A while back, I wrote about bad behaviors fiction needs to stop glorifying. That was only half of the equation. Fiction is just as capable of demonizing benign or helpful behaviors, and it does so with disturbing frequency. This has harmful consequences in real life, as it reinforces existing beliefs about what is acceptable. To make matters worse, the consequences often fall on those who are already marginalized, making it doubly important for storytellers to get their act together.
1. Disliking Christmas
It seems that every TV show ever made is obligated by law to have a Christmas episode where someone on the cast is a humbug who won’t get into the spirit of the holiday. But then they realize how wrong they were and accept the spirit of St. Nikolas into their heart. The audience is left with some glorious affirmation of the consumer economy’s favorite holiday.
The first reason this trope has got to go is that it doesn’t work. Consider The Librarians, in which Colonel Baird doesn’t like Christmas because she’s seen too many horrors in her career to believe in “good will towards men.” She isn’t ruining anyone else’s time; she just isn’t enjoying herself, but that cannot stand! Through some magic shenanigans, she ends up channeling the literal spirit of Christmas, which sends positive energy across the world. The show is silent on how this works for people who don’t celebrate Christmas. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t actually address Baird’s initial reason for disliking the holiday.
Most versions of this trope play out that way. A character is minding their own business, the story gets up in their face about enjoying a holiday, and then acts as if everything is resolved. Storytellers forget that the originator of this trope, A Christmas Carol, isn’t actually about Scrooge not liking Christmas. It’s about Scrooge being so stingy he’s making himself miserable and letting his employee starve. That could happen at any time of year; Dickens just chose Christmas because of its association with charitable giving.
More important than the trope’s technical failings is how it pressures people in real life. Many folks find Christmas a stressful time of year. We’re taught from childhood that we must give presents to those we care about, and that can be a real problem when money is tight. Christmas is also the time of year when people are most obligated to spend time with toxic relatives, and many don’t have the option of saying no.
When a character is admonished for not liking Christmas, this tells anyone with similar feelings that there’s something wrong with them. Why can’t they just learn to enjoy spending money they don’t have for relatives they don’t like? The trope’s habit of projecting Christmas onto people who don’t celebrate the holiday is another reason it has to go. At best, that shows the storyteller’s ignorance; at worst, it’s downright offensive.
2. Not Wanting a Baby
Everyone wants kids! If you don’t want kids, that means there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t believe me, just ask Jurassic World. In this film, Claire is a high-powered executive who literally starts the story on a phone call, where she tells her sister she doesn’t want kids. What a monster. Don’t worry, the film is ready to fix that with a plot where Claire falls for a dashing dino whisperer, and somehow learns to want kids by dealing with her obnoxious nephews.
So it goes with most stories where a woman doesn’t want kids. Sometimes they’re too focused on their career, sometimes they think kids are annoying and dirty, sometimes they just don’t want to push a baby out through their genitals. Whatever the woman’s reasoning, such a stance is treated like a flaw that must be addressed. You can guess how often male characters get the same treatment.
Although it sounds absurd when laid out like that, this trope is ridiculously common. The idea that anyone with a womb must want to have children is so pervasive that many people take it as a given. It’s viewed as a failure for a woman to reach her forties without having any children. This manifests in a myriad of ways, from constant prodding about grandchildren to politicians calling childless women selfish and greedy.
When storytellers pressure their characters to have children, it reinforces the pressure on real people. That’s inappropriate and, frankly, creepy. There should be exactly one individual who decides when it’s time for a person to have kids: themself. If storytellers desire conflict around childbirth, they should write a character who wants to have kids but is prevented from doing so by their economic circumstances. They’ve got to crack the case, so they can use the reward to pay for childcare!
3. Seeking Money
It’s more than a little strange that for a society so steeped in capitalism, there’s an idea that trying to make money is, on its own, a bad thing. Consider the example of Stranger Things. In the first season, Joyce’s ex-husband returns to offer his support after the supposed death of their son. At first, Joyce welcomes him back, but she later throws him out after discovering his plans to sue the quarry where their son died.
Of course, we know the ex-husband is an abusive jerk, but that’s not why Joyce gives him the boot. She sends him off because of his plans to make money. This is despite the fact that Joyce is struggling to afford basic necessities; she needs an advance on her pay check just to buy a replacement phone. She could really use the money for day-to-day life, to say nothing about sending her older son to college. Plus, there’s a legitimate case to be made that the quarry owners were at fault. But no, seeking money is a sinful thing and any who do it must be banished.
Demonizing the desire for money is prevalent throughout all genres, and sometimes it reaches blatantly absurd levels. In the film Twister, the antagonist is painted as evil for selling out to Big Tornado well before it’s ever revealed he wants to steal the main character’s invention. In an early episode of Xena, the warrior princess berates a man for trying to hire her, insisting he give the money to the poor instead. I guess it was too much work for her to give the money out herself.
