On Fannishness, Intersectionality, & a Whole Other Grab-bag of Entitled Millennial Bullshit :
An open letter to Sera Gamble, John McNamara, Henry Alonso Myers, and the rest of the creative team for SyFy’s The Magicians.
Dear Ms. Gamble, Mr. McNamara, Mr. Myers, et al.,
Like a lot of people who want to talk to you today, on Wednesday night I watched The Magicians Season 4 finale. (Since this is an open letter, for the benefit of people who are not Sera Gamble, John McNamara, or Henry Alonso Myers I would like to say, in the language of my people: this article contains all the spoilers, and merits a content warning I can’t give you without spoilers. I therefore pretty much have to assume, from this point on, that if you’re still reading this post, you aren’t worried about spoilers and you know the content warning I’m talking about. We good? Good.)
So. Ms. Gamble, Mr. McNamara, Mr. Myers, and cohort: I watched the episode, and then I spent, essentially, the next 30 hours on some combination of thinking about it, writing about it, thinking about writing about it; and most of all thinking about what I wanted to say to you, and the rest of the creative team, not just regarding the episode itself, but also regarding your interview in The Hollywood Reporter, where you describe the episode as giving “that answer” to whether or not Quentin’s life had meaning, and “clos[ing] the circle” of Quentin’s history of depression and suicidal thoughts; and your interview in Vulture, where you said that “that exact question [of whether or not Quentin’s death was a suicide] will hopefully fuel debate and discussion and possibly be the source of a few academic papers at institutions of higher learning”; and “that Quentin was too attached to these people, and they to him, for Quentin to have consciously given up his life”; and that your “intent is to really rigorously and realistically explore human behavior, and if the show simplifies human behavior to the point where it’s a cartoon, you’re doing a greater disservice to the world of mental health”; or your interview with Entertainment Weekly, where you said that your hope was to “give a sense of closure as opposed to mordent and pornographic tragedy.”
Except —none of that is what this episode actually did.
You’re wrong about what the actual issues are, and you made a bunch of artistic decisions based on your fundamental misconception of the issues, and by doing so, you hurt us. And I want to explain to you why you’re wrong, and how you hurt us, because what you did, actually, wasn’t artistically brave or novel or even, I’m sorry to tell you, all that conceptually interesting — though I do, actually, understand why you think it was. I don’t, actually, think that you’re acting in bad faith. But I do think that the why of that gap, between what you think you are making and what you have actually made, is invisible to you. And — it shouldn’t be. You can’t afford for it to be. You can’t afford for it to be because here you are talking about how great it is that you killed the white male hero, and by doing so laying claim to the narrative of “woke art,” or whatever you want to term it; but what you are making is not “woke art”, and your blindness to why it’s not “woke art” hurt people; and you are in a position of power relative to the people you are hurting.
There’s nothing magical about white guys. I mean — I think you get this: that’s the point, right? Why are all these heroes white dudes, in genre media like The Magicians in particular — especially given that the most basic role of the hero, in genre media in particular, is to be more important to the story than other people? Like — this is tautology levels of obvious: if what defines the hero is his centrality to the story, and you have entire genres that stand on the shoulders of the centrality of white guys to every story, then, yeah, that’s an issue, because actually, white guys aren’t central to every story; and also because white guys also have lots and lots of structural power in real life — privilege, one might say—and that structural power, that privilege, reinforces and is reinforced by that implicit unchallenged right to believe that everything is about them. I think… we’re all pretty much on the same page, about this. Like, okay, yes, white male privilege is an issue where I’m sure you can find people to argue with you about it on Twitter, but I’m not one of them, and I’m writing this letter. If your Mission™ is to decenter privileged narratives that reinforce structural power at a cost to people who don’t have it, than I am behind the Mission™.
And I think obviously to you, and certainly obviously to me (spoiler: I’m not a white guy), centering all these stories around white male heroes reflects an implicit bias: the over-prioritization of the lives and concerns of white men. So, even leaving aside this issue of structural power, just to depict the full scope and richness of human experience, we as writers and artists need to push back against that over-prioritization, and tell stories about people whose lives we hear less about. And yes. A big part of how you do that is by centering narratives that aren’t quite so privileged.
