Sunday, May 19, 2024

Ethics of Storytelling: Jason Rothenberg and Fan Interaction

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I would be underselling it if I said a lot has happened in The 100 fandom since Lexa’s problematic death several weeks ago. Not only have we seen two more people of color die—Lincoln and Hannah Green—and witnessed the first wisps of Bellarke rising from the barely cold ashes of Lexa and Clarke’s relationship, other TV shows have had their share of problematic character deaths. Abby Mills was sidelined and killed off from her own story, and the death tolls for lesbian and bisexual female characters is growing higher and higher every week. The Bury your Gays trope, it seems, is not only still around, but just as prevalent as ever, though Kylie makes a compelling case for how its use can be less problematic in some cases.

There is a prevalence of writers using problematic tropes with Unfortunate Implications™ on television, not least of which is due to the influence that a certain show has on storytelling methods (having received several Emmys last year). I’ve discussed the use of grimdark and its effect on audiences while also touching on what I think of as ‘narrative sadism,’ or when storytellers delight in punishing their audience for emotional investment. But now it’s time to discuss the ethics of fan interaction: how writers/producers interact with fans and how fans communicate with writers/producers.

Listening: JRoth vs. D&D vs. JGM/The Cast

Ethical communication is a two-way street that begins and ends with listening. Immediately following Lexa’s death, Jason Rothenberg took to the airwaves in a series of tone-deaf interviews that can be summarized as “I didn’t do anything wrong, and you shouldn’t be offended.” When asked point blank about Lexa being a lesbian character who was killed off and whether or not he paid attention to the Bury Your Gays trope, he denied that he thought about it at all, acting offended that anyone dare question his motives or process. For almost three weeks, his tone was one of hurt (that people were upset with him), dismissal (of their concerns/frustration/anger), and mild condescension (that anyone would find this narrative offensive).

Then, on March 24th, he issued a public apology. He admitted that the show perpetuated the Bury Your Gays trope, though unintentionally. He apologizes for hurting fans unintentionally, but stands by his decision to kill off Lexa. He only admits her death would have “played out differently” if he could have predicted the fan response. Embracing the “anyone can die excuse,” the overall tone of the piece comes off more as ‘I’m sorry you’re offended by my legitimate, authentic, completely understandable choices’ than ‘I am deeply, truly sorry for the pain I’ve caused.’ It was also, shall we say, rather timely.

It came on the heels of a rather disastrous interview where he defended his choices vehemently, insisting that despite the fan reactions, he would not change anything about the way Lexa’s death was scripted (and for those who don’t want to give the TV Insider website hits, the interview has been transcribed here). Three days later he would be saying the opposite.

The apology was posted on the internet mere days before Wondercon and immediately picked up and circulated by other sites. The conversation entering the conference was therefore about Jason’s apology rather than the aftermath of his storytelling choices, which had been the focus of discussion the past several weeks leading up to the con. It worked. Instead of questioning him further, sites posting the apology rallied around him.

“But even if this is an attempt at damage control (and why would any sane person not attempt damage control at this point?), it can also be genuine. Just because he waited three weeks doesn’t make it disingenuous. In fact, when confronted with such a sea change in the discourse, it’s only natural that it would take time to absorb and react. It shows thoughtfulness. Not rash reactionary defense. I’ll be attending The 100 WonderCon panel and I’m very interested to see how the discourse continues when the fans and creators are face to face.”

—Haleigh Foutch (source)

I disagree, wholeheartedly. To me, the convenience factor looms too large for there to be much genuine sorrow in his words. Mere days before WonderCon where a large panel discussion is planned for The 100? A week before the second half of the season starts? Only three days after he’d vehemently defended his storytelling choices in another interview and plainly stated he would not have changed the story one bit? I don’t buy it. His apology effectively shifted the conversation from his choices to his ‘heartfelt’ apology. Anyone still upset over Lexa’s death could now be painted as overblown and reactionary; he’s already apologized, move on, get over it.

