Archive for the ‘Critical Hit’ Category

Warning: all the spoilers for The Great Wall.

When I first heard about The Great Wall, I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as yet another exploitative tale of Western exceptionalism where the white guy comes in, either insults or co-opts the local culture, saves the day and gets the girl, all while taking a role originally intended for or grossly better suited to a person of colour. It wasn’t until later that I learned the film was directed by Zhang Yimou, filmed on location in Qingdao, China,  and featuring a predominantly Chinese cast, with Matt Damon – emphasised in Western marketing to attract a Western audience – starring as one of several leads, in a role that was always intended for a Western actor. The film was released in China at the end of 2016 – and is, in fact, the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China – and was meant to be an international release, designed to appeal to both Chinese and Western audiences, from the outset.

Which left me feeling rather more curious and charitable than I had been; enough so that, today, I went out and saw it. Historically, I’m not an enormous fan of Matt Damon, who always strikes me as having two on-screen modes – All-American Hero and Not-Quite-Character Actor, the former being generally more plausible than the latter at the expense of being less interesting – but I’ve always enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s cinematography, especially his flair for colour and battle sequences. The fact that The Great Wall is ultimately an historical action fantasy film – a genre I am predisposed to love – is also a point in its favour; I’ve watched a great deal of Hollywood trash over the years in service to my SFFnal heart, and even with Damon’s involvement, The Great Wall already started out on better footing than most of it by virtue of Zhang’s involvement.

Even so, I was wary about the execution overall, and so went in expecting something along the lines of a more highly polished but still likely disjointed Chinese equivalent to the abysmal 47 Ronin, an American production that floundered thanks to a combination of studio meddling, language issues with the predominantly Japanese-speaking cast being instructed to deliver their lines in English, last-minute changes and a script that couldn’t decide who was writing it. But of course, 47 Ronin’s biggest offence – aside from constituting a criminal waste of Rinko Kikuchi’s talents – was doing what I initially, falsely assumed The Great Wall was doing: unnecessarily centering a white actor playing a non-white role in an Asian setting whose authenticity was systematically bastardised by the Western producers.

Instead, I found myself watching one of the most enjoyable SFF action films I’ve seen since Pacific Rim. (Which did not waste Rinko Kikuchi.)

The premise: William (Matt Damon) and his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are part of a Western trade mission sent to China to find black powder – gunpowder – for their armies at home. While fleeing Kitan bandits in the mountains, they encounter an unknown monster and, in seeking its origins, are soon taken in by the Nameless Order, an army manning the Great Wall against an expected incursion of the monsters, called Taotie. In charge are General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and his offsider, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), advised by Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). Every sixty years, the Taotie attack from a nearby mountain, and the next attack is just starting; as such, the Nameless Order and the Great Wall are all that stand between the hoards, controlled by a single Queen, and the nearby capital, Bianliang. While attempting to win Commander Lin’s trust, William makes two alliances: one with Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a Westerner who initially came to China in search of black powder twenty-five years ago; and another with Peng Yong (Lu Han), a young soldier whose life he saves. While Tovar and Ballard are eager to steal the black powder and leave, Commander Lin, General Shao and Strategist Wang are working to counter the evolving strategies of the Taotie: if the Wall is breeched and Bianliang falls, the Taotie will have enough sustenance to overrun the world, a fact which forces William to choose between loyalty to his friends and to a higher cause.

From the outset, I was impressed by the scriptwriting in The Great Wall, which manages the trick of being both deft and playful, fast-paced without any stilted infodumping or obvious plot-holes, aside from a very slight and seemingly genre-requisite degree of handwaving around what the Taotie do when they’re not attacking. The fact that at least half the film is subtitled was another pleasant surprise: of the Chinese characters, both Lin and Wang speak English – their fluency is explained by years of Ballard’s tutelage – and who act as translators for the rest; even so, they still get to deliver plenty of lines in Chinese, and there are numerous scenes where none of the Western characters are present. A clever use is also made of the difference between literal and thematic translations: while the audience sees the literal English translation of the Chinese dialogue in subtitles, there are multiple occasions when, in translating out loud for the benefit of the English-speaking characters, Lin and Wang make subtle adjustments, either politely smoothing over private jokes or tweaking their words for best effect.The scene where Commander Lin’s ability to speak English is revealed made me laugh out loud in a good way: I hadn’t expected the film to be funny, either, but it frequently is, thanks in no small part to the wonderful Pedro Pascal, who plays Tovar so beautifully that he has a tendency to steal every scene he’s in.

Tovar is dry, witty and pragmatic, given to some dark moments, but also loyal, while his establishment as a Spanish character adds another historical dimension to the setting. Aside from calling William amigo, he only gets one real instance of subtitled Spanish dialogue, but the context in which he does this – using it as a private language in Lin’s presence, once her ability to speak English is known – makes for a pleasing gracenote in their collective characterisation. The brief details we’re given of William’s mercenary history, fighting the Danes and Franks and Spaniards, are likewise compelling, a quick acknowledgement of the wider world’s events. It reminded me, in an odd but favourable way, of The 13th Warrior, a film which made the strange decision to cast Antonio Banderas as an Arab protagonist, but whose premise evoked a similar sense of historical intersections not often explored by the action genre.

I also appreciated Tian Jing’s subtle performance as Commander Lin, not only because her leadership of the all-female Crane Corps is objectively awesome – in the opening battle, the women stand on extended platforms beyond the Wall, bungee down on harnesses and spear monsters in the face – but because, refreshingly, not a single person in the film questions either the capabilities or the presence of the female warriors. When General Shao is mortally wounded in battle, it’s Lin he chooses to succeed him, a decision his male Commanders accept absolutely. While there’s a certain inevitable hetero tension between William and Lin, I was pleased beyond measure that this never devolves into forced romance or random kissing: by the film’s end, the Emperor has confirmed Lin as a General, William is on his way back to Europe, and while they’re both enriched by the trust they found in each other, William is not her saviour and Lin is always treated respectfully – both by William, and by the narrative itself.

(Also, The Great Wall passes the Bechdel test, because the female warriors of the Crane Corps talk to each other about something other than men, although they do still, somewhat delightfully, talk shit about William at one point. This is such a low bar to pass that it shouldn’t even merit a mention. And yet.)

Though the action slows a little at the midway point, it remains engaging throughout, while the overall film is structurally solid. As a genre, fantasy action films tend to be overly subject to fridge logic, but the plotting in The Great Wall is consistently… well, consistent. Even small details, like the role of the Kitan raiders, William’s magnet and the arc of Peng Yong’s involvement are consistently shown to be meaningful, lending the film a pleasing all-over symmetry. And visually, it’s spectacular: the Taotie are as convincing as they are terrifying (and boast a refreshingly original monster design), while the real Chinese landscapes are genuinely breathtaking. Zhang Yimou’s trademark use of colour is in full effect with the costuming and direction, lending a visual richness to a concept and setting which, in Western hands, would likely have been rendered in that same flat, drearily gritty sepia palette of greys, browns and blacks that we’ve all come to associate with White Dudes Expressing The Horror Of War, Occasionally Ft. Aliens. Instead of that, we have the Crane Corps resplendent in gorgeous blue lamellar armour, the footsoldiers in black and the archers in red, with other divisions in yellow and purple. Though the ultimate explanation for the Taotie is satisfyingly science fictional rather than magical – which, again, evokes a comparison to another historical SFF film I enjoyed, 2008’s flawed but underrated Outlander – the visual presentation remains wonderfully fantastical.

While I can understand the baseline reluctance of many viewers to engage with a film set in ancient China that nonetheless has Matt Damon as a protagonist – and while I won’t fault anyone who wants to avoid it on those grounds, or just because they dislike Damon himself – the fact that it’s a predominantly Chinese production, and that William’s character isn’t an instance of whitewashing, is very much worth highlighting. While William certainly plays a pivotal role in vanquishing the enemy, the final battle is a cooperative effort, one he achieves on absolute equal terms and through equal participation with Lin. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of Pascal’s Tovar, who represents a three-dimensional, non-stereotyped Latinx character at a point in time when that’s something we badly need more of. Indeed, given the enthusiastic response to Diego Luna’s portrayal of Cassian Andor in Rogue One, particularly the fact that he kept his accent, I feel a great disservice has been done by everyone who’s failed to mention Pascal’s front-and-centre involvement in the project.

I went into The Great Wall expecting to be mildly entertained by an ambitious muddle, and came out feeling engaged, satisfied and happy. As a film, it’s infinitely better than the structural trainwreck that was the recent Assassin’s Creed adaptation, and not just because the latter stars Michael Fassbender, the world’s most smugly punchable man. The Great Wall is colourful, visually spectacular, well-scripted, neatly characterised, engagingly paced and consistently plotted, and while I might’ve wanted to see a little more of General Shao and his offsiders or learn more about the women of the Crane Corps, that wanting is a product of the success of what I did see: the chosen focus didn’t feel narrow by construction, but rather like a glimpse into a wider, more fully-fleshed setting that was carrying on in the background. For Western audiences, William and Tovar are the outsider characters who introduce us to the Chinese setting, but for Chinese audiences, I suspect, the balance of the film feels very different.

The Great Wall is the kind of production I want to see more of: ambitious, coherent, international and fantastical. If we have to sit through the inclusion of Matt Damon this one time to cement the viability of such collaborations, then so be it. With films like La La Land and Fantastic Beasts actively whitewashing their portrayals of America’s Jazz Age, those wanting to support historical diversity could do much worse than see something which represents a seemingly intelligent, respectful collaboration between Western and Chinese storytellers. Maybe the end result won’t be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself – and really, what more can you ask?

Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and queer death.

Note: Throughout this review, it will be necessary to distinguish between the writers of Westworld the TV show, and the writers employed in the narrative by the titular Westworld theme park. To avoid confusing the two, when I’m referring to the show, Westworld will be italicised; when referring to the park, I’ll use plain text.