But one of the things that can make doing that complicated is when you, the story creator, aren’t living in the same underprivileged space as the people you’re telling a story about. I genuinely don’t know how this plays in television’s creative culture, but in my creative culture, it’s considered ill-advised at best, and often just flat-out offensive, to write a story centered on, specifically, a character’s identity as a member of a marginalized group to which one does not belong. In other words — I’m not trans, so while it’s perfectly possible for me to write about trans characters, centering the story around their trans identity (as opposed to, say, their struggles at magical grad school), is a bad idea. It’s also pretty standard practice, when people in my community are writing about marginalized groups to which they do not belong, to get input from people who have lived the thing you’re writing about. We call these people “sensitivity readers,” and they’re basically a check on accidental foot-in-mouth disease: basically, if I, as a white woman of Jewish descent, am going to write something about a Latinx character, particularly (though not exclusively) something where that character’s Latinx identity is central to the story, it’s probably a good idea to get someone who’s actually Latinx to read the story and tell me if I am — cluelessly, if well-meaningly — accidentally recycling stereotypes or plotlines or tropes involving Latinx people that are painful and offensive to the Latinx people whose lives I think I’m trying to represent. This is just something I include as — a note, not precisely a suggestion; again, I’m not a TV writer and I don’t know how TV writers’ rooms work. I’m just saying — this is a known bug, in trying to make art that respectfully depicts the experiences of a group to which you don’t belong. It’s a problem! And the way around it is usually to pull more people who do belong to that group into the creative process.
So — this is all general good stuff, rah-rah, isn’t art great, if we get a diverse group of people involved to tell a diverse set of stories, they can expand human consciousness and help us to see and understand lives of people we will never be. But I think that the place where there is a disconnect, between you, Ms. Gamble, Mr. McNamara, Mr. Myers, and fans of The Magicians, comes at the point of identifying what those other lives are, and who, here, precisely, is representing a life that we haven’t before seen.
So, hi. I’m Gins. I would like to tell you a little bit about why I watch The Magicians.
For starters — again, I’m not a white dude. I’m a 37-year-old woman of Jewish descent. I’m queer (I identify as both queer and bisexual). I’m not neurotypical. I’m also profoundly mentally ill. Specifically: I’m bipolar, and I have been, more than once, suicidally depressed. Depression, and my fear of my depression —more specifically, my ongoing fear that I will someday kill myself — is a major, ongoing, intrinsic part of my life. I’m not suicidal right now. I don’t anticipate that I will be suicidal in the near future! I’m doing pretty well right now. But there’s still something that is, right now, asleep inside of me, and it wants me dead. I know that I will never wholly get rid of it. It is always going to be with me. Managing that part of me, and guarding against that part of me, is an enormous part of my day-to-day life, because the part of me that wants to kill me is, actually, a very, very small part of what I am. Most of me, the overwhelming, ecstatic majority of me, desperately wants to live.
I watch The Magicians in large part because I have never, in the entire history of my 37 years on this planet, seen myself reflected as (awkwardly, embarrassingly, uncomfortably) as I see myself reflected in Quentin Coldwater.
Or. I watched. I mean, I watched —before Wednesday night, I watched The Magicians in large part because —
— before Wednesday night, I had never seen myself reflected as (awkwardly, embarrassingly, uncomfortably) as I saw myself reflected in Quentin Coldwater.
Before 4x13, Quentin, and Quentin’s (not infrequently horrible, self-involved, trainwrecky) bullshit was mouth-frothingly emotionally satisfying for me to watch because I have been that not infrequently horrible, self-involved, trainwrecky bag of bullshit. I am fighting exactly that same war. Like Quentin, I had (slash have) a smallish number of things in which I am interested to a degree that is often uncomfortable or distasteful to the people around me, and my ability to not be absorbed in those things is — inconsistent at best. Like Quentin, I find it difficult to relate to other humans unless they come towards me with an almost immeasurable degree of patience and tolerance for me being an awkward hand-knit tube sock used to disguise a badly-built robot as something approaching a person, a degree of patience and tolerance that I didn’t, when I was 23 (and often still don’t), fully know how to accept.
I neither know nor care whether or not you intend Quentin to be read as queer; but he demonstrates sexual and romantic interest in at least one man and never demonstrates any anxiety about it, which casts him as at the very least definitively behaviorally queer, and probably, given his demographics (he’s a young millennial who at least some of the time likes kissing boys): the overwhelming likelihood is that that character, as you have presented him, self-identifies as some variety of (or combination of) queer, pan, or bisexual. He’s queer in pretty much — exactly the same way I am: we both — seem to really like girls a lot. But.