Yet Ms. Foutch is correct to point out that damage control need not mean the discussion is over. You would think that the apology would have allow for more open discussion of Lexa’s death at the con. You would be wrong. Not that he was particularly offensive. He repeated the same things he mentioned in his apology about not being fully aware of Bury Your Gays, about how Lexa had to die for the plot, about how no one is safe and her seemingly random death highlighted the fragility of life, that he regrets his comments on social media led to people thinking Lexa would not die.

He also undersold Clarke’s reaction to Lexa’s death, focusing on her ability to compartmentalize (read: move on) and need to focus on her people rather than her pain. One of the writers had a video on Periscope up three days after “Thirteen” aired that mentioned Clarke being Lexa’s soulmate, but not the other way around, a sentiment that was apparently repeated at WonderCon (this Periscope has since been removed).

More to the point, he blacklisted questions about Lexa during the audience Q&A session, and he did so after he had his TV Insider interview, where he said,

“I’m looking forward to getting in front of the fans and talking to them and having a real dialogue about this, if that’s something that the fans want. It’s an honor and a privilege, it’s really the greatest privilege of my life—other than being the father of my kids and the husband of my wife—to be the creator of this show and I really love the opportunity to get to talk about it as much as possible.”

—Jason Rothenberg, (source)

This is not how you have a respectful dialogue with fans.

Granted, he could be worse. At least he showed up to the WonderCon panel, even if he blacklisted Lexa in Q&A. Showrunners of Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have neglected to even attend panels in the past, leaving their young female actors to deal with the aftermath of their poor writing choices. At least Rothenberg apologized for killing off Lexa, even if it was far from heartfelt, obviously damage control, and reeked of “I’m sorry you’re offended.” D&D have never, not once, apologized for how their decisions affected their fans. Rather, they continue to defend their horrible choices, tell people “it was a year ago, get over it” if they don’t like it, and claim “not one word” of Season 6 has changed despite audience outcry. While Rothenberg sounded suspiciously like D&D up until WonderCon, I can at least take some satisfaction in the fact that he had to issue an apology. Distressed GoT fans haven’t gotten that.

Lexcru fans can also be grateful Rothenberg didn’t treat Lexa’s death and Alycia Debnam-Carey leaving the show with the same casual dismissiveness that he treated Ricky Whittle’s departure and Lincoln’s death. Granted the situations are slightly different in that Whittle had previously thrown shade at Rothenberg for on-set bullying. Unlike Lexa, Lincoln’s character had been sidelined from the narrative this season, this despite the fact that he had been a main character since the pilot. Whereas Rothenberg had purposefully hinted that Lexa would survive to the end of the season and then killed her off in Ep 7, Lincoln was originally meant to survive until the end of this season, and with a major plot arc.

Instead, Whittle watched as his plot arc and lines were cut down to barely more than a few seconds an episode, culminating in the death of an unlawfully imprisoned black man shot execution style by another black man while he kneeled in the mud. I have one word for that scene: humiliation. His only response to Whittle’s scathing interview after being written off the show:

“Ricky Whittle is a talented actor; I appreciate his work on The 100 and wish him all the best moving forward on American Gods.” (source)

Rothenberg has yet to say anything (that I can find) about Hannah Green’s death last week.

But back to the things we can appreciate about Rothenberg, because I ought to give credit where it is due. Unlike D&D, Rothenberg is not hiding behind his cast to justify his behavior. Where Sophie Turner, Emilia Clarke, Natalie Dormer, Iwan Rheon, and now even Peter Dinklage defend D&D’s choices to the point that they seem to be attacking fans, Rothenberg has a cast that is actively against him. Bob Morley (Bellamy Blake) has made his distaste for a romantic relationship between Clarke and Bellamy well known. Eliza Taylor (Clarke Griffin) has made no secret of her opinions on Lexa’s death and the Clexa relationship, even saying the exact opposite of Rothenberg at the very same WonderCon panel.

So yes, on the one hand, Rothenberg’s far better than the tone-deaf producers of one of the most popular show on television (the very producers he admires and wishes to emulate, might I add). On the other hand, he could be so much more.

