So a couple of things happened yesterday. The first was that I watched The Witches of Eastwick and confirmed for myself that, actually, yes, I do want to change my Camp Nano project from my strange, badly-thought-out erotic high fantasy pseudo-parody to the maybe-YA witch novel I’ve been excited about writing for about 2 years now.
The second happened during my day-long brainstorming session for said witch novel, because the issue I’ve had with getting started with it has been one of ethics, basically. There were two parts to this as well: on the one hand, I am definitely a person who believes that representation matters, and I was not convinced that I was well-equipped to do it well (and still am not convinced). Two: given the kinds of topics I was aiming to cover with this story, I was also concerned with my “message”, the morality tale element that comes with any story whether the writer intends for it to be there or not. Now some of you may have already realised the obvious answer here: you don’t really have that much control over what people read into your writing, if any. Obviously you are the one who puts certain words in a certain order, but out of that order comes whatever interpretation each individual reader brings with their own worldview, beliefs, values, current mood, etc. And conversely, even if you do intentionally put in a “message”, you have zero guarantee that that’s the message your readers are going to take home with them upon reading your story. This second issue was the big one for me yesterday, and I spent a good 6-8 hours wracking my brains for the answer to how I was to get across a responsible message that debunked various toxic beliefs about, in this case, gender roles, sexual assault and consent. When you’re working with witches, specifically the kinds of witch narratives and tropes that exist in our literary canon, these themes tend to come up, and I think they’re worth exploring, but only if writers can do it in a responsible way.
What I realised yesterday, though, is that however much I agonise about this “message” of mine and how well I try to craft it and set it up, ultimately the only thing that matters is whether I buy it. Because that’s the only thing I have control over. I came to that realisation because after 6-8 hours of agonising, the only conclusion I could come to was that I could not come to the conclusion I wanted to, which was a conclusion that gave me the perfect method of spreading my moral convictions through my story to my hypothetical audience, and thus the answer was to just make it work for me. And upon coming to that conclusion, I realised that it really, really didn’t work for me.
I hate preaching.
I hate, hate, hate preaching. I don’t care if it’s for a good cause or if it comes from a good place; it’s patronising and alienating and moralistic. I’m not saying that if there’s a good point being made by a sermon I will disregard it because I hate the way in which it’s delivered, because that would be incredibly lazy. I’m saying that I hate the delivery, and don’t want to use it. And after realising that I had to shift my focus with this story from trying to convince people of a certain morality being correct to just having it work for me, I realised that it was preachier than … something preachy THE POINT is that, as a further consequence of this, I have made some real progress towards breaking a particularly anti-creative habit of mine, which is trying to make sure that every single story that I might conceivably tell is a morality tale – or, rather, make sure that it is presented like a morality tale.
Morality is important to me. A lot of this has to do with my academic grounding because, being an arts scholar, I know all of these facts and figures about how awful the world is and the invisible cultural forces that sustain these systematic injustices. I also know that Twilight is the devil’s baby-gravy, because it romanticises abusive relationships and toxic, outmoded, ridiculously patriarchal conceptions of gender roles. And that second consideration is what has led me to become one of those people who fastidiously analyses not just other media, but that which I produce myself, in order to identify and fix, destroy or otherwise remedy such instances of toxic messages so that they might not indoctrinate our youth.
Here’s the thing about that though: I hate the idea of media effects almost as much as I hate preaching – actually no, scratch that, I hate them exactly the same amount, because they amount to exactly the same thing. For those of you who are not familiar with the theory of media effects and can’t be bothered clicking a link, it is basically that the media that we consume directly and predictably controls the ways in which we think, feel and form moral opinions – basically it is the theory that media can brainwash people in the most stereotypical, b-grade sci-fi plot way you can imagine. Now, it would be utterly ridiculous to suggest that media has no effect on such things, because it’s part of the world that we interact with, and everything that we encounter in our environment shapes us to some extent. But media effects takes a very deterministic and reductive approach to the concept – for example, media effects theory is how we explain the criticisms of Twilight that insist that it will CAUSE people to believe that the kind of relationship that Bella has with Edward or Jacob is not only romantic, but actually desirable in real life, and in fact not just people, but all people who come into contact with this text. It posits that audiences who consume media are a passive, mindless, homogenous mass who are incapable of critical (or any) thought and are unable to resist being “injected” with whatever messages the creators of media wish for people to believe (hence the other term for media effects theory: the hypodermic needle model). This theory emerged around the 1940s, and this is why WWII propaganda takes on the form that it does. So in that sense, media effects suggests that all media is inherently “preachy”.
