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The Problem of the Protagonist

As media critics we are bored and fed up with many of the racist, misogynist, and queerphobic storytelling tropes we see taken for granted in mass media. Men motivated by dead women and daddy issues. Women killed to further the emotional arc of a man. Women needing to be rescued. Queer people getting killed off quickly. People of color existing only to help the white lead grow. The list of these and things like them goes on.

A lot of people attribute this to a disposability of these people in the minds of writers, and in many cases that’s absolutely true. (Steven fucking Moffatt comes to mind. :-P) I do think that everybody is at least a little bit racist and sexist and queer-phobic because of the society we live in; nobody escapes it, we’ve just all got to do the best we can to overcome it at all times. While there are definitely prejudiced people who indulge their biases blatantly and without effort to correct, I also believe there are many people for whom, due to the fact that it’s the result of subtle cultural ingraining, it is not conscious. It’s easy to absorb from our fucked-up media that white straight men are the “neutral,” the one that anybody can identify with and step into the place of, something we often want for our protagonists. That doesn’t make it any better, but I think it does mean those people are more likely to be open to learning better and working in the future not to make the same mistakes.

So in many other cases, I tend to think the biased treatment of non-protagonist characters comes not necessarily from a disbelief in the inherent humanity of women or racial and sexual minorities. It’s a side effect of having most of our protagonists be straight white men.

When you write a story, everything tends to spin out from the protagonist. People rarely start from circumstances and then design a person to center things around. When you end up with a straight white male hero, everything else becomes designed in relation to him. Because white people tend to come from white families, his parents and siblings are probably white too, so if you include them, you get more white people. Because straight people form romantic attachments to people of the opposite gender, his love interest has to be a woman. Because you already have a protagonist, even if you DO decide to include more diverse characters in addition, they HAVE to be subordinate in importance to the story because the most important role is already filled. It’s not necessarily that this theoretical writer don’t think people of color, queer people, or non-male people are interesting or that they’re unwilling to write about them— it’s that some of the logical consequences of the white straight male protagonist screw everything up.

Then, moving on from there, I can also see why those secondary characters end up getting killed or otherwise imperiled for the sake of the story. In drama, the stakes must be high. The protagonist must have a strong, compelling motivation to make them go through the maximum amount of struggle and the most intense emotional journey. Often the most powerful and relatable way is to put their loved ones in danger, because it is a fairly universal human experience to want to protect those you love and suffer as they suffer. This means family, friends, romantic interests—who as we have established are dictated in relation to what makes sense for the protagonist —end up on that chopping block for the emotional weight. This gives us fridging and the resultant dehumanization and marginalization.

I saw this a lot in grad school. When somebody else wrote a story led by women, or people of color, or queer people, there was no real trouble on their part to invest in it, to believe that these people could be active or have stories worth telling. But when they told stories pulled from their own brains, they defaulted to white straight dudes, surrounded by other white straight dudes.

Now, I’m not saying that’s okay or that makes it not so bad. Far from it, there is something INTENSELY problematic with the idea that only WSM can be active or heroic or deserve to have their story at the center. But I do believe puzzling out why things happen is valuable, as when you attack the cause you might have a better chance of fixing the issue. And I tend to believe that people default to these WSM protagonists because they’ve been taught that the highest number of people can relate to them, and then all the other problems spin out from there.

So I think we as artists need to make a real effort to have different protagonists. Because every choice you make on them will ripple out into the rest of the story. So changing the center will change every spoke in the wheel. I know when I have even made the simple choice of having my protagonists be women (Mrs. Hawking is a great example) the tropes of the story are flipped just by the female character being the most important actor. If you think about it, it’s a relatively easy fix. We just have to change one character, and it helps the rest fall into place. :-)


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 3rd, 2014 01:00 pm (UTC)
Yeah, exactly. I've found that if I write a story with a female protagonist (which I think a small majority of my stories do), then some of the standard gendered protagonist-secondary character tropes get inverted without my trying very hard. It feels so natural that instead of thinking I'm subverting sexist tropes, I'm occasionally afraid that I'm reinforcing them: if a woman's story arc is furthered by the murder of her male partner, am I not saying that the woman really needs a man?

But I think there's a broader discussion in order, about protagonist-centric stories versus ensembles. We know that in LARPs we need to avoid having clear protagonists: every PC needs to feel like they're the protagonist of their own story. On cable television, there's time to develop many characters, showing how things look from multiple perspectives. The Wire does this. Mad Men, which is nominally about Don Draper, does this as well: Sally is a well-developed character in her own right, and so are many of the people who work for Don. Of course, shorter works have less time to be about more than 1-2 characters, and can pull this off as well. But there are long novels, and multi-season TV shows, that are basically about one person.
Oct. 10th, 2014 05:30 pm (UTC)
When you write a story, everything tends to spin out from the protagonist. People rarely start from circumstances and then design a person to center things around.

Interesting. Serious question: so do LARPs tend *not* to fall into this trap? I mean, that's the one form of writing I commonly encounter where precisely the reverse is true -- you usually *do* start from circumstances, and then populate them with characters.

Anecdotally, I think this supports what you're saying, but I haven't given it enough thought yet...
Oct. 10th, 2014 07:24 pm (UTC)
I think larps are a bit exceptional as a storytelling form, as when they're done well, ALL PCs are a protagonist of their own story. I think one needs to use a slightly different metric when gauging there. If you have too many WSM protagonists, that is likely to affect how many of the other protagonists end up. But in that case, it's probably a matter of proportion, when in other media it's hard to have more than a handful of important protagonists.

Edited at 2014-10-10 07:27 pm (UTC)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

My name is Phoebe. I'm Boston area theater professional and English professor focused in writing, acting, directing, and modeling. I'm known for having lots of interests, lots of opinions about those interests, and a very high estimation of the value thereof. This blog is for talking about whatever's on my mind, from my daily life to my activities to musing on any number of abstract topics. Thanks for taking the time to read.

My productions:

Upcoming Productions:

MRS. HAWKING part 2 and 3

at the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016

presented by The Chameleon's Dish

Vivat Regina
by Phoebe Roberts

at 2PM


Base Instruments
by Phoebe Roberts

at 6PM

Saturday, May 13th 2017
at 274 Moody Street, Waltham, MA

Other Achievements:

"The Tailor at Loring's End" screenplay
Quarter Finalist in the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition 2013

"Adonis" screenplay
Top Ten Percent in the Bluecat Screenwriting Contest 2015

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