In his Radio Five blog, the film critic, Mark Kermode, delivers an amusing rant on offensive characters in film. Much of his ire is reserved for lazy characterisation that relies on weary stereotypes – and Eddie Murphy in a fat suit. And as a ‘Chinese’ guy. And as himself.
As a writer who wants to write about people who look like me (and the occasional person who’s the same gender as me), how do I avoid the worthy/stereotype dilemma? Do I ban any girl from wearing pink, any woman from calling herself ‘a girl’ and any young person who uses the word ‘gay’ as an insult? Do I attempt to blend ethics with irony? Hmm. Commercial, that.
A few years ago, I went to a rather novel event about how scriptwriters work with charities to deal with ‘issues’ as authentically as possible. The stand out presenter was a representative from THT (the Terrence Higgins Trust) whose eyebrow remained determinedly arch as he discussed the Eastenders character, Mark Fowler. Mark became HIV positive and there was much consultation about his storyline. I remember bawling lie a loon when Mark’s wife, Gill, dies in a hospice. According to the THT guy, Mark became ‘as dull as ditch water’, because no one dared upset the THT volunteer who was giving the advice.
On another occasion, I accosted poor, unfortunate Lennie James at a BBC Writersroom event. He wrote and starred in ‘Storm Damage‘, a TV film about an idealistic ex-teacher trying to save a doomed young man from crime. James plays the drug dealer. I wondered if he felt any caution about writing a black character who was a drug dealer. He did not. (Ashley Walters, who has played a few troubled young men, including the lead troubled young man in ‘Storm Damage’ also pops up in the Doctor Who episode ‘Journey to the Centre of the Tardis’, where the Tardis is picked up by ‘an intergalactic salvage crew. In other words, looters. All black.)
As a distraction from another edit of my young adult book, I read Tanya Byrne’s ‘Heart-Shaped Bruise’ for inspiration. Her anti-hero protagonist, Emily, is a young, blonde woman. Emily has a burning hatred and commits a terrible revenge on Juliet, a sweet, kind, girl. The love interest is Sid, southern Europe-heritage, maybe? Stunningly good-looking, loves is dodgy mum and is a Beasties Boys fan, to boot.
But, would I have loved the book so much if Emily was black?