Posts Tagged ‘Narrative’

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

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

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

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

Castiel: I could be your third wheel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam: What are you talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

Dean: No?

Sam: No, you can keep going.

Dean: Who says I want to?

Sam: What?

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

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

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

Sam: What is it about?

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

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

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

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

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

Dean: Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Dean and Castiel - Stupid For The Right Reasons

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

Castiel - Solidarity Sandwich

Castiel - Boop

Castiel - Cat Penis (1)

Castiel - FBI Badge

Castiel - Pizza Man

Castiel - People Skills

Castiel - Sorry

Castiel - Sexual Orientation

Castiel - Not Of Import

What’s not to like?

 

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

YA Article Bingo

The past few years have seen so many terrible articles in mainstream publications about the rise, worthiness and content of YA that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just last month, for instance, Joanna Trollope declared that the entirety of YA SFF “doesn’t really relate to the real world” because she dislikes The Hunger Games, which novels she admits to never having read. Before that, there was Megan Cox Gurdon up in arms at the idea that YA novels might tackle difficult topics like rape, abuse and self-harm, an alarmist piece which lead to the creation of the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter.  We’ve had pundits suggesting boys won’t read YA titles unless they have gender-neutral covers, and others saying that YA has become so female-dominated that boys are being left behind anyway – which is ironic, given the regularity with which various YA heroines are criticised as being poor role models for girls. While some good commentary has occasionally emerged through the morass of moralising, misapprehension and general handwringing, more often than not, the dominant mood of such articles is censorious:  a condemnation of popular YA in particular that quickly turns to disparaging the genre in general, and doubly so where SFF is mentioned.

Which brings me to the latest such offering:  Laura C. Mallonee’s Time For Teen Fantasy Heroines To Grow Up, which is a perfect example of Mainstream YA Article Bingo and then some. After a few establishing remarks about the current glut of YA film adaptations, it’s not long before Mallonnee presents us with this gem of a paragraph:

“But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?”

Obligatory pairing of Twilight and The Hunger Games? Check. The suggestion that modern YA fantasy is somehow fundamentally different to REAL fantasy, or even to the YA novels of yesteryear? Check. Assertion that popular kids read genre now, too? Check. Moral panic about female readers? Check. The cliche density is so high in just this one section alone, it’s hard to tease out all the problematic logic underpinning each and every statement. Take, for instance, the immensely judgemental suggestion that the “same girl” who reads popular YA fantasy novels is unlikely to also read real SFF, presumably on the basis that she’s a popular kid rather than one of the “genre nerds”. What this is, in essence, is yet another permutation of the Fake Geek Girl argument: a deeply sexist panic at the idea that, even when they’re reading dystopian novels, watching comic movies and learning archery for fun, ‘regular’ girls can’t really be true fans of real SFF, because their enjoyment of other, more mainstream activities – or, far more often, their possession of conventionally attractive looks – invariably marks them out as dilettantes only feigning nerdness in order to drive boys crazy. In making this distinction, all Mallonee has done is shift the accusation of dilettantism to the (again, female) creators of modern YA novels: they’re not writing real SFF, like Ray Bradbury did – just popular, pretendy SFF for cheerleaders and pretty girls to read.

We’re then treated to five paragraphs on the history of novels written for young women (comparing modern YA to books written over a century ago? Check!), which, while interesting, betrays a rather heavy-handed attempt to suggest that girl-oriented stories have always fallen into one of three categories: lurid, lower-class love triangles and romantic pulp, written for money; sweet domestic fantasies; and feminist novels where girls do sports and go to college and postpone marriage for the sake of their careers. Which isn’t to say that Mallonee’s analysis is wholly inaccurate, at least as far as the texts she’s chosen to reference are concerned. (Conspicuous omission of J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon while discussing the rise of YA? Check!). But in trying to draw comparisons between these categories and different types of modern YA – which is inarguably the intention – Mallonee is not only neglecting the idea that, this being 2013 rather than 1860, a heroine can quite plausibly experience a love triangle AND be domestic AND play sports at college without the readers’ heads exploding, but is effectively arguing that only one of these categories has any feminist value at all. And as much as I enjoy reading YA novels where the heroine avoids romantic complications (and despite my own strong feelings on the subject of love triangles) the idea that such romantic elements are inherently anti-feminist, regressive, cheap or otherwise unworthy simply doesn’t wash.

The next section – an analysis of Twilight and its reception – is quite breathtakingly hypocritical. Having rebuked the almost universal condemnation of Bella Swann with the assertion that “Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care,” Mallonee immediately jumps on the exact same bandwagon, comparing Bella with Elnora Comstock, heroine of Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1908 novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. “In a time when few women went to college,” she says, “Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?” The comparison with Elnora is then extended, only slightly more favourably, to Katniss Everdeen, who wins some praise for being a capable woodswoman – but not much. Once again, Mallonee’s hypocrisy comes to the fore:

“Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people.” 

Take a moment to parse the above. In the first sentence, Mallonee asserts that Katniss has no feelings for Peeta prior to the start of the Games, pretending to love him as a survival technique only after he admits to loving her himself; she then complains that, up until page 156 of the first book, Katniss’s inner monologue is dominated by her struggle to choose between Peeta and Gale. Which is a rather astonishing claim to make, when you consider that Peeta doesn’t even admit his feelings for Katniss until page 158 – at which point, they haven’t even reached the arena. Even allowing for a slight slip in page numbers between various editions, it’s still clear that Mallonee has contradicted herself, first claiming that the romantic elements don’t exist at the outset, and then complaining that the outset consists of little else. And as for the idea that Katniss “eventually” becomes a hero – what of her selfless decision to save her sister by volunteering as tribute in the first place? Does that not count as heroic? Evidently not – but then, Mallonee is so keen to criticise both the series and its fans for their focus on romance that, rather ironically, she hasn’t focussed on any other elements herself. Except for death, of course – the dystopian setting is “grotesque”, and Mallonee takes a perverse delight in reciting just how many times the word ‘dead’ appears in the trilogy. (Dystopias are depressing and unsettling for teenage readers? Check!) Mallonee then expresses regret at the fact that, rather than emphasising a comforting moral or specific lesson, the ending of The Hunger Games is thematically open-ended. “Readers,” she laments, “are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves.” You’ll have to forgive me, but I fail to see how an invitation to further critical analysis counts as a negative.

And then, of course, there’s the obligatory comparison of these pulpy, trashy, regressive, female-authored SFFnal YA novels with a literary, contemporary, feminist, male-authored work which – funnily enough – is better than mere YA: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. (Male authors doing feminism better than women? Check!) Despite having a teenage, female heroine, Mallonee finds it ” almost — but not quite — surprising” that Winter’s Bone wasn’t marketed to teenage girls; but then, even if it had been, one suspects that her imaginary, popular strawgirls wouldn’t have had the wit or wisdom to appreciate it. Not like those nerdy, unpopular readers, the ones we’re not talking about; the kind of girls who like popular YA novels are, according to Mallonee, a different breed entirely. This sort of dislike of the readers of popular YA is evident in her conclusion:

“The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.

The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow.”

Respectfully, I would submit that this is bullshit. Throughout her article, Mallonee has made clear her contempt, not only for popular modern narratives, but for stories which dare to include a romantic component for their heroines – an opinion she has tried to imbue with historical significance by first disparaging the “promiscuity” and “passivity” of early romance-oriented novels aimed at girls, and then contrasting these lesser works with their unromantic, college-and-sport themed heirs,  novels which “captured the spirit of the Suffragettes”. That being so, it hardly seems irrelevant that, in critiquing modern YA novels, Mallonee has described the romance in Twilight as “sinister” and disparaged its role in The Hunger Games, all while praising the lack of romance in both Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone. For Mallonee to conclude, then, that the value of the latter titles and the failure of the former is due to other factors entirely – thematic descriptors that, quite pointedly, have nothing to do with romance – is both insincere and deeply inaccurate. Instead, she tries to pin that sentiment on David Levithan, quoting him in such a way that her own, snide conclusions about the failings of SFFnal YA read as an interpretation of his remarks, rather than as a revelation of her own bias. To quote:

“I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.”

 In fact, it’s not even clear if the bracketed reference to Twilight and The Hunger Games is something Levithan actually said, or whether Mallonee inserted it herself to contextualise his comments and just so happened to forget the convention of using square brackets when commenting within a quote. In either case, though, it seems abundantly clear that Levithan’s actual statement – that the success of fantasy literature hinges on its use of real and relatable human elements – is the exact opposite of Mallonee’s conclusion, which is that Meyer and Collins both fail to do this, as neither of their heroines “have dreams that transcend their current situations.” Whether intentionally or not, Mallonee has ended her article by quoting a prominent YA editor in such a way as to make him look highly critical of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins – a ploy which is not only grossly misleading, but cheap. And that, I’m afraid, is the tone of her article all over. Rather than enter into an honest discussion of her issues with the portrayal of romance in YA novels and the genre’s newfound popularity – both meaty topics, and well worth discussing – Mallonee has instead decided to invoke the age-old spectre of SFF as meaningless pulp, less worthy of praise than real literature, and used it as a shoddy cover for different anxieties. As she herself says:

“Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.”

What a condescendingly sexist, genrephobic mess. While there’s nothing wrong with either critiquing the role of romance  in popular narratives or disliking popular works, the intimation that the presence of the former and success of the latter is somehow fundamentally unfeminist, unliterary and unworthy is deeply problematic –  as is criticising exclusively the tastes of female readers and the motives of female authors under the guise of impartial, literary concern. Thanks ever so for your patronising thoughts on YA SFF, Laura – but next time, save yourself the effort.

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl – because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes. And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do:  some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office.   

OK.

SO.

