Gossip: The importance of clarity, and why it’s important to be aware of the kind of story you’re telling. (repost)

Originally posted November 20, 2014, over there.

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So the other day I watched the movie Gossip because 1) Norman Reedus 2) it was really fun writing “What you can learn about writing from watching bad movies” and I figured I could probably get as much mileage out of Gossip as I could out of Hello Herman. It turns out that wasn’t exactly true because, surprisingly, Gossip wasn’t awful. That doesn’t mean it’s a good movie, but it was decently entertaining, and for that reason I’m actually going to warn you about the up-coming spoilers, just in case you want to go get your Norman Reedus on before proceeding.

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Norman kindly warns you to beware of spoilers.

Gossip is set on a college campus and, just in case you couldn’t guess, deals with gossip. Surprise surprise, said gossip goes terribly awry when it gets back to the object of the gossip, played by Kate Hudson. The rumor was that Naomi (Hudson), a certified prude, got it on with her boyfriend in an upstairs bedroom at a party. Said rumor was started by Derek (James Marsden) who, in the bathroom helping his almost-hook-up as she vomits up all of the booze, observed Naomi drunkenly making out with her boyfriend, telling him to stop when he put his hand up her skirt, etc. We, the viewer, don’t see what transpires between Naomi and her boyfriend. The next time we see Naomi, Derek is observing her unconscious body strewn across the bed and boyfriend is nowhere to be seen.

Because Naomi was unconscious, when the rumor gets back to her she, understandably, is quite shaken. After a disastrous confrontation with her boyfriend, who refuses to dignify her accusations with a response, Naomi goes to the police to press charges against him for raping her while she was unconscious (considering the tangents I will be going on shortly, I want to take a moment here and applaud this movie for officially treating sex with a highly intoxicated/unconscious person as rape, because it is, and people really ought to stop acting like it’s somehow more acceptable than violent assault, because it’s not. *Applauds*). Much drama ensues but it eventually comes out that Derek had dated Naomi in high school, that she had accused him of raping her then, that her current boyfriend had not raped her but simply up and left when she passed out, and that Derek may or may not have raped her (but probably did) after we saw him lurking over her prone body. That last tidbit of information, of course, only comes out after a drawn-out, convoluted plot to trick him into confessing – a plot which is problematic.

I’ll start first with said problematic plot. It is problematic because it has all of the holes, and it goes as such: convince Derek that Naomi has committed suicide. Convince him at a slightly later date the police are investigating her death as a homicide because there was evidence of a struggle in her room and skin found under her fingernails – skin which was left there after she pretty brutally clawed Derek in the face when he visited and harassed her in her dorm the night of her alleged death. The plan assumes that at this point he would try to frame his artsy and a little weird but generally harmless roommate, Travis (Reedus). Derek acts according to the plan, which makes room for the next stage of the plan: Travis puts on a play of finally realizing the degree to which Derek takes advantage of him and reacts violently, pulling a gun on him and forcing him back into the apartment after he tries to flee to escape suspicion in the (fake) murder investigation.

The plan again assumes that he will try to fight this, engaging in physical confrontation with Travis. Because he (once again) acts according to plan, the next phase of the plan is made possible: Travis discharges the weapon, using a blank, and the third roommate, Jones (Lena Heady – she wasn’t always Cersei, after all!) pretends to be shot and to die. When Travis says he’s just going to tell the police that Derek killed her, Derek freaks out. The plan goes that in his panic he will admit to having raped Naomi but will assert that though he is capable of that violence he is not capable of killing someone, and they will get this of all on tape. And once again, Derek acts according to plan, and they get his confession on tape and the whole clever plot is revealed.

