HIMYM, Teen Wolf, and the Trouble with Patterns

| Friday, May 23, 2014

It's been a while since I wrote a television and pop culture analysis. Let's change that, eh?

I wrote notes on this months ago, but as is my present MO, I didn't get around to writing about it until now. Let's just pretend for a second that the Season 3 finale of Teen Wolf and the series finale of How I Met Your Mother just recently aired, and let's talk about patterns in our writing and why the choices we make always matter

I hope by now you've had plenty of opportunity to catch up on those shows if you were behind, but if not, you shouldn't continue reading if you would like to remain unspoiled. I'm going to be discussing major plot points at length.


First, let's do a brief Teen Wolf recap: Lydia screamed and cried a lot, Stiles' alter ego was a mega creep, Allison FREAKIN' DIED via sword to the gut, Derek brooded, there was some weird dream stuff, and Kate is back from the dead as an inexplicable new blue werewolf creature-thing.

As you may recall, I've written about Teen Wolf's antagonists before -- specifically, about the tendency for ALL the female antagonists to die bloody deaths while almost every single major male antagonist remains inexplicably alive (or is resurrected or MAGIC-HEALED). The pattern is unmistakeable. I also discussed the tendency of the fandom to lift up the male villains (oh Peter lol you're so SASSY) while throwing pretty frightening venom at the women, especially the ones who sleep with Derek. Anyway, lots more to say, read the other post for backstory if you're interested!

So, you might imagine I was glad to see that they brought Kate back. Finally! A lady villain gets to rejoin the party! Aren't you happy now?

No. No, I'm not. Why? Because the historic pattern of this show still plainly shows a habit of killing off its ladies. Bringing one back doesn't erase the overreaching pattern. You can't stab Allison (the heroine) through the gut with one hand and then pat yourself on the back with the other for bringing back a murderous arsonist who happens to be female an episode later. So no, I'm not happy. I'm not appeased.

In the case of Crystal Reed, who played Allison, one might argue that they had to kill her off because the actress was leaving the show altogether. But that's not really true, is it? They had to write her out, yes. They did not have to kill her. Killing the character was a choice, not a necessity. Jeff Davis has given his reason for choosing to kill her off, but it's still an unsatisfying answer. He argues that the show is "growing up" (which, apparently, means "death happens") and that he could think of no other reason why Allison's character would leave the others behind.

I call bullshit on that, by the way. The season had already gone to great lengths to distance Allison from Scott and crew via new love interests and drastically reducing her screentime, making her seem far less involved in general. She didn't even seem as close to Lydia, her supposed best friend. This explanation is made even LESS credible by the fact that Daniel Sharman, the actor who plays Issac, has also decided to leave the show, and was also left alive... and will supposedly end up in France. Where the Argents have family. Where Allison easily could have gone. Patterns.

In that same article, Davis also addresses the departure of actor Colton Haynes, who similarly decided to leave the show altogether (albeit without warning), and whose character Jackson remains nebulously alive somewhere in London as a result (Haynes was originally intended to return in Season 3). Although Davis admits that they may not have let him live if they'd known of his departure earlier, that doesn't matter. What matters is patterns.

This is why the patterns in your writing are important. Jackson, Issac, and Allison's characters did not live or die in a vacuum. They existed in an overreaching storyline, one peppered with noticeable patterns. Patterns like women dying, fading away, seeing less airtime, or undergoing complete shifts to their character to better serve the plotline of a (male) fan favorite.

Lydia, for example, begins the series as a confident, outspoken, literal genius who wears her sarcasm and popularity like armor. As the show progressed, she became a supernatural being in her own right. For a time, it seemed like her confidence, which was shattered by a werewolf bite, might be restored through her strength of character and desire to protect those around her.

Instead, her character was reduced to a prop. A convenient beacon for "dead body over here." She became "the girl who screams." The camera angles and shots of her in the later stages of Season 3 involved many close-ups of her screaming, crying, tortured face. She spent much of the season half-heartedly trying to solve the "mystery" of what was happening to Stiles (she didn't do much). At least, that's what she did when she wasn't being held captive by Possessed!Stiles and having lots of scared-face close-ups.