There’s a lot of erasure surrounding bisexuality in our culture, and that’s a bad thing. People equate bisexuality with indecision and fence-sitting, a sort of sexual dilettantism that’s more a phase than a genuine orientation; yet at the same time, it’s promoted in unhelpful ways, predominantly in contexts where conventionally attractive bi women are presented as male sexual fantasies (such as Olivia Wilde’s character in House, Remy ‘Thirteen’ Hadley), or where bisexuality is fetishised and exoticised as a quirky-but-desirable attribute for the viewer to unpack, rather than as a complex character attribute in its own right. It’s also often used as a sort of, for lack of a better phrase, queerness lite – as though a bi person’s capacity for hetero attraction somehow softens or normalises the otherness of their same-sex feelings, and thereby makes them a more relatable character than someone who is ‘only’ gay, because both gay AND straight people can identify with them.

Which may well be true; and that’s not to say that such characters are necessarily bad or badly written – it’s just that, very often, bisexuality is treated as some sort of sexual midpoint on a set sliding scale between STRAIGHT and GAY, which leads some creators to view it less as an actual orientation and more as a narrative compromise, as though they’re ordering medium chilli sauce to go with their group serving of literary nachos rather than mild or spicy, because that what you do when people prefer extremes: you pick the middle. The idea that bisexuality isn’t the middle, but is a separate thing in and of itself – the third point of a triangle rather than the midpoint of a straight line (assuming you still think there’s only three types of orientation, that is; which, yeah, no) – seems rarely to be considered; and as such, the idea that bi people constitute a separate audience in their own right, rather than being a compromise between two different audiences, is often overlooked.

Thus: as much as I love reading SFFnal stories where bisexuality is the cultural norm because orientation isn’t a big deal in a particular fictional society, I also feel kind of weird at the idea that everyone would suddenly be bisexual just because QUILTBAG persons are no longer stigmatised. Like, yes, OK: in a sexually fluid society, more people would definitely experiment, while those who might otherwise be moved to repress their sexuality would have no reason to do so – and in that sense, there’s obviously going to be more non-straight sex and relationships going on than if you took the same group of people and put them in a straightwashed setting. But the idea that, in the absence of straightness as a default, the extremes of gay and straight would just slide towards the middle and lead to a net increase in bisexuality? Is itself a perpetuation of the idea that bisexuality is a midpoint rather than a distinct orientation, and therefore a culturally conditioned form of sexual compromise rather than an innate preference.

And that bugs the hell out of me. Because, look: in my teens and early twenties, I openly identified as bisexual. I stopped, not because I magically stopped finding women attractive, but because I’m now happily and monogamously married to a man, and I’m yet to find a way to mention those two facts in tandem that doesn’t leave either me or the other people in the conversation feeling super-awkward – like, it’s not an irrelevant part of who I am, but it often feels irrelevant, because there’s a little voice in my head whispering that, well, you married a guy, and so therefore you CHOSE STRAIGHT FOREVER (and anyway, it’s not like you ever really dated any girls the way you dated guys, so clearly it doesn’t count). And if you want to get all Kinsey about it, yes: I have a history of being more attracted to men – or rather, of being more attracted more often to men – than to women. But sexuality is complex, and if you’re measuring the so-called validity of someone’s orientation by how often they’ve either felt or acted on their attractions, then you’re doing life wrong, not least of all because it’s not your place to decide the realness of another person’s feelings.

Nonetheless: I mostly tick ‘straight’ on forms about my orientation, and I describe myself as having straight privilege, because to all intents and purposes, I do. I’ve also described myself as straight online, for much the same reasons listed above. Being bi means that any disclosure of your orientation is pretty much guaranteed to be viewed through the lens of your relationship status; as though being single somehow makes you more bi – because you could potentially hook up with anyone! – whereas being in a monogamous relationship, or married, or whatever, makes people think you’re either just saying it for dramatic effect (because CLEARLY, you’ve already made your choice, rendering the question of your former preferences moot), or – more worryingly – as a backhanded profession that you’re open to being unfaithful to your partner, because why else would you bother mentioning being attracted to someone other than them, even hypothetically?

Which means that, on a daily basis, in casual conversation, it feels disingenuous to refer to myself as bi, even though I’m still the same person inside. And there’s also a professional element, too: precisely because I appear to be straight, whatever that means – hell, because I so often self-describe as straight, as per the above – there’s a very real sense in which I’d feel like I was mocking or diminishing the struggles of openly QUILTBAG persons, but especially QUILTBAG authors,  not to be judged by or rejected because of their orientation, were I to put my hand up and say, hey, I’m not straight, either. And yet I stopped calling myself bi, partly for the sake of convenience, but mostly because I feel awkward about how the term applies to me, with everything that connotes. I don’t know how to say it, even – and when I started writing this post, I didn’t even realise it was something I wanted to say.

But now I’ve reached the end, and I’ve realised that yes, it is – because the very fact that this is a thing that I think about, that it actively bothers and upsets me and sits at the back of my mind, telling me I can’t possibly be what I think I am, is proof of how difficult, how pervasive, the eliding of bisexuality can be. Problematic depictions of bisexuality bother me, not in the abstract, as yet another thing that our culture so often gets wrong, but because they bother me, personally: because those selfsame problematic depictions, and the culture they both reflect and create, are a good 90% of the reason why I find it so damn hard to say something comparatively simple – I am bi – without feeling like an imposter; like I should also, simultaneously, be citing my personal history as evidence, or apologising, or otherwise contextualising who I am for the comfort and convenience of the listener, because it’s a loaded thing, and I just… I’m sick of it.

So, yeah. I didn’t mean for this to end up a confessional, but I guess it has. I’m Foz Meadows, and I’m bisexual: I might not always say so in conversation, or when asked to fill out a form, but I am – and now there’s a record of that. I don’t know what that’ll mean to you, if you’re reading this, but right now, I feel a lot better for having said it; not because I’ve never said it before, but because I’d stopped saying it for reasons that have nothing to do with who I am and everything to do with what I’ve felt culturally pressured to be. Which doesn’t mean those pressures have magically vanished, or that I’ll never succumb to them again. But it feels both important and necessary to acknowledge that they’re there, and that I’ve been influenced by them; and to say that, if you’re feeling similarly frustrated or confused, then that’s OK – and you’re not the only one.

Warning: spoilers, some talk of rape.

This week, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, I bought Saga: Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, for three reasons: one, I was on holiday, and no holiday is counted as such until I’ve gone bookbuying; two, as part of the Great Literary Circle of Life wherein I invariably spend all the money I earn through writing stories on acquiring stories; and three, because I remembered seeing the covering image online a while back, and it’s damned arresting. Seriously: look at this beautiful artwork!

Saga Volume 1 cover

Horns! Wings! Guns! Swords! An awesome-looking WOC exuding badassery as she openly breastfeeds her baby! There are zero things about this image that don’t make me want to read onwards. So when I say I didn’t know anything about the plot at the outset, that’s really only half-true: having seen the cover, I could identify various likely themes, but without knowing how they all fit together.

Haphazardly, is the answer. There’s a lot to like in Saga, but it’s also loaded down with a seriously unnecessary amount of problematic language – and yet, the artwork! The premise! The promise of the premise, when Vaughan isn’t busy screwing it up! The characters, sort of, for reasons that will hopefully become clear! And so on, and so forth, to the point where I have no idea whatsoever whether I’ll ignore the second volume or leap on it with greedy fingers, should I encounter it in my travels.

Allow me to explain why:

Imagine you’re picnicking at the beach, and you’ve made yourself a sandwich. All the ingredients are things you like, you’re meticulous in your assemblage, but despite all the time and care you took, the whole thing’s riddled with sand. But does that mean your lunch is ruined? Have you actually made a bad sandwich, or was its goodness simply compromised by proximity to a pervasive, gritty substance?

In this metaphor, stories I want to like are the sandwich. The beach is our culture.

The sand is white patriarchy.

And man, does it get  into everything.

Chapter 1 of Saga opens as Alana – our green-winged, blue-haired WOC protagonist – gives birth in a garage. She and her husband, Marko, are on the lam: their respective peoples are in the middle of all-out galactic war, and both are wanted as traitors. They met, we soon learn, when Alana was guarding Marko in military prison (he surrendered after his first battle, declaring himself a conscientious objector), and within the space of twelve hours found enough common ground to escape and desert, respectively, together. But all that detail is yet to come: right now, we’re watching Alana in the final stages of labour, and straight away, I have two problems with the portrayal of said event. Granted, they aren’t massive problems, but seeing as how the whole giving-birth thing is something I did myself a few months ago, the specifics are still on my mind. Thus, I have two questions: where the fuck is the placenta, and why is Alana aroused by childbirth?

I’ll freely admit that the first is a personal bugbear. I mean, hell: it’s not like I’m asking to see a closeup of the damn thing – it’s just that, once the baby arrives, Alana’s labour pretty much stops, and even though we see Marko severing the umbilical cord (with his teeth, which is played for laughs, but still, yeah, no), the perspective of the drawing implies it’s attached, first to Alana herself, and then to nothing, which kinda suggests that Vaughan just… forgot about it. But, whatever: that’s the least of my issues. Because even though it’s been reported that a small number of women achieve orgasm while giving birth (no, really), the casual insertion of the phenomenon in such a way as to sexualise a WOC while she’s in labour  – and by sexualise, I mean we see Alana biting her lip and groaning with pleasure – felt really skeevy to me, especially given the fact that the writer, Vaughan, is a straight white dude.

