Consent has quickly become one of my most touchy, push-button subjects. I find myself constantly analyzing media (especially television shows and movies, but books as well) for how consent is portrayed. More often than not, it is shown very poorly, as Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers talks about.
Hollywood’s representation of consent is so poor that they barely bring it up at all. Nearly everything I watch has at least one character that has things done to them without any sort of nod to that character’s understanding or wish of that treatment. Think of all the times you watched a love scene where the man walks in, grabs the woman by the face or jaw, and starts to kiss her. Think about those scenes where a man picks up the woman and carries her off, completely ignoring her protests. Think about what that means in terms of consent.
Now think about how the directors and filmmakers and actors want you, the audience, to feel. Like these actions are romantic and emotional. Like it’s normal for the man to do what he wants with a woman, no matter what she says or doesn’t say. I mean, she wants it anyway, right?
How do we really know that?
That, at its heart, is what consent is all about. People talking to each other. Letting each other know what’s okay and what’s not. Letting them know “Yes! I want this!” or “No, not now” (or ever).
When filmmakers or writers neglect to portray adequate conversations about consent, they are (perhaps unwittingly) telling their audience it’s okay to not ask for permission, that you don’t have to respect other people. That getting what you want is the only thing that matters, no matter what the other party says. And that is adding to the problem, not helping it.
But what does that mean for writers?
Consent is an important–and tricky–topic to write around. Not all of your characters are going to obtain consent from their partners before they try something. Not all of your characters are going to care. Not all of your characters, even if asked, are going to give their consent. And that’s fine. Good even, because those stories need to be told just as much (or more!) as the ones where everything works out and comes up roses.
However, as the writer, you really shouldn’t skirt around the issue of consent.
Be aware of the lines of consent between your characters. Address it. Know how characters are going to react to enthusiastic permission versus firm denials. Know how your other characters are going to react (the love interest’s friends, for example). If you have a guy hitting on your female lead at a bar, and he keeps pushing her and pushing her to come home with him, no matter how many times she says “no,” what is she thinking? What is she feeling? How are her friends reacting? How are his friends reacting?
What’s important for you, as the writer, to think about and address, is how your characters act and react to situations where consent should be addressed. Even if your characters aren’t addressing it, you as the writer needs to make your readers aware of it. Make it clear in your writing where the lines of consent have been blurred, or sharply defined and then denied, and address it. Address the actions and reactions and repercussions of it. Because it’s a big deal. Not only do you further your opportunities for character and relationship development, but it also shows a respect for humanity that is sadly lacking in other media nowadays.
And if you don’t, well, people are going to start losing respect in you.
If you want to continue this conversation on consent, please visit my blog in the upcoming weeks as I do a series of posts on how consent is portrayed in the media.