My friend Elana Levin forwarded me the results of a writing contest with a noble goal — “bringing women’s and human rights values into mainstream culture” — and a weird way of going about achieving it:
How often have you been enjoying a book, movie, play, or TV episode…when all of a sudden things take a turn for the sexist, misogynist, needlessly violent, or worse? Have you ever wished you could jump into a story, shout at the characters, grab the pen (or keyboard) of the writer, and make it turn out the way you think it should?
Now you can! Breakthrough presents #Rewrite the Ending, our Bell Bajao campaign’s first-ever fiction (re)writing competition. Your job: take a work of fiction – a novel, movie, epic myth, opera, poem, TV episode, short story, play, or anything else that inspires you (or makes you nuts) – and rewrite the ending to erase the sexism, highlight human rights, and win yourself some great prizes.
Part of my issue here is that I’m just not that fond of the idea that art should exist to serve fans’ desires, however noble they may be. I’m fine with creators hiding Easter eggs for readers and watchers, and I think it can be totally appropriate to acknowledge common fan conceptions about a work or fan campaigns on on a work’s behalf. But that’s an entirely different thing from bending the curve of your plot or the conception of your characters in a direction that fans will find most satisfying. If that was the main obligation of artists, we’d have awfully homogenous storytelling — all couples would get together immediately, no one would ever die, and much more page and screen time would be dedicated to angsty hookups. Artists have a right to the facts of their characters and to carry out their visions of them within their own work. Art, as with life, is in part about not getting everything you want, and with reconciling yourself to that fact.
But more to the point, I don’t really want sexism to disappear from fiction, and I certainly don’t think we get to a point where the default in our culture is less misogynist by going back and redacting sexist (or racist, etc.) plot points and characters from our fiction. First, making sexism and the other isms visible is absolutely critical to getting something done about them. Not everyone is going to read about Robert Baratheon’s sexual assaults on his wife and go out and join Take Back the Night, but art can show people who don’t experience sexism directly the costs it exacts on the people who do. And it can put behavior in contexts that make clear how ugly it is: sexual harassment or domestic violence may seem like a series of isolated incidents or a slow grind when it happens in real life, but condense a pattern of escalating behavior into two hours or 400 pages, filter out the filler, and it may be harder to deny. Wishing that sexism was gone doesn’t make it so in art or in life.
And second, fiction ought to be a place that we can confront things that would be dangerous to us if we encountered them in real life, and where people get to make best-case arguments for positions we would hate to see carried to their logical conclusions if they had the force of law or norm. I don’t like the Twilight books, but if they’re the best argument in favor of women focusing exclusively on marriage and family, than I am more than happy to wade aggressively into that debate. I think Tucker Max is pretty gross, but if I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is the best manifesto a bro can hope for, it’s a useful sorting mechanism between people who have warped values and priorities and those who don’t. The answer here is not to hope that Bella Cullen throws off her vampire husband and gets a PhD in English literature, but to provide powerful and compelling alternatives. To get all Saul Bellow in this joint, “There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Does that mean we’ll suffer major bewildering culture fails along the way? Absolutely. But the real way to win is to join the battle of ideas, not to change the conditions in which it’s fought.
Unsurprisingly the results of the contest aren’t actually that funny, or that much of a narrative challenge to the works they’re critiquing. Yes, it’s creepy to do sexual things to people who aren’t conscious, but give me an actual rewrite of Sleeping Beauty over a lecture. Snow White in armor is a better rebuke to Snow White in the glass coffin than Snow White the lit professor. The Giving Tree telling off the boy isn’t nearly as weird and spiky a rewrite as Amy Winfrey’s “The Muffin Tree,” in which the tree poisons its ungrateful beneficiary.