Recently actress Rose McGowan took umbrage with the image above, decrying the depiction of violence against women used as advertising material. Never mind that that this is a pivotal dramatic scene in a fictional movie in which the woman is a hero (Mystique) who puts everything on the line to try and stop the villain (Apocalypse). Forget that Mystique has been a great character throughout the three movies Jennifer Lawrence has portrayed her, or that she routinely kicks ass throughout the movies. No need to consider that Apocalypse also beats the tar out of many of the male characters in the movie, and if they’d picked an image of one of them getting the shit kicked out of them, or had used an image of Mystique beating down a male from the movie, no one would be making such a big deal out of all of this. This is a pivotal scene for three major characters in this story, Mystique included, where Storm and Magneto must face the reality of the choices they’ve made and how that is effecting someone they look up to and care about. Unbelievably Fox apologized, something that is becoming an all to common, and troubling trend.
The point of this writing isn’t to point out how absolutely ridiculous this outrage is though. I’m not here to talk about all of the ignorant articles and support popping up for this extremely transparent case of slacktivism. I want to talk about writing, diversity, and characters, all of which I think are important elements of a craft I pursue with all the spare time that I have. I think this idea that characters of a certain gender, race, or sexuality should be untouchable when it comes to plot is extremely detrimental to not only good story, but to diversity in entertainment as a whole. If a writer, creator, or artist is hammered in the media every time they put a woman in danger, or kill a gay character, they will wind up not bothering next time. They’ll just avoid the drama all together by not including these characters as major participants in the plot.
The ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ mentality that has become the norm with the media and online outrage artists will eventually drive creators away from even trying. You have fans of a show about survival, where death is just around every corner, losing their minds because a gay character was killed, and while the showrunner’s response is mostly supportive of creating realistic stories in such a world, people still tear him down for it. He clearly wants to have inclusion in his show, supports diversity and good storytelling, but eventually one has to ask; when does the human mind break and either walk away from diversity completely, or sell-out and include it for diversity’s sake alone (that’s called tokenism ladies and gents.)
Even now we have movements to replace traditional male action characters with female actresses, James/Jane Bond for example. I don’t know if these people have seen a James Bond film but he’s regularly beaten, captured, and tortured. Do they think producers are going to be interested in putting a woman in such a role if every scene of violence is going to be met with this sort of outrage? I thought we were moving away from the idea that women must be treated like they’re fragile and weak. I thought we wanted a world where everyone is treated the same? If we want that world to come to fruition one of the earliest places we will see it manifest is in our entertainment media. The arts, books, movies and video games have always been a place for creators to tell stories of how they want the world to look, or to shine a light on the dark places of the world now.
The very basics of fiction writing and character creation are that any character who is unaffected by, or unable to effect plot, are useless to the story as main characters. Some writers go so far as to say these characters aren’t even deserving of a name, they are background, or scenery for the story to take place in. In a movie they are extras, bystanders, people needed to populate the world around the main characters and their plot. Main characters, and even secondary characters most of the time, should be subject to the same consequences of any plot you’re writing. The only way for the reader to feel the tension you are trying to deliver is for them to believe that anyone in the story can be changed by it. That doesn’t always mean death, or violence, but if those are real possibilities for some characters, they must be real possibilities for all your main characters.
Take comic books, for example. It’s a popular trend in major titles, and has been for a long time, that no character remains dead. Superman has even been killed, but he’s back. Eventually the reader loses all sense of apprehension when reading stories like this. We see Superman fight the next big bad villain, but we know that he’ll survive, he’ll win, and even if he ‘dies’ he’ll be back next year for an all-new #1 release. It’s boring, predictable, and in the end is not at all compelling. It’s what makes writing characters over the span of decades difficult, and in the end hard to sell. There’s very few authors out there that will tell you having a main character who is unaffected by plot is a good idea. If you have women or minorities unaffected by plot you basically have background decoration for the sake of the appearance of diversity, which is the opposite of what it means to create a truly diverse world in your work.
Unfortunately people fall back on pointing out tropes in everything, which given enough effort can be done with every single character in anything. There’s hundreds of tropes, so chances are if you write something, your characters will fall right into one of them. They’re over-used in my opinion, and have become a lazy way to criticize everything. They’ve become a big stick we use indiscriminately to beat up any creator whether their use of the trope is accidental or intentional. Take the above example with the show The 100. Fans have accused the showrunner of using the ‘hide your gays’ trope, in which gay characters are killed off for various negative reasons. It’s obvious that the folks behind the show are genuine in their desire to deliver a diverse, and compelling story. They didn’t kill off a gay character just because she was gay, or for any of the other reasons presented in the trope, but the team got beat with that stick anyway.
In the end we have to ask ourselves what we want from our entertainment media. Do we want compelling stories with diverse characters and cast, where the story is driven by the characters and they are affected by the plot? If so then we need to cut creators a little slack when it comes to including more diverse characters. If you want them to be untouchable, unkillable, and unaffected by the plot then you’re going to wind up with a cast of useless characters that are just there to be token representation, or no diverse characters at all because creators don’t want the drama. It’s understandable to want to see representation of your gender, race, or sexuality in the entertainment you consume, but don’t you want those characters to be realistic, interesting, and most importantly, equal to other characters? In either case I think this sort of outrage will kill diversity in entertainment mediums across the board, and that would truly be unfortunate.