It’s time we sent Chekhov’s Gun to the smelter. We’re better than that.
Until we erode heteronormativity on the silver and small screen, we’re going to continue to think of ‘normal’ as anything but.
Have you ever listened to a musical album? Really listened? And then realized that every single note, every effect, every everything is there because someone put it there? If the musicians or producers didn’t mean for it to be there, they would have recorded it again. Edited it out. Left it on the cutting room floor. I most recently had that realization when I listened to Toro Y Moi’s Freelance:
On the surface, it’s a pretty simple, catchy pop tune. But grab yourself some really good headphones and listen carefully; in a very well produced song, the tune is littered with dozens — hundreds — of ‘mistakes’. Beats that don’t quite hit the beat. The bass line is (I think…) little sounds that the artist makes with his mouth. It’s… so good. So fun. And that’s the thing that makes this song come to life for me. The incredible attention to detail. ‘perfection’ would have been far easier than creating this song the way it is made. And yet, that’s precisely why I love this song. But let this sink in: There’s literally not a single note there that is an accident. Everything is created.
I feel the same way about animated films. Because every single aspect of the movie has been created from scratch, there are no accidents. Every. single. detail has been created by a human being. It famously took Pixar forever to create the scratches at the bottom at the doors and on the door handles. A door, in theory, is a perfect, simple, 3-dimensional shape: 80x36x0.75 inches. I could model one in a 3D package in a couple of seconds. But it wouldn’t look ‘real’.
There are no accidents
This is the beauty of storytelling — and that extends to real-life action films and TV shows, too. Of course, in music and computer-generated movies, the producers and artists have a larger degree of control — but producers, casting directors, and everyone else involved in movies and TV have an enormous degree of freedom.
“Just happens to be” is the most powerful integration piece in media that is being ignored.
When a few laudable examples, producers are tremendously lazy, and film and TV simply isn’t representative.
“Just happens to be” is the idea that a character has a characteristic that is there, that isn’t part of the narrative. It’s kind of the opposite of the Chekhov’s Gun principle (“If a gun is seen in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 3”). There’s a simple beauty in that from a storytelling point of view; distill everything down to story relevance. But in the process, we are forgetting that that's not what humans are like. That’s not what life is like.
I know a handful of people who are asthmatic. When I hang out with them, from time to time, they may take out an inhaler, take a puff, and keep going on with their day. No big deal; and unless it looks like they are in respiratory distress, there’s no need for anyone to remark on it. And yet, I’ve never seen that happen in a movie. That’s what I mean by “just happens to be” asthmatic. People are people; they do stuff that isn’t part of the story all the time.
Asthma is just one example. I also have friends who are black, gay, non-binary, trans, near-deaf, in a wheelchair, walk with a limp, have reduced use of their arm, were born with one hand smaller than the other, suffer from panic attacks, have severely reduced eyesight, can’t swim, can’t process alcohol, need to be on medication every 6 hours, or any number of other quirks. These quirks don’t define them.
Let’s have more diversity.
In the world of television and film, however, it’s exceedingly rare that people are cast into roles where the actors’ idiosyncrasies aren’t defining characteristics. If the janitor is gay, that’s a part of the story. If someone can’t process alcohol, that’s a plot point. If the bartender is in a wheelchair — well, you get the picture.
I want to see someone casually take a drag of an asthma inhaler, and nobody mentions it or turns it into a big deal. That is how you normalize the human condition, and you start to build up the idea that people are different from each other.
It’s hard to express how important it is to see ‘people like you’ in the media.
Let me use a dumb example: personally, I’m as boring as it gets; I’m a tall, scrawny, mostly straight white dude. I would love to — just once — see someone on screen having to duck to avoid bumping their head into a light fixture. That’s my everyday life. If you see that happen on TV, I guarantee that it gets turned into a plot point or a joke. Me having to duck under a light fixture is rarely a plot point. It is rarely funny. And it doesn’t fucking matter: I’m probably one of the most comprehensively represented demographics on film and TV.
We can do better. Producers, you can choose to mandate your casting directors to look a little bit deeper. Directors, you can be braver; show slices of ‘real life’ as casual interactions on screen.
Representation matters. Seeing ‘someone like you’ on a television screen in your favorite show can be an incredible antidote to loneliness and feelings of being ‘other’. And it costs absolutely nothing. It doesn’t detract from the story. And it normalizes that not every human being is an exact carbon copy of each other.
Go on. Be brave. Be creative. Make “just happens to be” part of your credo as a showrunner. It’ll have a tremendous impact.