Imagine you are a different person.
Not just a different version of yourself, maybe smarter, or stronger, or with magic powers, but a different person entirely. A different gender, race, sexuality, religion. Imagine you grew up rich, or dirt poor. Imagine you are an Armenia teenager who helps his widower father run a stall at a fish market. Imagine you are your next door neighbour. Imagine you are China’s first transgender ballerina. Imagine you grew up consuming different media, fancying different people, being called by different pronouns.
Can you imagine the entire inner and outer life of a person whose experience is completely different from yours?
This is the exercise that writers are asked to undertake. Unless we choose to write very true to our own experiences, then we have to be able to get inside the heads of people who are different to us. Sometimes these characters need little more than a basic wire framework of experience and personality. However, central characters need to be more than just a cardboard cutout. They need life, and that life generally requires some note of authenticity.
There are some very basic tenants or characterisation that any not-completely-awful writer will know; things like not reducing a character to a single trait or quirk, not making them a stereotype, and ideally, not defining them entirely through their relationship to another character. It can be a little more difficult to write ‘authentic’ emotions, but this is where the writer employs both their own experience and their ability to empathise (fairly essential to the majority of quality writing). As long as the author has experienced a reasonably wide range of emotions – happiness, anger, embarrassment, grief – they should be able to project their emotions onto their characters.
There are some emotional experiences, however, that can be extremely difficult to write accurately if the author has never experienced them. Empathy can only extend so far when it comes to accurately representing experiences such as: being an adopted Asian child growing up in a white Australian family; depression, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness; the tension of being a woman walking alone at night or the constant feeling of being watched and judged that comes with being female; the body dysmorphia that many trans people experience; being a homosexual child trying to figure out their crushes and whether or not they are ‘normal’.
Even if these experiences do not occur within the story itself, they will affect the lives of the characters, their personalities and how they behave. Can a writer who has not had these experiences convincingly write a character who has inevitably had them as a part of their life?
It is not impossible for an author to write outside of their own emotional experiences. Many writers do it well. But it is far, far easier for a queer woman to write a straight male than it is for a straight male to write a queer woman. Why?
The stories of straight, white, cisgender men are everywhere.
Big beefy male action heroes, skinny male nerds, sensitive male musicians, wise, elderly male professors, unhinged male psychopaths, compelling male assholes, evil male villains, average joes, guys-next-door, male athletes, male politicians… the narrative landscape of our society is a veritable cock forest. Just about every possible model for ‘straight, white, cis dude’ has been done a hundred thousand times. Churning out a male character becomes almost second nature given just how often audiences are expected to identify with each and every one of them. That doesn’t mean they are bad characters, or that writing them is inherently lazy – rather that it is much easier to write a good male character with so many variations to build upon.
The dearth of other narratives means that writers must build much more on experiences that may be alien to them in order to create their characters. This requires a good deal of empathy and skill, and is often where many writers can tend to fall flat on their faces.
Because of the lack of wide variation in, say, female characters, writers who learn from those who’ve come before them can often end up regurgitating sexist tropes. Female characters can end up having their personalities revolve around the fact that they are female, i.e. they exhibit only traits associated with stereotypes of femininity (irrational moodiness, superficiality, mothering, etc.). While not always bad, these sorts of characters are usually pretty terrible and can bring down a narrative with otherwise well-written (male) characters. (The best way around this, of course, is to recognise the fact that women are multi-faceted people who can possess a variety of strengths and personalities and still be interesting, well-rounded people. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of a show which contains a wide range of unique, powerful women.)
An alternative to this can be to write a character with a neutral model. This is sometimes done in films and video games, and has been responsible for some excellent female characters (Ripley from the Alien films was written this way, and she frequently ranks highly on feminists’ lists of best female characters). However, there is a limit to the sorts of narratives these ‘neutral’ characters can inhabit; sometimes plots are about a character’s gender, or race, or sexuality, and while gender may be irrelevant in a sci-fi or dystopia, it probably makes a difference in stories about the American Civil War or a romantic dramedy set in a Catholic high school (these are also stories in which gender by necessity intersects with issues of race/sexuality/etc., other issues generally irrelevant to the narrative of the straight, white, cis dude). Gender and race are also usually fairly visible in ways other traits may not be. While no character should be defined by their sexuality or their gender identity or their faith, these issues shouldn’t be invisible; the “Dumbledore was gay all along” model is a fairly lazy method of representation and is unlikely to get your writing a tick from anyone other than well-meaning straight people.
