#30 Should writers censor what their characters say? – Janet van Eeden

Februarie 3, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

Judge Edwin Cameron’s comment about John van de Ruit’s novel Spud being homophobic has initiated a debate in which many people agreed with the judge about apparently politically incorrect terminology used in the novel and film. It begs a response.

The judge’s comment was sparked, it seems, by the character known as “The Guv” in Van de Ruit’s novel about an underdeveloped schoolboy who struggles to find his place in a very testosterone-charged boarding school. The irascible English teacher, the Guv, rants about female writers in Spud’s first English class. He throws books by Virginia Woolf and other women writers into a wastepaper basket and calls them all “carpet munchers”, a derogatory term for lesbians.

Now I must admit to feeling horror when I watched the scene on the big screen as the character disparaged some of my favourite authors. But I took it in the spirit in which it was written. The Guv is painted as an alcoholic misogynist who sees all women as a means to an end. Sex is the only driving force in the world, he says to Spud in one of their alcoholic discussions. As such, his comments about revolutionary female authors would definitely be disparaging and give authenticity to his character. Yes, I suppose this scene could have been cut, but it gives us an insight into the Guv’s character like no other scene does. His ethos is that of the old British boarding school: keep a stiff upper lip at all times, endure the existence of women, as they are barely tolerable, and the more alcohol drunk at any occasion the better. If the Guv had waxed lyrical about the joys of reading Katherine Mansfield’s short stories it would have contradicted everything about him. His radical views, unpleasant as they are to a modern audience, are what define him. These views also make a profound impression on the young Spud, who finds someone reminiscent of his outrageously opinionated family, even when their opinions are regarded as politically incorrect in today’s society. Think of the way his father barricades himself into his house just before the 1994 elections. His actions are deeply racist, but no one has called the film racist because of this. Perhaps it is because Van de Ruit deals with the situation humorously. His treatment of the Guv is in a similar vein. 

These comments about Spud’s apparent homophobic tendencies made me think about some of the characters I’ve written in plays and screenplays which will undoubtedly cause people offence. I have one character, Lucas, in my favourite play, A Matter of Time, who is an out and out racist. For example, he calls a black character in the play the k-word in one instance. While we were in rehearsals, the actor playing Lucas was very reluctant to use this now verboten word. I based this play on actual people and said that there is no doubt in my mind that Lucas would speak authentically in this way. The young actress playing Ketiwe, the black girl, insisted that the actor should use exactly that word and not water it down at all. She felt strongly that his use of the k-word gave her the right amount of motivation to portray her character’s anger faithfully. In the end the actor agreed. Perhaps some people thought the use of this word in my play was outrageous. My defence is that it is meant to be. I created Lucas as a thoroughly appalling character who is murdered in the end. If I’d diluted him so that he was politically correct in today’s terms, there wouldn’t have been the same amount of audience satisfaction when he dies brutally in the end. His views are not my own. They are a fictional construct for dramatic purposes.

In another of my screenplays, the chief antagonist is a repressed gay army officer, Van Staden, who tries to abuse one of the soldiers in his charge. His abuse causes the soldier to go over the edge and lose his mind after innumerable setbacks. Van Staden vindictively sets out to destroy the young man because he rejected his sexual advances. Van Staden is one of my most powerful characters but I just know I’ll be accused of homophobia when the film is made. However, his character has to be as evil as it is because he is the personification of the regime of the time which exploited innocence for its own ends, whatever those might have been. Van Staden is a nasty piece of work and his sexuality isn’t the reason he’s bad. He’s bad because he is bad. His sexuality is simply a story construct.

If I’m accused of homophobia because of the above screenplay I will cite yet another of my plays, In-Gene-Uity. It’s a light-hearted comedy about two gay women who are married and adopt a young Zulu boy. When the boy hits puberty, his two mothers can’t quite cope with the changes in him. It’s an affectionate portrayal of a family coping with the havoc adolescence wreaks in a young boy’s life. The play also gives voice to the young boy’s ancestors who are concerned about his cultural roots. Gay and black people were among those who saw this play in Grahamstown and their responses were all extremely favourable. No one was offended by the very positive portrayal of a family going through difficulties, even though some of them were absurd for comic purposes.

