In case you were wondering: yes, I’ll be attending LonCon 3 next month, and – double yes! – I will also be on panels. Here are my confirmed appearances:

What are the Fan Hugo Awards – Who Votes and Who Wins

Thursday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 4 (ExCeL)

It’s one of the most admirable aspects of the Hugo Awards that, since their inception, they have recognised fan work alongside professional work. But in recent years much ink has been spilled — and, perhaps as significantly, many pixels scattered — over the fate of Best Fan Writer, Best Fanzine, Best Fan Artist and, most recently, Best Fancast. Two themes recur in the debate. First, how should the Hugos recognise changes in the focus or format of fanwork in the Internet age — what defines a fanzine, what sorts of fan writing are most significant, and are “fancasts” a flash in the pan or here to stay? Second, in an era where Electric Velocipede wins Best Fanzine, Randall Munroe is nominated for Best Fan Artist, and four of the last six Best Fan Writers are better known as professional authors, where should the lines between fanwork and prowork be drawn?

John Coxon (M), Teddy Harvia, Andy Hooper, Foz Meadows, España Sheriff.

Literary Beer

Friday 19:00 – 20:00, The Bar (ExCeL)

Foz Meadows

The Daughters of Buffy

Saturday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 4 (ExCeL)

At the end of last year, to mark ten years since the broadcast of the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the BBC, Naomi Alderman made a special edition of the Radio 4 programme Front Row, featuring interviews with cast, creator, and critics. Among other things, she asked what the show’s legacy had been, and whether the right lessons — female characters written as well as men, given as much narrative importance as men, and surrounded by other women — had been learned. We’ll listen to her programme, and then the panel will discuss: who are Buffy’s heirs?

Foz Meadows (M), L. M. Myles, Dr. Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sarah Shemilt, Emma England.

On The Blogs: Bloggers Discuss their Roles in the World of YA

Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

Bloggers have become an integral part of YA book promotion. How do authors find these bloggers? Why should readers trust their opinions? What are the best book blogs out there right now and what makes them so useful?

Foz Meadows (M), Patricia Ash, Liz de Jager, Shaun Duke, Erin M. Underwood.

Cosplay is Not Consent

Sunday 12:00 – 13:30, London Suite 3 (ExCeL)

Recent events have dramatically increased awareness of issues of harassment and poor behavior in fandom. and opened discussion of the issues surrounding it. This panel focuses on the the politics of physical contact and social interaction while in costume or dealing with costumers and cosplayers.

Aurora Celeste, Miki Dennis, Foz Meadows, Nicolle Lamerichs.

My Opinions, Let Me Show You Them

Sunday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)

There are many different approaches to book blogging: some focus on news and announcements, running author interviews and ARC giveaways supported by publishers; others concentrate on reviewing and opinion pieces; still others are devoted to raising awareness of certain types of writing, like SF Mistressworks or the World SF Blog. Our panel discusses how they chose their blogs’ format and focus, how the blogs evolved over time, and how they found their ‘voice’ and their audience.

Foz Meadows (M), Thea James, Aidan Moher, Adam Whitehead, Justin Landon.

LGBTQ Gaming – Industry and Design

Sunday 18:00 – 19:00, London Suite 3 (ExCeL)

We investigate some of the ways that LGBTQ perspectives are developing in both Indie and Mainstream titles. What challenges do designers need to address in order to develop LGBTQ games, characters or ideas, and how should these be articulated within the larger sphere of gaming culture?

Meg Jayanth, Leo Adams, Michele Howe , Foz Meadows, Gemma Thomson.

The YA Gender Gap

Monday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 1 (ExCeL)

There has been talk about a gender gap within young adult fiction. Girls read boys’ books, but boys don’t read girls’ books. Is sexism at play within our younger generations? Or is this just a problem with marketing. Or both? Some people even claim that schools and libraries prefer male authors in order to attract male readers. If so, are we doomed to perpetuate the perceived gender gap? How can we step beyond the gendered roles assigned to us and our children? Also, does the sex of the character really matter to young readers? Are the boys really disappearing from the pages or are we just experiencing an equalization of the genders?

Michael Levy (M), Michele Howe, Alissa McKersie, Foz Meadows, LJ Adlington.

I should also be making an appearance at a Supernatural meetup in the fan space, organised by Emma England, from 5PM onwards on Saturday 16th.

Hope to see you all there!

Warning: amateur philosophy. 

People are basically good, and also basically asshats. We’re a mixed bag, is what I’m saying.

Put it another way: people are fucking flawed, from breath to blood to atoms. I don’t just mean bodies and brains, either; I mean whatever spirit or biological synthesis you choose to believe is steering each individual beast in the collective meatflock. We govern ourselves with an ever-changing yet eternal series of moral, spiritual, social and legal constraints more rigid, for the most part, than even the most optimistic view of human nature believes us to be capable of upholding en masse, because the alternative means giving up on our capability for goodness, change, improvement. We have the memories of mayflies and the cultural baggage of methuselahs, and are historically, as a species, very bad at noticing the dissonance, mostly because we’re so obsessed with the solipsistic present or one of any number of hypothetical afterlives to focus on the actual physical future, as stands to be inhabited by actual physical humans who are not, in point of fact, us. We are capable of extraordinary kindness and unthinkable cruelty, sometimes within the same body; sometimes, even, within the same action. You want to know what human sentience is? It’s the only thing in the universe capable of doubting its own existence. Being human means being awake to the fact that you can be tricked – by others, by yourself, by sense and thought and perception – and wondering, if only at the level of subconscious unease, how often you’re actually right.

Which means that being human, dealing with humans, requires a somewhat paradoxical approach. On the one hand, you have to allow for human weakness, gullibility, culpability, ignorance, whatever you want to call it – not just in the immediate, short-term sense, but over and over and over again, as an acknowledgement of the fact that inevitably, people are going to fuck up; maybe in lots of small ways, maybe in just a few big ones, or maybe in all of them together, but whether we’re nine years old or ninety, no matter how much we think we’ve learned, we still possess the capacity for error, because that is what human is. But on the other hand, we have to demand better of ourselves than a mere acceptance of imperfection; we have to adapt, apologise, learn, because otherwise, what’s to stop us from embracing our worst qualities, not just as inevitable negatives, but as behavioural mandates? For our own safety and sanity, we have to draw lines: to say, some weaknesses are inevitable, but this doesn’t have to be one of them; to say, I have reached my limit for forgiveness, for transgressions against me and mine, and this is it; to say, I am done with you. Human justice, if that isn’t an oxymoron, is as flawed and fickle an instrument as its executors, but in the end, it’s all we have, because we are all we have: there is nothing else. Whatever higher purpose we might believe in, whatever faith we might have, or not have, in some final dead day of reckoning, when Ma’at weighs our souls or Charon plucks the cold coins from our eyes, here and now, there is no unequivocal spiritual presence but what other humans claim to hear and feel; and if we are truly mediums for higher voices, in this capacity, we are still just as flawed – just as fallible – as we are in every other sphere of our mortal existence.

And I wrestle with that. Not with the idea that we might be poor spiritual vessels – I’m an atheist, and always have been – but with the inevitability of human error. Because I’m not a misanthrope; I don’t believe our species is fundamentally doomed or bad or broken. And yet, with screamworthy regularity and repetition, we hurt ourselves. We punish and exclude and torture and misconstrue; we continue to both tell and swallow lies all the more pernicious for their having been disproved a thousand times over; we willingly inhabit systems whose cruelties continue to shape us even as we once shaped them, and which can no more be dismantled by the individual than a single bee can demolish a hive, and that should terrify us; but instead, we shrug as though we expect nothing better, as though we’re only capable of a collective, humane memory when it means making rituals of our worst ideas; as though we can have no mutable traditions, nor enduringly gentle ones. By profession and inclination, I am a critic, which means I spend an enormous amount of energy discussing various human faults, and yet the act of criticism is, I think, fundamentally hopeful: why bother with deconstruction if you think we can never rebuild? I’m not a nihilist, either, some bitter Rorschach incapable of compromising, even in the face of Armageddon: whatever I feel on my bad days, I don’t believe I’m yelling into a void. Or I mean, I do, but only where void is a synonym for internet, this great greyscale maw into which we tumble our collective psyches, bruising as we bruise.

