So You Want To: Avoid Unfortunate Implications
Whether you're creating something that may or may not touch on known issues, or you're wanting to avoid creating new tropes with their own Unfortunate Implications
, you may find it useful to have a simple guide to handling potentially loaded tropes and situations with care.
This guide is intended only as a simplistic overview not applicable to each and every situation (and sometimes ignoring its advice may be a good idea), and some of you may know far more than it illustrates. Its purpose is to help the average writer without much experience in social justice activism (except maybe within his/her/their own group) avoid creating unintended offense and/or badly creating intended offense.
- Do not assume the Viewers Are Morons, do not use Small Reference Pools, and refuse to play to the Lowest Common Denominator. This is as close to a "golden rule" of avoiding Unfortunate Implications as one can get. Specifically, assume that your viewers will be of a diverse nature, smart enough to understand implications, and expecting well-rounded, interesting characters and plotlines in many cases. Even if they are Just Here for Godzilla or Fanservice, your objective is to assume that even Godzilla battling an armada of strippers will not make the viewers morons who ignore everything else along the way.
- As for the Lowest Common Denominator, there is a reason it is a virtual Trojan Horse of tropes with unfortunate implications. That's because in many societies, the Lowest Common Denominator is playing to bigotry, specifically racism and sexism, and opens the door for the worst mistake one can make in creating bad implications—not thinking.
- If you're looking into a potentially problematic or controversial issue, do your research. Read up on it, look for accounts of those with experience, maybe even talk to people involved in those areas. The more understanding and perspective you have on the issue, the more effectively you'll be able to write about it. However, please keep in mind that no one is obligated to share their experiences and some may find such questions uncomfortable or offensive, especially if the one doing the asking is an outsider. Finally, it might be worth letting someone with experience in these areas—and whose opinion you trust and respect—have a look over your work to offer their comment; they might be able to pick up on potentially problematic areas that you have missed.
- Even so, don't make the mistake of thinking that any one person can be the main spokesperson of an entire group. If you find yourself having to explain that you did do your research to people who are still upset, it may turn out to be, or be perceived as, a case of Some of My Best Friends Are X.
- Treat all characters as people regardless of race, gender, etc. Are characters of a specific group being marginalized or ludicrously idealized? Is the character a legitimate part of the story or is said character in it solely for the sake of filling a Token Minority slot?
- Be very careful when you're depicting interracial relationships and don't put your own fantasies in them. Is it really judicious to make the Asian girl your White Male Lead is dating a subservient doormat who doesn't talk back? Is making the black guy who dates a white girl a pimp or a hoodlum necessary? If at the end of your romantic show the Asian guy and the Black girl are the only ones left dateless, did you ask yourself why? Because of all this, when two people of a different race get together, make it 100% clear that race isn't involved in the reasons why they are together. However, that doesn't mean you can't explore their cultural differences. If you want to make it a drama piece about racism, avoid the white/black plotline because it's so overused it has become a full-blown cliché. There are plenty more possibilities yet to be explored.
- Write characters, not caricatures. Never write stereotypes. You can have an Asian character who is smart or a black character who is athletic, but people are more than just one character trait.
- Behavioral or cultural characteristics are not inherent aspects of race, apparent gender, or genetics. However, this does not mean they should be ignored either. It's never a bad idea to research why social constructs such as ethnic identity exist and how they affect people (and your characters). See the second bullet point on this page.
- Avoid sexual stereotypes like The Plague. Seriously.
- Combined racist-sexual stereotypes are the worst. Yes, some people might still see them as funny. Many more see them as offensive or at the very least, stupid and pointless. This includes "race is somehow a gauge of penis size" (it isn't, outside of very vague generalities which are by no means universal - so if you find yourself convinced that Asians all have a Teeny Weenie or that Black Is Bigger In Bed for example, you need to realize these are both stereotypes and that there are quite a lot of exceptions to them), that "race determines sexual submissiveness/availability" (no one race or ethnicity is universally more sexually submissive or "lusty" than another) or anything else that equates race to what someone is, is not, or does or will not do in sexual situations.
