Thursday 26 July 2012

PC Gone Mad (or Cognitively Impaired Causing Behavioural Challenges)

One of the most interesting sessions at the recent Television Writers’ Festival run by the BBC Writersroom was called something like ‘Changing the Face of Drama’. It was run at the end of the first day and no-one was entirely sure what it was going to be about. I’ll admit that I assumed it was going to be the usual yadda-yadda about big stories and interesting characters. Because, you know, we’re all trying to write those inconsequential stories and boring characters. Maybe next year there should be a session on bears defecating in wooded areas and the Pope’s religious preferences…

Anyway, bitchy whining aside…

The session was actually about how under-represented disabled people are in British drama. There were some pretty cracking statistics. The one that sticks in my mind is the fact that 24% of the British population has some form of disability. That’s a pretty much a quarter of the population and I don’t think that anyone would deny that quarter of the population is under-represented on our screens. And so, I left that session vowing to pop a wheelchair user into my next script. As I’m sure everyone else who was there did.

However, I’ve given it some thought since then. And I wonder what the realities of doing that will actually be. And I genuinely think that before we see disabled characters that are anything other than a token we need to have a serious conversation with ourselves as writers. Because whilst we’re not getting it right with disabled characters, we’re also often making a bugger of representing black, Asian, gay, Transgender and… for fuck’s sake… female characters.

So, am I saying writers all a big old bunch of racist, sexist, cripple-hating homophobes? No! And that’s kind of the problem.

I can only speak for myself but I’m the wishy-washiest of liberals. So, when I come to write a character that is different race or sexuality or physical ability to myself (I’m white, straight and able-bodied, by the way), I start to panic.

I analyse every line of script for potential offence and worry about stereotyping. And so the character becomes blank and bland. Their experience of being black/lesbian/blind isn’t being incorporated into their attitude and dialogue. So, what’s the point of them being Asian/transgender/deaf? Am I just creating a character that will piss off the casting director and make me look like a PC tosspot? But if I do allow my Chinese/Polyandrous/Crippled character to explore who they really are, I run the risk of looking ignorant because I really don’t know what it’s like to be an Inuit/Bisexual/Wheelchair User. I really don’t want to offend any Native American/Hermaphrodite/Cerebral Palsy sufferers that might be watching the show. And so, I end up playing it safe and writing from my comfort zone.

I’m not proud of that.

A big part of it is language; a fear of it. And I had a theatre experience a couple of years ago that I think set me off on a journey that hopefully will improve my scripts. I wrote a short play called ‘Going to Extremes’ about two old friends who find themselves on opposite sides at an English Defence League demo in Bradford. Lee is a white lad from Essex whilst Amir is a Pakistani Muslim from Bradford. They bump into each other running from the violence and discuss their individual reasons for coming to the demo/counter-demo. Whilst writing this play, I let myself off the leash in a way that I never would whilst writing an episode of the TV show. I didn’t worry about offending the viewing public, compliance issues or watersheds. I wrote Amir and Lee talking to each other as two lads in their twenties would.

But the eye-opener was in rehearsal. The play was directed by the sickeningly talented Trevor MacFarlane and starred the equally brilliant Joe Ransom and Sushil Chudasama. Trevor only had a short rehearsal period and had to get Sush and Joe to a very comfortable place with each other. Any political correctness went out the window, because there simply wasn’t time to tiptoe around language and sensitivities. All three boys started to speak to each other as real people do. They took the piss and there were no sacred cows. It was all up for grabs – race, religion, gender and sexuality. It was real.

But I question whether that is achievable on telly. The reality is that we work so damn hard to keep everything inoffensive for a mass audience that we run the risk of making everything bland and dishonest. I’m not suggesting that people should be calling each other pakis, queers and mongs in the Rover’s Return or on the wards of Holby General. I actually really don’t want to see that. But let’s have some honesty about how we react to each other in the real world. We are not colour-blind and we are morbidly curious about people who are different to us – that is humanity.

And so, is that the key? Whilst I’ve been tying myself up in knots about writing characters with a different cultural experience to me, I should actually be reflecting my discomfort and fears. It’s not about writing those characters, it’s about writing the reactions of the characters around them. That is where the honesty is often missing. And, let’s not miss a trick here, where some genuinely interesting drama could be.

I’m not pretending this is the answer. This is just my personal revelation. But at least I am giving it some thought now instead of brushing it under the carpet. The best thing about my job is I’m always on the steepest learning curve.

I asked a friend of mine, to write a guest blog about race and her unique experience of it. But then they are all unique experiences and maybe it’s our job to get over ourselves and write the stories. Anyway, she’s asked to remain anonymous. And if anyone else would like to add to the debate feel free to leave comments or get in touch with me and I’ll be more than happy to host other guest blogs. Here it is…

Race Is a Myth by Anon

My first memory of race awareness is this - when I was little I ran into a public toilet in desperation and got chased out by a large woman with a broom. That was ok, they stank, yet when I reached the one next door there were flowers and shiny tiles and I was allowed in. They were both the Ladies’, this was 1970s South Africa and the lady with the broom was black. And I’m not, so I was in the wrong place. I never got my six year old head around this.

My partner isn’t black in South Africa, but he isn’t white either. He wasn’t black until he came to the UK at the age of 21. In Mauritius, where he was born, he is Creole. They are black people, but have mixed over time and are descended from the plantation owners who still cling to the edges of that beautiful island as much as from the slaves from Africa that were freed or died there. Here he is Black. Or Paki. Sometimes French, if they hear the Creole accent (the last one with a confused face) but never Mauritian, which he proudly is.

