Posts Tagged ‘Female’

Regardless of what historical epoch their populations and culture are either based on or situated in, epic fantasy landscapes tend to be populated by a very specific subset of animals: big cats, horses, wolves, bears, deer, birds of prey, European livestock (cattle, sheep, chickens), domestic pets, rabbits, and dragons. Though you might occasionally find some ferrets, snakes or crocodiles to spice things up, generally speaking, there’s a profound Eurocentrism to the kind of animals you’ll encounter in fantasy novels, partly because the default fantasy environment is itself Eurocentric; and partly because, once you’re using less common animals, there’s the joint question of how to describe and reference them if their English names are either very clearly colonial or derive their meaning from a clearly real-world scientific canon (Thompson’s gazelle, the red panda, the Pallas cat, for instance); but mostly, I suspect, because we view such creatures as being universally generic, and therefore able to transcend affiliation to any particular country or region. By way of comparison, I can’t think of a single fantasy novel where kangaroos make an appearance: though fascinating creatures, both physically and aesthetically, their inclusion would inevitably make the reader think of Australia regardless of whether such an association would benefit the story, and so we tend not to take the risk. The exception to this rule, of course, is when writers are deliberately trying to evoke a particular sense of place: under those circumstances, the inclusion of certain animals becomes a type of narrative signposting, so that giraffes mean Africa, pandas mean China, yak mean Tibet, pet monkeys mean the Middle East, and so on.

Otherwise, though you don’t get much variety – and under some circumstances, that’s fine. But when we start treating animals as generic, there’s a very real loss of ecosystem: though perhaps unremarkable to the sensibilities and assumptions of urban readers, all those quest-inducing  forests, swamps and mountains tend to be either totally devoid of animal life (except for a plethora of conveniently edible rabbits), or else serve as the backdrop for a single, climactic animal attack (usually from a bear or wolves). And with that loss of ecosystem comes a lack of appreciation for animal behaviour: we start to think of animals as creatures whose only meaningful relationships are with humans. That being done, we lose all sense of subtlety  unless they occupy a background role, like pack-mules and hunting dogs, our fantasy animals are overwhelmingly portrayed in a way that skews heavily towards one of two wildly differing extremes. Either we romanticise and anthropomorphise to an alarming degree (faithful, loyal and freakishly sentient dogs or horses, near-magical wolves, noble and mystical stags), or else we demonise, with the creation of wild animals who exist only to menace humans (like ravenous wolves, child-eating lions, and monstrous bears).

So with all this baggage surrounding the presence and portrayal of animals in epic fantasy, what happens when we start building animalistic shapeshifter societies in urban fantasy?

Nothing good, is the short answer. More specifically, we get the Alpha Problem: endless tracts of sexism, misogyny, female exceptionalism, rigid social hierarchies maintained through a combination of violence and biological determinism, inescapable mating bonds, and a carte blanche excuse for male characters to behave like cavemen (and for female characters to accept it) on the slender justification that, as alphas, it’s both in their nature and what’s expected of them. And the thing is, I love urban fantasy, and I also really love shapeshifters. But it’s not often these days that I get to love the two things in combination, because apart from not being able to deal with the sheer profligacy of the aforementioned problems, I also can’t get past the fact that the logic on which they’re predicated – the logic of wolves – is overwhelmingly inaccurate.

For ages now, werewolves have maintained their status as not only the most widely-known, but easily most popular shapeshifters: as far as the Western mythological and folkloric (and thus Western SFFnal) canon is concerned, our concept of werewolves has set the standard for all subsequent depictions of shapeshifters generally – and, not unsurprisingly, our concept of werewolves has been historically influenced by our view of actual wolves. Though traditionally portrayed as sly, ravening monsters who hunt to kill, as enshrined in endless European stories from Little Red Riding Hood to Peter and the Wolf, our perception of wolves – and consequently, of werewolves – has changed drastically in the past few decades, undergoing something of a 360 degree reversal. Thanks in no small part to the superficial affectations of New Age spiritualism and its cherrypicking appropriation of various Native American cultures, such as the concept of spirit animals, our fantastic depictions of wolves began to change. Instead of being described as slavering, child-stealing beasts, they were instead ascribed a spiritual, near-magical status as guardians, wise warriors and compassionate, social predators, which in turn had an impact on werewolf stories. Instead of being little more than monsters in human skin, more nuanced portrayals of werewolves emerged; first in narratives which contrasted their sympathetic humanity with their unsympathetic and uncontrolled bestial natures, and then, finally, in stories where their animal side was shown as a to be a spiritual, even desirable attribute.

Thus: once our general image of wolves had been rehabilitated to the point where we could have positive, social werewolf stories rather than deploying them purely as horror elements, it was only logical that writers look to actual wolf behaviour for inspiration in writing werewolf culture. And what they found was terminology that could easily have been tailor-made for fantasists, with its Greek words and implications of feudal hierarchy: the language of alpha, beta, gamma and omega. The idea of an alpha mating pair lent itself handily to romance, while the idea of wolves battling for supremacy within rigidly defined family structures was practically a ready-made caste system. Writers took to it with a vengeance – and as a consequence, we now find ourselves in a situation where not only werewolves and other shapeshifters, but purely human romantic pairings both within and outside of fiction, are all discussed in the language of alpha and beta. Under this system, alphas are hypermasculine, aggressive, protective leaders, while betas are their more subdued, less assertive underlings. The terminology has becomes so widespread, even beyond fantasy contexts, that most people have probably heard of it; but in urban fantasy in particular, the logic of wolves has long since become a tailor-made justification for the inclusion and defense of alpha male characters. These alphas, who frequently double as love interests, display violent, controlling behaviour that would otherwise read as naked patriarchal wish-fulfillment: instead, their animal aspect is meant to excuse and normalise their aggression, on the grounds – often tacit, but always implied – that real wolves act that way. 

Except that, no: wolves don’t act that way – and what’s more, we’ve known they haven’t for over a decade;  even the alpha-beta terminology of wolf relationships is falling out of scientific parlance due to its inaccuracy. Which means that all the supposedly biologically-inspired logic underpinning those endless alphahole characters and male-only werewolf clans? That logic is bullshit, and has been practically since it was written. So how, then, did it all get started in the first place? The answer is surprisingly simple. Back in 1947, when wolf behaviour was very poorly understood, a man called Rudolph Schenkel published a monorgaph on wolf interactions based on his observations of what happened when totally unrelated wolves from different zoos were all brought together in the same closed environment – which is, of course, something that would never happen in the wild, and which therefore produced aberrant behaviour. This paper was subsequently cited heavily by wolf researcher L. David Mech in his book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species, which was first published in the 1970s. This being the first such book of its kind to be released for thirty-odd years, The Wolf became a massive success, was reprinted several times over the next two decades, and subsequently became a primary reference for many other researchers. But in the late 1990s, after studying wolves in the wild firsthand, Mech came to realise that the alpha-beta system was inaccurate; instead, wolves simply lived in family groups that formed in much the same way human families do. He published his new results in two papers in 1999 and 2000, and has been working since then to correct the misinformation his first book helped to spread. But of course, the trickle-down process is slow; though the new knowledge is accepted as accurate, the old terminology is still sometimes used by researchers who aren’t up to date.

So: given how long it’s taken the scientific community, Mech included, to cotton on to the truth of wolves, I’m not about to blame fantasy writers for having failed to know better, sooner. I will, however, fault them for using the alpha-beta system as an excuse to craft shapeshifter societies where female shifters are rare and special for no good reason; where women are expected to both love and excuse the aggressive behaviour of men; where punitive hierarchies are aggressively enforced; and where controlling, coercive, stalkerish actions are pardoned because It’s What Women Really Want. The decision to focus on masculine power and to make such societies male-dominated as a matter of biology was a conscious one, and while I’ve still enjoyed some stories whose shapeshifters operate under such parameters, I’ve always resented the parameters themselves. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five urban fantasy series where female shifters are rare and male aggression rules their communities, but not a single one where the reverse is true, let alone one that’s simply female-dominated. And in a genre that’s renowned for its female protagonists and ostensible female agenda, I dislike the extent to which many of those women are made exceptional, not only by their lack of female associates, friends and family members, but their success within traditionally masculine environments as lone, acceptable women.

