Thursday, November 30, 2017

Bullying And Storytelling On Television

Bullying can have long-term, complex psychological impact. Watching a teen show recently, I wondered at the use of bullying in the plot. On television bullies are an easy source of conflict because most viewers can relate. But if the writer isn’t careful, the subtext becomes twisted.

What troubled me was the way the script normalized the “mean girl” character. The adults facilitated her behavior by ignoring it, and the other kids accepted her dominance because it was easier than challenging her. From the outset she was given tacit permission to act in such a way; only as her actions become more outrageous did anyone respond, or confront her.

That made me think about how common it is to present television stories where the bully is ALLOWED to bully, especially in teen storylines (workplace bullying and bullying at home are also common small screen themes but I thought I’d focus on teen TV).
Buffy The Vampire Slayer offered a great example of a
bully who experiences epic personal growth.
As a writer I’ve used bullying in scripts and stories. People identify with the struggles of the persecuted, and a bullying storyline creates an immediate empathetic link with a majority of viewers.

But I don’t want to normalize it: presenting a bully whose viciousness is not just recognized, but tolerated almost endorses their behaviour. In an era where victim blaming is being put under the spotlight, a lot of bullying plots from the past and the present carry disturbing connotations.

What are we communicating to teens? That a bully is a fixed personality type? That someone making your life awful is more about how you deal with it, rather than anyone—adults or peers—forcing the bully to take responsibility for their behavior?

Rarely is the bully expected to grow; in many teen shows the bully is just an enemy to be “defeated” in whatever way the plot chooses. Responsibility for action centers on the victim; the victim’s choices undergo more criticism and censure then the persecuting character.

The bully has become an accepted, and often two-dimensional storytelling roadblock. For me that is problematic. Why are we tacitly endorsing this idea? No adults should turn a blind eye to a youth bullying others‑it is NOT normal. Likewise, teens shouldn’t see avoiding dealing with bullies as the “normal” response. Scripted television should be able to offer better food for thought than that.
Pretty Little Liars wove some tangled
(and thought-provoking) bullying webs.
The best scripts present the bully not as a fixed, simplified power tripper, but as complex individuals; narratives should delve into the relationship between the bullied, and the bully. At least try to make us see the bully's perspective. Or more accurately, how they became the persecutors they are, and why they feel compelled to act in such a way—without downplaying the victim’s pain.

In many cases a friendship or relationship evolves from the conflict between bully and victim—but not at the expense of the victim’s self-worth. While the bully’s motivations/issues are addressed, a good writer makes sure it isn’t at the expense of the victim: their trauma cannot be minimized.

Gossip Girl saw Jenny move from victim
to bully, in pursuit of social status.
I’ve compiled a list of ten shows where I felt the story didn’t just exploit bullying as a cheap narrative tool, but instead offered food for thought—whether in a good or bad way.

Moral of the story? People hurt each other: they’re flawed, scarred, and worth trying to understand. But bullying is nobody’s right, and victims shouldn’t be expected to handle it alone. Society needs to tackle that misconception.

Veronica Mars: Veronica and Eli/Weevil, Veronica and Logan

The pilot of Veronica Mars sees Eli’s bullying of Wallace evoke a response from Veronica. By choosing to stand up to him, Veronica wins his grudging respect and a wary friendship develops.

The revelation of Eli’s affair with Veronica’s murdered best friend Lily adds complex layers to his character. Other episodes offer insight into the discrimination he suffers. Over the series we see him repeatedly choose to assist Veronica.

Prior to the tragedy Lily’s ex-boyfriend Logan was Veronica’s friend. Now he bullies Veronica, but as the story unfolds they become lovers. The audience sees the domestic abuse he suffers, and how repressing his complex emotions over Lily’s death have skewed his personality. Working to solve Lily’s murder helps both of them heal.

Veronica Mars tackles grief and PTSD, but what I think is fantastic is that in each of these changing relationships, Veronica is never disempowered. She’s not at the mercy of anyone’s whims; she chooses how each relationship progresses.

Brenda’s Sleepover in Beverley Hills 90210

I saw this episode of Beverley Hills 90210 when young but it always stuck in my mind. Brenda has a sleepover party. This is uncool for the crew in the upper zip code, and Brenda is slightly ashamed of her mom’s enthusiasm for what she deems a childish plan.

One of the girls who rocks up over the course of the evening is Amanda, Kelly’s older, sophisticated, biatch of a frenemy. She instigates a truth-based game that soon turns ugly.

