Tag Archives: critical theory

“Relating” versus “connecting” to a story

Something I find myself dealing with a lot when examining how people are affected by storytelling, and what powers that storytelling has to affect us, the concept of “relating” to something comes up a lot. Note that by “relating” I specifically mean that identification process– NOT just what I would call the process of “connection,” the larger and more general ability to find some way to emotionally engage with the story. Relating to a story is a way to connect with it, one of many. But a lot of readers’ greatest source of engagement is being able to personally identify in some way. They relate back something in the story to something that is already understood or meaningful to them, which gives it an emotional resonance and a sense of investment. 

Now, it isn’t a bad thing to experience the feeling of relating to something, or enjoy it when you do. But I feel it’s the most basic, even most unsophisticated, level of engagement with the story– “am I able to bring it back to myself?” The real problem is when somebody can’t get into a story because of the absence of that personal identification. It turns what should be an broadening experience into a narcissistic one. Because to me that demonstrates a failure of empathy. True empathy allows for a person to step outside themselves and conceive of feelings and experiences that may have nothing to do with them. If you can’t care about, understand, or get interested in something that doesn’t remind you of you, you are not only seriously limiting yourself, you’re indulging in a gross form of self-centeredness. That’s where we get the dumb ideas like “boys don’t like stories about girls” or “white people won’t watch films about people of color,” which are dangerous and damaging, not to mention reinforcing of white supremacy and patriarchy. 

As a teacher, I want to encourage students to be able to find a more sophisticated form of connection– to engage with literature in a way that builds empathy. Asking people how they relate to the tale is perhaps a good basic starter way to get them to extend their emotions, but unless they move past that at some point, they’re missing out on the greatest power that storytelling has– the ability to give understanding about situations outside your own.


Choices of the Author, Death of the Author, and Something in between…

When it comes to literary interpretation, I have a few concepts I use as guides for understanding the meaning of a work. Since I got into some discussions where people didn’t necessarily see the delineations I did, I thought I’d talk about some of the concepts I use to make it clear how I approach things– specifically as regards the impact of design.

By “design” I mean the choices the artist made in putting the piece together that creates some effect on the audience. In writing, the storyteller begins with a theoretical “blank page,” and anything that makes it onto that page had to be put there. The level of thought or intention behind each thing may be variable, but still the writer had to decide to include it or else it wouldn’t be there. That means it had the potential to be done for a particular reason, because of the effect it would create in the audience experiencing it. Authors rarely approach their work with zero intention, so there is almost always at least SOMETHING they included specifically for the effect they hoped it would create.

This makes up the first level I think you can analyze on– taking into account the author’s plans, choices, and efforts. The creator decides they would like to imbue a particular meaning in the work and makes design choices that are designed to achieve that effect. It’s not the be all and end all, of course, but these are important if only because they shape the final product; in their absence, you would not have the work as you know it. Now, jsut because the writer meant to put something into a story doesn’t mean they succeeded. They have have failed, in whatever way for whatever reason. But the intentions still matter, because of how they influence what choices are made in the design.

On the other end of the spectrum is of course Death of the Author– where once an artist has finished a work, they have no further influence over its meaning, and whatever the audience sees in it is legitimately present. Personally I use a limited version of this in interpretation. This is a very necessary perspective, as you cannot influence the way an audience experiences your work, so what it brings out of them in response is always important no matter what the intended effect was. I tell my students that whatever you can justify with a line of reasoning, you can legitimately say you see in the piece. I tend to draw a line, however, when things are so far beyond the scope of the creator’s possible perspective, or when the reading requires so much extrapolation as to be completely removed from the text. For example, I doubt Shakespeare has much to do with ideas on artificial intelligence, given the subject matter of his plays and the period of history he comes from. But still, I believe the way an audience experiences a work is always relevant to examining it.

Most people are familiar with those two lines of thinking. But I also think there’s something in between. Not just things the author intended, nor what rises from the audience’s experience– but also what got in there through the author’s actions but in the absence of intention, or sometimes even awareness. This comes from the idea that no one is one hundred percent self-aware and may do things without realizing, or at least without realizing why. As this is true in our everday lives, so is it true in the making of our creative work. Writers can do this with how they design things and gets results that may not have been intended, but were still demonstrable results form the writer’s choices.