These aren't mistakes. They're not oversights. They're writing and directorial choices.

Now let's talk about HIMYM and the series finale that left about 90% of the fandom feeling underwhelmed and betrayed.

I have also discussed HIMYM and why I decided to stop watching at length. Of course, that didn't stop me from watching the Twitter fallout after the finale aired. I admit, I was curious. Not surprised, but curious.

Upon finding out that The Mother finally gets a name in the last episode before almost immediately being KILLED OFF to make room for Ted to have another go at Robin, my first thought was "shocker."

(It was not really a shocker. I was being glib.)

Again, this is where patterns and writing choices come in. If you look at only the first and last episodes of How I Met Your Mother, the narrative actually makes sense. It appears nicely bookended. Ted's just a guy who cares too much and has bad timing.

Instead, the show stretched on and the writing fell into a series of problematic, lazy, overdone patterns. Robin and Ted were together, then they weren't. He was in love with her, now he wasn't. She loved Barney, now she didn't. He gave her his blessing, but he still loved her. It was over, but it wasn't. No really, it was OVER. Except clearly not.

Ted's relationships went from making him sympathetic to making him a callous jackass. Overall, the show's treatment of women grew consistently lazier. It was never the best, but eventually the writing began to ask us to like Barney as a person, rather than a punchline, which meant devaluing his conquests by default. It began making every subsequent girlfriend less of a person and more of a zany, empty shell. A one-off passerby. A "slutty pumpkin" or "crazy-eyed" stalker.

Ultimately, THAT is what made the finale seem like such a punch in the face. Here she was, the titular character, the woman we were supposed to root for. The payoff was finally at our fingertips... only to be torn away, the character forgotten, just another woman in the background as Ted moved on to his "real" love. We were asked to invest in the Robin-Barney relationship (ha ha ha, very funny), we were asked to accept that Ted was going to move on, and then... none of it mattered.

The ending had supposedly been planned from the start, to the point where the actors playing Ted's kids filmed their parts years ahead of time. The writers knew where this was going, and they STILL made the writing choices they did. They had every opportunity to figure out a narrative that would make the ending feel earned, but they opted for slut jokes and repeating Barney's Playbook gag.

Here's the bottom line: PATTERNS MATTER. Locating troublesome, repetitive tropes MATTERS. When your writing shows a certain pattern -- say, belittling or killing off women -- then every single choice you make either reinforces that pattern or breaks it. You have to break it A LOT to match the number of times you reinforced it.

The lesson here is to LOOK FOR THE PATTERNS IN YOUR WORK. If you tend to kill off characters, who are you killing? How are your people of color being represented (savages, hoodrats, sexual conquests, oppressed people saved by a white person)? Do your LGBTQ characters tend to die or lead tortured lives? Is everyone white, straight, middle class, etc.? Recognize those patterns and BREAK. THEM.

It's a conscious effort. This shit isn't going to come to you naturally. You have to do it purposefully. Maybe it's something you don't fully realize you're doing, so you need to pay attention. It will make your writing stronger, and more importantly, it'll help you avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

To My Fellow Straight White Writers: On Diversity

| Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hi, fellow straight white writers. Gather 'round. We should have a talk.

Ever since #WeNeedDiverseBooks started, it's had incredible support, amazing feedback, and lots of attention. It's been near-impossible not to at least notice it. Many people have contributed, most positively, some neutral, some negative. I point this out because I want to be clear that the participation has been overwhelmingly positive for the most part, albeit sometimes in a way misses the point a little (or a lot), and that's what I'd like to talk about.

Photo Credit: außerirdische sind gesund via Compfight cc

In the last few weeks, I've witnessed what feels like an excessive amount of straight white people saying the same thing: "I think this movement is good, but I don't know if I can write diversely! I'm scared. Will someone please tell me it's okay for me to try?" Similarly, whenever the subject of promoting diverse AUTHORS comes up, it seems that a straight white person always comes from the sidelines to say, "You mean diverse BOOKS, right? Authorship doesn't matter if the book is good, right? We're still talking about me too, right?"

