Analysis

Five Behaviors Fiction Needs to Stop Demonizing

Jake Peralta from Brooklyn 99

Peralta is probably about to say he doesn't need a lawyer because he's innocent.

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

Baird and Stone from The Librarians

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

Claire from Jurassic World

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

Lonnie and Jonathan Byers

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

Paris from Voyager

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

Marcus and Gregson from Elementary

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.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    You can guess how often male characters get the same treatment.

    That’s pretty much how it goes with Grant in the first Jurassic Park. Although A, he’s an otherwise heroic character; and B, the scene showing how he doesn’t want kids is illustrated via a really obnoxious kid.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You’re absolutely right that the OG Jurassic Park is a story about a male character learning to appreciate kids, but I’d argue that was fundamentally different than the kind of story we get in Jurassic World.
      Grant actively doesn’t like kids, while Claire doesn’t want kids of her own. Grant thinks kids are awful, Claire is focused on her career.

      I should have addressed the differences in the article, thanks for pointing it out.

      • Cay Reet

        For a lot of people, that’s a hugh difference, because all women are supposed to want kids (which allows for all those ‘biological clock’ jokes). If a man doesn’t want kids, it’s not a problem. Therefore, Grant actually has to actively hate them (since no human is supposed to actively hate kids). With him, it’s not just ‘I don’t plan on any kids of my own’ but ‘I wish there were no kids at all in my vicinity.’ The first thing wouldn’t make him look bad, but it makes a female character look bad, because all women are supposed to want nothing more than to have and raise kids.

        • R. H. Rush

          Yes, this. Men are stereotypically supposed to be career-driven, while women are stereotypically supposed to be nurturing. So Grant being pushed to embrace the idea of having kids is making his world larger, by breaking out of the male stereotype. With Claire, though, that storyline has the effect of making her world smaller, since instead of breaking out of the female stereotype, the storyline shoves her back into it.

  2. Rivers

    Really good post. As someone who struggles with 1, 2, and 4 in real life it’s always very cringe worthy and even painful to see those portrayed in fiction when it’s the cause of so much trouble and pain on a personal level. In general, fiction is very clueless when it comes to abuse, and there are a lot of ignorant messages out there. Also when it comes to people (especially women) having a least somewhat original life goals or being accepting of the fact that it’s okay not to want 2.5 kids and a picket fence.

  3. GeniusLemur

    How about #6: disregarding the rules? There are damn good reasons for most rules, and how many times has anybody seen the protagonist’s superior portrayed as reasonable for scolding the protagonist after he wastes huge amounts of company resources, takes his plane on an unauthorized joyride that endangers civilians, disregards a suspect’s Constitutional rights, and/or commits mass murder as he fights his private little war?
    (And ONLY yells at him. No matter how many regulations the protagonist may break or how many crimes he may commit, a bawling out is the only consequence he’ll ever face.)

    • Cay Reet

      Good point. But disregarding the rules isn’t demonized and should be, so this is the other way around.

      Still, I completely agree, there should be severe consequences, if the main character breaks rules just for fun and not for deeper reasons (which might make a reasonable superior accept the breaking of rules this one time).

      • GeniusLemur

        Yeah, that really belongs with the “Stop Glorifying” article, doesn’t it?

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, but it’s a really good point. The only time I have that ‘in deep trouble for ignoring the rules’ seen done well (and still remember) was the first book of the Phule’s Company series, which starts with the main character in court martial. Not in a ‘I should have known better and now I’m going to tell you why I’m here’ way, but in a ‘now things are really getting started’ way.

          • GeniusLemur

            There’s also the moment in Star Trek II when Kirk disregards the regs that require him to raise shields because they haven’t establish communications with Reliant even though he’s specifically reminded of them.
            And then he finds out just why those regs exist- the hard way.

      • GeniusLemur

        I guess the thing that gets demonized is OBEYING the rules. Far too many stories treat following legitimate but unwanted orders or letting the suspect talk to his lawyer or abiding by the Geneva Convention as a weakness.

        • Richard

          Or being the guy who is ENFORCING the rules! Far too often the villain is someone like the guy who has the duty to make sure Ferris Bueller is actually in school where he’s supposed to be, or that the Ghostbusters aren’t storing dangerous chemicals in their basement.

          And have you ever seen a respectable depiction of someone who works for the IRS?

          • Cay Reet

            I would actually love to see/read that. Imagine a good IRS agent who is fair (meaning they never try to find additional stuff to take money for, either) being forced to investigate a very proficient tax dodger, having to use all of their knowledge and experience to get past all of those false leads and find the truth behind them. That would surely be interesting.

            And, yes, enforcers are demonized way too often. There’s nothing wrong with enforcing the rules, as long as the rules are sensible.

          • SunlessNick

            I have wondered from time to time whether Get Out is the first film to ever have a heroic TSA agent. (Though is role doesn’t have a lot to do with that).

