Man Up

Crafting Characters Without Bias

What happens when you don’t relate to whom TV tells you to be.

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Growing up, Cord Jefferson never really saw himself reflected in the characters on TV. Now, he’s a script editor for shows like Master of None and The Good Place. In this episode of Man Up, Slate’s new podcast on men and relationships, family, race, and sex, host Aymann Ismail talks with Cord about representation on screen, and how overcoming his own biases helped him craft more complex characters.

Read some interview highlights below, or listen to the episode via the audio player above. You can always find Man Up via Apple PodcastsSpotifyTuneInStitcherOvercastGoogle PlayiHeart, or wherever you listen.

Interview highlights

On female sexuality and toxic masculinity

I was dating this woman one time. We were out to dinner with one of her friends, and her friend and her, at one time, had some matching necklaces. I had never seen [my date] wear this necklace, and it was revealed at dinner that the reason she didn’t have this necklace is because she had left it at a guy’s house one night that she had been sleeping with. She couldn’t get the necklace back because she had forgotten the guy’s name. She knew his first name but she didn’t know his last name, so she couldn’t find him online.

I was a real asshole monster, and I got really mad at her later that night after dinner. There was something inside of me that said women shouldn’t be having sex with people whose names they don’t know. I think that those are the kinds of things that I had learned over the years—that women’s desire to have sex should be tamped down. And that if a woman has too much sex, then that sort of somehow takes away or erodes her femininity in a way.

I think that she had every right to say, “Go fuck yourself, I’m out.” And she would have been in the right to do that. But she didn’t do that. She just talked with me, and she said something along the lines of, “Toxic masculinity and misogyny doesn’t just impact women, it also impacts men. And you’re proving that right now. You have been deeply affected by misogyny and you’ve been deeply affected by this idea that women who have sex are bad women, and that it makes you feel like less of a man to be sleeping with a bad woman. You need to really check what’s going on within your own heart and your own mind to think that you are less of a man now because you’ve chosen to have sex with a ‘bad woman.’ ” And it was something that I had never heard before. And it was a deeply important lesson for me to get.

On Hollywood’s portrayal of black manhood

I think we’ve come to accept this sort of stereotypical black masculine character in our film and television. If I’m just listing off some qualities that people expect—it’s aggression, it’s sort of a brooding strength, it’s maybe violence. It’s a very sort of like one note character.

Or it’s the opposite, like a very sort of important judge or a good cop—I’m thinking of like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. He’s like a great family man, too. It’s never something in the middle of those two poles. I think that if I have a goal, it’s to try to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a man of color and a black man, particularly, in America.

I think that America still has a difficult time accepting that black men and black women are just human beings. When I sit down to write for black people on TV, I sit down to try and write people that feel real and authentic to me, and feel like they are human beings. The thing that I really love to see in black art is black art that just shows black people living their lives and doesn’t focus on white racism as a barrier to overcome.

On writing female characters

I always try to ensure that my female characters are fully realized human beings, that I’m not shying toward my own personal biases of what it means to be a “good woman” or a “righteous woman.” That I’m not skewing toward the kind of woman that I think a woman should be, but in fact what a woman actually is. That I’m skewing toward an actual nuanced portrayal of what women are as opposed to what I think they should be. I think that the first step is understanding that we are all sort of full of some biases and that we are all full of the sort of toxic lessons we’ve learned, not just from our family members but also just from the things that get into your brain by being raised in the culture.

Everybody who sits down to write anything—any artist at all—I think needs to understand their biases. And I understand that I have biases when it comes to women that I learned over the years. And I have biases about what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a strong good man, and I need to acknowledge those and then work to counteract those when I sit down to write.

I think that one of the keys to a good TV show is surrounding yourself with diverse voices. I’ve worked on a lot of really great shows, and I think that it’s no surprise that those shows have always been populated by women and people of color. Unfortunately, a lot of writers’ rooms still are composed of mostly white men, and I think that that’s why a lot of the stuff that Hollywood creates is bad. It still has a lot of blind spots when it comes to stories about women and people of color. It’s because they’re not consulting actual women and people of color before they write these stories.

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Podcast production by Cameron Drews and Danielle Hewitt.