And on top of that, The Magicians has almost always had a layer of semi-implicit storytelling about Quentin’s experiences of, specifically, sexual assault and physical and emotional abuse that I’m not sure was actually intentional, on your part, but I kind of don’t care, because it is so recognizable to me that I simply cannot ignore it. The presence of this layer of semi-implicit storytelling — where Quentin is repeatedly physically and emotionally abused by people with the faces and eyes of people he loves: first Alice as a niffin, and then, later, the Monster in Eliot’s body; where Quentin repeatedly has dubiously consensual or nonconsensual sexual experiences, certainly with (at least) all of Alice, Eliot, Margo, and Poppy, and where he appears to be almost totally unaware that these experiences weren’t totally consensual — has made up such a huge part of why I watch the show and find Quentin recognizable that to not mention them in this letter would be frankly dishonest, even though, nah, I’m not really willing to take a position on whether or not this content was intentional in the first place.
Like Quentin, I spent a lot of time taking abuse from someone — multiple someones — that I loved because I didn’t know any better and it seemed like that was just — what was happening to me, in that moment. Like not just Quentin but a lot of depressed people, I had — have — almost no consistent ability to recognize when I’m actually feeling sexual desire. I have been sexually assaulted more than once, and it mostly took me literal years to realize that what had happened to me actually was assault, because I basically didn’t feel anything about it at the time. I have also, quite frankly, just let a lot of people fuck me because it seemed like it’d be rude to say no. This, all of this, mirrors (spikily; uncomfortably) threads I see in Quentin’s personality, and threads I see in Quentin’s behavior; Quentin reads to me as a dumbass bisexual disaster with a history of trauma and abuse and a profound mental illness because of all the things that he is and does that are things that I, a dumbass bisexual disaster with a history of trauma and abuse and a profound mental illness, also do. So I can absolutely simultaneously think that Quentin, especially early-seasons Quentin, is a self-involved whiny little brat; and still want, desperately, for him to grow, and change, and thrive —
— because I got to. Because I get, because I get to, because I want to. Because yes, Quentin is undeniably white and male, but when I look at Quentin Coldwater, what I see is someone who is queer and traumatized and also profoundly mentally ill.
What is has been so frustrating to me, in reading your justifications for this episode, Ms. Gamble, Mr. McNamara, Mr. Myers, and in being shown your thinking leading up to deciding to have Quentin die by killing himself, is how totally, abjectly, you have ignored how Quentin’s sexuality and trauma and mental illness intersect with, and mediate, the privilege he gets from being a white dude. He is, yes, unquestionably, a white dude; and yes, unquestionably, he has white privilege and male privilege. But he’s also mentally ill, and he’s bi, and while stories about white dudes dying instead of continuing to be the hero might be new, stories about mentally ill bisexual people killing themselves are not new even one single tiny little bit. In point of fact, stories about mentally ill bisexual people killing themselves, including stories about them valiantly sacrificing themselves to save their friends, are a very old and very toxic trope that holds the lives of mentally ill people, and queer people, and particularly queer people who are mentally ill, extremely cheap indeed.
Yes. Quentin has more privilege than a brown queer person with mental illness, or a queer woman with mental illness, but he does not have the same kind of privilege as your average straight white dude hero who doesn’t walk around with part of his brain trying to kill him all the time. When you are aware of your own privilege, as you-the-showrunners clearly are, it can be very easy, I think, to see the ways in which a character shares that privilege; but it’s not always obvious the ways in which they don’t. Like, as a person who is basically white and usually benefits from white privilege, even though yes I am extra afraid of Nazis, it’s pretty easy for me to look at Quentin and think: wow, this kid is so white. Like, so, so white, like just — what a total — whiny affluent white kid, like wow. And — obviously I’m not a dude, but I do have a lot of privilege in my life, and I know that I can definitely identify those forms of privilege in others, and I can imagine it’s probably not a million miles off, being a dude and knowing you have male privilege, and that Quentin does too, and seeing how that benefits him.
But I question, very very seriously, how well you understand Quentin’s identities, beyond “white” and “male”; I question how aware you are, of how Quentin’s queer identity is likely to interact with and amplify his identity as a mentally ill person, and — since “freakishness” and “otherness” are so very much an affirmative part of many people’s understanding of their queerness — vice versa; I question how aware you are of the ways in which Quentin is not only not universally privileged, but specifically part of two! very specific! marginalized groups!, two specific marginalized groups whose populations are frequently coincident, since LGBTQ people experience mental illness at higher rates than the population at large, and two! very specific! marginalized groups! who are still fighting, constantly, here in 2019, against stories about us being, almost without exception, about our deaths; not infrequently about our tragic deaths triggering other people’s growth; and very, very frequently about those deaths occurring at our own hands. Two specific, highly-likely-to-overlap-IRL groups, whose master narrative in the dominant culture is, already, death by suicide.