That’s not why I hate it though. I hate it because, as mentioned, it reduces people who consume media to the state of brainless drones to be programmed according to the wishes of whoever creates a media text. But also because the answer to the harmful, brainwashing effects of the media, taking this model as fact, is often just as preachy and patronising. They are what we call “ham-fisted” kinds of media, media that “beat you over the head” with their messages and obviously do not trust you, the audience, to be able to think or decide things for yourselves. This is why I adore Jessica Jones as much as I do: it gets its message across loud and clear without resorting to insulting its audience’s intelligence in order to do so.
But Girls, which I think does the same thing, exemplifies the reason why I have been concerned about the messages I put across in my (mostly unwritten) stories. This is because so many people do not come away from Girls drawing the same kinds of conclusions that I have; I think Girls does a tremendous job in tackling particularly difficult issues with tact and frankness without excusing awful behaviour (of which there is plenty), yet I seem to be fairly alone in this opinion, along with my best friend who was responsible for getting me to finally watch the show. The issue with Girls, if you can call it an issue, is that it is subtle. It is nuanced. It’s not even very subtle and nuanced; it’s just that it does not separate its cast into upstanding, morally righteous role-models a-la Belle from Beauty and the Beast on the one hand, and cackling, moustache-twirling villains a-la Jafar from Aladdin on the other, and apparently this is too much for some critics to handle. And I can’t tell if they are just that dense, or if they are knowingly ignoring or overlooking things like framing, or repeated motifs throughout the show that include cinematography, lighting, costume, soundtrack and dialogue/blocking – in other words, whether they are innocently or willfully ignorant of the show that they have supposedly watched in order to analyse. And it exasperates me, because it’s an example of a media text that puts a lot of effort into acknowledging its audience’s intelligence being analysed by, to be ungenerous, not particularly intelligent people. Or at least not intelligent in the specific ways that I value. Intelligence is not a blanket attribute, after all; there are multiple kinds of intelligence, and if studying media has taught me anything it is that interpreting visual media as opposed to, say, written media is definitely one of those kinds, and it has to be learnt (as does interpreting written media, of course).
I am now ranting about Girls, but this is my blog and I’ll do what I want with it. I think that Girls is essentially what Garden State could have been if it had lived up to its potential and not been a self-congratulatory neo-patriarchal power fantasy. Garden State is a film that perfectly exemplifies the problem with intentionally putting a “message” in your story. Ostensibly, the “message” of Garden State is a very simple one, the same one that Disney animated features have relied on since at least Dumbo: be yourself. Andrew Largeman does not self-medicate; he is forcibly medicated by his guilt-ridden psychiatrist father who thinks that Andrew’s uncontrollable rage led to the paralysis and eventual death of Andrew’s mother. Then Sam, the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, shows up and leads him on a whirlwind adventure of personal growth, emotional opening-up and you know how the story goes, also it’s 2016 we should not be talking about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl anymore. The point is that Andrew eventually opens up, confronts his father and gets control over his own life.
The problem is not this message. This is a good message. This is a valuable message for many people, regardless of gender. The problem is that it’s not the only message in the film, because through the character of Sam we get the other message, which is that being an emotionally stunted young man who is powerless, insecure and frustrated with his own impotence and lack of agency can and should be solved by hitching yourself to the coattails of another person – a girl, specifically – who will do all the hard work for you, whose romantic and sexual availability to you will only increase as you leech momentum and vitality from her like a basement-dwelling vampire, and who will reward you with said availability upon you reaching terminal self-actualisation through precisely zero effort on your own behalf, because if there’s one thing women exist to do it’s teach, nurture and emotionally validate the existence of men, especially sensitive nice guys who just can’t catch a break, I HATE GARDEN STATE SO MUCH OH MY GOD I HATE IT.