This assessment is further complicated when, several pages later, we’re given Alana and Marko’s backstory, during the course of which one Special Agent Gale – a white guy – describes Alana as “dim, impulsive, kind of a slut”. And, OK. I get that Gale is meant to be a Bad Guy here, which naturally colours his assessment of Alana. But that doesn’t justify the random slutshaming; in fact, it sits weirdly with the larger narrative. Vaughan has written a universe where women are soldiers, bountyhunters and revolutionaries – that is, actively taking on traditionally male roles without anyone questioning it – which, at least superficially, would seem to suggest the existence of some species of gender equality. Yet the language of the other characters not only fails to back this up, but actively suggests the opposite: that familiar, real-world sexism is so widespread in the setting as to seriously undermine the concept of female warriors. In Chapter 2, for instance, another female soldier, Lance Corporal McHenry, is asked about Alana’s reading habits. Her response? “Just stupid romances, the kind housewives buy at the supermarket. Half-naked dudes on the cover, you know.”    

Actually, no, Mr Vaughan: I don’t. Because even if I set aside the teeth-grindingly unnecessary sexism of this statement – not to mention the veiled implication, when the romance novel in question is later produced, that Alana’s decision to abandon her duty and run off with Marko was in some way caused by her choice of reading material – it’s also deeply, stupidly, pointlessly anachronistic. I mean, here we have a setting where robots can get pregnant (more of which later, because WHAT), mythic-looking humans in space wield magic alongside guns, and where wooden, sentient rocketships grow in forests, and you’re still talking about HOUSEWIVES BUYING PAPERBACK ROMANCE NOVELS AT THE SUPERMARKET. (Oh, yeah. It’s a paperback.) Fucking seriously?

This is arguably the most glaring example, but it’s far from being the only such on offer. Earlier, Special Agent Gale complains that “this app was trying to auto-update and now my whole thing is frozen” while playing with what looks suspiciously like an iPhone; and later on, we have Izabel, the ghost of a teenage girl – or at least, the torso of a teenage girl; her apparition ends at her visible intestines – using words like “whatevs” and “suck-ass” and telling people to “chill” in almost the same breath as she refers to an unknown woman as “some other broad”, which is such a random and jarring mishmash of slang, I cannot even. Throw in the fact that the obligatory Planet of Hookers (you knew there’d be one) is literally, actually called Sextillion, and I’m starting to think that not only doesn’t Vaughan know how to worldbuild the details, he isn’t even trying.

But back to the sexism – and also, unfortunately, to the racism. Because as much as I resent the unnecessary sexualisation of The Stalk – a female bountyhunter best described as an armless human torso atop a spider’s thorax, whose skill as a mercenary is apparently such that she doesn’t need to wear armour, clothes, or even a bra, instead content to gallivant around bare-breasted Because Free Boobies – and the fact that Prince Robot IV condescends to McHenry by telling her to “be a dear”, at least these offences are obvious as such. The racial problems, by contrast, are all the more insidious for being subtle. The first time Alana meets Izabel and her fellow ghosts, for instance, she calls them the Horrors – the threatening name by which they’re known because of their awful deeds (though apparently, it’s all just mental projections to scare people off). To which Izabel responds, “Is that seriously what you guys call indigenous peoples? That’s kind of racist, don’t you think?” 

Which is clearly meant to be played for laughs – a part of her quirky dead-teen persona. Only, here’s the thing: Izabel is white. Even though she’s drawn in shades of pink and red to mark her as a ghost, we know she’s white, because one of her fellow disembodied spirits is clearly depicted as having black hair and dark skin, so that when the two of them stand side by side, it’s visually obvious that  in life, Izabel was pale. So even though it’s technically true that Izabel is a native inhabitant of the planet in question, while Alana and Marko are both offworlders, what we have here is a white girl accusing a WOC of racism while comically defending her own status as an indigenous person – and whatever justification might exist for why that’s OK in the world of Saga, the audience still consists exclusively of modern-day Earthlings for whom such encounters and language are deeply, if not always obviously, political. Worse is yet to come, however: over on planet Sextillion (seriously: why does this trope keep happening?), another bounyhunter, The Will, is looking for a good time. Having first encountered some – I don’t know what to call them, as it’s not clear whether they belong to an actual species or are manufactured products of the planet in question; visually, though, they’re a pair of massive female heads on slender, fishnet-and-heel-clad legs; so let’s just call them ladies and move on – The Will finds himself bored by all the sex possibilities Sextillion has to offer, and so winds up in conversation with a pimp, whose pitch begins thusly: “No offence, but I can see what your last bitch did to you. It’s all over your face, my brother. Let me guess, was she a “strong woman”?”

To which I say: NO. A THOUSAND TIMES NO. The pimp then tells The Will that what he needs is a slave girl. Only, when they arrive at the pimp’s quarters, the girl in question? Is literally a girl. By which I mean, she is six fucking years old, and did I mention the fact that The Will is white and the slave girl is strongly implied to be Asian, not only in terms of her clothes and colouration, but because her home world – or home comet, rather – is called Phang? And then The Will tries to rescue her, but of course he can’t, but the girl doesn’t really mind, because the important thing is that he tried, and off she goes back to her owner (to whom she was sold by her uncle, of course) and SERIOUSLY? It wasn’t enough to casually mention that Marko’s people apparently keep “rape camps” without considering this information to be materially relevant to Alana’s decision to run off with him, and it wasn’t enough to have the now-dead pimp state openly that many of his whores are refugees strongly implied to be there against their will; you have to sneak some Asian child sex-slavery into a world where Asia doesn’t even exist? Capping off all this awfulness is a truly vile conversation between The Will and Mama Sun, the slave girl’s owner, who responds to the apparent contradiction of his profession and actions by asking: “So it’s morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?”

And I just. I do not even know where to BEGIN with this bullshit. Because, look: even though this comment is clearly flagged as reprehensible in the narrative thanks to The Will’s response – “If I gotta explain the difference, you’re too far gone to follow” – this still sits way too close to the endlessly-perpetuated argument that there’s no moral difference between rape and murder, so therefore sexualising and brutalising women in video games and other cultural output is OK, for me to be in any way, shape or form comfortable with its being there unanalysed, and doubly especially when the person saying it not only goes on to explain how the slave girl – whose name we never find out – is really better off under her care, because of how she gets food and shelter and income, but walks away with the child still in her custody.

And then we’re back to the sexism again: Alana calling The Stalk a cunt, The Stalk calling Alana a bitch; The Will’s muttered complaint about “women” when he first arrives at Sextillion, followed by the leggy ladyfaces offering him “livestock to copulate with”; Alana arguing with Izabel about how best to care for her baby, which exchange involves Izabel calling her “hormonal” and criticizing her breastfeeding technique and Alana mocking Izabel for “missing her vagina”;  Marko comparing Alana to his former fiancée, Gwendolyn, by saying the latter had “boyish hips” that weren’t “womanly” like Alana’s; every bite of the sandwich filled with grit. And then there’s the issue of the robots, who are inexplicably human – even, apparently, at a biological level – except for having TV screens for heads, and who therefore seem the perfect personification of the problems with Vaughan’s script. The first time we see Prince Robot IV and his Princess, they’re having sex; later, we see the Prince on the toilet, and are told that the Princess is pregnant. How and why is never explained – like the anachronisms mentioned earlier, the worldbuilding detail just isn’t there – but when the pregnancy is announced, the Princess tellingly says that she and the Prince will be happy with anything – “even a girl”. And honestly? For all that Vaughan’s apparent plan with the robots is a sort of visual irony derived from the idea of a race of machines with all the biological and ceremonial trappings of humanity, right down to male primogeniture and a hereditary monarchy, the idea of a robot society with entrenched sexism is just… I mean, do I even need to explain this? THEY’RE ROBOTS. Even with the addition of biological components, like fertility and the need to shit, we’re talking about metal creatures who, at a base level, all possess the same physical and mental capabilities – so even if future volumes include a social explanation for robot gender bias (such as, for instance, the sexism of their original creators, or a cultural adherence to specific and highly stereotyped gender identities as compensation for being otherwise compositionally identical), the decision to include sexism within a culture where its presence makes no logical sense is still an incredibly worrying one.

But perhaps the most annoying thing of all his how unnecessary all these problems are. The vast majority are the result of throwaway lines of dialogue, and the rest – the slave girl, the sexualisation of The Stalk – could be very easily fixed at no cost to the main plot. This is what I mean when I say that white partirachy gets everywhere: for all that I don’t doubt that Vaughan’s intentions were good – the narrative might not question this stuff, but that doesn’t mean it portrays it in a positive light – the fact remains that none of it needed to be there at all, and especially not when you consider that otherwise, he’s created a world where men and women fight side by side. And as much as I’d have loved a deeper political dimension on the pro-equality side (because I pretty much always do), it didn’t need to be there, either, in order to make things work: Vaughan simply had keep real-world sexism and racism from influencing his portrayals of the characters, or else introduce a convincing reason for those issues to be there that wasn’t at odds with the rest of the story. Had he done so, then I’d be well on the way to rating Saga as one of my favourite series ever, even with the random anachronisms. Because for all these problems, Saga Volume 1 has a lot to offer: the artwork is gorgeous, the emotional component is generally compelling, there’s a real sense of scope and grandeur and original SFFnal adventure, and enough interesting elements have been put in play that I really do want to see what happens next. But if the problematic aspects aren’t resolved or addressed, then the series will only make me angrier the longer it goes on, and I’ll end up feeling cheated and exhausted – and very much in the mood for a different sort of sandwich altogether.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

“You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other ’till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood – blood screaming inside of you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”

- Spike,  Lover’s Walk (S3E8)

To me, the above quote is one of the single best speeches in all of Buffy – it might even be my personal favourite. In his lone appearance in S3, Spike is forced into a brief alliance with Buffy and the newly-returned Angel, and instantly sees through their claims to be “just friends”. Superficially, then, his response is not only the emotional denouement of the episode, but a comment on their relationship.