Here’s an example. Say a writer is including a father character in their work. This writer had a dad who was kind of a jerk, but doesn’t realize that this was a quality unique to their father in particular. Unconsciously, the writer has generalized this to all fathers. So, when the writer goes to write a father in their story, he incorporates the jerk qualities without intending to write a jerk, because they don’t see that in their mind, “jerk” and “father” are inextricably bound. This results in a character who is readably a jerk, and whose jerk qualities demonstrably rose from the choices the writer made, but NOT because the writer meant to create a jerk.

This may seem like a pointless distinction, but I think it’s important– because both the writer’s choices AND the audience’s perceptions are important. This extra shade of classification helps for better understanding of how stories are made, and what factors create the meaning and power of a story. The better we understand that, the better we understand how stories affect us, and how to build stories with the power to do so.


Apparently only dudes in Westworld are complex enough to have darkness

I’ve been watching Westworld on HBO, and I intend to watch it through to the end, but I’m not very satisfied with it. I mean, besides the fact that I’ve always had a huge mental block against sympathizing with robots as characters, as I still basically think they’re always going to just be things, it’s not that fresh a robots-as-people narrative. Basically, they’re gaining sentience as their programming advances, and they’re probably going to make humans pay for the horrific treatment they’ve undergone when utilized as things. I am absolutely sure that will happen if AI ever gets advanced enough in the real world, and we’ve seen it in stories a million times before.

But the thing that gets at me the most is the logic behind the Westworld park itself. It’s appeal is basically presented as a place to indulge your darkest urges free of consequences– specifically, they assume, things that take the form of hurting others. The park is full of robots, not people, so you can hurt or use them in any way you want and it doesn’t matter. And that’s basically the reason why people like to come.

Well. Even leaving aside what a morbidly cynical view of humanity is– I don’t even think that’s all that representative of the way people’s badness manifests. Personal I’d say most of the worst of us manifests not as sadism– the desire to cause or the enjoyment of suffering in others –but rather as selfishness. It’s not so much that you WANT other people to hurt, it’s that you care so much about yourself and your own gratification that the harm you do to others doesn’t matter to you. Sure, causing pain often gives us power over others, which is another thing we’re all susceptible to, but again, I’d argue that you want the feeling of being powerful so much that you don’t worry about causing pain. True psychopaths, who LIKE causing pain in and of itself, exist, but they’re much rarer. Faced with no consequences for our actions, that morbid indifference to the feelings of others in favor of indulging the self is the true danger that is likely to come out of us.

I mean, I can imagine if I were in a scenario like this– leaving aside the other problems with the workings of Westworld, which are beside my point here –I might have fun being the best shot in the West and beating a horde of rampaging gunslingers by being the fastest draw. That appeals to my sense of adventure and excitement, plus the thrill of being the best. I could see conceivably being so selfish that I care so about my enjoyment in that way I don’t care that I subjected a bunch of people to painful death. But it adds nothing to that appeal to see the men I beat twitching and gasping in pain as they die from the bullets I put in them. I could see prioritizing my sense of fun such that I didn’t care that I killed them. But having to witness their suffering is distasteful, such that the imposition of their pain is a consequence that would make my victory less fun. I think it would be to most people.

But even beyond that– the version of the “dark urges” the park is designed to caters to? Is this totally one-note, stereotypically masculine conception. Basically, the form of indulgences it expects its guests to want are all extremely retrograde masculine fantasies, mostly sexual, violent, or a combination of the two. Sure, given how toxic they expect people to want to behave, you’d expect them to appeal to people’s toxic masculinity, but there’s no appeals to any impulse that are not coded masculine. It’s all just about the chances for brutal violence or increasingly outre sexuality.

I can’t figure out if it’s intentional or not. Is it as a statement of how prevalent such fantasies are in people, or even how hypermasculinity encourages it? Or is it because the SHOW can’t imagine dark impulses under any other encoding?

If it’s intentional, there has yet to be any explicit acknowledgment that Westworld is designed under that assumption. I’ve seen no commentary on the problem of that conception. There’s been no connection of the horrors being committed to the idea that they rise from hypermasculinty– in fact, the only suggestion the show gives is that it comes from HUMANITY in general, rather than specifically from males. And I don’t think depicting an idea without any form of critique, in so many words or otherwise, counts as commentary.

