Wimbledon ladies’ final between Sabine Lisicki and Marion Bartoli. When Bartoli won, the BBC commentator John Inverdale infamously said, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker, you’re never going to be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight’?”
The first thing I thought was: this woman has just won a tennis tournament! And she’s being judged on her looks! And then I thought: but Bartoli is attractive. Sure, she’s not at the very highest point on the scale – she doesn’t look like a top model. But she’s pretty. And, in any case, why should it matter? She’s a top athlete. Surely that’s what counts.
A sports commentator refers to a pretty woman as “not a looker”. A normal-looking woman thinks she’s ugly. Why?
Because, even though the world is full of normal and pretty women, the world we see – the world of television, films, magazines and websites – is full of women who are top-of-the-scale beauties.
And right now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the situation is more extreme than ever. If you’re a woman, a huge proportion of your role models are beautiful. So if you’re normal looking, you feel ugly. And if you’re merely pretty, men feel free to comment on how un-beautiful you are.
As a normal-looking man, I find myself in a completely different position. Being normal makes me feel, well, normal. Absolutely fine. As if the way I look is not an issue. That’s because it’s not an issue.
As a normal-looking man, I’m in good company. Sure, some male actors and celebrities are very good looking. Brad Pitt. George Clooney. Russell Brand.
But many of Hollywood’s leading men, like me, look like the sort of blokes you see every day, in real life. Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Bruce Willis, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Martin Freeman, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Brendan Fraser… In fact, you might almost say that most leading men are normal-looking blokes.
It’s true of television, too. Bryan Cranston, who plays the lead in Breaking Bad – he’s a normal. James Gandolfini – he was a normal. And chubby too. Kevin Whately – normal. Ben Miller – normal. TV cops all look normal. Ray Winstone looks normal. Tim Roth looks normal. They portray people who are interesting for what they do, not what they look like.
Oh, and think of sitcoms. The Big Bang Theory features four normal-looking blokes and a stunningly beautiful woman. New Girl is about two normal blokes, a guy who’s quite good looking, and two women who are… yes, strikingly beautiful.
When I watch the news, on whatever channel, it’s presented by the classic partnership of an ordinary-looking guy and a gorgeous woman. After the news, I watch the weather. Male weather presenters look like standard males. Female weather presenters look like models.
Footballers look normal. Footballers’ wives and girlfriends look stunning. Daytime television presenters: men look like Phillip Schofield; women look like Holly Willoughby.
A typical Saturday-night judges’ panel consists of two types of people – middle-aged blokes and young, stunning women. Sometimes a normal-looking or ageing woman slips through the net – but then, like Arlene Phillips, her days are soon numbered.
Countdown had an attractive woman and an ageing bloke; when the attractive woman began to show signs of ageing, she was axed – replaced by a woman who was, of course, strikingly beautiful.
Who presents historical documentaries? Guys like David Starkey. Normals. And what happened when a normal-looking woman, Mary Beard, presented a series about the ancient world? She was mocked for not being attractive enough.
In a recent interview Dustin Hoffman, another normal, made a revealing comment. Remember when he dressed up as a woman in Tootsie? “I went home and started crying,” he said. Why?
“Because I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character. Because she doesn’t fulfil physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out… I have been brainwashed.”