Though the truth of wolves wasn’t widely known when many such series were first begun, it’s certainly known now. While there’s certainly still room for a new interpretation of the alpha-beta system for shapeshifters in a purely fictional sense – perhaps one with an actual gender balance, or even (let’s go crazy) female dominance – I’m going to tear my hair out if I see any more new stories where alpha males are allowed to behave like terrible asshat jocks and never have their idiocy questioned Because Magic Biology. Wolves and werewolves will always have a special place in fantasy literature, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question our portrayals of their sentience – or that we can’t reimagine their societies.

 

 

 

 

Right now, I’m a third of the way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a book whose paciness, premise and execution I’m thus far enjoying, but which is nonetheless conspiring to irk me on gender grounds. Our protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a teenaged trainee magician, and for multiple reasons, I’m struggling to connect with him as a character. It’s not that he’s an implausible fiction, per se, but rather than he’s overwhelmingly cast in a mold I’m sick of seeing: that of the quiet, studious, socially awkward straight-white-male from a blandly privileged background with no particular personality beyond his penchant for lamenting his lack of same, and whose specialness is far more frequently told than shown. So far, for instance, we’ve been told of Quentin’s academic excellence in the mundane world without his smarts ever being visibly demonstrated, and then further told that he’s an exceptional young magician on the basis of no more evidence, given his own internal doubts, than a teacher’s say-so. He’s an overwhelmingly passive character: 130 pages in, we’re yet to see him make a proactive decision or do anything other than respond to external pressures, and while that’s not something I object to on principle, I tend to prefer such characters to compensate for their reactiveness in other ways – by possessing a sense of humour, say, or introspecting with insight. Quentin, though, demonstrates neither of these qualities, but rather presents as simultaneously amorphous and entitled; what I suspect is meant to read as a sort of youthful, talented-but-underappreciated everyman as per the standards of fiction, but which in reality describes exactly the sort of person who fades into the background precisely because they have little or nothing to offer socially and no sense of why this matters.

And this bothers me; partly because it seems like a waste, but mostly because this particular species of stock – and it is stock – young male characterisation, that of the generically disenfranchised and romantically unsuccessful loner whose chafing ego is vindicated by the narrative’s confirmation of his innate specialness, always seems to go hand in hand with a particular manifestation of the male gaze; one that’s always bothered me, but whose parameters I’ve only just managed to articulate. Now, to be clear: I have no problem with the male gaze as a concept. I might dislike its unthinking ubiquity at times – such as, for instance, in stories where straight male writers forget to differentiate their own sexual preferences from that of their straight female characters, leading to what Kate Elliot refers to as the omniscient breasts problem – but generally speaking, I’m on board with the idea that, while it might not always be to my taste, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with male characters noticing the physical attractiveness of nearby female characters. I do, however, take issue with expressions of the male gaze that, whether intentionally or not, effectively demean or diminish women in narrative, or which are heavily redolent of negative social attitudes and stereotypes. Thus: a story wherein the straight male hero observes the fierce beauty of a warrior queen is unlikely to rile me; but a story where every female character is gratuitously sexualised will.

The Magicians is very definitely written in the male gaze, and in a way which seems to tell us more about Grossman himself than Quentin as a protagonist – specifically, about the extent to which he seems to view female beauty as being incongruous with female competence. By way of demonstration, consider this early passage:

Three paramedics crouched around him, two men and a woman. The woman was disarmingly, almost inappropriately pretty – she looked out of place in that grim scene, miscast…

Quentin wished she weren’t so attractive. Unpretty women were so much easier to deal with in some ways – you didn’t have to face the pain of their probable unattainability. But she was not unpretty. She was pale and thin and unreasonably lovely, with a broad, ridiculously sexy mouth.

And then, consider these lines, which describe an entirely different character:

His tutor was Professor Sunderland, the pretty young woman who had asked him to draw maps during his Examination. She looked nothing like a magician was supposed to: she was blond and dimply and distractingly curvy.

Not long after this, we’re treated to Quentin’s longing for, and I quote, “the radiant upper slopes of her [Professor Sunderland's] achingly full and gropable breasts,” a sentence which is only slightly less hilarious than it is a disturbing – and, one assumes, unintentional – example of crude lust battling with aesthetic appreciation. In both examples, however, Quentin – and, by extension, Grossman – has concluded that female beauty is incongruous with professionalism; these women are noteworthy, not just because Quentin finds them attractive, but because he doesn’t expect attractive women to be professionals. By direct implication, therefore, Quentin’s surprise at their prettiness undermines his respect for their competence in much the same way that his views on the gropability of Professor Sunderland’s breasts undermines his profession of their radiance. And what makes this an irritating example of the male gaze is the fact that we, the reader, are not meant to notice this dissonance, but are rather expected to sympathise with Quentin: to agree, however tacitly and subconsciously, that it is just a bit surprising and unusual to encounter pretty female professionals, because deep down, our expectation is that intelligence and beauty are mutually exclusive qualities, particularly in women, and that in any case, attractive ladies don’t really need to work at all on account of being attractive.

In this respect, then, The Magicians presents a negative example of the male gaze, in that sexist stereotypes are both present as a background detail and utterly unexamined, let alone acknowledged, by the narrative. But that’s not my main revelation. The other side of the coin is far more subtle: the fact that Quentin’s attraction to women only ever seems to be physical. By which I mean: while women to whom he feels no attraction are described objectively, without sexualisation, his attractions are only ever described in terms of his lust, disassociated from anything deeper or more human like shared interests, emotional connection or personality. And the thing is, if Quentin were meant to be a jaded, sexist, sexually confident character – one whose shallowness was noted in the text – that wouldn’t bother me so much, because it would at least indicate that Grossman and I were on the same page. But because Quentin is meant to be an everyman despite his specialness – because we, the audience, are meant to sympathise with his romantic shortcomings – I find myself repulsed by the unthinking assumption that his hypocrisy doesn’t exist; that it’s perfectly acceptable to lust after women purely because of their bodies with never a thought to liking them as people, all while lamenting their inability to like you for who you are. As though, in other words, their inability to appreciate Quentin as a person has nothing to do with his inability to appreciate them as people, and everything to do with the fact that they’re too beautiful or oblivious to notice him. And the thing is, even though I’m only a third of the way in, this doesn’t seem like a developmental stage he’s about to transcend, because once again, it’s a form of sexist cognitive dissonance that isn’t flagged in the text: we’re not meant to notice it, because in all probability, Grossman didn’t mean for it to be there – or rather, if he did, he didn’t mean for it to be read as negative.

Quentin’s whole character, in other words, is informed by unthinking adherence to male privilege. Despite being bright, having lifelong close friends and a stable homelife, he starts out the novel feeling discontent and disaffected, which unhappiness he contrives to blame equally on his parents and the mundane awkwardness of real life; it doesn’t occur to him to look inwards for the source of his problems, because his sense of entitlement seemingly prevents such critical introspection. Similarly, his unrequited feelings for Julia and the Professor are cast by Grossman as representative of a typical, relatable dynamic – that of the overlooked scholar thwarted by the disinterest of pretty ladies – without any self-awareness of the fact that Quentin isn’t magically entitled to female company; that actually, he’s done nothing to merit their attention, and is in fact being hypocritical in lamenting their lack of appreciation for his personality when his thoughts are only ever concerned with their bodies. Quentin, in other words, in addition to being a fairly unmemorable character, is starting to read like a Nice Guy, and while the rest of the book may hopefully prove me wrong on that point, right now, I’m struggling to cope with this negative variant of the male gaze that’s all the more insidious for being subtle: one where the reader is encouraged to take male privilege – and all the social consequences thereof – for granted, but where its presence is never directly acknowledged.