This is an even worse message, in my opinion, than that of Twilight’s glorification of the nuclear family and alpha-male possessiveness and entitlement, because at least in Twilight Bella becomes canonically more powerful than every other character in the books. It takes a while for her to get there, but she does, and while it doesn’t get her out of the toxic relationship she has with Edward and the Cullens, not to mention Jacob, it puts her in a position of power and agency.
But here’s the thing. No matter how much I hate the unintended messages of both films, I have to concede that the viewing public is not a homogenous mass of mindless drones who absorb this stuff mindlessly and uncritically. I mean those people are out there, but they are only part of a greater, limitlessly diverse whole. The fact that media criticism exists at all, even if I think it entirely misses the point in some cases, is a testament to the fact that we are not affected by media according to the hypodermic needle model. The fact is that, much as I detest Garden State now, there was a time when I, if not loved it exactly, at least appreciated it greatly. I was much more into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because the Jim Carrey character just reminded me a lot more of me; I also liked it because there was some actual conflict in the relationship and his ability to connect with other people, which rang a lot more true to me. But the point is that in neither of these films did I take away the message that the solution to all my problems was to find a nice girl to take care of me (though that was partly because I’d already come up with that escapist fantasy all on my own, long before I saw either of these films). The message I took away was “oh, wow, other people in the world understand what this feels like, as evidenced by the fact that they made a movie about it”. And the same goes for Twlight, honestly; even I, straight cisgender male that I am, related to a lot of Bella’s angst and consternation, although that is probably because Bella suffers from undiagnosed depression and anxiety, as I discovered during my most recent attempt to re-read the books. I got about 12 pages in, realised that Bella both had these illnesses and was not supposed to have them, and called it a day. The validation was message enough, is what I’m saying. And I think that focusing on validation, rather than a “message”, is probably the way to go when writing about tricky, confronting subjects.
Which is still a message, of course, it’s just a more subtle form of message. By validating X experience, attitude or value in your work, you are implicitly putting it in a position of privilege. That does not mean you are saying it’s good; it just means that you’re giving it attention. And that can be very good. Acknowledging the existence of sensitive nice guys who can’t catch a break, such as in Garden State, was a very valuable thing when it was made, because sensitive nice guys who couldn’t catch a break really didn’t have any kind of mainstream, sympathetic representation. Now that we have quite a lot of it, however, we really do have to look at the kinds of narratives that these representations turn up in and what values are validated by them. Garden State is a problem for me now because it validates the uber-patriarchal value of allowing women to do all the emotional heavy-lifting for you while you reap all the benefits – and, importantly, do nothing for them in return. Scratch that: the fact that you simply exist for them to fawn and fuss over is enough, because you’re such a nice guy.
Where was I?
Right, messages and validation: basically with this new project I have been tied up in second-guessing myself because of the message I might put out, but now I recognise that it’s more about validation. For one, there’s a lot of validation that I’d like to see offered in media that really isn’t, and I think I’m in a position to do that with this project – hypothetically speaking, of course. If this never reaches an audience greater than myself then that’s kind of a moot point; but it’s also useful for that reason, because it makes it all the more intuitive to focus on what works for me. I don’t need to give myself a message; I am me. What I can get, and often do need, is validation. And if it’s validating for me – well, I’m a pretty strange person in a lot of ways, but there are many strange people in the world, and chances are what’s validating for me will also be validating for somebody else. The flipside, of course, is possibly validating things that I don’t necessarily want to. That’s just an awareness/thinking clearly thing that I can do in post, so that’s fine. But what I’m really excited about is the fact that, for the first time in a long time, I’ve moved out of this rigid, moralistic agenda of making sure that the stories I’m telling are morally and ideologically pure.
I mean it’s either that or I’ve just found a new and more insidious way of doing it.
Whatever I have a new Camp Nano project it’s about witches y’all can’t stop me.