Of course the only reason this plan works is that the script made it work. So what? Well, the script makes itself very obvious when it forces this plan to work. Derek is a very intelligent dude – and he is well practiced in the art of lying. Considering that the entire premise of the movie is some privileged white kids playing with gossip, it seems reasonable to assume that once he hears the rumor going around about Naomi’s death, he would confirm it through official sources before just jumping aboard the belief bandwagon. He fails to take this logical step because the script needs him to not take it – and that is not the same thing as “because it’s good for the story.” One reason it’s not good for the story is because it disregards all that stuff we’ve already been told about Derek being very clever and very well versed at dealing with gossip. To force the plan to work, the script basically disregards its own cannon regarding this character.

Beside this, the rest of the plot relies too much on what Travis and Jones assume Derek will do when faced with this series of events. Once again, it only works because the script makes it work, and in so doing the script makes itself evident. This is very bad for the whole suspension-of-disbelief-thing that is vital to the reader/viewers consumption/enjoyment of a story. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to write a bunch of college kids pulling off such a complex, multi-faceted plan (and hiring a bunch of other people to help them do it, all of whom somehow manage to pull it together without ever letting it slip that maybe it’s all an act) without shaking the suspension of disbelief. It’s easier to get away with in government spy movies because we already have this construct of spies being involved in such convoluted plots built into our brains from decades of James Bond movies: we expect this kind of shit out of trained spies, not panicking college students. Furthermore, when Derek finally admits to the rape it’s not necessarily clear whether he’s referring to the incident in high school or the incident at the party or both – an issue of clarity which is important in a larger sense than simple good or bad writing, but we’ll return to that in a moment.

Another strange writing thing that happened in this movie happened with Reedus’s character: through a large portion of the movie Travis seems less of a character than he seems to be a reflection of the state of the relationship between Derek and Jones. When Derek and Jones are excited about their gossip project in the beginning of the movie, Travis is bubbly and excited and inspired to create a massive work of multi-media art. As the relationship between Derek and Jones deteriorates, Travis becomes more agitated and moody and, notably, his artwork becomes more violent and disturbing. He doesn’t act an individual agent in the story until he becomes a part of the plot to force Derek to confess. With the exception of the movie’s very first scene in a bar with all three friends drinking and hanging out, he doesn’t act or react to anything on his own until the plot to trick Derek is set in motion. Until that moment, he is a mirror for Derek and Jones, which is very…odd.

By the end of the movie it is clear that Travis’s actual function is moving the plan forward: he’s the one Derek tries to frame (heteronormative assumptions tell us [I suppose] that he can’t frame Jones, a woman, for involvement in Naomi’s clearly rape-related suicide or murder) and he is the one wielding the gun in the end (it doesn’t make sense for Jones to wield the gun without her having been framed/put in a position to lose as much as Travis was). But let’s be honest…if you take away that aforementioned heteronormative assumption, then Travis is an absolutely unnecessary character. Remember what we say about unnecessary characters? I’ll remind you: JUST DON’T. Don’t waste the reader/viewer’s time with unnecessary characters. (I’m sorry, Norman.) You don’t even have to remove the heteronormative assumptions to simplify and stream-line the cast of characters (though I would love to see those heteronormative assumptions go the fuck away, please). A sexual and romantic dynamic is established between Derek and Jones fairly early on, so why couldn’t Derek frame Jones of killing Naomi to protect him? Why couldn’t it be Naomi wielding the gun? Why couldn’t she simply pretend to accidentally discharge the gun and shoot herself? If we lose Travis as a character the only thing the story loses is…well…the mirror for the relationship between Jones and Derek, which is unnecessary anyway: we can see very clearly that their relationship is deteriorating, thank you very much. Having Travis there to keep us updated on that fact is a weird, antiquated, and awkward tactic. In more way than one the movie becomes more stream-lined and dynamic if we remove the third wheel. But then we lose Norman Reedus. Which always makes me make sad face. But oh well. Clean and crisp writing is more important than having an unnecessary extra character just for the sake of keeping Norman Reedus’s face around.