And the place where I think you are really failing, where I think 4x13 really failed, where I think you yourselves failed to understand the relative power and privilege of yourselves and your audience and Quentin Coldwater, is that when you wrote this particular story (which you wanted to be new and empowering, about the elision of the genre’s dominant perspective in favor of voices that tend to be silenced and erased and destroyed), you structured your version of this narrative (which, in reality, reads to queer and mentally ill people as a trite, reductive, terrifying story that we already have told about us, that we already try not to tell ourselves, all the time) in the way most likely to resoundingly emphasize and enforce the things about this narrative that are most silencing and erasing and destructive to the marginalized perspectives of the people in your audience who are marginalized in the same ways as Quentin Coldwater. I’m not just speaking metaphorically. I am talking about you emphasizing, and valorizing, the very narratives that suicidal people tell themselves when they are about to attempt suicide.
I want to go over, very clearly, the story you told about Quentin — not the story you think you told, because — hey, I’m a writer too, I get it, but: that doesn’t count. What matters is the actual story you actually told. The actual story your audience actually confronted. And I think the easiest way to do this is, honestly, just to look at what actually happens to Quentin, over the course of the first four seasons of The Magicians.
You presented to us a young man — a very young man, a boy, arguably — who is deeply depressed, and fighting his depression hard enough that he voluntarily commits himself for in-patient treatment. You made it very clear to us that his mental illness is of long standing; that he has repeatedly struggled with suicidal thoughts and impulses, throughout his adolescent life. You then presented him — very believably, I think — with a Thing That He Thinks Will Give His Life Meaning, in the form of Brakebills. At Brakebills, he’s encouraged to go off his meds by one adult authority figure; then rapidly has a falling out with his oldest friend; is locked in a mental ward-shaped prison of his own mind enduring his worst nightmare, which I remind you is textually that he loses his grip on reality and his ability to control his own illness; then nearly gets expelled and loses everything; and then is told that his father has terminal cancer. Shortly thereafter, another adult authority figure verbally abuses and sexually harasses him, then transforms him nonconsensually into a fox to get him to fuck another student. He learns his childhood idol is a pedophile rapist. He learns he’s died 39 times. He has to go into another world, specifically a world that he has spent the past 15 some odd years thinking of as a perfect, soft and comfortable escape, a world whose existence at one point allowed him to find enough meaning in his life to not die, which promptly becomes a world where all his friends are tortured and/or (temporarily) killed and/or betray him. He is a trapped and largely unwilling participant in the death of his ex-girlfriend. His ex-girlfriend then comes back, nonconsensually possesses his body, and proceeds to physically and emotionally abuse him for most of the rest of the season. Over the course of the end of Season 2 through to the beginning of Season 4, Quentin loses, in (to him) rapid succession: magic, his ex-girlfriend, Earth, all his friends but one, his wife (for reasons unclear), his son (because he grows up), his life partner (to old age), the physical talisman of that life partnership (the time key, to Jane Chatwin), all hope of completing that life’s work (the quest), his own life (maybe to old age, maybe not), his life partner again (when Eliot rejects him), his tentative grasp on his sanity (to the depression monster, in response to which, I note, he has the crew tie him to the mast, because he knows he will kill himself and he does not want to die), his last remaining bits of trust in his ex-girlfriend, his childhood best friend, all magic, his memories, Eliot, his dad. Near, but not quite at the end of these losses, he decides that he will stay in Castle Blackspire forever. For some reason. Then some more terrible things happen to him. Next, he spends the rest of Season 4 being physically and emotionally abused by… his ex-boyfriend. Oh, and let’s not forget that, somewhere near the middle of that long line of losses, he semi-acquiesces to, semi-just-shuts-down-and-tolerates, some deeply dubiously consensual sex with Poppy. Repeatedly, in Season 4, he demonstrates a total lack of care for or interest in his own physical safety and well-being. His body language is, continually, throughout Season 4, the body language of someone who is profoundly traumatized: more specifically, it is totally consonant with the body language of someone who is the victim of domestic violence. Then Quentin finds himself in a situation — arguably arranges to be in a situation — where he knows, absolutely, that casting a spell will cause his death. He has plenty of time to throw the bottle before Everett attacks, and doesn’t do it. He does, however, act pretty promptly to cast that spell he knows will kill him, once Everett has given him the opportunity to do it.
