Friday, March 4, 2016

Marginalised Characters: Banished to the Plot Box

One phrase you will see repeated a lot on Fangs for the Fantasy is “the plot box”.

The Plot Box is a mysterious, unknown place where characters (usually minorities) are banished to when the writers decide they no longer know what to do with (or want to deal with) them. These characters disappear, often with little explanation, and are absent from the screen/page until the writers decide to use them again and they just reappear as if nothing happened.

We talk a lot about the Plot Box on Fangs because this is a storytelling tool that is very commonly used, can appear in many different ways and very often serves as another means by which marginalised characters are erased or tokenised.

The most common form of Plot Box Banishment is the simple disappearance. Usually with no explanation - a character will just not be present for several episodes. I’d like to think that they’re having wonderful wild times with the Doctor and he just got the timing wrong - but Doctor Who isn’t that diverse either.

The Originals has one gay character and he spends the majority of his time in the plot box.  Josh is besties with Davina. When he lost his boyfriend Aidan, Josh went away to lick his wounds and everybody including Davina who supposedly cares so much about him promptly forgot that he exists. Josh is allowed out of the plot box only when Davina is in some kind of danger or her fee fees are hurt. He has no real story of his own and the epitome of the GBFF, there to provide service and comfort for his straight “friend” (so often our shows seem to confuse “servitude” with “friendship”)

ABC made a big deal about adding Mulan to the cast of Once Upon a Time. And a while Once Upon A Time was teasing the idea that Mulan would confess her love to Aurora giving the series its first (and only) LGBT character. When Aurora announces her pregnancy, Mulan congratulates her and never reveals her feelings. Mulan then deals with her disappointment by joining the Merry Men and disappearing into the Plot Box - when the Merry Men return, Mulan is conspicuous by her absence. Though I say conspicuous, absolutely no-one noticed: her being lost in the Plot Box was not worthy of comment. Just when,. as an audience we were thinking of starting a missing person’s report Mulan shows up to help Merida to deal with a problem, before promptly leaping back into the Plot Box again.  

Morgan on The Walking Dead is perhaps my personal favorite example of this particular form of banishment. We first meet Morgan and his son Duane in season one, when Rick stumbles upon them after waking up in the hospital alone.  Morgan explains to Rick how society fell apart and gives him rudimentary instructions of how to survive in a zombie apocalypse.

The next time we see Mogan is when Rick returns to the town to collect weapons because the prison is being threatened by the Governor, several seasons later. This time, it’s Rick who is sensible and calm and Morgan is out of control after the loss of his son. This isn’t just a casual meet up. It’s to show Rick what happens when one allows oneself to be caught up with grief and stop trying to live. At this point, Rick is just getting over being farmer Rick and is resistant to facing the threat the Governor poses.  

When Rick and Morgan meet for the third time, Rick and his group have taken up residence in Alexandria. After everything Rick is seen he cannot unwind and accept the safety of the town. He starts plotting with Daryl and Carol to take Alexandria away from its people. He comes across as completely unreasonable at this point. Once again, Morgan and Rick are at different places. Morgan is now completely zen and as an example tries to show Rick that one doesn’t have to be on high alert at all times and survive. One can exist and be calm in spirit. He once again, by his presence is an example to Rick on how to live in an apocalypse. Morgan’s emergence from the Plot Box on the show are all about teaching Rick something and when he isn’t doing that, he disappears into the Plot Box. Presumably to read self-help books in time for Rick’s next lesson.

On The Vampire Diaries we can often have surprisingly long runs when Bonnie - supposedly one of the main characters of the series, just flat disappears. Sometimes this is explained by the time she spends in alternate dimensions or as a ghost (but we have to remember that these are deliberate narrative choices to separate her from the main cast) - which, combined with how she is so often treated as a servant by the main cast, emphasises how she is only really present and involved when she is useful. Why don’t they just get rid of any pretence and just have her banished to the servants quarters until they ring the bell for her?