On top of that, most of the women characters in the show have been portrayed in really limited ways. The only female guests tend to be either wives supporting the adventures of their husbands, or else having identical dark urges to straight men. (There’s been some portrayal of lesbianism, but it all smacks of “chicks that act like straight guys” rather than women attracted to other women. By contrast, the one bisexual dude’s orgy? A woman riding his dick, another woman making out with him, while the one other guy… rubs his belly. Cowards.) The women host robots fall into a pretty stark virgin-whore dichotomy. Again, if there was some suggestion of critique of this, that women suffer even more when people act like objectification is just okay, then I might see it as a meaningful choice. But again, I’ve seen no sign of this.

So it’s increasingly striking me as unintentional, which is both a staggeringly limited view of humanity– even humanity’s darkness –and also misogynist. I mean, why do women come to Westworld in this universe? Just to support their husbands’ hero hypermasculine-coded hero fantasies, or if they want to indulge in THOSE EXACT SAME HYPERMASCULINE FANTASIES themselves? Is there nothing here to enjoy that’s actually geared toward the interests of women– or even the ways women specifically tend to break down? If nothing else, where are the hot male whores throwing themselves at female guests?

I’m only three episodes in. Maybe they’ll deal with it. But I don’t think it’s been handled well so far.


Roberts’s theory of lit crit

In teaching literature classes, I can’t help but approach my lesson planning from my personal theory of how to analyze literature. I go by a few guiding principles, which I will try to articulate here:

1. Intent is not everything

Generally, I believe in the theory of Death of the Author. This is the idea that once a piece of written work has been finished, the author’s intention for what they meant the work doesn’t dictate the meaning. They can’t whisper over the shoulder of the audience member, so whatever the audience finds in the experience of the work is legitimate.

2. Intent is not nothing.

Despite what I just mentioned, I would not go so far as to as to say the author’s intention does not matter. I believe that even though the maker’s intention is not the last word on the matter, the work would not have come out the way it did had the maker approached it with a different intention. So I think their plans must be taken into account, if not take as gospel.

3. The story must be taken as its own serious universe.

Most serious analysis requires at least some level of treating the characters and world in the story as if they were as full and complete as the real world. The discovery of real meaning is cut off if one dismisses aspects of it as “not complete,” “just a story,” that sort of thing. For example, a character may seem inscrutable if you dismiss them as not a complete person, but in that case it’s better to evaluate based on what could possibly be true of a person who evidences those behaviors of traits.

4. Writers are human and make mistakes.

Despite the previous, I also think it’s important to remember that writers make mistakes and have weaknesses. It is possible to decide that something in a work was not well-made and therefore doesn’t accomplish great meaning or art. Writers are human, even the masters are not infallible. This is important because then one can analyze what might have worked better or more effectively in a given example.

5. A work should be taken for what it is.

Each work should be taken on its own terms. What is it trying to be? What are the standards that apply to it? If one does not engage with a piece on the level it’s intended, one invites misinterpretation or intellectually dishonest critique. Ask if a piece is a good example of what it is, not a bad example of something entirely different.