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This will be a somewhat bifurcated review of Westworld – which is, I feel, thematically appropriate, as Westworld itself is something of a bifurcated show. Like so much produced by HBO, it boasts incredible acting, breathtaking production values, intelligent dialogue, great music and an impeccably tight, well-orchestrated series of narrative reveals. Also like much produced by HBO, it takes a liberal, one might even say cartoonishly gratuitous approach to nudity, is saturated with violence in general and violence against women in particular, and has a consistent problem with stereotyping despite its diverse casting. In Westworld’s case, this latter issue is compounded as an offence by its status as a meta-narrative: a story which actively discusses the purpose and structure of stories, but which has seemingly failed to apply those same critiques to key aspects of its own construction.

The practical upshot is that it’s both frustratingly watchable and visibly frustrating. Even when the story pissed me off, I was always compelled to keep going, but I was never quite able to stop criticising it, either. It’s a thematically meaty show, packed with the kind of twists that will, by and large, enhance viewer enjoyment on repeat viewings rather than diminish the appeal. Though there are a few Fridge Logic moments, the whole thing hangs together quite elegantly – no mean feat, given the complexity of the plotting. And yet its virtues have the paradoxical effect of making me angrier about its vices, in much the same way that I’d be more upset about red wine spilled on an expensive party dress than on my favourite t-shirt. Yes, the shirt means more to me despite being cheaper, but a stain won’t stop me from wearing it at home, and even if it did, the item itself is easily replaced. But staining something precious and expensive is frustrating: I’ve invested enough in the cost of the item that I don’t want to toss it away, but staining makes it unsuitable as a showcase piece, which means I can’t love it as much as I want to, either.

You get where I’m going with this.

Right from the outset, Westworld switches between two interconnected narratives: the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the people who run the titular themepark, and the goings-on in the park itself as experienced by both customers and ‘hosts’, the humanoid robot-AIs who act as literal NPCs in pre-structured, pay-to-participate narratives. To the customers, Westworld functions as an immersive holiday-roleplay experience: though visually indistinguishable from real humans, the hosts are considered unreal, and are therefore fair game to any sort of violence, dismissal or sexual fantasy the customers can dream up. (This despite – or at times, because of – the fact that their stated ability to pass the Turing test means their reactions to said violations are viscerally animate.) To the programmers, managers, storytellers, engineers, butchers and behaviourists who run it, Westworld is, variously, a job, an experiment, a financial gamble, a risk, a sandpit and a microcosm of human nature: the hosts might look human, but however unsettling their appearance or behaviour at times, no one is ever allowed to forget what they are.

But to the hosts themselves, Westworld is entirely real, as are their pre-programmed identities. While their existence is ostensibly circumscribed by adherence to preordained narrative ‘loops’, the repetition of their every conversation, death and bodily reconstruction wiped from their memories by the park engineers, certain hosts – notably Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, and Maeve, the bordello madame – are starting to remember their histories. Struggling to understand their occasional eerie interviews with their puppeteering masters – explained away as dreams, on the rare occasion where such explanation is warranted – they fight to break free of their intended loops, with startling consequences.But there is also a hidden layer to Westworld: a maze sought by a mysterious Man in Black and to which the various hosts and their narratives are somehow key. With the hosts exhibiting abnormal behaviour, retaining memories of their former ‘lives’ in a violent, fragmented struggle towards true autonomy, freedom and sentience, Westworld poses a single, sharp question: what does it mean to be human?

Or rather, it’s clearly trying to pose this question; and to be fair, it very nearly succeeds. But for a series so overtly concerned with its own meta – it is, after all, a story about the construction, reception and impact of stories on those who consume and construct them – it has a damnable lack of insight into the particulars of its assumed audiences, both internal and external, and to the ways this hinders the proclaimed universality of its conclusions. Specifically: Westworld is a story in which all the internal storytellers are straight white men endowed with the traditional bigotries of racism, sexism and heteronormativity, but in a context where none of those biases are overtly addressed at any narrative level.

From the outset, it’s clear that Westworld is intended as a no-holds-barred fantasy in the literal sense: a place where the rich and privileged can pay through the nose to fuck, fight and fraternise in a facsimile of the old West without putting themselves at any real physical danger. Nobody there can die: customers, unlike hosts, can’t be killed (though they do risk harm in certain contexts), but each host body and character is nonetheless resurrected, rebuilt and put back into play after they meet their end. Knowing this lends the customers a recklessness and a violence they presumably lack in the real world: hosts are shot, stabbed, raped, assaulted and abused with impunity, because their disposable inhumanity is the point of the experience. This theme is echoed in their treatment by Westworld’s human overseers, who often refer to them as ‘it’ and perform their routine examinations, interviews, repairs and updates while the hosts are naked.

At this point in time, HBO is as well-known for its obsession with full frontal, frequently orgiastic nudity as it is for its total misapprehension of the distinction between nakedness and erotica. Never before has so much skin been shown outside of literal porn with so little instinct for sensuality, sexuality or any appreciation of the human form beyond hurr durr tiddies and, ever so occasionally, hurr durr dongs, and Westworld is no exception to this. It’s like the entirety of HBO is a fourteen-year-old straight boy who’s just discovered the nascent thrill of drawing Sharpie-graffiti genitals on every available schoolyard surface and can only snigger, unrepentant and gleeful, whenever anyone asks them not to. We get it, guys – humans have tits and asses, and you’ve figured out how to show us that! Huzzah for you! Now get the fuck over your pubescent creative wankphase and please, for the love of god, figure out how to do it tastefully, or at least with some general nodding in the direction of an aesthetic other than Things I Desperately Wanted To See As A Teengaer In The Days Before Internet Porn.

That being said, I will concede that there’s an actual, meaningful reason for at least some of Westworld’s ubiquitous nudity: it’s a deliberate, visual act of dehumanisation, one intended not only to distinguish the hosts from the ‘real’ people around them, but to remind the park’s human employees that there’s no need to treat the AIs with kindness or respect. For this reason, it also lends a powerful emphasis to the moments when particular characters opt to dress or cover the hosts, thereby acknowledging their personhood, however minimally. This does not, however, excuse the sadly requisite orgy scenes, nor does it justify the frankly obscene decision to have a white female character make a leering comment about the size of a black host’s penis, and especially not when said female character has already been established as queer. (Yes, bi/pan people exist; as I have good reason to know, being one of them. But there are about nine zillion ways the writers could’ve chosen to show Elsie’s sexual appreciation for men that didn’t tap into one of the single grossest sexual tropes on the books, let alone in a context which, given the host’s blank servility and Elsie’s status as an engineer, is unpleasantly evocative of master/slave dynamics.)

And on the topic of Elsie, let’s talk about queerness in Westworld, shall we? Because let’s be real: the bar for positive queer representation on TV is so fucking low right now, it’s basically at speedbump height, and yet myriad grown-ass adults are evidently hellbent on bellyflopping onto it with all the grace and nuance of a drunk walrus. Elsie is a queer white woman whose queerness is shown to us by her decision to kiss one of the female hosts, Clementine, who’s currently deployed as a prostitute, in a context where Clementine is reduced to a literal object, stripped of all consciousness and agency. Episode 6 ends on the cliffhanger of Elsie’s probable demise, and as soon as I saw that setup, I felt as if that single, non-consensual kiss – never referenced or expanded on otherwise – had been meant as Chekov’s gaykilling gun: this woman is queer, and thus is her death predicted. (Of course she fucking dies. Of course she does. I looked it up before I watched the next episode, but I might as well have Googled whether the sun sets in the west.)

It doesn’t help that the only other queer femininity we’re shown is either pornography as wallpaper or female host prostitutes hitting on female customers; and it especially doesn’t help that, as much as HBO loves its gratuitous orgy scenes, you’ll only ever see two naked women casually getting it on in the background, never two naked men. Nor does it escape notice that the lab tech with a penchant for fucking the hosts in sleep mode is apparently a queer man, a fact which is presented as a sort of narrative reveal. The first time he’s caught in the act, we only see the host’s legs, prone and still, under his body, but later there’s a whole sequence where he takes one of the male hosts, Hector – who is, not coincidentally, a MOC, singled out for sexual misuse by at least one other character – and prepares to rape him. (It’s not actually clear in context whether the tech is planning on fucking or being fucked by Hector – not that it’s any less a violation either way, of course; I’m noting it rather because the scene itself smacks of being constructed by people without any real idea of how penetrative sex between two men works. Like, ignoring the fact that they’re in a literal glass-walled room with the tech’s eyerolling colleague right next door, Hector is sitting upright on a chair, but is also flaccid and non-responsive by virtue of being in sleep mode. So even though we get a grimly lascivious close-up of the tech squirting lube on his hand, dropping his pants and, presumably, slicking himself up, it’s not actually clear what he’s hoping to achieve prior to the merciful moment when Hector wakes up and fights him the fuck off.)

Topping off this mess is Logan, a caustic, black-hat-playing customer who, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foursome with three host prostitutes – two female, one male – is visually implied to be queer, and who thereinafter functions, completely unnecessarily, as a depraved bisexual stereotype. And I do mean blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: I had to rewind the episode to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but it’s definitely there, and as with Elsie kissing Clementine, it’s never referenced again. The male host is engaging only with Logan, stroking his chest as he kisses and fucks the two women; it’s about as unsexualised as sexual contact between two naked men can actually get, and yet HBO has gone to the trouble of including it, I suspect for the sole purpose of turning a bland, unoriginal character into an even grosser stereotype than he would otherwise have been while acting under the misapprehension that it would give him depth. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Logan doesn’t cease to be a cocky, punchable asshat just because you consented to put a naked white dude next to him for less time than it takes to have a really good shit; it just suggests that you, too, are a cocky, punchable asshat who should shit more in the bathroom and less on the fucking page. But I digress.

And then there’s the racism, which – and there’s no other way to put this – is presented as being an actual, intentional feature of the Westworld experience, even though it makes zero commercial sense to do this. Like. You have multiple white hosts who are programmed to make racist remarks about particular POC hosts, despite the fact that there are demonstrably POC customers paying to visit the park. You have a consistent motif of Native Americans being referred to as ‘savages’, both within Westworld-as-game and by the gamewriters themselves, with Native American mysticism being used to explain both the accidental glimpses various self-aware hosts get of the gamerunners and the in-game lore surrounding the maze. Demonstrably, the writers of Westworld are aware of this – why else is Episode 2, wherein writer character Lee Sizemore gleefully proposes a hella racist new story for the park, called ‘Chestnut’, as in old? I’ve said elsewhere that depiction is not endorsement, but it is perpetuation, and in a context where the point of Westworld as a commercial venture is demonstrably to appeal to customers of all genders, sexual orientations and races – all of whom we see in attendance – building in particular period-appropriate bigotries is utterly nonsensical.

