So, here we are again. And it seems most of us, myself included, haven’t learned a damn thing.
My, but that purely does suck.
You know, initially I dismissed writing this. I really did. I read a number of tweets last night, many of them by folks I admire and respect quite a bit, who’ve stopped watching or never watched Game of Thrones. Upon hearing of the truly awful and unnecessary rape scene that ended last night’s new episode, the tone of these folks was casual, unsurprised, dismissive, even less rueful of the series and more rueful of the viewers.
The consensus among them is it’s not even worth talking about anymore.
While I don’t at all disagree with their decision to abandon and/or ignore the show, and I know those attitudes probably mask or are scabs over deep and severe pain over this kind of content, I think they’re very wrong about that last bit.
It is worth talking about.
Game of Thrones is an immensely popular piece of media, and popular media is always worth talking about.
In fact, it’s kind of everything.
Movies, television series, novels, they matter. A lot. Popular forms of them matter even more, because it’s popular media that shapes our culture, our perceptions and perspectives, and shapes the stories and storytellers that come after.
What’s popular in fiction is dreadfully powerful, and dreadfully important.
About a year ago I wrote a post very similar to this one, to which I’m unable to link now because, like so many other posts from 2014, it was lost when we switched this website over. That post was written on the heels of the widespread outrage over the character of Jaime Lannister raping his sister Cersei beside their son’s funeral bed on an episode of Game of Thrones.
I wrote about a lot of things in that post. I wrote about how stunningly and dangerously out-of-whack our priorities and perceptions are. I wrote about how rape seemed to be fourth on the list of things people were outraged by in that scene, after the choice of location, the incest factor, and the fact it wasn’t in the books. I wrote about how there was nothing approaching that level of outrage or outcry when, in the very next episode, Burn Gorman’s character Karl Tanner delivered a monologue while around him literally a dozen women characters were being violently raped. I wrote about fanboys letting themselves and the book series off the hook because that particular rape wasn’t one of the many rapes in the canon, and how George RR Martin is in fact responsible for the world he created and that continues to be created by television writers.
I wrote about the quick and needed death I want to watch rape as a cheap device of narrative drama die.
I stand by all those points, and they all apply to last night’s grotesque rape of Sansa Stark.
Not only is it an increasingly repetitive use of gratuitous sexual assault in the series, it’s probably the most denigrating yet to actual survivors of rape and to women characters in the series itself. It almost immediately follows a scene in which Sansa stands up for herself, a scene of empowerment, of her owning her fear and position and circumstance. I’m not even sure that was a conscious decision on the writer’s part, which is even more disturbing when you think about it. Just as bad as that is the fact they focus on Theon’s face almost the entire time Sansa is being assaulted. Sansa’s character is divorced from her own scene of assault. It becomes about how her violation impacts him. It nullifies and reduces and erases her character, that assault, and its effect on the actual victim.
It was about as backwards as visual storytelling gets, and it is sadly, infuriatingly par for the course.
Yesterday was a day of interesting juxtaposition for me. With the love of my life, Nikki, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road in the theater. I watched Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa utterly own the post-apocalyptic wasteland. I watched a plotline that had concerned me deeply in the trailers, that of the “Vestal Virgins,” executed with dignity and without victimization. I saw sexual assault referenced and its effects explored through character, but no rape or the threat of rape utilized or exploited for dramatic purposes. I watched old women kicking ass and taking names. And without a sign pointed at any of it. It all just played out.
It was inspiring, entertaining, compelling, and engaging.
Then we came home and watched the newest episode of Game of Thrones, which ended with a young woman having her power taken away as soon as she dared to own it. We watched as just as quickly that violation was dismissed and reduced to a cheap enhancement for a male character. We were repulsed instead of compelled, disgusted instead of engaged. It was a lazy, obvious, repetitive attempt to shock and manipulate base emotions that only reinforced the standard gender roles we see in movies and on TV all the time.
Women as helpless victims.
Men as dominators of women.
Rape as a normal, expected event.
Two very popular pieces of media and culture operating at the height of their respective mediums, both dealing with the same subject matter.
In my opinion, humble and novice though it may be, one of those works got it right and the other failed itself and us all.
The writers of Game of Thrones haven’t learned a damn thing. They’re still using rape as a cheap plot device, and reducing any woman who dares to exist in their world let alone attain power in that world to victims.
The audience hasn’t learned a damn thing. They’re still shocked by the circumstance of a rape rather than the act itself and how it’s used in this way.
And I haven’t learned anything either, because I’m still watching the show. I’m still enabling that brand of storytelling season after season because there are aspects and characters I like in the series.
So, what do I have to write now that I didn’t write a year ago?
I want to speak to the future creators out there. The “aspiring,” as you’re called. Because that’s largely who follows me on Twitter and whatnot. I don’t want to speak to the writers of Game of Thrones or similar series/scenes, because they are who they are and I hold little hope for them improving or changing. I don’t want to talk to the writers out there of both screen and prose who are doing great work and getting it right and changing and challenging gender roles, because those writers have got their shit figured out, or at least figured out enough.