- Homophobic/transphobic sexual stereotypes are just as bad, even if people do, unfortunately, still believe them. No, all gays are NOT pedophiles, and in fact, the amount of sex crimes per LGBTQ people is lower than that of self-proclaimed straights, especially when antiquated crimes (e.g. from when being gay itself was a crime) and "crimes" involving consensual adult sex and couples within three years of each other's age are not included (For the record, more LGBTQ people are victims of crimes such as rape and sexual abuse than perpetrators.) No, taking it up the ass does not make a man less of a man or an all-around submissive or "wimp." No, transgendered people are not severely mentally ill, worse than crackheads, nor do they have an "agenda" to force you to accept them/decieve you as to their "true nature" and give them attention and sex against your wishes.
- Don't use real people as "freaks," and avoid the Freaks of the Week trope like the plague. Transgendered people are real human beings with feelings and real lives. As are little people. As are women with unusual hair growth. As are people in that freakish little scary subculture that just got torn to bits on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Law And Order SVU. And so on. If you absolutely must have someone treated as a "freak" for laughs or in using someone's "freakishness" to amplify their villainy, either pick something not realistic or among real people and refrain from the pitfalls of Fantasy Counterpart Culture while doing so, or, in the case of amplifying villainy, pick something real but that does have an effect of violence or murder (e.g. being a psychopath, suffering from intermittent explosive disorder or uncontrollable anger) as opposed to something that doesn't (e.g. being a punk or metalhead or goth, suffering from autism or anxiety or depression)
- Go to the Sexual Harassment and Rape Tropes index. See all of the incredibly misguided at best and horrifically awful ways existing media has depicted rape or dubiously consensual sex. If after this you still wish to include one or more of these in your work, ask yourself why?
- Is it for simple cheap fetish thrills? If it is, be honest with yourself that that's what it is, do your damnedest to make it clear that the story is a fantasy or screwed-up kink that should never happen in reality, and make use of trigger warnings. Or, better yet, go look at the ways to make it into Safe, Sane and Consensual BDSM as opposed to actual rape.
- Is it for a wangsty backstory or to make the viewers feel sad for/sorry for someone? Reconsider it. Look up Tear Jerker and think of ways OTHER than rape, because Rape Is The New Dead Parents. Rape as Backstory is overdone, and especially for throwaway angst, there's many other worthy ways it can happen than rape.
- Is it for Black Comedy? Then make it as absurd and obviously unrealistic as possible. You are Crossing the Line Twice, so at least try to make it so obviously absurdly stupid, over the top, and Fan Disservice that, while it's a joke, it's a joke at the idea of rape itself and/or at the expense of rapists (a couple of good examples of rape as black comedy concept, though your mileage may definitely vary, are George Carlin's "Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd" joke - e.g. no real humans involved, and the humor is not in the victim or saying anyone "deserved it" but in the absolute stupid absurdity of the scene itself, and/or the "how many times can we say rape" Running Gag of Detroit Metal City, where the "20 rapes a second!" joke is actually a bit of incisive snark at how lightly "rape" is treated as a concept in Heavy Metal.) Use your trigger warnings, and (it should go without saying) be prepared for quite a few people to say "Dude, Not Funny!". Expect others to be triggered or upset or offended - and do not act out at them because they have the right to be.
- Is it really intended for Rape as Drama, with all attendant respect it deserves as a traumatic experience? Then DO THE RESEARCH. Go to RAINN, go to sites for victims, read and listen to interviews with victims. Then, and only then, prepare yourself to write all of your understanding and emotions into your fully developed character, and prepare to devote considerable time in the work to this.
- Keep in mind: gender doesn't trump morality. Just because a character is female doesn't make her automatically harmless or kinder than any male. A villainess doesn't have to have a Freudian Excuse, maybe she's a selfish bitch who only cares about herself and what she wants, plain and simple.
- Also keep in mind that gender does not define emotional depth. A woman can be The Stoic, for example, and a man can be horrifically traumatized and act believably as such.
- Consider who you are putting at the center of the story. Is it reasonable for a Mighty Whitey outsider to take leadership and save the day rather than native leaders with lots of experience of solving problems on their own turf? Remember that characters do not necessarily have to be white, male, or heterosexual. Every culture has something to share, and having a more variegated cast adds a more diverse outlook on life. And main characters are one of the least likely character types to be members of a minority, which can send unfortunate implications that the straight white male perspective is the most important or the 'default', so at least consider varying the POV character a little.