6. No art is exempt from critique.

Again, possibly despite the previous, any work can be judged and examined for quality and significance. It should be taken as the kind of art that it is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see if it’s a worthy example of whatever it’s trying to be. This should not be dismissed as “taking something too seriously.”

~~~

These are kind of contradictory, but it’s in the interest of balance. There are of course other critical approaches, but these are the bones of mine, and it’s a place for my students to start if they’re new to the process.


That je ne sais quoi

In Mad Men, a television show that I would not say I like but still totally fascinates me, a recurring theme is the idea that things either ARE, or they AREN’T, the notion that some stuff just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi to make it what it is supposed to be. An example that recurs is the state of the Draper marriage, which to all surface appearances looks like the perfect idealized union of the 1960s, but in reality is fundamentally and fatally flawed within. Another example is when the advertising client Pepsi requests a shot-by-shot imitation of Ann-Margret singing Bye Bye Birdie, and the resulting imitation seems to have all the details of the original but for some reason none of the charm. It is, in keeping with the cynical attitude of the series, a rather bleak view, giving the implication that such things are immune to effort, growth, or development to become what they are trying to be. But even if you do reject the notion, as I do, that things can never improve or become what they are striving to be with effort or practice, there is still the ineffable factor to be considered that makes somethings different from other things. There is often something that we cannot quite put our finger on, sometimes an unquantifiable quality that can influence how we see, view, or experience a given thing.

I find this concept to be relevant when critiquing or even just experiencing art. Because art is to such a large degree subjective, despite the presence of rules of thumb that provide guidelines for what sort of artistic expression tends to be the most effective or moving, there will always be the matter of what appeals to individual taste and what does not. Or sometimes there can even be an unnameable reason why people like something even though it is qualitatively similar to something they dislike. If you have a piece of art that works, it almost does not matter what rules it breaks. The rules exist to help us figure out what works, but they are the means to the end of creating a reaction in the audience. If that reaction is caused anyway, adherence to rules is ancillary. There are many pieces of art that do not seem to conform to what we consider to be objectively good, but still managed to be good because they for whatever reason work on the audience.

When your primary medium is drama, as mine is, this can be especially present. A piece of drama is meant to be experienced beyond simply what the dramatist rights on the page. If a piece “plays well,” it often creates quite a different effect on the audience than when simply experiencing it through reading it and applying conventional literary assessment. Sometimes the difference is quantifiable, but sometimes it is very hard to pin down what is making the difference. And often it is completely subjective, a total matter of taste.

In interpretive pieces, like plays and screenplays, which require collaboration between numerous other artists in order to be fully realized, the other contributors may be that additional factor. Plenty of times, a dramatic work is rescued by the presence of a talented or charismatic actor, or a weak actor sinks even a good script. But even what makes a good or likable actor is hard to pin down. Generally we like people who are pretty and expressive. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we each can see meaning in different things depending on our perspective. Sometimes we bring our own baggage to things, where an emotional response in us drives us to bring our own meaning that’s not necessarily being offered by the “text.” Betty Draper, to continue with the Mad Men example, reminds me of a lot of personal issues, so even though the actress is generally considered to be on the flat side, I find her compelling and fascinating even when perhaps objectively she is not. By contrast, I find Scarlett Johansson so wooden that any character played by her is immediately contaminated in my eyes, whereas plenty of other people don’t have nearly so much problem with her.

It’s tough to nail down things that can vary from person to person. I just know we can’t rely on hoping the audience will pick up the slack in our work, because we can never precisely predict what will speak to people and what won’t.


How Bojack Horseman is revolutionizing the Unlikeable Tortured Protagonist

You may have heard me talk of a weird little Netflix show about anthropomorphic animals that’s been getting a bit of press lately by the name of “Bojack Horseman.” More than once I’ve heard people express bewilderment at the appeal of an odd little work like this cartoon, and I confess I was there myself when I first heard of it. But after sticking it out to the end, (and several more times through after that) I am not only a convert, I am here to evangelize on its behalf. “Bojack Horseman” is my vote for most compelling show currently on television, and that’s because of how it portrays the “unlikeable tortured protagonist” in a way that no previous example has ever managed.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show is on the surface a cartoon critique of the celebrity world and culture using anthropomorphic animals, centering around a washed-up Bob Saget-style sitcom actor who happens to be a horse. From that description it hardly seems a fresh setup, but its true magic is within the story that setting is used to tell. The show juxtaposes extreme cartoon absurdity for the sake of humor with dark, character-driven storytelling that studies a fascinating anti-heroic character that you both judge and sympathize with, to a level you wouldn’t have believed possible.