The problem with people is, we have a finite capability to give a shit about every other person, just as they have a finite capacity to give a shit about us. We’re just too goddamn numerous, and some of us are actively trying, and some of us just ran out of caring three asshats ago, and some of us are happy being those three asshats if it means we get left in relative peace for five fucking minutes, and all that could still describe any of us in the space of a given hour, because we’re mercurial creatures, too, and however much we want to put our backs to the firm and towering wall of Other People Are Fucking Wrong, it only takes a single mistake to turn us into them, and then we’re the ones who are Fucking Wrong, and the wall falls on us in direct proportion to how hard we’ve been leaning on it, and sometimes it’s irony, and sometimes it’s justice, and sometimes it’s just random chance – which is to say, both and neither, and part of life – but either way, it doesn’t hurt any less for being inevitable.

Ideologies be damned: we find our truths where we can, and break them if we must, and sometimes our best is a toxic wasteland, and sometimes our worst is a poem. I’m sick of feeling adrift, of twisting myself into endless shapes to accommodate the fear that someone, somewhere might hate me for trying to figure things out, when far more terrifying is the great seething mass of strangers who don’t even know what stories are, or why they matter. This is my anchor: at nine or ninety, I’m here to learn.

I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

 

Warning: All The Spoilers for Supernatural and TW for discussions of suicide. 

As mentioned in my previous post about Supernatural, what finally convinced me to give the show a try was Misha Collins calling out the writers for sexism: for his sake, I decided to stick around until at least Season 4, when Castiel appears. And in any case, I was curious –  not just about the much-famed Destiel ship, but to see how the show dealt with the concept of angels. As a Buffy fan, one of my longstanding regrets about BtVS was the half-hearted way it dealt with Christian mytholgy, uncritically accepting the the utility of crosses, Biblical prophecy and holy water – and therefore implying a sort of Christian primacy – without ever examining why, in a universe rich with pagan gods, dimensions and non-evil magic, these particular tools should be so effective. This is by way of a personal bugbear about slapdash attempts at integrating diverse myths into a single system of worldbuilding that lacks overall cohesion: I’ve long since resigned myself to the whole nonlogic of spells work Because Reasons, which is apparently ubiquitous, but I’m fussier about other elements. Give or take some racefail (white kitsune, anyone?), however, on balance, Supernatural manages pretty well at this, establishing lore that feels distinct to the show while still being rooted in history. The fact that they’ve also incorporated the very American demimythology of urban legends, serial murders and highway tales is another nice touch, and one that fleshes out the early seasons in particular. But when it comes to angels and the wider Biblical mythos as derived from the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha and Talmudic sources, we’re crossing into potentially perilous territory: not because it’s been done before, but because it’s so often been done badly. When mishandled, such stories can either end up clumsily preaching Biblical literalism in the absence of moral complexity, or else relying on a scattergun of Christian concepts – Heaven, Hell, angels, demons – without ever addressing religion, faith and culture.

Obviously, your mileage may vary as to whether or not Supernatural succeeds in this respect, or whether it was even a good idea to introduce angels in the first place. Given their absence from the first three seasons, there are certainly fans who feel, not unreasonably, that their primacy in the subsequent six constitutes a profound change in the show’s direction, if not a sort of betrayal. Me, though? I love it. Granted, their insertion into the show’s mythology isn’t flawless, and at times the logic defaults to the universal rightness of Christian beliefs in ways that go peskily unexamined – other gods feed on human worship, but the angels predate humanity; other gods exist, but there only seems to be a Christian heaven; one of the key figures of the Norse pantheon is actually an angel – but overall, they do a good job. Morally suspect angel politics and plotlines borrowed from the apocrypha are basically two of my favourite things, and on both counts, Supernatural delivers in spades. And as much as I like the first three seasons, their respective arcs – the quest for John Winchester, Azazel’s psychic children, Dean’s demon deal – aren’t among my favourites. In fact, there’s something very reminiscent of The X Files in the progression of the first two seasons, but minus the government conspiracy elements. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, certainly, but the mystery surrounding Yellow Eyes and his bargains never quite managed to hook me, while the early monster of the week plots run the gamut from engaging and funny to dull and unoriginal. As for the Colt, the idea of a magic gun whose bullets can kill anything always struck me as being unnecessarily naff, particularly as the how and why of its functioning was never explained. The Colt is the ultimate McGuffin, and while its origins provide a nice tie to the show’s defining American mythology, that was never a strong enough grace note for me to overlook its inherent silliness. As much as I was enjoying the show, therefore, there were times when I struggled, and if it hadn’t been for my determination to make it to Season 4, I might have given up.

But with the introduction of Castiel and his angels, the show really comes together. It’s not just that their presence automatically expands on the existing stakes and universe, fitting everything into a wider context where the battles of Heaven and Hell are neatly mirrored by the turbulence between Sam and Dean, and vice versa; it’s that Castiel himself provides an important counterpoint and exterior perspective both to a relationship which, for all its complexities, was becoming dangerously insular. There’s even a neat bit of dialogue in 8.08 (Hunteri Heroici) that sums it up:

Castiel: I could be your third wheel.

Dean: You know that’s not a good thing, right?

Castiel: Of course it is. A third wheel adds extra grip, greater stability.

Which, as far as Castiel’s relationship with the Winchesters is concerned, is very much the case. As an angel, Castiel is easily the most powerful of the three characters, but thanks to his unease in human settings, he is also the most naive, which puts him in the interesting position of being both master and student, guardian and innocent. With his literal speech patterns, social awkwardness and ability to switch from comic straight man to intense avenger in the space of a heartbeat, Castiel is variously reminiscent of Spock, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Rupert Giles: a perfect storm of fan favourite characters wrapped in a trademark trenchcoat. From a purely narrative perspective, his ability to appear and disappear at will – especially at the outset – is also the perfect exit mechanism, not only because it neatly circumvents the need for any “we’re not taking on passengers” dialogue, but because it makes his presence a surprise – something for the audience to look forward to, or which can constitute a sudden twist in the course of a given episode.

As well as providing a solid counterpoint to both Sam and Dean, Castiel is also an engaging character in his own right. It’s not just his comic quirks, though in a show that’s dominated by angst, they certainly help: it’s that he gets one of the most varied developmental arcs in the whole show. Beyond the obvious range involved in Misha Collins playing successive versions of the same character – angel Castiel; Jimmy Novak; Godstiel; Emmanuel; crazy Castiel; Clarence/Steve; fallen Castiel – his relationship to the Winchesters changes, not just in response to their rise and fall, but as a consequence of his own actions. Castiel is a rebellious angel, one who successfully challenges archangels, averts the apocalypse and double-crosses the King of Hell while failing to become god, restore Sam’s soul and seal Leviathan in Purgatory – and at the same time, he’s grappling with the concepts of free will, loyalty and friendship. In a show where just about everyone makes at least one truly stupid or horrific mistake – or, more frequently, both – Castiel’s errors are among the worst. And yet, we invariably forgive him: not because he always deserves it, but because he tries to.

