Tropes: The Closet Monster

[Content Note: Hate Groups, Addiction]

Husband and I have been watching Law & Order: SVU recently, largely because we've burned out on the Food Network and somehow we've memorized all the Law & Order: Original Recipe episodes. Not sure how that happened, to be honest.

Anyhow, we were watching a Law & Order: SVU the other night where the issue was alcohol addition and how it's a pretty dreadful thing to have and, of course, being that someone pretty much always dies on L&O, in this case it was being used as a courtroom defense. All pretty standard so far.

But then something rather odd happened. When the law part of the show started and the assistant district attorney showed up to start the legal drama portion of the case, she was -- as far as I can tell, and keep in mind I've been watching this show on and off for years -- a complete stranger. And yet all the characters kept acting like we were supposed to know who she was.

At first I thought she was a one-off episode character simply because she was so unlikable -- her attempts to railroad the defendant at all cost and her scoffing dismissal of alcohol addition as anything more than a Moral Weakness seemed to point to a script where the regular ADA actress said no way and wisely negotiated out of having to portray Unlikable McJerkface. Fair enough. But then the penny dropped by the end of the episode and of course Unlikeable McJerkface also has alcohol addiction! And her unsympathetic dismissal of the phenomenon was just so much denial and inability to cope with her own problem! And That's Terrible.

On the one hand, it's hard for me to criticize L&O:SVU on this particular episode. Considering how often I disagree with some of the "morals" presented at the end of the show, I'm actually pleasantly surprised that they decided to take substance addiction seriously and that the hateful statements from Unlikable McJerkface were not, in fact, meant to be taken as Serious Science on addictive behaviors. And I suppose it's not a bad thing to point out that addictive behavior can remain hidden for years and can be found even among respectable A.D.A.s and other respected members of society, and that you Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover. So that's nice, I guess.

But on the other hand, this episode sort of perfectly illustrates a phenomenon that I've decided to call The Closet Monster. There's this monstrous person, you see. And they're behaving badly towards a group that is disadvantaged in some way, be it an illness like substance addiction, or sexual orientation, or maybe something as simple as race or gender. And the Monster's behavior is behavior that is wrong and should be called out as such and decent people simply should not engage in. It's not just that the Monster is ignorant or ill-informed: they're aggressively hostile and outright abusive to the members of the disadvantaged group. But then! It turns out the Monster was actually a member of the group all along and just refused to admit it! Oh no! They're a Closet Monster!

I understand the set-up, and I understand why the writers do it. At the most basic level of writing, it's a sort of twist, and all writers like a twist at the end. And there's even a grain of realism in the twist: we've all seen at least once a publicly anti-something behave badly only to turn out to be a member of that group, so the twist isn't all that unlikely to the viewer. Beyond that, the twist provides easy motivation for the character: Why is the A.D.A. willing to risk her job steam-rolling this guy? Because she's motivated by irrational denial! Instant motivation, just add a flimsy backstory!

So I understand why some writers reach for the Closet Monster when they sit down at the keyboard, but at the same time... there are so many Unfortunate Implications that squeeze out from under the pile of Closet Monsters we're inundated with in fiction. And I think authors need to be aware of those Unfortunate Implications and work to mitigate them.

Too many Closet Monsters create the impression that the only people oppressing marginalized groups are closeted members of that group. The people oppressing people with addiction problems are, themselves, struggling with addiction. The people oppressing people who identify as quiltbag are, themselves, identifiers with quiltbag and just don't want to admit it. The people oppressing women are, themselves, other women and it's all just an intra-gender squabble.

There are so many problems with the worldview that is encouraged by the flood of Closet Monsters. One major problem is that people walk away feeling like there's really nothing that needs to be done to alleviate oppression, because it will all go away when the Closet Monsters finally stop being closeted. It's really just a matter of time until, say, all the anti-gay politicians wake up and realize that oh, wait, I'm gay, and until then, it's all so much intra-team bullying that Isn't My Problem. Indeed, the Closet Monster gives something of a free pass: if you know you're not a member of the oppressed group, then you can't possibly be contributing to the oppression because you're not a Closet Monster. Plain and simple.