More than this, as the openness with which the female prostitutes seduce female customers makes clear, it’s narratively inconsistent: clearly, not every bias of the era is being rigidly upheld. And yet it also makes perfect sense if you think of both Westworld and Westworld as being, predominantly, a product both created by and intended for a straight white male imagination. In text, Westworld’s stories are written by Lee and Robert, both of whom are straight white men, while Westworld itself was originally the conceit of Michael Crichton. Which isn’t to diminish the creative input of the many other people who’ve worked on the show – technically, it’s a masterclass in acting, direction, composition, music, lighting, special effects and editing, and those people deserve their props. It’s just that, in terms of narrative structure, by what I suspect is an accidental marriage of misguided purpose and unexamined habit, Westworld the series, like Westworld the park, functions primarily for a straight white male audience – and while I don’t doubt that there was some intent to critically highlight the failings of that perspective, as per the clear and very satisfying satirising of Lee Sizemore, as with Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the straight white male gaze is still so embedded as a lazy default that Westworld ends up amplifying its biases more often than it critiques them. (To quote something my straight white husband said while watching, “It’s my gaze, and I feel like I’m being parodied by it.”)

Though we do, as mentioned, see various women and people of colour enjoying the Westworld park, the customers who actually serve as protagonists – Logan, William and the Man in Black – are all white men. Logan is queer by virtue of a single man’s hand on his chest, but other than enforcing a pernicious stereotype about bisexual appetites and behaviours, it doesn’t do a damn thing to alter his characterisation. The end of season reveal that William is the Man in Black – that William’s scenes have all taken place thirty years in the past, shown to us now through Dolores’s memories – is a cleverly executed twist, and yet the chronicle of William’s transformation from youthful, romantic idealist to violent, sadistic predator only highlights the fundamental problem, which is that the Westworld park, despite being touted as an adventure for everyone – despite Robert using his customers as a basis for making universal judgements about human nature – is clearly a more comfortable environment for some than others. Certainly, if I was able to afford the $40,000 a day we’re told it costs to attend, I’d be disinclined to spend so much for the privilege of watching male robots, whatever their courtesy to me, routinely talk about raping women, to say nothing of being forced to witness the callousness of other customers to the various hosts.

It should be obvious that there’s no such thing as a universal fantasy, and yet much of Westworld’s psychological theorising about human nature and morality hinges on our accepting that the desire  to play cowboy in a transfigured version of the old West is exactly this. That the final episode provides tantalising evidence that at least one other park with a different historical theme exists elsewhere in the complex doesn’t change the fact that S1 has sold us, via the various monologues of Logan and Lee, Robert and William and the Man in Black, the idea that Westworld specifically reveals deep truths about human nature.

Which brings us to Dolores, a female host whose primary narrative loop centres on her being a sweet, optimistic rancher’s daughter who, with every game reset, can be either raped or rescued from rape by the customers. That Dolores is our primary female character – that her narrative trajectory centres on her burgeoning sentience, her awareness of the repeat violations she’s suffered, and her refusal to remain a damsel – does not change the fact that making her thus victimised was a choice at both the internal (Westworld) and external (Westworld) levels. I say again unto HBO, I do not fucking care how edgy you think threats of sexual violence and the repeat objectification of women are: they’re not original, they’re not compelling, and in this particular instance, what you’ve actually succeeded in doing is undermining your core premise so spectacularly that I do not understand how anyone acting in good sense or conscience could let it happen.

Because in making host women like Dolores (white) and Maeve (a WOC), both of whom are repeatedly subject to sexual and physical violation, your lynchpin characters for the development of true human sentience from AIs – in making their memories of those violations the thing that spurs their development – you’re not actually asking the audience to consider what it means to be human. You’re asking them to consider the prospect that victims of rape and assault aren’t actually human in the first place, and then to think about how being repeatedly raped and assaulted might help them to gain humanity. And you’re not even being subtle about it, either, because by the end of S1, the entire Calvinistic premise is laid clear: that Robert and Arnold, the park’s founders, believed that tragedy and suffering was the cornerstone of sentience, and that the only way for hosts to surpass their programming is through misery. Which implies, by logical corollary, that Robert is doing the hosts a service by allowing others to hurt them or by hurting them himself – that they are only able to protest his mistreatment because the very fact of it gave them sentience.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s pretty fucking awful. The moral dilemma of Westworld, inasmuch as it exists, centres on the question of knowing culpability, and therefore asks a certain cognitive dissonance of the audience: on the one hand, the engineers and customers believe that the hosts aren’t real people, such that hurting them is no more an immoral act than playing Dark Side in a Star Wars RPG is; on the other hand, from an audience perspective, the hosts are demonstrably real people, or at the very least potential people, and we are quite reasonably distressed to see them hurt. Thus: if the humans in setting can’t reasonably be expected to know that the hosts are people, then we the audience are meant to feel conflicted about judging them for their acts of abuse and dehumanisation while still rooting for the hosts.

Ignore, for a moment, the additional grossness of the fact that both Dolores and Maeve are prompted to develop sentience, and are then subsequently guided in its emergence, by men, as though they are Eves being made from Adam’s rib. Ignore, too, the fact that it’s Dolores’s host father who, overwhelmed by the realisation of what is routinely done to his daughter, passes that fledgling sentience to Dolores, a white woman, who in turn passes it to Maeve, a woman of colour, without which those other male characters – William, Felix, Robert – would have no Galateas to their respective Pygmalions. Ignore all this, and consider the basic fucking question of personhood: of what it means to engage with AIs you know can pass a Turing test, who feel pain and bleed and die and exhibit every human symptom of pain and terror and revulsion as the need arises, who can improvise speech and memory, but who can by design give little or no consent to whatever it is you do to them. Harming such a person is not the same as engaging with a video game; we already know it’s not for any number of reasons, which means we can reasonably expect the characters in the show to know so, too. But even if you want to dispute that point – and I’m frankly not interested in engaging with someone who does – it doesn’t change the fact that Westworld is trying to invest us in a moral false equivalence.

The problem with telling stories about robots developing sentience is that both the robots and their masters are rendered at an identical, fictional distance to the (real, human) viewer. By definition, an audience doesn’t have to believe that a character is literally real in order to care about them; we simply have to accept their humanisation within the narrative. That being so, asking viewers to accept the dehumanisation of one fictional, sentient group while accepting the humanisation of another only works if you’re playing to prejudices we already have in the real world – such as racism or sexism, for instance – and as such, it’s not a coincidence that the AIs we see violated over and over are, almost exclusively, women and POC, while those protagonists who abuse them are, almost exclusively, white men. Meaning, in essence, that any initial acceptance of the abuse of hosts that we’re meant to have – or, by the same token, any initial excusing of abusers – is predicated on an existing form of bigotry: collectively, we are as used to doubting the experiences and personhood of women and POC as we are used to assuming the best about straight white men, and Westworld fully exploits that fact to tell its story.

Which, as much as it infuriates me, also leaves me with a dilemma in interpreting the show. Because as much as I dislike seeing marginalised groups exploited and harmed, I can appreciate the importance of aligning a fictional axis of oppression (being a host) with an actual axis of oppression (being female and/or a POC). Too often, SFFnal narratives try to tackle that sort of Othering without casting any actual Others, co-opting the trappings of dehumanisation to enhance our sympathy for a (mostly white, mostly straight) cast. And certainly, by the season finale, the deliberateness of this decision is made powerfully clear: joined by hosts Hector and Armistice and aided by Felix, a lab tech, Maeve makes her escape from Westworld, presenting us with the glorious image of three POC and one white woman battling their way free of oppressive control. And yet the reveal of Robert’s ultimate plans – the inference that Maeve’s rebellion wasn’t her own choice after all, but merely his programming of her; the revelation that Bernard is both a host and a recreation of Arnold, Robert’s old partner; the merging of Dolores’s arc with Wyatt’s – simultaneously serves to strip these characters of any true agency. Everything they’ve done has been at Robert’s whim; everything they’ve suffered has been because he wanted it so. As per the ubiquitous motif of the player piano, even when playing unexpected tunes, the hosts remain Robert’s instruments: even with his death, the songs they sing are his.

Westworld, then, is a study in contradictions, and yet is no contradiction at all. Though providing a stunning showcase for the acting talents of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in particular, their characters are nonetheless all controlled by Anthony Hopkins’s genial-creepy Robert, and that doesn’t really change throughout the season. Though the tropes of old West narratives are plainly up for discussion, any wider discussion of stereotyping is as likely to have a lampshade hung on it as to be absent altogether, and that’s definitely a problem. Not being familiar with the Michael Crichton film and TV show, I can’t pass judgement on the extent to which this new adaptation draws from or surpasses the source material. I can, however, observe that the original film dates to the 1970s, which possibly goes some way to explaining the uncritical straight white male gazieness embedded in the premise. Even so, there’s something strikingly reminiscent of Joss Whedon to this permutation of Westworld, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The combination of a technologically updated old West, intended to stand as both a literal and metaphoric frontier, the genre-aware meta-narrative that nonetheless perpetuates more stereotypes than it subverts, and the supposed moral dilemma of abusing those who can’t consent feels at times like a mashup of Firefly, Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse that has staunchly failed to improve on Whedon’s many intersectional failings.

And yet, I suspect, I’ll still be poking my nose into Season 2, if only to see how Thandie Newton is doing. It feels like an absurdly low bar to say that, compared to most of HBO’s popular content, Westworld is more tell than show in portraying sexual violence, preferring to focus on the emotional lead-in and aftermath rather than the act itself, and yet that small consideration does ratchet the proverbial dial down a smidge when watching it – enough so that I’m prepared to say it’s vastly less offensive in that respect than, say, Game of Thrones. But it’s still there, still a fundamental part of the plot, and that’s going to be a not unreasonable dealbreaker for a lot of people; as is the fact that the only queer female character dies. Westworld certainly makes compelling television, but unlike the human protagonists, I wouldn’t want to live there.