Which brings me to the delicate matter of Destiel – a ship so popular and pervasive as to arguably be the most famous of any current fandom. Going into Supernatural, I was well aware of its primacy: with tumblr as my starting point, ignorance was impossible. Generally speaking, while I often self-describe as a shipper, in the sense of supporting this pairing or that, it’s not something I tend to lose sleep over. I can count on one hand the number of fictional relationships that have ever truly gripped me, and one of those I no longer really care about*. So even though I knew about Destiel – and even though I was actively looking forward to Castiel’s arrival – I didn’t set out to ship it.

Spoilers: I totally ship it. And in order to understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at Dean Winchester.

Even early in Season 1, it’s clear that Dean, for all his swagger, is a lonely and damaged person. In 1.3 (Dead in the Water), during Dean’s conversation with Lucas, a troubled child, we learn that he not only remembers his mother’s death, but continues to be impacted by it:

Dean: You’re scared. It’s OK. I understand. See, when I was your age, I saw something real bad happen to my mom, and I was scared, too. I didn’t feel like talking, just like you. But see, my mom – I know she wanted me to be brave. I think about that every day. And I do my best to be brave.

Similarly, in 1.6 (Skin), when a shapeshifter acquires Dean’s memories, he delivers the following speech to Sam:

Shapeshifter (as Dean): I am your brother. See, deep down, I’m just jealous. You got friends. You could have a life. Me? I know I’m a freak. And sooner or later, everybody’s gonna leave me.

Sam: What are you talking about?

Shapeshifter (as Dean): You left. Hell, I did everything Dad asked me to, and he ditched me, too.

Later, at the start of Season 2, after John Winchester trades his life to effectively resurrect Dean, we learn in 2.4 (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things) that Dean thinks his father should have let him die – a confession which arguably straddles the line between survivor’s guilt and an actual death wish:

Dean: I never should’ve come back, Sam. It wasn’t natural. And now look what’s come of it. I was dead. And I should’ve stayed dead. You wanted to know how I was feeling? Well, that’s it.

It’s important to note that John’s sacrifice marks the second time Dean has been saved from certain death at the expense of someone else’s life: in 1.12 (Faith), he’s healed of a fatal heart condition by Roy Le Grange, whose wife directs a Reaper to kill another man instead. Dean feels guilty about his “miracle”, not only because it meant a stranger’s death, but because he was healed while a sick woman, Layla, whom he felt was more deserving of survival, was not. Already struggling with feelings of worthlessness, when John dies, Dean doesn’t – can’t – believe his life was worth his father’s sacrifice, and by 2.9 (Croatoan), it’s clear that his survivor’s guilt has left him feeling suicidal. Faced with the prospect of losing Sam to the virus, he openly admits to wanting to die:

Sam: Dean, I’m sick. It’s over for me. It doesn’t have to be for you.

Dean: No?

Sam: No, you can keep going.

Dean: Who says I want to?

Sam: What?

Dean: I’m tired, Sam. I’m tired of this job, this life… this weight on my shoulders, man. I’m tired of it.

Sam: So what, so you’re just going to give up? You’re just gonna lay down and die? Look, Dean, I know this stuff with Dad has -

Dean: You’re wrong. It’s not about Dad. I mean, part of it is, sure, but -

Sam: What is it about?

At which point, of course, the conversation is interrupted. But after Dean sells his soul to save Sam at the season finale, netting himself just a year of life before the contract is called in, his actions throughout Season 3 make it clear that he’s resigned to dying, even if it means an eternity in Hell. Which, inevitably, is where he ends up, a victim of torture and abuse for a length of time he experiences as forty years, rather than the four months that actually pass during his absence.

And then Castiel pulls him out of Hell, and everything changes. Because Dean Winchester, a self-loathing hunter with a death wish, is told he has to keep living – not for his own sake, but to fulfil his divine purpose: becoming the vessel of the archangel Michael and playing his part in the apocalypse, which event was ultimately set in motion by his actions in Hell. Not that he learns this all at once; his role as Michael’s preferred vessel – like Sam being Lucifer’s – is withheld until Season 5. Even so, there’s an awful sort of symmetry to the fact that, once again, the only way for Dean to escape his death is to sacrifice someone else:  for Michael to kill Lucifer, and therefore Sam. And even though Dean ultimately manages to avoid that final battle, in terms of seeing other people suffer in his place, the actual outcome is arguably worse: not only does Sam still end up in the Cage, enduring unthinkable torture at Lucifer’s hands before finally being rescued, as Dean once was, by Castiel, but Dean’s place as Michael’s vessel is taken by his younger half-brother, Adam, who is permanently imprisoned in Hell. Over and over, Dean Winchester dodges death because of the deaths of others, and in all that time, he’s never once felt worthy of life.

Which, if you look at his upbringing, isn’t surprising. Since the age of four, Dean has been raised to follow two imperatives: obey his father, and protect his brother. When John dies, Dean fulfils his second obligation – keeping Sam safe – via literal self-sacrifice, making the demon deal that sends him to Hell. Over and over again, Dean Winchester has been taught that his only value – his only purpose in life – lies in his ability to protect others by obeying his father’s precepts. But when Castiel brings him back, not only is Dean ordered to substitute his obedience to John with obedience to angels, but after everything he’s done to keep his Sam safe, his brother is already set on a course of self-endangerment. In Season 4, Dean is returned to a world where the only rules that have ever mattered to him no longer apply, and where, as a direct consequence of angelic meddling and demonic influence, his only viable option is to fight for something he doesn’t believe he deserves, and which he doesn’t really want: the right to live in rebellion.

And into this turmoil comes Castiel, an angel tasked with making Dean Winchester obey. But unlike his brethren, Castiel has faith in humanity, and very soon, he comes to have faith in Dean. As early as 4.7 (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester), Castiel begins to confide in him:

Castiel: Can I tell you something if you promise not to tell another soul?

Dean: Okay.

Castiel: I’m not a… hammer, as you say. I have questions, I have doubts. I don’t know what is right and what is wrong any more, whether you passed or failed here. But in the coming months, you will have more decisions to make. I don’t envy the weight that’s on your shoulders, Dean. I truly don’t.

Which is ultimately why Castiel rebels against Heaven: sympathy for Dean Winchester. Not that Dean always appreciates it, or even necessarily understands it – he values himself so little and obedience so much that, even when Cas is doing his best to help, all Dean sees is the fact that Castiel’s loyalties are split, and not the blindingly obvious fact that Cas is willing to fall for him. (Potentially, in every sense of the word.)

Completely 100% heterosexual bonding.Absolutely no homoerotic subtext whatsoever. Nope. Nada. Not even a bit.

Absolutely no homoerotic subtext here whatever. Nope. Nada. Not even a bit.

All this being so, for me, the appeal of Destiel as a pairing isn’t simply derived from the on-screen chemistry between Misha Collins and Jensen Ackles, or even from the many instances of subtext-slash-queerbaiting that are arguably suggestive of Dean’s bisexuality (although they certainly help). Rather, it stems from a desire to see two similarly confused, lonely characters – both forced into rebellion, not because they lack obedience, but because of the corruption of those in power – find a skerrick of happiness in each other. Though brought into conflict by a series of betrayals and bad decisions in Seasons 6 and 7, their subsequent reconciliation and return to friendship is made all the more important by their mutual forgiveness of each other – not just because of what they’ve endured to get there, but because forgiving Castiel is as close as Dean ever comes to forgiving himself, and vice versa.

Dean and Castiel - Stupid For The Right Reasons

Plus and also, if you don’t like Castiel? You are 8000% wrong. I mean, seriously:

Castiel - Solidarity Sandwich

Castiel - Boop

Castiel - Cat Penis (1)

Castiel - FBI Badge

Castiel - Pizza Man

Castiel - People Skills

Castiel - Sorry

Castiel - Sexual Orientation

Castiel - Not Of Import

What’s not to like?

