Sunday, May 26, 2024

Writing, Privilege, and Unfortunate Implications: Bryke vs. D&D

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“Calm down, it’s just a show.” Have you ever heard this? If so, it’s incredibly likely that you have taken some issue with how something was portrayed in media. While there may be those who tell you to “focus on something important,” we here at Fandomentals will tell you…you already are. Media has cultural implications. And the more popular a show is, the more it can impact our society, our perception of issues, and conversations surrounding certain topics.

Joe Biden once famously said that Will and Grace did more to shape our dialogue about gay marriage than anything else. Though this is a bit reductive, he’s not entirely wrong about how the shows we consume very much matter.

Yet there’s a dark side to this. As “progressive” as Hollywood pretends to be, we’ve seen the way media has led to say…the desexualization of “older women,” body image issues (there seem to be only a few types of bodies that are “suitable” for our screens), and so on. There are even times when a piece of media deliberately tries to push forth a positive message, only to reinforce something cruddy.

Yes, please perpetuate the notion that strength is tied to gender.

Sometimes what you write can have unintended implications, or implications you didn’t think about. This is especially the case if you are writing from a position of privilege. For instance, I would argue that is a very…straight thing to script those heartwarming scenes where gay kids come out to their parents, and are told “you were born that way; of course we accept you!” That might seem really really nice, and it’s definitely well-meant, but to me, it’s mildly offensive. I wasn’t born “different,” preferences are not innate (though that’s not to say they can be “chosen”), and babies tend not to have sexual predilections. But it was supposed to be helpful, so brownie points?

Now, this isn’t to say that people in positions of privilege can’t write for marginalized groups. Of course they can. But there needs to be a sensitivity and awareness, as well as self-reflection and room for critique. For example, Outlander showrunner Ron Moore made a purposeful attempt to surround himself with women writers and directors, and very notably tried to incorporate the “female gaze” into his show to keep the focus on the main character, Claire. It’s not to say the show is perfect (I actually never watched it so  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), but that by consciously checking his privilege, Moore is able to produce media that is far less likely to have unfortunate messaging or unintended implications.

However, I think the best way to really understand privilege in media creation is to contrast two shows, Avatar: The Legend of Korra (LoK) and Game of Thrones (GoT), both of which are run by a pair of white men (who, as far as we know, are also heterosexual), and highlight the marked differences in their approaches and results.

I believe in peeling off the band-aid quickly, so I’ll start with GoT. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) may as well teach the master class on “how to write a thoroughly offensive narrative.” Because holy crap.

In the past two seasons, they filmed and included a rape that they literally didn’t even know was a rape (the director’s exact words were “it becomes consensual by the end”), so then of course could not follow through on those implications for Cersei’s character or her relationship to Jaime. They invented the character of Myranda, Ramsay’s fun sidekick, and then accidentally wrote a scene where it was clear that she was an abuse victim at his hands as well, but framed her “comeuppance” at the end as this cheer-worthy “that bitch got hers.” We knew she was evil because she wore revealing clothes, I guess? In GoT, victims of sexual assault can only be as pure as driven snow.

They also have to be victimized solely by men. Women can’t abuse men, apparently, or at least that’s how D&D’s narrative presents itself. This past season they had Tommen, a 12/13 year old King at most, be thrown into a clearly predatory relationship with Margaery Tyrell, but then played it off as a funny joke. He loved having sex with the adult. And if it’s a hot woman, then who cares?

There’s also the fact that Daenerys forced Hizdahr into a marriage with her, literally saying “thankfully a suitor is already on his knees,” when he had been begging for his life. Is this too much? Because I can keep going. Let’s talk about Gilly being almost!raped for drama, but the whole thing was framed as the attackers trying to “damage Sam’s goods,” because we see those two men glaring at Sam in the scene prior.

Or we can point out the fun victim-blaming narrative when Sansa tells Brienne “sometimes we have a choice” (setting up apology for her later “choice” and subsequent rape in the marriage to Ramsay). Theon’s manpain serving as the focal point during Sansa’s violation. A sex slave in no position of agency offering Good Guy™ Tyrion her services for free because she was so desperate for his attention. The massive Madonna-Whore complex that runs through the show. The stripping down of Loras to being nothing more than his sexual predilections while simultaneously strawmanning a complex religious movement into something cartoonish and barbaric. The fact that a brown bisexual hypersexualized “foreign” woman killed an innocent straight white girl with a kiss.

