Warning: spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, much rant.

As keen followers of this blog may be aware, I recently went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and enjoyed it immensely. In fact, I wrote a review to that effect, because having opinions on the internet is kind of what I do. I was therefore not surprised, on waking this morning, to discover that someone had left a comment both quoting and linking me to a very different review, presumably by way of tacit rebuttal. This is not an uncommon occurrence: indeed, for an opinion-monger, the existence of other people’s contradictory opinions is something of a Bethesda special. To whit:

Bug or feature - yes

As such, before leaping down¬†the perpetual Someone Is Wrong On The Internet rabbit-hole of online counterarguments, it’s necessary to understand that you can’t object to¬†everything;¬†there simply aren’t enough hours in the day or, indeed, fucks to give. Contrary to what some might make of the fact that I periodically respond at all, my methods are not indiscriminate, and by and large, negative reviews of a thing I enjoy fall short of my personal yardstick for engagement. If I wasted precious energy yelling at everyone who fails to share my taste in films, I wouldn’t get very far in life, and especially not when the film in question is so culturally¬†omnipresent as to provoke every conceivable flavour of reaction.

But¬†oh, internets: this review. It was left in my comments, and even having mocked it¬†in the traditional manner, I can’t pass up the chance for a more detailed response.

The author, Laurie A. Couture, is an advocate of something called¬†“paleo parenting”, a¬†phrase guaranteed to make the eyelid twitch, as well as “a holistic parenting and alternative education coach.”¬†I mention this, not because I feel that someone’s profession should disqualify them from having an opinion, but because it strikes me as being deeply ironic that, for someone who professes an¬†alternative approach to dealing with teens and children, Couture mentions the friendzone, that most mainstream of sexist bastions, in her first paragraph.

To quote:

Did you notice the contrast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens?… the contrasts between the heart-skipping chemistry between the mature Han and Leia vs. the hollow, parched dynamics between the young Rey and Finn; the contrast between the strong, proud, compassion of General Leia vs. the hostile, aloof and disconnected Rey; and the contrast between the confident, masterful and tender Han Solo vs. the bumbling Finn who repeatedly sacrificed himself for a woman who only ‚Äúfriend zones‚ÄĚ him in the end.

Now, look. Okay. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the friendzone isn’t a hugely misogynistic concept¬†that gets trotted out as a way to blame women for failing to reciprocate the romantic feelings of certain entitled men, as though women aren’t fundamentally entitled to say no or, indeed, to want platonic friendships with members of the opposite sex. Let’s pretend that this is in any way an objective, non-sexist complaint to make, and address it on those grounds:¬†how the fuck does such an accusation apply to Rey and Finn?

It doesn’t, is the short answer, because even if you accept the friendzone as an actual thing, and not just a bullshit, shorthand way of saying “the hero didn’t get the girl, so it must be her fault”, it literally doesn’t apply here. Finn is not romantically rejected by Rey, because he never propositions her in the first place. Their final scene involves Rey kissing an unconscious Finn’s forehead, telling him goodbye as she goes off to find Luke Skywalker – certainly, she calls him a friend in this moment, but given that they aren’t in¬†a romantic relationship, and as we have every reason to believe that Rey will eventually return with Skywalker, there’s no sense in which her departure – as urgently necessary as it is – can be construed as rejection. Nor, as per the other oft-cited criteria of friendzoning, can Rey be accused of having “dumped” Finn for someone else: there are no other candidates for her affections, nor does she say anything to make us think she dislikes him.

Quite the opposite, in fact: Rey demonstrably cares for Finn, having “repeatedly sacrificed” herself for him, too. But let’s just pick at that wording a moment – “repeatedly sacrificed himself”, as though the fact that Finn didn’t let his new friend die only makes sense if he wants to sleep with her; and, more, as though the fact that he acted with that goal in mind makes Rey a bad person for failing to reciprocate. If this is the bar that must be jumped to establish the romantic/sexual certainty of a pairing, what are we to make of the similar risks Finn takes to save Poe from the First Order – or, indeed, the risks Poe takes to save Finn in turn? As Couture makes no reference to queerness in her review, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that such an interpretation never occurred to her. In order for her thesis to work, the exact same behaviours must take on radically difference significance depending on the gender of both subject and object: Finn saving Rey must mean he wants her romantically, but Finn saving Poe can only be platonic. To which I say:¬†utter bullshit.

