Write what you know?

Straight, white men tend to tell stories from their perspective, as one naturally does, which means the women are generally underwritten.”

This I think is the most damning sentence I have seen concerning the horrific and – sadly – over a century old travesty that is the Hollywood “system”.

Damning because it lays bare a truth about the profession I am currently pursuing, about the title I currently assign myself: Writer.

They say you should write what you know. But I’m of the thought that will not be of use to me in this day and age.

The last five years or so I have been painfully aware that I’m not considered just a writer. But a WHITE MALE writer. I concentrate mainly on prose stories, not screenplays per se… but I am spending a great deal of my time looking carefully at what I write, to avoid the cliches and pitfalls of seeing things through my eyes. I am not sure that I’m doing a good job at that.

The industry of making movies, of telling stories on celluloid, of creating fantasy and drama is an extremely tough, arduous and soul crushing business. Its ten times that for women and minorities.

My Los Angeles and Hollywood experience lasted all of a year and a half. Like millions of others I went out because I wanted to see if I had what it took to make in films or TV. I was lucky enough to win a part on a show that went on to become a pop culture phenomenon… but I was unlucky in the fact that I wasn’t able to translate that into anything else. Mostly because I became disillusioned very quickly with the whole atmosphere and grind of what takes place in Hollywood.

In no way did I experience the very ugly side of the biz. But I did read scripts and sides over and over that had named male characters while others were labeled as ‘Woman Three’ ‘Blonde Bimbo’ or ‘Black/Latino carjacker’. Pick a stereotype, that was the label.

In recent days I’ve been examining and taking a second look at some of my favorite films, to place them in context of what is going on in this country – in Hollywood and in Washington, in this age of renewed bigotry and ugliness.

I’ve taken a look back at some of these sci fi films that I loved in my youth, a long hard look, because after seeing “Blade Runner 2049” (which I enjoyed despite going into it thinking I would not) I wanted to see how my memory and feeling of them held up living in the year 2017, in the age of Cosby, Trump and O’Reilly and Weinstein.

I’m not looking at these to bash them, I’m just looking at them through a different lens. When I watched them earlier in my life, my mind wasn’t questioning who was cast, what parts were assigned to what ethnicity — I had been conditioned from an early age just to accept that films looked and were presented as is. I didn’t look beyond what was presented.

It’s impossible not to look, not to see.

The original Blade Runner is still a classic, if only for atmosphere and mood. The lighting, the music, the setting, all fascinate and inspire. And even though Harrison Ford’s Deckard is presented as living among what appears to be a culturally diverse dystopian future – most of the crowd scenes are filled with multicultural citizens – the focus is still on a White Male protagonist. Even the main “villains”, the replicants, the head of the Tyrell corporation – they are all Caucasian.

The other aspect that always bothered me about the Deckard character, and how it was written, is that he forces himself on the female. He coerces, if not bullies Rachel into kissing him, a kind of male-centric forcing of consent. This for me undermines the notion in the sequel that they were “in love” and that their relationship was a good one. Even Rachel’s part in the sequel is reduced to non-participation – she’s replaced by a simulacrum. The female, the life-giver, pales in comparison to the need for the male/father to be the one to reconnect with “his” child.

Dune is purely a pale-skin’s only space opera. I don’t think there is one person of color in the whole of the film. Or if there are, they are simply set dressing.

The Terminator has a white female heroine, and one person of color who has a speaking part. He dies. In the sequel, T2, Sarah has been transformed from protagonist to an almost male character whose only solution to the problems of the Terminator and the future is to load up on guns and to obsessively pursue the death of the man who creates the tech necessary to allow Skynet to achieve sentience… a black man who has to die, and indeed does die.

Aliens has a white female protagonist, and maybe three persons of color, all of whom die. Ripley has to become a surrogate man to save the day, arming herself to the teeth with guns and grenade launcher and flame thrower in order to battle the evil female Queen alien – a male fantasy of female-on-female action.

Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper’s schlocky 50’s-esque sci-fi horror film based of the book The Space Vampires, is almost too painful to sit through. It’s a special effects laden D-Grade Mystery Science Theater 3000 contender. At the time it was released, in 1985, it was pretty bad – nowadays its just embarrassingly bad.

All of the main speaking parts are male. White males. The only females in the film are either shown as objects or villains. The blatant sex-plotation of the lead vampire – who in the script and credits is called “Space Girl” – she’s nude in almost every single scene she is in. The lead, (again) White Male protagonist exhibits atrocious behavior. He’s limited in his actions, seemingly trapped in one dimensional stereotypical misogynistic and self centered horror – his slapping and man-handling of a female character and his cry of “Why is this happening to me!?” All of this culminates in the female vampire telling him  at the very end that this has all been about him (the white male) “Because you’re one of us. You always have been.”

Take a good look at those films you have in your collection, whether they be action, sci-fi or what have you. The ones you truly love. How many seem the same? How many have the same texture or color to the characters? Who is the focus on the cover?

This is a tough pill to swallow.

On some level, I can only write what I know. I won’t ever be able to really write a truthful representation of a female character, or a minority character. All of my words will be filtered through my white male perception.

What I can do, what I try to do is to be sensitive to that. To not always make my focus the male character. To name my characters, not just label them. To make them real, not just one dimensional.

We are living through a very, very turbulent time.

All those tropes and cliches that have long driven the Hollywood of old are crumbling down in an avalanche of  atrocious and shameful behavior perpetrated by powerful (white) men and their enablers.

There are cries that white males are under attack. And you wonder why?

Mostly because it is deserved. Mostly because its high time we start seeing males and females as equal, that we start seeing skin color as equal.

I hold onto the idea that for every Weinstein there are five others who disdain the practice of harassment and systemic exploitation of women.

I’m doing my best, as a writer and a human being to practice that in my life. I hope you will too.

 

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