In a nutshell: Tony Harris is a comics artist who recently went on an ill-advised rant declaring that the majority of female cosplayers are fake geeks with an exhibitionist, man-taunting agenda that all right-thinking persons should loathe – and more, elected to do so in a week when multiple stories of female cosplayer harassment had already been in prominent circulation. Responding to the fiery backlash provoked by his poorly written, atrociously punctuated and at times borderline incomprehensible post, Harris doubled down, refusing to budge from his original position while vehemently denying that either he or his views were in any way sexist.

 

Here’s what Harris said in his own defense:

My candor and my delivery of most things can be and usually is quite blunt. Can’t help who I am, but what I’m not, and never have been is a misogynist or sexist or any number of things I was called. I have the utmost respect for all the women in my life from my mother, my sister, motherinlaw, my wife and wonderful 2 daughters…

So I am a Misogynist? Why? Because I frown upon Posers who are sad, needy fakers who use up all my air at Cons? Sorry, while you Cos”Play” Im actually at work. Thats my office. F–k you. I actually dont hate women, I dont fear them either. Nor do I mistrust them. I do not portray or Objectify half naked women in my work. I never have. I have always been VERY vocal about my dislike of that practice, and that my view is and has been that T&A in comics is a Pox. If you wanna come at me with accusations of Misogyny and sexism, youll be wrong. I think there are several Hundred “PRos” I could rattle off that are doing a fine job of perpetuating that crap without ANY help from me. Its not helping to further our industry. Hey haters, Im not sad, lonely, stupid, uneducated, gay, nor do I wear Assess for a Hat. Im not a Sexist, and have been very vocal about the fact that its a GOOD thing to see so many female fans at shows, and I treat them with the same kindness and respect as I do ANY male fan I meet. I guess the one mistake I made in my original post was that I excluded Men.

And here, by way of contrast, is the full text of his original statement:

I cant remember if Ive said this before, but Im gonna say it anyway. I dont give a crap.I appreciate a pretty Gal as much as the next Hetero Male. Sometimes I even go in for some racy type stuff ( keeping the comments PG for my Ladies sake) but dammit, dammit, dammit I am so sick and tired of the whole COSPLAY-Chiks. I know a few who are actually pretty cool-and BIG Shocker, love and read Comics.So as in all things, they are the exception to the rule. Heres the statement I wanna make, based on THE RULE: “Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC. But we are onto you. Some of us are aware that you are ever so average on an everyday basis. But you have a couple of things going your way. You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public, and yer either skinny( Well, some or most of you, THINK you are ) or you have Big Boobies. Notice I didnt say GREAT Boobies? You are what I refer to as “CON-HOT”. Well not by my estimation, but according to a LOT of average Comic Book Fans who either RARELY speak to, or NEVER speak to girls. Some Virgins, ALL unconfident when it comes to girls, and the ONE thing they all have in common? The are being preyed on by YOU. You have this really awful need for attention, for people to tell you your pretty, or Hot, and the thought of guys pleasuring themselves to the memory of you hanging on them with your glossy open lips, promising them the Moon and the Stars of pleasure, just makes your head vibrate. After many years of watching this shit go down every 3 seconds around or in front of my booth or table at ANY given Con in the country, I put this together. Well not just me. We are LEGION. And here it is, THE REASON WHY ALL THAT, sickens us: BECAUSE YOU DONT KNOW SH-T ABOUT COMICS, BEYOND WHATEVER GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH YOU DID TO GET REF ON THE MOST MAINSTREAM CHARACTER WITH THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER. And also, if ANY of these guys that you hang on tried to talk to you out of that Con? You wouldnt give them the f–king time of day. Shut up you damned liar, no you would not. Lying, Liar Face. Yer not Comics. Your just the thing that all the Comic Book, AND mainstream press flock to at Cons. And the real reason for the Con, and the damned costumes yer parading around in? That would be Comic Book Artists, and Comic Book Writers who make all that sh-t up.

I’d initially planned to bold all the gender-specific fuckery in that post, but I ended up with only about two unbolded sentences. Instead, here’s a breakdown of Harris’s rant, sans the mysteriously German captialisation of random nouns and (one hopes) a better grasp of syntax:

  • As a straight man, Harris appreciates nice-looking women and even likes some racey stuff, but is sick of female cosplayers.
  • In his opinion, women who “are actually pretty cool and – big shocker – love and read comics” are, “as in all things, the exception to the rule”.
  • Such women, according to Harris, might think themselves pretty, but are actually physically average, boasting little more than a trim waist or maybe some decent boobs. At best, they’re “con-hot”, and the only guys stupid enough to genuinely find them attractive are, in Harris’s estimation, virginal men whose contact with real live women is limited, and who, by inference, have no real expertise or taste in female beauty.
  • Female cosplayers like to prey on the sexual naivety of poor, inexperienced men they secretly think are pathetic; and yet the thought of becoming masturbatory fodder for such awkward virgins literally makes their heads vibrate with pleasure, even though they’d otherwise never give them the time of day.
  • Not only don’t these women really know about comics – they’re deliberately choosing the skimpiest outfits just to attract attention! Outfits that only exist because comic book artists and writers made them up, and for which they should show more gratitude.

And I just… there’s something I’d like to say about all that. Several somethings, actually.

Thing the First: Decrying Sexism Doesn’t Magically Stop You From Being Sexist, Even If You Really Mean It

And especially not when you clearly have no idea of what actually constitutes sexism. Because I mean: unless Harris is seriously contending that everything in his original screed could be equally said of men – which would itself be massively self-contradictory, given his stated belief that women who love and read comics are the exception to the rule, thus implying that any scantily-clad, faux-geek, manipulative male cosplayers would be hard pressed to find a similarly naive, virginal bunch of ladynerds to abuse – then his claim that ” the one mistake I made in my original post was that I excluded Men” makes no sense whatsoever. Because contrary to what his later defense attempts to assert, he was never talking about ignorant cosplayers as a universal problem for which he just so happened to pick a gendered example: his gripe was – quite specifically and explicitly – with how female cosplayers unfairly manipulate men by dint of being… well, women in sexy costumes.

Dear Mr Harris, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this: the fact that you respect the women in your life doesn’t mean you necessarily respect all women equally – the former does not innately imply the latter. Quite clearly, in fact, your respect for women is highly conditional; otherwise, you’re wholly content to bodyshame them (“Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl”), shutshame them (“You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public”), casually objectify them (“con-hot”), morally police their clothing choices (“THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER”) and generally sexualise them (“yer either skinny…or you have Big Boobies”) as a way of demeaning their character, personhood and motives – and that, Mr Harris? That is the textbook definition of sexism. Not – and I want to make this absolutely clear – NOT because you dared to express your heterosexual awareness of what women look like, but because you did so purely to belittle in a context that not only described their crime as being irrevocably gendered, but as one which you claim is committed by the majority of female cosplayers simply because they’re women.  I don’t care what you meant to say, what you thought you said or what you’ve attempted to say subsequently: you have literally, actually said these things and refused to either acknowledge their offensiveness or apologise for it. Respect your female family members all you want; that doesn’t make what you’ve said about female cosplayers any less thoroughly rooted in a deeply stereotypical misogyny.

