Some of the discourse around my newest favorite streaming content — Our Flag Means Death and Turning Red — has got me wondering: Who are stories for? Who and what determines a work’s accessibility, and its audience? I hope by analyzing the buzz around Our Flag Means Death, Turning Red and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, I can answer these questions, and if they even matter.
Money, Money, MONEY
Ultimately, Hollywood, no matter its purported social values, lives and dies by capitalism. That’s why progress has been slow, but the rise of streaming services has led to the democratization and diversification of content; spending less on projects allows producers to take more risks.
I don’t totally agree with author Carey Wedler’s politics here, but her rundown of how Hollywood operates is pretty spot on. Her conclusion is that if you don’t want something made, don’t watch it, and the market will respond.
If it all boils down to business in the end, does it really even matter who stories are for? Well, yes. For
better or for worse, we vote with our dollar, so it matters tremendously who watches what. To get their work made, creators need eyes on their creations. It’s an endless cycle.
Our Flag Means Death
On that note, for all the conservatives bemoaning the devolution of culture or content only being made for “two percent” of the population, they’re sure out there watching some gay-ass programming. HBO’s Our Flag Means Death is a perfect example. It’s a pirate workplace comedy that slowly shifts into a queer AF period romantic comedy. And it’s loosely based on a true story! What?
The people on this show have regular-people bodies! They have lisps! Many are queer and/or people of color. I mean, there is a nonbinary character, Jim, played by a nonbinary actor (Vico Ortiz) who is referred to by they/them pronouns within the show, with no explanation provided. Pronouns are a huge friggin’ debate in America right now. And yet:
— Tina (@midnight__tee) April 20, 2022
That’s right; Our Flag Means Death is super popular, including being number 11 worldwide. So for all the far right complaints about the “liberal woke agenda,” people love this show.
I have a few theories about how the show pulled it off. The first is obvious: it’s a good show with tight writing, great performances and production values.
The second reason, I think, is more counterintuitive. In this Instagram post below, EP/star Taika Waititi shares a message that essentially says Our Flag Means Death is made for the minorities that it depicts. There’s power in writing stories for a specific audience. In fact, I’d argue that’s what gives them universal appeal.
In an era of “Don’t Say Gay,” Our Flag Means Death unapologetically shouts gay without ever saying gay because words like queer, nonbinary and gay didn’t exist back then. Sure, there are questions of whether Jim is “a man or a woman” and mentions of buggery, but it’s never didactic.
IRL, pirate life was hella diverse and nonchalant about homosexuality, so when you sit back and think about it, it makes sense, right? People on the edges of society would just say, “Screw this, I’m going rogue!” But we in the community have known, if not these facts, then these feelings.
I can’t imagine what Our Flag Means Death would have been like if it’d tried to “explain” these feelings to the cishetero white folx in the audience. By presenting things as matter of fact, the in-crowd feels seen, but the out-crowd doesn’t feel talked down to, which I think is something that often causes problems IRL.
There are also two not-so-savory marketing reasons that I think helped Our Flag Means Death succeed. A lot of the show’s success can be attributed to word of mouth, so I can imagine people saying, “It’s gay, but … “
Also, going back through the initial press campaign for the show, it seems critics only received the first five episodes. It’s only at the tail end of episode five, “The Best Revenge Is Dressing Well,” that audiences not tuned in to look for these things might start to wonder if the show really is heading for a romance between Blackbeard (Waititi) and Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby).
It’s basically a gay Trojan Horse marketing campaign.
In a way, the complete eschewing of queerbaiting is like an Easter egg for the show’s queer audience. It’s a big middle finger to historians and media that have long tried to erase us. (Not to mention those other well-represented marginalized groups on the show.)
Perhaps series creator David Jenkins put it best: “This is what happens when a major media company invests in inclusive mainstream stories.” That’s exactly what Our Flag Means Death is: an inclusive mainstream story.
So, if this hyper-specific-yet-universal story found its audience, why did Disney-Pixar’s Turning Red make some people so angry?
Maybe the obvious answer is that Turning Red is made for kids whereas Our Flag Means Death clearly isn’t. Turning Red is about 13-year-old Meilin (Rosalie Chiang), who discovers a family secret. Once female members of her family hit puberty, they turn into giant red pandas whenever they feel strong emotions.
Yes, it’s a metaphor for menstruation.
The film also highlights Meilin’s struggles with growing up and the push-pull of her somewhat fraught relationship with her mom (Sandra Oh).
There are a few “debates” going on around Turning Red, and this Vox article sums them up quite well. To put it briefly, there was a now-deleted review of Turning Red that said the film being so specifically about a Chinese-Canadian teen girl made it inaccessible for
whiter “broader” audiences. The other big controversy is that Turning Red is “too mature” for kids.
It should be noted that Turning Red is rated PG and was released on Disney Plus; it’s not meant for the same audience as say, Toy Story. To be frank, I was a bit (pleasantly) surprised by how direct the conversations about puberty were.
Though, I was perhaps more surprised to hear the word “crap” in the first five minutes of the movie. Honestly, by the fact that Sandra Oh was playing a person of Chinese descent (especially when Disney made such an effort to have most of Encanto‘s cast be of Colombian descent).
