Jun 11, 2013

Unintended Implications

The more I write, the more mistakes I make. Which is good, because I can learn from them. One of my earliest lessons, and one which I keep coming back to, was to always be aware of suggesting a particular theme or idea without meaning to.

It's vital for any author to be aware of Unfortunate Implications. The last thing you want is someone accusing you of being racist or sexist and having no idea why. That's not to say that any time you spot something you didn't intend you have to change it. If a particular scene or character is important, you as the author has a right to include it and defend your choice.

But that's what you must be able to do. Defend your choice.

When you see something that others could misinterpret, you have to make a choice. You can either change what you've written or leave it there. But that choice is yours and you need to own that. So if someone thinks you're representing women poorly because you created a setting where they're traded like property, you have to be ready to take that backlash and consider how you're going to respond to criticism for it.

If you've cast a person of colour as your villain, is this the only POC in the book? Or worse, have all POC been portrayed negatively and only white people been the heroes?

Have you cast a single member of a minority group in the book, but relegated them to a background role? Tokenism can be just as damning as having no minorities at all.

Examples of poorly-considered scenes crop up all the time, and it can be tempting to shrug it off. However, "everybody does it" or "that's just how it is" are terrible excuses for poor writing. As writers, we're in a great position to challenge stereotypes and common assumptions. It can take so little effort, but have such a positive effect, to make sure we avoid situations like these (spoilers follow for Sky High, Pandorum, Friends,  Supernatural, Buffy and Angel, and Star Trek: Into Darkness):

  • In Sky High, less than 10 minutes into the movie, a black student is told to sit at the back of the schoolbus so the protagonist (a white male) can sit at the front.
  • Pandorum has two non-white castmembers. While the white characters are technical and scientific experts who work out plans to solve their problems intelligently, one of the POC, whose name is simply "Manh," is a farmer who wanders off, eager to hunt and fight, and the other is an insane cannibal. To top it off, while every other character can speak English, Manh cannot, reducing him to speaking only his native language while the others make no attempt to understand or communicate with him outside of repeating themselves slowly.
  • Throughout the entire run of Friends, Ross' ex-wife Carol and her partner (later wife) Susan make life pretty hard for Ross. Susan in particular takes every chance she can get to make snide comments and make it clear that she can't stand Ross. This despite the fact that it's heavily suggested that Carol had an affair with Susan before she and Ross split up. Carol and Susan just happen to be the only prominent homosexual characters in the show.
  • Throughout Supernatural, the majority of characters are white. Of the African American characters, all but one are misinformed antagonists, corrupted by an outside influence, or outright evil.
  • In Star Trek: Into Darkness, as discussed here, they cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the new Kahn (in the worst-kept movie secret in recent years). Originally, Kahn was a genetically-engineered human, a combination of the DNA of various exemplary individuals, and intentionally racially ambiguous. He was a character of colour, clearly. Charismatic, physically formidable, and possessed of genius intellect and ferocious cunning. Rodenberry was saying, at a time when black people couldn't legally marry white people, and lynchings were still commonplace, that if we took the best of humanity and put it in one man, that man would not be white. With Kahn re-cast by JJ Abrams, the movie reverses this and says that the very best that humanity can offer comes from white people.
  • Even writers known for challenging stereotypes can fall prey to this. In the series finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it's not Buffy's plan, her leadership, her bravery, or her skill as a warrior that saves the day. It's a magic amulet worn by Spike, her former nemesis (and lover), which was provided by the villains from Angel (the spinoff show for Buffy's other former nemesis and lover). In fact, the small group of heroes were on the verge of losing the fight against the First's forces before the amulet kicked in. Essentially, Buffy, the hero of the show, couldn't win in her own series finale, so one of her two vampiric ex-boyfriends had to do it instead.
Do these instances mean you can't enjoy the story? Of course not. Nor am I saying these stories are inherently bad because of them. These are just factors to be aware of, reasons why a person might read something into them that the creator didn't intend. If possible, try to avoid leaving such things behind to be picked out. But if you can't, or you simply decide to go ahead with them anyway, accept that there may be consequences, and be prepared to face criticism as a result.

Can you guys think of any more examples like the ones I've listed here?


  1. I know you're talking about accidental isms here, and I honestly don't know if this fits the bill, but Supernatural is the biggest load of misogynist crap I've ever had the misfortune of 'trying' to follow. The first tough female character who isn't useless/evil and swiftly killed off tries to go monster hunting for the first time. She makes a big, "oh, you don't think I can do it cause I'm a girl?" fiasco and then promptly gets captured and put in a box to wait for the boys to come rescue her. I nearly vomited...

    Also, Torchwood... so rapey... everything about every relationship in that show is dumb. I honestly thought they'd killed off the protagonists husband at one stage, but he shows up again a few episodes later... so bad.

    1. Oh I'm right with you. I love Supernatural, I really do, but it is so full of misogynist overtones that I really can only hope that it's not intentional.

  2. Re: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a show i love btw despite it's flaws) the racefail across the seasons is bad, - re: The First Slayer as "Magical Negro" to pass wisdom onto the white protagonist, and the first time we see the First Slayer in "Restless", they have another white female character speak for her.

    but Season 7 really stands out because it seems like they were trying to include a more racially diverse cast; they even had a character say "Then the black girl gets killed first" to hand a lantern on racial tropes.Then in the episode Get It Done, Buffy is chained in a cave by the predecessors of the Watchers' Council - three black men who unleashed the power of a demon to rape the First Slayer, and to magically rape Buffy to give her more power. (ie the demon's power is the source of Slayer power). We never see the girl to whom this was done because buffy represents her and speaks for her - the entire thing plays out as a white girl being gang-raped by black men. There is just NO way to justify or handwave the WTF-ery of that away.

    1. For all the good things Joss Whedon does, he fails so hard on others. The season 7 magic-rape stuff is probably the worst of it. Looking back, it's really difficult to figure out how they didn't realise how bad it would look.