I want to speak to you folks who are going to go on to write the novels that hit and sell the pilots that become the next big dramatic series. I want to speak to the folks who will staff the writers’ rooms of television shows and will develop a voice in the process. I want to talk to those among you who will sell a spec screenplay and/or be given the chance to script a mainstream movie.
Sadly, that won’t be most of you. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Most of you will never get to create work utilized by those mediums, at least on that level.
But maybe, just maybe, a few of you will make it through.
So, I want to speak to you and I want to tell you this: Try harder. Do better.
If you make it over the wall it’s going to get even more difficult than the climb. There are going to be deadlines and demands and entitled fans and pissed off editors and demanding producers and the more you win the more pressure there will be to keep winning and even if you aren’t being asked to compromise your standards your brain will simply just get tired, and you will be backed into a creative corner one way or another.
In that corner you can decide to have the bad guy rape the powerless girl and most of the audience won’t think about it too deeply and they’ll hate the bad guy and feel sympathy and pity for the girl and they’ll be shocked and outraged and tune in next week to watch the fall-out, hoping for some form of satisfaction.
You can decide to do that, or you can actually try.
George Miller didn’t have to invite Eve Ensler to consult on his movie. He didn’t have to cast Charlize Theron or write the part of Furiosa. He didn’t have to think any deeper than a six-pack of models in white midriffs for his captive women. He could’ve crashed cars into each other and blown shit up for ninety minutes and still gone home pretty happy and even done just as well at the box office.
George Miller, at age 70 and without a hit Mad Max film in almost 25 years, actually tried.
The writers of Game of Thrones didn’t have to end last night’s episode by violating Sansa Stark. They didn’t have to settle for shocking us rather than trying to compel and engage us.
The writers of Game of Thrones, in the fifth season of an impossibly popular television series that can literally do no wrong at this point, did not try.
They relied on the same repetitive, lazy device and damaging, problematic roles they always have. And there’s nothing to be done about that. It’s the juggernaut it is, they can get away with it, and the majority of creators being put on by Hollywood are who they are.
However, here’s the good news. The next generation of all of this belongs to you. Some of you will create the media that people talk about and discuss and dissect the way they do with Game of Thrones and are doing with Mad Max, and it will inspire and influence the generation of creators after you.
That’s how things actually change.
And hey, if what you want to create is a serious and genuine exploration of sexual assault and/or its survivors because that’s the story you have to tell or desperately want/need to tell, by all means.
But if rape is the device you choose to create drama because you’re too lazy and/or unoriginal to delve deeper with your story, we don’t need you anymore.
Among many other things, we need to see women in fiction the way women actually are, not the way mostly male writers have imagined them in popular culture for centuries and continue to regurgitate now.
We don’t need to keep seeing their helpless victimization and the minimization of sexual assault by its use as a cheap dramatic device.
That’s all. That’s what I’m going to try to do. That’s what I encourage you to do. Outrage and “think” pieces (I love that we’ve finally cast thinking as a pejorative, by the way. Fuck everyone who complains about “think” pieces), while often entirely valid, don’t change anything.
Create the media you want to see.
Create the media we all need to see.
When it’s your turn, try harder and do better.
Also: Make damn sure you get a turn.
[Forgive me if I begin here a little basic for some of you.]
They’re called the “trades,” for the uninitiated out there.
They aren’t magical arcane scrolls or anything. In fact, odds are good there’s one or several or several dozen related to your job. A “trade” is simply a publication that covers the news and relevant events of a particular industry and/or profession. Plumbers, baristas, waiters, welders. They all have them.
It just so happens the trades covering the film industry–Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, etc.–involve celebrities, who rank from American royalty to American deities.
Therefore they carry a little more grandeur.
Okay, a lot more.
Here’s a story. Don’t worry, it’s a quick one. In 2013 I was hired to write a little entertainment television show (and I mean I was hired to write literally the whole damn thing). It didn’t make me rich and it didn’t make me famous, but because it was part of a package sold to and distributed by FremantleMedia (you’ve seen their logo at the tail-end of many of your favorite filler television programs) it *did* make the trades. Not me, and not my name, but the show did. It was mentioned in all of the above publications, this thing I had written out here in Hollywood that would now be seen on televisions around the world.
It was a first for me.
Man, I was jazzzzzzzzzzzzzed.
I clipped and printed every article from every trade and saved them all, hung a bunch around my desk. You know, to “motivate” me, to inspire me to climb higher and do better and write the things I came to this town to write and get them seen and sold and made. I was officially Out Here. I was part of the town in some tiny but undeniable way. I was in the game. I was in-play.
I was a geek, I admit it.
I also thought to myself, “Hey, now that I’m in the trades I should probably follow and read them more closely.”
And I did.
And I kind of wish I hadn’t.