These questions are most typically posed to marginalized people by privileged people. They are also completely, utterly missing the point. Questions like these take something that is supposed to be about creating large-scale change through the inclusion of diversity not only in books themselves, but in authorship and at all levels of publishing, and flip attention back onto the "plight" of the straight white writer. It's refocusing attention on ourselves. Missing. The. Point.

(Edited to add: I originally only mentioned "straight white" writers in particular in this post, but I'd like to make it clear that this applies to other privileges and marginalizations, as well. This includes, but is not limited to: gender identity, disability, body size, religion, etc. In my head, I thought it'd be clear that this could be applied to other areas as well, but I decided it'd be best to state it outright.)

Furthermore, you are putting your responsibility at the feet of marginalized people when you ask for nebulous "permission." Please stop doing that. It's not an okay thing to do. It is NOT the responsibility of marginalized people to pat you on the back and tell you that you're a good person, you're doing okay, and not to feel bad. Don't put that on them. NO ONE can give you some kind of magic blanket "okay" on your writing, ESPECIALLY when they've never read it.

That's perhaps what bothers me most... asking people to tell you it's okay for you to write something when they have absolutely no context or idea of how you write. They don't know if you're going to research. They don't know if you're going to write stereotypes. The real answer to this question is always going to be I don't know, it depends on how it's done.

It's tiring for *me* to read comments from all my fellow white people hand-wringing about how they're just so SCARED of... something. Criticism, I guess. Being called a racist, maybe? And look, I get it. Criticism can be hard and painful. But in this particular context, we really need to suck it up, because we can't keep asking other people to take that personal burden for us. If it's uncomfortable and irritating for *me* to see this so often, I can't imagine how exhausting it must be for the people on the receiving end.

Similarly, there's another thing I've seen that's really rubbed me the wrong way: straight white people dipping into the conversation to promote their own book(s), often alongside a description that reads kind of like a "diversity checklist." I love diversity! That's why I wrote this book with a black boy astronaut and a blind girl warrior and their gay teacher! Here's the Amazon link!

You guys. No matter HOW you do this, it ALWAYS feels gross. Always. I don't know how else to say this, so I'll just say it: if you are a straight white writer who has written a "diverse" book, #WeNeedDiverseBooks is not the platform with which to promote it yourself. Cut it out. You may feel your intentions are good, but your actions read as self-serving, and just... don't. You're taking space on a floor that isn't FOR you. And yes, I am calling white writers out in particular for this, even though I've seen POC authors doing the same, because you know what? This particular platform was made for them. Not us. Sometimes you need to step aside. This is one of those times.

And look, I get it, being an indie or midlist author is fucking hard and there's a ton of pressure to promote yourself. You want to succeed. You want to survive. I know. This is still not the space for that.

"But that's not fair!" you cry. Well, it's not fair that other people are being shut out of publishing and literary success by an imbalanced system. Their level of unfair trumps yours by about a million-billion. Let them go first.

Your book may be wonderful. I'm not saying don't promote your book. I'm saying don't do it HERE, in THIS particular context. And I don't even have words for the people who are posting books about animals in the tag. You wrote a metaphorical "animals as racism" allegory? SUPER not the place for that.

Now let's talk about one of the less supportive questions that keeps popping up: "You can't FORCE people to write diversely if they don't want to! You're going to DESTROY CREATIVITY by forcing people to write and publish a certain way."

I honest-to-goodness do not understand why people think this is a "mandate" or call for "forced diversity." I don't know why anyone believes that proponents of WNDB want them to do this against their will. I sure as hell don't. What exactly would be the point of expending energy trying to rope in people who are kicking and screaming when there are literally thousands of people who are and will write this way gladly? Why on earth would we want begrudging, imagined-quota-based "diversity" when we could lift up someone writing from their heart and experience?

If you're not interested in this, FINE. Go on and do your thing. Literally no one will stop you. This has never, ever been about you. This is about EXPANDING OPTIONS, not forcing your hand.

Okay, this is long, and I am (mostly) done. For now. If any of this struck you as unduly harsh, then I'll ask you to consider those feelings and roll them over in your head for a little while. I'm not trying to be harsh. I'm trying to let you know that you may have been unintentionally putting yourself ahead of those you claim to be supporting, and now you know. Just think about it.

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