Brenda stands up for her friends, and encourages them to do the same. During this conflict Amanda confesses the core of her issue is an eating disorder. Brenda and the gang then invite Amanda into the fold. What was great here was seeing Brenda’s perspective change over the episode, and also how she not only stands up to the bully but enables her friends to do the same, which pushes Amanda to face her issues—and then they all befriend her.

Female Besties in Freaks and Geeks

Freaks and Geeks is popular for a reason. I found the relationship between Lindsay and Kim so well written, in all its messy teen glory. Lindsay’s insecurity is almost disturbing to watch; she veers from sycophantic behavior to repressed frustration. Occasionally, she’s brave enough to be bluntly honest.

Kim, on the other hand, is a mess. Overly aggressive and veering from one outburst of wild emotion to the next, she has no problems bullying but is also prone to random, unpredictable acts of kindness.

The series reveals Kim’s nightmarish home life, a vast contrast to the suburban calm of Lindsay’s existence. Seeing them carve out a friendship, with Lindsay beginning to understand Kim while also managing to set some boundaries, is great writing.

Addressing Toxic Masculinity in Glee

Glee showcased some great teen characters. I also really liked that Glee focused on the harrowing psychological impact of bullying. Openly gay character Kurt is tormented by school bullies, most notably the footballer Dave.

Dave bullies both Finn and Kurt, but it is Kurt whose suffering really engages with the audience. Being gay is already hard enough in high school, so Kurt’s on-going PTSD from the harassment is extreme.

Having Dave kiss Kurt was a twist not many saw coming. Surprisingly, Dave follows up the kiss with more bullying/threats, to the point where Kurt changes schools in fear. The peak of Kurt’s suffering is utterly heart-breaking.

Eventually Dave comes to terms with his own feelings, and confesses his love to Kurt. Kurt rejects him romantically but a friendship develops. At one point Dave attempts suicide, showcasing the idea a bully may be deflecting deep emotional anguish onto their victims.

Pretty Little Liars: “A”lmost Everyone

There are many layers of bullying in the teen gem that is Pretty Little Liars. We also see the PTSD of bullying survivors and how surviving persecution shapes their personalities (especially Mona and Lucas).

Cyberbullying and blackmail by the elusive “A” kicks off the series. The aftereffects of bullying, judging and ostracizing teens propels the story. While Alison—missing for a year when the pilot kicks off—was the ultimate mean girl, the four characters the story followers were her enablers.

Pretty Little Liars excels at highlighting the myriad ways bullying works. I thought showing how over time, victims become bullies themselves was fascinating. All the teens in the show want to feel empowered; how they go about achieving that goal—and how they deal when that perceived power is threatened—fuels the story.

Righteous bullying is also problematic and rarely addressed: it could be argued that the Liars, rather than just being victims, were prone to persecuting of those they believed were “A”. (Over the years, this adds up to a lot of people!) I would argue in their zealousness, they too crossed the line.

The infamous Hanna slapping Jenna scene was a great example of a complex bullying scenario. As a seasoned bully, Jenna did unimaginably terrible psychological damage to Hanna, but when Hanna slapped Jenna, was that the lashing out of a victim, or another form of bullying because Jenna is blind and therefore at a disadvantage in a physical fight?

Since Hanna’s empathy puts her at a disadvantage in psychological conflict with Jenna, was she moved to retaliate via the only avenue in which she has an advantage? Where is the line drawn? At what point when a person who is a victim lashes out, do they qualify as a bully? 

13 Reasons Why Bullying Has Consequences

For me 13 Reasons Why is a powerful story but a problematic one. Hannah finds her empowerment through suicide; that is how she makes her voice the loudest, her version of events the truth. Obviously this is a profoundly disturbing choice.

But 13 Reasons Why really communicates that bullying, judging and ostracizing someone isn’t merely a moment of nastiness: that even being vicious for a minute can add up with other people’s viciousness or neglect, and contribute to a devastating event. You don’t know what a person experienced before you crossed paths, and what will happen to them afterwards.  The series communicates this emphatically to teen audiences.

During the first season the lead character witnesses sexual assault, and then suffers a sexual assault. Add this to her other traumas, and it all becomes too much. She feels isolated and judged, and obviously suffers depression and PTSD.

I think what disturbed me was trying to interpret how Hannah saw her actions. Her drastic move silenced everyone else’s voices and brought the truth to light, but it also tragically ended her own story. At times the toxic friendships here felt like a competition to define the narrative. In the end it was Hannah who got to outline the events, but what a cost.

