Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Tell me a story

So every time someone writes a blog post saying, "Hey, I love this TV series! However, given that it was produced in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, disableist and class-ridden society, unsurprisingly it has a couple of bits I'm not entirely comfortable with! I shall use this as a springboard to discuss these issues, and the way in which culture is shaped by and plays its part in shaping wider society - join me!" there's always some chump - let's call him Len - who comes along to sulk. Loudly. "CENSORSHIP!", he cries; "PROPAGANDA! IT'S ART! GET YOUR POLITICS OUT OF MY PRIME-TIME SOFA EXPERIENCE!"

Safe to say Len is missing the point somewhat.

I may be naive, but I tend to see feminism as a neutral moral stance, or an absence of cruelty: in the same way that not being a giant racist isn't an achievement as it is the bare minimum level of decency one should be able to expect from other human beings. So what I think of as a Feminist TV Show, and the image that phrase conjours up in Len's mind, are pretty different. Mine is one that passes Bechdel, that has actual female characters, that isn't just populated by a job lot of stereotypes from the Backlash Bad Fiction Warehouse (Ugly nerd! Vapid cheerleader! Embittered career woman! You know the drill). It's a show which doesn't constantly remind us that sex will kill us and trying to have a family and a career is a pipe dream. It's a show that explores characters with disabilities, rather than just gawping at them as a tragic morality tale. It's a show that recognises that gay people are, like, people (shocker!) and trans folks aren't just punchlines. It's a show that's interested in more than just the stories of rich white dudes.

Which, to be honest, doesn't sound like that much to ask. This isn't Political Correctness Gone Mad. I'm not calling for a quota system. I'm just suggesting that there are a lot of tales to tell. And when something comes along that hits some of these shockingly high targets, the point is that Len probably wouldn't notice it: it doesn't require writers to shoehorn in long speeches about how the feminist movement has failed and attacked trans people, or have the main character attend a seminar on the ways poor women of colour have been pressured onto long-term contraception, or basically anything as ridiculously overt and preachy as Len would expect. (Not that such discussions are preachy or boring! They are my favourite thing! But their place is probably not in a teen soap.) Issues which affect the ladies, and the Ells, Gees, Bees and Tees, people with various disabilities and Characters of Colour come up as a matter of course when you're writing a story which features people who - say it with me - aren't all identikit rich white dudes.

Ladies, gentlemen, and those who identify outside the gender binary, I give you: Veronica Mars! (I'm so 2008; I'm so 2000-and-late.) So: it has ladies! Lots of ladies, talking to each other about things that are not boys! Lots of silly villain archetypes as well, sure, but also: the lead character is the most believable and complex lady I have seen written on a teen TV show in many a long year (just ask Sady Doyle). It features people of colour who don't always get reduced to lazy stereotypes! (Sidekick, baller, oversexed bitch; okay, I admit, I'm setting the bar pretty fucking low here. But - Alicia? Carmen? Leo? Jackie, from about halfway through Season 2? Weevil, to an extent? And Wallace may be a sidekick - and a baller, two for one at Lazy Stereotype Warehouse - but he's a whole person too.) It has people with disabilities whose disabilities are not their sole storylines. Taking anti-depressants is normal: you still have to deal with the death of your sister and go to school and fight with your best friend. Being Deaf is just being Deaf: it doesn't have a huge bearing on the fact that you had an affair with a teacher and got pregnant and he abandoned your baby in a toilet cubicle. One episode featured a trans character in a way that didn't make me wince, groan, and throw the nearest projectile at the telly's off button out of sheer fury.

That said, the show also 'punishes' a Bad Man by 'tricking' him into wanting to have sex with a trans lady. Which is funny, right? Haha how humiliating! Funny! Gross! Also: the least sensitive and/or clever thing you could possibly have done, writers.

In tiny, subtle ways, the writing shows you everyday casual sexism ("I don't know which bothers me more: 'foxy' or 'stacked'.") and racism ("Lurking? You mean 'standing while black'?"; "Describe this biker guy to me." "Uh... brown?"); short stories and plot arcs deal with class privilege, child abuse, domestic violence, and, of course, rape.

Rape is everywhere in Veronica Mars. It pervades the show in the exact same way it pervades our lives. And yet we are not subjected to endless supposedly sexy pornified breathy scenes of heaving bosoms and contorted faces.
"[R]ape in movies and books and TV doesn’t focus on what women remember from their rapes because rape is not meant to be depicted as an experience of women, to resonate with women, and to acquire an audience of women ... I do not remember, I do not think about my boobs, or about physical pain, or what my face looked like. I think about his hand on my shoulder. I think about what the trees looked like as I stared out the window. I think about how bright the room was. But I guarantee you, go find some rape scene to watch, and you will have close-ups of boobs and a woman’s face contorted in pain and fear." (Harriet J)
No. It's small, and it's sad, and it's fucking terrifying because of that.
"[Y]ou see a girl passing out, then waking up to realize what has happened ...You see these things through the women’s eyes. You do not, as is usual, see things through the eyes of a voyeur, or a rapist." (Sady, again.)

Plus sometimes, if you squint your eyes a little, it's just like watching Buffy!

And that's always fun.

It's not perfect. That goes without saying. The fact that it reaches such giddy heights at times make its failings even more obvious: surprise, Veronica, you weren't really raped, even though you were drugged and have no memory of the apparently consensual sexy times - it was your boyfriend, and you liked it, so it's all cool! Haha, rape is funny when men are the victims! (However good your 'rape is bad' credentials, once you've accepted the concept of a 'deserved raping' you've really lost the moral high ground.) Surprise, the Angry Feminists totally faked a rape to get attention! (This storyline was even more infuriating given that they dealt so amazingly well with the Abuse Victim Is Making It Up trope in Season 1 ). I mean, I get it; I've read my Agatha Christie and I am familiar with the Least Likely Person plot twist. But, in the cultural milieu in which the series is made, the idea that aquaintance rape isn't really rape, or that Angry Feminists are lying castrating bitches, is hardly the least likely scenario: it's the obvious solution. And every TV show that features these storylines feeds into rape culture, just as every TV show which casts all black people as stupid criminals adds a drop to the big scummy bath of racism we're all wallowing in, and it's boring, and it's so annoying when done by a group of writers who have shown over and over that they are capable of better.

But every time a TV show shows a girl as clever and pretty - or a trans person as a devoted loving parent - or a Latina student as a sweet, academic, law-abiding type whose race is not relevant to her storyline - or a Deaf lady who is not defined by her disability - it chips away a tiny bit of the giant invisible edifice of Instutitionalised People Being Rubbish To Each Other. It puts different stories out there. It reminds us all that straightwhiterichcistabguys are not the default, not the only people who get to do something other than embody the Difference Of The Week. In Veronica Mars, girls can be sleuths and fix their rustbucket cars, skint Latino boys struggle in boring jobs and worry about their grandmas, trans women enjoy classic cars and the work of Kevin Spacey, white guys with epilepsy fight with their parents and run for student council. They're people. Like, y'know, people on this side of the screen are.

So, Len, and writers of every other TV show which treats ladies as nothing but love interests and anyone who isn't straight, rich, white, cis, TAB and male as the Issue of the Week: learn from what you see here and, in the immortal words of Scroobius Pip, get better .


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