Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang!: When Men Write Women

I have recently completed several seasons of Peaky Blinders, a gangster series set in 1920s Birmingham, based on the real life family The Shelby’s and their illegal betting and black-market trading businesses.

The story is clearly a boys fantasy, while couched in history, the heroes and villains become caricatured and superheroesque and women fall into two broad categories, wives and lovers.

Initially, leading female characters seemed plucky, tough. However they soon devolve into wives with children who hover in the wings, or mothers vigilantly attending their sons. They’re sassy and have their own minor narrative arcs, trysts and adventures however they largely fall into two dimensional supports for the boys.

To be faithful to bygone days, women did not have the rights and agency of men to run businesses, bear weapons, own property or take a professional career, nor do they have the physical strength to engage in fisty-cuffs as typified in gangster sagas. What is sorely missing is not girl-versions of boy gangsters, but females with rich, varied and nuanced existences, intellect, entrepreneurship, humour, allure, mendacity and creativity of their own.

Thomas Shelby, the gang leader, is a male fantasy. Women throw themselves at him one after the other, while men either love him or want to kill him [and even the ones who want him dead will happily collaborate with such a decent foe].

What presents as a nuanced period piece, the 1920’s world brought to life amidst IRA tensions, a young Winston Churchill in office, ethnic gang wars between gypsy travelers, Italian mafia and Jewish business empires, an wider back drop of the dying and corrupt Russian Empire, the early stirrings of communism and of a second World War, becomes a disappointing two dimensional fantasy of bad boys gone badder, rolling in money, cocaine and power, breaking all the rules except the code of brotherhood and seeing foes and beautiful women falling in front of them with ease.

There is not one woman in the series who is not oriented to the men as lover, mother, wife or more crudely, an object of desire. No strong character, weak character, evil character or good redeeming character has any other place in the narrative except as part of the family or as a side interest. And this where good writing falls down.

Sociological vs Psychological Storytelling

Game of Thrones, in its eighth and final season, enjoyed audiences of more than 17 million people per week. However, fan and critic reaction though out the season indicated many of those millions loathed it.

Where did the season go wrong and why exactly did it go downhill? In May 2019, Zeynep Tufekci published an article in the Scientific American entitled, ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.’

Her thesis was simple; the original narrative created by George R. R. Martin struck a cord with audiences because of its unique subtlety as a sociological story which stood out among Hollywood narratives characterised by being psychological and individually motivated.

It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological .

She explains that in sociological narratives, characters evolve in response to the broader social, political, economic and cultural incentives and norms that surround them. Author George R. R. Martin drew from medieval and renaissance history for his characters and plot devices, as well as from European myth and legend. In doing so, he specialized in having characters evolve in response to the broader social fabric and beliefs within which they were placed.

On the other hand, psychological narratives features characters driven by much more individual quests and motives. The preference for this narrative style in Hollywood is understandable: the story is easier to tell and we gravitate toward identifying with the hero or hating the antihero, at the personal level. The hallmark of sociological storytelling however, is it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.

An example of the power of Martin’s sociological storytelling was his willingness to kill off major characters frequently without losing the thread of the story. Narratives driven by psychological and individual motives rarely do that because the main characters are the key tools with which the story is built. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

Showrunners, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, took the narrative beyond Martin’s books, and turned the later seasons into Hollywood psychological narratives. In the final season, none of the main characters are killed early or unexpectedly and the motives and movements of the protagonists and antagonists became ever more internally wrought. What resulted in season 8 was ‘deus ex-machina’ styled defeat of the forces of the dead, and simplistic dissolution to good vs. evil interplay between main characters.

And it was the story’s richness which was lost in season 8, moving fans and critics to openly pan the final episodes online. Meme’s abound like the image below featuring a young woman’s Halloween costume literally ‘trashing’ season 8.

You can read Zeynep Tufekci’s full article on Scientific American, HERE.

Save the Cat

Blake Snyder was a well known American screenwriter and theorist, and his book “Save the Cat” is a leading guide to writing for screen.  In it, he outlines several tricks of the story telling trade.

One strategy he outlines is for getting the audience to side with the protagonist early on. Featured in the title, Save the Cat!  it describes the manner in which the screen writer introduces the hero in an early scene doing something nice, for example, saving a cat. This creates a bond of empathy between them and the  audience. 

book

According to Snyder, the inspiration for this particular example, was the movie Alien, in which Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] saves a cat named Jones.

The contrast can be as powerful. For example, the opening montage of the TV series, House of Cards, features the  protagonist Frank Underwood, [Kevin Spacey] finding an injured and whimpering dog.

house of cards

He considers for a second, before strangling the dog and then calmly states:

Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.

This scene chillingly sets up his character and the whole trajectory of the TV series with its exploration of the intricasies of political ambition and power.  

Saving the cat, killing the dog,: such simple motifs connect the audience viscerally to characters through emotions of empathy or distrust.

Journalism as Narrative

One cannot spend long listening to mainstream media without realising that a “narrative” is being laid out. By narrative, I mean a conversation, a view point, a focus upon a certain perspective [character] with a certain struggle [crisis] and seeking a certain resolutions [catharsis].

