It was the morning of October 7th, 2017. Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of employees woke up, and went off to work for that All-American Clown- Ronald McDonald. It was like any other day- start up the fryers, mop the floors, refill the napkins and condiments. One thing was different, however; corporate was running a promotion that day. You open up a small box meant for today, only to find a meager supply you doubt will last the next hour. Suddenly, spontaneously, the lunch rush. A small crowd grows to a larger crowd grows to a mob. Terror sets in. With the force and presence of an Eldritch God, dozens of young men between 18 & 34 have filled up your McDonald’s location. And it’s not just yours. At this very moment, hundreds of other McDonald’s locations have also been swarmed by this Abrahamic Plague. You have no recourse, you have no salvation. Your supply ran dry long ago. This mob was angry, and one thing was clear: They wanted SzechuanSauce.
If anything, despite the horrors of The Rick and Morty Szechuan Sauce Debacle, I feel vindicated. Though I am not a McDonald’s employee myself, and didn’t have to face a wall of stupid, screaming young men chanting over a meme, this occasion is yet another piece of evidence in my ever-growing portfolio on why writers, typically white males, need to start giving a fuck about how they tell their stories.
Now I don’t want to make it seem like I’m directly and personally blaming Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland for a fast food promotion devised by a desperate brand gone horribly awry- they weren’t involved with this in any way, and they quickly distanced themselves from the situation via Twitter, and in personal appeals to their fans. But I do blame them for the culture they created.
From the outside looking in, I can see how this is a ridiculous assertion. Writers and other Artists can’t possibly physically control what their fans do, or do not do. Fans do crazy shit, and a lot of it can actually be chalked up to the demons and truths of our world as a whole rather than the direct effect of a piece of art, i.e. Steven Universe is a direct appeal to empathy and constructive masculinity but JESUS FUCK I’VE LITERALLY SEEN SOME FUCKNUT DRAW THE CRYSTAL GEMS AS NAZI SS OFFICERS WHO ABUSE CONNIE. With that in mind, there are still ways in which writers influence the world around us- more so than we even realize.
Art is chaotic. No matter what you do to control your story, you’re guaranteed to have people walk away with the wrong lesson, the wrong point. However, that doesn’t mean that controlling your chaos is a futile effort. In fact, controlled chaos is the difference between one context-illiterate person walking away from a well-written and well-constructed argument with the wrong point, and hundreds of angry mobs consisting of thousands of your fans descending upon a major fast food chain and preying upon thousands of innocent minimum-wage workers.
THAT, is what I blame Dan and Justin for.
Rick Sanchez’s function as a character is to show how NOT to be a person. He’s supposed to function as a mirror- reflecting passive evils and empathetic quandaries most socialized adults can avoid with a little critical thought and care. While quite a few R&M fans can see that point (and that’s not a personal reading of the show, that’s literally what Dan and Justin claim to attempt), far too many fans fall into the toxic habits and ideals of the titular lead in a desperate attempt to soften and reduce the perceived severity of their own behavior.
Rick Sanchez fails as a character. It’s easy to point to shitty fans and toxic practices. It’s far more difficult to realize that the root of the problem lies in the show itself, as doing so would mean condemning something that we enjoy.
This is, unfortunately, a common thread.
Fight Club, a book written by Chuck Palahniuk (an openly gay man), is about Toxic Masculinity and how easily young men (particularly young white men) give in to fascist programming when exploited by the proper forces.
Gundam, a Japanese anime and toy franchise, is about the absurdity of war in the face of human ingenuity and scientific progress.
Warhammer 40K, a game and book franchise,is about the dangers of imperialism and nationalism, and how those facets of governance lead to irrational, fascist conflicts.
Breaking Bad, one of the top-rated shows of all time, is about the lengths men go to preserve their pride even when deathly vulnerable, and the absurdity of hubris in positions of privilege.
Bladerunner, generally considered one of the greatest films of all time, is about state-sanctioned murder, slavery, and the violent rabbit-hole of grey-morality that law enforcement officials are prone to getting lost in.
The one thing you may have noticed about all these examples? Every single one revolves around a white, cisgender, heterosexual male lead- the one exception being Gundam, which despite it’s Japanese origin, still takes Western and European ideals of beauty into the designs of their characters. The other thing to consider is that the majority of artists behind these projects are also typically white, cisgender, heterosexual, or all three.
That being said, it’s important to disambiguate the intentions and results of these works of fiction. It would be a waste of time to appeal to an artist who’s intentions and resulting presence in our culture are in tandem with each other, but it‘s another thing entirely to engage with an artist who’s resulting presence betrays their intentions. For example, it would be a waste of breath to engage Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame in regards to their negative impact on our culture- their brand is nihilism in the face of anything remotely significant. However, it’s another thing entirely to ask for accountability when considering the well-intentioned artist.
I do truly believe the Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland are well intentioned. But similar to all the other examples I have given- a well-intentioned argument is incredibly vulnerable to it’s frame or lens.
Fight Club fails when it’s message is lost in the ambiguity and flashiness of the film (how most people are exposed to it), and in the lead antagonist+protagonist (it’s confusing) both failing his goals and succeeding at the same time.
Gundam fails when the fights and explosions outweigh the significance of the resulting trauma.
Warhammer 40K fails when the its fascist sects continue to succeed and hold their place in the world despite self-destructive tendencies and unsustainable ideals.
Breaking Bad fails when Walter White begins determining the parameters for failure or success.
Bladerunner fails by placing Rick Deckard, its largest antagonist, in the lead role.
All these examples typically have the same thing in common, and it’s that despite their attempts to alienate the audience from their main character, we are not naturally prone to doing such a thing- not without incentivization.