Javier Grillo-Marxauch, one of the staff writers this season, called the entire situation a cluster. While he is currently on vacation and actually left the show after “Thirteen” due to paternity leave, his Tumblr account in the weeks following Lexa’s death are eye-opening. He sympathizes with hurt fans and shows genuine empathy for their psychological and physiological trauma following Lexa’s death. He admits that he, Rothenberg, and the other staff writers were well aware of the Bury Your Gays trope but believed they had built up enough trust from the audience to get away with it.

He listens. He actively admits wrongdoing and apologizes. Not three weeks later and not because it was convenient to apologize. Not for PR. Just for himself; for the fans. He promises to do better, but warns fans not to trust screenwriters implicitly. He tells fans to make writers earn their trust. Second to the massive donations to the Trevor Project from Lexcru fans, JGM is the best thing to come out of this, as he puts it, “clusterf*ck.” He shows us all a better way for a screenwriter/producer to engage with fans.

I’d put the cast at a close third or even a tie. As I mentioned above, Rothenberg does not have as tight a leash on his cast as D&D do theirs. Lindsey Morgan (Raven Reyes), Alycia Debnam-Carey (Lexa), and Eliza Taylor have all gone out of their way to empathize with fans. They’ve tweeted their disgust and frustration with Lexa’s death. Taylor refuses to downplay Lexa’s importance for Clarke, even when Rothenberg is doing the opposite. Despite the show’s recent seeding of a romantic relationship between Clarke and Bellamy, or perhaps because of it, Eliza played up Clarke’s bisexuality in an interview with After Dark this past weekend. I choose to believe that she’s doing this on purpose, to fight the seeming erasure of her bisexuality in the push for Bellarke to happen onscreen* (please see note and below for a full discussion of what I mean by this).

As with JGM, this is a cast that does what it can to empathize with and even voice the same frustrations as its audience. Yes, they are contractually obligated to promote the show. But that doesn’t mean they have to parrot Rothenberg’s bs. The eyerolls, posturing, and word choices all point to this being a cast that is not only fed up with its showrunner but are also willing do to what they can to communicate that to their fans.

Ethics in Internet Marketing: the Elephant in the Room

“At least he’s not D&D.” If that’s all I can say about Rothenberg, that’s…not high praise. Yes, we can critique timing, intention, and content. We can discuss how JGM provides a helpful counter-example for how to engage with fans when you and your creative team have made a problematic choice in storytelling that you believed you could get away with. The answer there is listen and empathize. And don’t make it all about you.

But I also want to discuss the ethics of internet marketing. We live in an age where fandoms have a larger platform and louder voice than they used to. Gone are the days of maybe once yearly cons and snail mail or AOL fanfic writing. Gone are the days of coffee shop conversations quickly forgotten. With the internet, fans can engage with each other instantaneously and rally around Twitter hashtags in the blink of an eye. Fans can be choreographed within minutes of an upsetting event and conversations heat up to vitriolic levels in a matter of hours rather than months.

Showrunners understandably want to capitalize on viral fandom. Having a strong presence online is almost a must these days, but where it goes wrong is when social media is used to blatantly mislead fans to avoid losing viewers.

During S2 and the hiatus following its airing, Rothenberg and staff writer Kim Shumway sought out and engaged with LGBT fans on social media. They promoted Lexa as a shining example of media representation of lesbianism. When they discovered their fans were scared that she might die, both emphasized her status as very much still alive on the show. Rothenberg even commented that the Clexa ship was “seaworthy.” When S3 was still filming, Rothenberg recruited fans to come to the season 3 finale shooting in Vancouver, a highly visible Lexa on set the obvious target of his marketing campaign.

More blatantly, another staff writer Shawna Benson starting posting anonymously on a popular lesbian forum, ostensibly there for “rumor control.” A poster had surfaced, signed by Alycia Debnam-Carey with “Thanks for the opportunity,” and fans started speculating that she was going to die. At this point, “Thirteen” had definitely already been scripted and Lexa’s fate sealed, so when “Your Friendly Neighborhood Lurker” (aka, Shawna Benson), popped up to assure fans that no ‘goodbye’ was intended by the note, she clearly knew otherwise. The full discussion up on We Deserved Better also makes it clear that she hung around the forum for a very long time, long enough to reference in-jokes and specific names from threads when she said her goodbyes.

