When We Rise/ABC

Are Our Stories Wrong When Characters Behave Real Rather Than Well?

For artists who are also activists, telling compelling storytelling can get us into hot water.

It can be hard to be both a storyteller and an activist.

While both my activism and art may share an ultimate end—specifically the health, safety, and joy of the marginalized—the means to achieve this end are different, and can sometimes conflict with one another.

As an activist, I employ rational argument and wield moral accountability. I build coalitions across difference and seek common ground with those who may oppose me. In order to do all this I often oversimplify issues. I gloss over inconsistencies, put aside uncomfortable exceptions, and sometimes project unity while hiding internal divisions. It’s a strategic choice in order to achieve a particular goal.

If I’m telling a story, however, complexity, inconsistency, exceptions, and conflict are exactly what I want. That’s what makes a story come alive. Emotion is more important than rhetoric, and it’s craft rather than strategy that moves an audience.

In one arena, my fidelity is to real people in real circumstances. In the other, it’s to the story itself, the truth of its moments, wherever it goes.

This is what’s on my mind as I see writer Dustin Lance Black critiqued for not including bisexual characters in the series When We Rise. I’m sympathetic to him as a writer burdened, perhaps unfairly, with the responsibilities of an activist, but I’m also sympathetic to the bi activists who long to be part of the stories being told.

Araya Diaz/WireImage
As both a storyteller and an activist, I’m often asked about the relationship of the two. Is art a form of activism? Do I want to create work that isn’t engaged with issues of social justice?

The question pre-supposes such a possibility. It implicitly acknowledges a 2,500 year history of art that claims access to a kind of apolitical universality: A simple love story. A thrilling adventure. Slapstick comedy. In the context of this tradition a story that speaks to some injustice is “timely,” which is a way of saying it likely won’t be relevant in another time. “Authentic” becomes code for the believable portrayal of a minority. And all this is because the western cultural tradition centers a single universal hero: the straight white man. His story is not “timely,” it’s timeless. It can’t be “authentic” because it transcends specificity.

I cannot be a part of those stories.

As a trans woman, my body, my life, even my love, is always already politicized, with or without my consent. Helpful or harmful, my story will always be a “trans story.” For this reason, art and activism are often inseparable for members of any marginalized community. If mere existence is resistance under the hegemony of “cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” to paraphrase Laverne Cox paraphrasing Bell Hooks, then aesthetic celebration becomes an act of defiance.

Regardless of Black’s intention, When We Rise is not simply a story for the LGBT community. So if it fails to satisfy an activist’s goals of proper inclusion, it will be critiqued under social justice standards rather than aesthetic ones. This, however, is a dangerous approach and can falsely conflate the views of the writer with those of the characters, and values one segment of an audience over another.

In the final scene of the web series Her Story (in which I co-star, and was co-writer and co-executive producer), the straight male lead, James, responds to the disclosure of the trans woman lead, Paige, by confessing he has a gambling problem. It’s a moment of deep empathy. Rather than become angry, dismissive, or even violent, he acknowledges that we all have disclosures, and it’s not always clear when and how they should take place.

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That scene, however, has been critiqued because it compares being trans to having a destructive addiction. In the minds of some trans people, anything less than “I totally accept you exactly as you are” is “problematic.” They want the story and characters to do that to which their politics aspire, regardless of reality.

But there’s a word for creative work that achieves such ideological purity: propaganda. And propaganda is only effective on the audience who already agrees with you. On the one hand I encounter men who say if they found out the woman they liked was trans they’d “kill the faggot,” and on the other I have activists who expect characters to embody whatever their standard of perfect praxis is.

If works like Her Story or When We Rise are to be effective, they have to be close enough to reality to be believable and relatable, yet if their politics are to be effective, they must also be tuned in to aspirational standards. As a creator it feels like I will always be failing somewhere.

Further, because there are so few LGBT stories, what is available is as frequently critiqued for what it doesn’t include as it is celebrated for what it does. Maybe that is unfair, but it’s that pressure that often drives more creators to fill in the gaps. Indeed, I wrote Her Story because I didn’t see my story represented anywhere else. And just as Black responded, I have often told people who complained that I didn’t include X, Y, or Z to write those stories themselves.

The solution is to create more stories. Many more. If there were a dozen shows exploring the history and diversity of queer community, no one would carry the burden of universal representation.

And while our stories may not be seen as universal or timeless, why must we aspire to be? I for one welcome more timely and authentic portrayals of this world I love, in this singular moment.

Jen Richards is a Los Angeles-based writer, actor and producer.
@smartassjen