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In Hell, I Will Be Forced to Assign Pronouns to Fictional Characters All Day
One way that writers are resoundingly screwed
Imagine you’re writing a movie script. This movie takes place in the near future. In your script, Character 1 — a superhero — looks at Character 2 — also a superhero (a 2016 FCC rule requires that all movie scripts be about superheroes) — and says: “Gee, I’m glad we saved the world. And now we get to meet the president! I’m really excited to meet…”
What’s the next word? Is it “him”? Is it “her”? Is it — kill me now, Jesus — “them”?
Most writers have faced this dilemma. I’ve dealt with it more times than I can count. The first purpose of this column is to explain to readers that I do, in fact, think about these things. You may consider me an asshole or a snowflake, and I won’t argue that you’re wrong, but at least I’m an asshole and a snowflake with purpose. My second goal is to offer a timid defense of my actions for when my inevitable cancellation rolls around. Because, you see: Writers are screwed no matter what we do. We’re offered a buffet of shit, and all we can do is scoop as little onto our plate as possible. So, let’s explore the deep hell that writers find themselves in when assigning pronouns to fictional characters in 2022, starting with the example of the imaginary future president.
If you call a made-up president “him”, then you’re perpetuating the patriarchy. Good luck trying to look your daughter in the eyes, you used-to-believe-in-things sellout piece of shit. I suppose that in your mind, female characters are only nurses, prostitutes, and wet blanket wives trying to snuff out their husband’s awesome fun. You’ll probably rationalize your choice by telling yourself that saying “she” would be confusing — because of course a woman could only be president of a makeup company, or some sort of neighborhood baking consortium! You sicken me, fascist.
Snark aside (for only a moment), I honestly don’t want to perpetuate the idea the presidents are always men. This isn’t a huge thing; I don’t think that my script for Smurfs V: The Rise of Azreal will end up being a linchpin in the fight for gender equality. But I’d like to do what’s right. The fact that we haven’t had a woman president yet doesn’t mean that we’ll never have one. And in fact, we’d probably have one right now if James Comey knew how to keep his goddamned cake hole shut.
So: You call the hypothetical president “her”, right? Well, that creates a new set of problems. Now you’re a self-righteous asshat trying to wedge a trite political message into your dumb-as-dogshit superhero script. You’ve become the stereotypical Hollywood narcissist who believes that they have to say something, despite the fact that — and it took me a long time to learn this — you do not. The world is actually not looking to you, oh sage scribe with five episodes of Kevin Can Wait and three unaired pilots on their IMDB page, to right society’s wrongs. What, truly, is the difference between you and the ‘90s band Dishwalla, who blew exactly zero minds by singing: “Tell me all your thoughts on God…‘cause I’m on my way to meet HER!!!”? The answer is “nothing”. You are Dishwalla, you sad tool. In trying to do the right thing, you have simply become a different type of douchebag.
In that case, maybe you should damn the torpedoes and call the fake president “them”. Unfortunately, I just don’t think that works. In my opinion, a writer who calls a fake president “them” is a conscientious and well-meaning person, but also a deep idiot who should be fired. Because to English speakers, “them” is a pronoun referring to two or more people. What’s going on in the near future — is the US governed by some weird EU-style triumvirate? Or a hooded-robe-wearing Council of the Seven? Unless that’s a plot point you’re going for, I don’t think that “them” works.
This type of situation comes up all the time. Suppose you’re writing a couple that appears briefly in one scene — is that couple straight or gay? What if you’re writing a cab driver — what race is he? Is it progressive to write a serial killer who’s a woman? What about an Asian character who’s dumb as a stump? If your character is disabled, do they have to be an exemplar of moral rectitude, or can they be a selfish piece of shit like most people? These questions deserve thought and discussion, because they’re inherently political and often make their way into our dialogue.
A few months ago, a Disney producer became a Fox News celebrity by casually referencing her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” in a tongue-in-cheek way. She helms a kid’s show that includes a gay couple. This made her an unwitting character in the Fox News Florida Freak-out of 2022, in which Disney was accused of indoctrinating children, and not in the way that Disney actually indoctrinates children, i.e. fostering such intense brand loyalty that by age three, a child is more attached to the Cars franchise than to their own parents.