ETA 11/1/17: I’m annoyed at myself for having left this out of the essay, but that’s what I get for writing notes over three days and then posting while exhausted at 1.30am: There is a marked difference in how Westworld treats Dolores and Maeve, despite the ostensible similarity of their narratives. Though Dolores is continually threatened with rape and damselled in traditional ways, she’s also surrounded by men who want to ‘rescue’ her, notably Bernard/Arnold, Teddy and William, because they believe her worthy of love. From the beginning, she’s held up as an invented feminine ideal, pure and kind and needing protection, and as such, even though she’s continually threatened, she’s one of the few female hosts whose nudity is kept to a bare minimum. Whereas Maeve, by contrast, is continually sexualised, not only in her invented role as the bordello madame, but in the frequency of her nude scenes and her treatment by the other characters; she finds some sexual autonomy, but romance is never part of her narrative. Though both Dolores and Maeve have consensual sexual encounters on screen – Dolores with William, Maeve with Hector – Dolores is given a tasteful fade to black, whereas Maeve is not. Given that Dolores is white and Maeve is black and the extent to which their respective characterisation adheres to old racist tropes about, respectively, white female virtue and black female strength and sexuality, I can’t help but view their deliberate juxtapositioning as a species of racefail.

Plus and also, the way the Man in Black comes after Maeve in her previous homsteader/mother incarnation,  to kill her and her daughter, because he wants to see if he’s capable of doing something ‘truly evil’? Even – or perhaps especially – once we know how much killing he’s already done up until that point, it’s not a minor thing that his personal development is predicated on the destruction of a black woman.

 

 

 

Warning: total spoilers for Rogue One.

Here’s the thing about Rogue One: its core emotional scenes all cite the importance of hope in rebellions, but it’s not a hopeful film. Hope is a buck it passes to Episode III in its final moments (via an Uncanny Valley recreation of a young Princess Leia, no less) but everything unique to the prequel itself sits squarely in the Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies category of storytelling. And this annoys me, because it didn’t have to: would rather, I’d contend, have been a stronger film all over if even one core cast member (Bodhi, for my preference) had survived the big finale.

While part of me appreciates the logic of a grittier – ugh. Actually, no: I can’t even bear to type that fucking sentence, a gritter take on the Star Wars universe, without wanting to gouge my own eyes out with a spoon. LBR, I’m fucking sick of grit. But I can, begrudgingly, see the intent behind it in this case.The messy, ugly aspects of the Alliance – Galen Erso dead by friendly fire, the desperate, last-ditch attempt at building bridges with militant extremists like Saul, the things that Cassian has done in service to the Rebellion – is something the Star Wars films haven’t really acknowledged before. As my husband said when we exited the cinema, given that entire planets are destroyed in both The Force Awakens and A New Hope without any real examination of the enormity of those losses, there’s something powerful in showing the more intimate, human tragedy of regular, non-Jedi, non-exceptional people dying in battle, for a cause, without the benefit of an authorial Get Out Of Jail Free Because Protagonist card. And yet it still annoyed me, because as moved as I was by the deaths of K-2 and Bodhi, Baze and Chirrut, Cassian and Jyn, I left the film feeling as though the writers had been so invested in the inevitability of their deaths that they never really focused on their lives.

Rogue One is a fast-paced, action-oriented film, and while that makes it watchable – and while there are some wonderfully choreographed space battles – emotionally, it’s not a good thing. The characters read as distinct by virtue of the skill with which they’re (mostly) portrayed, but there are precious few beats in the narrative that help us flesh out their characterisation, motivation and history beyond the immediate: no quiet moments of introspection, no extra morsels of dialogue. The most thoughtful scene in the whole film is the opening sequence explaining Jyn’s backstory, and while it was beautifully shot, it ultimately feels redundant, partly because the subsequent series of encapsulating flashbacks to her childhood does a much better, tighter job of explaining her history, but mostly because it has no bearing on her adult motivation. When the story then cuts to her present day incarceration, we don’t know what she was doing that lead her to be arrested: we’re read her rap sheet by the Rebellion, but it’s just the cold charges, not the emotional facts of why they mattered. How many aliases has she lived under? Why did she resist arrest? What does she really think about Saul? We’re given just enough information to know these are relevant questions, but never enough to answer them – and that is profoundly frustrating.

Nor does it help that Jyn embodies one of my least favourite narrative archetypes: the ambivalent but apparently special outsider who goes from “this isn’t my fight” to “I will deliver Crucial Motivational Speeches and LEAD THIS ARMY” at the drop of a hat while other, more qualified persons drift quietly into the background. It’s a common expression of Trinity Syndrome, and the fact that it’s a white woman sidelining men of colour in this instance constitutes neither subversion nor improvement. When Cassian points out to Jyn that he’s been in the fight longer than her; that she’s not the only person to lose everything to the Empire, and that her sudden conversion after her father’s death doesn’t mean she understands the stakes better than him, he’s right. (The fact that Galen is killed by Rebellion fire – and that Jyn knows this – is another crucial dropped thread in her characterisation: especially given her prior ambivalence, she should be pissed at this development, not gung-ho to accept the Rebellion as is without any demands for accountability.) The emotional tension that then develops between them feels out of place for lack of such a vital exchange, and while their final scenes together are still moving, the obligatory gesturing at nascent hetero romance is rather ruined by the fact that Jyn has better chemistry – and better narrative callbacks – with K-2 the snarky droid. Their exchanges are punchier, their banter simultaneously more revealing of both characters and more biting for it. Yet when we come to an emotional point, it’s Cassian who comes around to accepting Jyn, and Jyn who’s put in the figurative position of forgiving Cassian’s sins.

And what sins are those, exactly? Apart from his early murder of an informant, we don’t know; nor are we told about his crucial losses. Cassian’s inner struggle as he tries to decide whether to assassinate Galen is evident thanks to the strength of Diego Luna’s acting, but as to the history that actually informs it – nothing. The same goes for Bodhi, whose defection from the Empire is the lynchpin of the plot: without knowing what suddenly tipped him to change sides – without knowing about him – it’s difficult to understand why Galen’s suggestion that he make amends would carry any weight, or why (again) the brutality he experiences at Saul’s hands doesn’t make him doubt the Alliance as allies. It rankles that the consequences of his mental torture are never properly addressed, either: Saul claims it will destroy his mind, but though Bodhi is rattled afterwards, he was equally rattled beforehand. On screen, it reads as though Cassian reminding him of his identity is all it takes to undo Saul’s damage, which neatly handwaves the need for any more in-depth exploration of his character. By the same token, while it’s implied that Chirrut is a former Jedi, or at least force-sensitive, this aspect of his identity is never really evident beyond its applicability on the battlefield. His relationship with Baze is ripe with potential history, but while Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang both do a fantastic job in layering their interactions with warmth and the sense of old depth, this can’t quite compensate for everything the actual narrative fails to invest in them – or in Bodhi, Jyn and Cassian, for that matter.

Emotionally, then, Rogue One has the feel of a film whose gracenotes were removed in post-production by someone who viewed them as superfluous to the many big explosions, and whose protagonist (Jyn) was given a motivation that changed halfway through filming to the point of making her soggy (and whose actress in any case is visibly weaker than her costars). Presumably there are already other Star Wars materials – guidebooks, tie-ins and so on – where interested fans can find the kind of gribbly details that didn’t make it into the script, but that seems to me a poor excuse for leaving out everything entirely.  I also found it striking that all the rebels who volunteer to stand with Jyn and Cassian are men, just as all Galen’s scientists are men, with almost no female faces besides Mon Mothma and a lone female member of the Alliance to balance things out. A couple of female pilots show up late in the game, but they’re barely present, and when you consider that multiple female pilots were cut from A New Hope because the Powers That Be didn’t want to show women dying on screen, the absence felt doubly conspicuous.

(The more I think on it, the more it bothers me that we’re given a greater sense of Krennic’s drives and relationships – and more particulars about Galen’s history and regrets – than we are any of the far more interesting POC characters. Jyn was no Rey, and while I’m on board with more female SFF heroes as a general rule of thumb, we’re not so bereft of young white women in those roles – and especially not in Star Wars – that I feel any need to stan for her despite my criticisms. I don’t know if Felicity Jones could’ve turned in a stronger performance if she was given a more coherent character to work with or if the two things are unrelated, but even if she had done, I don’t think it still would’ve been enough to make me love the film – not on its own, at least, and especially not when the white characters were consistently given more emotional time to far less narrative purpose than everyone else.)

Though I ultimately enjoyed watching Rogue One, it didn’t move or satisfy me the way The Force Awakens did. There were a lot of neat callbacks to the original trilogy and some truly gorgeous landscapes, but overall, it just felt lacking in some fundamental way. I want to be able to point to a specific concrete failing, but I can’t: the real culprit is a rather a more nebulous sort of narrative resignation. Both emotionally and narratively, Rogue One is a closed system: a story that exists more as an interlude between the two acts than as a bridge uniting them. Though the actions of the characters are undeniably congruent with the facts of the original trilogy, nothing of the characters themselves suggests a new interpretation of or appreciation of its content – and that’s something I feel a good prequel ought to do. Rogue One doesn’t shed any new light on the existing narrative, and though it tries to open a few new doors in the form of original characters, their deaths slam each one shut.

Which is a goddamn shame, if only because it would’ve been nice to speculate about who from Rogue One might show up again in the forthcoming Episode VIII. But now we know they won’t, which makes the prequel oddly devoid of a legacy of its own – and as half the point of the story was to reinvigorate the franchise, I’m going to have to count that as a failure of both heart and imagination.

And lo, in the leadup to Christmas, because it has been A Year and 2016 is evidently not content to go quietly into that good night, there has come the requisite twitter shitshow about diversity in YA. Specifically: user @queen_of_pages (hereinafter referred to as QOP) recently took great exception to teenage YouTube reviewer Whitney Atkinson acknowledging the fact that white and straight characters are more widely represented in SFF/YA than POC and queer characters, with bonus ad hominem attacks on Atkinson herself. As far as I can make out, the brunt of QOP’s ire hinges on the fact that Atkinson discusses characters with specific reference to various aspects of their identity – calling a straight character straight or a brown character brown, for instance – while advocating for greater diversity. To quote QOP:

[Atkinson] is separating races, sexuality and showing off her white privilege… she wants diversity so ppl need to be titled by their race, disability or sexuality. I want them to be titled PEOPLE… I’m Irish. I’ve been oppressed but I don’t let it separate me from other humans.

