A few weeks back, rumors were flying about the internet the upcoming Judge Dredd 2000 AD comic book. The writers had released a couple of panels, apparently depicting Dredd kissing a gay teen. Then the shit storm began.
Fans threatened to boycott. To burn their comics. The rest of the Internet at large united in launching plenty of screed at those fans. “What does it matter,” became their rallying cry. “What does it matter if Judge Dredd is gay?”
While I applaud the writers of Judge Dredd 2000 AD for taking on a controversial and important topic, as a writer, I gotta say, come on, people.
Of course it matters.
The question of Dredd’s sexual orientation doesn’t matter to Dredd’s value as a human being. It doesn’t matter to the respect he deserves, or doesn’t, based on his actions. And it shouldn’t matter to the rights he can exercise in a free society.
But it absolutely matters to the consistency of his character. And, when you are writing a series, the character is ALL. Character is what you are selling. Fans may like your turn of phrase, they may enjoy your twisty plots, they may even admire you as a person. But the visceral connection, the love, comes from character.
Screw with that character at your peril. Remember what happened back in December, when Tom Cruise starred in Jack Reacher, an adaptation of Lee Child’s first Reacher novel? Fans were outraged–outraged–that Cruise had been selected to portray their hero. They boycotted the movie. They raged on the Internet. The very people who you would have expected to be most invested in the movie’s success instead became committed to bringing about its downfall.
Why? Cruise’s portrayal hadn’t changed Reacher’s sexual orientation. Nor his ethnicity, his attitude, or any salient facts except one: his size. The movie changed Reacher’s size. Jack Reacher is supposed to be a big, tall, behemoth, the kind of guy you would think twice about letting inside to use your phone on a rainy night. Tom Cruise is, well, … not.
The Jack Reacher fans weren’t height-ist. They didn’t hate people of short stature. They just loved their character for who he was, not for possible alternate versions of who he might have been. To see him presented in any way other than the one they’d known and loved him as felt, to them, like a slap in the face. And to the Judge Dredd fans, seeing their hero kiss a dude felt much the same.
But wait a minute! Judge Dredd was never straight to begin with! His life was all about the job, not about any sexual orientation heterosexual or otherwise. Readers just assumed that he was straight.
Yup. Readers do all sorts of annoying things. They make assumptions about your characters’ sexual orientation, race, and, given the opportunity, gender. They space on important information you thought you had conveyed clearly. They develop fixations on minor characters you would just as soon leave in the background.
It’s part of the writer’s job to be aware of the readers’ probably assumptions, and to controvert them, if need be, in a way that doesn’t jar the narrative. I think it goes without saying that this cannot happen in a series’ 35th year.
We have gotten into a habit, as a nation, of being pissed at each other. I do not except myself here. Maybe it’s because our politicians and the media are always demonizing people on the other side, or maybe it’s something fundamental in the way we humans form tribes. But for whatever reason, we tend to assume the worst of anyone who disagrees with us. We assume that anyone who doesn’t want a particular character to be gay must be a homophobe, a bigot, a gay basher. They probably hate women and black people, too.
In fact, I have held onto this post for several weeks, because I am afraid people will see it as evidence that I am a secret homophobe. Or at least, a subconscious one. Or at least, I don’t care enough about gay rights, if I’m willing to defend anyone who might object to Judge Dredd being gay.
It makes me sad, and it makes me weary. The fact that I am afraid to speak is evidence enough for me that it must be said: we need more forbearance for one another in this society. We need intellectual tolerance, and we need the benefit of the doubt. In this age of broadcasting all the innocuous inanities of our life, I fear we have become strangely intolerant to thought, if it differs, or even appears to differ, from the Right Opinions. Because after all, anyone without those opinions is Out of the Tribe, and deserving of nothing but the most thorough kind of contempt.
We cannot keep hating each other for voicing ultimately innocuous thoughts like, “But Judge Dredd isn’t supposed to be gay!” Because at some point (and it’s not really too far along the road), hatred turns to self-righteousness. And self-righteousness fuels the desire to keep on hating.
And we could use less of that around here. We really, really could.