On the surface, particularly in the first few episodes before the plot arc kicks in, Bojack appears to be not much different from your typical Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. He seems characterized by qualities that at this point have been played out as comedic flaws— crass, drunk, and morbidly self-absorbed. On top of that, he is massively privileged, a mega-rich Hollywood actor who, despite being a horse, is of a background that implies being White and Upperclass. And, as we did with fellows like Don Draper, we soon find out that Bojack hates himself.

The TV landscape recently has been saturated with these kinds of protagonists— privileged white men whose pain adds fascinating dimension to their otherwise fairly exciting lives. Don Draper was a miserable unwanted child trying to hide his true self, but damn if he didn’t look sexy kicking down doors in impeccable suits while women threw themselves at him. Walter White was a bitterly disappointed man cruelly used by fate, but his adventures in the meth game sure gave him a lot of adventure and control back. I think as a culture we’ve become a little bored with this, as we’ve burned out on feeling sorry for sad dudes who can’t get it together when so many of us have fewer advantages and significantly less sexy lives.

The difference, however, is in how the facts of Bojack’s condition are presented to us. Bojack’s behavior whips across the punish-lavish axis in a sick cycle, from self-flagellating when he hates himself to self-indulging from when he feels sorry for himself. While one of the most accurate depictions of a certain kind of depression ever committed to TV, it also comes off as more than a little gross. But this very quality is what saves the show from being just a portrait of an unlikeable, over-privileged sad sack unable to appreciate what he has. Rather than trying to depict this as sympathetic in any way, on the contrary, the narrative never stops judging him.

There’s an old chestnut that says a writer should never judge their characters, but this story is richer for the creators ignoring that. When Bojack screws up, when he makes a truly destructive or even deplorable choice, the writing never asks you to see those actions as anything other than what they are. The results is it gives the viewer the breathing room to both castigate Bojack and find some understanding for him. He is obsessed with the notion that he’s broken somehow, that his inherent badness can never be changed or overcome, so why not do bad things if he’s bad anyway? But even as this provides a reason we are able to understand for why Bojack makes terrible choices again and again, it never asks us to find that an acceptable excuse.

What this gives us is a notion of accountability for Bojack. Despite the brilliance of both their shows, Don Draper and Walter White were not allowed a lot of room for any real growth or change. That’s partially the nature of the serial storytelling form, where you cannot drift too far from your premise without losing your audience. But it gets tiresome after a while watching these guys make the same mistakes over and over again. On top of that, Don and Walter very rarely ever saw real, true consequences for their actions. The important people in their lives put up with their antics, eventually forgave and came back to them, or at least came to a place of peace with them.

Bojack, however, is subjected to the consequences of being a massive self-centered dick. He is not granted forgiveness every time he asks for it, his bridges do get burned, and he has to live with the repercussions of the stupid choices he makes. Not only does this feel more real, it also has an effect on his character, driving him to try new things if he ever wants to change his life. Though he fails and regresses, through it all, there’s a sense of two steps forward, one step back, that makes him a little less contemptible. Bojack is not strong, so he breaks in the face of great adversity. But the fact that he pits himself against that adversity despite his weakness makes him more interesting to watch.

Finally, the show strikes the right balance between keeping his life interesting without excessively glamorizing it. When we watch Don and Walter, there is always a sense of envy at how cool Don is, or the excitement of Walter’s life, which undermines the message that these men are truly suffering. But you never for a moment wish you were Bojack, not for all the Secretariat movies, houses in the hills, or impulse-buy restaurants in the world. From his abusive childhood, to the hollowness of his accomplishments, to the way he’s so widely regarded as a joke even at the height of his career, there’s a genuineness to his misery that makes the notion of his self-loathing believable. It’s made even more poignant when we see flashes of the character in his youth, before the real grossness set in.

This is perhaps the great tragedy, and the great brilliance, of the show—once, Bojack was a genuinely nice guy, trying to do his best, who cared about other people and was working VERY hard to escape being the kind of bad person he felt like he was doomed to be. It makes seeing him lose that battle actually rather heartbreaking, and you find yourself actually holding out hope that he will find some way to get better. Because you know he did once put in that effort, you are driven to pity this man, even as you never want to absolve him. And if there’s not one moment a season— usually in the end of the eleventh episode —where you find yourself yelling at the screen, begging Bojack to not to shipwreck himself on the rocks of his own self-loathing, well, I don’t know what kind of person you are.

