Friday, January 19, 2018

Which Characters Matter?

When talking about inclusion and diversity and media, we have repeatedly discussed erasure, tokenism and which characters get to be protagonists or major characters. Ultimately these discussions all rest on a simple question: Which characters matter? And from what it follows, since media shapes culture: which people matter?

“Which Characters Matter?” Cuts very much to the core of a lot of representation of minority characters. When we see briefly appearing tokens who show up to tick some inclusion box so the writers/etc can meet their diversity quota, we know these characters don’t matter. A character who appears once every few episodes or for a few brief passages in the book clearly doesn’t matter: maybe they’ll get a Very Special Episode but never really exist outside of that. The T-Dogs from Walking Dead, a good handful of pathologists or similar CSI experts on many shows, Dr Deaton on Teen Wolf, any POC in the Anita Blake Series. We’ve seen a lot of these characters who regularly disappear into plot boxes, hang around in the backs of crowds and generally exist because the writers don’t want to be seen as prejudiced but don’t actually want to put in even a modicum of real effort not to be. We know they don’t matter.

But just because a character appears more regularly hardly means they matter - and just because a character is commonly on screen or even is otherwise very prominent doesn’t mean that they’re not a token - or tokenised. A character can appear regularly in a story yet still be utterly meaningless to it or basically exist as a placeholder with no real storyline, development or presence

Jeremy on Wynonna Earp regularly appears in the show, has almost become part of the core crew since his addition: but can we say he is more than a token just because he is in more episodes than not? He’s there, but does he matter? Do we know anything about him and, tellingly, can we replace him with basically ANYONE? Can we completely rebuild his character from the ground up and not really change the story? Can we even remove his character and not really change the story? We can, ultimately, Jeremy doesn’t happen and if he is removed there will be no Jeremy shaped hole in Wynonna Earp

Or we can look at Luke on The Vampire Diaries: he was necessary to the plot in that his magic was useful and he needed to die. But any sacrificial lamb could have sufficed, it didn’t need to be Luke with his personality or characterisation. All that was needed was for Liv, the character who actually did matter, to have a twin. For live to have a twin to die for her. Luke didn’t matter - his corpse did.

This can apply even to characters who are regularly involved in the plot line, like Felix on Orphan Black. He is a constant source of support for Sarah, Allison and the rest of the clone club. They rely on him, they use him and he appears constantly… And yes, if we removed Felix I think the whole storyline would radically change - but only because so many characters rely on him as a servant. If we radically changed Felix and made him, say, a straight female accountant who loves Apple products and is still slavishly devoted to the rest of the cast? The story doesn’t change. If he was replaced by a 60 year old man called Bob who is being blackmailed by Sarah and secretly hates her? The story doesn’t change. Felix has no storylines, he has no relevant characterisation, every single aspect of his personality could be cut away and replaced and so long as he still serves, the plot doesn’t change. His removal would cause a hole on Orphan Black but it would be a generic hole - not a Felix shaped one. Ultimately, Felix, as Felix, doesn’t matter.

We see this as well in the House of Night series where Zoey is followed around by her sycophantic circle. They’re in every book. But if Damian and Shaunee were replaced - or removed entirely and the authors decided you only needed 3 elements to complete a circle (or everyone got two elements each) the plot wouldn’t change - except to become marginally less offensive. They have no storylines, they have no relevance, they exist to creep after Zoey like abused cult leaders following their supreme leader. They do not matter

While a common thread with these characters is a lack of their own storyline or development, it is also possible for these characters to have their own plotlines (albeit usually brief) but for them to still not overly matter to the main plot. They’re a side-plot, their own storyline is not deemed important, certainly not a plot line that the main characters are involved in

A good example of this is True Blood where Tara, Lafayette and Jesus all technically had their own storylines. Even long, involved storylines that spread over several arcs. And did Sookie give even the slightest shit about these storylines? Did any of the main characters? Except when these characters were useful in the main plot were they ever remotely relevant to the main characters or core plot line? Even when their plots involved rape, kidnap, imprisonment, near death and actual death very little actually rippled to the central cast. There were separated, quarantined even, from the main plot line - they could have been removed and other than the show being shorter, the actual plot would not have changed. You could edit all three of these characters out of True Blood and barely notice because none of their plot lines - their presences - were foundations to the show.

Another really good example of this is Penny Dreadful. We have a painfully clear, more obvious token in Sembene. He’s completely undeveloped, has no back story, no real motive and no purpose and less screen time. A classic, pointless, rather insulting token. But also look at Dorian. No-one can argue he wasn’t prominent, nor can we say he didn’t have sweeping, involved plot lines. But how involved were any of the other characters in those plot lines? How important was he or his activities to Vanessa & co? If he - and all his plotlines - were removed from the show, would anything about that show have to change? Would the ending be fundamentally different? Dorian managed to live in his own little island, almost a second show pasted onto the main plot. And I liked Dorian’s character and I really liked the plot they told - by saying these storylines were quarantined doesn’t mean they were bad; it just means they were separated. They were there, they were even interesting and powerful, but they didn’t MATTER

Supernatural did something very similar with Charlie - and again we had a character whose storylines I liked; but also a character whose storylines even FELT non-canon. Alternate worlds with Dorothy in Wonderland and computer games brought to life. They were surreal, didn’t quite fit with the main canon - even her death was part of a nonsensical side plot with the Frankensteins that made little sense EXCEPT to fridge her and push Dean to more extreme action. Charlie’s life didn’t matter - only her death did

These characters do not matter - and the easiest way to tell this is probably by asking whether the protagonist(s) actually give a shit about their lives. Was Vanessa overly bothered by whatever was happening in Dorian’s life? Did Sookie actually have time in her life for Tara which wasn’t about Sookie? If Jeremy died tomorrow, would Wynonna care? Would Zoey even notice if all her fanclub vanished into a desperately terrible plot hole? And even if they would care - simply because having your protagonist be super sad is an excellent way of focusing on them (and yes, Elena would be sad by Luke’s death. This lady managed to make the loss of Bonnie and Caroline’s mother All About Her. I’m amazed she didn’t just gate crash random funerals and grieve dramatically so people would rally round), would their lives change because of this loss?

It’s important to hold on to the idea of which character matters, because as diversity becomes more and more of a topic content producers are noticing, then so do they also become more practiced in doing The Very Least to ensure they get praise. As we start to reject Token Black Guy No. 3 and T- Dog Chains and characters who appear to just die 5 minutes later we’re not moving towards integral, involved characters. We’re getting “low key” characters, overhyped marketing, Lonely inserts and Very Special Episodes - and yes, present marginalised characters tacked onto the side of a show or book that just don’t matter. And maybe this is a step up from the erasure, pointless deaths and characters who were little more than furniture - but it still isn’t good. We’re still not upholding the most important message of inclusion: who matters. Whose story is worth telling. Changing from “you don’t exist” to “you exist… to serve privileged people” or “you exist, but no-one cares” or “you exist, if you’re useful” may be a step forward… but it’s not a big step and we’ve definitely got much further to go. We need marginalised characters in all media - and we need them to matter. We need the other characters to care about them. We need their lives, their stories to be relevant and important. We need them to be more than an extra, a tool, a diversion or a distraction.