We advocate for socially just stories because it’s the right thing to do, and that won’t change. But sometimes this purpose can feed false ideas about the supposed costs of social justice in our tales, as though we must choose between social justice and good storytelling or social justice and popularity. Neither of those are true. As a reminder that we are not alone in calling for justice in a world of entrenched oppression, let’s look at some stories that not only did the wrong thing but also alienated some of their most loyal fans in the process.
Spoiler Notice: Game of Thrones Seasons 4 and 5, The 100 Season 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron
1. Added Rape Scenes, Game of Thrones
Based on George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series, the Game of Thrones TV series takes place in a gritty, medieval setting. Whereas many other epic fantasies are still sidelining female characters, Martin includes a diversity of proactive women who each deal with their patriarchal society in their own way. Because forced marriages are part of the setting, there is rape in the books, but the creators of the TV show added more.
The first blow up happened over a scene with Jaime and Cersei Lannister. In both the book and the show, they have sex next to the body of their dead son, but in the book that sex was consensual. In the TV show, Cersei says “no” and “stop” over and over again as Jaime forces himself on her. Fans became angry not only because the rape felt unnecessary but also because the scene introduced a strangely dark turn for Jaime’s character. Jaime had just become sympathetic; why make him a rapist?
Then in interviews with the cast and director, the truth came out: none of them thought it was rape. The director said, “in the end it was consensual,” as though if a man just forces himself on a unwilling woman, at some point she’s bound to change her mind and retroactively make it okay. This made an already problematic scene much worse, because the show was directly contributing to myths that encourage rape in the first place.
The controversy of the Lannister rape eventually died down, but then it happened again. The show included a scene of Ramsay Bolton raping Sansa Stark. Ramsay also rapes someone in the books, but the victim is a minor character. In tidying up the plot, the show creators decided to give the character’s role to Sansa, including the rape scene. While the creators at least understood it was rape this time, it’s still terrible.
The foremost reason is that it ditches the empowerment of an important female character to motivate a male character. Sansa had already escaped a situation where she was abused and helpless. Since then, fans had eagerly watched her become wiser and more powerful. Her role as a rape victim just takes her back to square one of her character arc. Meanwhile, the character Theon Greyjoy is forced to to watch the rape as a means of motivating him to finally rebel against Ramsay. Sansa’s rape scene is more about Theon than it is about her.
At that point, many troubled fans who stuck around after the Lannister scene left for good. The Mary Sue, an entertainment site for female geeks, decided to stop promoting the show. Discussions in the fan community focused on whether or not they should boycott the series.
What Storytellers Can Learn From This
The most obvious takeaway is that when fans are unhappy about something, you don’t have to double down on it. Dismissing responses with “some people will always be unhappy about rape scenes” or “it’s a violent and gritty show” not only ignores the reason those people are unhappy but also dodges any discussion about whether making them unhappy was necessary or if the scene provided a net benefit to the show.
I have yet to hear someone argue that sexual assault should never appear in stories. However, adding a rape scene creates a terrible experience for real-life survivors and makes the act of rape feel more normal to us as a society – even if our stories clearly send the message that’s it’s bad.* In nearly all stories, a rape scene can be swapped with a different conflict to preserve the plot. There’s only one reason to include rape despite its costs: your story is about rape in some way.
Even then, you may not need a rape scene. Mad Max: Fury Road is about the way people are turned into things; rape adds to the story’s purpose. The plot centers on rape victims struggling for freedom, but the audience doesn’t watch them get raped in the movie. Fury Road is just as gritty and violent as Games of Thrones, and it easily avoided alienating fans.
2. Seven of Nine’s Catsuit, Star Trek: Voyager
Star Trek: Voyager was the first, and is still the only, Star Trek series to star a female captain. While this choice was a great step forward, the minds behind the show seemed to think it was a large accomplishment instead of an overdue milestone. If they hadn’t been resting on their laurels, they might have thought twice about how they introduced a new cast member.