That might not sound like a big deal to some, but it is. The production staff, including Kim Shumway, Shawna Benson, and Jason Rothenberg himself, went out of their way to deny rumors of Lexa’s death. When fans pointed to the Bury Your Gays trope prior to the airing of S3, they responded with reassurance that, although vague enough to not be outright lies, still purposefully mislead their audience. Elizabeth Bridges, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis states,

“It was all to keep viewership and keep the core LGBT audience guessing, but hopeful.” (source)

This is not how you do internet marketing. Safe spaces are safe spaces for a reason even on the internet. An admittedly straight woman infiltrating a lesbian forum for “rumor control” that amounts to misleading fans may be legal, but it is unethical. This is classic bait and switch marketing: lead your audience to assume X character, the reason they are watching this show, is alive and well only to kill them off later for shock value.

If you read Rothenberg’s full apology, you will see that he misses the main thrust of LGBT fan’s frustration: her death was not handled correctly. He is fixated on the fact that she died rather than 1) how, namely the Stray Bullet of Plot Convenience, 2) its meaninglessness in Lexa’s arc/characterization, 3) it wasn’t entirely necessary, 4) it’s context as right after sex, 5) it’s context in the Bury Your Gays discussion. Yes he mentions these things, but he focuses on justifying her death in terms of the narrative he wants to write.

The shooting in Vancouver and its misleading conclusions about Lexa still being alive is mentioned, and he apologizes for other people misinterpreting it. He does not mention Kim Shumway’s hiatus interactions with fans about Lexa. He does not mention his “seaworthy” comment or the blatant infiltration of lesbian spaces by staff writer Shawna Benson who urged Kim Shumway to “sell it hard.” He tries to paint it as “we were so excited for Clexa we got carried away” but when you see exactly what was done, it’s blatant audience manipulation of the worst kind.

“I promise you burying, baiting or hurting anyone was never our intention. It’s not who I am.” —Jason Rothenberg, (source)

Really? How are we to believe that, Rothenberg, when you actively mislead your audience? How are we to accept this apology when it is a bald-faced lie? Actively engaging with and recruiting LGBT fans, even going so far as to interact with them in their own spaces, all the while calling the f/f relationship “seaworthy” and reassuring fans that Lexa was safe in your hands, that you would treat her and us with respect. You do all this and then do the one thing fans repeatedly said would break their trust. You call the pain you caused “delicious.” Rothenberg, this is the definition of baiting. Hurting people was your intention, just not in exactly this way. It is who you are because it is what you did. This is what you ought to have apologized for.

Interaction is one thing, infiltration and purposeful misleading another. Ethical storytelling is more than just telling a good, compelling, or even challenging story because it isn’t just about the story itself—though it is about that, too. Some stories are poor quality, poorly executed, or downright destructive. Such stories deserve criticism. Being an ethical storyteller also includes how you tell the story and how you interact with the audience.

If you are bullying your actors or writing them out of their own stories because they shine a light on a negative production environment (see also Game of Thrones and Sleepy Hollow). If you are purposefully engaging fans and misleading them in order to avoid losing viewers. If you issue an apology immediately followed by a silencing tactic to draw negative attention away from your creative choices. If you use the excuse “everyone can die” but only (or predominately) kill off minority characters. If you remove yourself from social media and refuse to engage with fans after making a controversial choice (Rothenberg hasn’t tweeted since his apology). If you refuse to discuss blatant audience manipulation tactics and instead focus on how personally hurt you are that fans don’t like your decisions. All these and more may not be illegal or immoral, but they are unethical.