Which leads me to:

Thing the Second: The Existence Of Female Family Members Does Not Automatically Stop You From Being Sexist 

Invoking the existence of your daughters/female relatives as a way of proving your feminism (or at least, your status as a non-sexist, non-misogynist) is, uh… really, really, really flawed as a tactic. Let me phrase it delicately: this is not a unique fucking quality, and it certainly isn’t specific to non-sexists, as though the presence of misogyny in the bloodstream can somehow magically repress the production of female sperm in men (to say nothing of causing all wives, aunts, sisters, mothers and female cousins to spontaneously combust). Every man has a mother, and every woman a father. That doesn’t automatically prevent any of them from being monstrous, or abusive, or sexist, or a rapist, or the kind of supposedly well-meaning jerk who treats his wife like a princess but makes ugly comments about which of his female coworkers he’d bang provided she lost some weight. OK? Your self-reported benevolence as a husband and father has sweet fuck all to do with your treatment of strangers, even the ones who identify as women. Todd Akin is married with six children, for Pete’s sake, but that didn’t prevent him from claiming that women can’t get pregnant through rape.

And, finally:

Thing the Third: You Don’t Get To Slutshame Women For Wearing Costumes Designed By Men

I’ve already made this point in the comments over at John Scalzi’s blog, but I think it bears repeating. Specifically:

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that a straight white male comics artist – that is, a professional member of a fraternity whose members frequently get froth-mouthed with rage at the VERY SUGGESTION that maybe, just MAYBE, consistently drawing female heroes in skintight, skimpy clothes, viscerally sexualised poses and impossible bodily contortions MIGHT JUST BE a little bit sexist and demeaning – is now saying women who dress as those selfsame characters are slutty? Like, do we not see the contradiction, here? How is it fine to rabidly defend the hypersexualised portrayal of comic book heroines as being no big deal, aesthetically justified, representative of their characters, traditional and all that jazz, but then start body- and slut-shaming actual, real live women who choose to cosplay those outfits? If the costumes themselves had no overt sexual component, or if such a component was present, but ultimately benign – as most comics apologists tend to argue – then the idea that actual women could dress that way specifically to prey on the sexual sensibilities of men who like those characters should be fundamentally ludicrous, regardless of the depth and breadth of their personal comics knowledge.

Seriously, angry comic guys: you cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that female comic heroines aren’t hypersexualised, and then claim that, merely by donning their costumes, real live women are sexualising themselves, and that their primary motive for doing so must therefore be to mess with you. No. THEY’RE DRESSING THE WAY YOU INSIST ON WOMEN DRESSING, AND THEN YOU’RE SHAMING THEM FOR IT.

What’s that, Mr Harris? You say you’ve always been “VERY vocal” about your dislike of women being drawn sexually? You don’t “objectify half-naked women” in your work, and you think that “T&A in comics is a pox”? I agree wholeheartedly! But that doesn’t mean you get to disparage female cosplayers for wearing outfits which, thanks to the sexism of other comics writers and artists, are almost universally revealing, tight-fitting, low-cut, cleavage-enhancing or otherwise sexually loaded. In fact, if such skimpy outfits are the result of objectification, then aren’t those poor, naive men you’re defending similarly objectifying the women who wear them? Unless, of course, you’re excusing their lust on the grounds that any woman who wears a revealing cosplay outfit is necessarily objectifying herself, and therefore deserves it – but as we’ve already established, non-sexualised female characters in mainstream comics – and especially superhero comics – are few and far between. Which means that, by your way of thinking, female cosplayers can either restrict themselves to portaying a vanishingly small number of ‘acceptable’ characters, or not bother at all – because as your original rant makes clear, any woman who opts for a skimpier costume must always be morally suspect.

And that, frankly, is bullshit. The problem with the hypersexualisation of women in comics isn’t that women’s bodies are inherently shameful and ought to be hidden accordingly – it’s that showing heroines in relentlessly sexual attitudes, costumes and postures for the benefit of the (predominantly straight, male) audience regardless of plot relevance and the limits of human anatomy is demeaning to both the characters themselves and women generally. It implies that women must always strive to be attractive; that failing to highlight our physical assets at all times is effectively a misdeed, or at best, a missed opportunity. But if and when we freely choose to exhibit our sexuality – if we, as autonomous individuals, elect to wear bustiers and thigh-high boots in public as part of a cosplay, or just for the hell of it, or because it makes us feel beautiful? Then that is our fucking prerogative, and it doesn’t change our basic humanity or dignity a jot. More importantly still, it doesn’t mean we’re there for your ogling pleasure. By assuming we’re only in it for the thrill of being objectified and drooling at or disparaging us accordingly (which, let me tell you, is much less a thrill than it is a threat), you deny our humanity, our dignity: you insist that our personhood is a one-dimensional, sexual thing, and you forget the myriad complex reasons that necessarily comprise our decision to go out in public or to participate in subculture. You forget that we can take pleasure in dressing up, in pushing our usual boundaries to honour a favourite character, or even – brace for the heresy! – to portray a character we’ve only just discovered, but whom we happen to think looks cool. You forget that our clothes or bodies aren’t inherently shameful, that the problem is with your insistence on defining us by our flesh alone; you forget that objectification is the villain, and not the mechanisms through which we elect to love ourselves.

In short, Mr Harris: you are a sexist ass. And now that the internet’s dropped on your head, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave - plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave – I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape, particularly if you click the link.

Internets, we need to talk about fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker.

Specifically, we need to talk about what he has to say on the subject of women, sexism and feminism in his own work. Which is, frankly, both frightening and creepy as fuck, but made even more problematic by the fact that Bakker considers himself to be a feminist writer (or at least, neither a sexist nor misogynistic one). In fact, he is both angry and flabbergasted at the temerity of anyone who suggests otherwise – particularly his “feminist critics”.

Here are some of Bakker’s quotes from the above link:

Evil is sexualised in my books, primarily because the primary icon of evil in modern society is the serial murderer, which is to say the serial rapist who kills his victims. In this sense, ‘evil’ is clearly gendered in contemporary consciousness…

What I’m always interested in in all my books is the reader, their moral sensibilities and their biological drives(among other things). I always assume this reader is male. As a male, I know the ways of the male gaze…

I have a very grim, very pessimistic view of male sexuality. For instance, in NP [his new book, Neuropath], for instance, one of the ‘future facts’ referenced is the discovery of a ‘rape module’ in male brains… As dismaying as this possibility is, it seems to make a whole helluva lot of evolutionary sense… The point, at every turn, is to poke the reader and say, some part of this is you, some part of you likes this, irrespective of what you shout…

So here I am, being relentlessly critical, not only of the genre, but of male sexuality and where it’s headed, and being called a misogynist because I’m provoking by engaging – playing Nabokov’s game…

The future will be more and more pornographic. Why? Because we, as a species, lack the conceptual resources to make any argument regarding moral conduct outside instances of obvious harm stick…

So, yes, women get the short end of the stick in all my books.Why? Because they find themselves caught in predatory systems designed to exploit them. Depicting strong women, ‘magic exemptions’, simply fuels the boot-strapping illusion that is strangling contemporary feminism: the assumption that the individual can overcome their social circumstances…

I have yet to encounter one remotely convincing argument as [to] why the approach I’m taking is inherently ‘bad’… I have no duty to conform to anyone’s ‘rules of representation’.


Or, to put it another way, Bakker writes:

  • for an exclusively male audience,
  • in the male gaze,
  • using sexualised evil commited by men against women,
  • in pornographic detail,
  • in the apparent belief that rape is an inevitable part of male psychology,
  • with the deliberate aim of omitting strong female characters

and doesn’t understand why feminist readers characterise him as sexist and misogynistic; or, at the absolute least, not feminist. Indeed, the idea that writing positively both for and about women is integral to being a feminist writer seems never to have occurred to him.

The level of doublethink here is staggering, and yet I can just about parse his (incredibly twisted) logic. Seemingly, Bakker thinks that male violence, and particularly sexual violence, is both innate and inevitable. His aim, at least in part, is to convince his male readers likewise, showing them their own dark side in order to make them uncomfortably aware of its dangers. As entities, women who triumph over, alter or otherwise subvert this reality are completely unrealistic, because no amount of hope or belief will ever change man’s bestial nature, and therefore women will always be oppressed. Any story or statement to the contrary is damaging to feminism, because it gives women an unrealistic view of their prospects in life. Instead, it’s better to focus on making men aware of their innate capacity for evil, so that they can try and rein it in.