In my mind, including a gay couple on a children’s show is absolutely not indoctrination. Because there are gay couples. Insisting that shows omit an actual thing that’s common in the real world strikes me as much closer to indoctrination than anything Disney is doing. I feel like to not write gay couples would constitute the writer’s political beliefs elbowing their way into the script.
But before you name me Progressive Ally Of The Century, recognize that my “it exists in real life, so it can go into a script” principle cuts in many directions. The hypothetical cab driver I mentioned earlier? I think it’s fine if you make him Arab. Some might say you’re perpetuating the stereotype of Arab cab drivers, but I’d say you’re reflecting the fact that there are Arab cab drivers in real life. As long as he (is it a “he”?) isn’t wearing a t-shirt that says “every member of my profession shares my ethnicity, and every person of my ethnicity shares my profession,” my opinion is that you’re fine. I think we should try to avoid hammering home stereotypes — let’s recall that in the ‘70s, anyone who was Black, on TV, and not George Jefferson was a street pimp — but I don’t think there should be a requirement that we be idiots. If you’re writing about LA gang violence in the ‘90s, you shouldn’t have to make the Bloods and Crips look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Of course, there’s also this: If a writer thinks “There are gay couples in real life, so I’m going to make one of the two couples on my show gay,” and every writer does that, then suddenly half the couples on TV will be gay. And on the one hand: Fine with me, I don’t demand that TV demographics perfectly match the real world. On the other hand: The actual share of same-sex households in the US is 1.44 percent. I don’t think there’s a fix for this; I don’t recommend that the Writers Guild create Gay Character Permits and hand them out at the beginning of pilot season. I think that the “fix” is for viewers to understand that writers are trying to craft realistic scenarios, but we’re operating in the dark, and many of us are also writing while high, so please try to cut us some slack.
So, what to do? How does a writer navigate race, gender, and other identity issues in a way that’s realistic but not pandering? I don’t know. But I can tell you what I do.
My first bold move is to dodge these issues whenever possible. If a character’s race, sex, or whatever else isn’t relevant to the story, then I leave it out of the script. This is partly borne of selfishness: The fewer constraints I put on a character, the better chance I have of getting a good actor (this is why you should never write seven-foot-tall Native American conjoined twins — that will be impossible to cast). Ten years ago, this would have been considered a highly progressive choice; today, some would argue that my decision to ignore sex and race is indicative of sexism and white supremacy. To which I say: Fair enough, but I’m still going to do it this way.
When I can’t dodge the issue — when I have to specify a character’s ascriptive traits despite the fact that they’re not really relevant to the story — I use a random number generator. I developed this habit when I wrote for Last Week Tonight. On that show, you frequently write random, nameless characters that end up in over-the-shoulder graphics. The joke would be something like: “Pulling out of the Iran Deal is like telling your wife you’re leaving her for a bandicoot!” (Please ignore whether pulling out of the Iran Deal is actually like that.) So, there has to be a graphic of a person walking arm-in-arm with a bandicoot while a woman gawks in disbelief, and the question is whether that couple should be gay.
I used to think hard about whether the couple would be a good representation of a gay couple. I soon began to question what “good” meant, because some gay relationships are train wrecks, and I started to question the value of “representation” in that context, because most people in Last Week Tonight graphics are either taking a dump or committing bestiality. Ultimately, I set up an Excel sheet containing demographics and a random number generator, and I used it to randomly decide which traits these fictional people would have. Since roughly 1.5 percent of American couples are same-sex, so it also came to be in my LWT graphics.
I still use this method — I used it in my last column to decide whether to call a hypothetical president “him” or “her”. I’m trying to remove myself from the equation as much as possible; my hope is that doing so will help me write scripts that feel realistic and articles that make me sound like less of a jerk-off. I won’t claim that I’m being objective, because choosing not to make a choice is, itself, a choice. I’ve just decided that this is the least-bad choice I can make.
Does this make me a bigot? A libtard? A soy boy? A fascist? Sure, yes to all of those; I accept whatever punishment Twitter eventually inflicts on me, because I’m too tired to try to avoid it. I’ve thought through the fictional-character-pronoun thing as much as I care to for the time being, and I’ll stick to my current method until a less-terrible one is presented to me. As usual, I don’t know what the right thing to do is; I’m mostly hoping that good intentions are enough. If they’re not, then every use of my random number generator simply lengthens the chain that I’ll carry through hell. But when I waste time thinking about pronouns for characters who aren’t real and represent absolutely nothing, then I feel that my time in hell has already started.