So I believe authors, playwrights and screenwriters have to write their characters as their stories dictate them. And if society wants equal rights for all, everyone has to be prepared to be dealt with equally in fiction. This means that there will be times when our characters express views which are in fact offensive to their creators. But if writers wrote novels, plays and films with characters which say only anodyne and reassuringly pleasant things to soothe politically correct sensibilities, then they are censoring their creative souls. The characters in every writer’s portfolio do not necessarily reflect their author’s own worldview. I could think of nothing more predictable or stultifying than reading, watching or performing fictional work where no one says or does anything controversial.

9 antwoorde op #30 Should writers censor what their characters say? – Janet van Eeden

  1. frikve het gesê op Februarie 5, 2011

    Janet is right! Writers must make their characters real – even if it hurts some people’s senses. We all know that in the great reality, people look down on gays, we all have feelings and opinions about other races, etc. If a writer creates a story these realities must be visible in his story otherwise it will be a false narrative of that snippet of reality. I can’t imagine a gangster when being shot at, saying “Oh golly – – !”. It would be false and I would put the book down or switch to another programme.

  2. Thanks Frik for vote of support! Love how you express it. I think very few gangsters would say “Oh golly!”

  3. Janet, I agree that writers must ensure the integrity of their characters isn’t compromised for fear of offending readers. But at the same time, the author does have a responsibilty to ensure that the offensive material (whatever it may be) isn’t gratuitous. Readers, too, have a responsibility: to understand the context of the character (and book) without allowing their personal issues to cloud their judgement.

  4. Judy I think make a very valid point. I mentioned this in my review of Margie Orford’s Daddy’s Girl, which does not use gratuitous violence even though the subject matter is about child abuse. Some authors can depict really salaciously awful scenes in the name of the murderer in their novel. This can so easily go wrong. And I suppose this is important to remember when creating a politically incorrect character. You have to be careful not to indulge any of your own latent politically incorrect points of view just for the sake of getting “your rocks off” as it were, in fiction. Very good point.

  5. Characters must read authentically. Especially when it comes to more hard-boiled crime, or crime writing in which dark humour features. There is no room for baddies, for example, (unless they are the charming, pull-the-wool-over-your-eyes-sort)to be weakened by tempering their speech. If a baddie is racist, homophobic, mysoginistic, then it should show in speech patterns, mannerisms, action. As with any charcater, the author works to suspend disbelief – fiction is fantasy. Why do we have to protect the reader’s sensibilities? Successful dialogue, whether it includes the L-word, the F-word, the K-word, the J-word, or not, will challenge a readers perceptions and ideals.

  6. Writers of teen novels have this problem a lot. How do you reflect the real conversation of teenagers, without alienating librarians and education department officials who potentially could buy vast numbers of your book. the real world of children is often brutal, and many adults find it unpalatable, preferring the ‘my little pony’ rainbow pink bunny version of childhood based on sentimentality.
    As a children’s writer I want to reflect the real world of children, not a sanitised version. If I want to make money from my books locally, I am obliged to self censor.

  7. Comment from HELEN MOFFETT: “I wanted to say re the whole Cameron-Spud thing that the judge didn’t find the book homophobic, but the film homophobic. As I’ve said elsewhere, what happens on a p…age in private and what happens in a movie theatre in public are VERY different enterprises (even tho for you as a screenwriter the gap is probably narrower).

    Characters can say anything IN A BOOK — there can be no censorship in a fictional world. The trouble comes with comedic intention (both for text and film): while the Spud screenplay scrubbed out the racism that the Spud character innocently reports in the book, the homophobia was put in not just as commentary on character, as you argue, but for laughs. Reading Cameron’s original letter, describing the experience of being a gay man, sitting alongside his 14-yr-old nephew, hearing the audience ROAR with laughter at all the anti-gay cracks, my heart went out to him.”

  8. If we start censoring what are characters say, we might as well throw freedom of speech out the window. We use the characters that say shocking things to make a point and to push boundaries. If we start muzzling authors we might as well put an end to all creative thinking.

  9. In response to Miss Birley, I have this same problem with writing material for teens. A tendendcy to sanitise material (including dialogue)for youth readers is unfortunate. In trying to protect younger readers, perhaps we do reading culture a dis-service – how will we hook younger readers if we don’t offer them material which in some way reflects how difficult and challenging life can be – especially in this country.

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