When a character is continually successful in their goals, we are prone to seeing that as a positive, no matter who our protagonist is, no matter what that goal was. However, when our characters meet failure time and time again, we are prone to seeing them in the wrong- once more regardless of who our protagonist is or their goals.
In my experience as a writer amongst other writers, I’ve come to learn that many writers see ONLY as writers. To a writer, a character’s failure is in their character, but to an audience a character’s failure is in their failures.
R&M leads with the assumption that it’s audience can recognize that Rick’s failure is in who he is a person- which is promptly nullified as Rick is constantly validated with success at every turn. To an audience, it doesn’t matter that Rick is an abusive, manipulative asshole, we only recognize his success as he refuses to change.
Think back to Ed,Edd,n Eddy. All three characters were collectively conniving and directly toxic in social settings. They weren’t bad kids, per-se, but they were troubled. Ed dealt with a family unwilling to address or help him cope with his disabilities. Edd lived in a controlling, anxiety-inducing household despite the fact that he was generally a decent person. Eddy lived in a DIRECTLY abusive household, receiving beatings at the hands of his father and brother. This is no ideological stretch on my part- go back and watch the show through this lens. You quickly see that all three characters are the results of neglectful and controlling households. All of these details paint a relatively straightforward picture of why these characters behave the way they do. However, their behavior is never excused. Any success achieved through their typical tactics quickly turns to failure. The most telling part of EE&E as a show was in their achievements. Despite the consistent failures of the trio, we saw their greatest highs and greatest successes when they actively changed their behavior. All three characters WERE toxic, but their validation at the hands of the audience weighed on their success or failure, and their success hinged on their ability to change their behavior and reject toxicity.
Think back to Looney Tunes. There are plenty of examples herein but the most glaring ones are Elmer Fudd and Wile E. Coyote. Regardless of if an episode is through the perspective of Bugs Bunny or Elmer Fudd, Elmer always fails. The point of view is interchangeable but what matters is the end result. Simply by failing to kill Bugs (something we’re already averse to as an audience), we recognize Elmer as the one in the wrong- regardless of that previously mentioned POV.
Wile. E Coyote is a character built around failure- it was even written out into the basic tenants of Road Runner Cartoons. All things considered, if The Coyote doesn’t kill The Road runner, he will likely die of starvation- however, we rarely recognize that and instead read into his failures as a hunter as a comment on his moral character.
Even outside of the morally ambiguous protagonist, Looney Tunes cartoons are punctuated by failure and success. Bugs is typically in the right, but on the few occasions in which his moral compass comes into question, the writers and animators bludgeon him with failure. Even Daffy Duck, who is prone to being a self-destructive nuisance sees his fair share of success when in the moral right.
These practices of rewarding and punishing one’s characters go back to the earliest forms of storytelling. Traditionally, whatever lesson we learn is derived by whatever failure or success is framed, not necessarily the content of the character. Which leads me back to the present.
Rick and Morty will always fail so long as Rick’s actions are met with success. It doesn’t matter that he’s the smartest person in the universe, it doesn’t matter that he’s abusive, it doesn’t matter that he’s manipulative, it doesn’t matter that he’s toxic- so long as his behavior is rewarded with success, any attempt to alienate the audience from him or call out his character is null and void. Television is a passive medium. The discussions afterward are of course active, but simply sitting down to watch a show isn’t, and I don’t think it ever will be. Expecting your audience to actively philosophize into the realization that Rick is a shitty character and not an example to be followed is naive, and will remain naive until the audience is properly incentivized to reject him.
If you’re a science teacher attempting to demonstrate lab safety through a series of obscenely dangerous chemical reactions, and you in no way attempt to directly engage your class on why that’s a bad idea, you’ve failed to teach anyone anything.
The same can be said for a writer who doesn’t punish or reward their characters accordingly or severely enough.
To be fair, Chuck Palahniuk is, unfortunately, unapologetic in regards to the negative effects of Fight Club. However, David Fincher, who directed the film version has tried his absolute best to distance himself ideologically from one of his most famous films. He, unlike Chuck, realized the failures of Fight Club, but this realization was not made until Fight Club had further leaked into the toxic conscious of many white males the world over, and into the active lexicon of “alt-right” nazis and white nationalists. One can’t argue for human rights without being labelled a “snowflake” and promptly stripped of their masculinity or agency in the eyes of others.
These stories have real-world effects.
In essence, what I’m getting at is this:
Stop trying to outsmart yourselves.
We are doing a great disservice to our cultures as a whole by indulging on metaphors and ambiguity.
I get it- Shitty characters are fun to write. But doing so without consideration of the consequences is irresponsible, and at this point, outright deliberate. We cannot continue to fail our audiences by making arguments that then get lost in our characters. It’s fun to write a convoluted story with plenty of twists, foils, mirrors, and ironic characterizations, but we keep doing so in a way that is nearly impossible for the average viewer to read into. And while I’m addressing this to all writers, I want to stress this to my male peers- especially my white male peers.
Consider who you are validating.
It’s very possible to center a story around a destructive and toxic individual, or set of individuals, without validating them. Ed, Edd & Eddy does it. Looney Tunes does it. And I know that urge to push the narrative envelope we all feel, but consider the history of those types of stories.
Despite the intentions of Fight Club, American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, or a thousand other books- If we’re being objective, I think we can all see their failures, and their overwhelmingly negative impact on our culture, especially in regards to the new rise of white nationalism here in America. We need to take responsibility for our foothold in the culture. If that means punishing our characters to get the message across, then so be it.
Editor: Precious Mayowa Agbabiaka
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.
From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.