Ultimately, the best way to write a character outside of our own experiences is to do a lot of research, and never presume to be able to tell the story of someone with different experiences to us better than someone who has had those experiences. If you think it’s too much effort to research what it’s like to be trans and think you do a better job all on your own (looking at you, Jeffrey Eugenides), then think about the amount of time you’ve spent researching the Middle Ages, or how planes work, or how to dispose of a body, or how to survive a gunshot wound, all for the sake of a throwaway line in a story you stuck in a drawer. If we can do all that to provide authentic details, then we can research a character at least well enough that we aren’t going to misrepresent and offend an entire group of people.
It may be impossible to write a character that isn’t you in a way that is truly convincing. That doesn’t make you a bad writer. Writers are also not necessarily obligated to write characters who aren’t straight, white, cisgender males. We don’t have to write anything we don’t want to write. But if we really want to try to be good writers, then we probably should.
While the spin-off show from Once Upon a Time hasn’t been getting the greatest reviews, I think there’s something to be said for the feminism in the last episode I watched. Yes, it’s been awhile since it aired, but I’m just catching up now! It’s been a busy year.
Let’s back-track for the non-Once Upon a Time watchers out there. Basically, the initial show involves fairytale characters who had been thrown back into the real world because of the evil queen’s nasty spell that she cast to punish Snow White because she hates her so. The show flicks back and forth through time and fairy tale worlds, weaving together all the Disney fairy tales rather cleverly. At first I was really disappointed that the show didn’t take more from original fairy tales instead of drawing on Disney’s bastardisation of them – then I realised the show is actually made by Disney.
And they did make Mulan bisexual, so hey, let’s leave that be for now.
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was a sort-of spin-off. I say sort-of because we haven’t actually seen any characters from the original show here, not even any cameos or mentions of them (apart from a brief mention of the Mad Hatter, who appears in a few Once Upon a Time episodes). However, it uses the same sort of cannon – Alice has been to Wonderland, one of the many fairy realms. In fact, she’s been there twice, since the second time she wanted to come back with proof. Instead, she fell in love with a genie called Cyrus, who was being hunted by the Queen of Hearts and Jafar (yep, Aladdin’s Jafar from Agraba).
When Cyrus was captured, Alice returned to the real world without proof and was thrown into a mental institution. Where, of course, the white rabbit and the Knave of Hearts come and rescue her…back to Wonderland to rescue Cyrus.
There in itself, I’m pretty pleased. Yes, she’s a damsel that has had to be rescued, but she takes charge of the situation and flips it around to start a rescue mission of her own.
I’ll admit, the first few episodes didn’t really have me hooked – but I just watched the fourth episode (yes, I know I’m behind) and I’ve been mulling over the female characters here and I’m actually rather pleased.
It might become a bit more of a hefty article if I wrote EVERYTHING that I liked about the feminism in this show, so let me just explain what I think are the two most awesome bits, then you can comment if you agree/disagree/have a point to make about any of them:
Firstly, we have both a female and male villain – and, funnily enough, it is the male villain that is much more one-dimensional than the female villain. She’s not simply a woman scorned, she’s a woman who has done the scorning, and she shows frequent lapses in her evil-ness. The female villains in both this show AND the original show exhibit a much more multifaceted nature than most original Disney female villains. And a lot more motivation that simply, “I’m jealous of the prettier girl who’s going to end up killing me.” Jafar, on the other hand, is led by simple greed and revenge – which is still poor, but from the feminist lens, a refreshing take on the male villain.
Secondly, Alice is always saving men. She’s constantly saving the Knave of Hearts from sticky situations and is the clear leader of the pack. It’s her ‘quest’ and she leads the Knave around with strength and determination. She has every bit of the strength of the alpha male, without truly losing her femininity. She’s delivers a punch to the Queen of Hearts, and she hits like a girl, which is damn freaking hard!
