So when people making movies/ TV shows etc. are depicting the lives of some misunderstood/ marginalized group that doesn’t get depicted in pop culture very much… what responsibilities do they have? If any?
I saw this movie last night, “Yes, We’re Open”: an indie small-budget comedy (available on DVD and download) about a San Francisco couple beginning to consider non-monogamy when they meet an open-relationship couple who expresses an interest in them. (Mild spoilers ahead.) I really, really wanted to love this movie: there are so few films about non-monogamous/ polyamorous/ open relationships and people, and the few that are out there tend to be insulting, or exploitative, or demonizing, or dismissive, or just laughably wrong. (Or any combination of the above.) I liked this movie a fair amount… but I didn’t love it, and I so dearly wanted to love it. In some ways, the fact that I did like it, the fact that it did have interesting ideas and quirky human characters, the fact that the filmmakers are clearly familiar with and affectionate towards alt sex culture in general and San Francisco alt sex culture in particular… all of that, in a weird way, made it even more frustrating. My expectations were higher: it could have been so much more.
A lot of why it was frustrating can be summed up in the question I asked the filmmakers in their post-film Q&A: “Given that the template of San Francisco poly culture is that it’s hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death… why did you choose to make the poly couple in this movie so skanky, and not particularly ethical?”
They clearly understood the question, and the context for it. They agreed about poly people, if anything, tending to be hyper-ethical to the point of relentlessly over-processing everything, and hyper-honest to the point of being TMI and never shutting up. In fact, one of the filmmakers is himself non-monogamous. But they were making a comedy, they said, and unethical people are just funnier. For a long-format story, anyway.
I’m not sure I buy that. I think there’s tons of humor in the hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death aspect of polyamory. And I think you can do humor about ethical people: there’s plenty of humor/ conflict/ narrative tension in basically good people screwing up, or being self-deluded, or battling with their demons and better angels, or being out of the loop and trying to figure it out. It is harder, though, I’ll grant them that. So here’s the question I keep coming back to: When people making movies/ TV shows etc. are depicting the lives of some misunderstood/ marginalized group that doesn’t get depicted in pop culture very much… what responsibilities do they have? If any?
Here’s what I mean. Back when I was a film critic for an LGBT newspaper in the early ’90s, I was very engaged in holding filmmakers’ feet to the fire. “We want better gay characters!” I demanded, along with a zillion other queer film critics. I didn’t want them all to be awesome perfect role models: I don’t, in fact, want my pop culture entertainment to be propaganda. Propaganda is, among other things, boring as fuck. I just wanted some goddamn gay characters who didn’t fall into the inexorable stereotypes of psychopath, pathetic loser, or mincing clown.
I don’t have to demand that anymore. Because, to a great extent, we won. There is an enormous variety of gay characters in movies and TV now: heroes, villains, morally complex people, ordinary people, sympathetic leads with complex inner lives, secondary and background characters who fold naturally into the landscape, in comedies and dramas and thrillers and sci-fi and every other genre you can think of. There are still problems with these depictions: among other things, gay characters tend to be either hyper-sexualized or entirely de-sexualized (the gay best friend dispensing romantic wisdom but with no sex life of his own has become the new cliché). But there isn’t that sense of a huge gaping hole in the pop culture landscape. (Not for lesbians and gays, anyway: there is still somewhat for bisexuals, and significantly more for trans people.) And so there aren’t those huge expectations laid on every gay movie that comes out, that urgent demand to have every single movie fill every one of these needs… or that sense of bitter disappointment when something misses the mark.
But that isn’t true for poly people. We don’t have our “Philadelphia,” our “Brokeback Mountain,” our “Ellen,” our “The Kids Are All Right,” our “Will and Grace,” our “Glee.” And so when a movie like “Yes, We’re Open” comes along — a funny, quirky, human, likeable movie, a movie that gets so much right about the awkward vulnerability of sexual exploration, and the envious voyeurism of some more sexually conventional people with their more adventurous friends, and the cringe-worthy absurdity of competitive hipster culture (OMLOG, the food scenes made me want to both bust a gut laughing and crawl under my seat with embarrassed self-recognition), and that horrible moment of clarity when you realize that you’re being a douchebag — it’s that much more disappointing when the poly people are so skanky, and not particularly ethical. When they pursue their non-monogamy with so little concern for others, so little sensitivity to the fact that this is new ground for the objects of their desire and maybe they should tread carefully. When they basically just use people and discard them. When they aren’t even really three-dimensional characters at all, but caricatures, trends in modern urban culture made flesh. When they don’t really seem to have inner lives of their own, but simply exist as a catalyst for the main characters to learn and change and grow.
I don’t want every poly character in every TV show or movie to be a perfect paragon of sensitivity and high-minded ethics. I’m okay with them being flawed and human. The need for role models isn’t a need for one perfect hero: it’s a need to see that you have options, other than the ones your culture is unfairly slotting you into. (Not to mention the need for the rest of the world to see that as well.) I don’t think every producer of pop culture has an obligation to single-handedly fill that entire gaping hole. And again, I don’t want propaganda. Propaganda is boring.
But given that there are so few poly characters in pop culture, and even fewer who don’t fall into the stereotype of unethical seducers and skanks with no self-control, I think producers of pop culture do have an obligation to not actively perpetuate that stereotype.
Yes, We’re Open. Cherry Sky Films/ Greenrocksolid. Starring Parry Shen, Lynn Chen, Sheetal Sheth, and Kerry McCrohan. Written by HP Mendoza. Produced by Theresa Navarro; produced and directed by Richard Wong. Available on DVD and download.