Ethics in TV Storytelling from ClexaCon: Part II

Ethics of Storytelling at ClexaCon: Continued from Part 1 

About that writers’ room, how does that factor into ethical storytelling? What is the role of a showrunner? How much do an author’s intentions and opinions matter? And is anyone on TV writing queer female characters ethically?

Ethics in Storytelling Panel

Dr. Elizabeth Bridges – Literature Professor & Writer – The Uncanny Valley

Gretchen Ellis – Linguist, Storyteller, Critic – The Ranconteur

Heather Hogan – Senior Editor Autostraddle.com

Moderator Question: TV relies on a collaborative writers’ room, so what kinds of problems does that lead to?

Elizabeth

This is another one where I’d like to bring in a historical perspective because I think that obviously television is a collaborative medium. There is no such thing as the singular auteur, artiste that makes television because there has to be a writers’ room. There have to be different people contributing. Editors. Actors. You name it.

There was a panel at ATX called ‘Bury Your Tropes’. I found that really disappointing. Javier Grillo-Marxuach was the only one who had anything progressive to say. Everybody but Javi on that panel stuck with this idea of the ‘singular artistic vision’.

This idea of artistic integrity is rooted in the idea of the artist that we inherited from the Renaissance. That’s when the artist was the painter, the sculptor, and that’s when artists started signing their name to works. That’s when we developed this idea of the artist with a singular vision with a divine gift from God, and that’s where we get our idea of the artist.

Fastforward to 2016 or 2017, and these showrunners have inherited this idea of the artist, and they see themselves as these folks with a divine gift and singular vision. They probably don’t say it like that in their minds, but that’s the cultural idea we have.

Heather

I mean they do say it. I mean even Rothenberg was: “Well I thought I was going to do it differently.” You see that in writers’ rooms, especially when it’s a male showrunner, like: I thought my thing was going to be so different from the other 175 lesbian/bisexual characters that were killed.

Then when you have women showrunners like Ilene Chaiken (Empire), their whole thing is ‘I’m a lesbian so I can kill whoever I want’.

Elizabeth

Still the trope.

Heather

Right? Then you have Ryan Murphy who’s the combination of both of those things. ‘I’m a gay man so I can just piss on literally everybody.’

Gretchen

We see artists say it all the time. They say: This is my story, and I need to tell it. I need to be true to my story. I need to be true to my vision. I have a lot of very choice words I won’t say here for people who say that. Because it’s nonsense.

You are crafting a story for an audience. You are making a story that people will watch. Especially with television, the point of television is to make money for the network. This isn’t just: I am an artist painting my work of art that hopefully one day will end up in a museum.

They’re creating media that exists to entertain and interact with the audience. In terms of that, they’re imposing a vision and a perception of art that doesn’t fit in this medium. Film and television are not the same as a single person creating a single work of art.

We cannot allow that conception to continue because it ends up with: they believe they don’t have to listen to their audience or even people in the same writers’ room.

Heather

Very simple solution to this problem is to put queer people, people of color, trans people, and non-binary people in your writers’ room. You need more than one black woman in a writers’ room because black women are not a monolith. You need a variety of voices.

Elizabeth

That’s what I mean about this model of the artist. Because at the ATX panel we had Ilene Chaiken saying: It’s okay because I’m a lesbian. No it’s not. So not only do we have to have this diverse team of people working on these projects, but then there also has a be a different model for how art is created.

Frankly, the one we inherited as the singular artiste is not a feminist model. So we need something that is truly collaborative. When you’re talking about something like One Day at a Time, I think we see the results of that. It’s been pretty successful.

People look to the person who authored a book or the showrunner to have an opinion about their own work. Back to literary studies, there’s this concept called the ‘death of the author’. It came along in the 1960’s – 70’s by this literary critic named Roland Barthes.

He talks about this idea that the opinion that an author has after releasing the work to the public is irrelevant because it’s just another opinion. What really matters is the response of the reader or the viewer because that is where the interaction takes place.

That’s where this dialogue takes place. It was meant for viewers. It was meant for readers. It doesn’t matter.

We can go back to JK Rowling talking about Dumbledore being gay. It’s like: That’s great. Where is it in the text?

Heather

The thing that’s made that infinitely worse is Twitter because a writer can just get on immediately after and say: ‘What I meant was…’ But you’re all: ‘Hey, that’s nice, but what I saw on my television was another lesbian getting shot with a stray bullet’.

Gretchen

On some level, I can acknowledge that you didn’t mean it the way I heard it, but this is how I heard it whether you meant it that way or not. What I want from you is to say: I am so sorry. I will do better next time.

From showrunners who did that, their reaction is: Let me explain to you why you should not have felt that way.