Jackson and Lydia in Teen Wolf

When Teen Wolf kicks off, Jackson and Lydia are the high school’s It Couple. They’re also mean af.

Jackson causes so many problems for those around him. We learn his perfectionism is fuelled by insecurities; he’s adopted and on a subconscious level is determined to be the perfect son even if he has to bully and persecute his way to the top. He’s also extremely narcissistic.

Jackson’s world falls apart when he demands to be turned into a werewolf, and the transformation goes wrong: his personality instead sees him become a kamina. His connection with Lydia proves his saving grace. At this point he leaves the show (meaning the character  moves to London). At the end of the series he returns to help them fight, now a werewolf/kamina hybrid, and dating Ethan.

Lydia’s transformation from self-serving bully to self-sacrificing leader is one of the shows greatest achievements. She’s outed as a genius hiding her intelligence to remain popular. Slowly drawn into the werewolf world, she eventually discovers she’s a banshee. The murder of her best friend and a series of supernatural threats up the stakes. Self-serving bullying is no longer her instinctive response in a crisis but it's a gradual evolution.

Lydia transforms from a stereotypical mean girl to a dynamic, complex young woman the others look up to and rely on. Lydia would be among my top three female characters in a teen series. She becomes strong without persecuting others, and rather than judging the weak, begins to empathize and endeavors to protect them. She’s also brave in the face of the unknown: her banshee skills are eery, and unpredictable.

Cheer Up! (aka Sassy Go Go), Five by Five

One of the best TV shows to ever address teen bullying, the Kdrama Cheer Up! looks at a school life in South Korea, where academic excellence is a national obsession. When the top five students and the bottom five students are forced into a cheerleading club the contrast in treatment is extreme: bullying and discrimination against the lower five is openly endorsed.

South Korea has one of the world’s highest teen suicide rates, and this series doesn’t shy away from the perspective of the bully, and the victim.

Everyone carries burdens. I think the self-harm storyline here, and associated domestic abuse really highlights the idea “perfect” teens can be living in private hells. The point made here is change and growth can happen, with trust and communication.

The series also looks at bullying in the outer spheres of the teenager's worlds. Parents bully teachers. The teachers bully parents. The teachers and parents bully students. Students bully students. There are so many cycles of abuse at play and at first the toxic relationships seem overwhelming, but the story is one of hope and perseverance.

Gossip Girl XOXO

Gossip Girl is rife with bullying. The Gossip Girl of the title, a nebulous identity for most of the series, is the show's Alpha tormentor. But GG’s online column is really just an avenue for teen followers to cyberbully each other under the cover of anonymity.

What’s interesting is every regular teen character in the series becomes the bully at least once, I think (Even Eric.) On the Upper East Side, power matters. Bullies don’t just survive—in this environment they flourish.

The rich parents are bullies. For the teens bullying is normalized, taught behavior. The family lives of the leads are generally dysfunctional, except (arguably) Dan and Jenny. Jenny goes from a victim of bullying, to “Queen Bee” (head bully) before removing herself from the race.

And that’s the thing: living in this environment is a race. Even holier-than-thou Dan succumbs. Blair and Chuck begin as bullies, and while Chuck mellows with age, Blair’s journey is a lot rougher. Her empowering combo is bullying and intelligence.

As the years pass the series addresses Blair’s reluctance to develop a different way to engage with issues, and I like the idea that transitioning from a life empowered by bullying, while still trying to maintain a sense of power over those around you, is a long-term problem. Her bullying is presented as a form of behavioral addiction.

Twisted: Can You Bully The Guilty?

This show was erratic in quality, but had a powerful premise. Danny returns home after serving time in a youth facility for the murder of his aunt. He attempts to re-friend his two besties, Jo and Lacey.

Both are wary. Jo is more inclined to befriend him, in the sense she stands up for him when he’s bullied and ostracized. Lacey is attracted to Danny but in the early episodes often stays silent while he’s being persecuted.

At the outset of the series the audience is unsure if the lead is guilty. Danny is clever and independent; publicly he shrugs off the bullying most of the time with a flippant response. But viewers sense his loneliness, and hurt.

Almost too soon the series reveal Danny is not the offender; as if the audience were so conflicted by whether or not to feel bad for Danny as a victim of bullying that the show hurried to assure them he was innocent of the crime.

Which begs the question: Would it have been okay to bully him if he committed murder as a child? Or more accurately, be okay to not empathize with his character’s suffering? Twisted made it uncomfortable obvious that in certain scenarios society can rationalize bullying as less offensive.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Television and Imaginative Intelligence

One person watching TV is not like the other.

