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“Melissa is such an annoying character wtf #Blame”
“Stating once more that I loathe Phoebe & I don’t even feel bad #TheSinner”
“I real life want to transport into my laptop screen and beat the living crap out of Nadine off Seven Seconds. I want to skin her alive, hang her whatever, I real life hate her.”
Ah, the Internet. A booming ecosystem of humanity’s endless stream of thoughts and opinions on everything and anything that has ever existed in the history of our inhabitance on this Earth. Love it or hate it, in this day and age, we literally can’t live without it. I use the Internet for countless things: figuring out when the next subway claims to be arriving (spoiler alert: it always lies), receiving and deleting advertisement emails (but never unsubscribing, because that would mean they win this game of e-chicken), and, when a project I have acted in is brought into the world, reading the endless number of tweets, posts and messages I either receive or seek out about my work.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: Nadia, why on earth would you go looking for people’s opinions on the Internet? Don’t you know the Internet is The Worst™? Firstly, yes, I do know. Secondly, I have no self-control and a slight habit of using masochism as a self-motivator. OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get into why we’re really here …
I’ve acted in three different projects that have come out over the past year: USA’s The Sinner, Netflix’s Seven Seconds, and Blame, an indie that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where I bribed the jury with homemade pies and won Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature. The three characters — Phoebe, Nadine, and Melissa, respectively — would hardly be referred to as sweet, uncomplicated protagonists. But, for the analysis of this particular situation, it is important to note that these characters are not villains, either. Even the nastiest of them all, Melissa, has far more sympathetic qualities than most seem to initially realize. These girls are what I lovingly refer to as “teenage antiheroes” — key players in the overall story who do not necessarily have the most likable attributes on the surface, but are still worthy of the audience’s compassion.
Clearly, as evidenced by the pull-quotes above, said audience may have a slightly different interpretation.
When I first began impulsively searching my characters’ names with the respective project’s hashtag on Twitter, I was honestly shocked to find dozens of cranky tweets, perfectly illustrating how much people despised a fictional girl who is approximately 15 to 19 years in age. The messages of hate were the kind I would expect to see directed at supervillains in the latest Marvel movie, not young girls who, in my mind, have a lot more going on than your classic evil madman. Of course, not every message was one of hate, but I was surprised to find a large disparity between the number of audience members who seemed to look at the (ultimately justifiable) motives underneath these girls’ actions and the members who focused only on the direct result.
At first glance, one may argue that these thoughts are merely the product of a platform that already breeds the worst kind of vitriol. And yet … I began having these exact sentiments shared with me in person — at screenings, in interviews, during random run-ins on the street. People telling me how much they couldn’t stand my characters and even wished them dead or ruined — at least, up until the point where they actually were dead or ruined. Then, suddenly, their sympathy flowed and their minds were changed, they told me. It was as if before some drastic fate befalls them (i.e. sexual assault, accidental death, straight-up murder), people couldn’t seem to find any compassion or empathy for these young girls.
As the face and embodiment of these characters, I cannot help but feel protective of them. I personally adore playing multifaceted, complicated young antiheroes with a whole lot of baggage to unpack. I find great satisfaction in really digesting a character’s backstory and inner demons and how, in the heat of the moment in a scene, those insecurities and fears come out in sometimes less-than-pleasant ways, much in the way it happens in real life. I don’t find my characters unlikable — as any actor will tell you, you can never judge the character you are playing. No one is the villain of their own story. I think the Internet, despite all its connectivity, can actually assist in disengaging us from that reality, allowing people and characters alike to be sorted into neat boxes: good, bad, important, worthless, fire emoji, poop emoji.
Initially, I resigned myself to letting people box up my characters in a snappy 280 characters (not to be confused with the pre-November 2017 extra-snappy 140 characters). But then, almost as an experiment, I tried something new: I started writing back. I dug deeper, engaging with the tweeters, asking them to look beyond the boxes. Much to my pleasant surprise, I was often successful. People admitted to better understanding how abuse, neglect or sheer bad luck shaped the way these fictional young women saw their world. People who had begun the conversation hoping for my character’s demise ended up supporting her and giving her the kind of empathy she may not have earned yet in her short life, but still deserves. After having these honest and open discussions with people, I found that, while they may have seemed unlikable at the start, they revealed themselves to be far more nuanced and capable of change — not so unlike the Nadines, Phoebes and Melissas of the world.
For a long time, fictional characters were practically the only things we saw “living” on screens. We put those characters into categories because that is what we were taught to do as entertainment — judge and enjoy. But things have changed. Through social media and the creation of the online self, more and more real people are living on the other side of our screens, presenting themselves to their own audience (myself included). If we continue to box up and judge the characters we see on TV, what is going to stop us from doing the same to the real people who are being presented to us in a similar way?
The characters we watch on TV and in movies may not be real people, but they are a way to understand real people and how we deal with one another. We are living in a fascinating time, when the youth of today are standing up and saying, “Take us seriously — don’t you dare treat us like we aren’t here.” And a lot of people are resistant toward that. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that those same people are the ones spouting Internet hate at fictional girls. But maybe it’s not. Maybe, it is, in fact, a current cultural knee-jerk reaction to lessening the power and humanity of teenagers — especially girls. People want teen girls to be easy, definable, to be able to put them in a box and make them stay there — an open pass to write them off, stereotype them, and not see them for who they really are.
I used to think, if I played enough teenagers on TV, that pass would somehow revoke itself through the sheer power of [Ian McKellen voice] acting. But I’m not sure that’s enough anymore. I don’t know how exactly we can make the world empathize with young people who wear their imperfections for all to see. But I do know that the more I actually talk to people responding to the girls I have played, the more humanity flows out. Sometimes portraying a character is not enough. Sometimes actions don’t speak louder than words. Sometimes I have to be the one to ask the questions and, in turn, make people push beyond what they may have initially seen.
I have another antihero role coming up at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, in a film entitled The Dark. Once again, I find I am steeling myself, preparing for the onslaught of opinions about a young (undead!) girl who may or may not have the emotional arc one normally expects when they settle in for a 90-minute journey. I am ready for the mean tweets, the irritated reviews, the “I couldn’t stand you! Great job!” post-screening comments. But I will keep fighting for the girl underneath to be seen. I will keep reminding people of her damage and how the world can learn from her pain. I will keep defending her.
So that, one day, I won’t have to anymore.