The word you used for this, in interviews, was “ambiguous.” It’s not ambiguous. It’s a suicide. When a badly traumatized, chronically mentally ill person shows a lack of care for their own physical health and well-being in the face of danger: it’s a sign that they are suicidal. When a badly traumatized, chronically mentally ill person starts cutting ties: it is a sign that they are suicidal. When someone shuts down, when someone stops caring, when someone starts trying to put their affairs in order — as Quentin does, with Alice in particular, near the end of Season 4: it is a sign that they are suicidal. When a suicidal person deliberately does something that ends in their death, we call that suicide.
That alone is enough to hurt the not inconsiderable segment of your viewers who struggle with mental illness and suicidal ideation. But in a lot of ways, the worst part of 4x13 was that you then spent, in fact, so much time having Quentin be encouraged to buy into The Big Lie of suicidal thinking: that your death will help the people you love. They’ll be better off, after. And yeah, maybe you won’t actively save the world, okay, fine, but at least it’ll stop them having to put up with you. To take this narrative, in which a queer mentally ill boy is repeatedly abused, traumatized, and tortured, and then he kills himself, and to add that particular layer on top of it, and then to package it as the truth that sets Quentin free, as told to him by a not-crazy person who has been inside his head, was truly the most monstrous part of Season 4. To tell that lie, that particular lie, in this particular way, to this particular character, who is reflecting this particular audience, was so spectacularly tone-deaf and violent and damaging that I genuinely do not know if The Magicians will ever be able to recover the trust and love of the people who were watching you tell us Our Big Lie. You wanted to tell a story about the dominant perspective making way for new voices. Instead you told a story about a traumatized queer kid with chronic mental illness killing himself in the way that glorified the actual disordered thinking of actual queer mentally-ill people, when that little, terrifying part of ourselves that wants to kill us is in the process of overwhelming the much bigger parts of us that are fighting, desperately, every day, not to die.
If The Magicians is a story about stories, which we all agree it is, then what story, precisely, do you think Quentin’s arc tells? Because the story I watched said: fight as hard as you want, it doesn’t matter; your destiny is suffering, and guilt over your suffering, and misery, and despair. No one will ever see you. No one will choose to help you. No one will ever come for you. Your ongoing trauma matters to no one. No one will ever even notice you’re hurting. There is no escape, and you have no future, and your best and most powerful act will be your complicity in your own death, whereupon all these things that don’t actually need forgiveness, like your illness and struggle and trauma, will be magically forgiven — and that is cartoonish, and terrible, and pointless, and untrue, just —
— fuck you, man, if that’s what you think my story should be.
One last thing, before I go. This letter was written in the first person, and yes, there is one typist mostly driving the thing, and yes, I do mostly go by “Gins,” on the internet; but it was also written with an immense amount of assistance from, and massively informed by comments and posts by, a very large number of other Magicians fans, over the course of the past 30 hours or so: in chat, across a number of fannish spaces, including in response to a version of this post that I originally wrote specifically for a fannish audience (from which this draws, very heavily). I am strongly encouraging all those fans who have contributed to this, A/B’ed paragraphs and provided points and helped me hash out my thinking, to lend their names to this post if they want to/feel comfortable doing so, even if I’m the one typing it up at two thirty in the morning, and throwing myself on the dumbass bisexual disaster self-disclosure grenade. I am trying, very hard, not to claim to speak for the group; I wasn’t nominated to or anything and I can therefore really only speak for me, but I worry that makes this sound like it was just written by one person, which it wasn’t; or that I own it, which I don’t. I don’t own anything in fandom, because fandom is, always, a we. It’s what makes us resilient, and it’s what is going to steer us through this for us, whatever shit fucking story you decide to tell about us for you. But it means that you haven’t just lost the trust of the mentally ill queers at the back of the room. You hurt us. You hurt part of us, in a way that was quite frankly derivative and cheap, and then you told us it was honest and good and true; and we don’t believe you. We’re a we. That makes us strong. That protects us. And this is part of it, what hurts about Quentin: that he’s part of a we, too, and that’s something that we haven’t forgotten, even though you spent so much of Season 4 in particular not letting him be.
on behalf of, and/or with the assistance of:
Amanda Kay Wiggins
(more names to be added as I get approval to do so)