Posted by S.E. Sinkhorn | 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.