Don’t Quote Me: Striking for the Truth

“I’ve seen stupid strikes, I’ve seen less stupid strikes … This is a stupid strike. It’s a waste of their time. [The studios] have nothing to give. They don’t know what to give.”
— Former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, commenting on the WGA strike

“Stupid is as stupid does.”
— Forrest Gump

Beware the stupid.

The Writers’ Guild of America strike is now in its eighth week, and we have witnessed the power of collective action — the ability of one group to impair an entire industry in the interest of fair treatment in the digital age. And fair treatment is something we at care a lot about.

As television viewers prepare for the coming onslaught of reality and game shows that will replace the scripted programs affected by the strike — including Fox’s inane contribution The Moment of Truth in which contestants are “strapped to a lie detector” and “forced to reveal their most intimate secrets for cash” — some of us are reminded of exactly how much quality matters, and of a writer’s role in creating high-caliber content.

Whether or not the core value of a hit show or movie lies in the quality of its script as opposed to its interpretation (the direction, cast, cinematography, etc.) is open to endless argument. The value of something — anything — is almost always subjective. This is especially true when it comes to attaching worth to an art form such as screenwriting. But the fact remains, as the Writers Guild has made clear in its star-studded “Speechless” video campaign, that writers aren’t merely major players in the TV/film game; they are intrinsic to it because they bring the balls.

In the case of Forrest Gump, for example, there would not be a hit movie without Eric Roth’s brilliant screenplay, and, more to the point, there would not be a screenplay without Winston Groom’s creation of the unforgettable Forrest in his book of the same name.

Winston who? Exactly.

Despite the fact
that a writer’s role in any scripted production is obvious, writers in general are a notoriously underrecognized group. Authors whose stories are optioned for film are often overshadowed by the bigger names in front of — and behind — the lens. And in an industry where success is measured more by the visual end product than by that product’s textual beginnings, writers frequently fall victim to an out of sight, out of mind mentality and are consequently undervalued.

When asked by The New York Times eight months ago about the then-looming contract dispute, WGA West president Patric Verrone addressed the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers’ low opinion of writers: “I think if they could do this business without us, they would, and so making our task as mechanical and simple and low-paying and unartistic as possible.”

While a writer’s inconspicuousness has little, if anything, to do with the reluctance of the AMPTP to give Guild members a fair share of the profits derived from the use of their material in electronic media, the strike brings to light the correlation between low visibility and low opinion, and demonstrates what’s possible when an underrecognized group acts in solidarity.

Since moving images are the gifts that keep on giving, and because the internet and digital technology make Santa and his bag of DVDs look like Willy Loman clinging to his dreams, it’s more important than ever that writers be treated fairly as the value of new media is assessed and the residuals doled out. And it’s for that reason I support the Guild.

But it’s in the interest of conspicuousness — visibility and truth in storytelling — that I write this column and ask the studios and writers themselves to recognize that fair treatment be afforded to not only the people behind the scenes, but also to the characters they all help bring to life, specifically queer characters.

By striking, the
Guild’s message is clear: We won’t let you exploit us! And for some of us, that message is also very familiar. Frustrated gay and lesbian writers, filmmakers and moviegoers have been loudly opposing the exploitation of queers on TV and in film for years. But, while our demands for better treatment haven’t been ignored (there weren’t very many exploited lesbians on TV or in film last year), there’s room for improvement, especially on scripted network TV. There’s also room to evaluate the pros and cons of how we’re represented on unscripted shows.

As Malinda Lo pointed out in her 2007 Year in Review: Television, lesbian and bisexual women are well represented in unscripted shows. But being well represented in the reality genre isn’t, in my view, necessarily something to cheer about. Let’s not forget that self-absorbed, wealthy housewives, spoiled 20-somethings and catty designers are also well represented.