Take a good, long look at this person. Read what they have to say. Truly understand that the hoary cliché from the right that these people are death cultists who can never create and only destroy rings true:
“Oh, not the whole, ‘They just wear a preexisting IP like a skinsuit and parade around like they—‘”
Yes. Yes, exactly that. Because it’s true. You know it. I know it. Most importantly, people like this know it.
So what do you do? How do you counter such blatant messaging? You don’t refuse to have a message. That’s conceding ground to the enemy without a fight. “Just tell good stories!” is good advice in general, but you have to understand that all fiction is “message fiction.” The keys are:
1. What is the message?
2. How do you present it?
* * *
Do you enjoy blunt force trauma? Does the thought of getting smashed in the head with some sort of hard, heavy object at great speeds sound really exciting to you? If so, then you’re kind of weird. If not, then apply this idea to metaphorical blunt force trauma. Or other unpleasant and humiliating turns of phrase, like “Having your nose rubbed in it” (with “it” being something kind of brown and smelly).
My 7th grade English teacher used to have a stock comment when she’d correct us students’ writing: “HMOTHWAS” which is a mouthful. It stands for “Hitting me over the head with a sledgehammer.” She used this phrase when our writing was too on-the-nose, too overdone, too much.
Imagine you’re settling own in front of your TV ready to watch the latest piece of superhero fare. You fire up your streaming service of choice ready to watch good guys beat the hell out of bad guys or whatever.
The show comes on, something about a super tall green attorney chick. It’s all quirky fun and games until wham, here comes the sledgehammer. Here comes THE MESSAGE.
Oof. Ouch. Dang! She-Hulk: Attorney at Law screenwriter Jessica Gao just put words into the mouth of the titular character that made you not like her anymore. Way to go. Here’s a medal for your stunning bravery.
What words? Well, I didn’t watch the show but I saw some screengrabs of the scene in question. It’s Basically, the message is “Men suck, so if course women get angry.”
You know who did watch the show? Carson Reeves of movie screenwriting site Scriptshadow. I like Scriptshadow. Carson often provides insights that apply to all arts and not just the movies. His review of She-Hulk is particularly incisive:
From there, we get the “fun and games” section where the Hulks play around with each other, tossing boulders into the atmosphere. It gets kind of fun, except that there’s this growing “men just don’t understand” subtext permeating the story. If Bruce is explaining something about being a Hulk, Jennifer sees it as “mansplaining.”
It’s mostly in a jokey way. But that’s when the show hits us with the line that’s now gone viral and which will be the nail in She-Hulk’s coffin. Because what the line says is, “This is a message show. We’re going to be propping up one gender over another. And if you don’t like that, buh-bye.” Which is their prerogative but it’s a fast way to lose half your audience. And why in the world would you want to do that?
Being this on-the-nose about ANYTHING isn’t going to work. There’s also such a generalization here from the character – painting gender with such a broad brush – that it makes her look ignorant. Which, in turn, makes us not like her.
One of my favorite movies from a couple of years ago was The Invisible Man. That movie was about the dangers of some men being toxic. And it never had a scene like this. Where the heroine spouts out on-the-nose dialogue about the state of the male gender. If ever there was an attacking line, it attacked the individual, her ex-husband. Not every person on the planet with a penis. Yet the movie gets its message across 1000x better than She-Hulk.
It’s frustrating because I like the actress here. And I like the idea of a superhero version of Ally McBeal (which is getting a sequel btw, BECAUSE of this show). But the second the show decided it wanted to be exclusive instead of inclusive, it was done. They may double-down with a series renewel [sic] out of spite for the blowback they’re getting. But mark my words, this series is toast.
See? That’s the problem with sledgehammer messaging: it makes at least half of your audience dislike the main character. And that, friends, is a nigh-absolute no-no when it comes to writing.
We just saw Top Gun pass Avengers Infinity War at the domestic box office. What is Top Gun known for other than being a really great movie?
All it cared about was entertaining. And audiences were like, “FINALLY! We don’t have to be preached to. For once!”
Well . . . Top Gun: Maverick DOES have a message, but it’s one of those universal, timeless messages that is non-political, non-gender or race-specific, and worked into the narrative in a natural way.
“Nope,” the biggest major release message film of the year, made 100 million less than the studio was hoping for.
They/Them is getting destroyed by the very critics who are so desperate to prop it up.
They/Them looks so damn bad, man . . .
People are sick of the preaching. Yet She-Hulk is ready and willing to not only die on that hill, but become a martyr on it.
People are sick of preaching. I mean, HBO Max is under fire for laying off far-leftist “people of color” responsible for making shows that preach progressive politics in favor of stuff that appeals to, you know, normal people, because HBO Max, presumably, enjoys making money.
The taste of one’s own medicine is bitter indeed.
So what can you do if you do want to have a main character who is some sort of uber-feminist spouting far-left Tumblr-tier talking points? Carson has a prescription for that as well:
The thing is, there are ways to push messages and get the audience on your side. One way is to take the piss out of the preaching. When Jennifer says, “Men are toxic and the patriarchy is in charge and blah blah blah,” have Bruce say something like, “Okay, calm down there, Don Lemon.” Have more fun with it instead of slamming us over the head with a hammer, implying that if we don’t weep for Jennifer, we’re bad.
In other words, you can treat your characters like real human beings, preferably pre-Internet ones, who at least act like they’re from a time before being terminally on-line—and, interestingly, subjected to a constant stream of Marvel movies—has rewired their brain into being the most childish binary thinkers in human history. If you are not old enough to remember such a time, I am truly sorry.
Humor, and opposing foils who are also written as actual people and not gross caricatures, is always a good way to balance out heavy handed messages. And maybe some messages have to be heavy handed, or you want the character to be strident. But there’s a line between “Presenting the audience with different viewpoints to create interesting character conflict and make them think” and “Smashing your audience in the head, repeatedly, with a one-sided message that portrays those who disagree with it as bad, stupid, evil, wrong, smelly, and probably psychopathic.”
“[W]hen you preach,” Carson concludes, “you literally achieve the OPPOSITE of what you were trying to do. We see you’re trying to insert a message into our head, which makes us resist the message. Instead, sell your message through SHOWING as opposed to telling.”
Sell your message through showing as opposed to telling.
Now that is how you do it.
And remember: you don’t have to watch the show.
Do my books have messages? Read one and find out!