Only, here’s the thing: Buffy and Angel do become friends. Their love has already reached its big romantic climax. Buffy has fought with Angelus, not Angel; they’ve only had sex once (the events of I Will Remember You are reversed, and therefore don’t count); and though they argue down the line, they don’t ever hate each other. The relationship Spike is describing doesn’t exist.

Or rather, it does – but not between Buffy and Angel. This entire speech is a neat foreshadowing of everything that happens between Buffy and Spike. They’re not friends; they never were. Buffy dies being loved by Spike – he collapses in grief at the loss – and then later, after she says she loves him, Spike dies for Buffy in turn. They fight and shag constantly through S6 – sometimes simultaneously – and frequently state their hatred for one another before then: in fact, this is the exact progression of events in Smashed and Wrecked, when they first have sex. In Dead Things, we even see them stand on opposite sides of the same door, reaching for each other, each one yearning against their better judgement – blood screaming inside them to work its will, while Out Of This World by Bush plays eerily in the background. When it comes to Buffy, Spike is unashamedly love’s bitch. This speech will never not be about them.

Buffy and Spike is my crackship. Not because they’re impossible together, but because they should be – and because, like crack, they’re unhealthily addictive.

Their relationship is every possible flavour of fucked up. From the moment Spike first shows up in S2, they’re enemies – but when Angelus tries to end the world, it’s Spike who helps Buffy defeat him. In S4, despite their mutual loathing, we go down the rabbit hole of their relationship twice – once in Something Blue, when Willow’s magic forces them together, and then again in Who Are You, where Faith flirts with Spike while wearing Buffy’s body, and we realise he’s equal parts angry and aroused at the prospect. In Goodbye Iowa, he even refers to Buffy as Goldilocks – a term of endearment he uses again in S6’s Gone, when the usage prompts Buffy to cut her hair short. But it’s not until S5’s Out of My Mind that he realises he loves her: a dream-revelation that throws him awake with a whispered, “Oh god, no. Please, no.” (Love isn’t brains, children.)

Some of what Spike does is deeply gross (the Buffybot) or outright indefensible (his abortive rape attempt) – and yet, I keep coming back to their relationship; as broken and dysfunctional as it is, it’s nonetheless compelling. Even now, I still can’t decide whether every loving, useful thing Spike does while unsouled – withstanding torture to protect Dawn, fighting on Buffy’s side, comforting her when nobody else even knows what’s wrong – either outweighs or is outweighed by those two awful, terrible things. Because, here’s the thing: we don’t blame Angel for the crimes he commits as Angelus. His soulless personality is so different to his human one that it’s easy to view them as a flipswitch binary: he’s either one or the other. Angel has a romantic relationship with Buffy; Angelus wants to torture, abuse and kill her. But Spike is much more ambiguous. His emotional evolution starts while he’s still unsouled, to the point where loving Buffy prompts him to get his soul back. He’s so horrified by his actions in Seeing Red – the rape attempt – that, in his own words, he makes himself into the man she deserves: someone whose conscience would render him incapable of sexual violence.

And I just… OK. It’s impossible, literally impossible, to get away from the rape attempt (though apparently the fact that Xander did the same thing in S1’s The Pack is both forgiven and forgotten). You can’t ignore or downplay it, and while you can try and contextualise it for the purposes of discussing both Spike’s character and his relationship with Buffy, that still doesn’t change what he did. Thematically, though, there’s something significant in the fact that Spike stops himself – that he regains himself mid-assault, realises what he’s doing, and goes immediately to get his soul back. Because when Angel turns into Angelus after he and Buffy sleep together, the whole narrative becomes a metaphor for the fact that sometimes, men change once they’ve slept with you – they turn into monsters, and you’re left to pick up the pieces. It’s a theme that’s reiterated when Parker turns out to be a colossal douche, and to a lesser extent, when Riley starts seeing vampire gals on the side. Men turn into monsters, but overwhelmingly in the Buffyverse, they refuse to acknowledge it – except for Spike, who not only admits what he is, but actively tries to change.

See, the problem with Angel/Angelus being two extremes of a binary personality is that Angel is never held accountable (or at least, not by Buffy) for the things he does as Angelus. We never see him apologise: not for the way he treats her while evil, not for Miss Calendar’s death, none of it. Despite the fact that Angel’s whole redemptive arc is predicated on actively atoning for his vampire crimes, he still behaves as though it was all beyond his control. He doesn’t apologise for what he does to Buffy, because he’s not the one who did it – yet even if we consider that to be technically true, it still seems reasonable to expect him to seek forgiveness. Parker, however, has no such excuse: he’s a classic user, a weasel who avoids responsibility for his actions by claiming his motives were always obvious – that Buffy, or whichever girl he’s left broken-hearted, has simply misunderstood him. And then there’s Riley, whose response to being caught cheating is to issue an unbelievably selfish ultimatum: either Buffy can decide immediately that she still wants him around, in which case he’ll make an effort to earn back her trust, or she can stay angry and lose him forever. The speech that Xander gives Buffy at this point to convince her that Riley ought to stay is infuriating. He’s 1% right, in the sense that fairness doesn’t enter into it – Riley has given her an ultimatum, and as sucky as that is, she can’t abstain from making a decision – but given how incredibly shitty a thing Riley’s done by putting her in that position, he really doesn’t deserve Xander’s understanding; he certainly doesn’t deserve Buffy’s. And despite his denials, it’s clear his real issue with Buffy is her greater strength: she didn’t need his protection, he felt insecure as a result, and when presented with an easy out – flying away to the Amazon if his demands weren’t met, instead of staying to make things right – he takes it.

And then there’s Spike.

He apologises for the Buffybot; he openly admits that he’s a monster. After his assault on Buffy, the first thing he does is try to redeem himself, because unlike every other man she’s ever slept with, he admits he’s done something wrong, and that he, Spike, is the culprit. And it’s not silent redemption, either: the guilt drives him mad, and when he comes back at the start of S7, not only the audience, but Buffy herself is left in no doubt that what he’s done – regaining his soul – has been an act of atonement: that he’s given himself a conscience, punished himself physically and mentally, and returned with no expectation of forgiveness to offer what help he can. And that, I think, despite everything, is at the core of why I keep coming back to Buffy and Spike’s relationship, why I can’t let go of it: as brutally fucked up as their history is, and despite the fact that Spike’s assault is arguably* the worst thing any partner has ever done to her, he’s also the only parter to accept responsibility for his actions, and to try and directly atone for them. Spike learns because of Buffy; he becomes a better man – or a better monster – through loving her, and I don’t think that’s true of any of the others; even Angel.

And speaking of Angel: sit down and think for a moment about the basis for their relationship. S1 is only twelve episodes long. Angel doesn’t appear in all of them, and most of the time, his presence is fleeting. He and Buffy don’t even kiss until episode 7, and two episodes later, we’re meant to believe he’s in love with her – and while we later learn he’s been watching her quietly ever since she was called (which is incredibly creepy and stalkerish), the short timeframe strongly implies that her love of him is a youthful infatuation, at least initially. They’re together for a while, but a bit more than halfway through S2, he turns evil, and Buffy sends him to hell. When he returns in S3, he isn’t back on the field (so to speak) until about episode 7 – prior to that, he’s recovering. Though they get back together soon afterwards, when Joyce speaks to Angel about the “hard choices” he and Buffy have ahead of them, he breaks it off with her – and as sensible as that decision ultimately is, the way he goes about it doesn’t sit well with me. However immature Buffy was at the start of their relationship, she’s grown up enormously by that point, and instead of treating her like an adult – someone capable of knowing her own mind and making her own decisions – he takes the choice away from her, effectively dumping her for her own good. This is something he does again by returning in S4 without letting her know he’s there, and it’s also something we later see Riley do, too: indulging in paternalistic, overprotective behaviour despite her superior strength and emotional autonomy.

A sidenote here about Xander: I cannot even begin to express how much it bothers me that his rape attempt from S1’s The Pack is never addressed in the narrative. Despite remembering everything he did while under the influence of the hyena spirit, Xander feigns amnesia in order to dodge the consequences of his actions, putting him on the same page as Angel, Parker and Riley. Never mind the fact that, at this point – which is to say, four episodes into the first season – he and Buffy have known each other for all of a month or so, and that realistically, if a guy you’d known for such a short amount of time sexually assaulted you while in an altered state,  it ought to make you wary of him afterwards at the very least. But this doesn’t happen, which I take to be an enormous failure on the part of the writers. The fact that Spike’s assault is more forceful then Xander’s doesn’t detract from the vileness of the sentiment – nor, indeed, from the fact that, whereas Spike regains his senses mid-struggle and stops himself, Xander has to be physically incapacitated by Buffy. But despite the difference in their demonic aspects – Xander is possessed by a hyena spirit, while Spike is soulless – the two states nonetheless appear to be rather similar, in that both are guided by primal urges while still retaining their base personalities. It therefore seems a telling sign of Xander’s status as a Nice Guy that, whereas Spike seeks redemption for what he’s done while still soulless, Xander doesn’t so much as apologise even when back to normal. Xander, it seems, has less decency at times than someone who physically lacks a conscience.

