A Rant Against Lazy Writing

Before I really dive into this, I have to admit to a few things.

The first is, in the reading of Bringing Race to the Table (review forthcoming) there have been a number of stories that have really ripped my eyes open and have broken my heart. One that has sunk in real, real deep was Reluctant Spider talking about searching for images of “Goddess” and finding page after page after page of white goddess images. (The whole book has hit me, hit me good and hard, and I’ll be writing about that soon). Reluctant Spider sharing this story went a bit beyond my interest as a person who wants to not be an asshole, who wants instead to be the sort of ally that is wanted, and hits me hard in the storyteller-vein. More than any article on systemic racism or institutionalized racism or the prevalence of white privilege, this sharing of seeking out a visual representation of the divine that resembles oneself and failing miserable made me stop and really, really look at what we are doing, at what we’re saying, not with our direct words, but with our myth and our poetry, with our legends, our books, our movies, our stories. So, while I knew before that making someone like Papa Ghede into a villain in a story irked me, it didn’t go beyond a “meh, whatever, Christians, blah.”

The second thing is, I’m sort of by accident reading an awesome collection of essays on Oshun, because when I was at the library the book was all, “Hey there. You’ve only got two books in your hands, I see. Look at me in all my splendor. You want to read about water deities? Yeah? I have all the stuff about the Mother of all Water Deities. . . ” If there’s a pick-up line I can’t resist, it’s any pick up line from a book, so, you know, that book came home with me.

The third thing is, Beth and I are making our way through the TV series Grimm. We adore it, we love the “in jokes”, and I am firmly in Camp Monroe. It’s entertaining, funny, and while all the German makes me want for Zie to show up for a visit (wrong fandom!) or Adam even (again wrong fandom, though dude, they used his name!), it’s not like, when it comes to mainstream TV shows I expect a LOT in terms of not being asses.

These things all laid out for you, and knowing that this post will contain spoilers for season 2 and 3, let me just get some stuff off my chest.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

What the fuck did I just watch?

For the second-to-last episode of season 2, we are introduced to Papa Ghede. All nice big top hat. Tall, slender, attractive enough looking black man (for transparency: the degree of attraction increases with my viewing depending upon whether the character is supposed to be human or not — the more “not” the more attractive I tend to fiind them, so that’s my viewer bias kicking in) with a nice thick French accent. Already I’m groaning, because so far the “wessen” characters have almost all of them been white and have almost all of them been drawn from German/Eastern European myths and folklore — the show is called Grimm — and while there have been a few non-white folks to show up as the antagonists for the show, in my memory they’ve tended to be less “misunderstood shapechangers who had something go bad while trying to blend in, their crime is not their fault” and been more “working for the over-arcing bad guys of the series.”

It was clear before the end of the episode that Papa Ghede was aligned with the people we are’t supposed to like, and that he was a tad more sophisticated the the rest of the villains had been. Before the end of this particular mini story-arc it was clear that Papa Ghede was a shapechanger (they call them wessen — phonetically, vessen) and had been recorded in the Lore as a voudou priest back in the day.

I had a few immediate reactions to this. Having just watched American Horror Story: Coven, the trope of using one of the lwa as a villain was fresh in my mind and high on my list of annoyances. As a pagan and as a storyteller, I find an inherent laziness to using pagan or non-Abrahamic gods as villains. It’s something that will destroy my interest in a series right quick. For example: there’s a series out there that portrays Artemis as some vapid, sex-crazed villain. I liked the writing well enough, but once she was introduced in that way, I couldn’t continue. For another — and sadly surprising — example, I’ll point out on of Nora Roberts’ paranormal series, the Cousins O’Dwyer trio. I read all three, and I genuinely enjoy her writing — I love the way she weaves threads together and builds family. But in the last book, the driving antagonist turns out to be a demon (ho-hum) who then she decides to name Cernunnos. In a matter of a sentence, mere pages from the ending, she utterly ruined the story for me, and instead of it being good escapism, it’s a series I have to say I can’t recommend in the least bit. I can’t help but see this as anything but lazy story writing, and it bothers me so much.

But I’ll say it: it’s worse when we do it with folklore, myths, legends, and figures from the cultures of those who are marginalized. Why? Because as story tellers, we are use myth, folklore, legends, and figures as short-hand. It’s part of telling a story, and that in and of itself is not bad. What I find uncomfortable — deplorable, really — is what this particular type of short-hand says. “This figure, this myth cycle, is foreign. It’s unknown, it’s unfamiliar, and that makes it bad.” Every time we use this short hand in this way (Papa Ghede being on the ‘wrong’ side) we are re-enforcing the idea that this particular way of being different in wrong. We’re re-enforcing particular associations (dark skin, an accent, altars with candle stubs and what could be wax, could be blood, the creation of zombies, the portrayal of a veve) with the idea of a malicious sort of ‘other’. In contrast, in the show, another story-arc involves a witch trying to get her powers back. She’s another antagonist, and her witchcraft involves death work, but she’s a pretty, skinny white woman, and while what she’s doing isn’t necessarily good, we’ve gotten her back story, and she’s been written in a way that we are encouraged to have moments of sympathy for her. That is, she’s multi-dimensional, complex, etc.