TV shows consider ranges in standard IQ and emotional IQ when creating a show. But imaginative IQ is rarely noted—and it should be. Truth is, when it comes to TV we’re not viewing equally; imaginative ability has a massive (but generally unrecognized) impact on the success of visual storytelling.

The ability to imagine is deeply undervalued. Years ago my friends and I adopted the term “Imagination IQ”: an innate ability to experience entertainment as a form of reality.

(I’ve seen IIQ on the web recently, and am unsure if our interpretation lines up with the official definition? So this might be a different take on imaginative intelligence. The goal of this post is just to look at the impact of imagination on television and audience connection.)

In theory, watching television should take little imaginative effort. Unlike reading a book, TV doesn’t require internally visualizing the characters. But for those with low imaginative intelligence, transitioning to (a form of) belief in the onscreen reality/world still proves difficult.

First IIQ tell: attitude to visual metaphors.

Someone with a high IIQ experiences the story without identifying characters or worlds as metaphors. A vampire is a vampire; a werewolf is a werewolf, and so on.

To the less imaginative the “unnatural” character is hard to imagine as a form of “real” unless viewed through the filter of metaphors. Thereby vampires and werewolves become metaphorical takes on human sexuality.

Bypassing parameters of known reality is referred to as suspension of disbelief: the act of putting aside logic.

But naturally imaginative viewers don’t need to “put aside” the everyday world. What’s onscreen becomes a reality in the moment. There is no innate battle to override the current real-world framework: the world of the story is instantaneously real.

Likewise, the success of a production’s world building can hinge on imaginative intelligence, and it can be argued lower IIQ viewers call for heavier exposition.

An imaginative person often goes with the flow, letting the new “real” world unfold. A viewer who has low IIQ can’t handle gaps in knowledge from the outset because they can’t maintain the world in their mind: the base of the structure is missing, and soon collapses.

This idea links to the general disdain for genre television. In an interesting quirk, people will high IQ often have low imaginative intelligence. An experience that makes a person feel uncomfortable or lacking in some way, will usually be rejected—especially if said person is socially conditioned to feel superior.

“It’s not logical” is a common criticism of genre TV, and a leaning toward logic is a common trait in those with high IQs. But regardless of IQ levels, the imaginative can place logic in the back seat during the process of creative visualization.

Those with a high IIQ are prone to becoming avid fans because their television viewing experience is immersive, and accepting, from the outset. Those with a low IIQ will require a world closer to their current reality or a format highly explanatory/exposition-heavy from the outset, to compensate for a limited imagining skillset.

In summary, IQ, EIQ, and IIQ need to be considered when creating scripted TV material. This is part of why many brilliant, innovative programs become lost in the TV ether: there are too many ways for people to not “get” it—and not want to admit why...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Subbed Television

Stories make the world go round. With binge watching a thing, viewers are looking further, to scripted TV shows beyond their cultural lexicon. Subbed TV has become more common—and more diverse. The web globalizes audiences, allowing viewers to reach past the scope of local networks. Subs are available not only in languages like English, Mandarin, or Spanish, but also in local dialects. (Side note: Star Trek Discovery is translated to Klingon. Out of this world!)

I grew up watching subbed television from around the globe. My dad loved introducing my bro and I to international productions (remember Oshin?). Reading while viewing seems easier if introduced in childhood. Font and speed are also relevant, especially to dyslexic viewers. Nowadays even the speed of subs can be adjusted.

Many are surprised by how much television can vary across countries/cultures. The entire structure of a one-hour drama can change (whether serialized or episodic). Screen time given to subplots, pace and editing, closure or lack of, flashbacks, style of dialogue, lighting, camera angles... So many elements you didn't realize were either open to experimentation, or evolved differently in another country's television scene.

What is lost relying on subs? Probably nuance, in regard to the script. An episode subbed by two different people can offer distinct translations in terms of word choice and overall mood. Since you’re getting another person’s interpretation, subtext may accidentally filtered out. The focus is more on helping you follow the narrative, especially if the goal is to sub quickly and keep up with the country of origin's schedule and subsequent online chatter.

In today's world where people read less, and are less worried (especially younger generations) about the structure of sentences, subbing can often be quite rough—especially unfunded fan sub projects. If grammar issues are a pet hate, well, you've been warned!

Every now and again viewers come across what I call cultural subber/s who will change the viewing experience. This person (or team) explain aspects often lost in translation: references to sport, ancient texts, pop songs, urban legends, popular commercials, childhood games, foods... Completely altering the way an episode is perceived.