Which is, I think, the best definition for vampirehood in the Buffyverse. Becoming a vampire invests you with bloodlust and demonic strength while stripping you of your conscience: what’s left is who you were before, but influenced by power and hunger and unfettered by consequences, which is the perfect explanation for Spike. In S5’s Crush, he’s implicitly likened to Quasimodo – a troubled outsider whose love for Esmerelda (that is, Buffy) can never be reciprocated, because his motivations in pursuing her are purely selfish – and yet, in the same conversation, we’re also invited to sympathise with him, for the sake of the effort he makes. Spike’s soullessness means that he’s without conscience, but unlike Quasimodo, he tries to grow one, and eventually succeeds by regaining his soul – but this being something of a chicken and egg dilemma, his attempts prior to that are equal parts creepy, misguided and genuinely touching. He makes a shrine to Buffy, furnished with clothes and photos stolen from her house. He tells her about Riley out of a mix of self-interest and real concern, but when he realises how deeply she’s been hurt by it, we see him express contrition and empathy. In S5’s Triangle, we even see him rehearsing apologies, complete with a dented box of chocolates. In Crush, he threatens her with death at Drusilla’s hands unless she confesses being attracted to him, but at the same time acknowledges how wrong his own feelings are. And when Glory captures and tortures him, he withholds the secret of Dawn’s identity at great personal cost, because he knows how much her loss would hurt Buffy. Without recourse to a conscience, he’s pulled in different directions at once, trying to do the right thing but failing at least as often as he succeeds. The demon in him is selfish, lustful and possessive, but the good man, the poet, so long dormant, is fighting for control.

And then there’s the issue of the Buffybot. More than once in the course of the show, a character spurned or crossed in love resorts to magic or science as a way to regain control: Xander once, with his wildly destructive love spell in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; Warren twice, first with his own robot, April, and then with the enslavement, attempted rape and actual manslaughter of Katrina; Willow twice, first with her abortive attempt to curse Oz and Veruca, and then with her erasure of Tara’s memory; and Spike twice, once with his abortive plan to cast a love spell on Drusilla, and then again with the Buffybot. (And that’s before you count Anya’s work as a vengeance demon.) As skeevy and gross as the two sexbots are, for my part, I find them vastly less disturbing than Xander’s attempt to actually put Cordelia in his power – at least the robots aren’t real people. (We see from the Buffybot’s point of view in one episode, which was mechanical enough to convince me it lacks true sentience.) In fact, Xander’s spell is uncomfortably close to Warren’s plans for Katrina, in that both men actually used magic to try and control their ex-girlfriends; the fact that Xander never killed or raped anyone doesn’t put him that much ahead of the game when you consider not only how narrow his escape was, but the fact that he’s never really penalised for it. By contrast, Spike abandons his plan to curse Drusilla when he realises their split is his fault, not hers, an epiphany that Xander never has, and which stands as yet another instance of Spike admitting his faults and learning from his behaviour when other, ostensibly more moral characters fail to do so under similar circumstances.

There is, I suspect, a rather awful reason for this – and, indeed, for why Spike alone of all Buffy’s lovers and love interests accepts responsibility for his actions. It’s all down to narrative impetus: we, the viewers, are meant to sympathise with Xander, just as we’re meant to sympathise with Angel and Riley. At base, we “know” they’re all good guys, and as such, their contrition is implied. We don’t need to see them apologise, because the surrounding story is structured to suggest that they’ve already been forgiven off-camera. But Spike, by contrast, begins as a villain. His developmental arc is the most dramatic and varied in the whole show, culminating in a  radical heel face turn at the end of S6. We need to see his redemption, because otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that it’s taken place – and to an extent, this makes sense: if the audience can reasonably infer that something has happened, then it’s a waste of script and wordage to insert it. The problem is that, if the good guys never apologise on screen, then their goodness is called into question – which is why  the most fucked up relationship in the whole show is simultaneously the most equitable. Neither Buffy nor the audience can assume anything about Spike’s intentions that we aren’t actually shown, and as a result, he has to work the hardest out of anyone to be seen as good.

Thus: when Angelus is trying to end the world, Spike is trying to save it. When Xander is busy making threats and lying, Spike is saving Giles and keeping his promises. When Riley is out paying lady vamps to bite him, or sulking because Buffy’s had the temerity to put her own need to be strong ahead of his need to feel manly and protective, Spike is telling her the truth and offering quiet, undemanding support. When Willow and the others are smothering the newly resurrected Buffy, Spike gives her an out. And when absolutely everyone betrays her at the end of S7, it’s Spike alone who keeps faith with her. From villain to invalid to lovelorn drunk; from glowering menace to chaotic, defanged outsider; from frenemy to lover to ex; from assailant to madman to stalwart, both Spike’s personality and his relationship with Buffy undergo the most development in the whole show. He’s done some truly awful things, but when it really matters and everyone else has abandoned her, it’s always Spike, and Spike alone, who’s there to watch her back.

*I say arguably, because Angelus’s crimes are pretty horrific, too, and YMMV in terms of which you consider to be worse overall: there’s no sliding scale for evil, no definitive catalogue with which to determine their heinousness objectively.

Some thoughts on Buffy, in no particular order.

1.

There’s an alternating pattern to the season finales/big bads that I’ve never noticed before: it switches back and forth between a massive, apocalyptic threat that’s billed as such from the outset, and personal vendettas that slowly develop into something more dangerous. S1 is the Master (apocalypse); S2 starts out as Spike and Dru, but culminates with Angelus (personal); S3 is the Mayor (apocalypse); S4 starts out with Spike, but culminates with Adam and the Initiative (personal); S5 is Glory (apocalypse); S6 starts out with the Trio, but culminates in Dark Willow (personal); and S7 is the First Evil (apocalypse).

And the thing is, off the top of my head, I can’t think of another show that does this. Overwhelmingly, modern TV series seem obsessed with the notion that each successive season finale has to be bigger than the last, which eventually leads to melodrama and the collapse of the show, because you can only go so big before things get ludicrous (the Doctor Who reboot being a case in point). Which isn’t to say that Buffy doesn’t escalate – it does. But it does so gradually, interspersing the big events with more intimate drama, and that’s something I really appreciate about it. Apart from aiding character development, it establishes a strong narrative rhythm and builds the tension season by season without ever making the constant danger feel monotone. I wish more shows did the same thing, or at least mixed it up a bit.

2.

I hate Tara’s family. I hate them with a passion I reserve for few things in the Buffyverse, because for a show that’s all about fighting Evil with a capital E, there’s really a lot of moral ambiguity going on. Should we forgive Angel for the crimes he committed while Angelus on the grounds that he lacked a conscience and was therefore effectively a different person, or do we hold him accountable for everything he ever did? And if we forgive him, do we then forgive Spike his trespasses while unsouled on the same grounds, even though he was capable of enough actual goodness in the same state that he arguably should’ve known better? And so on, and so forth – the point being, however, that Tara’s family are monstrous without the excuse of actually being monsters. They raise her to believe she’s evil and demonic purely as a means of keeping a leash on her; she stutters and cringes around them, and the big reveal as to why they spent nineteen years trying to break her spirit? Then men in her family want her home, to cook and clean and keep house for them, because they’re misogynist, sexist asshats. Which makes me want to STAB ALL THE THINGS.

3.

As a corollary of the above: the episodes I find hardest to watch – the ones that provoke an actual, bodily response in me, so that I have to squinch* away from the television – are all episodes about the abuse, abandonment and gaslighting tactics of friends and family. Ted, Dead Man’s PartyGingerbreadFamily, Hell’s Bells and Seeing Red all squick me in ways that other episodes just don’t. Something I find intolerable both narratively and and in real life is false accusation: people being blamed or framed for something they didn’t do, especially in a situation where their ability to respond or defend themselves is compromised. It makes me physically sick and furious, and so I struggle with these stories. I might well do a fuller examination of them later, especially Dead Man’s Party, which is a special kind of fucked up.

4.

Every single POC character in the show – and it’s not like there are many – is either unlikeable or evil from the outset (Rona, Mr Trick), an ally who’s eventually revealed to be morally ambiguous at best or traitorous at worst (Robin Wood, Forest), or someone whose ethnicity/accent is played for laughs prior to their death (Chao-Ahn, Kendra, Hus) – or sometimes a combination of all three (the Inca Mummy Girl). This is so incredibly shitty, I cannot even. As many others have said before me: Joss Whedon might be great at white feminism, but his racefail is spectacular.

5.

As a character, Dawn is portrayed as annoying, juvenile, awkward and whiny, yet the reason for this is never really addressed. Early in S5, it’s strongly implied that Buffy struggles to get along with Dawn because, despite her false memories of their childhood together, she doesn’t actually have the personal development to go with it: even though she believes in their joint history, emotionally, she’s still at step one. It’s not until she learns that Dawn is the Key that Buffy is able to recognise her own irritation for what it is, and to try to curb it appropriately: the privilege of an only child grating at the sudden and jarring transition to sisterhood. But when Dawn realises what she is, the full ramifications are never addressed: that despite all her memories of growing up as a human girl, she’s still emotionally an infant. By the end of S7, Dawn is only three years old in real time, and so has been on the emotional learning trajectory of a toddler while simultaneously going through all the angst and physical development of early adolescence. This has got to be the suckiest combination ever, and when you add in all the accompanying traumas she experiences in that time – learning her memories are false, the death of her mother, Willow’s magic addiction, Tara’s death, the death and resurrection of Buffy, the threat of removal by child protective services, multiple apocalypses and kidnappings – the fact that she’s even vaguely well-adjusted at the end of it all is a fucking miracle.

So, yeah. Don’t be so hard on Dawn. In a show where pretty much every character gets the absolute shit kicked out of them on a regular basis, she still gets an incredibly raw deal – but unlike everyone else, her pain is regularly dismissed in-show as teenage melodrama, even by characters whose own broken, demon-filled adolescences should’ve left them with more sympathy. And in return, we hate her for it.

More thoughts later!

*Squinch is a word I made up to describe the reaction I have to things that make me uncomfortable. It’s a combination of squirm and flinch.

Prior to starting my watch-through of The X Files, my abiding assumption about Mulder and Scully’s relationship, given its status as the UST-OTP to end all UST-OTPs, was that their romance would be highlighted from minute one. I thought this because, by and large, it’s just what happens in procedural shows where the main character has a regular associate or partner of the opposite sex: sure, there are a handful of platonic exceptions, like Pete and Myka of Warehouse 13 and Lisbon and Jane of The Mentalist (for the first four seasons, anyway), but otherwise, the default setting is to comment, loudly and often, on the protagonists’ Secret Attraction. Whether it’s Booth and Brennan (Bones), Castle and Beckett (Castle), House and Cuddy (House), or Olivia and Peter (Fringe), the audience is never left in any doubt as to the presence of a love that dare not speak its name.