That’s a hell of a lot more than you ever expected from a thirty-minute cartoon about a horse.


On art snobbery

I like to say I try not to be an art snob. I’m sure people have laughed at me for that, as unfortunately I have a problem with coming off as snobby in life in general. But what I mean by that is that I try to judge art by its own merits, rather than by features that are measures of nature rather than quality. Genre, medium, and audience all create their own standards, and I make an effort to judge a piece by the standards it was designed to exist within. I’m not perfect about this; unfortunately I have my biases. I have zero interest in gross-out comedies, for example, and would be hard pressed to believe you can create a truly artful example of one. But I hate when people say that something is automatically a lesser piece of art just because it was, for example, aimed at children, or because it’s in a particular form. I think you can make powerful and technically accomplished macaroni art if you do it right.

By that same token, I try not to deify any particular form. I don’t think this is a big problem for most people or for most art forms, but occasionally you get somebody who sticks up for a much-maligned form by talking about it as if it has an inherent value that it automatically grants to any work in that medium. The best example I can think of that is fan fiction. Fan fiction is so often an so unfairly a whipping boy that a lot of people say its inherent populist and community-building features are automatically elevating. Personally I think it’s possible to both approve of the spirit a concept fosters even if you don’t really like the resulting examples it generates. I love that fan fiction has things like a lower barrier to creativity and a way of inspiring people to personal expression, but honestly I don’t really have the taste for the kinds of fanwork that avenue tends to produce. But I think you need to be able to separate quality from personal taste. Something can be good even if you don’t like it, and you can like something that isn’t good.

Art, man. It’s complicated.


The proper application of the literary critique “fridging”

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve decided to take a break from Tumblr. The negativity has started to actively stress me out, and it troubles me how hard it is to talk about anything nuanced on there. The phenomenon of backlash exists in response to actual problems in additions to attempts to deal with those problems. Because of this, in an environment like Tumblr responses tend to get extreme, and it’s hard to critique those responses without sounding like you’re just trying to dismantle or silence the greivance behind them.

So here on my own blog, I want to talk about the literary concept of “fridging.” This is an extremely useful idea for critiquing the way certain characters are killed in a dehumanizing way. But recently it seems that the use of the term has crept outward to be applied to any instance of “problematic character death” in a given piece of media. Its actual definition is narrower than that, and while I definitely think it’s worthwhile to discuss all problematic killings of characters, I don’t think it’s a good idea to dilute the meaning of a useful term to make it less precise.

The term “fridging” comes from a concept coined by Gail Simone called “Women in Refrigerators” Syndrome, drawn from when Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alex Curran was murdered and her body stuffed in to a refrigerator. Simone argued that in having Alex be horribly victimized totally without agency of her own for no other reason order to motivate Green Lantern to act and grow emotionally, the character was dehumanized and objectified. It’s especially problematic because the most frequent instance of this was a female victim motivating a male hero, which means that the female character is always the one dehumanized and devalued.

But just because a death is problematic, that does not mean that it is necessarily an instance of fridging. The key factors are, in my opinion, the objectification coming from the lack of personal agency in whatever lead to the character’s death, and the subjugation of her personal significance in using the death purely as a motivating force for another, usually male, character.

That is the precise definition of fridging. It is NOT necessarily fridging, for example, to kill a woman, a gender-variant character, a member of a racial, sexual, or religious minority, or any other marginalized group. The term is not meant to address issues of “reduction or compromise of representation.” That is a totally worthy and important thing to talk about, but I think it needs its own term for precision’s sake. I believe that it’s important to identify the exact nature of problems because each one may require a different solution.

Personally, I believe there IS a problem in media with racial and sexual minority characters having a disproportionately high death rate. I think at its base it’s another stemming from the Problem of the Protagonist, which is my personal critical theory (someday dissertations will be written on it 😝) that because we tend so strongly to have White Straight Men as our protagonists, all supporting and peripheral characters are designed with and given narrative trajectory in relation to his White Straight Manness, which boxes them into certain limitations.