Now let’s return to the whole pesky clarity bit: whether or not Derek is referring to the event in high school or the event at the more recent party is unclear. Sometimes intentionally leaving room for interpretation can be wonderful in a story, but one must be careful to not lose clarity in the quest for interpretive flexibility. I feel like this clarity is especially important when dealing with a story which hits quite close to home for many women: in a country where 1 in 6 women are sexually assaulted in their life times and 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while at college, such a story deserves a high degree of clarity. (Side note: while doing some quick research to confirm those statistics I ran across a high degree of stupidity in criticism of the 1/5 statistic. I became so depressed at the ignorance people display, and the fact that their stupidity is hosted on very well-known and wide-spread platforms, that I had to take a break and watch some Markiplier to make me feel better. Sometimes I hate the people that populate this world.)

The closest we get to clarity on this issue is during the confrontation in Naomi’s dorm, when Derek says: “You were thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I got raped by my boyfriend again!’ Only you didn’t know that both times it was me.” That would be very clear, if it weren’t for the sheer force of the unreliable-narrator-syndrome that drives every movement Derek makes throughout the entirety of the movie, and with relatively little built into the movie to keep the viewer well aware of where the lies end and the truth begins. This isn’t helped by the fact that in this very same conversation he seems to re-affirm his earlier story that she “cried rape” in high school. Nonetheless, Naomi’s violent reaction to him, even to the very mention of him earlier in the movie, would suggest that she did not, in fact, “cry rape.” This actually illustrates the complexity of sexual assault accusations and trials quite well: because there are typically only two witnesses, the victim and the perpetrator, sexual assault can be difficult to confirm unless it was a violent encounter. It is this difficulty which makes the “she’s only crying rape – she really wanted it” defense so easy to access, even if it’s a steaming pile of bullshit.

OK, I’ll try to cut to the chase here: the lack of clarity about what actually happened at the party, made all the more difficult by the fact that Naomi was unconscious and can’t remember what happened, makes much of what happens in the movie regarding her rape somewhat problematic. The fact that she can’t remember, that she never even had an inclination that she might have been raped and that she filed charges based pretty exclusively on a rumor she heard, sets her up very, very nicely to be “crying rape.” And because “crying rape” is actually pretty rare, stories that include this dynamic should proceed with caution. (Side note: crying rape is fairly rare in large part because of all of the baggage that comes with being labeled a “victim” or “survivor” of sexual assault is really fucking nasty — nasty enough for many survivors to never even report the crime in the first place). It’s not that false reports don’t happen – they do. They’re just rare (we can’t know exactly what the percentage is, though we can know that the 2% stat that floats around is likely unreliable). But the perpetuation of the belief that false accusations are common is driven by the spread of media, stories and anecdotes that talk about false accusations rather than real survivors (that’s not to say that a story about a false accusation can’t be an interesting or good story – just that story tellers should be aware of the kinds of stories they’re telling and the societal and cultural implications of that story). Which is why I felt a little wishy-washy about Gossip.

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Don’t play with stories about rape, boys and girls–this ain’t no game.

The thing is, Gossip isn’t the kind of movie which is utilizing interpretive flexibility for some greater artistic purpose, nor does it need to. It’s just an entertaining flick with a “surprise” twist ending. But the story which it is telling has a bigger societal implication, which is why the lack of clarity becomes all the more important: viewers coming into such a story without prior knowledge about sexual assault and how it’s handled by the police and in court and generally by society, and by extension who are unaware of the serious damage that society at large perpetrates against survivors of sexual violence, may well walk away from such a story having their ideas about these issues shaped by that story in some small way. They may walk away with the impression that Naomi cried rape the first time – and, depending on the kind of viewer we’re dealing with, they may think her later accusations should absolutely have been suspect as a result. They may think it’s common for girls to panic after sex and accuse their partners of rape, as Derek claimed Naomi did. They may think all accusations of rape should be suspect for this reason. Or, a far worse possibility, they may think Naomi cried rape in high school and therefore side with Derek when he says that yes, he raped Naomi, “but the bitch deserved it.” (This is not as far-fetched as I would like it to be – victim blaming is practically a national pass-time in the United States). This stance, too, could generalize to reality.