And so, not unreasonably, I’d assumed that at least part of the reason for this was the legacy of The X Files – and to a certain extent, that’s true: Mulder and Scully’s relationship casts such a long shadow that every subsequent TV partnership has been forced to address its specter. But the thing is, for the first four seasons, there’s not so much as a whisper of romance between them. Don’t get me wrong – their relationship is devoted, intense, exclusive and loyal, with neither one forming any other significant secondary attachments outside it, and you can certainly infer their attraction as subtext. But as I’ve said before, before S5, it’s only subtext: there are no lingering glances, meaningful conversations, awkward moments or obviously-engineered setups designed to force them together or highlight their romance, and nor do any other characters make a habit of commenting on their relationship. It’s all very refreshing, such that, somewhat ironically, it actually serves as a more genuine basis for their eventual romance than if the attraction had been earmarked the whole way through.

But in S5, Mulder starts to flirt with Scully – subtly, to be sure, but the change in his behaviour is nonetheless evident. He loves her, and yet makes no demands of her. Instead, he simply contents himself with indulging a slightly more intimate sense of humour than previously, and otherwise continues to treat her as normal. In S6, however, the writers have begun to shiptease in earnest, with other characters commenting on their attraction and mistaking them for a couple, and the advent of episodes whose premises force them together in quasi-romantic situations. The first movie, Fight the Future, bridges these two seasons admirably – not only because of the almost-kiss that (arguably) serves to intensify their relationship, but because it brings the primary alien plotline to a dramatic head.

But even once the shipteasing begins, there’s still a degree of subtlety to their relationship that’s unheard of in subsequent shows. Partly, this has to do with the quality of the acting – both Anderson and Duchovny turn in very wry, reserved performances – but mostly, it’s down to how understated the cinematography is. I’ve always known that the romances in other shows are heavily underlined and emphasised, but without being able to compare the default to a different approach, I hadn’t quite realised how pervasive the problem was, and how much it annoyed me: not just on the grounds of being narratively redundant, but because it treats the audience as inattentive and oblivious.

With regard to plot and execution, I’m still enjoying the show. S5 is an incredibly strong season, and S6, while slightly woolier on the main plot – understandable, given that Fight the Future had already provided something of a catharsis for the big themes – is still consistently strong when it comes individual episodes and characterisation. Which leads me to wonder if I’ll ever really tire of the show, even if the quality starts to drop (which experience would suggest it inevitably will). Because as far as I can tell, the three things that most bother me when applied to successive TV seasons – inconsistency, retconning and escalation – aren’t present in The X Files; or at least, aren’t present yet. By which I mean: the characterisation is still solid and internally consistent, there hasn’t been any obvious retconning of previously established information in order to allow for later plots (Chris Carter might be a pantser rather than a plotter, but he still respects his own established canon), and because the premise has always been one of world-altering conspiracies that extend to the highest levels of power, there’s no real scope for the plot to suddenly escalate beyond its original, local parameters (as has happened, for instance, with the death of Brennan’s mother in Bones, the death of Beckett’s mother in Castle, and the advent of the Potentials in Buffy).

All in all, then, The X Files is still proving to be one of the most consistently enjoyable TV shows I’ve ever seen. The steady development of Mulder and Scully’s relationship has been done respectfully over the course of many seasons, and yet has remained subtle rather than being constantly underlined and unnecessarily foregrounded. The monster-of-the-week episodes are still strong, and if the main alien plot is starting to run out of steam, that’s hardly surprising after six seasons and a movie. There’s even been a notable decrease in racefail episodes, which is definitely a plus. And frankly, even if things do start to go downhill from this point on, the show has won enough of my goodwill that I’ll be willing to tolerate a lot before losing patience with it. So: onward to S7!

Recently, I’ve started watching my way through The X Files, a show that was big enough to amorphously dominate my pop cultural recollections of tween- and teenhood, but which, with the exception of two lone episodes circa the sixth or seventh season, I’ve never actually watched before. For a show that first aired in 1993 – which is to say, a show whose first season is now twenty years old – the overall feel is surprisingly undated, partly because of the massive stylistic influence it had on later programming, but also because, right from the get-go, Scully and Mulder have access to both mobile phones and the internet. This might seem like a minor detail at first, especially given the hilariously dated brick-style phones and grey box laptops everyone is using, but it’s incredibly significant in terms of plot: as others have pointed out, many classic Seinfeld gags would be voided now by the presence of mobile phones, while their virtual absence from Buffy meant the main cast spent seven seasons getting in trouble in ways they couldn’t now. But because The X Files was about characters with access to what was then exclusive, expensive technology, there’s a structural modernity to even the earliest episodes that sets it apart from other 90s shows.

By the same token, however, it’s impossible to forget that these early seasons effectively codified the relevance of multiple tropes whose usage is now ubiquitous in both its SFnal and crime procedural heirs – most prominently, the protracted UST between Scully and Mulder, arguably the ur-example of a narrative device so commonplace now as to be practically requisite for crime-fighting partnerships. Having only just reached the end of season two, I can’t yet comment on how the portrayal changes throughout the series, but initially at least, it’s striking to note how the cinematography treats their relationship in comparison to the default practice of more modern shows. In programs like Bones, Castle and Fringe, for instance, moments of intense physical and emotional connection between the male and female leads are almost invariably shown in closeup, replete with soulful reaction shots to underline their significance and further highlighted by the addition of meaningful glances and strong musical cues. By contrast, and despite the undeniable intensity of their relationship as shown through their actions, interactions and dialogue, Scully and Mulder’s closest moments are overwhelmingly shot in wideview, so that the audience watches from a distance: there’s no lingering focus on where and when their hands touch, no sudden cutaway so we can see the one gazing hungrily at the other, and no special score to help us infer attraction, which means that the audience isn’t constantly being hit over the head with Proof That They Secretly Love Each Other. Instead, we can get on with seeing them as individuals whose relationship isn’t their most defining quality, and while they’re still rescuing each other from dire peril every other week (more of which shortly), the end result comes across as refreshingly objective.

It’s also noteworthy how unsexualised Scully is in terms of her clothes and appearance. So far, with the exception of a single scene in the pilot episode where she appears in her underwear,we’ve never seen her in anything more form-fitting than a full length, long-sleeved dress – and even in the pilot, it’s notable that instead of sexy lingerie, she’s wearing sensible, comfy-looking white underwear with an elastic waist. Most of the time, she cuts around wearing a massive, shapeless overcoat; even her hair is a practical length to be worn loose, and when tied back, it actually gets to look messy. Accordingly, the camerawork isn’t overly concerned with her body: we see detail on her face and hands often enough, because her expressions and actions matter, but in two  seasons, I’ve never noticed a ‘male gaze’ moment where the camera sweeps her from top to toe, or else follows the line of a male character’s vision to indicate that he likes what he sees. In fact, I can only think of a single male character who has overtly passed comment on her physical attractiveness, and that was done playfully, in a way that was neither demeaning nor predatory. Which isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with female characters being presented in ways that acknowledge their sexuality – Kate Beckett of Castle, for instance, is very purposefully a woman who enjoys and owns her body, and that’s done extremely well. It’s just that overt sexiness and all the secondary trappings thereof have long since become a default setting for TV heroines, as has male gaze camerawork: any visible underwear is always sexy lingerie and usually shown gratuitously; long hair is always impractically long and often worn loose to  emphasise feminine beauty even in situations where any practical woman would tie it back; work clothes are form-fitting, cleavage-revealing and invariably paired with high heels, even for women who spend all day walking and running; and cosmetic disarray only ever enters the picture as a sign of emotional distress. It’s so low level and constant that half the time I just tune it out, but even so, it’s rare I can get through an action movie these days without gritting my teeth over female soldiers and scientists with perfect flowing princess hair, and oh my god, can we please have a fucking heroine with a ponytail or – let’s go crazy – hair that comes to above her shoulders? But Scully, though well-groomed, smartly dressed and physically attractive, if unconventionally so by today’s exorbitant standards, is still allowed to be practical; to look comfortable, rather than like she’s constantly on display, such that you can go whole episodes without being forced to acknowledge her body at all.

And then there’s Mulder: the handsome young hotshot who’s difficult to work with, but whose crazy theories and mad, brilliant deductions inevitably turn out to be right. That’s a character we see a lot of, now – The Mentalist’s Patrick Jayne, Greg House of House – and while the archetype by no means began with Mulder, Sherlock Holmes being a far more established and obvious antecedent, he’s nonetheless an obvious forerunner to many of the leads we currently see on TV. However, I find it interesting to note that, whereas more recent iterations of this character-type tend to be abusive, inconsiderate, rude, arrogant or some admixture thereof – traits which serve to justify why others find them difficult to work with – Mulder’s outsider status stems not from any overtly obnoxious flaws, but simply because his convictions are so radical. Combined with his consideration of and empathy for others, this makes him much more reminiscent of Holmes than many other characters with an ostensibly closer connection to Doyle’s creation, at least in terms of personality. Despite the propensity of modern adaptations to render Holmes as an uncaring, selfish egotist whose bad manners are justified only by his genius, the original Sherlock, while certainly confident of his abilities and prone to a bluntness born of equal parts distraction and haste, was never deliberately cruel, nor did he disdain the feelings of others; and on occasions when he did cause hurt or offense, his habit was to apologise. In much the same way that Scully’s treatment contrasts with the current default sexualisation of  female leads, therefore, Mulder’s kindness and willingness to listen contrast with the overt displays of arrogance and insensitivity which are increasingly normalised as acceptable and even justifiable when delivered by a particular kind of (straight, white, male, maverick) hero.

