Monday, October 21, 2013

I Went Off On A Tangent and I Don't Know What To Title It...

I don't think there's anything particularly outwardly prude or conservative about myself. Therefore when a few (word choice was deliberate and specific, this was more than a couple) people recently asked me to read their new scripts and each and every single one of them happened to center on a character who was some kind of sex worker or just generally partaking in a sexual awakening of some sort, I wasn't completely caught off-guard or offended in any way. I wasn't even surprised. After all, it is the trend of the day, and the E.L. James' of the world have managed to take a subject matter which not that long ago was stashed under pillows in secret and turned it into book club fodder, stories as rabidly discussed and dissected as devoured.

But I admit that I am extra critical of content that dances on the racier side of things. I hold those projects and products under a closer lens than I do just about any other. I would never tell someone their story (whether real or not) is not worthy of being told, but I would highly suggest that the way it gets told steers clear from the gratuitous, the contrived, or the jumping-on-a-bandwagon-just-because-it's-trendy-and-you-think-it-will-sell-faster-that-way. Those should be givens-- and suggestions for any genre and style of storytelling-- really, but they still have to be said, perhaps sadly, in the state of ever-evolving mediums that don't adhere to the same censors of yesteryear.

For example, DirecTV's Rogue's first season featured a large amount of urgent, aggressive sex scenes that often came out of nowhere (you could argue that makes sense because they were the definition of "in the heat of the moment" or otherwise "scratching an itch") but were also completely unnecessary. We didn't need them to explain the emotional state of the characters because the actors in those roles were dynamic and detailed enough to always show off what was going on behind the eyes in any and all of their (clothed) interactions with each other. Most of these scenes, therefore, felt like they were thrown in because they could be-- because they were on DirecTV, which doesn't have to play by the rules of television, network or otherwise.

In many ways, I feel the same way about Showtime's Masters of Sex. Since this one is based on the true story of Dr. William Masters' research into sexual response, dysfunction, and disorders, a certain amount of showing the experiments is necessary to get an understanding for how and why he was both revered and at the same time feared. And certainly the way these scenes are shot are artistic enough to offer a visual dichotomy in how shocking they were for the time period but how immune we are to them today. After a certain point, though, it just becomes repetitive of the same theme, and it doesn't help that though Masters' work may have been revolutionary, his reason behind it was born out of desperation and insecurity and his male gaze during was, well, pervy.

There is no sense of shame anymore surrounding pleasures-- guilty or otherwise. Our culture has become one of sharing even the most seemingly mundane or cringe-worthy thoughts and moments, even if with just virtual strangers, hiding in the vastness of the avatar-covered social media. While it should be seen as a step forward to find self-esteem enough to not care if other people react negatively, many people put private things out there to only want positive reinforcement in return.

One of the projects I was recently asked to read was one based loosely on the writer's life, about a character who "never had the typical 20s, college experience" because of a young marriage and you know, not actually attending a four year college. The character feels later in life (late 30s) that experiences were missed and sets out to have those experiences-- to kind of rewrite how the life has to end up, in a way. The writer thought it would make a great story about "empowerment." I thought it was a great story about "selfishness."

I have no problem with people who wake up years-deep into a way of life to have a change of heart or freak out from routine or wonder what they're missing and want to do something crazy and even uncharacteristic for a little while. I have experienced those moments, too. If you have nothing or no one counting on you and you want to quit your job or backpack around Europe or sleep your way across the country while following a band on tour, I say go for it. But I have a very real problem with people who shirk their parenting responsibilities to go sow some sort of wild oats they feel they didn't get to do because they decided to have a child in the first place. And to me, that's how this story was reading.

In a script, the easy fix to making that protagonist likable is just to cut the kid out of the story and let that character go on making potentially reckless decisions. No more kid means no more need for the audience to worry about someone being left behind or potentially emotionally scarred by such abandonment. No more kid means the protagonist can suddenly be seen as "brave" for following one's heart and not giving into the status quo and setting a tone that no matter how old you are, it's never too late and you should never give up on yourself or finding your bliss or whatever.

(By the way, I am using the word protagonist purposefully, too, in order to keep things gender neutral. Many people argue that when men do things like this, they are celebrated, while women are the ones who get judged. I judge both equally.)

In real life you can't just cut a kid out to go have your own little adventures. That kid is still counting on you-- emotionally, financially, physically for a roof over its head and clothes on its back. And that was pretty much my point. You made your choices, and you don't have to live with them forever if they're causing you pain or suffering, but you have to take them into consideration and be willing to compromise, rather than throw them, along with all caution, out to the wind. A sense of balance has to be struck-- in life but also in writing. Whether this is your truth or just a story you're telling, if you're choosing a new sexual partner (or a parade of new sexual partners) over your child, I'm going to call you selfish. And I'm not going to apologize for it, just like how you're probably not going to apologize for your behavior. It's not about shaming anyone; it's about self-awareness and owning one's behavior. Maybe that means I deserve the label of a "prude" or a "conservative," and if so, I'll wear them proudly. There is no shame in that, either.

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