Seven of Nine was added to improve ratings on the show, and from the moment she entered, she was an exceptional character. Brought to life by actress Jeri Ryan, the character’s well-developed arc follows the legacy of Spock and Data, both incredibly popular characters. Like them, Seven is a cool and logical person that analyzes the foibles of the human race as she becomes more human herself. The writers also cultivated a deep relationship between her and Captain Janeway. Seven of Nine’s character arc is used to highlight Janeway’s knowledge and wisdom.
But the showrunners packaged this strong female character in a catsuit and high heels. The costumers went so far as to ensure her breasts stood out separately, something Ryan called “a real feat in engineering” in an interview. This outfit is clearly impractical for everyday wear, and it looks nothing like the Star Fleet uniform that so many characters are shown cherishing across the franchise. Not only that, but Seven of Nine has no agency in choosing this skin-tight outfit. Instead it’s designed by a male character – The Doctor. Seven of Nine displays no desire for the male ogling clearly intended by the showrunners.
To many Star Trek fans, her costume was a sign that the philosophical and forward-looking franchise was selling out. For those who admired Voyager as a feminist show, the obvious pandering toward a male audience felt like a slap in the face. The behind-the-scenes details have only made this insult worse. Jeri Ryan blacked out several times on the set because her costumes cut off blood or air flow. Her first outfit as a human, shown above, had to be retired because she couldn’t move well and she had trouble breathing. Even after her outfit was replaced with a version that wasn’t so tight, it took twenty minutes of assistance from a costumer so she could use the restroom. During some episodes she stopped drinking while they filmed so she wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom at all.
In the end, Jeri Ryan’s excellent performance won over many of the fans that had been alienated by her costume. In addition, the chemistry between Janeway and Seven attracted many of the femslashers who had cheered for a romance between Xena and Gabrielle. The introduction of Seven of Nine was widely credited with raising the show’s ratings.
What Storytellers Can Learn From This
The team behind Voyager all operated off the same assumption: Seven of Nine’s sex appeal was essential to her popularity. But a comparison of Star Trek characters defies this assessment: Troi and T’Pol were put in tight outfits in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Enterprise, but neither were particularly popular characters. Whereas Data and Spock, characters that followed the same personality archetype as Seven, were both widely popular.* By assuming men wouldn’t be invested in a female character without overwhelming sex appeal, the show creators both insulted male intelligence and forwarded the notion that women must adapt to accommodate the desires of men. Plus, it’s simply a wrong assumption. Well-written characters will earn a following regardless of whether or not they feature in wet dreams.
For storytellers who decide sex appeal is important, it can be created without disregarding the agency of the character or the welfare of the person behind the character. Consider featuring a character like Jadzia Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, who is unapologetically sexual. She vacations on the pleasure planet of Risa for her own satisfaction, not because she needs validation from men. This is very different from a character who is packaged as virginal and then unwillingly paraded before male eyes.
3. Death of Lexa, The 100
The TV show the 100 was once popular with femslashers, a community of queer women who write fanfic and support romantic pairings between women. Fanfic communities are never given much respect, and femslashers are a minority in fanfic communities. They have few shows with lesbian romances to represent them, so they frequently ship characters that are canonically straight. Just by providing a wealth of engaging, female characters, The 100 became one of their favorites.
Then in season two, the show introduced a strong, attractive lesbian character, Lexa, and gave her a brewing romance with the show’s lead, Clarke. The femslasher community became passionate enthusiasts of the “Clexa” romance, fighting vicious battles online with straight shippers. The minds behind the show responded positively to Clexa shippers, promising more of Lexa in the next season even though the actress had other commitments. The showrunner, Jason Rothenberg, even hinted she’d appear at the end of season three.
The first half of season three focuses heavily on the Clexa romance, until Lexa and Clarke finally make it official and go to bed together. Immediately after, Lexa is mistakenly shot by her own servant and dies.