Japanese television can be prone to clever wordplay. Korean characters may switch between formal and informal ways of addressing each other; important to the tone of the scene but rarely translated. Swedish procedurals are often so intelligently subtle that you might miss plot aspects if used to blunter storytelling styles.

And of course the world's cultures have differing attitudes to gender, violence, relationships, age, sex, work, family, death, emotion—and everything inbetween. Probably the most glaring relate to the presentation of sex. On some shows it's openly gratuitous, others avoid all sexual content, or infer it showing minimal skin. European TV is known for a style more akin to casual realism but obviously that changes from country to country.

America generally equates violence and cynicism with "good" TV, and gentler emotions with lesser quality outings, especially if the plot has a romantic focus (arguably as a result of stereotypical gender associations and dismissive attitudes to traditionally "feminine" emotions—but that's a whole other blog).

These kind of unconscious attitudes aren't global, so television from another culture can be intriguing and open your eyes to many ways of telling an entertaining visual story. It's best, though, to understand your own (entertainment) prejudices, and try for more of an open mind when exploring the (TV) world.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Future of Scripted TV

Scripted television is in the process of adapting to survive an ever changing entertainment arena. The gap between the viewer and the product is shrinking, and to remain financially viable television needs to keep audiences engaged. But how?

Social media is in a sense a blessing and a curse for “traditional” TV shows. On the positive front, various platforms allow a new level of audience engagement (more on that later).

On the other hand, a penchant for live videos has made many viewers watch fewer scripted shows, clicking on videos instead. Vlogger numbers are showing people, especially the younger demographic, love the immediacy of platforms like YouTube and Instagram—meaning social media has become both supporter, and competitor.

Social media allows audiences to become emotionally engaged with characters, storylines, actors, or all of the above: think fans, stans, and ships.  (FYI shipping means wanting characters in a romantic relationship.)

If a story arc takes an unpopular turn or a ship is “sunk” (ie characters are romantically matched with other people) the ratings backlash can be vicious. Audiences today are emotionally involved, as well as feeling more entitled in terms of having an impact on storylines.

Much of scripted television is pre-produced so adjusting the plot (before the next season) is problematic. More TV shows are taking feedback into account and adjusting scripts while in production: not so much major plots, but subplots, character popularity, and subsequent allocation of screentime.

This is called fan service and (obviously) the industry has a mixed view of the process, as it means relinquishing some control of the script direction. In reality, taking audience reactions into account makes sense; just a subplot change can mean the difference between cancellation and renewal, especially as many networks no longer allow time for a show to find its feet.

Some web series’ have experimented with interactive viewing, a little like Choose Your Own Adventure books of the past. The idea is to shoot the next episode with plot changes based on feedback (similar in a way to reality shows and their “voting” systems). Perhaps this is worth considering, even if it requires changes to the current standard production model?

Likewise, the ever-growing popularity of fan fiction has shown people love offshoot stories and often can’t get enough of a particular (and sometimes minor) character. Rather than creating entire shows—spin-offs are risky business—why not follow the short form path of fan fiction, and produce a series of specials, whether one episode, or five, concentrating on these characters? The current TV format doesn’t fully utilise cast popularity. (I know this is done with webisodes, but the drop in production quality is the problem: people need to see the same style of shooting/editing that they see in the original series.)

A recent trend is dropping full seasons of a show for “binge” watching. This draws large numbers in the initial period, but ongoing engagement is lost. Shows that release one episode a week benefit from bloggers and recappers who are likely to cover a season of a binge show in a single post.

Yes, audiences desire immediacy, but they also have short attention spans, so without constant reminders of a series, interest can plummet. I wonder if statistically the second season of a show dropped en bulke performs as well as the second season of a weekly series?

Another relevant aspect is, of course, profit, and the integration of marketing. Advertising is a necessary source of income, and with the “commercial break” becoming less tolerated, those streaming scripted TV shows have had to become cleverer when it comes to pushing merchandise.

Product placement is a classic advertising option. In the past it had to be subtle, but in today’s tech-savvy market, social media celebrities push products as they don’t have a network structure to rely on advertorially, meaning the younger demographic likely find promotion less offensive.

What if instead of inserting commercials, or trying to work a few products into the scenes of scripted TV shows, most of the props and costuming were available to purchase? Consider a streaming platform that included links for viewers: if a dress, a chair, or a lipgloss appealed, the viewer could swipe, and have a purchase window/link pop open. Wouldn’t that be a less invasive form of advertising, since these elements have to appear anyway?