This isn’t even a white knight view of female helplessness; chivalry at least demands an effort towards saving, protecting and helping women. Instead, Bakker seems to believe that the best possible outcome isn’t for men to protect women, but to repress their desire to hurt them – which isn’t the same thing. Feminism in this view, then, shouldn’t be about female empowerment, but about making men aware of their own violence. Which, presumably, is why Bakker is so skeptical of such feminists who do critique his work – poor souls, they’re under the deluded impression that things could ever get better! He rejects the label of misogynist because he doesn’t personally hate women: he just thinks we’re doomed to suffer at the hands of men beyond our ability to combat it. And he rejects the label of sexist because, in his own, warped way, he’s trying to make people aware of the only real danger he perceives as a threat to us: sexual violence.

In short: Bakker is a nihilist, and his nihilism informs his gender politics, and both inform his writing; and I suspect, therefore, that until or unless he’s willing and able to disentangle his beliefs about nihilism and the inevitability of male violence from his concept of feminism (to say nothing of his concept of reality), he can’t actually have a concept of feminism that accords with, you know. What feminism actually is. (Or reality, for that matter.)

In the mean time, though, Mr Bakker, if you’re listening (and based on the experiences of others, I’m going to assume you are): if you write books specifically for men, in the male gaze, that are devoid of unvictimised female characters, full of pornographically written rape, and which represent a world-view in which women can never succeed – and where, in fact, the best we can hope for is that men learn to like us enough that they repress their terrible, innate desire to hurt us – you shouldn’t be surprised that many people – most of them feminists! – find your work appalling. Feminism believes that the world can and will get better for women: in fact, it exists to make this happen! Feminism has a higher opinion of men than you do, because it doesn’t countenance the biological inevitability of male violence; rather, it acknowledges that, as some cultures and individuals believe this (falsely) to be so, it ends up being promoted, excused and deferred to beyond all reason. And if you believe both these things to be false, then you shouldn’t be surprised that feminists categorise you as part of the problem: as a sexist, and a misogynist.

Because whatever you think of women, Mr Bakker, your willingness to deny our agency and strip us of hope says it all.

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

Everyone’s heard of friendzoning – even if they don’t know the word, they sure as hell know the concept. It’s what happens time and again to unfortunate Nice Guys who, despite being nothing but sugar and spice to the girls they love, are nonetheless denied the sexual relationships they so obviously deserve and are instead treated like platonic equals – a terrible, unfair fate spawned by the dark side of feminism.

And if you thought even part of that statement was correct, Imma stop you right there.

To borrow the succinct, nail-head-hitting phraseology of one hexjackal*:

Friendzoning is bullshit because girls are not machines that you put Kindness Coins into until sex falls out.

Dear Hypothetical Interlocutor whose hackles just bristled with the unfairness of that statement; who thinks that girls can be in the Friend Zone, too, and that therefore this point is both invalid and reverse-sexist into the bargain. For your edification, I would like to submit the following definitions of the term Friend Zone as supplied by Urban Dictionary:

1. “The ‘friend zone’ is like the penalty box of dating, only you can never get out. Once a girl decides you’re her ‘friend’, it’s game over. You’ve become a complete non-sexual entity in her eyes, like her brother, or a lamp.” – Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends.

‘I’ve been locked in the friend zone with her since high school!’

2. A state of being where a male inadvertently becomes a ‘platonic friend’ of an attractive female who he was trying to intiate a romantic relationship. Females have been rumored to arrive in the Friend Zone, but reports are unsubstantiated.

Girl: “I love you (Insert the poor bastard’s name here,) but I dont want to ruin a great friendship by dating you.” 
Guy: “Well why the fuck did I waste two months on you?”

and Wikipedia:

There are differing explanations about what causes the friend zone. One report suggests that some women don’t see their male friends as potential love interests because they fear that deepening their relationship might cause a loss of the romance and mystery or lead to rejection later…

Dating adviser Ali Binazir described the friend zone as Justfriendistan, and wrote that it’s a “territory only to be rivaled in inhospitability by the western Sahara, the Atacama desert, and Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.”

I therefore submit to you, Hypothetical Interlocutor, that the Friend Zone is not an equal opportunities habitat. It is where men go – or more accurately, where men perceive themselves to go – when women fail to reward their friendship with sex. Or, to quote the immortal wisdom of the internet:

Slut is how we vilify a woman for exercising her right to say yes.

Friendzone is how we vilify a woman for exercising her right to say no.

Here’s the thing, Hypothetical Interlocutor: if you truly are a self-professed Nice Guy (and I strongly suspect that you are), then you probably espouse the belief that women and men are equal. More than espouse – you believe! You know! Except that, somewhere along the line, you’ve got it into your head that if you’re romantically interested in a girl who sees you only as a friend, her failure to reciprocate your feelings is just that: a failing. That because you’re nice and treat her well, she therefore owes you at least one opportunity to present yourself as a viable sexual candidate, even if she’s already made it clear that this isn’t what she wants. That because she legitimately enjoys a friendship that you find painful (and which you’re under no obligation to continue), she is using you. That if a man wants more than friendship with a woman, then the friendship itself doesn’t even attain the status of a consolation prize, but is instead viewed as hell: a punishment to be endured because, so long as he thinks she owes him that golden opportunity, he is bound to persist in an association that hurts him – not because he cares about the friendship, but because he feels he’s invested too much kindness not to stick around for the (surely inevitable, albeit delayed) payoff.

And if she never sleeps with him? Then she’s a bitch.

I cannot state this clearly enough: if you really believe in equality, then you have to acknowledge the fact that women have a right to say no. That no matter how pure and true your feelings, your ladylove is under no obligation whatever to reciprocate them, because friendship is not a business transaction, and women are allowed to want male friends. Yes, it is difficult and sad and heartbreaking to love someone who doesn’t love you back, and doubly so when that person is a friend. Believe me; I speak from experience. This is not a fun thing to endure! But discounting the woman as a bitch, a user, a timewaster, a whore with no taste who only wants to sleep with arseholes instead of Nice Guys like you is not on. It is pure, unadulterated sexism: the attitude that friendship with a woman is only ever a stepping-stone to getting into her pants, such that if the pants-getting is off the table, then so too is the friendship.

Which, frankly, is bullshit. If you don’t care enough about someone to enjoy their company and respect their decisions when sex is off the table, then that person is right not to sleep with you, because enjoying someone’s company and respecting their decisions is pretty much how sex gets on the table to start with.

To quote the single best point in an otherwise deeply problematic Cracked piece:

What we learned as kids is that we males are each owed, and will eventually be awarded, a beautiful woman. We were told this by every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, video game and song we encountered…

In each case, the woman has no say in this — compatibility doesn’t matter, prior relationships don’t matter, nothing else factors in. If the hero accomplishes his goals, he is awarded his favorite female. Yes, there will be dialogue that maybe makes it sound like the woman is having doubts, and she will make noises like she is making the decision on her own. But we, as the audience, know that in the end the hero will “get the girl,” just as we know that at the end of the month we’re going to “get our paycheck.” Failure to award either is breaking a societal contract. The girl can say what she wants, but we all know that at the end, she will wind up with the hero, whether she knows it or not.

And now you see the problem. From birth we’re taught that we’re owed a beautiful girl. We all think of ourselves as the hero of our own story, and we all (whether we admit it or not) think we’re heroes for just getting through our day.

So it’s very frustrating, and I mean frustrating to the point of violence, when we don’t get what we’re owed. A contract has been broken. These women, by exercising their own choices, are denying it to us. It’s why every Nice Guy is shocked to find that buying gifts for a girl and doing her favors won’t win him sex. It’s why we go to “slut” and “whore” as our default insults — we’re not mad that women enjoy sex. We’re mad that women are distributing to other people the sex that they owed us.