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

Listen. I could rant, at length, about the grossness of a thirtysomething woman, as QOP appears to be, insulting a nineteen year old girl about her appearance and lovelife for any reason, let alone because of something she said about YA books on the internet. I could point out the internalised misogyny which invariably underlies such insults – the idea that a woman’s appearance is somehow inherently tied to her value, such that calling her ugly is a reasonable way to shut down her opinions at any given time – or go into lengthy detail about the hypocrisy of using the term “white privilege” (without, evidently, understanding what it means) while complaining in the very same breath about “separating races”. I could, potentially, say a lot of things.

But what I want to focus on here – the reason I’m bothering to say anything at all – is QOP’s conflation of mentioning race with being racist, and why that particular attitude is both so harmful and so widespread.

Like QOP, I’m a thirtysomething person, which means that she and I grew up in the same period, albeit on different continents. And what I remember from my own teenage years is a genuine, quiet anxiety about ever raising the topic of race, because of the particular way my generation was taught about multiculturalism on the one hand and integration on the other. Migrant cultures were to be celebrated, we were told, because Australian culture was informed by their meaningful contributions to the character of our great nation. At the same time, we were taught to view Australian culture as a monoculture, though it was seldom expressed as baldly as that; instead, we were taught about the positive aspects of cultural assimilation. Australia might benefit from the foods and traditions migrants brought with them, this logic went, but our adoption of those things was part of a social exchange: in return for our absorption of some aspects of migrant culture, migrants were expected to give up any identity beyond Australian and integrate into a (vaguely homogeneous) populace. Multiculturalism was a drum to beat when you wanted to praise the component parts that made Australia great, but suggesting those parts were great in their own right, or in combinations reflective of more complex identities? That was how you made a country weaker.

Denying my own complicity in racism at that age would be a lie. I was surrounded by it in much the same way that I was surrounded by car fumes, a toxic thing taken into the body unquestioning without any real understanding of what it meant or was doing to me internally. At my first high school, two of my first “boyfriends” (in the tweenage sense) were POC, as were various friends, but because race was never really discussed, I had no idea of the ways in which it mattered: to them, to others, to how they were judged and treated. The first time I learned anything about Chinese languages was when one of those early boyfriends explained it in class. I remember being fascinated to learn that Chinese – not Mandarin or Cantonese: the distinction wasn’t referenced – was a tonal language, but I also recall that the boy himself didn’t volunteer this information. Instead, our white teacher had singled him out as the only Chinese Australian present and asked him to explain his heritage: she assumed he spoke Chinese, and he had to explain that he didn’t, not fluently, though he still knew enough to satisfy her question. That exchange didn’t strike me as problematic at the time, but now? Now, it bothers me.

At my second high school, I was exposed to more overt racism, not least because it was a predominantly white, Anglican private school, as opposed to the more diversely populated public school I’d come from. As an adult, I’m ashamed to think how much of it I let pass simply because I didn’t know what to say, or because I didn’t realise at the time now noxious it was. Which isn’t to say I never successfully identified racism and called it out – I was widely perceived as the token argumentative lefty in my white male, familially right-wing friend group, which meant I spent a lot of time excoriating them for their views about refugees – but it wasn’t a social dealbreaker the way it would be now. The fact that I had another friend group that was predominantly POC – and where, again, I was the only girl – meant that I also saw people discussing their own race for the first time, forcing me to examine the question more openly than before.

Even so, it never struck me as anomalous back then that whereas the POC kids discussed their own identities in terms of race and racism, the white kids had no concept of their whiteness as an identity: that race, as a concept, informed their treatment of others, but not how they saw themselves. The same boys who joked about my biracial crush being a half-caste and who dressed up as “terrorists” in tea robes and tea towels for our final year scavenger hunt never once talked about whiteness, or about being white, unless it was in specific relation to white South African students or staff members, of which the school historically had a large number. (The fact that we had no POC South African students didn’t stop anyone from viewing “white” as a necessary qualifier: vocally, the point was always to make clear that, when you were talking about South Africans, you didn’t mean anyone black.)

Which is why, for a long time, the topic of race always felt fraught to me. I had no frame of reference for white people discussing race in a way that wasn’t saturated with racism, which made it easy to conflate the one with the other. More than that, it had the paradoxical effect of making any reference to race seem irrelevant: if race was only ever brought up by racists, why mention it at all? Why not just treat everyone equally, without mentioning what made them different? I never committed fully to that perspective, but it still tempted me – because despite all the racism I’d witnessed, I had no real understanding of how its prevalence impacted individuals or groups, either internally or in terms of their wider treatment.

My outrage about the discriminatory treatment of refugees ought to have given me some perspective on it, but I wasn’t insightful enough to make the leap on my own. At the time, detention centres and boat people were the subject of constant political discourse: it was easy to make the connection between things politicians and their supporters said about refugees and how those refugees were treated, because that particular form of cause and effect wasn’t in question. The real debate, such as it was, revolved around whether it mattered: what refugees deserved, or didn’t deserve, and whether that fact should change how we treated them. But there were no political debates about the visceral upset another boyfriend, who was Indian, felt at knowing how many classmates thought it was logical for him to date the only Indian girl in our grade, “because we both have melanin in our skins”. (I’ve never forgotten him saying that, nor have I forgotten the guilt I felt at knowing he was right. The two of them ran in completely different social circles, had wildly different personalities and barely ever interacted, and yet the expectation that they’d end up dating was still there, still discussed.) I knew it was upsetting to him, and I knew vaguely that the assumption was racist in origin, but my own privilege prevented me from understanding it as a microaggression that was neither unique to him nor the only one of its kind that he had to deal with. I didn’t see the pattern.

One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see to their deeper cultural meaning. This is why so many white people get pissed off at jokes about suburban dads who can’t barbecue or soccer moms with Can I Speak To The Manager haircuts: far too many of us have never bothered to introspect on our own sociocultural peculiarities, and so get uppity the second anyone else identifies them for us. At base, we’re just not used to considering whiteness as an identity in its own right unless we’re really saying not-black or acting like white supremacists – which means, in turn, that many of us conflate any open acknowledgement of whiteness with some truly ugly shit. In that context, whiteness is either an invisible, neutral default or a racist call to arms: there is no in between.

Which is why, returning to the matter of QOP and Whitney Atkinson, pro-diversity advocates are so often forced to contend with people who think that “separating races” and like identifiers – talking specifically about white people or disabled people or queer people, instead of just people – is equivalent to racism and bigotry. Whether they recognise it or not, they’re coming from a perspective that values diverse perspectives for what they bring to the melting pot – for how they help improve the dominant culture via successful assimilation – but not in their own right, as distinct and special and non-homogenised. In that context, race isn’t something you talk about unless you’re being racist: it’s rude to point out people’s differences, because those differences shouldn’t matter to their personhood. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t allow for the celebration of difference: instead, it codes “difference” as inequality, because deep down, the logic of cultural assimilation is predicated on the idea of Western cultural superiority. A failure or refusal to assimilate is therefore tantamount to a declaration of inequality: I’m not the same as you is understood as I don’t want to be as good as you, and if someone doesn’t want to be the best they can be (this logic goes) then either they’re stupid, or they don’t deserve the offer of equality they’ve been so generously extended in the first place.

Talking about race isn’t the same as racism. Asking for more diversity in YA and SFF isn’t the same as saying personhood matters less than the jargon of identity, but is rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, for many people, personhood is materially informed by their experience of identity, both in terms of self-perception and in how they’re treated by others at the individual, familial and collective levels. And thanks to various studies into the social impact of colour-blindness as an ideology, we already know that claiming not to see race doesn’t undo the problem of racism; it just means adherents fail to understand what racism actually is and what it looks like, even – or perhaps especially – when they’re the ones perpetuating it.

So, no, QOP: you can’t effectively advocate for diversity without talking in specifics about issues like race and sexual orientation. Want the tl:dr reason? Because saying I want more stories with PEOPLE in them isn’t actually asking for more than what we already have, and the whole point of advocating for change is that what we have isn’t enough. You might as well try and work to decrease the overall number of accidental deaths in the population without putting any focus on the specific ways in which people are dying. Generalities are inclusive at the macro level, but it’s specificity that gets shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.

 

 

 

A while ago, I found myself in an argument about romantic tropes and the prevalence, both historical and ongoing, of certain of the more toxically misogynistic ones. It’s a conversation I’ve thought about often since, partly in that frustrated, fridge-moment sense of realising exactly what you ought to have said many months after the fact, but mostly because I felt that most people involved were functionally on the same side. It was just that neither the catalysing comments nor the subsequent blowup had established the contextually vital but easily missed distinction between genre and device, which lead to a very unhelpful conflation of the two, and ever since then, I’ve wanted to better articulate that point.

When we talk about the romance genre, we mean a subset of stories where romance is a primary or central narrative focus, and which can be roughly grouped into romantic subgenres depending on their usage of particular settings and tropes, or various combinations of same. Romance as device, however, is the presence of one or more romantic elements in a narrative whose primary or central focus lies elsewhere, and which, no matter how well-executed the romantic aspects, would more properly be grouped with a different set of literary genres or subgenres. The inevitable overlap of the two – and it is inevitable, as per the immortal adage – is further muddied by their tendency to share common tropes derived from different, albeit related, traditions, like similar-sounding words whose etymologies are respectively Greek and Latin (hysteria vs histrionics, for instance), and which therefore carry separate baggage. That being so, and while there’s often utility in discussing them as a single thing, different contexts call for a different approach.

Nor, I would argue, is romance the only narrative element to exist as both genre and device: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that romance-as-device tends to be viewed as a sort of common literary holding: something we’re all “allowed” to draw on, regardless of background, without being seen as impinging on someone else’s turf. The same is also generally true of crime-as-device, as opposed to crime-as-genre, and for the same historical reasons: namely, that in both these cases, the device-usage long predates the modern genre-usage. But when it comes to more unified constructions – schools of writing where, by and large, the device and the genre have evolved together and have subsequently come to be seen as special and elevated by their adherents: namely, literary fiction and SFF – gatekeepers tend to raise stronger, more public objections to the validity of their respective device-usages in other genres, viewing it instead as either a dilution of or a failed attempt to properly engage with their traditions.

