Queer (Tragic) Storytelling

Jo Chiang, on the New York Times, has written an article about creative choices and the real world impact of storytelling on marginalized groups that I found really compelling.

The initial thrust of the piece is that characters in queer relationships frequently end up with tragic endings. The author, Jo Chiang, sites a statistic that 35% of on screen queer characters end up dead. I don’t know how accurate the number is and what type of character is being considered (main character, supporting, character of the week) but I would be curious to know what percentage of straight characters also end up dead, for context, as killing characters is a time honored tradition for writers to up the drama and conflict. 

I agree with Ms Chiang’s desire to see more on screen queer romance have a happy ending, but I question some of her assertions about the intent on the part of creators. She singles out a show I really enjoyed, “Person of Interest,” as an example where queer characters are “punished” for their orientation. One female character is shot and presumed dead upon confirmation of her feelings for another woman – but she fails to mention that the actress had to take a break from the series for maternity leave. Is this really a creative choice to punish the character? (Plus we all sorta knew she was going to make a come back) Then later, her lover does in fact get killed. But this takes place in the final culmination of everything the show has been building up to finally coming to a close. The character’s death is also both a noble and reasonable ending for her story in many ways. More importantly, the character is treated with the same narrative respect that the male lead receives. 

There is a line of critical thought that suggests the viewer is the final arbiter of meaning, regardless of the creator’s intent. It’s a sentiment I can understand, but have always been somewhat uncomfortable with. Using “Person of Interest” as an example, either the creators did choose to inflict harm on their queer characters, in which case it’s totally fair to interpret it as a cultural bias toward violence against queer relationships, or the creators were writing around external circumstances and just trying to deliver the best story they could. 

Obviously, I believe creator intent is very important. I highlighted this poor example because Ms Chiang cites many other very good examples of queer relationships ending in tragedy in films, where there is no question about the choices of the creators. 

One of those examples is “Thelma and Loise” and their drive off the cliff. But could this story have had a non-tragic ending and still been worth watching? They could have turned around and given themselves up, but then we need to know what happens next and it is either A) a lot of publicity that rips up their lives on the way to a trial where they are acquitted or B) they are both sent to prison for manslaughter. Either alternative is a very different story and perhaps no less tragic.

While I think she over played her hand a bit, there is still a clear case to be made that, historically, Hollywood was able to include queer characters only if their on-screen romance is punished, ”The Children’s Hour” being a particularly good example of hers. She is also at least partially correct when she suggests that for a writer:

“Any character’s death can be shocking and upsetting, but taking a character who attained happiness despite the fundamental struggle of being queer and ripping them from that happiness? Now that’s tragic. And that’s how we’re taught to see the pain of queerness. As fundamental.”

But take queer out of that assertion and replace it with: black, Muslim, Irish, one armed man, a vampire. In the context of narrative, tragedy by definition is setting up a character for a fall. In modern narrative, we see more queer tragedy, but we are also just seeing a lot more queer characters.

There is a lot in the first half of Ms Chiang’s piece I could argue with, but all of this is really the lead up to her second, and more important, concern, which is about whether or not non-queer creators should tell queer stories, and if the industry history of tragic violence in queer stories results in real world violence, and finally what should be done about it.

In her piece, Ms Chiang says:

“The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 2015 had the highest levels of violence against the L.G.B.T. community since 2011, the most frequent victims being transgender women of color.”

I have no reason to doubt this is true. L.G.B.T. issues receives a LOT of coverage in 2015, between bathroom bills, kids being denied access to their prom, and the litany of characters and TV shows with queer storylines being the central dramatic theme. I tend to believe (without supporting statistics) that the rise in violence may largely be a result of increased awareness – that those who feel threatened by changing social attitudes are lashing out at the people they identify as responsible for a decline in their world view. But it’s entirely reasonable to question whether repeatedly seeing queer characters punished for loving or being loved isn’t a part of the problem. 

Ms Chiang goes on to cite statistics about how white guys essentially dominate Hollywood and are the ones responsible for making most entertainment, including the shows and films telling queer stories. She doesn’t suggest that creators shouldn’t tell stories they don’t (or biologically can’t) identify with, but she does ask for more representation in content creation by the very people who’s stories are being exploited for commercial entertainment. I think she’s right to ask, but I don’t think the solution is to look to big Hollywood for a solution. 

Movie studios are businesses first. Most film isn’t art. Studios will make creative choices in the context of greatest profit at lowest risk. And the most certain way to achieve that balance is to staff the biggest name talent you can afford, which isn’t always going to lead to a lot of diversity, even with plenty of examples showing diversity isn’t a profit killer. 

So what is the solution? I don’t know, but I suspect the queer community will have to fend for itself, at least for a while. Thanks to venues like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, funding for projects no longer has to come from traditional Hollywood sources. A Stonewall movie directed by a more representative individual, featuring a cast more like the actual participants, could probably find crowd support quite quickly and easily. 

But whether you think I am right or being insensitive to queer concerns, Ms Chiang’s piece is thought provoking and a worthy read. As a writer, it certainly have me a lot to consider as I contemplate writing characters I can’t biologically identify with. 

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