From Lily Bart to Chandler Bing

Thanks to all the folks who responded, in one way or another, to my last post.  There were some clamors for the full “Harry Potter” post, so I’ll get to that, but first I just wanted to float a few other ideas relevant to it…


Entertainment and social consciousness has long been a preoccupation of mine – this is why, for instance, I jumped into the whole discussion over at TNC’s blog about rape jokes.  As a comedian, one must come to terms with the fact that to tell jokes about complex or controversial topics is to invite literal readings of those jokes from people who will infer the opposite of one’s actual intent.  Comedy is a craft, yes, but when executed well it can be even more confusing as to whether or not the intention is satirical (for evidence, please see: Colbert, Stephen).  Authorial intent is crucial to discerning comedic purpose, but it requires a certain sophistication from audiences that, for a variety of reasons, can often be absent.


Now, back to “Harry Potter” for a second.  Cedric Diggory is a pretty minor (though crucial) character, in the scheme of it all, and to misread his ethnicity isn’t ultimately much of an issue – as someone pointed out, he’s a bit of a redshirt, and it would’ve just been cooler to have a major character of color, full stop.  Agreed.  Nor do I really think that Cedric’s ethnicity really needed, narratively, to be made explicit or addressed at all – what’s most relevant about his appearance is that he’s hot, and whether he’s “Nick Cannon hot” or “Robert Pattinson hot” is kind of extraneous to Harry’s perspective (and since he’s the narrator, that matters).  In a way, I’m reminded of two reviews I read back-to-back when the film version of “House of Mirth” was released a decade ago.  At the time, I was still full-on obsessed with “The X-Files,” and any slight against Gillian Anderson I took as a slight against Special Agent Dana Scully and, therefore, as a personal affront (because SCULLY WAS AWESOME, y’all); I was therefore livid when two separate reviewers suggested that Ms. Anderson was unsuited to portray the central character of Lily Bart.  For what reasons?  Well, the first reviewer took umbrage that Anderson was red-haired, when Lily Bart, that great literary beauty, was OBVIOUSLY a blonde.  The second reviewer was also upset that the lead was a redhead; everybody knew, of course, that Lily Bart was brunette.


Now, the truth is, Lily Bart’s hair color is left to the reader’s imagination.  Perhaps Edith Wharton wanted it so.  Although novels thrive on specificity, sometimes overdescription only forecloses imaginative possibility.  Perhaps it was just lazy writing, although to level that particular charge against Wharton’s elegant, elaborate, incisive sentences borders on the ridiculous.  Perhaps she just didn’t think it was all that important, really.


So, maybe Cedric just got the Lily Bart treatment.  Race and ethnicity can be telegraphed in certain ways – as somebody pointed out, the Patil twins are never explicitly described as being of Indian descent in the Potterverse, but the names kind of give it away – although that’s most often problematic, somewhat strangely, when navigating the black/white binary (what last names or mannerisms are obviously “black”?).  On the other hand, maybe I just wanted Hogwarts to be more diverse than it was.


This past weekend, I got into a bit of an online squabble about the “soft homophobia” of “Friends.”  "Friends" operates from an aggressively heteronormative (and white) perspective, and the show’s portrayal of homosexuality is not entirely unproblematic, but when somebody put together a montage of every gay joke the show ever did in order to demonstrate its homophobia, I took exception: after all, a sizable minority of those jokes were actually subverting expectations, or calling characters out on their homophobia; not all gay jokes are inherently homophobic.  Other folks online felt that any attempts at subversion were essentially too little, too late, and couldn’t overcome the show’s central, insurmountable heteronormativity – a view for which I have some sympathy, but which I still find irksome, mostly because… well, most of the humor on “Friends” is relational, and rooted particularly in shifting gender norms.  Ross’s ex-wife is a lesbian; he grapples with his own feelings of anger and inadequacy and shame while also trying to be supportive, even as he can’t help but loathe her new partner.  There are, in short, layers to the show’s perspective, layers which were reflective of cultural attitudes at the time – in fact, by presenting a functional lesbian couple that married and raised a child successfully, the show was at the forefront of mid-90’s TV attitudes.  What I found so irritating about the discussion surrounding its “soft homophobia” was not the critical interrogation of a show that could, absolutely, be problematic, but rather the implicit suggestion that it shouldn’t have been so; that art should be so much better than life, that our created worlds should be superior to the actual world.  Even the most unserious art can only communicate (and inspire, and challenge, and, yes, reinforce) so much as it is rooted in a reality to which its audience can relate, on some level.


When I was in Chile, I woke up one morning and wrote the best and worst story I’ve ever written.  It was one of those flow moments, sitting up in bed with the whole piece in my head, not getting dressed or brushing my teeth for four hours until I had the thing put to paper – I had to make a couple minor alterations later but by and large it all came out intact, and really, really good.  But it’s also kind of awful, just because the main character is heinous.  She is casually racist, absurdly overprivileged, makes horrible choices and is seemingly immune to consequence – when I finished writing I sat back and marveled, both that something so complete could have poured forth so easily and also that I could have created a character that awful.  The piece is a satire about privilege and its price, but it took some time before I could let anyone else read it; after all, what if it was read literally as my voice, and all that racist shit was taken seriously?


Because as a writer, I can recognize that what’s true in comedy is true in wordsmithing in general: audiences must be trusted, and meaning derives best from those truths – no matter how unpleasant – which reflect our own realities.  As a reader, I want it all my way, with characters better than me, which is an impulse universal enough that fanfic exists.


Regarding my last post, and the short story I discussed therein, the comment that resonated the most with me was that if it’s important to the writer, it should be important to the reader, too.  Maybe Edith Wharton really didn’t think that hard about Lily Bart’s hair color; maybe a more racially diverse Hogwarts just wasn’t as important to JK Rowling as it was to me.  Maybe the writers of “Friends” cared more about reinforcing the status quo than about challenging it; maybe people will read my satire, stop at the text, and think I must be a terrible, terrible person.  But it’s also possible that some or all of these things were done with intention, because to do otherwise – to stop and clarify the politics of it all – would get in the way of telling the damn story.


(Up next: Dumbledore’s sexuality!)

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