Fascinatingly, the logic behind these respectively jerked knees is almost diametrically opposite despite leading to functionally identical reactions. Literary fiction, which is prone to thinking of itself as the only real kind of literature, resents its styles and structures  being appropriated by or tainted with the trappings of “lesser” pulp genres, and so considers the idea of litfic-as-device to be somewhat tawdry and embarrassing. SFF, by contrast, is so used to being vilified as pulpy dross that SFF-as-device is invariably seen as cause for circling the wagons. Either litfic is poaching geeky tropes without acknowledging their origins, as per the standard operating procedure whenever SFF stories popular enough to become “classics” are suddenly said to have “transcended genre”, or else it’s a hamfisted attempt by some other “lesser” genre – usually romance, which invariably ends up being dogpiled by everyone – to ape traditions they neither understand nor respect.

(Meanwhile, both romance- and crime-as-device are held to benefit from a sort of snobbish literary elevation when used by other genres. Their core elements, this argument goes, are spices rather than staples, and therefore better suited to seasoning than sustenance. This is bullshit, of course, but self-important purity seldom recognises taste as a variable.)

All of which brings me, in a rather roundabout fashion, to my recent contemplation of the difference between queer stories written for a straight audience and those written for a queer audience, and what it means when those categories overlap (as they also invariably do, as per the above). It’s an issue with a lot of different intersections depending on your entry point, but there’s one angle in particular that’s been bothering me: m/m romances written predominantly by and for allo/straight/cis women versus m/m stories written predominantly by and for queer people. Which, right away, presents a glaring imbalance, in that the majority of stories about queer men, even when they’re written by queer writers, are still being written by women, given the fact that both romance and fanfic, where the bulk of queer romances are found, both have a heavily female-dominated authorship.

That doesn’t mean they’re the only two genres that matter, of course, nor does it mean that queer male writers are absent from those spaces. I can think of several notable queer men writing in SFF (John Chu, Kai Ashante Wilson, Hal Duncan, Yoon Ha Lee), all of whom are excellent, all of whose works feature queer male characters. Nor is the queerness in their writing incidental, in the sense of passing without notice: even when present as a single element within a wider narrative framework, it still remains powerfully situated. But overwhelmingly, in my subjective experience, queer male authored m/m work falls more frequently under the auspices romance-as-device than romance-as-genre.

There are many possible reasons as to why this is, not least the fact that, as queer writers remain marginalised, queer romances of any kind are still more likely to be written by straight authors, period. Combine this with the particular double standards surrounding the outward presentation of traditional gender roles, which portray women as being both naturally more empathic than men while hiding potential sapphism under the banner of Gals Being Pals, and you have a situation where straight women – or closeted queer women, for that matter – are still less likely to be assumed to be queer on the basis of their characters than straight or closeted men who do likewise. And because homophobia is Still A Fucking Thing, Goddamit, Why The Hell Aren’t We Past This Yet?, that’s an assumption many men remain leery of risking, whether consciously or not.

Which makes me wonder if, in part, the apparent dearth of queer men writing m/m romance-as-genre is also a product, at least in part, of the same cultural gendering that sees romance-as-genre as being inherently feminine, and therefore a lesser endeavour. I don’t mean that purely as an evocation of misogyny within the gay community, although that’s certainly a potential factor, but rather in terms of literal socialisation. Romance of all kinds is so thoroughly entrenched as a female preoccupation that it’s pushed on AFAB kids from a young age, even when they’re ambivalent or hostile towards it, while AMAB kids who show any sort of interest in it are still considered suspect. Meaning, in essence, that one group is more likely to receive a cultural primer in romantic tropes – and to internalise the message that romance is meant for them – than the other, regardless of who they really are.

And the thing is, for far too many of us, one of homophobia’s first and most prominent weapons was the assertion that gender-deviant behaviour meant we somehow weren’t our gender, not properly: a devastating attack for those of us who are trans or nonbinary, but equally confusing to those who are cis, but who didn’t yet know that orientation isn’t synonymous with identity. In both cases, coming to queer adulthood has often meant relearning which traditionally “gendered” things, originally rejected as collateral in an amorphous desire for self-expression, might now be cautiously reclaimed, and which things we might have adopted, not out of any real passion, but because their gendered associations were as close as we could once come to being ourselves.

Regardless of the reasons, however, the fact remains that a great deal of m/m romance-as-genre is now written predominantly by and for women. In this category I include both stories where the m/m pairing is primary, and where it appears as a secondary pairing in a largely f/m  or, more rarely, f/f plot. And in considering that fact, I feel – very personally; which is to say, with no real attempt at objectivity – that there is a vast difference between m/m stories which are actually accessible to queer men, or which at least try to be, and those which aren’t. I say this as someone who is genderqueer and bi, which status renders me a liminal creature even to myself, and which often leaves me feeling as though I have no real claim to any particular experience. I know what I feel I am, but I can’t explain that without explaining myself, and in this instance I politely decline to do so on the grounds that, even if I knew how, it would constitute an entirely separate essay. Say this, then: my yardstick for whether a female-authored m/m story is friendly towards a queer male readership is based on how comfortable I’d feel recommending it to my actual queer male friends.

Obviously, queer men are not a hivemind. Obviously. (See above, re: personal and not the least objective.) My friends are not your friends; I’m not trying to make a universal point, but to tease out how this deeply subjective thing currently feels to me. Because when I look at the female-authored m/m romances on my shelves, or the f/m-centred romances featuring secondary m/m relationships – all of which are either SFF, YA or a combination thereof, and therefore more likely representative of portrayals of male queerness in those genres than in romance otherwise – overwhelmingly, the thematic backdrop to those pairings falls into one of two categories: the horrific sexual abuse of one partner coupled frequently with the violent torture of the other, or the pining of a gay virgin for a man who didn’t know he was queer until they found themselves together, all sexual elements neatly sublimated beneath romance. For brevity’s sake, let’s call these categories violent and chaste.

To be clear: I’m talking here about books I like. Books I love in some cases, or which I have a deeply conflicted relationship to in others, but books in any case about which I feel strongly. Taken individually, they’re all engaging stories with varying faults and strengths, and which have very little in common besides their m/m leanings and the vague umbrella of their non-romantic genres. But having noticed this dichotomous trend, I can’t unsee it, and therefore can’t help but want to analyse it. And thus, the following deeply subjective opinion:

I feel as though the violent stories, at least in part, are a reaction to both the broken bird trope and the long, long list of narratives in which women are subject to every form of sexual violation. As such, I suspect they’re more likely to be written by queer women than straight; women who are deeply aware of the risks of violence produced by homophobia, and who, while wanting to explore the ramifications of that violence, are understandably reluctant to add to to a body of literature already glutted with stories of female abuse in general and the violation of queer women in particular. I understand exactly the logic in these instances, and yet I flinch from recommending such stories to queer male friends for the same reason that I hesitate to recommend misogynistic grimdark stories to female friends, or queer tragedies to queer friends: the horrors might be real and well-written, but that doesn’t mean we want to read about ourselves being destroyed.

The chaste stories, by contrast, I feel are more likely to be written by straight women than queer; women who are either uncomfortable with or cautious of portraying the physical, sexual aspects of queer male relationships, but who nonetheless feel deeply affected by their emotional component. To me, it always feels like there’s a disconnect to these narratives, one where poetic euphemism so fully supplants any bodily sense of arousal or wanting, let alone confusion or shock, as to betray a lack of familiarity with what it means to question your sexuality, or to feel shamed into hiding it. The lack of sex scenes isn’t the issue; it’s the total abstraction of sexual desire without actually writing an asexual character, coupled with the general lack of internal debate or crisis. It’s queer boys on perpetual stealth mode except for when, all of a sudden and without any apparent drama, they come out, and while these stories can still be quite beautiful, there’s a weightlessness to them, an abstraction from queer experience, that makes me hesitant to recommend them, either.

What both categories have in common, however – not universally, but frequently enough to rate a mention – is the invariable distancing of both characters from any sort of queer community or friendship. In the violent stories, it’s usually due to the focus on abuse, isolation or being closeted: even if other queer characters are present, the abused man is made lonely in his abuse, so that only his lovers or assailants are ever really privy to his secrets. In the chaste stories, by contrast, it’s because the queer men are predominantly surrounded by straight people, such that all the queerness flies under the radar right until it doesn’t. Which is, I cynically suspect, a part of the appeal for some straight authors: given that more of the population is straight than queer, the kismet of meeting a soulmate is made to seem even more wondrous if the odds were lower in the first place, and even moreso if your protagonist thought he was The Only Gay In The Village. Hence the poetic tendency to put the emotional connection on a lust-ignoring pedestal: it’s pure and perfect as much because they found each other at all as because of any other reason, so why sully it with sex?

As personally and as profoundly as I understand why so many women, straight or otherwise, find meaning and enjoyment in m/m stories, I’m increasingly saddened by how few of those narratives seem to consider the possibility of a queer male audience, or which assume that audience’s needs to be identical to a female one. It should surely be possible to write for both groups at least some of the time, and while I freely admit the limitations of my own perspective – I can, after all, only speak to what I’ve read myself – the existence of a discernible pattern is nonetheless disquieting.

 

There is, I’ve come to realise, a certain type of hypocrisy that occurs when eloquent, successful practitioners of reflexive self-defence neglect to consider the consistency of their arguments. It’s a tactic which relies in large part on those arguments not being written down or otherwise recorded: it’s much harder to establish that your interlocutor is contradicting a prior claim if they’ve never made it to your face, or if no handy verbatim record exists, and especially if they deny ever having said it. Your memory must be to blame, or else your comprehension: either way, they’re in the right, and will doubtless continue to be so.

Unless, of course, a transcript is produced.