 

*Irvine x Quistis from Final Fantasy VIII, for those of you who are curious. I still love the game and the characters, but no longer feel the same emotional investment in shipping them as I did in my teens.

Spoiler warning: All The Spoilers for Supernatural. All of them. 

Exposing yourself to certain fandoms on tumblr is like signing up for a bout with Stockholm syndrome: sooner or later, you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid. And by “drink the Kool-Aid”, I mean “become obsessed with Supernatural“, which – surprise!* –  is exactly what happened to me. I mean, I knew all about the sexism, the queerbaiting, the manpain; about the woeful representation of POC. I vowed, on the public internets, that I would never watch it – and in a universe without tumblr, I may well have done just that. But slowly, steadily, like dripping water eroding stone, the steady flow of GIFs, photosets and soulful meta wore down my resistance. Surely, I told myself, I ought to at least watch the pilot, just so I can say that I gave it a fair shot. So I did – and I wasn’t impressed. I even livetweeted my endeavour, complete with scathing criticism. The portrayal of women was so ludicrous, and Dean Winchester so obnoxious, that I didn’t make it much more than halfway through the first episode before giving up, and for a while, that was that: I’d tried Supernatural, I hadn’t liked it, end of story.

But.

Despite myself, I found that I wanted to know what happened next. Enough of my friends whose taste in shows I either shared or respected had been surprised by my reaction – had vouched for the worthiness of at least the first five seasons, despite the acknowledged problematic elements – that I started to waver. Had I been judging too harshly? My curiosity was piqued, but in the end, what tipped the balance wasn’t the recommendations of friends or the writings of strangers: it was this speech by Misha Collins – which, yes, I encountered via tumblr – in which he calls out the show’s writers for their needless use of sexist language and misogynistic tropes. Just the fact that one of the main actors was willing to both acknowledge the problem and speak about it went a long way towards reassuring me that Collins, at least, was someone whose work I wanted to support. So I made my decision: I’d give Supernatural another try, endeavouring to make it to at least Season 4, when Castiel – played by Collins – finally makes an appearance.

This decision was roughly equivalent to taking a second hit of heroin because the first one hasn’t kicked in yet.

As promised, Supernatural has a lot of problems – and I mean, a lot. (As, indeed, does heroin.) There’s scarcely a male character on the show whose defining emotional arc doesn’t hinge on his having lost his mother, wife/girlfriend and/or children, and scarcely a female character with an emotional connection to Sam or Dean Winchester who hasn’t been fridged in order to give them more angst (though in fairness, the male death toll is similarly high). Overwhelmingly, the POC characters are either exoticised, stereotyped and/or played as villains, while the queerbaiting is made all the more frustrating by the overall lack of actual queer characters. The sexist language, too, is omnipresent: if you made a drinking game of it, and took a shot whenever someone says bitch, whore, or explicitly codes weakness as female (“no chick flick moments”) and strength as male (“sack up!”), you would end up drunk after any given episode. Throughout nine seasons, but especially in the first three, almost every female character either falls squarely into one of four categories – Victim (dead or damselled), Virgin (pure and protectable), Vixen (sexy and strong) or Virago (angry and strong) – or straddles their intersections with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Supernatural is, quite categorically, a show about straight white manpain as facilitated by dead ladies and magic – and if that were all it was, I’d never have made it through two full seasons, let alone nine.

However.

It is also a show with a sprawling, complex mythology that nonetheless manages to stay coherent and engaging as it develops. Like The X Files, it has a deft touch with humour, poking fun at its own meta and idiosyncrasies at least as often as it takes itself seriously. It strikes a solid balance between stand-alone episodes and extended arcs, and the characters – well, that’s where things get interesting. Because for all that the Winchesters are frequently situated as being traditionally masculine, even hypermasculine heroes, this isn’t their be-all, end-all.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Dean – whose love of classic rock, classic cars, weapons, whiskey and women makes him about as stereotypically masculine as it’s possible to be – is also an active subversion of the very masculinity he ostensibly personifies. Sometimes, this comes across as being an unintentional – but still canonical – consequence of queerbaiting: that is, of the show’s habit of putting (presumably) straight characters in homoerotic situations, or strongly implying a homoerotic subtext, without ever crossing the line into overt displays of queerness. But this practice, while deeply frustrating, also feels like a very real reflection of, and reaction to, the show’s conflicting fanbases, and to the sheer impossibility of pleasing them both – namely, of the schism between (predominantly) male viewers who tune in for the adventures of Fiercely Hetereosexual Warrior Dean Winchester, the epitome of maleness in a show that is very definitely All About Dudes, and (predominantly) female viewers who tune in for Tortured Bisexual Dean Winchester, a good man who is eighteen kinds of broken and quite clearly in love with an angel. (Or his brother. Or both. Whatever.) Uncharitably, the queerbaiting is a way of firmly committing to the former fanbase while giving the latter just enough hope to keep them invested. More charitably, it’s a way of trying to please both groups equally without doing anything that either camp could construe as unforgivable. Most likely, it’s a combination of both, which, when combined with the conservative homophobia of network executives, tends to err on the side of default straightness. Whatever the answer, Dean Winchester remains a complex enough character to defy easy categorisation – and intentionally or not, even without the problem of queerbaiting, his version of masculinity as portrayed on the show is worth interrogating; as, indeed, is Sam’s.

Right from the outset, the Winchester brothers are set up as being, if not total opposites, then temperamentally opposed. The first time I tried to watch the pilot, Dean came across as brash, obnoxious and full of himself, while Sam, whose initial distance from hunting provides the audience with an introduction to the concept, feels more sympathetic: a nice, normal guy being dragged into danger and tragedy by an uncaring sibling. But as the season – as the show – progresses, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t what they seem. Dean’s arrogance is, very explicitly, a coping mechanism, and even in Season 1, we can see the cracks. Sam, by contrast, is highly – and successfully – compartmentalised, able to set aside his past and live normally in ways that Dean just can’t. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison of Dean’s attempt to live a normal life at the end of Season 5 and Sam’s attempt to do likewise at the end of Season 7. When Dean leaves, Sam is imprisoned in hell, having first extracted a promise that Dean won’t try to rescue him. Dean accedes, and goes to live with Lisa, his ex-girlfriend, and her young son, Ben – his reward for having stopped the apocalypse. But Dean, by his own admission, is a mess: he is tormented by Sam’s loss, suffering from recurrent nightmares and flashbacks as well as survivor’s guilt. When the hunting world impinges on his new life, his relationship with Lisa irreparably breaks down as he begins to exhibit the classic symptoms of PTSD: hyper-vigilance, obsessive behaviour, aggression as a fear response, and a compulsive need to control both his environment and the actions of his loved ones. Sam, however, suffers from no such baggage, despite the fact that he doesn’t know if Dean is alive or dead. He makes a new life for himself with ease, and while he does talk to his new partner, Amelia, about having “lost” his brother, it’s clear he isn’t psychologically damaged in the way that Dean is.