This would enrage any fanbase. I haven’t seen any fans more angry than those who are severely disappointed, particularly when they are disappointed by storytellers they trusted. The 100 built up the community’s expectations before harshly tearing them down. But for femslashers in particular, this was much worse, not only because they have so few canon romances to represent them but also because this has happened to them countless times before.
The storytelling trope is called “bury your gays“; it refers to the incredible frequency of queer deaths in popular stories. The femslasher community has watched their favorites die over and over again, leading to a general feeling that lesbians aren’t allowed to be happy on screen. In fact, Lexa’s death had remarkable similarity to another upsetting death for the femslasher community: the death of Tara in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like Lexa, Tara died from a stray bullet meant for someone else, and it was immediately after getting back together with her girlfriend. In both cases, the love interests were present to watch the death helplessly. This was a strange and demeaning demise for Lexa. She was a leader and a warrior who was willing to die for her people, yet she had a completely pointless death.
The retaliation from the fan community was strong and immediate. Femslashers got the hashtag #LGBTFansDeserveBetter trending on twitter and caused ratings to dive. More recently, they’ve even persuaded some sponsors to pull their support. While The CW is moving forward with another season of the show, it’s unclear whether it will fully recover.
What Storytellers Can Learn From This
I honestly believe that Rothenberg tried hard to appease fans despite a departing actress. Season three rushed into the Clexa romance quickly and dwelt heavily on it while Lexa was on the show. Her death was foreshadowed extensively, and even after she died, she was important to the plot. She even made a glorious post-death appearance at the end of the season. If I were to make a generic checklist for mitigating the impact of a hero’s death, The 100 would probably have covered every item.
But that doesn’t matter. Not one bit.
That’s because Rothenberg didn’t do his homework. The first step in depicting people who are different from you is research, always. Every marginalized group has stereotypes and harmful tropes that must be avoided when writing about them. It doesn’t matter how much sense those patterns make in the context of the story or its production, because fans are tired of hearing excuses. Every showrunner tries to say their show is a unique snowflake that should get a pass. Fans don’t care anymore.
While Rothenberg was in a tough position, he could have handled it much better if he’d been more aware of the needs of his fans. Giving Clarke and Lexa some time to be a happy couple* or sending Lexa off into the sunset without killing her would have made the departure better. And while a gay couple was introduced in season three, an additional lesbian romance wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Edit 8/21/16: This section was edited to reflect survey data showing that straight fans are not a majority in fanfic communities.
4. Racebending, The Last Airbender
An animated series with a strong cult following, Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of few popular fantasy stories to pull its setting from outside of the Western world. In the series, everything from the clothes people wear to the utensils they use is clearly inspired by Asian or Inuit cultures. While the skin shades of characters vary, with cultural context it’s pretty easy to conclude all of the characters are people of color. No blond characters appear in the series, and according to the Animatic Editor, some of the characters were even modeled off of Asian members of the show’s crew.
Then M. Night Shyamalan made a movie based on the series and decided to cast white actors in the top four roles.* The Chinese calligraphy that featured heavily in the animated series was removed and replaced with invented symbols. Even so, the story wasn’t transplanted to a Western location. Casting calls encouraged extras to wear ethnic Asian costumes, and one of the white actors said he’d need a tan for the movie. While the animated series had carefully depicted its Asian-inspired settings with authenticity and respect, Shyamalan exploited Asian cultures without recognizing actors of Asian descent or even giving those cultures the credit they deserved.
Fans revolted. They organized massive boycotts and protests, prompting quite a few of the people behind the original series to condemn the new film. A group of well-known comic artists created a sketch book in protest of the movie’s casting, and Roger Ebert lambasted it. Several Asian arts and advocacy groups sent official protest letters to Paramount, asking them to reconsider the movie’s casting.
Paramount and Shyamalan weakly defended their decision as “adding diversity” to the setting. However, when the actor playing the character of Zuko dropped out due to a scheduling conflict, they replaced him with a POC. Clearly they were hoping to appease fans, but they should have known better because of the four most central characters only Zuko is a villain. In the series he is a complex character that eventually switches sides, but the movie only depicts the first season, where he is bent on kidnapping the hero.