This isn’t even touching the problems I have with the use of a marginalized religion of any sort being used in a dramatic way to build an atmosphere of mystery and unease. I get that in an hour long show (even a two-parter!) there isn’t time to get into it that deeply . . . but come on. You can get the culture of the region so spot on that one character is making blueberry quinoa pancakes with a spinach puree maple syrup, but you can’t not be lazy about this? Really? And all *that* isn’t even coming close to my issue with taking Powers and making Them less — which is a big part of my problem with Roberts’ use of Cernunnos.

Look, I’m a storyteller, too. And I write about gods and spirits, about Powers interacting with humanity. Not all those interactions are good. I don’t require that spirits and gods not fulfill an antagonistic role, really, I don’t. I, too, have written gods and spirits as the “bad guys” of a tale. I shy away from “good versus evil” and try to keep it more “hey, obviously we want our side to win and we think we’re in the right, but so do they,” but in the end, I have had gods and spirits that needed defeating or thwarting. So it’s not that.

Just . . . don’t be lazy about it. Be respectful, and maybe try to get it right. Don’t use something (Hi, Voudou. Sorry, Voudou. We suck, Voudou. It’s probably not going to stop.)(Looking at you too, all ‘demons’ ever) that is rich, complex, and already done to death as a short cut. It’s not a short cut. It’s lazy. Who wants to be a lazy writer when you could instead be digging deeper?

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. nerthuschild says:

    I yearn for the day that has Pagan, Voudon, or what have you spiritual paths being creative forces in the mainstream. I may not live to see what I imagine come into being, but what a rich, expanded, fruitful experience that would be. I cannot remember how many times I have watched something I thought I would enjoy only to have screeching brakes thrown on because of portraying God or Goddess or Lwa, what have you portrayed as some negative caricature by someone who has no knowledge, understanding or love for Them.

    Once again, you have written a blog that touches my heart and makes me think. Love it

  2. G. B. Marian says:

    I run into a lot of the same issues with Supernatural. I love the show and its characters, but the episodes about pre-Christian Gods always make me cringe because they depict these entities as mortal beings that just want to eat people and that can be killed with a stake through the heart. There was even one episode with the Hindu Ganesha eating people, which is just stupid. Then you have the fact that the show’s version of Lucifer is more powerful than any of the pagan Gods and can kill Them easily. This is ass-backwards in my opinion, but whatever. Even Osiris was a bad guy they encountered at one point, and I was just shocked at their portrayal of Him as this evil monster. Naturally, the show has yet to reveal that Jesus is actually zombie that wants to eat little children’s brains.

    1. Nornoriel Lokason says:

      *nods in fervent agreement* This actually ruined Supernatural for me, and I used to love that show.

  3. Bridget Rose says:

    Anubis’s first “hey, I’m over here!” sign for me was through books and stories, but I’ve only seen /two/ where he wasn’t a villain. I spent /years/ being afraid of him (and even was scared of him when he first *actually* approached me) because all I knew of him was that he was a scary underworld god who was dark and scary. Now that I know him better, the one-dimensional portrayals of him (or any pagan god or goddess) makes me put a book down fast.

  4. Nornoriel Lokason says:

    Omfg, you have hit upon one of my biggest pet peeves with TV shows and fiction and such. I cannot STAND the way Pagan gods get treated by most writers, ESPECIALLY when entities from already marginalized religions, like Voudoun, are cast as villains just because *~dark and spooky wooooo~*. Like you noted, the gods don’t have to be the good guys, and mythology itself is filled with examples of Gods Being Dicks To People, but. ESPECIALLY with the gods of people of color, I wish writers would NOT go there. So thank you. I’m glad to know this isn’t something that annoys just me.

  5. Alex says:

    Vodou is low-hanging fruit for tv shows because it all sounds made-up and most people don’t know enough about it to say ‘yeah, that ain’t right’. It also gets portrayed incorrectly because the most readily available sources are written by people outside the religion who don’t get that it’s not a pagan thing AND because it belongs to a country and culture that has been occupied by first the French and now the US for hundreds of years.

    I don’t watch Grimm, but I find it fascinating that a show based on European fairy tales would include a divinity from Haiti. That’s the most offensive part to me because it ignores the history of European conflicts with Haiti. AHS and their drug-addicted Legba and cracked-out portrayal of vodou was cringeworthy, but traceable–one can find where those ideas come from. But Ghede – as – a – former – houngan in European fairy tale world? Noooo.

  6. Beth says:

    Reblogged this on Wytch of the North and commented:
    I’m trying very hard not to let the Cernunnos thing ruin the whole Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy for me (because I identified with Branna a LOT, and her relationship with Finn had similarities to mine with Odin); still, I loved that trilogy so much up until that point that the identity-reveal of the “demon villain” was a big slap in the face. Even more so, the recent glomming onto Vodou deities as villains–although to be honest, the misrepresentation of Vodou (or demonology/-atry, for that matter is hardly a new thing. Still, why do writers have to go there? Come on, you guys, put your creative caps on and come up with something better–and less racist.

  7. Sable Aradia says:

    Reblogged this on Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch and commented:
    An excellent thought of racism and “othering” in the process of relating mythology in pop culture. I agree with the author here completely and this sort of thing utterly ruins a story for me as well for the same reasons.

  8. Harold Rhenisch says:

    Knowledge, reverence and play are always useful. Thanks for the impassioned post.

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