This is Part 2 of the three-part series. This post should really just be called “How to make your media not suck.” People look at social justice constraints as an obstacle because they’re afraid of getting in trouble and offending people. They’re afraid they’re going to say yes to too many angry fans and their work will somehow suffer because of it. Actually, they usually make your work better, more accessible, and more original, by crushing barriers that divide audiences and forgoing the use of tired tropes. Here is my quick and dirty guide on how to create responsible media.
For Part 1 of this series: How to Consume Responsibly
For part 3 of this series: How to Critique Responsibly
Are you making a joke?
Are you a humorist? Are you trying to make some kind of point through your art, whatever it may be? It’s one thing if people don’t find it funny. Usually comics and writers are able to deal with that somehow. But it’s another thing if a group of marginalized people don’t find something funny because of serious negative affects it has on the world. For some reason, comics and writers choose that moment to say these unhappy marginalized groups are the problem. It’s no longer an issue with their work not being good. It’s these sensitive people cramping their style, ugh!
After watching rap battles all morning where Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead defeats almost everyone he goes up against, I gotta say, it feels old and unoriginal to hear the same tiny-penis-dog-eating-Asian joke pulled again and again (and I watched all his opponents make that joke). That stereotype is older than my grandparents, and it smells like the camphor in their closet. Here’s a protip. Figure out what the kernel is behind the supposed cleverness and creativeness, and ask yourself: What is the punchline? If it’s “Haha, women” or “Haha, gay people,” is the joke even good enough to stand on its own? Or is it just lazy? Figure out if you’re relying too heavily on shitty things that other people wrongly think about oppressed groups of people. Because if that’s the punchline, you’re not pointing out anything new or interesting. Instead, you’re affirming other people’s bigoted ideas and giving those people a way to articulate them. You’re simply acting as part of the oppression.
Are you creating a “strong female character”?
One of the biggest teeth-gritting pet peeves that everyone has about female characters is when they encounter the Mary Sue. That is, a character who is so flawless and uninteresting that she doesn’t engage you (except by maybe being eye candy). When it comes to creating a character, for SOME reason people are often more willing to create a flawed male character, but less willing to create a truly flawed female character. Such flaws might make her seem “bitchy” or “annoying” or unattractive to them, and unattractive female characters haven’t been cool since Jane Eyre.
Incorporate some real-ass flaws. Clumsiness is not a character flaw. Being “a dreamer” is not a character flaw. Being less than a 10 is not a character flaw. Most female characters have minor flaws, meaning that they have quirks that distinguish them from other characters. These are fine, but they’re limiting. They don’t help to develop her, and they don’t help to develop the story. Once you have real, interesting, unattractive character flaws (e.g., vanity, ambition, apathy, a shift in allegiance), you will start to see a real person come forth, rather than a cardboard cutout. What does she look like when put in a position she can’t deal with? At times, a flaw can even be the key to a character’s downfall. A real character flaw will make your character feel conflicted, it will mean making difficult decisions, it will cause rifts between characters, and it will mean that when she overcomes challenges, it will actually feel like a victory.
Is your violence necessary?
Lots of times when people want to make an event exciting, they will amp up the violence because there’s nothing to get your adrenaline going like good old fashioned bloodshed. In film, TV, and gaming, the violence will often be directed at individuals who are traditionally seen as vulnerable, such as women and children, but especially women. This makes your piece of media “edgy” and “sophisticated.” If it’s a game, the game might get a “mature” rating. That means you’re mature, right? Pfffftttt.
Having violent elements in your media isn’t inherently bad. Violence happens, and it’s a fact that’s reflected in the things we make. But to someone with a hammer the problem always looks like a nail. And if you’re going to use violence just because you’re at a loss with other options, you should probably second guess that decision because in choosing violence above a lot of other more interesting creative decisions, you not only risk normalizing violence (callback: hammer, nail), but you can also run the risk of normalizing depictions of violence against people who are statistically victims of real life, actual violence. Lots of people think that if they can make something shocking and unspeakable, they are communicating to their audience that this is serious business. And if you’re saying, “Relax. Violence is obviously not okay,” you are foolish. Because lots of people can say that now, but in seeing many examples of violence, especially what seems to be justified violence, there are many others who think that some violence can be justified, and are willing to rationalize, or make exceptions, and get away with actual fucked up, unjust behavior.
Who are you empowering?
It’s not the responsibility of every creative to create media that’s socially subversive. A lot of media can still be good without it. But if you do want to create responsibly, it’s worth asking cui bono? Who benefits from your story? If you and I are already aware of imbalances of power, it’s worth noting that stories often either maintain those imbalances, or push against them. This can be for a number of reasons, including screen time allowance, usage of tropes, supporting figures, and themes of empowerment. In different forms of media, we usually focus on one or two types of people, while the stories of others get covered up, washed out, or made into jokes. In the meantime, these one or two types are not only the focus, but their desires, ambitions, and their journeys to self-realize are all important stories, and audience have LOTS of practice empathizing with them. How we tell narratives affects how individuals tell stories about themselves and their world.