Audiences won’t always get the story they want, that much is true. Characters we love will die, stories will take turns we neither expect nor want. This is a part of life. However, audiences do deserve to be treated with respect, care, and empathy. We deserve stories that make sense and deaths that make sense. We deserve stories and storytellers that neither exploit nor harmfully manipulate us, that may explore but do not actively advance damaging stereotypes.

While we cannot control the narrative, we deserve storytellers who are aware of the history and context of problematic tropes, who are willing to listen to how their stories have impacted their audience and perhaps even make adjustments based on what their audience says. We deserve real apologies and storytellers who own their mistakes rather than whitewash or dismiss them. We deserve ethical storytelling, not perfect.

What next?

So what do we do? As storytellers, I have already hinted at the solution. Above all, listen. When you think you’ve heard enough, listen more and harder. Do what JGM and the cast of The 100 are doing in not only listening to, but empathizing with their audience. Don’t talk about how hurt you are that the audience is frustrated. This isn’t about you or your artistic vision right now. Show up to your panels and don’t blacklist questions about complex issues. Don’t make your actors do the leg work for you (I’m looking at you D&D). In sum: Listen to your audience, and tell better stories.

As the audience, don’t give up. Continue to voice your frustration about unethical storytelling. Don’t let it die down just because the network, producers, and certain media outlets might want you to. Continue to ask pointed, but respectful questions. Don’t use slurs or become vitriolic in public or to an actor or producer’s face. Be the better conversationalist without giving up your frustration or passion.

To move forward with The 100 specifically, it’s helpful to think about what we want. Rothenberg can’t “unkill” Lexa or Lincoln or Hannah Green (well, they could, but that wouldn’t fix anything and might even make the story worse). We’ve made our frustration heard, now its time to think further down the road. Ultimately what we want is better, more ethical stories. Stories that represent minorities as interesting, compelling, well-rounded characters who are more than just sidekicks or throw-aways. We as Clexacru and Team Lincoln/Linctavia, as POC and LGBT+ viewers, we want what every other viewer wants, good and ethical stories.

“While fans don’t have a right to dictate what a storyteller writes, they can demand that what they write is done in good faith and an understanding of harmful representation in the past. They can demand that our representation be fair. They can demand that our on screen lives, and happiness, matters as much as any other character. They can demand when being wooed by showrunners to watch, that they keep their promises.” (source)

So what do we do? Continue to demand better storytelling.

*NOTE: In light of negative reactions to my use of the phrase “seeming erasure of her bisexuality,” I am compelled to clarify my intentions.

I am a bisexual woman (currently in a committed relationship with a man), so I do not believe that in real life a bi woman in a relationship with man erases her bisexuality at all. However, Clarke Griffin is not a real life woman, she is a fictional character. Her relationships do not exist in a vacuum nor can they be equivalent to a real life human being with agency. In short, Clarke is a fictional character whose depiction on screen has consequences and implications for the audience in a way that my personal expression of my bisexuality does not.

Knowing what we know now about Rothenberg’s intentions, i.e., that he always considered Bellamy to be endgame and Lexa no more than a phase, the implications for Clarke’s identity and depiction as a bisexual female character fit into the disturbingly common pattern of prioritizing m/f relationships over f/f ones for bi female characters. Lexa is a “phase”. Clarke might be bi, but all she needs is the right man (Bellamy) in the end. It fits in with society’s messaging that bi women aren’t really bi at all, they’re just confused, experimenting, faking it, or just haven’t found the right guy yet. That bi women are all secretly straight. This kind of messaging is erasure.

To the degree that Clarke’s journey from Finn to Lexa to Bellamy prioritizes her m/f relationships (she’s given more time to mourn them, for example) and pairs her off with a male as endgame, it fits into this societal pattern. It reinforces very real biphobic messaging and bi-erasure that is prevalent in real life. Her character is still bisexual, but the messaging surrounding her sexuality on the show fits in with damaging tropes about female bisexuality that are erasure. That is what I meant by “seeming erasure of her bisexuality”.

I did not expect such a strong reaction to what is a minor point in my overall argument, hence why I did not elaborate on this phrase in the article itself. Please forgive my lack of clarity and I hope this explains my intentions more fully.*

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