I’m also really liking how they talk about whether Alice has become a woman or is still the little girl she used to be when she first visited Wonderland. That’s pretty awesome because they keep the vernacular feminine, while exhibiting that a woman can become tough and strong as she grows – without having to “grow balls” or “be a man” as the catch-phrases often go these days.
I’m impressed with the feminism in the show, and it’s one of the reasons I’m going to keep watching – because the visuals are definitely nothing to rave about and the story isn’t really grabbing me yet. Though genie Cyrus eye-candy is another reason to keep watching…
What do you think? Feminism in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland good or bad?
Please do not read if you want the surprises in Sherlock’s ‘The Empty Hearse’ to be fresh and new to you.
I’ve dragged myself away from my frantic tumblr-ing to write at length about the latest from the BBC’s Sherlock. Still reeling from farewelling my favourite Doctor a week ago, I was very anxious for the premiere of a series two years in the making. The dialogue and story were solid and seeing the cast back in the game felt like a reunion with dear friends.
The third season’s long-awaited premiere, ‘The Empty Hearse’, sees our star detective return to London and reunite with the friends who thought him dead years after he apparently jumped off a city roof.
The dramatic act, having been confirmed as a faked death in the same episode, was just one of a number of major drawing points for fans eager for the program’s return. Season three arrived with the promised introduction of Dr. Watson’s fiancé, Mary Morstan.
The story of the episode did not disappoint. Two thrilling scenes involving a Guy Fawkes bonfire and a bomb in the underground train network (respectively) were thrilling to watch. Despite having the reassuring knowledge that this was only the first episode of a confirmed three-episode series, I still found myself sitting at the edge of my seat hoping that the tense situation wouldn’t spell the end for the recently reunited pair.
The cinematics were at their usual excellent standard, with some of the best scene changing I’ve ever seen occurring while Sherlock tells Mrs. Hudson just how displeased John is with his two-year deception. Scene changes between this conversation and clips of John’s ‘average day’ working as a G.P. are expertly put together to deliver laughs which just kept coming.
Many of these jokes tapped dangerously against the fourth wall. The brilliant opening sequence was, at least in this house, met with a spectacular mixture of horrified screams, delirious laughter and mute, mouth-gaping shock. I doubt I need to say anything beyond the loftiest of congratulations to Gatiss for creating such a ridiculous ‘explanation’ of Sherlock’s fall.
That said, if they continue to deepen my trust issues by feeding us fake stories about Sherlock’s miraculous survival, I might just have a nervous breakdown.
The pleasure I took from the episode is matched, however, by the disappointment and resentment I have for Sherlock’s co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.
The overall feeling I’m taking away from ‘The Empty Hearse’ is irritation.
The episode itself was nearly faultless. In the end, I decided that it was the creators’ interaction with the fandom which soured what was otherwise an enjoyable experience.
Sherlockians have reacted with delight to the content in ‘The Empty Hearse’ which appears to have been inspired (or very coincidentally reflective) of fan headcanons. This phenomenon by itself, I think, can’t purely be a bad thing! I am stubbornly optimistic – with good reason (see Brian Fuller and Joss Whedon)! There are plenty of writers, producers and other crew working to create stories and characters because they share a common interests and passions with their audience.
Moffat and Gatiss have obviously enjoyed having a laugh with this episode and that alone is something I won’t begrudge any writer. But at more than one point during the show, I found myself wondering if they were laughing with us or if it was more a laugh at the fandom’s expense.
In this day and age, where fans can interact collectively with each other and the producers of their favourite shows with greater ease, the origin of the entertainment we consume is something I think we should be choosy about, or at the very least, be aware of.
Fans might have noticed the subtle absence of Sgt. Sally Donovan; the only female character who isn’t either a motherly figure, or a romantic interest (or wishing to be) of either John or Sherlock.
It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that Donovan was merely irrelevant to the story. But it was a shame that she did not appear even in a non-speaking role; as a background character with the police, for instance; or alongside Lestrade listening to Anderson’s elaborate theories of Sherlock’s survival.
If Anderson was driven to obsession and near-insanity because of his involvement in antagonising Sherlock’s image in the first two seasons, one wonders what effect Sherlock’s apparent suicide had on Donovan; the Sergeant who was suspicious of Sherlock from Day One, and who was the primary character to bring police investigation onto him. It seems pretty doubtful that she wouldn’t have felt a little remorse over how events played out. And if she didn’t, I’d still like to know.