In combination, the effect is to make a twenty-year old show feel markedly more progressive than many which postdate it, at least as far as the main characters are concerned. When it comes to issues of race, however, the picture is much more grim. Specifically: the show has made a habit of introducing POC characters whose ethnicity and/or religious beliefs are a source of dangerous supernatural powers, or else of intimating that the religious and cultural beliefs of various POC groups are inherently magic or suspect. Thus far, we’ve had a Native American werewolf, an African American whose zealous Christianity has lead him to track down and kill his former associates, a white soldier using Haitan voodoo to perpetrate atrocities, and a community of cannibalistic white people whose Eebil Cannibalism stems solely from the fact that one of them spent time with a tribe of Indians back in the day and picked up their Eebil Ways. By contrast, white religious beliefs are given positive associations: an alien species living in disguise as a white Christian community, for instance, is portrayed as using Christian beliefs – or at least, the semblance of them – to curb their more dangerous impulses, while white Romanian priests use ritual magic to drive out evil spirits. I’d like to believe that later episodes will improve on this point, but given the extent to which modern shows are still rampantly perpetuating these same stereotypes, I’m not holding out much hope.

What’s really struck me about The X Files, however, is how rich a narrative resource it is for conversations about damselling and gender. Almost every episode, either one or both of the protagonists is put in life-threatening danger, which means that, more often than not, they end up requiring rescue. In terms of who ends up rescuing who, the scores are pretty much equal: both Scully and Mulder regularly go to extraordinary lengths to save each other, whether it’s from exposure to a deadly virus or death at the hands of a killer. There’s no notable imbalance in the hurt/comfort ratio, and nor are such incidents used as gratuitous fodder for emotional confrontations built on romanticised damage, which is very much a positive. In episodes where both characters are imperiled at once, the threat usually comes from a neutral source, faceless government agents and unknown toxic/biological agents being favourite. But when only one is endangered, the type of peril faced is markedly gendered. While Mulder frequently ends up in trouble from what I’ll call an excess of initiative – being first through the door, going off alone, taking risks, pursuing dangerous people – Scully tends to be targeted by male villains for kidnap, experimentation and abuse. Thus, while Mulder tends to save Scully from the predations of specific villains, Scully tends to save Mulder from the consequences of his own actions – meaning, in essence, that whereas male characters are targeted a result of their boldness, female characters are targeted because they’re female, or because they’re perceived to be weak. It does help that Scully is seldom a passive victim, fighting back even while terrified and frequently helping to rescue herself before Mulder arrives on the scene, but even so, the difference is striking.

Overall, then, despite certain qualms, I’m enjoying The X Files, both as a series and as a narrative exercise. Given that the entire collection is nine seasons long, I can’t guarantee that I’ll make it the whole way through, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I plan to give it a try.

Warning: All The Spoilers, much rant.

Far back in the mists of time – which is to say, in April 2011 – I reviewed Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, a deeply problematic film which, despite its apparently noble intentions, succeeded only in replicating and reinforcing the selfsame sexist, exploitative tropes it ostensibly meant to subvert. Similarly, in August last year, I weighed in on the controversy surrounding Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a self-published YA novel whose deeply problematic use of racist language and imagery overwhelmingly outweighed its stated goal of “turn[ing] racism on its head”, a dissonance which was further compounded by Foyt’s equally problematic responses to her critics. And now, by way of kicking off 2013, I’m going to review Lev Grossman’s The Magicians,  a novel which, while certainly not as egregious in its awfulness as either Foyt or Snyder’s work, fails in a conspicuously similar manner, viz: by unconsciously perpetuating exactly the sort of objectionable bullshit it was (one assumes) intended to critique.

In a nutshell, then: The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a privileged, clever yet disaffected youth with a deep-seated sense of entitlement and a private longing for the magical, fictional world of Fillory, a wholly unsubtle Narnia substitute. Aged seventeen, Quentin is diverted away from Princeton and selected instead to learn real magic at the exclusive Brakebills College, aka Hogwarts For Assholes, where he spends five years being oblivious and dissolute while becoming progressively more awful, and very occasionally encountering things that are relevant at the finale. After graduating, he and his equally unlikable friends live a pointless, overindulgent life in Manhattan  until a former classmate shows up with the news that Fillory is real; on travelling there, the young magicians  encounter a terrible enemy whose defeat is only achieved at the expense of one of their lives. Horribly wounded, Quentin is left to recuperate in Fillory while his remaining friends bugger off home; eventually, he returns to Earth, abandons magic and gets a desk job – right up until his friends return and convince him to come back to Fillory as a co-regent king, at which point he flies out a window to join them. The End.

Despite being well-written, from a purely technical standpoint, The Magicians is a structural mess, being simultaneously too rushed and too flabby: there’s simply too much happening that doesn’t actually matter, like welters games and the South Pole trip, and while Grossman does his best to skip us swiftly through Quentin’s five years at Brakebills, the fact is that, in a novel which boasts no meaningful secondary plots, it’s not until page 348 of 488 that the characters actually enter Fillory – meaning, by implication if not intent, that the first three quarters of the novel function as little more than an increasingly tedious prologue. As a narrative gambit, this could still have worked if Grossman had used those early sections to focus on solid characterisation, or if anything Quentin learned at school proved relevant in the final, climactic battle. Instead, the secondary characters – yearmate and eventual girlfriend Alice, punk rival Penny, and senior libertines Eliot, Janet and Josh – are barely fleshed out beyond a bare minimum of backstory and a few offhand eccentricities, while in the end, it’s Penny who finds the way into Fillory and Alice who dies to defeat the villain. Quentin, by contrast, winds up a passenger in his own story, contributing nothing meaningful (or at least, nothing useful) despite his apparent specialness and remaining, from go to woe, a thoroughly passive character. Which begs the question: why did Grossman feel the need to show Quentin’s entire tertiary education before letting him go to Fillory? Why, when so little time is spent on characterisation or building a sensible magic system – the latter’s fundamentals are purposefully vague and glossed-over, so that despite the amount of time Quentin spends in classrooms, it’s never really apparent what he’s actually learning, while two new characters, Anais and Richard, are introduced well after the halfway mark for no readily apparent reason – was it necessary to prolong the trip between worlds?

The answer, I suspect, has to do with the story’s moral; or at least, with what one might reasonably construe to be the moral, or the point, or whatever you’d like to call it. As a character, Quentin’s developmental trajectory is that of a disaffected, selfish, horny teenager transitioning into a disaffected, selfish, sexist adult, and while the ending eventually reveals these characteristics to have been deliberate authorial choices, early on, it’s harder to tell whether Grossman realises just how unsympathetic his protagonist really is. Once Quentin graduates from Brakebills, in fact, it’s like a switch has been flipped: whereas before it was possible to attribute most of his failings to youthful, privileged obliviousness, once freed from the confines of college, his bad behaviour escalates dramatically, leaving little doubt that we, the audience, are meant to identify it as such. For all his dissatisfaction with various aspects of his life,  it never occurs to Quentin that he might be the cause of it; always, he assumes his own unhappiness to be either the result of some fundamental flaw in how the world works, or else the fault of some specific person. This lack of self-awareness is key to his passivity: instead of trying to change things, he waits for the problem, whatever it is, to fix itself, and then feels misunderstood and thwarted when his misery remains. Only his affection for Fillory remains constant – Fillory, the perfect other world into which, despite all the magic of his everyday existence, he still secretly yearns to escape. But even once he arrives there, Quentin is still unhappy, prompting a furious Alice to utter what is arguably the novel’s Big Reveal:

“‘I will stop being a mouse, Quentin. I will take some chances. If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.’

‘You can’t just decide to be happy.’

‘No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.'”

Quentin struggles to understand this point, but later, once he’s returned to Earth after Alice’s death, the lesson hits home:

“In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.”

And thus, the moral: that wherever you go, you take yourself with you, such that trying to cure your unhappiness by forever yearning after idealised childhood fantasies is doomed to terrible failure. Having vanished into Fillory, the novel’s villain, Martin Chatwin – formerly thought by Quentin to be a fictional character – became the only one of his siblings to stay there forever, an escape which Quentin had always privately envied. But Martin has become a monster, making terrible pacts for power and peace, and all for want of the necessary strength to live in the real world. For an SFF novel, then, this seems to be a particularly cutting message: by first making Quentin an identifiable character for exactly the sort of passive loner stereotypically associated with fandom, and then morphing him into a bitter, unhappy, sexist whose problems stem almost entirely from his lack of self-awareness and his uncritical love of Fillory/Narnia, Grossman is arguably passing negative judgement on a large portion of his own readership, rebuking their drive for escapism as little more than a sign of selfish immaturity. Or at least, if that’s not the intended moral – which is still possible, given that the story ends with Quentin’s return to Fillory – then it certainly ups the ante for the rest of the novel’s problems.

Because however actively or subtly Grossman is trying to critique the sense of entitlement felt by a particular subset of sexist male fans, The Magicians is still saturated with such a high level of background offensiveness that, more often than not, it serves to reinforce exactly the sort of problematic behaviour that it ostensibly means to debunk. Most obviously – and most prominently, as a female reader – is the overwhelmingly negative treatment of women. As I had early cause to observe, most every female character Quentin encounters is unnecessarily sexualised, and often in such a way as to diminish their competence. This isn’t just a consequence of being in Quentin’s point of view; as an attitude, it seeps into the background narration, such that his observations become indistinguishable from Grossman’s. At the most basic level, this resolves itself into a fixation with breasts in particular; we hear about them with just enough regularity to become complacently problematic, so that by the end of the novel, we’ve dealt with the following descriptions:

“…the radiant upper slopes of her achingly full and gropable breasts…” - page 77.