  4. Laura Ess

    It’s certainly a cliche having an attorney come in and spoil the police case. Just yesterday I watched a repeat of the 60s Batman with Liberace where he played twins (one was “my brother Harry”) and the twin is arrested and being grilled by the Commissioner and O’Hara, when suddenly the lawyer shows up – he even presents himself as a “Criminal Attorney (TM)”! And they had to let Harry go.

    Some time ago I watched a couple of videos about what to do if you’re arrested. They were from a USA perspective and the advice was mostly “Don’t talk to the cops until you have a lawyer”. It showed how the Police basically want to secure an arrest and will often skew things to bait people, guilty or not. Often people inadvertently incriminate themselves in stuff NOT related to why they’ve been brought in. And false confessions are another thing as well. So, WAIT FOR YOUR LAWYER!

    • Michael

      Even worse, as that video points out, while anything you say that hurts will be used as incriminating evidence, the opposite isn’t true. Due to how these hearsay rules work, self-incriminating statements are exceptions, but ones that support yourself are excluded. Nice, huh?

  5. Julia

    I love the “Seeking money is bad” when it pops up in stories. Often I see it when a detective, gunfighter, or some other type of problem solver is hired to help the innocent, and won’t accept their money in the end. At some point they’re going to have to accept payment if they want to keep the lights on at the agency / buy more bullets for their guns.

  6. Brett Minor

    I agree with all of these and we see them way too often, but I disagree with your take on Joyce’s decision to kick out her husband. I could be wrong, but I understood that she was disgusted because he came back to help because of the money and not because of the well-being of their son. If there had not been an opportunity to cash in on this tragedy, he probably would not have shown any interest.

    Whether that was actually his intention or not, it appears that was the way she perceived him.

    • Ashaton

      I was under the same impression myself ! And, as a person who dealt with abusive family obsessed by money over emotional bonds AND as a person who dealt with real poverty, i myself would kick the jackass out of my house, even if I had to sleep to not be too hungry after that. It’s not reaaaally rational. Yes, smile and say okay is a better plan for future, but I can understand the emotional response.

      • K.J

        why would a grieving mother want half-grubby sympathy from a man who hasn’t been in there lives?
        yeah there not rich, but in the face of her boys safety she’s not gonna be in it for the money.
        its part of the social investment, you don’t get a say if you don’t invest.

    • Michael

      Yeah, I thought that was pretty clear from the show too, given that he hadn’t paid child support or even had contact with his sons for months, maybe years (I’m not sure) and lived in another state entirely.

  7. Keiran

    Great post. I especially appreciate the inclusion of 4, as it’s something I struggle with. Even when people are willing to back off, after hearing why, it can be damaging. Having to justify yourself to counteract the “but they’re family” argument reopens old wounds and brings back memories I’d rather forget or have even repressed. It would be much better if others were willing to accept my wishes and drop the subject of family. The fact that fiction constantly goes in about family ties being the be all and end all just makes matters that much worse.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Absolutely. If a person has taken the step of cutting ties with family, it’s no one’s business but their own.

    • Rivers

      And it also hurts people who are in-between deciding whether they want to cut ties or not. There is so much pressure to “make up” with their family and similar crap that they end up staying or going back.

    • Alverant

      I think I’ve been guilty of being one of “those” people. I have a good relationship with my family, with a few exceptions. They’re important to me. If nearly any of them came to my door needing a place to stay or some money I wouldn’t turn them down. People tend to think their situation is “normal” and assume if family is important to them it’s important to everyone. It’s easy to forget not everyone is that way and there are times you need to divorce yourself from certain relatives.

  8. Tony

    Some good positive portrayals of cutting family ties are:

    Avatar: The Last Airbender. Admittedly, Zuko doesn’t cut off ties with all his relatives (he reunites with his uncle and goes on a quest to find his lost mother), but he stops trying to earn his father’s respect. And even from the beginning, he recognised that his sister was toxic.

    Harry Potter. No, I’m not talking about the Dursleys, since Harry does come to something of a reconciliation with them at the end. I’m talking about Sirius and Andromeda breaking off from the rest of their family. In that case, the rejection was mutual, but I don’t know what decent person would mind if the House of Black rejected them.

    Matilda is probably the most explicitly positive example of separating from a toxic family situation and prioritising personable connections over blood ties.

  9. Michael

    These were all good, but number 4 really bugs me personally. I’ve had to deal with this personally multiple times. First, people simply don’t understand that I’m not interested in a relationship with my father. I don’t even know the man, as we have only met once. Somehow, the idea I might be anything except longing this is inexplicable. No matter my attempts at explaining, all of it seems to simply go in one ear and out the other. In general I just don’t even mention it, as I’ve learned from past experience that it never goes any differently. They will never understand, I guess.