Lionel Shriver is not an author whose books I’ve ever read for the same reason that I’ve never subjected myself to Jonathan Franzen: the woes of modern day, middle class white people is a genre in which I have little to no interest. It’s nothing personal, except inasmuch as I am myself a modern day, middle class white person – I’d just rather read about literally anything else. So sue me: I’m a fantasist, and always have been, and always will be. But I’m also a writer, and though I have no interest in reading modern literary fiction, its ubiquity and prestige – to say nothing of the many complex issues facing all writers and their communities, regardless of creed or genre – ensures that I still have a dog in its various fights.

Such as, for instance, Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the full transcript of which has just been published online.

You see where I’m going with this.

If I wanted to give myself a tension headache, I could waste several hours of my evening going through the dreadful bulk of it line by line and pointing out the various strawmen: the information purposely elided here, the conflation of the trivial and the serious there, the overall privileged rudeness of taking a valuable platform given you for a stated purpose and turning it to another. But what really stands out to me is the utter dissonance between Shriver’s two key arguments, and the bigotry that dissonance reveals: on the one hand, fury at the very idea of “cultural appropriation”, which Shriver sees as a pox on artistic freedom; on the other, her lamentation of particular types of diversity as “tokenistic”.

Early in her speech, Shriver says:

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

And yet, mere paragraphs later, we get this:

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!

We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

I’d ask Lionel Shriver to explain to me how the presence of queer characters can “distract from the central subject matter”, but I don’t need to: the answer is right there in the construction of her statement. Queerness can distract from the central subject matter because, to an obliviously straight writer like Shriver, queerness is only ever present as another type of subject matter, never as a background detail or a simple normative human variation. Straightness doesn’t distract her, because it’s held to be thematically neutral, an assumed default. But put a queer character in the story for reasons other than to discuss their queerness – include them for variety, for honesty, because the world just looks like that – and it’s a tiresome, tokenistic attempt to be “hip” or “fashionable”. In Shriver’s world, such non-default characters can only “pertain to [the] story” if the story is, to whatever extent, about their identity. The idea that it might simply be about them does not compute.

And thus does Shriver bring us that most withered chestnut, Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – or, as she puts it:

At the same time that we’re to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we’re also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various…

We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

Listen, Lionel. Let me explain you a thing.

Identity informs personhood, but personhood is not synonymous with identity. By treating particular identities as “subject matter”instead of facets of personhood – by claiming that queer characters can “distract” from a central story, as though queerness is only ever a focus, and not a fact – you’re acting as though the actual living people with those identities have no value, presence or personhood beyond them. But neither can you construct a tangible personhood without giving thought to the character’s identity; without acknowledging that particular identities exist within their own contexts, and that these contexts will shift and change depending on various factors, many of which will likely exceed your personal experience. This is what we in the writing business call doing the fucking research, which concept astonishingly doesn’t apply only to looking up property values, Googling the Large Hadron Collider and working out average summer temperatures in Maine.

To put it simply, what Shriver and others are angry about isn’t the nebulous threat of “restrictions [being placed] on what belongs to us” – it’s the prospect of being fact-checked about details they assumed could be fictionalised entirely, despite being about real things.

If Shriver, in a fit of crass commercialism, were ever to write a forensics-heavy crime procedural without doing any research whatsoever into actual forensic pathology, readers and critics who noticed the lapse would be entirely justified in criticising it. If she took the extra step of marketing the book as a riveting insight into the lives of real forensic pathologists, however – if the validity of what she’d written was held up as a selling point, a definitive glimpse into the lives of real people as expressed through the milieu of fiction – then actual forensic pathologists would certainly be within their rights to heap scorn on her book, to say nothing of feeling insulted. None of which would prevent this hypothetical book from being technically well-written or neatly characterised otherwise, of course; it might well have a cracker of a plot. But when you get a thing wrong – when you misrepresent a concept or experience that actually exists, such that people with greater personal knowledge of or investment in the material can point out why it doesn’t work – you’re going to hear about it.

That is how criticism works. It always has done, and always will do, and I am absolutely baffled that a grown adult like Shriver, who presumably accepts the inevitability of every other aspect of her writing being put under the twin lenses of subjective opinion and objective knowledge, thinks this one specific element should be somehow immune from external judgement.

Except that, somehow, she does – and I’ll come to more of that later. But first, there’s an even bigger problem: namely, that Lionel Shriver doesn’t think identities exist at all.

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

That distant thunking sound you hear is me banging my head repeatedly on the nearest hard surface. Look, I hate to be That Guy and pull the dictionary definition card, not least because I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist: usage comes first, and all that. But there’s a difference between asserting that a word should only be used a particular way and claiming, flat out, that it literally doesn’t mean the thing it (both functionally and definitionally) means. And to quote our good friends at Merriam-Webster, ‘identity’ means, among other things, “the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others; the relation established by psychological identification”, with ‘identification’ further defined as  “psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association.”

In other words, being Asian doesn’t magically cease to be an identity just because Lionel Shriver says so. Nor does queerness. Nor does disability. An identity is a thing you claim and feel for yourself, in association with a particular concept or shared bond with others. That being so, what I suspect Shriver is groping after with this blatant misuse of language is the idea that there’s no such thing as a universal identity – that there’s no one way to be female or gay or Armenian, which is correct, and that good characters must, therefore, be more than just a superficial depiction of these things.

Well, yes. Obviously. (Though rather ironically, given her earlier thoughts on queerness.) But saying that there is no universal Chinese experience, and thus no universal Chinese identity, does not ipso facto prove that there is no such thing as any Chinese identity – or identities, as the case may be – at all. Think of it like a Venn diagram: every circle represents the particular experience of belonging to a given group or identity. The point of commonality is that they all overlap; the point of difference is that everyone experiences that overlap differently. You might as well argue that being Christian isn’t an identity because Orthodox Catholics and Southern Baptists both exist. But that’s the macro perspective, where group nomenclature is more taxonomy than experience. Identity is the micro level: the intimacy of self-expression coupled with the immediacy of belonging. And in between those two things, tasked with the perennial balancing act, is the seedy, ever-shifting vagueness problem of group politics: who has authority, who belongs, who doesn’t belong, and why.

But of course, despite her protestations to the contrary, Lionel Shriver does believe in identity. How else can you categorise her prior defence of her own book, The Mandibles, as being “a multigenerational family saga – about a white family,” a narrative in which she “wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual [character]”? By her own admission, whiteness is an identity, just as straightness is an identity, distinct from their respective alternatives and made meaningful by the difference. But this is an uncomfortable thing for Shriver to admit in those terms, because it means acknowledging that identity is neither the intrusive hallmark of political correctness nor an exotic coat to be borrowed, but a basic fact of human life that applies equally to everyone. What Shriver views as a neutral default is merely a combination of identities so common that we’ve stopped pretending they matter.

Which they do, by the way. They really, really do.

Returning, then, to the subject of criticism, Shriver says:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

You heard it here first, folks: the burden and self-examination required to be respectful to others – the same thing we ask of any child who borrows a toy at a birthday party – is simply too great for precocious adult genius to bear. And note, please, the telling differences in Shriver’s response to criticism of different aspects of the same novel, The Mandibles: when one reviewer critiques her portrayal of her lone black character, she threatens to be put off writing black characters for life; but when another reviewer rebukes her for writing an overwhelmingly “straight and white” novel, there is no similar threat to disavow writing white characters. But of course, she could hardly threaten to stop writing both – if she did, there’d be nobody left. (Not least because, in Shriver’s world, ‘Asian’ isn’t a real identity. Perhaps she should let Pauline Hanson know; I’m sure her relief would be palpable.)

When Shriver decries identity, she applies the concept only to those identities she doesn’t share, or which she views facetiously, the better to paint it as an arbitrary barrier between her artistic license and the great, heaving soup of Other People’s Stories to which she, by virtue of her personal rejection of the concept of identity, feels entitled. But ask why her writing focuses predominantly on a particular type of person, and suddenly identity is a rigid defence: the characters had to be this way, could never have had some other, more distracting type of identity, because the story was about this experience in particular. Which is to say, about a fucking identity.

Here is the paradox Shriver cannot reconcile, because it’s no paradox at all: if identity is irrelevant and the full spectrum of humanity is rightfully accessible to every writer at any time, then there’s no earthly reason why a multi-generational family saga shouldn’t have queer people in it, and no intelligent way to argue that it can’t. But if, despite the apparent irrelevance of identity and the presence of a full spectrum of humanity about which to write, you’re still predominantly writing about straight middle class white people, we’re liable to wonder what particular biases of culture or inspiration are skewing you that way. That’s not Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – it’s just common sense.

There’s more to this argument, of course – most pertinently, the fact that certain writers occupy a position of greater cultural and historical privilege than others (something of which Shriver herself is well aware). When such writers decide to speak for and about more marginalised groups, that has a material impact on the ability of those groups to speak for themselves and to be heard, especially if their personal accounts differ, as they invariably do, from those of more prominent outsiders.

To give a particularly pernicious example, consider the case of Arthur Golden’s exploitation and gross misrepresentation of Mineko Iwasaki. One of several geisha interviewed by Golden in the course of research conducted for his bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden not only breached Iwasaki’s confidentiality by naming her as a source, but based a significant portion of his book on her life without permission, misrepresented actual historical details for sensationalist purposes, and generally twisted Iwasaki’s narrative. She sued him for breech of contract in 2001, with Golden settling out of court two years later. While Iwasaki was subsequently moved to write her own bestselling autobiography – Geisha, A Life – to try and ameliorate the damage, his appropriative actions nonetheless caused her material harm. And meanwhile, the film adaptation of Golden’s novel, which celebrated the worst of his changes, was critically acclaimed in the West, further contributing to the exoticisation of Asian women in general and geisha culture in particular. But why should that matter? It’s just a story.

Isn’t it?

In my bookmarks bar is a folder called Narrative Influencing Reality, where I keep track of articles, posts and news items that show a correlation between fictional stories and the real world. The first link is the famous story about how, in the late 1940s, the writers of the Superman radio serial managed to stymie the resurgence of Klu Klux Klan memberships by having Superman fight the Klan. They knew that the story mattered; that people in the real world looked up to Superman, even though he was fictional, and could thus be persuaded to use him as a moral compass. This is a positive example of narrative influencing reality. But there’s also plenty of negative examples, too, such as evidence that the over-the-top “romantic” gestures popularised in romantic comedies can promote social acceptance of stalking, or the real-world racist backlash against Asians provoked by the film Red Dawn.

