The Power of Fiction

In his Masterclass, Aaron Sorkin, writer of A Few Good Men and The West Wing relates a story of how Steven Spielberg approached him to write a script for a movie in the early nineties. The movie’s theme was to be set around the travel to and human occupation of Mars. Sorkin goes on to relate that he learnt that the project was in the works because NASA had approached Steven Spielberg.

NASA felt they had the science to get human beings to Mars. They had the science too to start a human colony there. What they DIDN’T have was 25 billion dollars and humanity’s desire to make this a reality. No one wanted to give the money and, at the time, there wasn’t a desire from humanity to explore Mars. So what was the solution? NASA turned to the one industry that they knew could influence human beings to start caring about a human expedition to Mars – the film industry. And they turned to one of the practitioners whose movies are steeped in the mythology of extra-terrestrials and space travel. But not only that…one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.

They understood that a fictional film could CREATE the desire in the audience that would eventually lead to pressure on investors, leading to NASA securing its funding for this brave new adventure. This is fascinating because it shows that even NASA scientists grasped the power of story, of fiction, to change people’s minds to create a new reality to make their Mars project happen. Even though the script and film were never made, the occupation of Mars has crept closer, incrementally, towards a waking reality since then, with films like The Martian and the Rover expeditions sending back photos from the surface of the planet. All this has excited people’s imaginations about the possibilities of Mars occupation.

This got me thinking about the power of the images that we send out into the world. If NASA understands the power of those images why do we, in the industry, so often wield it unthinkingly? And it IS powerful. Only today I have read a blog where the author describes the way she used the power and strength of a fictional character in a movie to help her overcome a troubled relationship with her father. And then I came across a Twitter feed criticising David Fincher’s new film MANK for it’s erasure of any woman over 50 years old. Apparently the lead character’s wife was the same age as him in life but played by a much younger 35 year old actor when she should have been a 50 year old one.

For years I have seen actresses from Meryl Streep to Viola Davis bemoan the fact that no one is writing for women over 50 years old in the industry. These are women of exceptional talent that are struggling to survive in an industry that wants to erase them from our cinema screens. Someone controls the narratives that appear on our screens. And it has to be those in power.

I have spent my life analysing films and TV. I am acutely aware of how what we see and watch influences our behaviours or beliefs in real life. But it is so subtle that we often miss it, transforming into something people don’t even realise – a manipulation. When was the last time you saw a bald, overweight person in a lead role, who was a rounded human character and wasn’t just the side-kick to be laughed at or made fun of? Now, of course, they do happen. There are examples of films with overweight leads but they are very few and far between. But I often find myself cringing at the dubious situations involving overweight people in films and TV. It creates a licence that extends into real life. The dehumanisation or utter erasure of overweight characters in film and TV creates a culture where anyone overweight is dehumanised or erased in life. And suddenly they don’t get represented in film and TV. The actor’s careers are entirely thwarted or held in a holding pen of stereotypes which they have to pander to in order to work. Overweight people in workplaces are often overlooked for promotion or don’t even get the job.

Photo by Ian Panelo on

Watch any TV programme and the next time you see an overweight person really look and see what the writers, directors, producers, allow that person to be. They will be the character to distrust, they might be the villain, they might be the loveable, unsexed side-kick friend, they might be the character laughed at lovingly or sneered at for having food in their hands. If they show a human impulse like lust or desire they will be dismissed and slapped down through scorn or laughter. And they will rarely be the lead. No matter how much we might love them. That programme is adding to the mythology that you should hate or distrust or scorn overweight people. And you just have to pick up any celebrity twitter feed to see the many many people feel entitled enough to comment on someones weight and often in nasty, vitriolic ways creating that culture of fat shaming. And this has consequences on people’s lives. It’s as if we say to overweight people – what you bring to the table, what you have inside creatively is not as valued as someone who is thin.

In my own life I have seen directors moon over the lead with the six pack and utterly dismiss an overweight actor – barely speaking to them in rehearsals. I have watched an actor, who was thought of as the perfectly crafted man, get lead after lead, which means he thrives artistically whilst at the same time his narcissism and substantial drug and gambling habit makes him a nightmare to work with. I have watched a director and a movement director laugh behind their hands at the effort of an overweight actor in a difficult dance in a play. What did the producers do? They looked away and hired these people again and again denying anyone who is ‘other’ a place at the table of artistic spoils.

This creates, in the industry, a culture whereby a casting director or agent can tell an actor, to their face, that they will never be cast in a film or TV series unless they lose weight, unless of course, they are happy for all the work they get to be geared towards being laughed at or just that bit part – that sideline no one cares about. Worse yet, they get told, by an agent, that their size makes them immensely cast-able because they are a deviance from the norm. But if they have a smidge more ambition than the size and shape of their body then they have to be the ‘correct’ weight or they won’t/can’t be taken seriously as an actor. THEY HAVE TO CONFORM TO WORK. The ecstatic headlines proclaim Rebel Wilson’s immense weight loss or they flutter with vaporous joy at Adele’s transformation. This is just one example of our power to create a narrative in the real world – manipulating audiences’ minds. You could extend this to the handling of gay characters, women over 50, trans actors, the old, the disabled – the list goes on.

We are usually the first industry to claim that we are representing humanity. We are also usually the first industry to defend against racism, against homophobia, transphobia based on a natural empathy that I feel all artists have. But being part of this industry is not a guarantee of that empathy or understanding. It is still grabbling with its shallow representation of humanity in the media it creates and this has an effect. I try to imagine what it must have been like for a trans person to finally see some representation of themselves in the TV show, POSE. It must have been an enlivening and hopeful moment. We feel part of the world through our art. The images we send into the world hurt or heal.

Fiction has the power to keep people sane in a pandemic and it has the power to change viewpoints and educate. It has the power to create desire to send humanity to Mars. But it also has the power to keep slapping a type of person down so that we hardly ever see them, and when we do see them, we are also manipulating into thinking about them in limited and stereotypical ways.

And next time you watch anything pay attention to what that fictional world is telling you to think about the plethora of human beings around you.

It’s eye-opening.

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