You see, you realize pretty quickly when you read the trades that they don’t just report on sales and casting of movies and television shows. They also espouse and literally create opinion in this town. About many things. About everything. They’re powerful pieces of doctrine. And that can be a good thing, but rarely is.
The most grotesquely powerful example of this I can conjure was posted yesterday by Deadline.
You’ve probably heard about and/or read the article by now. In any case I’m not going to link to it. I will link you to this Entertainment Weekly article which perfectly sums up the piece in question, and features just a sampling of the tweets from an epic rant I went on last night after reading the most blatantly and dangerously racist piece of industry-related filth I’ve seen since I moved to Los Angeles.
I’m not going to write about the content of the article. Much smarter folks than me have already done that, including blogging force of nature Luvvie over on Awesomely Luvvie. Kevin Fallon also wrote an insightful piece for The Daily Beast on exactly what makes said content so dangerous.
I also should not need to explain to anyone why a major entertainment industry news outlet asking the question, “Are there too many non-white people on TV?” is both phantasmagorically ignorant, deeply racist, and patently unacceptable. I just shouldn’t. If you don’t get that you have a serious problem with ignorance or racism and need to deal with one or both. Do that on your own time.
No, I want to write briefly (too late, I know) about something else. You see, I’ve had a lot of replies to those tweets. A lot. All of them in agreement, all of them supportive. Many, however, have gone to lengths to explain to me and everyone else that Deadline has become a hotbed of trolling. They post “click-bait” and “race-bait” designed to draw attention and needlessly sensationalize and shock folks into responding and building their audience and brand.
And I don’t disagree with that. In fact, I sincerely hope the Deadline article in question was click-bait, was race-bait, designed specifically for that purpose.
The idea a writer just plain thinks those things and is sincere in presenting them horrifies me way more.
I don’t disagree about their practices or tactics, but here’s the rub: calling them out for click-baiting or trolling implies we should ignore them. We shouldn’t link to the posts, drive traffic, talk about them.
We should just ignore them and they’ll go away.
That is not an acceptable option.
This is precisely why this thing enrages me far beyond one writer’s opinion. Deadline is a major Hollywood trade publication. It just is. Whatever your opinion of them. They are read by people in this industry with the power to make decisions about content and policy. They influence those people. They inform those people. They literally help create what those people perceive as reality. Most of those folks are simply not on the ground-level reading all of our tweets, as much as we’d like them to be. They’re reading or hearing about what the trades said and being hardwired through those markets.
That is why this Deadline article, and every piece like it, cannot be ignored.
It literally creates the problem and poses a very real threat to our industry.
Look, I’ll be starkly honest with all of you. I’m a little writer with a little audience just trying to make ends meet. I use social media and this blog to help me do that. In a much smaller way, I’m in the same race Deadline is. Thus I love being retweeted thousands of times. I love being mentioned by Entertainment Weekly. I love getting a slight hat tip from Ava DuVernay and connecting with Shonda Rhimes on Twitter (who wouldn’t? She’s a force of nature of which I stand in awe). I love all of that shit. I won’t even attempt to deny it.
But I can tell you with equally stark honesty none of that is what this one is about.
Because I also genuinely love television as a medium. I love movies. I love writing both. I love visual storytelling. I love the opportunities doing so affords me to take care of my family. I love all of these things and believe in all of these things. I want all of these things desperately.
But I do NOT want to work in an industry and live in a town that institutionalizes racism on a cultural, professional, and creative level.
I don’t want to be allowed to work or create because some white racist asshole looks at me and sees him or herself and Deadline told them it’s “okay” to hire me.
I don’t want to watch an entire generation of creators and performers of color reduced to some kind of failed test case because of one successful season of television, which makes so little sense I can’t even process it as a concept.
I don’t want to be a party to any of that.
It’s last-century bullshit.
It needs to pass into memory.
I’m fortunate enough to have friends and if not friends then folks who at least read my stuff casually who also work in this town. I don’t think any of you want to do your jobs and practice your art under these conditions, either. Deadline and any outlet like them, whether or not they’re click-baiting or race-baiting, need to be held accountable and made to retract their perpetuation of such doctrine.
They don’t need to be ignored, they need to be held to task and changed.
And we need to be willing to call them out.
That’s the other part. Because you do worry. I worry about calling them out publicly. I worried doing so would mean I’d never see something I wrote mentioned in an article again. I worried it might somehow hurt my career. It probably seems silly to some of you, but it’s not. I’m not bulletproof. I’m nobody. I don’t have a reputation or credibility. It’s very easy to lose work out here because you mouthed off to the wrong folks or in the wrong way. And I see that in others. The hesitation to engage directly. The relief that someone else did it for you, said it for you. I get that. I really do. I don’t blame anyone for feeling the same things I feel.
But it needs to done, and everyone needs to do it.
We all have to make a choice. Because just like Deadline or any of the trades, *we* create the industry in which we work.
And our silence is as powerful and determining as their words.