I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Donovan’s M.I.A. status is a crucial flaw in the episode, nor would I argue that it is the decisive feature which proves or establishes sexist writing in Sherlock.
Thankfully, Molly Hooper and even the motherly Mrs. Hudson have strengths to their characters that aren’t wholly overridden by any determination to relegate them to ‘helpless female’ tropes. Likewise, John’s fiancé Mary Morstan had a promising start, proving herself smart (decoding a cryptic ransom text message, enlisting Sherlock’s help), witty (“I agree. I am the best thing that’s happened to you”) and charming to fans worldwide.
However, if Donovan’s exclusion was purely due to her irrelevance to the larger plot, we should ask why Moffat and Gatiss included the things that did make it to the final cut: Why it was necessary to represent Sherlock fans (in particular, female Sherlock fans) in the way which was chosen.
On one hand, I had a giggle at what I was sure was Moffat’s voice coming through John’s mouth when he insisted to Mrs. Hudson, “Sherlock wasn’t my boyfriend!” and later on I laughed for a solid minute after my joking suggestion for Sherlock and Moriarty to kiss was suddenly obeyed.
After a while I found it patronizing more than entertaining: particularly having seen the respect with which Hannibal fans are treated by producer Bryan Fuller. Fuller, in an interview late last year for ET Online, describes an audience demographic similar to that of Sherlock‘s;
“A significant portion was young, smart, well-read women; they really responded to this show and I typically relate to young, bright ladies [laughs]. It was nice to see how enthusiastic and passionate they were.”
Fuller, of course, is well aware of the slash-fic which the ‘Fannibal’ community enjoys.
But unlike Moffat, he doesn’t make the fandom the butt of jokes (in the tv show or outside of it in interviews). He doesn’t condescend to his audience by pigeon-holing them into a caricature of what he thinks fans are like. Fuller treats the fandom as his intellectual equals;
“I feel like we’re peers and there is a mutual respect and that everybody is coming from a place of admiration [for the show].”
Dr. Lecter makes plenty of jokes which the audience can appreciate, being well aware of his dietary preferences; but Hannibal isn’t rife with declarations of “I’m not gay!” and outlandish daydream sequences serving as thinly-veiled jokes about the focus of the fandom.
Perhaps that’s because Hannibal is yet to reach its third season and, with it, the level of self-awareness enjoyed by Sherlock, nor the level of hiatus-induced madness afflicting its fandom. However, I doubt running time is the only differentiating factor between Fuller’s respect for Fannibals and Moffat’s general contempt for Sherlockians and (mostly female) Whovians. The track record for the latter, sadly, does him no favours.
Fuller should not be the exception in the plenty of opportunities which producers and writers have to give back to their audience.
There are plenty of ways to share a joke with your fandom which don’t involve belittling your fanbase.
There are plenty of ways to engage with your fandom which don’t involve ridiculous dream sequences bringing fanfiction to life. While this can be fun, the enjoyment is spoiled if your fans have to pause to wonder “is that all you think I watch this for?”
As a part of the Sherlock fandom, I personally know other fans (mostly young women my age) and I interact with even more fans online, internationally. I enjoy the jokes we share and the ships we envision – no matter how unrealistic.
But having been part of this fandom since 2011, I also know that there’s so much more to Sherlockians than our slash fics.
I’ve seen the most beautiful artwork. I’ve seen the deep thought which goes into forums analysing episodes as they come out. I’ve seen wonderfully detailed costumes worn by cosplayers who strive to bring the characters to life. I’ve seen countless fanvideos combining Sherlock with Doctor Who and Supernatural in clever, funny and heart-wrenching ways.
So when I think about the possibility that Moffat and Gatiss haven’t seen or don’t believe that this fandom is as creative, talented and smart as it is quirky and silly, it makes me sad!
A part of me wonders; is this honestly all Moffat and Gatiss think interests us? If so, is it necessarily a big deal? Is it even a problem if the show’s creators think we’re just a bunch of crazy shipping fangirls, so long as they provide us with the quality plot we thrive on?
There is nothing inherently harmful about having a good-natured chuckle at self-identified geeks. However, stereotypes are lazy at best and patronizing at their worst. Moffat risks alienating the very fans who support his work.