This is well acknowledged by commentators. Factoids are thrown about such as “more people are killed by obesity than by shark attacks” or “more people die walking down the street than in plane crashes” or most significantly, “more people die daily from prevantable diseases and hunger than in terrorist attacks.” Yet the media has a narrative to tell and mostly this narrative is driven by what the audience, the readers, are interested in reading or viewing. Unashamedly appealing to the feelings and fears of the viewers, media will focus on the shark attacks, the plane crashes and the terrorist attacks. The viewer must supplement their world knowledge through self study.

This is a curiousity to note, especially because many of us state, “I’d rather read the news than fiction, I think the real world is interesting enough” or ” I want fact not fiction”. Journalists are bound to various codes of conduct not to perjure or malign people or companies unduly or not to insert opinion into their pieces, retaining an impartial reporterly perspective. However, the bias evident in what is reported and how it is reported is remarkable and one that the user generates.

Brandon Stanton, photographer of the wildly successful blog “Humans of New York” gave this brilliant TEDx talk in 2013. He highlights how the media selects their content and how this content does not reflect the greater reality of life. His blog seeks to counter that and tell a different narrative.

Fiction is simply another form of narrative. Let us read with discernment.

Breaking Bad’ and modern day tragedy

Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time. By the time the series finale aired, the series was among the most-watched cable shows on American television. The show received numerous awards, including sixteen Primetime Emmy Awards, eight Satelite Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two Peabody Awards and a People’s Choice Award. In 2013, Breaking Bad entered the Guiness World Records as the highest rated show of all time.

– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaking_Bad

The show which lasted five seasons, between 2008 and 2013 is described by series creator Vince Gilligan as one in which the protagonist becomes the antagonist.  It tells of the metamorphosis of middle class high school teacher, Walter White who missed big chances to be an award winning chemist and finds himself turning 50, working two jobs to support a pregnant wife, a disabled son and a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. Brother-in-law Hank is a drug enforcement administration [DEA] officer and laughs with Walter about the money in meth amphetamines, and before the first episode is out, Walter is attempting to cook premium crystal meth from the back of an RV in the desert of New Mexico.

breaking bad

 

His subsequent journey into the criminal underworld, reveals to him a grit and determination and a “bad ass” fighting spirit long hidden in his middle class comfort. Initiatlly motivated by the high fees for cancer treatment and to provide for his family, Walter maximises his chemistry prowess to cook the best crystal meth in Alberquerque, becoming both successful and more  and more compromised, descending deeper into the criminal world throughout the series, and  becoming less and less a sympathetic antihero.

An article in the New Stateman recently, refers to David P Pierson opening essay in , Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series. Pierson’s essay, examines how the show has such a terrible and enduring resonance.

Breaking Bad is, he argues, a demonstration of the true consequences of neoliberal ideology: the idea that “the market should be the organising agent for nearly all social, political, economic and personal decisions”. Under neoliberal criminology, the criminal is not a product of psychological disorder, but “a rational-economic actor who contemplates and calculates the risks and the rewards of his actions”. And there is Walter White in a nutshell.

– http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/capitalist-nightmare-heart-breaking-bad

The phenomenal popularity of the show is curious in the contemporary climate. For it’s darkness, the moral narrative is complex. A good man, turns to crime to support hims family. He takes on the criminal world to make dirty money clean. His disenchantment with cosy middle class life and the hand of cards dealt him, forces him to take matters into his own hands and to become somewhat of a renegade. However, his personal dissolution and increasing moral compromise winds downward without much sign of redemption.

2014+50 Breaking Bad Ralph Steadman2

The show combines some familar narrative elements we are comfortable with – the disenchanted male leaving the domestic sphere to head out into the dessert to do combat vigliante style,  in the Western cowboy tradition. War tales are full of good characters faced with grey moral choices in unspeakable circumstances, drawing on both good and bad motivations to achieve their ends. However, the show was popular throughout the tail end of the GFC and housing bubble collapse in the USA. When life and society let him down, Walter turns bad. Irredeemably so.

Audiences world wide watch with curiosity the dissolution of a man “breaking bad”, going off the moral deepend under terrible stress, so they don’t have to. It’s catharsis.

Breaking Bad was distinctive because we always knew where its road would end. We knew that right from the start, in the way that the first audiences of Shakespeare’s tragedies knew what lay in store for Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. But these days we like to think that the hero, even if he is an anti-hero, makes it through….. In 21st-century culture it is difficult to consider the fact of mortality, as the surgeon (and this year’s Reith lecturer) Atul Gawande reflects in his recent book Being Mortal. If Walter’s cancer weren’t terminal, there would be no story. There is no escape.

– http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/capitalist-nightmare-heart-breaking-bad

The modern day tragedy of epic proportions has gone down in history now as the most popular series of all time – far above comedy, romance, sci-fi, thriller and reality TV. This fact is illustrative of the power of narrative, to with a darkly humorous style,  to map out the depth of human suffering, to journey through terrible moral choices, to give catharsis by telling a nuanced tale of a society and culture and one man’s journey to take things into his own hands.

bb walter white

I say, let tragedy as a genre, live on!