[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.