The other problem with a Closet Monster worldview is that everyone becomes not A Problem, but rather a Closet Monster without exception. Now, Closet Monsters exist. We've all seen politicians rail against something before, whoops, turning out to be a member of that very group. And I understand the urge to raise an eyebrow when someone goes around saying publicly that we must outlaw gay marriage because without legal disincentive, it's inevitable that we'll give into the gay urges that grip all of us and no one will be able to focus on anything but the sweet, legal gay sex they're suddenly allowed to have and then no one will ever have babies again. Yeah, people who say that are going to get an eyebrow or two raised, I get that. But! Not everyone who is hostile to disadvantaged groups is a member of that group... and even if they were, it wouldn't matter. Indeed, saying "I suspect the hateful person in question is closeted" is nothing more than a huge distraction from the real Real Life problem.

Real Life Closet Monsters don't operate in a vacuum: they have a support structure of people willing to listen to their hostility and willing to provide their support for the continued mistreatment of disadvantaged groups. Yet, in fictional settings, these foundational people -- people without whom the Closet Monster would not be able to operate or effect change in any meaningful manner -- fade away. As the A.D.A. rails against people with alcohol addiction and conspires to push a rape charge that doesn't seem to fit the facts, the L&O:SVU main characters look disapprovingly on, frowning sadly and being nothing but sympathetic to the audience. This is what contributes to the idea that the only oppression is intra-group oppression; this is what tells people that they definitionally can't be oppressive if they aren't members of the disadvantaged group.

How do you, as the author, preserve your Closet Monster without contributing to this impression? Well, do you really need a Closet Monster? Is it absolutely imperative to your plot that your aggressive, hostile, villainous, Unlikable McJerkface also be a member of a disadvantaged group that is rarely played positively or representationally in media? Could your Unlikable McJerkface just be a hateful somebody without having to be motivated by their own closetedness?

But if you really must have a Closet Monster, here are some tips. Don't make your Closet Monster the defining force against the disadvantaged group such that if they just stopped, everything would be rosy forever. Don't make the Closet Monster's support structure transparent to the reader -- make it clear that there are a lot of people involved in systematic oppression and these people come from a variety of groups. Don't ignore the social structures that allow a group to be disadvantaged by anyone, Closet Monster or no. Don't make your Closet Monster the focus to the detriment of everything else.

And do, please, remember that not all Monsters have closets.


mmy said...


And when one rolls out the Closet Monster (how I love that phrase) one puts something else into the closet. Closet Monsters are not monsters because they oppress the thing they really are (that is, their monstrosity lies in their hypocrisy) Closet Monsters and Monsters because they are oppressing people. The oppression is wrong irrespective of the persons who are doing the oppressing.

And giving into the urge to charge that the oppressors are actually members of the group they are oppressing you are playing along with the idea that it is a horrible thing to be that which the person is in the closet about.

Dav said...

This really puts the finger why I'm uncomfortable when conversations start and stop with "[homophobic person] must be secretly SUPER GAY!" It's not just not relevant, but it's actually harmful to tackling oppression.

Makabit said...

I must admit, I have always been intrigued by the proposition some professional homophobes float that if men are allowed by society to have sex with other men, then NO men will ever again have sex with women. It does not seem like the kind of theory any straight man I know would come up with. Or really, anyone who knows a couple of straight people socially. Heterosexuality is hardly a passing fad.

That said, I do think you've got a problem when the only response people can make, in fiction or person, to homophobia is 'you must be gay'. It does unshoulder the societal burden quite a bit. I don't know if alcoholism is seen in quite the same way.

Gelliebean said...

It feels like a slap to the face for me because I’m thinking, “Wait a minute…he’s ‘no better’ than the LGBT community? So…that means that they’ve been ‘lower’ all along? And we’ve just taken down this powerless-feeling guy a few notches? All by making him into one of the ‘underdogs’? But…I thought the point of not oppressing other people was because you acknowledge that they’re equal to you…?”

This is exactly what I was thinking, too. I suspect that the episode writers (or anyone who sets up this scene) would justify it as a case of "you will become what you despise," with the emphasis on the personal; this one character, in this one circumstance, looks down on Members of Oppressed Group (can I abbreviate it MOG?) so the most fitting outcome is for the Closet Monster to become one of the MOG. Especially if played as an opportunity for learning hir lesson: CM realizes that MOGs Are People Too and it's hugs and sunshine all around.

Which still uses the MOGs as a tool and foil, where the purpose is to create sympathy or redemption for CM and to use them as part of CM's (more important) story, to make their oppressed situation the means of instruction/enlightenment to benefit the opressor. CM breaks down in tears acknowledging to hirself for the first time that (hie?) is one of Them, and suddenly we're meant to forget about all the harm CM has caused to other people in a wash of sympathy and forgiveness for the terrible trauma they've been creating for themselves internally all this time (and forgetting also that the trauma was likely, at least partly self-caused because of the very attitudes CM has been expressing all along.)