More, however, is to come:

The two generations of us who are old enough to have been alive when the original three Star Wars films emblazoned their genius into our pop-cultural legacy appreciate the nostalgia of Han and Leia‚Äôs warm embrace…¬†However, the youngest generations, the Millennials, as well as the first arrivals of the yet undefined new cohort, are internalizing very different messages about love, connection, sacrifice and the beauty and richness of both maleness and femaleness. They aren‚Äôt looking to the mature characters as their role models or heroes –

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the combination of ignorance and fan-policing that went into making this paragraph. Not only is Couture completely eliding the role of the prequel films in making Star Wars a generational constant, but she’s effectively arguing hipster-logic: that her nostalgia is better and more authentic than our nostalgia, because she’s old enough to have seen the originals on the big screen. Never mind that a staggering number of Millenials ¬†grew up watching Star Wars on VHS and DVD, played with lightsabres and Death Star Lego¬†throughout our childhoods and were therefore already invested¬†when the prequels came along: you don’t get to determine how “correctly” someone is performing fandom based on their age or the point at which they started.

And where, exactly, is Couture getting the idea that none of us – that nobody younger than her – is looking to the mature characters as role models or heroes? Does she think that liking Finn, Rey and Poe somehow magically precludes a love of Han, Luke and Leia – that our enthusiasm for a new dynamic is somehow an inherent betrayal of the old, instead of a context-appropriate response to a thing we love? Has she assumed that her dislike of the new characters must necessarily correlate to young people disliking the old ones? Or does she honestly think so little of the young as to inherently doubt our capacity for identification with older characters, even when we’ve grown up with them?

What makes this even more ridiculous is her fixation on “Millenials” in particular, rather than – as I suspect she really means – teenagers in specific. Because Millenials, aka Gen Y, were born – as even a cursory search¬†could tell you – between 1980 and the early 2000s, which puts the oldest of us well into our mid-thirties: even Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, who play Rey and Finn, were born in 1992, making them both adults in their early twenties. The only Millenials left in their teens are those born after 1997; which is to say, vastly less than half. Which renders Courture’s use of the term – or rather, her argument itself – decidedly out of touch; as though she’s so used to thinking of Millenials as “those troubled teens” that she hasn’t bothered to notice we’ve grown up.

But I digress.

…but to the young and anxious Finn and Rey, who embody the new unhealthy gender dynamic: The young female who believes she must be hostile, rejecting and cold in order to assert her strength and relevance and the young male who clumsily acts as if he must apologize for his existence, his maleness, his intellect, his emotions, his needs and his pain while he chases after the type of female who will only confirm his sense of irrelevance.

In the immortal words of Bender Bending Rodruigez:

oh your god

I mean. Look. Okay. I could make an argument about how Rey being “hostile, rejecting and cold” is completely understandable, given her isolated, hardscrabble existence and early abandonment, but I won’t, for two reasons: firstly, it sidesteps the criticism that, regardless of any internal narrative justification, this is still the type of character we’re being presented with; and secondly, because it’s such a reductive, selective view of the character as to be wildly inaccurate.

I’ll start with this latter point first, because honestly – what film was Couture watching? A Rey who was utterly “hostile, rejecting and cold” likely wouldn’t have bothered to rescue BB8 from¬†being turned into scrap; but if she had, she’d certainly have sold the droid¬†without a second thought when offered a literal fortune in exchange. Instead, Rey walks away from riches to keep BB8, fighting off multiple attackers in the process. Yes, she snaps at Finn in the middle of a firefight, when she has no idea who he¬†is, but after their escape from Jakku aboard the Millenium Falcon, the moment the two of them share in celebration of their success – smiling, laughing, utterly joyful and exhilarated, talking over the top of each other in mutual awe and excitement at their achievements – is the antithesis of the character Couture is describing. That Rey asserts herself around strangers is both a survival mechanism and a product of her upbringing, certainly, but it doesn’t stop her from being emotional, kind and caring in other contexts, nor does it diminish her capacity for joy. Her awed, wistful, almost fragile admission on arriving at Takodana – “I didn’t know there was so much green in the whole galaxy!” – is likewise at odds with Couture’s concept of her.

The current abundance¬†of Strong Female Characters in wider media, like our habit of assessing their worthiness via an incredibly flawed definition¬†of¬†strength, is – I agree – a problem, and one I’m happy to discuss. But only by the most forced, reductive reading of Rey can she be shoehorned into this category: her compassion for Finn and BB8, her delight in new places and experiences, and her clear affection for those around her must all be ignored in order to construct such a reading, and as such, I reject it utterly.