In pop culture, girls who crush hopelessly on guys they can’t have are painted as just that – hopeless. Over and over again, we’re taught that girls who openly express sexual or romantic interest in guys who don’t want them are pitiable, stalkerish, desperate, crazy bitches. More often than not, they’re also portrayed as ugly –  whether physically, emotionally or both –  in order to further establish their undesirability as an objective fact. Both narratively and, as a consequence, in real life, men are given free reign to snub, abuse, mislead and talk down to such women: we’re raised to believe that female desire is unseemly, so that any consequent shaming is therefore deserved. There is no female-equivalent Friend Zone terminology because, in the language of our culture, a man’s romantic choices are considered sacrosanct and inviolable. If a girl has been told no, then she has only herself to blame for anything that happens next – but if a woman says no, then she must not really mean it. Or, if she does, she shouldn’t: the rejected man is a universally sympathetic figure, and everyone from moviegoers to platonic onlookers will scream at her to just give him a chance, as though her rejection must always be unfounded rather than based on the fact that he had a chance, and blew it. And even then, give him another one! The pathos of Single Nice Guys can only be eased by pity-sex with unwilling women that blossoms into romance!

Well, screw that. The Friend Zone is a fundamentally sexist construction based solely on the idea that women should be penalised for putting their own romantic happiness above that of an interested man. If a lady doesn’t want you, then either respect her decision and keep away to salve your heart, or respect her decision and stay because you still think she’s cool enough to be worth the effort of friendship. But if you don’t respect her decision, then you don’t respect her – and if you don’t respect her, then stay the fuck out of her life.

*Amendment, 11 April 2012: Originally, the first quote in this piece was attributed to Aeryn Walker. However, she has since informed me that the kindness/coins line originated with @hexjackal, and though I don’t have the exact reference for that first attribution, I’ve nonetheless changed it in the text.

Responding to my post on default narrative sexism, commenter Kevin Veale reported the following incident:

It also reminds me, sadly, of a thread yesterday where an RPG author posted a question about how to shift cultural dynamics about gender in an RPG setting. The thread then proceeded to implode with a bunch of bullshit where people were citing other examples where authors had tried that as “bullshit” because “They’re doing unrealistic stuff purely to create a bizarro world where it’d be cool if women were cavalry,” rather than the listed intent of said author to create a different gender dynamic.

Being both a geek and a ladyperson, this phenomenon is one I’ve encountered many times before, and always felt frustrated by – so much so that I’ve decided to upgrade my response from comment to post.

The sort of incident mentioned above is sadly common in geek culture – a blind and subtle species of sexism-as-normative wherein any attempt to reverse established gender dynamics is written off as a nothing more than cheap attempt at novelty by virtue of the fact that the audience either didn’t expect it or doesn’t see the utility of it. Back when I first started playing D&D in highschool, I remember the pleasant feeling of shock and surprise when, on opening the handbook, I found that all the pronouns used to describe the hypothetical players and characters were female ones. When, seconds later, I remarked on this fact out loud, my then-boyfriend instantly expressed his irritation at it, saying something along the lines of, ‘They’re only doing it to seem cool and politically correct.’ And being sixteen, I instantly found myself agreeing with him: partly because he was my boyfriend (alas!) but mostly because it genuinely did look weird – by which I mean, of course, that I’d never seen it done before. And because I had no grounding in feminism at that point, and even though it had made me feel validated and welcomed as a girl geek just moments earlier, I took up his stance both then and for quite a while afterwards: that switching up the gender pronouns was just an arbitrary, pointless thing people sometimes did to look hip. Whereas, of course, the point was right there in my initial reaction: to make girls like me feel happier playing D&D, and – though it failed with my group of friends – perhaps to make male players more thoughtful and less judgmental when it came to women in general.

As far as I can tell, straight male geeks in particular tend to adopt this position – that is, Random Girls = Bad – for any of three main reasons:

1. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly dominated by images of hyper-sexualised women (anime, maquettes, comics, video games) that even though female characters are frequently shown to excel in traditionally masculine roles across all such media – as mechanics, hackers, warriors, engineers, gunsmiths, leaders and pilots, for instance – their visual, physical sexiness (and, frequently, costuming) is designed to signal that these attributes, rather than being markers of competence and equality, are instead intended as, essentially, masturbatory aids on par with their physical assets: the fantasy of hot women made even hotter by their (to the audience) unrealistic-yet-droolworthy possession of masculine skills. This is why fanservice, unrealistic bodies, ridiculous costuming and wildly impossible poses are so very, very frustrating to female geeks and feminists: because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their sole utility and relevance is on the level of sexual exploitation. And though most straight male fans are self-aware enough to realise such bodies are meant as unrealistic fantasies, many still have a disturbing tendency to take the logic further, concluding that if women with ridiculous bodies and costumes are unrealistic – and if, given this fact, it’s similarly improbable that women who look, dress and act like that would actually go about their jobs that way in the real world – then logically, real women must not belong in those professions, because the idea that they might do is itself part of the fantasy.

2. Having realised that the depiction of women in games, comics, collectibles and anime is meant as part of a tailor-made fantasy, many straight male geeks, somewhat unsurprisingly, have become aware of something else: that as said fantasy has been explicitly created for and subsequently targeted, marketed and sold to them, there must be someone out there whose goal is to exploit – and subsequently profit from – their sexual desires. Rather than undertake an intellectual exploration of the relationship between sex, gender and advertising in a capitalist system, however, a disappointing number of these geeks make a different and altogether more prejudicial leap: that the presence of women in an otherwise male-dominated environment can be directly correlated with the efforts of corporations to take their money. Their willingness to pay for the product in this equation, whether pre-existing or not, is immaterial: women, and particularly sexy women, have become a red-flag event. Any attempt to insert women into a setting previously devoid of them must therefore come under immediate suspicion. Women are a cash-gathering exercise, the go-to weapon in some cynical marketeer’s arsenal to help Company A more readily collect the hard-earned monies of geeks everywhere; booth babes being a case in point. After all, straight male geeks are very aware of their own negative sexual stereotyping: the fact that they may conform to it at times doesn’t make it any less offensive when it’s being used to exploit them – and the fact that it is used exploitatively is why the sexy female character problem exists to begin with.

But that doesn’t excuse their knee-jerk reaction to and blaming of women themselves: sexism and the system are at fault, not women as entities. And yet, the niggling suspicion of straight male geeks that girls are just there to take their money ends up tarnishing not only legitimate, unsexualised instances of female characterisation, but the efforts of actual geek girls to be taken seriously. All girl gamer group? Yeah, they’re just a novelty act – we’re only meant to like them ‘coz they’re pretty. Girls reading comics or playing video games? Hot, but they’re probably just doing it so boys will like them. Girl geeks in costumes? Total attention whores – they just want men to throw money at them. The same thing happens in music circles, too, among other places. All girl rock band? Fuckable pop-moppet posers – they only got signed ‘coz they look good on a poster. And on, and on, and on.

3. Genuine incomprehension. This is the kindest blindness – a benevolent sexism found in straight male geeks who have nothing against women, per se; it’s just that, all unaware of their own privilege, they’ve never had to think about sexism or exploitation or anything like that, so if the issue comes up offhand, they’re unlikely to see the utility in trying to make women more visible, or to change the way they’re depicted – and if there’s no utility, why do it? After all, women have the vote now, right? And equal opportunities and laws and stuff? And it’s not like anyone’s forcing them to play video games or read comics or watch anime or whatever, so why is it our problem if they don’t like how it works?