Another Chris said...

It's a complicated issue, and I think you've nailed its various implications pretty well, Ana. As I see it, this type of plot twist *can* be done respectfully and without dehumanising anyone. It just doesn't happen very often, sadly.

And don't get me started on (Godwin alert!) the people who'll drag up the "Hitler was actually Jewish!" hypothesis...

Amarie said...

*nods with Gellibean and Another Chris*

Exactly. The hardest thing about setting up the Closet Monster sensitively and realistically is that the roots are very real. Most human beings *do* externalize self hatred onto others. Or at least, they externalize their own internal confusion and usually without any knowledge that they’re doing it.

The saddest thing is that most of the times, you won’t get that learning, emotional, enlightenment, etc. aspect. More than half the time, the writers just want to nip the oppressor (especially if it’s a white man, as far as I’ve seen) in the bud. But the fact of the matter is that when you fight fire with fire, sometimes you get an entire forest burned down and you forget what you wanted to achieve among all that carbonation. Of course, the Closeted Monster isn’t *right* in how he deals with his feelings; it’s never okay to take internal issues out on someone else. And that’s where you can end up dehumanizing if you’re not careful.

Kit Whitfield said...


Another tip; remember the Closet Monster isn't just full of self-hatred. they're -scared-, of being found out and of what the non-Closet Monsters will do to them if it's revealed.

Amarie said...



*hugs you tightly, being mindful of your arm*

Ahem...well, then. It's a pleasure to see you again. ^ ^

*turns on mature face and steps back, clearing throat*

Inquisitive Raven said...

Also, the Closet Monster wouldn't exist if the group to which the CM belongs wasn't already looked down on by the privileged segment of society which means that not all, shen, probably not even the majority, of the oppressors of the relevant Oppressed Group are going to be CMs.

Silver Adept said...

@Ana - I think you have a new entry for TVTropes.

The Closet Monster story is a weak twist - much like the Usual Suspects Ending, it's gotten to the point where in a limited ensemble cast, you almost expect something like this.

There are so many better ways this story can be played out - after all, we have politicians who routinely manage what would be a Closet Monster story in real life - and what we see from them is the "I knew it!" from the outside, the outreach from the CM group...and then what happens, exactly, from that other group of oppressors? More often than not, forgiveness and a willingness to accept that they're now reformed Closet Monsters. Why can't we have more of the forgiveness aspects, without the need to keep being in the closet about it?

Ana Mardoll said...

@Ana - I think you have a new entry for TVTropes.

SWEET! That would be the coolest thing ever. 'Course, I'm too lazy to go fill out a new page right now. OH CRUEL JET LAG, WHERE NOW IS YOUR STIN-- *snore*

ZMiles said...

Minor spoilers: casting on LAO:SVU

This was ADA Sonya Paxton, right? She wasn't quite a one-shot, but she wasn't a main character either -- she was only on LAO:SVU six or seven times total.
After season 9, the main-character ADA was disbarred for committing a Brady violation (she lied to a judge in order to hide evidence and was caught). They switched to a new ADA for the first half of season 10, but then she left, and they went to using a rotating set of them like they did in the first season. The same thing happened in season 11, with Paxton, although she left much earlier than season 10's Greyleck. This continued until... I think the current season, where they still use a different ADA in different episodes, but they're all people we know (Cabot, Novak, and Cutter from the original series).

Rikalous said...

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the Closet Monster is already a trope. It's called You Are What You Hate, which admittedly doesn't sound as good as Closet Monster.

Lonespark said...

You linked to TV Tropes. Aaaaargh!

ZMiles said...

This can also be taken one step further with the 'Flock of Wolves' twist, in which, rather than one person hating group x and secretly being a member of that group, absolutely everyone who hates group x is a member of group x.

Marc Mielke said...

That was Christine Lahti, right? She was a pretty unlikeable ADA in the four to six eps she was in until she totally self-destructed and got herself busted on a PWI (Prosecuting While Intoxicated). When she came back she has the typical recovering alcoholic view that a single drop makes anyone an alcoholic.

Which is, as you say, a cheap trope. It also describes many members of AA, MADD, and associated organizations. MADD, in particular seems to have a prohibitionist streak a mile wide...on a mile-wide road.

Post a Comment