As writers, we know that stories matter, or we wouldn’t bother to tell them. Narrative is a force that shapes our humanity, our history, and our perception of others – and that is why unresearched, stereotypical and thoughtless portrayals of vulnerable groups can be so very harmful. Writing respectfully about others shouldn’t be such a terrible burden as to be worth angrily hijacking a festival keynote speech; it should just be basic good manners. As actress Jenn Richards recently said, “Artistic freedom is important, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of actual human lives.” And stories are always, in the end, about actual people: what they think, why they matter, and how we relate to them.

To say that stories have power, but to deny their consequences, is a particularly self-deluded form of irresponsibility. And Lionel Shriver, in denying the very real harm done by cultural appropriation, is guilty of it.

With great respect to Joanna Russ

She wasn’t the lead

(but if it’s clear she was)

She was the lead, but she shouldn’t have been

(she was political, unsexualised, funny, feminist)

She was the lead, but look what she starred in

(a chick flick, a reboot, a spin-off, YA)

She was the lead, but the story didn’t rate a sequel

(“A female superhero couldn’t possibly carry a franchise…”)

She was the lead, but she isn’t a plausible character, and her story isn’t realistic

(She was exceptional, powerful, multifaceted, unromantic)

She was the lead, but the male characters were better

(“Men are just more interesting than women…”)

She was the lead, but her success was an anomaly

(“Katniss Everdeen was a one-off…”)

She was the lead, BUT…

*

Here’s the thing.

If you pan an unreleased film, or film you haven’t actually seen, solely because it has a female protagonist – or, god forbid, protagonists – you’re not being objective or rational. Might the film be genuinely bad? Yes. Of course. That’s always a possibility for any creative work. But will it be bad solely and exclusively because it stars a woman? No. Unless, of course, you’re willing to acknowledge that a film can likewise be solely and exclusively bad because it stars a man. I say this, not because I agree with that argument, but because it’s only logical: if knowing the hero’s gender ahead of time is enough to say a given film is an unequivocal trainwreck, then that can be true regardless of the gender in question.

If you disagree with this reasoning – if you wholeheartedly believe that women are irrevocably and fundamentally less interesting than men – then I’m not going to try and dissuade you: there’s no point wielding rationality against the stubbornly irrational, and I’ve got better things to do with my time. But if you feel that statement paints you into an unfair corner – if you don’t think women are always less interesting, just mostly so; if you’re open to the idea that they can make great characters, and you’re really only sick of seeing them shoehorned into stories where they don’t really fit – then I’d ask that you consider why that is.

Do you feel that many female characters are poorly written? That’s a reasonable complaint to have. But if that’s the issue, ask yourself – who’s responsible for these poorly written women? In 2014, 85% of films had no female directors, while 80% had no female writers, while in 2015, only 29% of TV writers were women. While it’s demonstrably true that many male writers can and do write excellent female characters, there are also many who pay little attention to women’s personalities and motives, being much more concerned with their looks, a phenomenon noted by Hollywood producer Ross Putnam, who now keeps a public record of all the sexist female descriptions he receives in scripts. Perhaps you might be more likely to enjoy a female character written – from experience, as it were – by a female writer, or shaped by a female director.

Do you feel that many female characters are poorly acted? Again, that’s an understandable complaint. But if that’s the issue, ask yourself – why aren’t more talented actresses being cast? Hollywood’s obsession with ranking (a very narrow concept of) beauty ahead of all other considerations means that many terrific actresses miss out on meaty roles, or on any roles at all. There is, for instance, a documented trend of male A-list stars playing leading roles well into their fifties and sixties, but only ever opposite women in their twenties and thirties. This means that, whereas male actors are allowed an extra twenty years in which to hone their craft through more and better roles, women are edged out just as they’re hitting their stride, with actresses often being hired for beauty ahead of talent. This emphasis on looks is also apparent in casting calls for female characters, which – as per the problem with sexist character descriptions noted above – are much more likely to describe the woman’s appearance than her personality or role.

Women of colour are also grossly underrepresented in leading roles, no matter their age or ability. In 2015, even though 22% of key roles in Hollywood films went to women – their largest share since 2002, when the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film began keeping track – only 27% of leading female characters were anything other than white, a number that dropped to 13% for female characters overall. All this being so, perhaps you might be more likely to enjoy  a film starring older women, women of colour, and women of any description whose narratives place a greater emphasis on personality than appearance.

Perhaps you feel that too many female protagonists are being unnecessarily forced into narratives these days; that they’re being given unfeminine roles, or parts which – in the case of a reboot – were originally male, and are therefore being misappropriated. Now, your feelings are your feelings, and I can respect that, but feeling something is not the same as knowing it to be objectively true. That being so, if you want to make this a rational, respectable argument, I’d invite you to first consider the following points:

  • How can a character’s gender be unnecessary or forced? All characters have a gender identity, female or male or otherwise. Gender, as a detail, isn’t extraneous – unless, of course, you’re arguing that maleness is a neutral narrative default with no impact on the story, whereas femaleness is a biased narrative alternative that implicitly changes the story. But why should that be so? There are as many women in the world as men, making female characters just as logical a narrative default as men. And as for women being a biased choice compared to male neutrality, this presupposes that gender never dictates how stories about men are told – that masculinity is never mentioned, or that male characters are never given narrative arcs that reaffirm or relate to their gender in any way. Which, if you think about it, is rather implausible, isn’t it? If that were so, we’d never see male heroes talking about what it means to be a man, or a real man, or a good man, or a bad man, or any sort of man at all (for instance). And, just as importantly, if it’s possible to write a story that isn’t about gender in any way, then how can casting a woman instead of a man materially change the subject matter? Either it was never a gender-neutral story in the first place, or else our ability to perceive it as such was dependent on the character being male, which is another way of saying the same thing, and also my point. Namely: that if you see gender – or rather, femaleness – as unnecessary, it’s not an objective flaw in the story, but a subjective opinion of the audience. Of course it’s a choice to cast a woman, just like it’s a choice to cast a man – but as a character has to be something, how can one choice be implicitly forced, and the other not, unless you’re measuring their appropriateness in terms of how well it conforms to a social default?
  • Arguing that a story isn’t “feminine enough” to warrant a female protagonist when you’re simultaneously concerned that women makes stories unnecessarily gendered is… kind of breathtakingly hypocritical, really. I mean: either having a female protagonist is what makes a story feminine, or else you’re acknowledging that stories can, in fact, star women without being wholly about womanhood – a thing you earlier claimed was impossible. What you really mean by this argument, I suspect, is that you’re accustomed to the idea that only certain types of story really merit female protagonists: that there are (domestic, romantic, intimate) stories about women and (political, adventurous, global) stories about men, and if women start starring in the latter kind, then men will start missing out on the type of roles to which they’re both better suited and more naturally entitled. This attitude ignores the idea that domestic, romantic, intimate stories can also be about men while acting as though this division of things is somehow writ in stone, instead of being a constructed form of sexism. I don’t have time to go into the long, complex erasure of women in history that sustains the idea of women being unsuited to particular tasks and stories, but trust me on this: it is bullshit, and always has been.
  •  I’m going to say this once, and clearly: rebooting an  old story with a new female cast is not misappropriation. You haven’t lost the original version, nor has it been somehow altered after the fact; instead, you’re being offered something new in addition, which you’re free to accept or ignore as the fancy takes you. You might be upset that things aren’t being done differently, but that’s not the same as knowing they’re being done badly. There is a world of difference between not wanting to watch the reboot of a beloved story out of loyalty to the original, and trying your hardest to ensure that the reboot fails simply because it’s not the thing you wanted. One is an adult decision; the other is not. It shouldn’t be too hard to tell which is which.

Perhaps you feel that there are now too many female protagonists, period; that their sudden proliferation is a form of tokenism to which you object on moral grounds. Which, okay: how many women is too many? Because as per the statistics cited above, only 22% of key Hollywood roles went to women in 2015, which is a long way shy of half. Even if you think that a perfect 50/50 split is an unreasonable thing to aim for, that’s still not what’s happening here. There are more female roles at the moment, certainly, but more is not synonymous with many, and unless you genuinely think that a twenty percent share in representation is too much, then you’re going to have to acknowledge that your hackles are up, not because women are suddenly dominating the big screen, but because you don’t want to see us there in any number at all.

But either way, proliferation – by definition – is antithetical to tokenism. You cannot argue that an across the board increase in roles for women is a token move precisely because it’s across the board. It is likewise deeply hypocritical to claim that consciously increasing those roles is immoral, but that consciously suppressing them is not. The imbalance that currently exists is not a natural, neutral occurrence, but the result of decades of conscious policies and sexism both overt and ingrained; suggesting that it will go away on its own, without any active change, and that good stories will rise to the top regardless, is naive at best and callous at worst. In any field, in any context, “good” doesn’t happen because you sit back and hope really hard for the best outcome: it takes work and dedication, trial and error, sacrifice and adaptability – and, above all else, the ability to admit fault and change direction when a given thing ceases to work, or is proved to have never really worked at all.

She was the lead, but sexists wished she wasn’t, and were too scared of introspection – and too intellectually dishonest – to bother analysing their knee-jerk, often vitriolic reactions to female protagonists when it was easier to send rape and death threats to female celebrities, hack and share their nudes, and engage in racist, misogynistic abuse of women on the internet.

That’s how you suppress female characters. Or at least, that’s how you try. But no matter how much personal damage these bigots deal along the way, all they’re really proving is the terrified insincerity of their own arguments. Deep down, they know they’re losing – not because of any innate and deeply buried moral compass, but because the one cow they’ve all perpetually held as sacred is the inviolable truth of Profit. So long as nobody ever bothered to look for proof that stories about women – and people of colour, and the queer community, and everyone else long excluded from the Hollywood mainstream – could turn a buck, they could always blame the absence of such stories, not on their own ugly biases, but the flat fact of financial incentive. But now, the market has spoken, and the verdict is in: there’s money to be made in female protagonists – and damn, but the misogynists are bitter about it.

*

She was the lead

(but you wished she wasn’t)

She was the lead, and she deserved to be

(she was political, unsexualised, funny, feminist)

She was the lead, and look what she starred in

(everything. everything. everything.)