In fact, the only time we really see Sam undergo this level of distress in response to trauma – nightmares, impulsive behaviour, rage – in a context that isn’t directly related to his burgeoning demon powers is very early in Season 1, immediately following Jessica’s death. Which begs the question: is Sam compartmentalised because it’s an inherent part of his personality, or is it something he’s learned – a coping mechanism, the same as Dean’s bravado? I’d contend it’s a combination of nature and practise. From what we learn of Sam’s childhood in various flashback episodes, it’s clear he’s always harboured a burning desire to be normal, but it’s equally clear that the same is true of Dean, too. Both brothers have suffered from their upbringing, but whereas Sam is clearly capable of cutting himself off from his family (running away as a teenager, going to college, moving in with Amelia), Dean can never manage it. Which is, quite arguably, the consequence of his being the older brother: Dean’s entire life has revolved around protecting Sam and obeying his father, whereas Sam, who lacked those responsibilities, has a better baseline for normalcy – or at least, for self-definition in the absence of family and hunting – and therefore a better starting position from which to try and establish himself as a separate person. The Winchesters rely on each other, but while Sam depends on Dean as a person, Dean depends on Sam for his purpose, too.

Superficially, Sam is presented as being sensitive and emotional – and therefore the more stereotypically feminine of the two – while Dean is typed as tough and strong: a heroic masculine archetype. But in terms of their actual psyches, the opposite is true: Sam is compartmentalised, resilient and capable, while Dean is a wreck. Throughout the show, both brothers are repeatedly told by a slew of older men – hunters, angels and demons alike – to “stop whining” and “sack up” whenever they dwell on their problems. Any failure to do so, whether perceived or actual, is invariably criticised as being feminine, or derided by comparison to feminine behaviours. Yet at the same time, Dean’s issues are real enough that the same people telling him to “be a man” are also, at various points, genuinely worried by his refusal to seek help or tell them what’s wrong. The contradiction is not only striking, but deeply representative of the toxic burden of enforced, stereotypical masculinity. On the rare occasions when Dean does try and talk about his feelings, he is invariably mocked as weak, whiny and effeminate; but when, having absorbed these lessons, he tries to cope through drinking, self-destructive behaviour and suicidal thoughts, he is criticised – often angrily – for being an idiot. Sam likewise receives the same treatment, but to very different effect. Unlike Dean, who can’t separate himself from his work, Sam’s stress response is to leave whatever situation is upsetting him and calm down elsewhere – a much healthier approach, though one that also earns him rebuke. Time and again, when Sam gets angry, feels betrayed or is otherwise shown to be under pressure, he leaves, turning his back on his (undeniably damaged) family and ignoring other responsibilities in favour of self-care. That he is often cast as selfish, untrustworthy, traitorous and insensitive for doing this – presumably on the basis that Real Men don’t run from their problems or let their friends down, ever, no matter the personal cost – is part and parcel of the same toxic logic that romanticises male self-sacrifice and silence.

For all that Supernatural can and does act as a paean to the virtues of traditional masculinity – brotherhood, battle, stoicism, strength – whether intentionally or not, it just as frequently demonstrates why this mindset is  brutally flawed, with the worst psychological consequences of investing in its mythos – repression, loneliness, self-hatred, addiction, suicidal ideation, insecurity, worthlessness – personified by Dean Winchester. Unlike countless action movie heroes who drink their whiskey, kill the bad guys and stride manfully into the sunset without ever flinching, Dean drinks excessively to the point of attracting comment, has nightmares about his actions, and has to be rescued from danger at least as often as he does the rescuing, because half the time, his “act first, think later” policy is a self-destructive impulse rather than an actual plan. Almost, you could define the split in the Supernatural fandom as being between those who think Dean Winchester is someone to be idolised for his masculinity, and those who see him as needing help. And even now, I still can’t tell if Dean’s relationship with traditional masculinity is deliberately portrayed as compounding his traumas to the point of causing new ones, or if its implications have been hidden from the writers by cognitive dissonance and/or social conditioning. Given the number of creative voices involved, I suspect it’s both, depending on the episode – but either way, it makes for some interesting analysis.

As a duo, what makes Sam and Dean so compelling is the extent to which their personalities, strengths and weaknesses differ, not just from each other, but from first appearances. Particularly in the early seasons, much is made of Sam’s ability to successfully comfort the many grieving strangers they encounter, whereas Dean is always blunt, less adept – and less willing – to tailor his approach to the person, a contrast we’re initially inclined to see as proof of Sam’s sensitivity and Dean’s rudeness. And certainly, Sam is a caring person. But as the show progresses, his interactions become less a function of compassion and more the consequence of his being a better liar than Dean, with fewer compunctions about emotionally manipulating strangers to get the information he needs. When it comes to informational lies – credit card scams, adopting fake IDs – Sam tends to be uneasy with the deception in ways that Dean isn’t; but while Dean is happy pretending to be someone else, he doesn’t fake his emotional reactions. Broadly speaking, Dean is a situational liar and emotionally honest, while Sam is an emotional liar and situationally honest – the exact opposite of how they present.

When it comes to their relationships with women, however, another curious comparison presents itself. Without wanting to overanalyze the handful of sex scenes sprinkled throughout the show, it’s notable that Dean’s encounters, in contrast to his aggressively masculine persona, tend to be romantic, even gentle, with Dean himself often shown to be the more passive partner, while Sam is assertive and dominant to the point of being rough (as more than one person has noticed). Dean has slept with angels; Sam lies down with demons. And for most of the show, that’s not just a metaphor: the big reveal of Season 5 – that Sam is meant to be Lucifer’s vessel, while Dean is earmarked for Michael – is arguably foreshadowed by their earlier romantic pairings with Ruby and Anna, respectively. But as of the most recent season, their predestined dichotomy is turned on its head: Season 9 starts with Sam being possessed by an angel, and ends with Dean turning into a demon, a deliberate subversion that shows how far Sam has come, and how far Dean has fallen. The Winchesters have been to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, but despite the implied promise of the lyrics to Carry On Wayward Son, they’re yet to find any peace.

What really gets me about Dean Winchester, though, is his status as the most broken of Broken Birds I’ve ever encountered – and in a show where so much else about the gender roles is regressive, it’s striking that the most ostensibly masculine character is one who’s best defined by a trope that’s overwhelmingly female-dominated. In this sense, Dean actually makes for a good case study about our perceptions of gender in stories; specifically, our tendency to hold female characters to higher standards than men, not only in terms of their actions and personalities, but in how we judge whether they’re three-dimensional or poorly-drawn tropes, and our corresponding tendency to assume male competence as a default. Right from the outset, and despite being situated as the more experienced hunter, Dean is – not ineffectual by any stretch of the imagination, but prone to the kind of error which, were he a woman, would likely be counted as signs of inherent weakness.

In the first four episodes of Season 1, for instance, Dean continuously fails to establish his fake identities with any degree of success: twice, he gets in trouble with officials who call his bluff, and twice his incompetence leads to civilians detecting the lie. In 1.1 (Pilot) and 1.4 (Phantom Traveller), it’s Sam, not Dean, who kills the Big Bad, and while he saves the child in 1.3 (Dead in the Water), the offending ghost is dispelled, not through his actions, but the self-sacrifice of another character. The only monster Dean kills is the titular villain of 1.2 (Wendigo), and in 1.4, he’s actively disarmed by his fear of flying. All of which is paired with a high degree of sentimentality: in both 1.2 and 1.3, Dean is visibly flustered by a simple kiss on the cheek, while his strongest emotional connection consists of his bonding with a child over their mutual loss of a parent. Under identical conditions, a female character would, I suspect, have to work much harder to be seen as competent: her failed bluffs would be seen as failures of intelligence compounded by a poor kill rate, while her visible terror would see her pegged as overly emotional. Which is what happens, when successive generations of terrible female characterisation condition viewers to infer the presence of gendered stereotyping on the basis of normal behavioural cues: there’s such a backlog of bullshit to work through re the portrayal of women on screen, it can be hard to step back and judge new characters on their individual merits. But because Dean Winchester is not just male, but overtly masculine, wrapped in a leather jacket and driving a Chevy Impala, we trust that he knows what he’s doing, even when we’d be well within our grounds to think the opposite.