For example, if our hero is a WSM, by definition our only options for non-white, non-straight, and non-male characters are in the supporting cast. Our hero is usually not an option for killing off, so we have to turn to the supporting cast to find somebody to die, which means that if we increase the likelihood of picking one of our non-white, non-straight, non-male people. Because a straight male protagonist’s love interest must be a woman, high stakes may demand that as the most important person to him she must be at risk– which suggests that the woman has to die. Or maybe we can’t kill someone as important as his love interest, who is often of the same race as the protagonist, so if we have any non-white characters they’re usually not her– so it becomes more likely that we’ll kill one of them. And of course both of these lovers are likely straight, which makes it more likely to push one of the queer supporting characters into the line of fire.

Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s not necessarily that we think our non-majority characters are less human than our white straight dudes. It’s that because we’ve placed white straight dude at the center of the story, the more closely entwined a character is with our planned trajectory for him, the harder it becomes for our narrative to function without them. Because the more unlike him a character becomes, the farther away they usually get positioned, which makes them more expendable to kill. This is a real problem, and objectifying in its own way. The problem is not that they are without agency, the problem is that they’re considered expendable to the narrative.

It needs its own term, though I’m not sure what. I want to say “Peripheral Expendability,” but that puts the emphasis on their Supporting Character status more than their non-majority status. “Minority Expendability”? I don’t know, something like that.

But back to fridging, which is SPECIFICALLY about lack of agency. The reason this blurring of the definition of fridging annoys me is because it denies the agency of characters who die because they made active choices. I think it’s MUCH more humanizing to write diverse characters who can take actions that have terrible personal consequences than it is to never allow them to make the same dramatic choices as their mainstream fellows. Yes, if you’re developing a pattern of only having your racial and sexual minorities make the ultimate heroic sacrifice, you’ve got a problem. But you’re not solving the problem of fridging just by keeping those characters from dying. You’re solving the problem when you allow them to have agency and examine their struggles for their own sake, not just for how they affect other characters whose journeys you’ve decided are more important.

So, the murder of a superhero’s helpless mother to motivate him to take on the mask and cape? “Women in Refrigerators.” The black guy or lesbian who choses to heroically sacrifice themself to save the group, instead of any one of the likely more numerous white and/or straight characters? “Minority Expendability” or whatever. I think it’s an important distinction, because each issue is solved differently.

A side note– a contributing dimension I would identify, even though I’m not sure if it was part of Simone’s original definition, is when there is a dearth of onscreen presence of the killed character before death, preventing her from speaking for or representing herself in any way, contributing to the functional lack of agency. I don’t think that’s a NECESSARY factor of whether or not a character is fridged, but when it happens I think it definitely intensifies the problem. Honestly, even if we’re informed they actively made a choice that brought about their death, I think the fact that they get zero screen time to speak for themselves makes it still count as a Fridging.


Bechdel-ing my work

I made myself a promise that anything I wrote longer than than ten minutes was going to pass the Bechdel Test. It is not a very high bar to include at least two female characters who talk to each other about the point of the story/something besides a man, so I am determined to do it. I have succeeded since I instituted this rule, which includes all Mrs. Hawking stories, Mrs. Loring, The Tailor at Loring’s End, Puzzle House Blues, and Adonis. Heh, Adonis only has one speaking male character period, a fact with which I am extremely pleased.

For the record, I do not believe that the presence/lack thereof of female characters in storytelling is a reliable indicator of whether the piece evidences a feminist or sexist worldview. I think you can usually tell through observation whether a story exists in a universe where women are viewed as complete people. I have seen plenty of stories with female characters that do not meet that metric, and even some with all male characters that do. I’ve written some of the latter, specifically in the standalone scene or ten-minute form, so I seriously hope that comes through.

But do not mistake me. There are ENOUGH all-male, or too-many-male, casts out there at this point that I think it’s almost uniformly preferable to make an effort to include more women. I know sometimes you imagine a piece a certain way and it needs to be that way; I’ve been there, I get it. I respect authorial vision probably more than most other Angry Media Critic Feminists. But I also believe that so-called “authorial vision” is sometimes influenced by our prejudices more than we realize. We are all socialized to see Straight White Men as our default center of the story, and sometimes the stories for other people don’t spring to our minds because we just don’t see them as having stories worth telling. That is something all artists need to make an effort to GET OVER. And sometimes getting over it means consciously deciding to make a character a woman (or some other figure underrepresented in fiction) in order to start changing our ingrained assumptions.

