Something to Consider (Part Two)

This is part two of the DetCon1 redux. You might be wondering, “What the what? He just said he was getting on the plane.” You’d be completely justified to ponder the worst. I’m here to assure you that nothing bad has happened. I took a bump on my flight for a ticket voucher.

If I wasn’t currently sitting back down in the comfy chair they’ve given me next to a plug writing this blog post I’d be up, jumping around, doing a happy dance. My plane ticket to Detroit in September for Geek Fan Expo is now a buried concern. Nearly $600 for three hours of waiting. I was in the Army, I’m good at waiting. Mad skillz, expert mode.

And now, by virtue of having little else to do, I have hours to complete some thoughts about my recent convention experience.

I got to meet Annalee, of Geek Feminism and twitter fame, while at the convention. She has some good things to say on the topic of diversity and harassment, and she is a thoughtful person you should be reading. But it was a real treat for me to meet her, her husband and friends this weekend.

Friday evening we were sitting around in the hotel bar, shooting the breeze, when the topic came around to disability. In particular, invisible disability. It turns out that we have this in common, and that we both have opinions regarding how chronic health issues are portrayed in media. She invited me to join her on the Disabilities in Genre Fiction panel the following afternoon.

I accepted her generous offer, figuring that if I didn’t feel like sharing anything about my seizures or compounding problems that I could just pass the microphone. It also seemed a good opportunity to sit in front of a crowd and gain maybe that little bit more recognition for my writing. And maybe, just maybe, my opinions on the subject might be useful in this discussion.

The panel was a super success. I think the exchange between the audience and the panel was more active and delved deeper into issues ranging from separating the disabled from the general diversity discussion going on in fandom right now to normative memes in media about health issues that just happen to be grossly wrong. Near the end of the panel a question was asked which was spurred by something I had said earlier. It was something like, “Why do you think so many authors get disability wrong.”

Annalee replied, “Because homework is hard,” and she is right. Then she handed the microphone to me. Now on the spot I grabbed an idea I’ve been simmering on a back burner for a while. It’s important to note that I agree with Annalee to a point, some authors are just that lazy. But honestly, I believe that this is ultimately a lack of empathy.

As an example I put forward several seasons of THE WALKING DEAD. My premise is that we’ve witnessed a change in writing for this show.

In early episodes, attempts were made to portray the emotion that the cast of characters must be feeling as their world crumbles around them. In the very first episode “Days Gone Bye“, amongst several emotionally intense moments, one stands out. Rick returns to the legless woman in the park intending to end her suffering. Before he puts down the zombie he whispers “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

At this point, we know two things. First, Rick still sees the dead risen around him as people. Dead or alive, they still deserve his respect and because he is a caring human being, he knows that these afflicted are in fact other people. He treats them with respect, or at least as much as he can afford. The second thing we can know is that the writers want you to feel the conflict, pain and struggle that the survivors must certainly endure. And we know they can write for that effect. With this screen play they’re pushing the viewer into the emotional position of the character. If you’re crying, feeling miserable, even wishing that there was a cure for the zombie flu then they did their job admirably.

Think about that for a moment, the legless woman in the park, is a person. Rick certainly lacks a cure for her condition, but he recognizes the tragedy of the woman’s fate. He does what he can to end her suffering, and he does this with caring and respect.

The invention of the Governor did plenty to muddy the plot arc of the show, but I would argue that it also objectified everyone on the show denying caring. By the end of season four the surviving characters have become little more than meat hacking sociopaths. Increasingly they are portrayed as narcissist who view the “walkers” as little more than obstacles. By transforming the cast this way, the writers are foregoing every opportunity for pathos. The characters in the show don’t feel, why should you?

Most of the episodes in season four seemed to be little more than an excuse for expressions of violence. Daryl loses Beth and do we see him grieve? Not much. Lizzie and Mike are twisted into monsters despite the fact that they are little girls. Rick’s children fare no better, even though they both make to the end of the season breathing, they become an excuse for senseless violence. When the Governor killed Hershel he terminated the shows last link to pathos. I’ve consistently lowered my expectations with each successive season and I expect season five will prove to be little more than a weekly blood bath.

Writing a story can be either a narcissistic expression of an author’s world view which simply sends content out into the wild or the reasoned assumption of responsibility by the creator of the story for both the content and the emotion and even behavior it will consequentially engender. I believe that creators of THE WALKING DEAD have traded the comparably difficult proposition of writing with the intent to provoke thought, emotional response and more specifically pathos for the much easier goal of simply shocking the viewer. And to achieve this, they will invariably dehumanize anyone at far end of a barrel starting with the zombies, followed by anyone who opposes the main cast. The supporting cast is next in line, and so forth. Do you see the danger yet?

One of my favorite aspects of science and consequentially science fiction is that it has the capacity imagine the resolution to many problems. In my opinion really good science fiction may even provide a rough road map which leads the reader through the milestones necessary to achieve, if not a happy, than an improved ending. Zombie stories are becoming, more and more, little more than a value judgement about The Other. Many of these stories provide an instruction set; how we treat those affected by persistent health issues. Zombies were people first; outside the context of the story would we condone the violent and unfeeling abuse of a corps?

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