“… he was suddenly aware of her full breasts inside her thin, high-necked blouse.” - page 117.

“At one point one of her slight breasts wandered out of her misbuttoned cardigan that she wore with nothing under it; she tucked it back in without the slightest trace of embarrassment.” – page 252.

“She was whole, thank God, and naked – her body was slim, her breasts slight and girlish. Her nails and nipples were pale purple.” – page 355.

“As he watched she bent over the map, deliberately smooshing her tit into Dint’s shoulder as she did so.” – 405

“The back of her blouse gaped palely open… he could see her black bra strap, which had somehow survived the operation.” – page 409.

“She wore a tight black leather bustier that she was in imminent danger of falling out of.” – page 486.

And that, of course, is just the breasts; there’s plenty of sexualised but largely unnecessary references to other female body parts, too. Add it all together – and compare the prevalence of same to the absence of comparable male descriptions, with the possible exception of a giant’s penis – and you have a story that’s irrevocably written in the male gaze, not just as a consequence of having a straight male protagonist, but because this is what Grossman has chosen to highlight. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze as a literary device, but in a book which is attempting, at least in part, to critique sexism, deploying a variant of the male gaze that focuses wholly on female bodies in a context utterly disconnected from their value as people – and which is never actively acknowledged, let alone flagged as negative – cannot help but be problematic. And then there’s the use of pejorative, sexualised language and gendered insults to contend with, as per the following examples:

“Merits are for pussies,’ he said.” - page 52.

“…Janet got shriller and pushier about the game, and her shrill pushiness became less endearing. She couldn’t help it, it was just her neurotic need to control everything…” - page 152.

“‘Emma wasn’t a cow,’ Josh said. ‘Or if she was, she was a hot cow. She’s like one of those wagyu cows.'” – page 228.

“‘That’s what she wants everybody to think! So you won’t realise what a howling cunt she is!'” - page 237.

“‘If that bothers you, Georgia,’ Fogg said curtly, ‘then you should have gone to beauty school.'” - page 269.

“‘Quentin,’ she said, ‘you have always been the most unbelievable pussy.'” - page 306.

“‘Don’t you fucking speak to me!’ She slapped wildly at his head and shoulders with both hands so that he ducked and put up his arms. ‘Don’t you even dare talk to me, you whore! You fucking whore!'” - page 309.

“She was right, a thousand times right, but if he could just make her see what he saw – if she could only put things in proper perspective. Fucking women.”  – page 311.

“‘Oh, come on Quentina. We’re not looking for trouble.'” - page 333.

“Asshole. That slutty nymph was right. This is not your war.” - page 409.

“‘That bloody cunt of a Watcherwoman is still at it, with her damned clock-trees.'” - page 434.

Subtler and more pervasive than all of this, though, is the extent to which Quentin passes negative judgement on the sexuality of the women around him – which is to say, more or less constantly. That might be written off as part of his obnoxious personality, but as with so much else, Grossman seems unable to keep from speculating beyond those bounds. Janet’s sexual choices are frequently scrutinised; within moments of meeting a female Fillory resident, Quentin judges her to be a lesbian on no greater basis than her hair and clothes; it’s even suggested that Anais has somehow managed to sleep with a male stranger while the group is busy exploring a tomb. And then there’s Quentin’s habit of blaming the women around him for his own choices. Unhappy with Alice, he blames her for his bad decisions; having cheated on Alice with Janet, he blames Janet for tempting him; for all the choices he makes in Fillory, he blames Jane for letting him go there. Surely, this just another consequence of his flawed personality; and yet he never seems to blame any men for the things that go wrong in his life. For Quentin, women are always the ones at fault, and it’s this fact, rather than his penchant for blaming others, which reads as unconscious bias.

The sex, too, is deeply problematic, not least because Quentin’s first time with Alice takes place when both of them have, along with all their classmates, been transformed into arctic foxes – something their (male) instructor has cooked up as a way for the group of horny teenagers to let off steam while studying at the bleak South Pole. But what’s never discussed is the issue of consent this raises; or rather, the lack thereof. “He caught a glimpse of Alice’s dark fox eyes rolling with terror and then half shutting with pleasure,” we’re told of their union on page 191 – and somehow, miraculously, despite having betrayed no obvious interest in Quentin before – nor he in her, apart from the single requisite instance of noticing her breasts – they end up in a relationship not long afterwards. There’s never any talk about whether this encounter constitutes rape, or whether it did for any of the other students while turned into foxes; instead, and somewhat disturbingly, the incident leads Quentin to nickname Alice ‘Vix’, as in Vixen, though the sobriquet is only ever used once. Similarly, when we’re told on pages 193-194 that this same isolated class has started to indulge in orgies – “… they would gather in apparently arbitrary combinations, in an empty classroom or in somebody’s bedroom, in semi-anonymous chains, their white uniforms half or all the way off, their eyes glassy and bored as they pulled and stroked and pumped…”  – it feels like nothing so much as an unnecessary male fantasy, not least because, under the circumstances, nobody can possibly have any access to birth control. Doubtless, Grossman intended it as a throwaway line, but all it does it contribute to the subconscious sexism of the story: without wanting to divide his readership too sharply along gender lines, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that more female readers than male were perturbed by the potential for unwanted pregnancies in this section.

Against this worrying backdrop, Quentin’s abysmal treatment of Alice is almost par for the course: clearly, his decision to sleep with Janet is a bad one preceded by plenty of warning signs, not least of all his own admission engaging in “manic flirting and pawing” (page 279) while out at parties. That he then blames Janet for his bad choices – “She’d sabotaged him and Alice, and she was loving it” (page 327) – is one thing, as is his earlier complaint that “if Alice had any blood in her veins she would have joined them” (page 291). This is clearly vile behaviour, and not even Quentin’s obliviousness to that fact is sufficient to conceal it from the reader. But once again, their relationship issues are grounded in a more subtle form of sexism, such as the fact that, even though Alice’s plans to study in Glasgow are effectively vetoed for Quentin’s sake – “the idea of being separated didn’t particularly appeal to either of them, nor did the idea of Quentin’s aimlessly tagging along with her to Scotland” (page 359) – there’s no awareness of the fact that she, in turn, has “put off the kind of civil-service appointment or research apprenticeship that usually ensnared  serious-minded Brakebills students so she could stay in New York with Quentin” (page 77): her sacrifice is simply taken for granted and never mentioned again, even when Quentin’s behaviour worsens.

Alice’s whole character, in fact, is a major strike against The Magicians: not just because she ends up stuffed in the fridge, which is a gross offence in and of itself, but because her relationship with Quentin is utterly unfathomable. In a series of implausible leaps, he goes from noticing her breasts, to thinking she smells “unbe-fucking-lievable” as a fox (and then mounting her), to wondering if he might love her, to their suddenly being together, after which he proceeds to treat her, on balance, very poorly indeed. Alice, though, is the stronger magician by far; what she sees in Quentin is a mystery, and even after he’s cheated on her, she ends up apologising to him for daring to sleep with Penny by way of revenge, saying, “I don’t think I understood how much it would hurt you” (page 404). And Quentin’s response? “‘Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time'” (page 405). Never mind that, of the two of them, Alice is the proactive one; she agrees with him about her mousiness, because that’s her role in the story: Grossman has written her in as Quentin’s love interest, and so she puts up with his crap above and beyond what her personality indicates she otherwise would or should. Quentin might not be a hero, but he’s still the protagonist, and in such a profoundly male gaze narrative, that means he gets the girl he wants for no better reason than that he wants her; that she dies saving his life from an enemy he summoned through sheer idiocy is hardly fair compensation.

There’s more I’d planned to say about the problems in The Magicians – about Grossman’s uncritical use of the words gimp, cripple and retarded; about the offhand and inappropriate treatment of Eliot’s sexual preferences;  about the weird, peculiar arrogance of alluding to Narnia and Hogwarts so crassly and overtly, as though the best way to deconstruct the complex issues surrounding either world is simply to populate them with scheming, selfish assholes; about every other instance of objectionable sexism that leapt out at me while reading, and which I dully noted down; about the incredibly lazy worldbuilding, handwaved early on in the piece as ultimately unimportant, yet still full of holes and fridge logic – but then I’d be here forever.  Clearly, I didn’t enjoy the book: though pacey and intriguing at the outset, the further I progressed with the narrative, the more I became fractious, bored and angry at the whole thing, as though I were being forced along on a lengthy, pointless car trip with unpleasant company on a hot day. I finished largely out of stubbornness, and to an extent, I’m glad I did, if only for the catharsis: various plot points left open in the early stages were closed out at the end, and at least now I can say I’ve read it. But even though Grossman’s actual writing style is clear and concise, his storytelling is not. The Magicians could easily have been a good 200 pages shorter without losing anything important, while the core conceit – that of sending a grown, troubled Fillory/Narnia fan into their beloved childhood world in order to force a confrontation with their own inadequacies – might well have made better fodder for a short story or novella than a novel.

And underpinning every other objection was the sexism; the pervasive sense that not only was Quentin mistreating, demeaning or otherwise objectifying every woman he encountered, but that Grossman’s own subconscious bias and investment in the male gaze was helping to normalise this bad behaviour rather than, as was hopefully his intention, critique it. Even once the full extent of Quentin’s flaws were revealed, I couldn’t help feeling that story was more concerned with perpetuating sexism at a background level than deconstructing it on a conscious one, and when combined with the other structural and narrative issues pervading the text, the overall reading experience was one of exasperation. As much praise as it’s received, therefore, and as much as I embarked on reading it in a spirit of hopeful optimism, The Magicians was a profound disappointment; I won’t be reading the sequel, and whatever else Grossman writes afterwards, I’ll be predisposed to view it with trepidation.