I’ve been seeing a lot of people defending Paula Deen, with regard to her firing from the Food Network (or whatever it was that dropped her show). I have yet to determine whether those people are unaware of this information, or if they believe that this behavior is no big deal. The entire thing reminds me of a really bad soap opera storyline. If I had read this in a novel, I’d have rated it with one star.
I know absolutely nothing about Paula except that she’s famous for using heart clogging amounts of butter. I don’t like to cook. I don’t watch cooking shows. I don’t know who her sponsors are and the only thing I know about the Food Network is that it exists. In other words, I’m about as emotionally detached from this as it’s possible to be.
At the same time, I have a degree in Psychology from UCSD. I’m viewing this entire thing through that filter, applying what I know of human motivation and behavior. In fact, if this was the plot of a novel I was reading, I would have stopped reading and deleted the book from my Kindle, right about the time Paula issued her public ‘apology’. Whether protagonist or villain, I would criticize the author for writing such a two-dimensional, unbelievable character.
Any good actor or writer will tell you that a villain believes in him or herself. They believe in their own righteousness and feel completely justified in their actions. Within their own narrative, the villain does not believe they are the villain. Within their own narrative, they’re the hero/heroine. If I was reading along, and Paula’s narrative made her righteous and wronged, her actions contradict that narrative, making her character inconsistent and therefore, impossible to believe.
First of all, all of the supporting characters need to stop making excuses for anyone raised in the south. To keep excusing overt racism because ‘that’s just how older people from the south were raised’ is a crock of shit. Yeah, Paula (and others like her) may have been raised where this type of behavior is acceptable within her own social circles, but she (and those raised in a similar culture) knows she’s wrong. People raised in the southern culture know they’re engaging in illegal and reprehensible behavior. Until they’re held accountable, it’s going to continue. If they really have no understanding that their speech and actions are wrong, they wouldn’t have a ‘public image’, and they wouldn’t clean up their language. They wouldn’t apologize when caught – they’d be baffled as to why everyone doesn’t say and do the same things.
It comes back to writing a character whose behavior is consistent. If my character is socialized in such a way as to not understand that certain words and behaviors are offensive to a group of people, my character needs to apologize for unwittingly using offensive words and explain her ignorance. Apologizing for getting caught using a word we all know is naughty is indicative of an entirely different motivation, and now the character is behaving in an inconsistent manner.
I used to be just like the kinds of people who freely use racial epithets. I was raised by a bigoted family. I was the first generation NOT born in a southern state. There were things my family said in public and things they said in private. Then, I grew up, went to college, got a job working for a government agency (i.e. civil service and affirmative action), and that government agency was an AIDS testing clinic. I came to learn that not only do the ‘bleeding heart liberals’ THINK this kind of speech and behavior is wrong, but that IT IS WRONG. I also realized that those who hate, are fully aware of what they’re doing, and they choose to do it. Unlike skin color and sexual orientation, THIS is a choice.
My 82 yr old FIL is an example of a character whose behavior is consistent with his motivations. I once told him to stop using the ‘N’ word, each and every time we saw an African-American person in public. He takes JOY in using this word. He spits it out with glee. So, he asked me why he shouldn’t be able to use this word, it’s what ‘his people’ have always called ‘their people’. My answer was that the word is just plain wrong (I’m overly simplifying the conversation just to make my point). He wasn’t surprised to find out it was wrong. He wasn’t stunned to discover society had evolved since his youth, making certain words inappropriate. He wasn’t under any impression the word meant something different. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and said, ‘Oh, who the hell cares?’
So, let’s get back to that novel I’m reading. I’ve reached the point where the character of Paula learns there’s a lawsuit against her. If the allegations in the lawsuit were untrue, Paula would have gone on a nighttime news magazine with her lawyer and explained that a disgruntled former employee was making false allegations with the intent to cause her harm. She would then deny everything.
But the author wrote her behavior as inconsistent with the motivation stated in her narrative. Paula went on a morning show and ‘apologized’ for getting caught talking and acting like a bigot. It would be very easy to make her character consistent. This consistency would make her a fully realized, three-dimensional character. By altering her narrative to match her behavior, it suddenly turns Paula into a believable character. Paula’s narrative becomes that of a bigot. She is motivated by hate and prejudice, and a rather large sense of superiority. Now, her character’s behavior is consistent with her motivation.
Only, I’d still stop reading and delete the book. With this new narrative in place, the author has no option but to make Paula the villain of the story. Unfortunately, she’s neither a sympathetic nor a likable villain. She’s now just like every other predictable, southern-raised racist. This is a story that’s been done to death. As a reader, I find I don’t really care what becomes of Paula’s character. I’ve lost interest in the story.
The final nail in the coffin of the poorly written plot. If the conflict and the drama come from ‘The Perils Of Paula’, we’re supposed to root for her while her job is in peril, her reputation is in tatters, and she fights to prove she’s been falsely accused. But the plot fell apart when the Food Network fired her before the lawsuit was even settled. They didn’t put her on hiatus while this all gets worked out. No more drama and conflict there! Instead of reading an exciting story about how Paula is vindicated and her reputation restored, I silently ask myself what kind of systematic prejudice and discrimination was her employer already aware of? How many times did one of their executives say, ‘oh that’s just Paula’, when made aware of her outrageous behavior?
If the climax of this story held a Perry Mason moment that vindicated Paula, it would be completely inconsistent with the character’s narrative and actions, so it wouldn’t make sense. Why should I read such a poorly written piece of fiction? It’s a waste of my time and my money. It leaves me with no foundation for defending the author, the story, and least of all, Paula’s character.