I have more to say, but I’ll save it for another post, as this one is already considerably longer than planned. Apparently I have Feelings about Supernatural that demand expression, and that, right there, is a sentence I never, ever thought I’d be writing. TUMBLR, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?

Feel These Things

Sam Winchester - How Do I Stop

Dean Winchester - I Wish I Couldn't Feel A Damn Thing

 

 

*Or not, for anyone who’s been following my tumblr/Twitter presence for the past few weeks.

In the past two days, I’ve ended up in two different arguments with two different men – both of them strangers – in two different forums, about two (ostensibly) different issues; and yet their methods of argument, even their language, have proven eerily similar. The first argument happened on Facebook, when a friend posted a joke about MRAs (“How many Men’s Rights Activists does it take to change a lightbulb? Not all of them!”) and one of her friends chimed in to assert that, as feminists, we were hypocrites for finding it funny, because if the joke were being told about women, we’d be outraged. The second argument happened on Twitter, when, in response to my tweeting Mallory Ortberg’s recent deconstruction of a sexist book review, an unknown man asked both of us, plus another woman, whether we’d have been just as outraged if the targeted reviewer had been female (the implication being that we were, once again, hypocrites).

Both disputes began with a single man challenging two or more feminist women to defend their beliefs on the basis of a hypothetical genderflip from male to female which, in both cases, completely missed the point of the conversation. In the first argument, changing the subject’s gender would obviously have an impact on how the joke was received, because the joke is explicitly contextualised by our awareness of gender inequality, the punchline a verbatim reference to the cry of “Not ALL men!” with which MRAs so frequently – and aggressively – attempt to derail feminist discourse about sexism and misogyny. To suggest, therefore, that such a joke is offensive on the grounds that a genderflipped version would be even moreso is to fundamentally misunderstand that this is the actual point of the joke: namely, that even though women are still being  disenfranchised by an entrenched culture of sexism, the first response of too many men is to act as though their hurt feelings at being accused of sexism, however tangentially, is the greater evil.

By contrast, the proposed genderflip  in the second argument was ineffective for the opposite reason: though Ortberg’s piece certainly made mention, not only of the reviewer’s gender, but of the fact that she’d yet to see the book in question reviewed by a woman, the ultimate point was simply that the review itself was written in a sexist manner; that this was not a helpful way for anyone to review women’s writing. Had a female reviewer written the exact same piece, replete with the exact same biases and problematic turns of phrase, Ortberg might certainly have worded her response differently, if only in the sense of attributing the reviewer’s attitude to internalised sexism rather than male privilege, but the source material would still have been sexist, and therefore deserving of the exact same level of outrage. For our interlocutor to have based his opening rhetorical sally on the idea that female feminists will be naturally more inclined to excuse sexism if it comes from other women – and worse, to phrase this 101-level question as though we had never once considered it before – was not only deeply oblivious, but actively insulting.

To be clear: genderflipping can be – and frequently is – a useful rhetorical device in conversations about both sexism generally and the more specific issues facing persons of all genders. But its usefulness is always going to be contextually dependant on the user’s understanding, not only of what sexism is, but how and why it functions. Because sexism is fundamentally a problem of inequality, the subversive impact of a well-executed genderflip rests in its ability to switch the (im)balance of power in unexpected ways, thereby highlighting the fact that it exists to be subverted in the first place. Genderflipping an argument to support or restore the status quo, however – whether by asking us to sympathise with those already deemed sympathetic, or to approve the power of those already powerful, at the expense of those already viewed as unsympathetic or powerless – is not only a wrongheaded misuse of the technique, but a catastrophic failure of comprehension. The same is true of other subversive flips, like racebending (which is why, for instance, Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls was such an all-out disaster).

The fact that these two men deployed the exact same tactic for the same, poor reason was notable. That their subsequent responses also aligned was downright creepy – and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. In response to their condescending language, I referred to each man in tern as patronising, half in anger, half in the hope that they might rethink their approaches. Here is how they responded:

On Facebook: Being patronizing is so much fun you are welcome for it… You may be right but your anger clouds your point and makes it seem far to emotional and not logical. Now before you go off your rocker that I just equated your style of rhetoric with classic feminine traits, I will say that I have done this very thing to men on facebook and gotten the same overly emotional reaction… I always am deliberately patronizing because it would be a waste of the day to do it by accident.    

On TwitterMy pathetic faux-humour patronizes men and women in equal measure. Men find me every bit as exhausting.

In other words, both men accepted that, yes, they were indeed being deliberately patronising, but that I had no grounds for finding their approach sexist, because they were just as rude to men – as though, once again, completely ignoring both the context and the content of the conversation was sufficient to make the accusation go away. Nor is this curious tactic of attempting to deny sexism by claiming misanthropy, or some version of it – as though an admission of being rude to everyone completely rules out the possibility of being rude to certain types of person in specific, culturally coded ways – a two-man anomaly. To quote from Lindy West’s How to Make a Rape Joke:

This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks… And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Both encounters were frustrating and draining; both left me feeling like I’d wasted time, effort and emotional energy engaging with someone who viewed my exhaustion and distress as a personal victory.  It is disputes like this, in fact – not so much for their content, but for their frequency and duration – which so often prompt people to say, Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage. Just ignore them, and they’ll go away. But as I’ve said elsewhere, and as much as even such minor encounters increasingly threaten to burn me out, this isn’t advice I’m willing to take. Like playground bullies, trolls don’t go away when ignored: quite the opposite. They take silence to mean they’ve won, or as assent, or as a challenge to try harder: either way, it invariably emboldens them. I’m not for an instant suggesting that people should engage above and beyond their coping level, or that we should all die on every half-assed rhetorical hill that drops into our blog comments with a virtual smirk and the suggestion that lol maybe ur overreacting??? – I just don’t believe that silence is the answer. This sort of behaviour isn’t anomalous; it’s part of a pattern, and one which needs to be identified before it can ever hope to be changed.

Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself: you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.

But here’s the thing: I fucking loved Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a sympathetic character, but that’s not the same as her actually being unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we need to do that, because it’s what we are.

But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even see in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.

And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where the audience is still encouraged to like them when they are.

Returning to Orphan Black, for instance, if Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to SwordfishDeath Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet, her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.

Which isn’t to say that we never see mothers struggling – it’s just seldom with their desire to actually be mothers. Maternal angels struggle with the day-to-day business of domesticity: how to deal with teenage chatback and those oh-so-hilariously forgetful sitcom husbands, how to balance the bills and keep everyone fed, how to find time for themselves amidst all their endless finding time for others. By contrast, selfish absentees are usually career-oriented single mothers in high-stress jobs, either unwilling or unable to find the appropriate amount of time for their children. Looking at the gender disparity in the characterisation of TV detectives who are also parents is particularly interesting: not only are the men more likely to have wives at home (to begin with, at least), they’re also more likely to be granted reconciliation with their children later. Contrast obsessive, depressive detective Kurt Wallander, who slowly rebuilds his relationship with his daughter, with obsessive, depressive detective Sarah Lund, who steadily destroys the possibility of a relationship with her son. Compare single fathers like Seeley Booth and Richard Castle, whose ability to parent well is never implied to be compromised by their devotion to the job, with single mothers like Alex Fielding and Gloria Sheppard, whose characterisation is largely defined by the difficulties of striking a balance between the two roles. Orphan Black’s Sarah is a rare creature, in that she falls outside the usual boxes for maternal categorisation, and in so doing forces us to re-examine exactly why that is.