And yes…I could easily keep going. Here’s the thing about D&D: I’m quite certain they didn’t consider any of this. It’s offensive enough that they think of Daenerys as this height of female empowerment, when this season revolved around men explaining the political situation to her, at times literally arguing for her (Tyrion in 5×09), and then her becoming a damsel in distress. Twice. But when you add into it the just absolutely dismissive treatment of violence against women, the homophobia inherent in their scripting of Loras/in the way Olenna pops in to tell us Renly was “shagging every stable boy” (what?), the rampant whorephobia, the “othering” of the Dorne into a land of hysterical, sex-crazed brown women so Jaime and Bronn could have a fun backdrop for a wacky adventure

Oh and please tell me that I don’t need to remind you of the fact that none of this is in the books they are supposedly adapting to make this show.

What were D&D thinking? Well one thing was damn clear: they were not thinking about their privilege. And they were definitely not thinking to incorporate more diversity into their creative process. Seasons 4 and 5 had only male writers; Season 5 also had just male directors. Season 6, too, will not have any women in the writer’s room or behind the camera. I’m not saying all women are perfect at writing or directing women. I’m not saying women can’t be misogynists. I’m definitely not saying men can’t write or direct women with a sensitivity, or be excellent feminists.

What I am saying is that when you consider the fact that D&D are working on the most popular show on TV right now, which has a documented history of issues with its depiction of sexual violence and with its penning of women, yet are not making any attempts to diversify? It’s telling. It’s very telling. I’d even call it irresponsible. And it’s not made better by the fact that for the first time since GoT came out, D&D did not attend the Comic Con panel following Season 5.

Yikes, let’s wash that taste out of our mouths and talk about The Legend of Korra, created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino (Bryke). This is where I tell you about a perfect show by two men who were born with an infallible understanding of intersectional feminism, right? Um, no. That would be a really boring story, and it would actually undercut the point I’m trying to make here.

LoK was Bryke’s sequel to their wildly popular Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA). That was a kid’s show in the mid 2000’s, which followed a 12-year-old boy on an epic hero’s journey. To challenge themselves, as they were developing LoK, they set out to write the exact “opposite” of their protagonist from ATLA.

They created Korra. She was a teenage girl from a society that faced in-verse oppression (well…it’s complicated), who was brown, strong and well-muscled, and not typically “feminine,” though I would argue she never shied away from her femininity either. I don’t want to spoil too much of the show for those that haven’t watched (do.), but she also deals with trauma and subsequent PTSD, and is very much a “queer” character, in a queer theorist, destabilizing, post-structuralist sense; Korra is a fully unique character in-verse, as she’s the Avatar (which has practical expressions, but then she’s sort of this Dalai Lama-ish figure to her people too). Seriously, it’s complicated.

Because of this, I would argue that Bryke accidentally created the most intersectional character possible. They also created a supporting cast that featured numerous women of all types, in addition to men. In other words, it was not Korra the Smurfette.

Aaaannnd…they didn’t do it perfectly. In fact, there were a lot of slightly offensive aspects in the first couple of seasons. For one, the plot heavily revolved around a love triangle, where Korra was thrown into “competition” with another girl over a boy whose inability to choose between them was supposed to be romantic, or something. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and the other girl and Korra were quite friendly toward one another for a refreshing change, but it is still a tired trope. And in this case, it was one that prioritized the man’s sexuality, despite Korra’s protagonist status.

They also had a major “absent mother” issue in ATLA, and that trend continued fully into LoK. Bryke had a side-character, Bolin, enter into a relationship where he was abused and it was played for laughs, and in the same season, sexually harassed a coworker who ended up rewarding him for his predatory behavior. They had another side-character, Asami, become sidelined in her own plot so that she could cheer on Bolin (I guess Men Act??). The entire ending to Book 1 was Korra, who had just been through a major trauma to the point where she was contemplating suicide, sitting passively and getting healed by a man, who also magically fixed her depression with that touch (yes, technically he also was her, as he was her past-life, but the imagery was quite clearly Men Act, Women Are, and we’re not watching this show in the Avatar universe).

I know all this sounds damning, but situated in the pattern of the entire show, it really is forgivable. But even more so, Bryke did not stick their heads in the sand or ignore feedback. They worked overtime to fix their problems, and in a very unique way.