I thought of this because it occurred to me that my Cabin Pressure fan ficton that I’ve been noodling on may technically pass, but only on a technicality. It’s challenging in this case because what of what I’ve chosen to write about– someone else’s cast of four main characters, only one of whom is a woman, those characters specifically talking about romance, the setting is self-contained where the only other characters present are a horrible nasty couple that is fighting with each other. Even if those two female characters talk to each other, it’s tough to not make the subject in that context a man. So I do understand that sometimes it’s not as easy as it should be. But I don’t want this to be my first piece of substantial length (a runtime of about thirty minutes) to fail since I made my vow. So I am going to make sure it passes legitimately before it’s finished.

As we write the Adonis sequels, I figure we’ll probably EVENTUALLY have to include another speaking male character. If we do, I kind of want to make them fail the reverse Bechdel Test. If there has to be more than one male character, they won’t talk to each other, and if they do, it won’t be about something besides a woman. 😝


The Problem of the Protagonist

As media critics we are bored and fed up with many of the racist, misogynist, and queerphobic storytelling tropes we see taken for granted in mass media. Men motivated by dead women and daddy issues. Women killed to further the emotional arc of a man. Women needing to be rescued. Queer people getting killed off quickly. People of color existing only to help the white lead grow. The list of these and things like them goes on.

A lot of people attribute this to a disposability of these people in the minds of writers, and in many cases that’s absolutely true. (Steven fucking Moffatt comes to mind. :-P) I do think that everybody is at least a little bit racist and sexist and queer-phobic because of the society we live in; nobody escapes it, we’ve just all got to do the best we can to overcome it at all times. While there are definitely prejudiced people who indulge their biases blatantly and without effort to correct, I also believe there are many people for whom, due to the fact that it’s the result of subtle cultural ingraining, it is not conscious. It’s easy to absorb from our fucked-up media that white straight men are the “neutral,” the one that anybody can identify with and step into the place of, something we often want for our protagonists. That doesn’t make it any better, but I think it does mean those people are more likely to be open to learning better and working in the future not to make the same mistakes.

So in many other cases, I tend to think the biased treatment of non-protagonist characters comes not necessarily from a disbelief in the inherent humanity of women or racial and sexual minorities. It’s a side effect of having most of our protagonists be straight white men.

When you write a story, everything tends to spin out from the protagonist. People rarely start from circumstances and then design a person to center things around. When you end up with a straight white male hero, everything else becomes designed in relation to him. Because white people tend to come from white families, his parents and siblings are probably white too, so if you include them, you get more white people. Because straight people form romantic attachments to people of the opposite gender, his love interest has to be a woman. Because you already have a protagonist, even if you DO decide to include more diverse characters in addition, they HAVE to be subordinate in importance to the story because the most important role is already filled. It’s not necessarily that this theoretical writer don’t think people of color, queer people, or non-male people are interesting or that they’re unwilling to write about them— it’s that some of the logical consequences of the white straight male protagonist screw everything up.

Then, moving on from there, I can also see why those secondary characters end up getting killed or otherwise imperiled for the sake of the story. In drama, the stakes must be high. The protagonist must have a strong, compelling motivation to make them go through the maximum amount of struggle and the most intense emotional journey. Often the most powerful and relatable way is to put their loved ones in danger, because it is a fairly universal human experience to want to protect those you love and suffer as they suffer. This means family, friends, romantic interests—who as we have established are dictated in relation to what makes sense for the protagonist —end up on that chopping block for the emotional weight. This gives us fridging and the resultant dehumanization and marginalization.

I saw this a lot in grad school. When somebody else wrote a story led by women, or people of color, or queer people, there was no real trouble on their part to invest in it, to believe that these people could be active or have stories worth telling. But when they told stories pulled from their own brains, they defaulted to white straight dudes, surrounded by other white straight dudes.

Now, I’m not saying that’s okay or that makes it not so bad. Far from it, there is something INTENSELY problematic with the idea that only WSM can be active or heroic or deserve to have their story at the center. But I do believe puzzling out why things happen is valuable, as when you attack the cause you might have a better chance of fixing the issue. And I tend to believe that people default to these WSM protagonists because they’ve been taught that the highest number of people can relate to them, and then all the other problems spin out from there.

So I think we as artists need to make a real effort to have different protagonists. Because every choice you make on them will ripple out into the rest of the story. So changing the center will change every spoke in the wheel. I know when I have even made the simple choice of having my protagonists be women (Mrs. Hawking is a great example) the tropes of the story are flipped just by the female character being the most important actor. If you think about it, it’s a relatively easy fix. We just have to change one character, and it helps the rest fall into place. 🙂