In fact, though their respective shows and stories are utterly dissimilar in every other respect, in terms of her approach to motherhood, the character Sarah most reminded me of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping outlined above – Laura was a high-flying corporate lawyer and newly single mother whose decision to move to a small town and reconnect with her family constituted the titular sea-change – she was written with such complexity and feeling as to defy the cliché. She was eager and well-meaning, but just as often selfish and oblivious. Though she learned to slow down and listen to others over the course of three series, she never became a domestic goddess or a motherly martyr; nor did she magically lose her flaws or suddenly develop a perfect relationship with her children. Instead, she remained a prickly, complex character, quick to both give and take offence, but also introspective, passionate, sly and caring. Like Sarah, she wasn’t always sympathetic, but that didn’t stop me from loving her, flaws and all.

But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection. I’ve seen a bit of positive/sympathetic meta surrounding Once Upon A Time’s Regina, but otherwise, I can’t think of many overtly antagonistic female characters whose actions and motives are viewed as complex, and therefore potentially redemptive, instead of just as proof that they’re bad women. We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings that broke them, then we surely must owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

Throughout history, women’s legal status and protections have been tied to the question of whether or not they’re seen to be virtuous, whatever that means in context. The sworn virgins of Albania were granted equal status with men – indeed, were allowed to live and act as men – provided they never had sex, owing to a specific legal stricture which ascribed female virgins the same financial worth as men, while valuing women less. The big three monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all boast scriptures and/or religious laws that have, both historically and in the modern day, allotted specific legal privileges to women provided they remain virtuous; privileges which are invariably retracted should the woman in question be seen to have strayed, or become tarnished, or to have otherwise lost her virtue. We see this echoed in modern rape culture, which puts the onus for self-protection on women to such a degree that, far too often, if a woman is raped, her victimhood is viewed as a consequence of poor character – because if she really was innocent, then how did she let it happen? Why was she dressed that way, or out late, or drinking? Why, if she wasn’t already lacking in virtue, would she have been in the company of a rapist?

And so, our treatment of morally ambiguous female characters ends up paralleling some truly toxic assumptions about gender and morality. Women cannot act to redeem themselves independently, because under far too many laws, our need of redemption voids our right to try and reacquire it. Good women can redeem broken men, but good men can’t redeem broken women, because once we’re broken, we lose our virtue; and without our virtue, we’re no longer women, but monsters, witches and viragos.

Which is why, to come full circle, I fucking love the fact that Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning isn’t always sympathetic; isn’t always traditionally likeable.  She is, rather, an antiheroine in the most literal sense: and with all the Madonna/Whore bullshit we’re still caught up in imposing on women, that’s a class of character we desperately need to see more of.

(Note: I’ve only talked about men and women here, rather than third gender, genderfluid and other gender non-conforming persons, because it’s men and women we usually see depicted in stories, and whose narratives therefore form the bulk of our cultural stereotyping. The absence or elision of narratives concerning other genders, however, along with their own highly stereotyped portrayals when they do appear, is a problem in and of itself, and a contributing factor in the way men and women are stereotyped: because when we view gender purely as a fixed binary phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make it harder to see beyond the rules that binary has traditionally imposed on our thinking, repeatedly foisting “masculine”/”feminine” values onto successive new characters without ever stopping to think that actually, we might challenge or subvert those norms instead, a blindness which only helps to further perpetuate the problem.)

Trigger warning: racism, homophobia.

So, author John C. Wright wrote a thing on the evils of political correctness in SFF, and I’m honestly trying to form a cogent, logical response to it, but that’s a difficult proposition when the thing in question is neither. I’ve read it twice, which was clearly a tactical error on health grounds, as my face now looks like this:

WIN_20140507_171248

and I just – OK.

Let me show you the problem I’m having (my emphasis):

What we have now instead is a smothering fog of caution, of silence, of an unwillingness to speak for fear of offending the perpetually hypersensitive.

Science fiction is under the control of the thought police…

The uproar of hate directed against this innocent and honorable man [Orson Scott Card] is vehement and ongoing

Likewise, when Larry Correia was nominated for a Hugo Award, the gossips reacted with astonishing venom, vocal enough to be mentioned in the Washington Post and USA Today

His detractors, including leaders in the field, announced in triumphant tones their plan to vote his work NO AWARD, without having read the nominated book, and they encouraged fandom to do likewise.

Do you see the issue? You cannot state, as your opening premise, that SFF fandom is being handicapped by silence and an unwillingness to speak out, and then support that premise by stating the exact polar opposite: that there has, in your own words, been vocal uproarDoubtless, what Wright meant to imply is that the persons against whom the uproar is directed are being silenced by it – that he, and others like him, such as Larry Correia and Theodore Beale, are now suffering under the burden of enforced quietude. But given that all three men are still writing publicly and vocally, not just about the issues Wright raises, but about any number of other topics, the idea that their output is being curtailed by their own “unwillingness to speak for fear of offending” is patently false. Indeed, by their own repeated admission, Correia, Beale and Wright are wholly unafraid of causing offence, even sometimes going so far as to seek outraged reactions. So if Wright and his fellows proudly don’t care about being offensive, then who does: who really fears to speak? By untangling the nonsensical web that is Wright’s attempt at logic, a paradoxical answer emerges: that the people who actually do care about causing offence – the apparent victims of silence – are simultaneously the same gossipy, vocal detractors responsible for silencing… ourselves, as it turns out. Where “silence” is a synonym for “uproar”.

Speechless

 

Inigo Montoya

But then, this is hardly surprising, given that Wright also defines “the spirit of intellectual fearlessness” of the Golden Age – a time when “science fiction was an oasis of intellectual liberty, a place where no idea was sacrosanct and no idea was unwelcome” – as a period when “few science fiction readers were offended by his [Heinlen's] or anyone’s ideas”. (Because intellectual fearlessness is clearly the antithesis of spirited, impassioned debate and the bedfellow of conformity.) But now that “the lunatic Left”, having “planned and struggled for years, decades, to achieve their cultural influence” has done so, true SFF fans need to “retake our lost home one mind, one institution, at a time”.

Take a good, long moment to parse all that, and you’ll find it’s just as self-contradictory on closer inspection as it is at first glance. According to Wright, the SFF of old was a culture in which “no idea was unwelcome”, but in which “the lunatic left” – quite rightly, in his view – had no power or presence: the way to recapture the tolerance of old, therefore, is to violently remove any new perspectives. Wright seems similarly unaware of the breathtaking irony inherent in lauding Golden Age SF a permissive, welcoming “oasis of intellectual liberty” while simultaneously noting that:

The older the strata of science fiction being mined, or the more deeply into nuts-and-bolts the SF tale, the smaller the percentage of women found in the candidate pool. Plucking twenty tales out of the whole mass of SF from 1958 to 2006 (the print range of the stories), even if done at random, might easily have no female authors present.

The famed “oasis”, it seems, had some fairly pertinent membership restrictions.

Gliding over the part where Wright apparently thinks that one cannot possibly be both Hispanic and racist, we come to the real meat of his argument: that figures like Beale and Correia are being criticised, not because they’ve said anything worth objecting to, but because the left is obsessed with “obedience to goodthink”. As Wright makes multiple other references to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the course of his piece – a book whose protagonist, Winston Smith, works as an historical revisionist for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting old newspaper articles to better fit the party line – it seems only fitting to present his defence of each apparently-persecuted individual, and his version of what they did – suitably bolded for emphasis –  alongside the sourced, verbatim quotes of the subjects and/or a sourced account of what actually happened.

Thus:

Wright Claims That: “Orson Scott Card publicly expressed the mildest imaginable opposition to having judges overrule popular votes defining marriage in the traditional way.”