-that stage kiss WAS NOT SCRIPTED WTF
- I’m the stage manager and you’re the cocky lead who won’t SHUT UP backstage PEOPLE CAN HEAR YOU
-for closing night bets you slipped me tongue during our stage kiss what the fuck do I do
-we’re not playing the romantic leads but everyone ships our characters and they keep making us take pictures together in costume (I kind of love it)
-we’re in the chorus together and you never know what the notes are so you have to stand impossibly close to me to listen and it just makes me mess up and I SWEAR TO GOD ARE YOU DOING THAT ON PURPOSE
-everyone in the show has to wear makeup I swear I will wrestle you into this chair if I have to
-oh my god you’re doing my makeup and you’re so close and I can’t breathe
-I may have learned your romantic lead’s part and then attempted to take them out the night of the show
-we made out in the light booth
-this is the first time I’ve seen you in costume and holy fuck how do you look so good in that
me and you
i think about it all the time
us curdled up post love making on the couch
you tell me i think we should get married
i laugh at the mere idea and say lets just sleep for now
but i see the seriousness in your eyes and i know there is just a matter of time
decades of platonic infatuation accompanied by these years of complete romantic adoration
can only lead to one inevitable fate
i wake up the next morning, long after you and walk out to the porch of our one bedroom apartment
it’s a sunday
i can hear you in the kitchen, making my coffee like you do every sunday
you hate coffee
the ambience of the sun reflects the swelling of my heart when i realize it
i am going to marry you
me and you forever
but right now it is a friday night, i am alone and you are with him
“The characters I tend to play are a little more interesting than the standard heroes. Romantic leads can be a little more straightforward, I guess. But it just seems to be the parts I get, I don’t know what that says about me. I enjoy interesting characters and interesting people, I suppose.”
false romantic lead: this is the love interest’s love interest; the person brought in, either for an episode or an arc, to date the one that the main character is in love with. the smitten character will be jealous, take an instant dislike to [them], and do whatever they can to sabotage the budding relationship. in many cases they exist solely to create tension and keep the lovers apart.
Consider this: Gwendoline Christie playing the romantic lead in a Jane Austen adaptation, or indeed any period piece. Nothing else changes. Nobody draws attention to the fact she’s a woman. It’s just two solid hours of Gwendoline Christie on a horse and wearing a suit and sweeping maidens off their feet
”I still have you in my phone under ‘don’t call’ even though it’s been years and I just accidentally sent you a rickroll oops” au
“this is so unfair there’s this song getting popular and the singer sounds like you and all these lyrics almost sound like they could be about me but you’re singing about lost love and you weren’t in love with me wait I’m watching the music video and crying and hey that’s definitely you wtf” au
“oh my god i just hit someone with my car and it’s you hey i’m sorry are you okay please don’t sue?” au
“we’re romantic leads in a play and hey what ruined our friendship again OH YEAH THIS INSANE CHEMISTRY this isn’t awkward at all” au
“you’re famous and just got asked if you were ever in love this should be good– WAIT WHAT” au
“so i know we just reunited but mind explaining how your whole life went to hell?” au
“you just liked a three year old photo of me on instagram i didn’t even know you had an account” au
“something came up and now i’m really scared you’ll spill this old secret of mine please don’t do that” au
“i’m a nurse and oh my god what happened why are you here i can’t lose you a second time” au
“did you know when you meet your soulmate ‘x’ happens? the government’s kept it under wraps but i just found out and i think we should try again cause i always assumed it was coincidence but that thing happened when we met” au
“i’m moving and i know this is a long-shot but want my dog?? you’re the only other person it ever liked and i hate you but i love it” au
“i thought you hated me but i just accidentally sent you a booty text and you accepted and i am seriously considering it” au
“so i didn’t know why you dropped contact with me and i just found out and here’s how i totally did not do that” au
“we’re texting for the first time in forever and i told you about some stupid thing i did and sent a sarcastic ‘you must really miss me, huh’ and you just replied ‘yes’ and i think my heart just broke” au
“our best friends are dating you’re still the spawn of satan though” au
“i just found out through social media/mutual friends that you’re gay/bi/pan/etc. do you know how many times i did not make a move” au
“we’ve been chatting online and we get on really well and oh that explains it” au (bonus: i totally told you about my crappy ex oops it you)
You know those characters that are constantly referred to so smart or so capable or so sensitive (etc. etc.) by other characters or in the narration? And every time it comes up you find yourself shaking your head or rolling your eyes because the character in question either is as bland as boiled potatoes or constantly acts in ways that contradict those claims without explanation?
That’s what is commonly called an “informed trait”. You’re told the character is a certain way (or has a certain ability), but there is more or less nothing in the text to back that up.