Why on earth would someone take ideas from a piece of fiction and generalize them to reality? People wouldn’t usually do this consciously but here’s the deal: the kinds of stories we consume shape our ideas and ideals. They shape the way we think of the world and how we interact it, because they inform us about the world we live in. Even the really far-fetched ones like Harry Potter and Doctor Who can inform and shape our values and ideas about things like courage, companionship, forgiveness, and love. Similarly movies like Gossip, whose target audience is teens, can shape people’s ideas about what sexual assault looks like and how it should be regarded (which is why I’m happy they made it clear that sex with someone highly intoxicated/unconscious cannot be and is not consensual and is, therefore, rape).

Derek more or less admits to raping Naomi twice when he uses the word “again” in the previously cited quote. But our “narrators,” or the most prominent voices in the movie (Derek and Jones) are either untrustworthy or not fully informed about the events that have transpired. The result is that the viewer can’t have a clear grasp on what has actually transpired unless we are told explicitly – and unfortunately this line is both explicit and non-explicit. Derek has already told Jones and Travis (and us) that he started the rumor to retaliate for her having “ruined” his life by crying rape in high school. Even though we can’t fully trust him, this does provide the setting for reading his later admission to Naomi not as admitting to physically raping her at the party, but as admitting to metaphorically raping her by fabricating this story which essentially stripped her naked and made her a whore for the enjoyment of the entire university.

Taking a step back from analytical mode: do I think the character or the writers meant that line metaphorically? No. I think that line is intended to make clear that he did, in fact, rape her both in high school and at the party. Is it possible that I think clarity is an issue here because I am far too used to analyzing every tiny detail and nitpicking at every little crack in the façade (thanks to COLT and CRWR)? Oh hells yes. Nonetheless, clarity remains an important issue in writing and revising drafts: the reader should know what is going on. They should be able to follow the story, and they should be able to identify what is grounded in reality in your story and what is simply your narrator being a jackass – human. I meant human. You know, with human flaws like dishonesty and self-deception, the kinds of things that lead to unreliable narrators.

So what’s the moral here? Well, one: avoid convoluted plots that rely too much on chance. Your reader/viewer needs to be able to continue with their suspension of disbelief, and plots like the one describe above runs too great a risk of shattering that fragile construct.

Two: stop it with the unnecessary characters already, and if you can try to do away with the heteronormative bullshit. The literature and film industry is inundated with heteronormative bullshit. If you want to write something original, wading away the commonplace (in this specific example: heteronormative bullshit) is a good place to start, and can turn out all sorts of deliciously interesting gems (one of my own gems originally had a sexual/romantic dynamic between a male and a female character, until I changed the male character to a female character and it was suddenly much more interesting).

Three: be aware of the implications of the story you are telling, for gods’ sakes. We already have enough reckless writers like Stephanie Meyer and E. L. James writing books that perpetuate domestic abuse and violence as romantic and teach girls they are objects to be owned and played with a their owners whim. Be better than that.

Four: Clarity. For the love of god, clarity. If you’re going to have an unreliable narrator (and s/he will be unreliable, trust me) then you need to provide the reader landmarks which clues them in on what is actually going on. Even if you want to do the artsy flexibility-of-interpretation-thing, the readers need something to ground their interpretations in the reality of the novel/movie. I like to refer to this as “the voice of the narrator” (Humbert Humbert in Lolita telling us that sex was consensual) versus “the voice of the story” (that time Humbert Humbert admitted there was nowhere else for her to go, or the other time he overheard her crying after having had sex with her). Clarity follows precision of language, so be aware of the language you are using and chose your words well.

Many more pages than I intended later, I’m outie bros.

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If you made it to the end of this long-ass ramble, fuckin’ cheers, dude.
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