Outside the narrative, they brought a woman into the writing room for the second half of the series. Inside the story, they deconstructed every single troubling element that had been there. Bolin was given a new love interest who not-so-subtly walked him through the meaning of positive consent. Asami was accorded her own narrative space, and they had her follow-up on the threads of the plotline from which she had been pushed out of previously. Bryke wrote in a new major character, Suyin Beifong, who was not only a wildly present mother, but “the matriarch” of an entire city.

The past lives Korra had turned to for guidance (the two most important ones to her both being men) were literally expelled from the story. She was also given a plotline that revolved around her recovery from trauma, so that the implications of her brutalization were finally explored. Oh, and the love triangle was subverted in a pretty awesome way ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°).

Bryke even seemed to correct some of their issues from ATLA. I mean, Korra’s character creation in and of itself falls under this (though it wasn’t an “issue,” that their protagonist had been a boy, just a rather normative choice). They also (arguably) had a slight Madonna-Whore complex going on from the first series, so in LoK’s last season, they gave us an incredibly desexualized female antagonist.

Then there’s the fact that Bryan and Mike actually think about what they write. It doesn’t mean everything that gets put onto our screens is 100% unproblematic. But, for instance, during their scripting of the first season, they were originally going to have a running gag every episode where a mother (who is accorded almost no narrative space of her own, I’d say) was going to drop laundry every episode. It’s not that strange…she has three children who are all rather active, and all speedy airbenders. But Bryke said outright on their commentary track that they didn’t like its implications, so it was scrapped.

See? It doesn’t take that much! Really, just a basic self-awareness half the time. And in Bryke’s case, there was also a willingness to reflect and an effort to amend. Did they get everything right? Of course not. Even the back-half of the series had some questionable content, such as the love story between a man and his assistant whom he had spent the last two seasons mistreating. They tried to make it as non-exploitative as possible, even having her call her boss/love interest out on his behavior, but there’s definitely an argument to be made against its portrayal.

There’s also the fact that one of Korra’s final lines of the series was “I finally understand why I had to go through all that. I needed to understand what true suffering was so I could be more compassionate to others.” Situated in the context of her healing arc, this serving as the meaning she chose to find from her trauma is a rather nice message (and the one Bryke intended, as we know from their Book 4 commentary). However, at the same time, there is a discomfort about the fact that two white men had a brown woman express that she “needed to suffer to learn compassion,” playing into a damaging (and often racialized) trope of women being beaten into submission. The line isn’t all good or all bad, and I think we can recognize that something can be offensive to some, validating to others, and at times, a little bit of both. But if there had been an even greater diversity of voices in the room, would its scripting have taken the same form?

Again, the answer isn’t simplistic. But I swear, if I had a dollar for every time I said “it’s the pattern,” I’d be well-off. Overall, Bryke’s writing of LoK exhibited a pattern of respecting its characters, and more importantly, a pattern of caring about the implications of what they were creating. Of realizing their privilege.

GoT’s pattern, on the other hand, is a show that is becoming increasingly misogynistic, and two showrunners who are increasingly trying to stick themselves into a vacuum chamber to dismiss any sort of criticism. If they even listened in the first place.

I will leave you with this closing thought:

“I have held plenty of stupid notions throughout my life that were planted there in any number of ways, or even grown out of my own ignorance and flawed personality. Yet through getting to know people from all walks of life, listening to the stories of their experiences, and employing some empathy to try to imagine what it might be like to walk in their shoes, I have been able to shed many hurtful mindsets. I still have a long way to go, and I still have a lot to learn. It is a humbling process and hard work, but nothing on the scale of what anyone who has been marginalized has experienced. It is a worthwhile, lifelong endeavor to try to understand where people are coming from.” –Bryan Konietzko

“One of the main themes of the Avatar universe have always revolved around equality, justice, acceptance, tolerance, and balancing differing worldviews. In subtle and maybe not so subtle ways, Avatar and Legend of Korra have dealt with difficult subjects such as genocide, child abuse, deaths of loved ones, and post traumatic stress. I took it as a complement when Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair called the show subversive. There were times even I was surprised we were able to delve into the really tough stuff on a children’s TV network. While the episodes were never designed to “make a statement”, Bryan and I always strove to treat the more difficult subject matter with the respect and gravity it deserved.” –Michael Dante DiMartino

[In response to ‘why did you have Cersei get raped and how will the controversy surrounding it affect your writing] “…I would hope that it would not affect at all, uh, our future writing on the series…the fact that it created controversy. Because, um, I would hope that we have the courage to write what we think is, you know, the show demands for that particular scene, regardless of what the reaction is going to be.” David Benioff

Whose show would you rather watch?


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