You Can Break New Ground. You Might Not Make Money.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Yesterday, I wrote about the difficulties in assigning genders randomly, and I said this:

What’d be seen as proof of competency from a dude – snapping off corrections – comes off as bitchy from a woman.  (Imagine a female House insulting everyone in the emergency room as she yanks the scalpel out of their hands.  She’s not gonna be nearly as lovable.)

To which Mishell Baker had this reaction:

Do we cater to this idiocy on the part of readers? Or do we start putting that scalpel-sharp tongue in the mouth of a woman MORE often, and showing supportive, needy men MORE often, until people get the hell over it?
I say, roll those fucking dice. And when your readers act like sexist shits, call them on it. It’s too late for our generation, but today’s young people become what they see in the media, and we are the media. Give people options.

I either agree wholeheartedly with it or disagree, depending on what hat I’m wearing.
If I’m wearing my “creator” hat, I say absolutely!  Follow that fucking muse!  Write the sort of change you want to see in this world!  You may note that while I expressed worries about using a gender-inverted detective stereotype in my book Flex, I still wrote Valentine as a sexually-forward, offensive louche.  Why not write a female House, and who gives a fuck if people see her as bitchy?
But if I’m wearing my “producer” hat?
Holy fuck, wow, I wish it was that simple.
It’s the eternal problem you see with comics stores – yeah, most comics are a murky backwater of curdled fan-sperm and sexism, regurgitating dude power-trips as Man punches Bad Guy.
But it’s not as simple as “Just produce a sexism-free comic!”  Yeah, you can do it, but there’s no guarantee the market will buy it.  Certainly comics companies have done bold experiments in attempts to push the envelope – and some of them have worked, but most of them haven’t.
You can shrug that shit off when you’re the creator – the creator’s job is just “make art,” and then they shove it over to “producer” dudette, muttering “Make money with this somehow.”  And the producer is the one who says, “All right, I’m going to put $10,000 of my hard-earned savings into printing and distributing this damn thing, and I’d like to not be homeless when all is said and done.”
That producer’s every bit as brave as the artist.  The producer is risking some chunk of her reputation and livelihood (and in many cases, all of it) to bet that yes, this will sell enough to make people money.  And if they’re wrong enough times, they go broke.  For them, though they may like a property, the question – and it’s a valid question, don’t you pull that bullshit “Good artists should starve for my pleasure” line in this fucking blog – is “Can this work of fiction make me enough money to do this again?”
If it can’t?  Then you can’t do this.
As such, if you’re a producer for a mass-market production like, say, a national network television show that costs millions of dollars to produce, you can’t afford to piss in your audience’s face and scream, “GET OVER IT!” If you do, you won’t make any more shows.  And then the assholes who are content to produce the moral equivalent of Baywatch – you know, all those sexist shows that lots of people actually do love, and inhale the sexist messages within like they were a corrosive poison – thrive, while you and all your noble attempts fail.
If you’re a socially aware producer, there’s always this tension between “What do I want to sell?” and “What will the audience buy?”
And if you’re lucky, you take the big risk and make an entirely new market.  Your chances of revitalizing the moribund comics industry is slim, as the audience in a superhero comic shop is pretty conservative in their tastes – but you might be able to produce some webcomics that appeal to women who’ve never read comics.
And you may note I’m drawing an arbitrary distinction between “creator” and “producer” here, in the days of Kickstarters and webcomics and YouTube.  The line’s getting blurred all the time, and the lower stakes allow for bolder experiments.  My friend Rosalarian both writes and publishes some amazing comics about lesbian love and her experiences in burlesque shows.  But she’s not trying to make millions of dollars for network executives – she’s trying to earn enough to pay for her apartment, which means that she doesn’t have to be as financially successful.
That’s the glory of producing in an Internet age.  If you’re willing to accept a certain level of money, you can do whatever you want.  And if you’re lucky and connect with an audience, your Patreon will let you get by with Oatmeal levels of money.
But if you, say, need to make back the money it takes to rent a theater on Broadway and pay a cast full of musicians and actors and directors… well, maybe you can’t afford to go, “HEY, AUDIENCE, YOU SUCK IF YOU DON’T LIKE THIS.”  Maybe you need to fine-tune.  Maybe you need to take that female House and figure out a way to make her more palatable to mainstream audiences without defanging her.
Or maybe you don’t, and risk going bankrupt if the play fails.  Or you risk not having your vision shown at all, as your investors refuse to buy in to your vision.
Is it better to have a noble vision that no one but you gets to see?  Or is it better to have a slightly-massaged version of that vision that’s still going to push the envelope, but also appeal to enough folks that you can make buck?  Choose carefully, because there’s not actually a correct answer here.
Point is, you can be uncompromising.  It’s just harder, when you’re wearing that producer hat.  And it leads to a greater risk.  Which if you’ve got the cash and the passion to go for it, then great!  Godspeed, you bold person you.  I hope it works out.  But it might not, and if it doesn’t, well, you might be talking to my wife to file for bankruptcy.  There’s a balance to be struck, and I think every good producer’s had that moment of “I don’t know if this will sell, but fuck it, let’s hope this is so weird it carves out a new territory as the next big hit.”  (It usually doesn’t.  But the ones that channel that lightning make enough cash for you to fund a hundred failures.)
Which is why I wear two hats myself.  When I’m writing, I could care less if it’s salable.  This is what I want to see, and I’m making it happen.
Then I switch to my producer’s hat.  And I realize Jesus, why the hell did that stupid creator give me that, what market could I possibly sell this to? 
But that’s the producer’s job.  Let that bastard suffer.  Even when he’s me.

1 Comment

  1. Yet Another Laura H
    Jan 31, 2015

    Now wait just a rabbit-assed minute, here. A female “House” would be the character of Christina Yang or Miranda Bailey, from Grey’s Anatomy. And sure, it’s sort of obligatory for a certain type of male stand-up comedians to mention they hate the show and these characters, but I understand it has actually gained some small popularity on a network that at least some people have heard of once or twice… which is not to say the argument above is invalid, just that it’s possible that marketing is giving Pat Q. Consumer a little less credit than deserved and what you’re going out on is less of a limb and more of a bridge. (I’ve heard a rumor that Ms. Rhimes actually uses a sort of “dice-rolling” to cast her characters, too, and unless the role she envisions for them must be of a certain sex or race— e.g. a cismale’s ex-spouse or a white supremacist— she will audition any actor with chops for the part until she finds the one that owns the character. )

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