Depending on the personality of the geek in question, any conversation after this point can go one of several ways. The most positive, assuming both that you have the time and inclination to explain sexism in geek culture from first principles and that your interlocutor is willing to listen, is that they realise the problem exists and see the utility of female inclusion. The most negative will devolve into angry defenses of the status quo along the lines of the points raised above, with (if you’re very unlucky) a side-order of genuine misogyny thrown in. I mention this because, while the first two points follow fairly specific trains of thought, the reasons for ignorance are wide-ranging; as are potential reactions to the prospect of enlightenment.  Nobody likes to be told they’ve been complicit in something they might otherwise hold in contempt, and particularly not when you tie that complicity to the things they love most, no matter how significant the connection is.

And this, really, is the crux of the problem. Thanks to several decades’ worth of abuse and mockery from the mainstream, geeks as a culture are used to seeing themselves – ourselves – as underdogs. This creates a false sense of certainty that, being outcasts together, we can’t possibly be discounting, belittling or abusing anyone, let alone other outcasts, in the way that we ourselves have been discounted, belittled, abused. Which premise rests squarely on the demonstrably false assurance that people never become what is done to them; that no victims ever become perpetrators. And as I have said again and again, intentionality only takes you so far, and it isn’t very. Intend all you want to be a responsible driver – but if you run someone over by accident, they’ll still be just as dead.

Is that it exists.

I am a fan of anime, and have been since I was about twelve. The earliest stuff I remember seeing was Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Vampire Hunter D, with some snippets of Rurouni Kenshin and Gunsmith Cats thrown in for good measure. The first series I ever properly watched were Evangelion, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040Cowboy Bebop and Noir, with the Lain soundtrack providing background music to many a high school party. Later, at the start of university, I was introduced simultaneously to Ninja Scroll, Love Hina, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the works of Hayao Miyazaki, which is a surprisingly thorough gamut for the range of anime narratives. Since then, I’ve been watching pretty much anything that gets recommended to me or which catches my eye, the most recent examples being Last Exile, Fruits Basket, Bamboo Blade and Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge. All of which is a way of saying: I love anime. It’s been part of my life for thirteen years, and at no point during that time has my interest for it been passive or half-hearted. Which is perhaps why it’s taken me so long to come to realise that there is, in fact, a caveat on those affections. Because when you love something deeply – and particularly when it’s a thing you’ve loved since the cusp of adolescence – it can be very, very hard to pull back and deal with that thing in a critical manner.

But.

I hate fanservice so fucking much.

Anyone who’s ever watched anime knows what I’m talking about. For anyone who hasn’t, allow me to demonstrate the scope of the problem as follows:

Yeah. About that.

To be clear: I still watch anime that contains fanservice. Partly because, in the case of shows I knew and loved prior to the revelation of my hatred, it doesn’t taint my appreciation of them; partly because fanservice does not, by itself, make the rest of a show terrible; but mostly because there isn’t an alternative. While there’s certainly anime out there that lacks fanservice, it’s a definite minority and can be tricky to find, particularly if you’re wanting to watch a show with multiple female characters. Fruits Basket and Nadeshiko, for instance, while both awesome and non-fanservicey, are also examples of male harem shojo, meaning that the female protagonists – respectively Tohru and Sunako – are effectively lone women surrounded by gorgeous men, the extent of whose Regularly Demonstrable Sexiness tends to hinge on bishie sparkle, cross-dressing and occasional shirtlessness. Which is, of itself, noteworthy, because I can’t think of a comparable genre/form that regularly creates male harems or caters to female sexual fantasies that way. What strikes me in the comparison, though, is that moments of male sexiness are almost never built into costume design in the way that female fanservice is. The practical upshot of this is that while Fruits Basket looks like this:

and Nadeshiko looks like this:

Motoko Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex still has to spend a season like this:

while Cowboy Bebop’s Faye Valentine gets to wear this:

To highlight the disparity further: both Fruits Basket and Nadeshiko are romantic shojo, meaning that they are specifically aimed at women and actively concerned with relationships – in other words, the type of show you’d most expect to get fanservicey if it were written for men. But Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk political thriller with existential undertones, while Cowboy Bebop is a hard SF drama about bounty hunters in space.  Which begs the question: if that’s the base level of fanservice in shows that aren’t aimed purely at men and which don’t have any inherent investment in sex, romance or relationships, then how bad does it get when those elements are also in play?

Internets, allow me to introduce you to Hyakka Ryoran Samurai Girls. It looks like this:

It’s shows like this which make me love Boobs Don’t Work That Way so very much. And that is the only good thing I will ever say about Samurai Girls.

The strongest attraction anime has for me is the profusion of female characters doing every conceivable type of awesome thing. They are hackers, warriors, starship pilots, psychics, mages, priestesses, ambassadors, thieves, bounty hunters, police officers, mothers, students, friends, sisters, daughters, alchemists, mechanics, cooks, wives, dress-makers, geeks, villains, heroes, anti-heroes, athletes, goddesses, demons, chosen ones and unchosen ones, carpenters, cleaners, queens, doctors, psychologists, nurses, witches, waitresses, writers, gunsmiths, swords-fighters, shapeshifters, teachers, confidantes and lovers. They are everything, and what’s more, they are everything equally, as though there were never any question that a top-level military submarine might have a female captain or an experimental space station be populated by as many women as men. I cannot describe the thrill of elation that went through me as a teenager when, after channel surfing one night, I landed on SBS and caught the last ten minutes of what I only later learned was an episode of Gunsmith Cats. Still new to anime, I was amazed by a cartoon that depicted violence, but flat-out hooked by the idea of one where the gun-toting, badass protagonists were women. I didn’t notice the fanservice, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known what to call it. What mattered was the ladies themselves: the fact that I was watching, not just a show where women did awesome things, but where their ability to do so went unquestioned.

Here’s what saddens me about anime: that shows like Samurai Girls pass the Bechdel test at the same time as their visuals undermine everything that it stands for. So do Full Metal Panic, Azumanga DaiohLucky Star, Love Hina and just about any other shonen-oriented, slice of life or female harem story you care to name – but all while upskirting, side-boobing, cleavage-enlarging, skintight-wearing, fetish-enabling, proportion-warping artwork creates a visual dissonance with characters whose dialogue, friendships and personalities would otherwise stand on their own merits. Even in shows which don’t pass, like Ghost in the Shell: SAC and Cowboy Bebop, lone female characters who are tough, multifaceted, intelligent, complex, competent and believable still end up drawn like Playboy bunnies for reasons that have nothing to do with plot and everything to do with pandering to a horny male fanbase. This isn’t just an argument about unrealistic portrayals of women (though that’s certainly a parallel concern), but of what happens when you draw beautiful girls for the sole purpose of sexually objectifying them – and worse, when doing so is deemed to be such an integral part of a given culture that you not only start to expect it, but make allowances for it. Because anime is just like that, and how can I say I like anime if I’m going to criticise it? Isn’t that like saying I like fruit, then bitching about strawberries?

No, actually. It’s like saying I enjoy sex, then bitching about rape.

Some of the shows I’ve listed are ones I love; others I’m ambivalent towards, or actively dislike. But in almost every instance where I’ve ever stopped watching an anime, the reason has nothing to do with a dislike of the plot, premise or characterisation, and everything to do with how the women are treated. Samurai Girls and Full Metal Panic both have plots and settings that appeal to me; in both cases, I’ve turned away, furious, because I can’t stand to watch another upskirt shot or listen to another hatefully forced conversation about women’s boobs or underwear. And then I see something like this:

and end up angry all over again. Because, look: I know that poster’s meant as a joke. And I have a sense of humour! But for female viewers, fanservice is not gravy. Fanservice is sexism’s way of making us accept our own objectification for the sake of a good story, even where the story would be just as good – if not considerably better – without it. Because ultimately, the logic behind all fanservice can be boiled down to the following sentiment: that female characters, no matter how powerful, awesome and complex, are at their most interesting and relevant when drawn to look fuckable.