- Don't make evil groups or evil characters distinctive for an appearance feature that parallels a specific real world race or culture and especially do not make them parallel to said culture. Your "aliens" who happen to have hooked noses, wear hats that suspiciously look like yarmulkes, and who are greedy bankers aren't "cute" or "getting crap past the radar", they're a stereotype recycled.
- On that note, be very careful around the Superior Species trope. If you're going to use it, don't make it parallel to a real-life culture either.
- For the straight yaoi and yuri fans, keep in mind that real gay and bisexual people exist, and some of them are also fans of yaoi and yuri as well. This doesn't mean that all of your stories have to have aesops about LGBTQI rights or be entirely 100 percent realistic - in fact, going off on an Author Filibuster about this or driving your characters out of character to do it is one of the worst mistakes you can make, because it makes you look like a White Knight as well as showing off privilege. It does mean that having your characters be unexamined stereotypes of LGBTQI people will be noticed and taken badly, and it does mean you should understand at least a little beyond what you learn from porn or Slash Fic or manga or whatever.
- It also means that you need to be well aware of the setting for your LGBTQI characters. If you are writing before around 2003 or so for example, society will be far, far less accepting of your LGBTQI characters as a whole (and even now, some societies took acceptance and tolerance and are taking acceptance and tolerance far more slowly). Eternal Sexual Freedom does not exist. Settings within those times can also be problematic - for example, setting your yaoi fic in Nazi Germany without it being either a Black Comedy parody or without your seriously considering the implications (e.g. that GLBTQI people were put in concentration camps and otherwise murdered unless they were Armored Closet Gay and in an important position) is going to upset a lot of people. Even if you are writing in a far more tolerant subset of an intolerant time or culture (the LGBT culture of a Capital City in general past the 1960s, 1970s Glam Rock or 1980s Visual Kei for example), you need to recognize that once the characters stepped out of that bubble, they couldn't even have as much as a public display of affection that wasn't "justified" as something else.
- Be extremely judicious when applying the Rule of Funny. If you find yourself using this as a justification when called out for not doing your research, you've probably already invoked Unfortunate Implications. This is another good reason to have people related to the issues you raise vet your work.
- Acceptable Targets won't be seen as such by everyone. No matter how acceptable you believe the target is, you should not be surprised if some of your audience disagrees. At the *very* least, expect members of that acceptable target group to be offended.
- Do not apply Always Chaotic Evil to a race, ethnicity, nationality, age (young or old), religion, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, species (whether you are writing Speculative Fiction or not), or groups of sentient beings in general. It can be less problematically applied to an institution or corporation or movement or whatever, but even with that, be careful to specify that every being in, say, a nation, does not belong to that group. Most Germans in World War II weren't Nazis, for example. It's also good characterization not to make every single member of an organization flat-out evil or monstrous, as that rarely is the case in real life.
- Be very careful in regard to children or young teenagers (or childlike looking characters) and how you choose to depict them. The Token Mini Moe, the Really 700 Years Old childlike, and the underage-looking Uke may be nigh-omnipresent characters especially in anime, manga, and Visual Novels, but often these characters are created solely to pander to a specific demographic, one you may not want your work associated with (or one you may not want associating with your work or yourself). If there is no valid plot reason for their existence beyond a Hand Wave created just so they can be there, at least consider the idea of making the character an older teenager or an adult instead, especially if the character is portrayed as sexually available.
- With respect to sociopolitical issues, absolutely avoid painting exponents of any ideology with a broad brush. Words such as conservative, liberal, democracy, and dictatorship will not mean the same thing to everyone. Two individuals with the same basic politics may still have a lot to disagree about. Also do not assume that two ideologies that seem to be at odds in some issues will be polar opposites in all things. Some conflicting ideologies may have little more than subtle differences. And being pro-something does not neccesarily mean being anti-anything else. Pride in one's culture, creed, or ethnic heritage, for example does not neccesarily say anything on their view towards other cultures, creeds or ethnicities.