All these examples feed the notion that there’s something inherently unsavory about trying to make money, that doing so means “selling out.” This is inherently classist, and it only benefits one group of people: those who are already wealthy. Note how rarely having money is characterized as bad. It’s always the act of earning money that’s demonized. This attitude encourages artists to undercharge and shames employees from discussing how much they earn at work, making it easier to underpay them.
Money can certainly be a motivator to do something bad. We see evidence of that every day, from corporations destroying the climate to politicians being influenced by campaign contributions. But wanting money is not inherently evil. In a currency-based society, we literally need money to live.
4. Cutting Family Ties
Fiction is full of characters estranged from their families, especially their parents. If this comes up in a story, it’s almost guaranteed that the plot will include the characters’ patching up relations in time for a happy ending. This makes sense, up to a point. Parents are a feature of most people’s lives, and we’ve almost all had conflicts with those who raised us, even if it was just over loud music during our teenage years.* It’s easy for most people to get invested in parent-child conflicts because they’re so familiar. But fiction can get obsessed with the idea of making up with parents, and that’s when it becomes a problem.
For the first three seasons of Voyager, we are told that Tom Paris’s father was abusive. Not only did the man pressure Tom out of the career he actually wanted,* but he berated Tom for crying. Sounds like a sweet guy, doesn’t he? So it’s understandable that Tom would want nothing to do with the man. With Voyager stuck in the Delta Quadrant, that’s not a problem. But then Voyager makes contact with Starfleet, and the crew receives their first mail from home.
One of the letters is from Tom’s father, and Tom isn’t interested in it. He’s got nothing to say to the man who made his life a living hell. The rest of the crew
respects his wishes badgers him ceaselessly about it. They all want to hear from their families; why wouldn’t Tom want to hear from his? Oh, right! That tiny fact about his father being abusive. At one point, Torres even tells Tom he has no right to refuse the letter because she’s just found out a bunch of her friends are dead. Does she also tell him to eat all his greens because there are kids starving on Ferenginar?
Of course, Tom eventually makes up with his father, who has miraculously become a better person in the time Voyager was missing. That’s always how this kind of story goes. The kid doesn’t want to make up with their parent, everyone badgers the kid, and it turns out the parent was a great person all along.
That’s almost never how it happens in real life. If a parent is abusive enough to drive their child away, it’s unlikely they’ll suddenly fix themself. Cutting ties with a parent is a costly act, both emotionally and financially. Whether it’s something easily recognizable like not accepting a child’s sexuality or just a constant stream of needling about not getting married, things have to be pretty bad before it makes sense for a child to stop talking to their parents.
Yet even in the most extreme of situations, people are constantly told they need to forgive and make up with their parents. This is terrible advice that ignores real harm in favor of an idealized relationship, but it’s advice many stories give all the same. If a parent actually does want to make amends, the onus is on them. The child is under no obligation to risk further abuse by accepting. Ironically, Voyager knows how to do that. It’s what happens later in the series when Torres’s own father reaches out to her.
5. Getting a Lawyer
Stop me if this sounds familiar: detectives are interrogating a suspect, and the suspect is about to crack. Soon the detectives will have the information they need to save the day. But then a lawyer sweeps in and gets the suspect to clam up with their terrible lawyerly ways. Curse you, lawyers!
Unless you’ve managed to avoid American crime TV shows for the last fifty years, you’ll recognize that scene. It happens all the time, often twice an episode. Sometimes this is just to throw a wrench into the cops’ plans. Other times it’s worse; because of the lawyer’s actions, a dangerous criminal will be released to kill again.
The natural inverse is also common. Characters under investigation will declare that they don’t need a lawyer because they’ve got nothing to hide. Taken together, the message is obvious: only guilty people ask for lawyers. This is a terrible message because nothing could be further from the truth.
There’s a reason Americans have a constitutional right to legal counsel.* Defense lawyers are a cornerstone of the adversarial justice system. They are the defendant’s advocate. They keep innocent people from being sent to prison. Just as importantly, they make sure guilty people aren’t given unduly harsh sentences. If you’re ever involved in legal proceedings: get a lawyer. The system is simply too complex for an untrained person to navigate, and the consequences for failure are high.
I wish I could say that only bad crime shows do this, but that would be a lie. Even otherwise progressive shows like Elementary and Brooklyn Nine-Nine have this problem. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the wholesome cops all hate defense attorneys, and I’ve lost track of how many times Sherlock has convinced a suspect that the best way to prove their innocence was to not bring in a lawyer.
Storytellers lean on this trope because it’s an easy way to generate conflict for investigator protagonists. These protagonists are always written to be right, which gives a badly skewed perception of the justice system. In real life, cops and prosecutors are wrong all the time, even when they aren’t being blatantly racist. Similarly, a person with nothing to hide should still get a lawyer, since otherwise they might accidentally incriminate themselves for something they didn’t do.
We must always be conscious of the messages our stories are sending. Nothing we create exists in a vacuum, and it’s easy to reinforce toxic messages without meaning to. To avoid being part of the problem, we must critically analyze what our story is saying. No storyteller will catch everything 100% of the time, but if an element of your story looks like it’s supporting a bad idea people have in the real world, it should probably go.
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