The Increasingly Poor Economics of Penning Problematic Stories

My spouse has been trying to get me to play Space Run for awhile. It’s just this cute little game where you build your own space ship and take it on missions. I played through the tutorial recently, only a little annoyed that I wasn’t able to choose a female gendered character. The tutorial was OK. I moved on to taking the first mission, which is given to you, the protagonist, by a female CEO. After getting the mission, my heroic avatar felt the need to comment to his android sidekick about how “hot” the quest giver was.

I turned off the game.

The reality was, I had plenty of other games to play – Portal, Skyrim, Monument Valley, The Room and replays of Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Origins, not to mention books to read like City of Stairs, Shield and Crocus, Hild, and Steles of the Sky – that were better entertainment and not annoying sexist face-punchy.

It was in this moment that I realized the true economics of what’s going to drive the storytelling change. See, it used to be the only media you could consume was the racist, sexist, homophobic sort. That was simply all there was. So you either ate it, grimacing the whole while, or you opted out of it (I opted out of comics. I read pretty much no comics until the last six or seven years, as finding things that weren’t punching me in the face was hard).  But these days? Well, there’s a LOT of media out there, a lot of entertainment, and there are, increasingly, more diverse stories and choices we can make.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ll actually ask before I choose a film if it’s got any sexual assault or threats of same before I decide to watch it. When I’m as annoyed, stressed and exhausted as I am, I don’t want to spend what should be entertaining downtime gritting my teeth through uncomfortable micro-aggressions aimed at women. I get enough of that all day. I want some fucking escapism. And if there are films that can give me that, I’m going to prefer those over the ones that don’t.

book_moneyI’ve been noting for awhile that it’s the changing demographics of the US that will force many media companies to make changes – by 2050, 50% of the US will be made up of people of color. But women have always been 50% of the US…  So why haven’t we seen more media treating us like humans? It didn’t occur to me until I turned off Space Run in annoyance that what’s also going to change things up is that media itself has opened up. Just about anyone can create a game and put it online. Anyone can write a book and post it on a retail platform. We’ve got far more opportunities for choice now, and though big Hollywood studios and publishers and things are still publishing primarily status-quo stuff, they’re changing, too. What they see is that when presented with more choices, less problematic choices, people are quite often choosing them over their messy face punching bullshit.

The funniest part about my experience with Space Run is that it wasn’t even egregious. I’ve gotten through far worse things – True Detective, Bioshock Infinite – that I endured because there were other aspects of the storytelling that were so good. But when you give me a mediocre experience and *then* punch me in the face, well, you know… fuck it. This is why I’ll put up with Guardians of the Galaxy having a weirdly womanizing hero and its sole female protagonist called a whore, because it offers, at least, other things that I enjoy. I will still, of course, call out this problematic behavior, but, you know, if the rest of the movie was ALSO shit, I wouldn’t bother with my dollars. What studios will start to understand, though, is that if I was given an equally good romp of a show that had more heroines, none of which were called whores, and an actual nice-guy hero who didn’t confuse women with paper towels one minute and act like a human with feelings the next, I’d choose that over the more problematic Guardians of the Galaxy anytime.

Freeing up the story platforms – video, publishing, gaming – so that more people can play has indeed given us a glut of shit. But it’s given us a glut of choice, too, and we can choose media that doesn’t insult us a lot more easily now than before. It’s not just the bullshit on the same four television stations. I can root out shows like Orphan Black and even Snowpeircer among the dreck, and turn off the stuff that annoys me. I can find other stories. As a creator, I can actively write other stories, and deliver them to people, more easily too. And, increasingly, I find that what I considered I was writing – stuff on the margins – is actually pushing in a bit toward… well… if not mainstream, then at least carving out its own niche with audiences like me who are actively turning off bullshit stuff because they know there’s more interesting work out there.

We can rant all we want about how it’s hard to find the good stuff in the bullshit – but opening up those floodgates has also made it possible for the storytelling narrative to diversify and shift. I like more choices. I like being able to choose better stories, instead of being forced to endure the shitty ones or go without.

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