The Sherlock fandom probably seems strange to the outside eye: Our tendency to ship couples who canonically share nothing in common, or our social awkwardness, or our ‘oddball’ appearances or personalities. But I have come to expect better from Moffat, who (despite his faults) is a very clever and creative storyteller. At the very least, it’s incorrect to assume every Sherlock fan ticks all of those boxes.
While I have my reservations about how Moffat and Gatiss seem to treat the Sherlock fandom, I remain optimistic that this creator-to-consumer dialogue has been embraced in Sherlock like the way it has been in Doctor Who and Hannibal.
After being so excited for season three, watching ‘The Empty Hearse’, screaming my little heart out before eventually processing what happened, I have finally been able to look at it with a more critical gaze. I still enjoyed it and I don’t regret laughing at the lingering lovers’ gaze shared between Moriarty and Sherlock. I’m very glad knowing London is in capable hands – and while my love-hate relationship with Steven Moffat continues to be tested, there’s nothing that can stop me being ready with my tea and laptop for episode two.
Every sci-fi spaceship in current knowledge. Brought to you by Dirk Loechel. Super impressive. Especially when you note that these are actually all done to scale, with 1 pixel = 10 meters.
Anyone else think that Stargate’s Atlantis city-ship is kinda ridiculously small?!
It’s a wonderful feeling when you enter your small hometown cinema and find yourself surrounded with fan t-shirts, fezes and at least twenty ‘Doctors’ in costume. The audible undercurrent to the excited chattering around you is the unmistakeable whir of multiple sonic screwdrivers.
Such was the sight I was greeted with last Sunday, joining friends and strangers to see the highly-anticipated Doctor Who 50th anniversary special; ‘Day of the Doctor.’
What a day, indeed! Whovians nationwide made themselves known and were treated to cinema-style viewings of this very special episode of the popular British TV show.
Doctor Who is one of the longest-running productions on television and among the most successful and recogniseable sci-fi franchises. It follows the titular character, the Doctor, a Timelord who explores the many facets of the universe alongside various companions – who are human friends who share in the adventures and travels. The Doctor’s chosen method of transport is the iconic TARDIS – the famous blue police box which can navigate both time and space (it actually stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space).
Fans lucky enough to score a cinema ticket were truly spoiled! Prior to the start of the episode we witnessed two preview shorts involving Smith and Tennant, the latest two Doctors; and Strax, a battle-crazed alien who has featured prominently in Smith’s time.
Strax, a Commander in the alien Sontaran race which glorifies bloody war and battle, took great pleasure in restraining and imprisoning misbehaving moviegoers. The feisty Commander took great relish in punishing those who brought out their mobile phones during the movie, among other minor misdemeanours – and the “tiny screams” of his popcorn victims.
Tennant and Smith teamed up to play a game with cinema audiences which had us laughing in no time. After recovering from the excited squeals that went up at Tennant’s appearance, the Doctors had the audience test the function of our 3D glasses with a clever trick. While this process led us into deep suspicion about the possibly alien nature of the person next to us, the cute skit put everyone in a cheery mood before the special feature.
An undeniable highlight to the 50th came in the form of Tom Baker. Whiter and more wrinkled – but every bit the same kooky and fun Doctor we remember – Baker’s time onscreen was nothing short of magical.
Every previous regeneration appeared to save the day in what was a very moving climax; an endearing tribute to longstanding fans. But the heartwarming scene between Baker and the face of the current Doctor, Matt Smith, left fans positively beaming.
Baker, who played the role of the Doctor’s fourth regeneration from 1974 to 1981, remains a fan favourite to this day.
The 50th was feature-length and full of thrills, with an ending revelation which casts a new light on a very significant part of the Doctor’s past – and future.
Without revealing too much for those still yet to see it, we can say with assurity that Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows were the real stars of the show, earning themselves a fan following after their three seconds onscreen.
It was heartening to learn that, in my rural Victorian hometown of a-thousand-or-so, I am not alone in my fandom.
My only wish now is that the good Doctor will continue to develop and flourish; that more people can share in the Doctor’s adventures. And that, eventually, Whovians everywhere can come together again for the 60th, 75th… and maybe even the 100th anniversery special!