Teen Wolf may actually have the biggest Plot Box. Danny, Deacon, Braeden and Mason have all spent extended periods in the Plot Box. Danny actually lives there now, the creators dropped him in at the end of season 3 without even a pretence of an explanation; they just lost him in the Plot Box. Seriously, Danny is in there now calling out “hello? does anyone remember me? Helloooo? Did you get a new token gay and forget me?”. Wherever he is, I think that’s where Boyd and Erica also ended up. It’s less a Plot Box and more a Plot Dumpster

Braeden lives in the Plot Box and will suddenly pop up to help the main gang for NO DISCERNABLE REASON. She just appears, literally from nowhere and helps without any given motivation and when she’s finished she fades out again. I actually think the actor is appearing in a different show in a neighbouring studio and she occasionally gets lost and no-one can bring themselves to tell her she’s in the wrong place. Kind of like Deacon who emerges from the Plot Box to drop sage advice before vanishing again - does Scott even work at the animal clinic any more? Does the animal clinic even exist outside of his back room? Did we ever get an update on what it means that he’s a druid? (and his sister?) Nope. While Mason just vanishes so often it was almost funny when this was pointed out in the last episode.

One related method of Plot Boxing is to have the character live in the Plot Box - maybe the plot has them living somewhere entirely different or otherwise involved far away from the rest of the cast. Maybe they’re some mysterious force, an absent boss or a friend or relative you only see on the holidays - these characters don’t get Banished to the Plox Box - they live there.

Supernatural, a show that is overwhelmingly straight, white and male, has fully embraced this tactic in recent seasons when it comes to women. We’ve now got a small cast of female characters (who desperately need their own spin-offs) who will make an appearance once, maybe twice, a season before going on to do their own thing. We have Donna Hanscum’s occasional fun episodes. And Jody Mills regularly appears with her new home for troubled supernatural teens: Annie Jones, Claire Novak. Before her appalling and inexcusable death (which I’m still not over), Charlie Bradbury made an appearance roughly once a season. While all of these appearances helped break up the overwhelming maleness of the show, ultimately we have one regular, non-evil female character appearing about three times a season at most - not exactly stellar work in turning the tide of overwhelming male dominance.

Warehouse 13 also pulled this with Mrs. Frederick, the powerful, mysterious avatar of the Warehouse - you’d think she’d actually be more involved with the Warehouse. But several episodes would go by where the caretaker of the Warehouse didn’t bother to darken its door.

A more subtle form of Banishing to the Plot Box replaces the character with a cardboard cut-out. The character is there, probably in the background or off to the side of every or most episodes. They just don’t say anything or do anything or involve themselves in any meaningful fashion. They’ve been Plot Boxed, and their silent image has been used instead.

The most obvious example is of course Astrid from Fringe. Astrid spends her life as a Mammy, taking care of Walter’s needs. She is so irrelevant that he cannot even remember her name until the very last episode.  Sure ostensibly she is there to help Walter with his research and to keep him on track but over the years that Fringe is actually on the air, we learn very little about who she is and what her drives are. To add insult to injury, during the last season she is placed into the plotbox for most of it to focus on Peter and Olivia’s daughter Etta.  

The Walking Dead also played with this trope with T-Dog (and his successors in the T-Dog Chain) - sure he was always THERE. But he was silent - he was Plot Boxed, his image just kept stumbling around with less personality than one of the walkers they killed.

Ultimately this is damaging because marginalised characters find themselves banished to the plot box with far greater frequency than privileged characters. This is a natural consequences of marginalised characters being far rarer as protagonists or major characters - no-one banishes the protagonist to the Plot Box (or not for long, anyway). Marginalised characters who are frequently banished to the Plot Box or banished to the Plot Box for an extended period of time contribute to disconnecting these characters from the main plot. By putting these characters in the Plot Box, of whatever form, we are emphasising that these characters are not important to the storyline. These characters are underscored as side characters, inconsequential or only temporarily involved.

But it also emphasises that this is not their story. By banishing them to the Plot Box we are making it clear they are players in someone else’s story, tools in someone else’s life and this story is definitely not about them. If it were about them, if they were protagonists, if they were major characters, we would focus on them. They would be involved. They would be important. And that, in particular, is what is glaring about the Plot Box. A character in the Plot Box is not important, not valued and not who we, as an audience or as readers, are supposed to be focused on. A marginalised character in a Plot Box is another in a long line of tokens, side-characters and side-kicks who serve as nothing more than tools in an able bodied, straight, cis, white male protagonist’s story. They live in the Plot Box, because we don’t care about them when they’re not helping the privileged main characters, because they don’t matter, because they’re not important and because the writers do not expect us to be focused on them or unduly care about them. They are separate, their stories don’t matter, their presence only required when they have a purpose (i.e. a purpose for the non-marginalised protagonist).

Where they are fully realised characters, they are underused - and too often they’re little more than plot devices. We deserve better representation than to be banished to the Plot Box until a non-marginalised person deems us useful.