In Mauritius last year having a big fat family Christmas, I found myself racially confused a couple of times. There is a kind of caste system where the lighter your skin, the better it seems within the Creole community. I had to bite my tongue listening to darker members of the clan being referred to as “Zulu” and girls fretting about the sun turning them too black. Maybe it’s my post-colonial guilt, but knowing Kwa-Zulu Natal as I do, I certainly wouldn’t put the Zulus at the bottom of the status pile. The only other white was an Australian fiancĂ© who starting bitching about Aborigines half way through dinner. The tea drinking Creole ladies tutted sympathetically while I made a tactical dash to the balcony. At least no-one is hunting me down with a rifle as they threatened to do in South Africa.

While not invisible as the only white in the family, I sometimes forget that I am. This is a national school of thought in the UK I find. Whites have a given invisibility. How often do they refer to each other as “that white guy” when there are no black people present? Really? Non-whites are raced by language – “that black woman”, the “that Asian bloke” but whites are just “that woman”, “that bloke”. Have you ever noticed how the category ‘White’ on monitoring forms is always at the top and no-one has ever thought of putting them in alphabetical order?

Raced language does exclude a lot of teenagers I must admit. Something in me is thrilled when I hear two white London girls addressing each other as “Bruv”, but then I don’t like the N-word so this is for over 25s only I guess.

I think Race is a myth. As in, we made it up. This is not to say that we don’t perceive differences in pigmentation and in hairstyle, we certainly do. But the order of it? The way we endlessly fuss over the details, surely that is all about satisfying our need to classify and categorise, to put things into hierarchies and make the complexities of the world just a little bit easier to understand. Differences in race do exist but the meanings we imbue them with and the names we give them are all carefully constructed piece by piece, cemented by individual experience.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

50 Shades of Hey! That's not nice.


I’m not usually one for bandwagon jumping, but everyone else seems to be blogging/tweeting/yapping on about EL James’ Fifty Shades books. For God’s sake it was the topic of a Radio Leeds mid-morning phone-in last week. And women in their fifties were talking about it at my diet class. And, what the hell, it might push a bit of site traffic my way.

 So, let’s get the obligatory questions out of the way.

Have I read them?
Yep. All three. In quick succession.

But, are they as badly written as everyone says they are?
Fuck, yeah.

Would you go to the Red Room with Christian Grey and the riding crop?
Fuck, yeah. Times about a billion.

So, what is left to say about the badly written mummy porn? Well, nothing. My problem is with the tone in which it is all being said. The snarky, high-handed, sneering way in which the three best-selling books have been discussed. But not just the books; the women that have read and enjoyed them.

Apparently, anybody reading them for anything other than research for a Guardian column is being suckered. They have ‘suboptimal reading skills’. They are buying into terrible sexual politics and want to be dominated by emotionally crippled billionaires – the sappy fools. The very phrase ‘mummy porn’ smacks of value judgement. I understand that mummys like sex too – I believe that’s how most of ‘em get up the stick in the first place.

And here’s what I recently realised. When those snarky twats are describing this simpering, nappy-changing bint who has to sound out the big words, they’re describing me. I read the first one out of curiosity. I was on holiday and wanted something unchallenging and fun. And I got what I asked for. I enjoyed the first one so much that I went straight out and bought the second. I got the third one in the airport and read it on the flight home.

And yet at no time did I switch off my critical facilities.

I think Anastasia is a silly bitch and almost completely unreflective of any other women I know. Perhaps EL James edited out the chapter where she gets the lobotomy. Just because I read the book, I don’t want to BE Anastasia. I wasn’t fantasising about being a doormat. Actually, she was being one so that I don’t have to be. Isn’t that the point of fiction? To take you places you wouldn’t normally go to walk in other people’s shoes?

As for Mr Fifty Shades. Well, had I been Anastasia there would not have been three books. The minute he pulled out that ‘I don’t make love, I fuck’ line, I’d have handed him his grey tie and shown him the door. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have been tempted to set aside my principles for a whizz-bang with the well-endowed, sexually dextrous, billionaire but I’m pretty sure I’d have said no. Well, I’m reasonably confident that I would. You know, depends whether I’d made an effort and put on an uncomfortable bra for the date. You don’t want that going to waste…

Oi! Holdsworth! Isn’t this blog supposed to be about writing not bonking?

Oh yeah. Point is that I think the Fifty Shades phenomenon kind of proves the point of my earlier blogs. If something is seemingly inexplicably popular, as writers we should be trying to explain the inexplicable. All that energy spent sneering is just sour grapes. Because after I’d finished inhaling those three books I was left with the overwhelming feeling that I could have done it better, No! That I should have done it better. I should have had the instinct to write a best-selling bonkbuster. But a well-written one.

I should have been aware of that possible audience. Not the dumbasses that the columnists would have us believe are reading that book but women like me. I deserved better on my holidays. I deserved a book with good fucking and good sentence structure. There’s a huge hole (Ooh, missus) in the market! I should have seen it.

And here we come to the part that may make some people squirm in their seats, so look away if you are of a nervous disposition. Maybe the reason that there isn’t a better class of clit-lit out there (or at least it isn’t being marketed to us) is because it would mean admitting that women masturbate.

Quick, the smelling salts!

Because that’s what all the sneering and tittering has really been about. The success of these books has been because women like to get off. Although, looking at the coverage, you’d think that female masturbation was only invented last week. Hence the huge amount of press coverage; because male newspaper editors think that jilling-off is the phenomenon; not the EL James’ big old cash-in on it.

So, what have we learnt? Firstly, my mother can’t read this blog – ever. Secondly, stop sneering at bad writing being a success. Acknowledge the potential audience and give them something better! Give them something that blows their minds, challenges their intellect and feeds their souls. Know this: you are as sure as shit a better writer than EL James.

And that’s cruel. But then I’m sure Ms James is crying herself to sleep on her big fucking pile of money.