What Card Actually Said: The first and greatest threat from court decisions in California and Massachusetts, giving legal recognition to “gay marriage,” is that it marks the end of democracy in America.”

Wright Claims That: “Theodore Beale was expelled from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers America (SFWA), our professional union, on the rather specious grounds that he repeated comments from a members-only bulletin board to the general public. He was libeled with the same typical menu as above. (By odd coincidence, the falsely accused racist here is also Hispanic.)”

What Beale Actually Said: We do not view her [N.K. Jemisin] as being fully civilised… those self-defence laws [like Stand Your Ground in Flordia] have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people like her, who are savages in attacking white people… [she is] an educated, but ignorant, savage with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature… than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine.”

What Actually Happened: Beale was expelled from the SFWA, not because he “repeated comments from a members-only bulletin board to the general public”,  but because he used the SFWA’s professional Twitter feed to promote his racist screed about Jemisin.

Wright Claims: The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF is an anthology edited by Mike Ashley. When it was noticed that there were no women authors in the table of contents, fandom was whipped into prepackaged frenzy… Plucking twenty tales out of the whole mass of SF from 1958 to 2006 (the print range of the stories), even if done at random, might easily have no female authors present… The case of Mike Ashley was arbitrary.”

The Actual Facts: Wright’s defence of Ashley is predicated on the idea that such a small percentage of SF was written by women over a more than fifty-year period that, even if a sample of stories were chosen at random, women could easily be absent altogether. (He appears completely disinterested in the whiteness of the list.) So, let’s do the math for female writing, shall we? Here are some rough numbers: in 1948, 10-15% of spec fic writers were women, and by 1999, 36% of the SFWA’s membership was female. Obviously, SFWA membership isn’t the be-all, end-all of female participation in the genre, or even of American participation in the genre, and by the same token, the window for these statistics both starts and ends before the period Wright is discussing, which puts us at a double disadvantage, as women’s representation in SFF has inarguably increased over time. Even so, let’s seriously lowball the range by rounding down, and say that, during the period from 1958 to 2006, women contributed just 25% of all professionally published SF works. Now, The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF contains twenty-one stories – five of which, crucially, were new works commissioned especially for inclusion the anthology. That leaves us with just sixteen stories potentially drawn from the period Wright is referencing. And if you do the maths on the basis of these numbers – namely, if you were to pick sixteen stories at random from a collection where 25% were written by women – then 99% of the time, you’d end up with at least one female-authored story.  Which means that Ashley’s anthology would have been more diverse if he had, in fact, chosen his works at random; but of course, the point is, he didn’t. Not only did he commission five new stories exclusively from white male writers, but in digging through the entire history of SF, he somehow managed to miss even classic greats like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Andre Norton and James Tiptree Jr, as well as modern award-winners like Aliette de Bodard, Catherynne M. Valente and Elizabeth Bear. So, no: the case against Mike Ashley – or, more specifically, against The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF – was anything but “arbitrary”.

Wright Claims That: “The case of Malzberg and Resnick and Rabe is a paragon of disproportionate punishment. Normal practice when complaints about a writer arrive is to tell him not to repeat the gaffe. Normally, policies are enacted before they are enforced. Here the punishments were cruel, unusual, and ex post facto.”

What Actually Happened: Beyond apparently being dropped as contributing writers for the SFWA Bulletin (though interestingly, I can find no public announcement to this effect), neither Barry Malzberg nor Mike Resnick seems to have received any formal punishment from the SFWA, though editor Jean Rabe, as stated, resigned. The “cruel, unusual” punishments described by Wright , therefore, appear to be non-existent; unless he’s referring to the fact that they lost their column as a result of public backlash. If this is the case, however, it’s worth noting three important things. Firstly: Resnick and Malzberg  weren’t dismissed out of the blue, but after they were given the opportunity to respond to their critics, and after their initial remarks had already generated public controversy, which puts paid to the notion that their “punishment”, such as it was, was entirely ex post facto. Secondly, they weren’t rebuked because of a “gaffe”, if you can even call it that, as the word implies an accidental error, but for their lengthy, deliberate and fervent castigation of their critics within the Bulletin’s pages. And thirdly, there is nothing “cruel” or even particularly “unusual” in an organisation dropping writers or employees for expressing sentiments that have had a deleterious effect on how that organisation is perceived. Last year, for instance, PR Executive Justine Saco was fired after posting an offensive, racist tweet, while in 2002, blogger Heather Armstrong famously lost her job over the contents of her website, dooce.com, which lead to the term “dooced” being coined to describe the act of being fired for writing on one’s blog. While there are many pertinent and complex arguments to be made concerning the firing of persons for their personal beliefs, never mind in instances where those beliefs are disseminated through company channels, the one thing you cannot call the phenomenon is “unusual”.

Wright Claims That:  “Elizabeth Moon was “uninvited” from being the guest of honor at a large convention for making the rather unremarkable remark that immigrants to the United States should assimilate. This was decried as so inflammatory that the fans would be in danger of death at the hands of justifiably outraged militants driven to madness by Miss Moon’s race-hatred.”

What Moon Actually Said: “I know–I do not dispute–that many Muslims had nothing to do with the [9/11] attacks, did not approve of them, would have stopped them if they could.  I do not dispute that there are moderate, even liberal, Muslims, that many Muslims have all the virtues of civilized persons and are admirable in all those ways…  But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they’ve had… I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom.”

What Actually Happened: At the time Moon made the above remarks, she was scheduled to appear as the Guest of Honour at WisCon, a feminist SF convention which was explicitly founded to both support, and to create greater awareness of, diversity in SFF, with a particular emphasis on issues of race and gender. I find it rather convenient that Wright omits this fact, as it’s the crux of the point: Moon’s comments weren’t just general remarks about assimilation, but were specifically directed at, and critical of, Muslims in particular, and wildly out of keeping with WisCon’s stated agenda.

That’s some quality propagandising, Mr Wright. The Ministry of Truth would be proud.

I’ve already expended more time and energy on this post than was my original intention, but I can’t sign off without making note of Wright’s bizarrely gendered remarks on the difference between law and custom:

There are two ways for a sheep to be lead: one is by fear of the sheepdog, and the other is by following the sheep in front of him. The first is law and the second is custom.

Law is enforced by solemn ceremonies, oaths, judges in robes, policemen in uniforms, hangmen in hoods. It is objective, official, overt, masculine, and direct.

Custom is encouraged by countless social cues and expressions of peer pressure. It is subjective, informal, covert, feminine, and indirect.

In other words: Law, which is Masculine and Strong and Important and Upheld By Solemn Manly Male Officials, is Objectively Correct and Forthright, while Custom is all about silly stupid backstabbing bitchy girly stuff, and probably involves feelings. One would be hard-pressed to find a more smugly misogynistic division of social labours masquerading as objective logic, and yet, on the basis of everything else he’s said here, I guarantee that Wright would greet the mere suggestion of his possibly being even a teeny-weeny bit sexist, let alone misogynistic, with the sort of red-faced harrumphing outrage normally reserved for bull walruses in the mating season.

Walrus

So, in conclusion:

  • Silence and uproar are not synonyms;
  • Intellectual fearlessness is best exhibited through debate and criticism, not a failure to be offended;
  • Claiming that Golden Age SFF was an oasis of liberty open to all people and perspectives doesn’t work when you simultaneously mention that there were no women because Historical Sexism and also filthy leftwingers are the devil; and
  • Accusing your interlocutors of stooping to Orwellian tactics while actively and obviously deploying Orwellian tactics yourself isn’t just hypocritical, but on the internet, where it’s really easy to look up what actually happened and notice how it differs in several crucial respects from what you claimed happened, it’s also extremely stupid.

THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.