And to that I say: FUCK NO.

In the past few days, Zoe Marriott, Sarah Rees-BrennanHolly Black and Cora Buhlert have all written awesome posts about the problem of reviewers dismissing female characters who aren’t to their tastes as being Mary Sues, with added discussion of what the term actually means, why male characters and/or authors aren’t held to similar standards, and the awesomeness of ladies. All of them have made excellent points. Zoe Marriott begins by saying:

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1. A female character who is too perfect
2. A female character who kicks too much butt
3. A female character who gets her way too easily
4. A female character who is too powerful
5. A female character who has too many flaws
6. A female character who has the wrong flaws
7. A female character who has no flaws
8. A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9. A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10. A female character who is too passive or boring

This is, quite obviously, a contradictory list, as Marriott is at pains to point out:

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

‘A female character.’

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around actually mean when they say ‘Mary-Sue’ is: ‘Female character I don’t like’.

That’s it. That’s all.

Following on from this, Holly Black expands on the dangers of using the phrase beyond outside its original context:

The problem with using this term outside of fanfiction is simple: the world of a novel has always configured around main characters. They are at its center and, often, they are the best at stuff. Kirk is, for example, is the best with romancing the green-skinned ladies. He’s also the best at leading. Spock is the best at being smart. Scotty is the best at keeping the Enterprise from being blown to pieces by the actions of both Kirk and Spock. Their skills are important and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to come along and be better at those things than they are.

So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that’s because she’s the protagonist. It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.

For example, I have seen complaints that the protagonist always wins the love of the main male character. What’s problematic about that is, well, of course she does, because if she’s the protagonist then whoever she loves becomes the main male character by virtue of his connection to the protagonist.

Sarah Rees-Brennan makes a hugely important distinction between female characters who are realistically self-deprecating and those who aren’t allowed to like themselves, saying:

I am not saying that all girls in books or real life should never be insecure. I know I’m insecure about a bunch of things! And I have loved an insecure fictional lady many times…

I just don’t want to read about fictional girls who can’t think they’re awesome. I don’t like reading about those characters and I don’t like the mindset that produces them. The fictional girls I’m talking about aren’t meant to be depressed (I’d like to see more actually-depressed characters in literature: they can be heroes too)–they’re meant to seem normal, and likable.

I do not want to read about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not want to write about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not think I’m worthless.

Nobody has to like a girl, fictional or otherwise. But words like ‘annoying’ or ‘Mary Sue’ are both used as shorthand for ‘girl I want to dismiss.’ We’ve all read about characters who seemed overly perfect, or who had flaws the narrative wouldn’t admit were flaws, and those characters are irritating. But I’ve seen just as many fictional boys like that as fictional girls (with the caveat that boys tend to get more pagetime, so they get more explored) and those boys don’t get seen in the same way. As I was saying on twitter a couple days ago, I want characters to be flawed and awesome: I want them to be flawesome.

Finally, Cora Buhlert makes an important point about the hugely exclusionary tests designed to expose the flaws of Mary Sue characters:

The term “Mary Sue” has become completely overused of late. Partly this may be due to the various Mary Sue litmus tests that are available online and according to which pretty much every character is a Mary Sue. I just did the test for a female character in a realist novel of mine and even that character, with no magical powers whatsoever, scored 40 points. That’s not to say that such tests aren’t useful, within reason. But plenty of traits listed as Mary Sue symptoms in these tests are perfectly legitimate, as long as they don’t all occur at once.

Take a moment to click through to the test in question and eye a few of the questions. What quickly becomes apparent is that, as per Marriott’s list, correlation and causation have been deeply confused in the issue of Sueness to such a degree that many people now mistake – well, I was going to say the symptoms for the cause, but given the scope of the test, that metaphor doesn’t really work. Calling a character Mary Sue in the current climate on the basis of their having a traumatic background, an interesting name and an affinity with animals is equivalent to calling an old woman with a wart on her nose, a knowledge of herbs and a black cat a witch in the context of actual witch-burning. By which I mean: people are so terrified of accidentally countenancing the presence of a Mary Sue that they’ve started trying to identify them by sight, with predictably bad results.

The term Mary Sue began in fanfic, which is all about personal participation in other people’s narratives. It’s an awesome way to learn the ropes, make friends, test ideas, participate in fandom and generally have a good time, but self-insertion is more or less the point: not because all original fanfic characters are avatars for their authors, but because the whole point of fanfic is using your own ideas in someone else’s world. Extending this argument to original fiction is therefore inherently problematic, not least when reviewers and Sue-tests alike start sneering that such-and-such an author only did X because they thought it was cool, so obviously it’s a case of self-insertion. And it’s like, what? Did you honestly expect me to sit down and pour my heart into something I didn’t think was awesome? Writing stories we think are cool is sort of what authors do. We think, ‘Time-travelling lady space pirates? Hell yes!’ –  and then we go and do it. You might have different tastes, which is fine! But let’s be very clear on the matter: writers don’t insert themselves into stories. Stories insert themselves into us.

But the most damaging aspect of reviewers calling original characters Mary Sues is the fact that, precisely because of this lingering self-insertion argument, it only ever happens to female writers. By way of example, compare the description of George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen –  a silver-haired, purple-eyed, impossibly beautiful teenage queen born in exile with three dragon companions, legions of suitors, an abusive childhood and a prophetic destiny – with the contents of any Mary Sue checklist you care to name, and she’ll probably register at close to 100%. But what sort of critic is going to imply that George R. R. Martin, a straight man in his sixties, must secretly want to be a thirteen-year-old girl? A fairy unhinged one, is the answer, and even though Google can probably turn up a couple of examples to prove me wrong, the point is that all this dialogue about Sues tends to center on YA and UF novels – stories which, as Buhlert notes, are written predominantly by women.

But wait, I hear you cry, that’s not a fair comparison! Daenerys isn’t Martin’s only character. She’s one protagonist among many. Well, and I suppose that female authors only write about women? That they feel no connection to their male characters, and that no matter how large the cast, it’s only ever the leading lady who matters? (Anyone who answered yes, go to your room.) This is the other problem with calling Mary Sue on original works: it’s a scenario in which the author has created every single character. This is wildly distinct from the traditional fanfic setup which birthed the term, in which a single, original protagonist would be catapulted into an existing narrative. In those instances, that single character literally becomes the extension and embodiment of the writer’s will – a whole different kettle of fish to creating a cast from scratch. To quote Holly Black again:

The Mary Sue warps the story; the female protagonist is the story.

Which means that, if we want to play the Mary Sue card constructively – if we want it not to be sexist, applicable just as equally to the works of male authors as female, with Gary Stu put into equal usage – then we need to consider the trope for what it really is: the ultimate example of poor characterisation. Gama Stues – as I’m now going to call them, in the spirit of equality – do not grow. They come to their roles as static, perfect characters, capable of angst and internal monologues but without ever actually changing. Regardless of the genre trappings – because neither do I want to assume that Stues are solely the products of SFF – they are, contextually, so beautiful or desirable that everyone falls in love with them at the slightest provocation; a description which, as Cora Buhlert points out, is textbook James Bond. Their skillsets are deeply convenient to the plot, which by itself makes perfect sense, but are distinguished in this regard by being either so broad as to verge on the ridiculous, acquired with an ease that’s wildly disproportionate to their difficulty, or unreasonably inexplicable given the character’s origins.

They are, in short, badly written – but bad writing is a manifold thing, expressible in near-infinite variations. Tropes employed badly by one author might prove successful for another; the same is true of literary styles. And while I appreciate the tendency for particular characters to drive us up the wall, particularly when we detect similar themes emerging across multiple stories, pinning a label on just the women – let alone one that’s been hastily appropriated from a different context – does not constitute intelligent critical analysis. If you feel justified in disliking a certain story, then show your working. Don’t just say that someone is a Stue – tell us why.

It really is that simple.