My immediate reaction to parents complaining about the film’s “mature” content was my typical one: Don’t let the TV babysit your kids; watch with them. However, upon talking to one of my English-as-a-foreign-language students about this, he mentioned the amount of privilege inherent in that solution. (Though it’s never the parents who don’t have the time complaining, is it?)
So, I can empathize with parents of young kids being surprised by suddenly having to explain pads and sexual harassment to their kids. But, also, too bad? That’s parenting.
When I taught kindergarten, kids asked me all sorts of “awkward” questions ranging from “Why do people die?” to “When will the universe end?” to “What is a c-section?” Kids can handle Turning Red. It’s the adults who can’t.
Matt Walsh, who hasn’t seen the movie, criticized Turning Red because its target audience seems to be preteen/teen girls. Way to show your true colors again, dude. While Disney-Pixar did quite a few straight-to-Disney Plus releases at the height of the pandemic, Turning Red is the first they’ve released this way, at no extra cost, since August.
Interestingly, most of its films are doing better on streaming than in theatres, especially family films, so Turning Red being released on Disney Plus may have purely been a business decision. Whatever the reason, 2.5 million households streamed Turning Red on its first weekend. So, clearly, many families found the film appropriate and accessible.
A few of my current students are teenage girls in China. I’ve gotten to talk to them about Turning Red — they love it. Even though it’s about a Chinese-Canadian girl in Toronto, they feel seen and represented. Perhaps not surprising considering director Domee Shi is a Chinese-born Canadian herself. And the first woman to solo direct a Pixar film!
Allow me some glibness for a moment. If we pretend Turning Red is only for teenage girls, that’s still about 900 million humans. Or if we said it’s only for people in China or the Chinese diaspora, that’s roughly a quarter of the world’s population.
Even if no one else on Earth clicked with the movie, wouldn’t those two groups be sufficient? Couldn’t a marketing team do well enough selling it to those markets?
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
So far, we’ve looked at two works that seem pretty niche, but have resonated with the larger crowds. Now, I want to talk about a piece that should have broader appeal, but hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations: Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the latest release in the Harry Potter prequel franchise.
Even though it’s currently the seventh-highest grossing film of the year, the numbers don’t quite add up to a box office smash. The film began releasing on April 8, 2022, and has so far grossed about $197 million; the movie reportedly cost $200 million to make. It isn’t exactly getting rave reviews either: it’s got a 47/100 on Metacritic and an IMDb score of 6.6/10.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of JK Rowling‘s transphobia in the film’s underperformance — there are many fans who don’t know or don’t care. I’d hazard a guess that Johnny Depp‘s firing and subsequent delay in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore‘s release may have led to people forgetting about the series.
Beyond that, this series has lost some of that original Harry Potter charm and magic. Granted, I’ve only watched the first film in the Fantastic Beasts franchise, but from the outset, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) isn’t as relatable as Harry Potter.
For one thing, he’s much older than Harry is at the beginning of his series. Being young gives Harry the immediate upper hand as an underdog. Newt has already come of age when we meet him. Young adult wizard hero journeys are almost always coming-of-age tales. In Harry Potter, we discovered magic with Harry, you know?
And while I said I don’t want to overstate Rowling’s problematicness, I don’t want to understate it either. Fifteen years ago, Rowling “Word of Gayed” Dumbledore, and ever since then, it’s been A Thing. So, people were hopeful when Fantastic Beasts was announced, since, you know, young Dumbledore is in it and played by Jude Law.
While The Secrets of Dumbledore did acknowledge that he and Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) used to be A Thing, it’s conveniently blink-and-miss-it enough that it could be cut in certain markets. But many people in said markets know what was cut, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
In the end, who’s really happy here? Not many people in the US, it seems. Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts seem doomed to forever be too “woke” or not “woke” enough, depending on who you ask. In its heyday, for all its lack of wizards from marginalized communities, Harry Potter always presented itself as a world where the underdog could win. Many of those fans now feel betrayed.
Interestingly, at least from anecdotal evidence, abroad, it seems many people love Harry Potter more for its magic than any political allegory. So, Fantastic Beasts isn’t magical enough for them. They like it and watch it because it’s Harry Potter. But it seems the love of Fantastic Beasts is just an extension of the love for that universe.
So, for some, it doesn’t matter if the story isn’t that great or if the people involved kinda suck. But for many marginalized folx in the Anglophone world, that’s not enough anymore; we’ve now soured on the Wizarding World.
If anything, I think Fantastic Beasts doesn’t know who its audience is, and if we want to call it unsuccessful, that’s the reason. It can’t lean into what it wants to be, ’cause it doesn’t know who or what it should be.
So, who are stories for?
Well, it seems stories can be for everyone, for no one or for some people. But a story’s intended audience doesn’t necessarily define its actual audience. By looking at Our Flag Means Death, Turning Red and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, it seems that if you understand your target audience, an audience will find you.
You can’t be everything to everyone, so perhaps when you hone in, you can just focus on making strong work. Specific target = broader accessibility. So, it actually doesn’t matter who the story is for, just that you, the creator, know the answer to that question.