    Even a lesser alienation baffles people, I find. I was not close to my grandmother. She wasn’t cruel or abusive, nothing like that. Just distant. Not your warm and loving grandma. She wanted to be called “Grandmere”, the French for grandmother. It was like being related to a queen or something. Less like being with your grandmother than a royal audience each time. When she died, it didn’t sadden me. Not that I was glad, it was just not something that really me given the reasons above. It seems people expect that unless people have been outright abusive or negligent (though maybe not even then, given the examples you cite) your relatives will be people you care about. They can be just neutral though.

    P.S. In number 5, it’s “counsel” not council.

  10. Alverant

    I’d like to add “subsections” to the first two items on the list. To “Disliking Christmas” I would add “Not being Religious” because often in media, at least until recently, being non-religious (or worse Atheist) meant there was something wrong with you that needed to be “fixed” or that you were an immoral criminal. We still see that today in films like the “God’s Not Dead” series. If a character loses their religion it’s because of some horrible tragedy and not a result of weeks (if not months) of introspection and questions. It’s an ignorant stereotype which wasn’t right back then and isn’t right now.

    For “Not Wanting a Baby” I’d expand it to “Not Wanting to get Married”. It’s a bad trope that if you’re not married by a certain there’s something wrong with you. Maybe the person is ugly, socially inedpt, or secret sexual devient (which could mean different things in different decades). It goes back to the “if it’s unusual then it’s wrong” and what works for the general audience. With divorce being what it is, we should accept some people just don’t want to be married.

    For the one about money, how many sitcom plots resolved around a get-rich-quick scheme? Too many.

  11. C.C.

    One of the best articles ever. A lot of old ideas are repeated in writing, mostly out of laziness I think, because mainstream culture force-feeds us with them until they become “true”. They’re just musty old platitudes and they should be examined and questioned a lot more, so thank you for this kick-ass article.

  12. Kit

    I agree with points 1 & 2, but 3 could’ve used a better example. Joyce has known this guy longer than the audience and *laughs cynically* she knows without a doubt there’s no way he means to share any of that settlement money with her or spend it on his remaining child. He’s not just abusive he’s neglectful and selfish.

    That scene doesn’t demonize the pursuit of cash (as you said, the characters work hard for it and even strongarm their bosses for it), it demonizes the self-centered intent of the father. He didn’t come rushing out when his son went missing, he didn’t join the search, he DID insult the mother of his children to his remaining son’s face, and he didn’t come out even to ID the body.

    He came out purely because he discovered a way to cash in on his child son’s death, everything else was for show. That’s why Joyce kicks him out, his continued concern is only for himself. Plus, she’s already suspects it wasn’t the quarry’s fault.

  13. Sam Beringer

    The thing that kills me about Elementary in point 5 is that very early in the first season (episode 2, actually) is that Sherlock comments on a suspect wanting to hire a defense attorney, saying he’s smart to do so because he’s not guilty of murder (the suspect is guilty of burglarizing the victim’s home, but not of killing him).

    My Cousin Vinny did a great job laying out why defense attorneys are necessary (as well as doing a close portrayal of how a trial works).

  14. C

    The parent / child thing immediately made me think of Odo and Dr. Mora in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. They halfway dealt with it and then we never see Dr. Mora again. I feel like the reconciliation wasn’t complete, so I didn’t feel satisfied by it. I hoped to see Dr. Mora again, but nope.

    Granted, the two episodes they were together allowed them to see things from each others’ perspectives. That still doesn’t negate the harm Dr. Mora did to Odo to the point that Odo essentially “ran away from home” to become his own person.

    I feel like the show unintentionally wrote Dr. Mora to come off as kind of abusive and manipulative, then tried to soften it by saying he was under pressure by the Cardassians. Okay, a war situation can make somebody do stupid things and make bad choices, but where is Dr. Mora’s remorse for his actions? Is he keeping his guilt in his coat pocket or something?

    I really wanted Dr. Mora to tell Odo “I was wrong to hurt you. The fact that I didn’t realize I was hurting you in the beginning is no excuse. I know ‘sorry’ will never undo the damage, but I am so sorry, Odo, for how I treated you,” and we never got that. Instead we get Odo being all “Now I see what I meant to you and how much I hurt you when I left.”

    Odo was the victim, and the show made Dr. Mora out to be the victim instead. I loved the episodes where they interact, but that unresolved aspect of their relationship still pisses me off a bit.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I totally agree. The show tries to make it a two-sided conflict between Mora and Odo, but it’s not and I wish they had recognize.

      • Tifa

        When I was much younger, I happened across a rerun of the episode where Odo finds the baby Changling and Mora arrives to, for lack of a batter word, ‘help’. I was thinking of that while reading the article. Odo happens to be [along with Dax] my favourite DS9 character, and it irked me that he never really got a solid story arc.

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