Ethics in TV Storytelling from ClexaCon

A Report on ClexaCon, Part 1
by Kathryn Graham

When you sit down to write a story, have you ever thought about whether or not you’re telling it ethically? I don’t mean does it have a lesson at the end. I mean, do you think about your characters, who you’re depicting, and if you might hurt real live people in tangible ways if you screw it up? I mean, is that really a thing? It’s ‘just a story’, after all.

The panelists at ClexaCon’s Ethics in Storytelling panel have a lot to say about that, and they’re here to help you make better decisions in your stories (and just be really damn smart in the process).

March 3rd – 5th 2017, a group of 2,200 women came together at ClexaCon to share their favorite shows, meet their favorite actresses, talk about their representation in the media, support queer female creators, and, most importantly, to try to find a way forward.

ClexaCon is named after the ‘pairing name’ of Clarke & Lexa of The 100, as Lexa’s death was a tipping point in terms of general awareness of the ‘bury your gays’ trope that haunts stories that feature queer characters.

‘Bury Your Gays’: a trope that disallows happy endings for queer characters, also known as ‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’ as it often results in, you guessed it, killing lesbian characters

So, with a focus on the depiction of minorities in the media, what is ethical and what is not?


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

Heather:

If you’re going to talk about ethics in storytelling, you have to ask yourself first: are there cultural repercussions for bad storytelling? Are there cultural repercussions for depicting minorities in ways that are damaging? The answer is obviously yes.

Throughout the history of time, from the very beginning of recorded stories, our perception of people who are not like us is shaped by the stories people tell. I had the amazing experience to speak with some teenagers at a high school recently. I asked: where have you seen trans women on TV?

They were like: Law and Order: SVU. All of them.

In 2008, GLAAD started measuring the attitudes on marriage equality against the number of gay characters on television. What they found out, year by year, is there is a direct increase.

Every year half a percent more characters were gay, lesbian, transgender, and every year 2% more American supported equality. When GLAAD called, they said: ‘Hey, why do you all of a sudden support marriage equality?’ They’d say things like: ‘Because of Kurt Hummel.’

They saw these TV characters come into their life. They became like real people to them, and they were like: I think Santana and Brittany should be able to get married. It becomes very real to you. So the worst thing a storyteller could say is: it’s just a story. It’s not just a fuckin’ story. There’s no such thing as ‘just a story’.

Gretchen:

I will get slightly technical here. My background is in linguistics, so stories matter partly because of the way our brain functions. Our brain is incredibly lazy.

That is because it is more efficient for your brain to be lazy. Stories create what I call ‘meaning pathways’. Linguistically, a word could have five different meanings. How do you know which one it means? Your brain remembers this one is used in this context, this other word is used in this other one. The more common words or meanings are going to have the deepest ruts in your brain.

Those are going to be harder to change, but we know they can change. Because the more you interact with a new meaning and a new story, it wears away at that rut, and suddenly you can change the meaning of something the more you interact with a new interpretation of it.

We can change the way people think. This is how our brains function. We know it scientifically. That’s why stories matter. Because stories literally change the way your brain functions and what you think about. If we can start telling more and more stories about ourselves, we change minds by telling new stories, and people interact with these stories in new ways over a span of time.

Elizabeth:

That brings us to the concept of the trope as well. That’s a term from literary studies. They’re these little pieces of stories that authors of literature have used for ages, that we all know and love – some of them. They’re shortcuts. The same sort of pathways. Pieces of stories we think of the same way as words that have snippets of meaning.

The opposite problem is that it’s hard to change those ruts that have formed once they’ve formed. That’s the problem we have with these tropes. They’ve been worn over for so many years. To actually create the capacity to change: that is what we’re talking about at the con in general.

Gretchen:

What people fail to realize is that if you’re not subverting the story, you’re in some sense reintegrating that story. If you’re not consciously subverting it, your brain is going to keep going down that established pathway.

Heather:

Right? How did Donald Trump get elected? He got elected by telling the story that we see on TV and then the story that Fox News repeats over and over and over again. When we see black men on television, 94% of the time, they’re criminals. Then you get Donald Trump saying ‘black on black crime’.

The New York Times did this article a couple days after the election where they had all of these people who write Muslim characters, and all of them write Muslim characters as terrorists. They asked: Do you feel responsibility for this? And they said: Well, the network wants terrorists, and they want them to be Muslim.

If you’re not subverting it, you’re allowing these monstrous situations to rise up. If you live in the middle of the country and you don’t know any Muslim people, and all you see on TV are Muslim terrorists, it’s just continuing to feed into that rut. It just gets deeper and deeper and deeper. Even though it’s not the truth it feels like the truth because it’s a lie that’s been told over and over again.

Gretchen:

The absence of contradiction is in some sense a reinforcement. So even if you write a queer character, if you’re not giving them a happy ending, you’re not consciously subverting the narrative that queer people always have tragic stories.

Elizabeth: That’s what makes it a trope is accrual over time. It’s not that any particular artist is participating in a trope, it’s just that the absence of subverting it or actively using it automatically contributes to it whether they have intention behind it or not. That’s something I wanted to get to in the panel today.

The thing about that is, whatever the author’s intention was doesn’t really matter because the impact is greater than the intent. That’s always the case.

Heather:

What we’re saying is that once a trope becomes established it’s so easy to fall into it. Lexa was the turning point. There were a lot of factors that made Lexa the turning point, but when Lexa died, after that, 24 more lesbian and bisexual characters have died since then.

In the total of history of lesbian and bisexual women on TV, there have been 172 that have died. 24 in the last year, that’s 15% of all deaths just in 2016 since Lexa died. The thing is that it becomes so common.

Gretchen:

I think when you have an established trope like “Bury Your Gays”, whether they want to understand it or not, this trope has existed for close to 100 years. This is not a brand new trope. This was a trope primarily in literature especially in the middle of the twentieth century where there was a lot of censorship in written media: things like comic books and novels. Where it was okay to depict a gay man or a lesbian woman so long as they did not get a happy ending.

The reason that existed is because giving them a happy ending was an endorsement. It meant that ‘this was now an okay thing for the children to do’, and they were not okay with that. So it was like: ‘Fine, have a lesbian romance, but both of them have to have some kind of tragic ending.’ Typically what would happen is that the lesbian character would get killed off, and then the other woman who was probably bisexual: she might go crazy, she might also die, or she might end up married to a man.

That was where ‘Bury Your Gays’ came from.

Heather:

It was literally that if you wanted the stamp of approval from the Comics Code Authority you had to follow the written rule and the written rule was: No gay characters with happy endings.


Back to Kate G: So, folks, stories do matter. What you write can change minds and society (for good or ill).

We have a legacy of terrible tropes like ‘bury your gays’ that were originally aimed at hurting gay people. And we have a whole lot of bad storytelling that was done simply because folks didn’t care enough about how their depiction of LGBTQ people could affect real live people. Writers today have a responsibility to know what these tropes and stereotypes are and to not replicate them.

If you aren’t subverting a damaging trope, you are reinforcing it. No matter your intentions.

Coming Friday: Part II – the non-television friendly model of the artist, who’s doing it right, and how much do the writer’s intentions matter?


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