The movie was a terrible flop. The fervent boycotting it earned certainly contributed to its failure, but it was also just a horrific movie. However, the fans that united against the film are still active. They founded Racebending.com, an advocacy group devoted to fair representation in media. The term “racebending” was coined in likeness to the world’s elemental magic use: waterbending, airbending, etc. They have supporters in 50 countries around the world.
What Storytellers Can Learn From This
Hollywood often favors adaptations over original screenplays because it allows them to capitalize on an existing fan base. So why anyone would then alienate that fanbase is truly baffling. It could be because 1) they assume their potential white audience is racist and 2) they don’t think fans will care if the characters are whitewashed. If this incident shows anything, it’s that neither of those assumptions are true. If white people hated characters of color, how did the animated series become so popular in the first place?
Any story that features white characters – or white actors – in a foreign setting is navigating dangerous waters. In these cases, it’s too easy to send the message that other cultures exist for the benefit of white people. But foreign countries don’t exist to be an exotic vacation spot or to give life lessons to white travelers. To demonstrate respect, stories should center around empowered characters local to the setting and use authentic representations of their culture.
5. Stereotyping of Black Widow, Age of Ultron
Black Widow is the most prominent female character in Marvel’s movie franchise. Played by superstar Scarlett Johansson, Marvel fans have grown increasingly agitated as, movie after movie, she’s played a support role to a male lead. All the male characters of her caliber have featured in movies of their own, yet she hasn’t gotten one, and there isn’t any plan for one in the works.
Then Age of Ultron came out. Directed by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fans naturally expected Black Widow would at least get a good part in the movie. Instead, they were treated to a feast of female stereotypes. Black Widow’s arc is about how she’s barren but would really like to have a baby. When discussing her infertility, she refers to herself as a “monster.” The movie also has a weird scene where she serves bar for all the superhero guys, and Captain America takes a shot at her for flirting with many of them in the past.
The context surrounding the movie made it much worse. In an interview promoting the film, two of the male actors called Black Widow a “slut” and a “whore.” Despite being a major character, Black Widow is featured in very few toys for the movie. There’s even a toy that depicts one of her scenes from the movie but features Captain America instead of her.
The explosion on Twitter was so huge that Joss Whedon exited the platform. The arguments between fans became extreme on both sides, with death threats exchanged. Saturday Night Live, adding some humor to the controversy, made a skit mocking Marvel for their poor judgment regarding female superheroes.
While the battle around this particular movie may have died down a bit, the war is still ongoing. Marvel is showing no signs of changing their ways, and many of their fans are still unhappy.
What Storytellers Can Learn From This
Joss Whedon may have written Black Widow’s arc with a desire to focus on a women’s issue that is usually neglected in popular stories. But doing this in a work with so few female characters means singling out that one woman further. Female fans want to see a female superhero saving the world just like her male counterparts, not fretting over pregnancy. Those kinds of stories are best left to women writers or directors. Even so, if the Avengers were half women, this storyline would have been much better received, because other female characters would be present to show that not all women are obsessed with family and babies.
As for Marvel and its parent company, Disney, their motivation appears to be a desire to gender segregate all of their products. As far as Disney is concerned, they’ve got women covered with their princess products, and they want Marvel to focus on male viewers. Marketers are notoriously risk adverse, and this divide-and-conquer strategy has worked in the past. But Disney will have to change their tune, because this kind of heavy gendering is falling behind modern values. They’ve already learned that girls don’t want to watch damsels waiting for a love interest anymore. Sooner or later, they’ll find that people respond better when their products are not segregated by gender.
None of these incidents are unique; flare-ups over the same issues happen continuously. Yet too often, large production companies only think of the risk involved in more diverse stories. The assumption is that if they push boundaries, their audience will react badly. This can be true, but it ignores both the fans that will react positively and the fans who are tired of outdated and harmful depictions. People admire stories that do the right thing.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?