It goes the other way around, too, with informed flaws that are supposed to make a character more relatable or interesting - think almost every romantic comedy leading lady who is supposedly “shy” and “clumsy”, but in a cute, endearing way that only ever comes up when the plot asks for it.
It’s frustrating, distracting, incredibly dull and at times downright insulting to the reader to encounter a story where one or more characters have a bad case of this, but unfortunately, it’s a pretty common weakness even in otherwise strong, well-written stories with interesting and complex character concepts.
Since characters and how the reader feels about them (whether they are supposed to relate to them, look up to them or feel repulsed by them) can really make or break a story, informed traits are an easy trap to fall into and many a writer’s Achilles heel.
So, how to avoid them?
This is where the trusty old “Show, don’t tell” comes in. You have most likely been told before that it’s usually better to go for subtlety and leave something to the reader’s imagination than to spell it out, and that is true.
It’s challenging to imply something without outright saying it. You have to get creative with the details you want to put into your story to get a point across by relying on your audience’s ability to read between the lines, and while it’s absolutely worth it to go the extra mile, you also run the risk of making your narrative too stilted and contrived instead.
However, there is a fairly simple trick to make your characterization feel more natural and insert it into the story smoothly:
Stop thinking of your characters as possessing certain traits and start thinking of their personalities as a collection of habits, preferences and specific abilities.
It might not sound like that big of a difference, but it will make translating your character traits into text much, much easier and save you a lot of trouble while editing.
A “smart” character
This can mean a lot of things. You could have a character who is booksmart, learns quickly, reads a lot, can retain information easily and access it when needed, but has trouble applying theoretical knowledge in real life, someone who entertains their friends by telling them about weird facts and trivia, someone who can still recite poems they had to learn by heart when they were ten, someone with a tendency to talk in such complex run-on sentences they frequently forget what they were talking about half-way through. Or you could have a character who is good at problem-solving instead, who likes puzzles and riddles, who gleefully obsesses over odd problems to find even odder solutions, but thinks so far out of the box in order to remain engaged in their current task they often miss the forest for the trees.
A “brave” character
Try to instead make a character who can never resist a challenge, who is a thrill-seeker and went bungee jumping about a dozen times already, who enjoys dragging their friends on the most dangerous looking rides in an amusement park and endlessly teases them about how pale they went afterwards. Make someone who simply cannot stand by when they see someone else get bullied, someone with a collection of scars they wear proudly and a story to tell about each one.
A “shy” character
Forget about characters who blush prettily when spoken to and that’s it. Instead, write about a character who can’t make eye contact without forcing themselves to, who stumbles over their own words when talking to strangers, who is afraid of wearing bright colours because it might draw attention to them, someone who is humble and polite, but distant and comes across as cold or uncaring because they have tendency to hide their insecurity by retreating into themselves, even though seeming rude is the last thing on their mind.
Insert these habits into the story wherever they fit best. Be consistent in the portrayal of your character’s behaviour, even as character development kicks in. Adjust deliberately, but reasonably. After all, old habits die hard, so having your character break with one, however minor, can be a powerful moment with just as much emotional resonance as a flashy, dramatic scene meant to convey the same sentiment, and any “big” scenes will likely feel more organic if the reader has already seen traces of the necessary character changes before.
Yeah, so, Benedict and Martin having “immediate chemistry” when reading for Sherlock and John absolutely is the same type of chemistry found on the show. Mark and Steven even said it. “There, that’s the show.” And this program is a romance. Chemistry between two lead actors reading as romantic leads is not platonic. Actors can be platonic and, of course, be professional, but to use the word “chemistry” in this context translates to how well Sherlock and John get on, and neither instance is platonic. They knew what kind of show they were signing up for. They knew how their characters were supposed to feel about each other. And when they read together the room stilled – because the tension was palpable. Their connection was undeniable from the beginning and everyone knew it. “Chemistry” means natural, animalistic tension. It’s not something actors can manufacture. It’s raw and dynamic. Chemistry between two men set to be lovers is not platonic.
In conclusion, regardless of their commitment to their partners, Benedict and Martin had undeniable chemistry because they thought of each other as “fine as hell”.