Heather

The other problem is, of the people who are watching your show, maybe half a percent are watching you on Twitter. So the cultural impact is there regardless of whether or not you apologize, because now it’s out in the wide world for people who are not part of the conversation. All they’re seeing is more dead queer characters.

The cultural impact goes so far beyond fandom. That’s the impact that really matters in a broader scheme because that impacts the people who are making legislation that is coming back to affect us.

To me the most remarkable thing to come out of Lexa’s death was the fact that places like Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood Reporter, and Variety started paying attention and writing about this thing and interviewing queer people and calling it out as a problem.

In terms of Bury Your Gays, one of the huge successes around the movement around Lexa is there is no showrunner on earth can be like: I didn’t know Bury Your Gays existed.

So if you’re doing it, you’re doing it purposefully, knowing it hurts the community, and you’re doing it knowing the backlash is coming your way.

The justification for so long was: Now we have so many characters, and marriage equality is a thing, and Obama’s going to change the world, it’s not like we’re ever going to get Donald Trump as president. Now you’re doing it knowing that the political situation is as dire as it is, so you’re putting active harm into a world that’s not the same world it was even just six or eight months ago.

Elizabeth

I would like to remind everyone that all of those deaths (of queer female characters on television) were being written while marriage equality was being celebrated. Just think about that for a second.

I think right now in time, a showrunner would be hard pressed to kill a character and not have it fall into the trope. I don’t know how you could do it right now. Maybe when there’s more parity, when there’s more representation, when it really is ‘any character can die’.

Heather

(Jokingly) What if a straight white guy with a vision does it though?

Audience Question: Have you seen a show or somewhere on TV or a movie where they did it right?

Gretchen

Wynonna Earp.

Heather

Carol.

Gretchen

I actually think that up until the last, there are some episodes where it’s better or not, but I actually think Sanvers on Supergirl is amazing.

Elizabeth

First half of the season, yes.

Gretchen

One of the best written stories, especially about an older woman coming out. That was so well done.

Heather

One Day at a Time. Orange is the New Black still deserves your support because it’s telling a lot of stories of women of color. May and Sadie both mentioned Transparent. That show, it’s complicated. You can read a lot of great criticism from trans women at autostraddle, but it’s doing some special stuff.

Gretchen

Steven Universe.

Heather

Steven Universe is doing it the best.

Gretchen

Hands down, Steven Universe is doing it the best right now.

Question: Are any of these stories doing this across intersectionality (queer women of color, of different religions, etc)?

Gretchen

Steven Universe and Orange is the New Black, I would say. Then One Day at a Time because it’s about a Cuban family.

Question: Speaking about ethics in storytelling, what’s your take briefly on subtext?

Elizabeth

Once I had ‘text’, I could never go back.

Gretchen

In some ways there’s not a lot of excuses now for subtext. Compare Steven Universe to Legend of Korra. Legend of Korra existed in a time when it was not acceptable to show woman loving women stories on television, so it had to be subtext otherwise they would have literally not been able to make the show that they did. Legend of Korra then, I think, actually opened the space for a show like Steven Universe.

But now that Steven Universe exists, there’s no excuse to go back. It’s that step. Once you take a step that something can exist as text, there’s no excuse for subtext after that.


Back to Kate G: Friggin’ brilliant, right? Check out their sites for more in depth discussions and resources on all of these things. A big thank you to ClexaCon for hosting this panel. More articles from the front lines at ClexaCon to come!

The Uncanny Valley

The Ranconteur

Autostraddle.com


Kathryn Graham is a Contributing Writer to TVWriter™. Learn more about Kate HERE

Kate G: ClexaCon March 3rd – 5th 2017

by Kathryn Graham

ClexaCon! A convention focused solely on queer women in the media. It aims to celebrate and elevate women on and behind the screen.

Born of the desire to see more and better representation for LGBTQ women, ClexaCon connects filmmakers, actors, visionaries, and the fans. Actresses like Zoie Palmer and Katherine Bell, among many others who play bisexual or lesbian characters on television, will be present.

Writer Emily Andras from Lost Girl & Wynonna Earp – which both feature queer female characters – will be holding a writing workshop.

There are tons of panels, films, and art. Even though the specific focus is on LGBTQ women, you don’t have to ‘be to belong’, as they say. As far as I understand it, all who are genuinely interested are welcome.

I’m gonna be there. I’ll be writing about it afterwards, but I’d rather see you there too. You can buy tickets here: Clexacon Tickets.

Note: ClexaCon is not affiliated with Tvwriter.com. It just seems like a damn good time for this lesbian writer, who would like to share that damn good time with you. If you do end up going, toss me an e-mail. We’ll have drinks, be unsure of whether we should hug or shake hands, and/or stare at each other awkwardly.


Kathryn Graham is a TVWriter™ Contributing Writer. Learn more about Kate HERE