I am similarly outraged by Couture’s gross mischaracterisation of Finn as “the young male who clumsily acts as if he must apologize for his existence, his maleness, his intellect, his emotions, his needs and his pain while he chases after the type of female who will only confirm his sense of irrelevance.” At no point in the narrative does Finn do any of these things: both Rey and Poe – and, indeed, the entire Resistance – are quick to praise Finn’s talents. As such, he spends much of the film being congratulated by virtual strangers for being a good person and a skilled fighter: his delight in Rey’s piloting the Falcon is just as sincere as her appreciation for his gunning, a specific praise also offered by Poe. In fact, the only characters to whom Finn’s emotions, needs, intellect and pain are viewed as negatives – as obstacles, even – are the villains: Kylo Ren, Admiral Hux and Captain Phasma, who curse his rejection of their brainwashing, speculate his need for forcible re-education, and who view his intrinsic humanity as a betrayal of their ideology.

That being so, beginning with Finn’s escape from the First Order, the entire film can arguably be viewed as a rejection of every stereotype of toxic masculinity Couture claims Finn embodies: in defiance of those who want him to remain a cold-blooded killer, emotionless, lacking both initiative and personal needs, Finn seeks out people who recognise his kindness, his joy, his intelligence – it’s his plan, remember, to flood the Falcon with gas when they think they’re under attack, and Rey who agrees to it – and his personhood, never once questioning his loyalty or his value despite his Stormtrooper upbringing.

As for Finn “[chasing] after the type of female who will only confirm his sense of irrelevance” – well. Canonically,¬†Finn neither initiates nor attempts to initiate a romantic relationship with Rey during the film, making this a spurious claim rather than an established fact, never mind how this interpretation slights Rey. As such,¬†it’s worth remembering that¬†every narrative marker of closeness and sacrifice used to subtly ‘pair’ Finn¬†with Rey – their shared delight in each other; the planned rescue; the moments of physical contact –¬†apply equally to his relationship with Poe. Thus: unless you’re either homophobic, hypocritical or both, it’s impossible to argue that the potential Finn/Rey pairing exists on a somehow more exalted, steadier footing than¬†Finn/Poe potentially does, as they both derive from identical gestures.

There is an additional, more insidious contrast in Star Wars 7 that expands these unhealthy gender dynamics to the darkest realm of the Dark Side: The insinuation, through dialogue, struggle and drama, that Kylo Ren’s invasive use of The Force on Rey, a woman, was more violating than when used just as violently on Resistance pilot, Po, a man. Likewise, violence against males was presented as collateral damage and even suggestively comedic, while Rey’s vulnerability to harm was always the cliffhanger.

Ignoring the apparent paradox here – that, having spent paragraphs insisting Rey is hard and strong, Couture now hinges this complaint on her vulnerability – I think this is a long bow to draw. While I agree that, culturally, we have a deep-seated tendency to normalise¬†violence against men, trivialising their pain – and especially when that pain is inflicted on men of colour (like Poe) by white men (like Kylo) – while¬†sensationalising violence against women, I don’t think that’s what’s happening here; or rather, if it is, I don’t think Couture has the right of why. Given that the film’s big showdown is between Rey and Kylo, it makes sense that we’d spend more time on his interrogation of her; though again, I’m puzzled by the insistence on her vulnerability as a factor here. Even when Finn and Han show up to rescue Rey, she’s already in the process of rescuing herself, to say nothing of the fact that, in the final scenes, Rey is seemingly the one character whose survival we’re never called upon to doubt: it’s Finn who’s left behind, bleeding and possibly dead, while Rey has her duel with Kylo, and Han who engages in the fatal attempt to try and win Kylo to the light side.

That the bulk of the collateral damage in the film is wielded against men is a result of sexism, yes, but not the way Couture thinks: there are simply more men present, period. Or rather, if there are more women among the Stormtroopers than Captain Phasma, their uniforms effectively obscure their gender, and while I agree that having more ladies in the background would have been a nice thing, even if all they were doing was getting shot at, I don’t agree that this is part of some big, weird¬†conspiracy to diminish men by portraying them as a majority. If there is a complaint to be levied about the way Poe’s torture is handled compared to Rey’s, I’d be more inclined to view it as a problem of race than gender, or at the least, of occupying an intersection between the two. There is, after all, a lamentably well-documented history of the medical establishment and culture generally treating POC as being more natively impervious¬†to pain than white people, and that’s something our analysis should reflect.

On the surface, these media and cultural messages seem benign to the general population: Are they not ‚Äúempowering‚ÄĚ women? Even if hostility, aloofness and rejection were the definitions of being ‚Äúempowered‚ÄĚ (which they are not), what are these cultural messages depicting about men? Are boys being showed role models of men being ‚Äúempowered‚ÄĚ; their needs and feelings important to be considered? Is male suffering and violation treated as egregiously wrong as female suffering and violation? Are boys shown men who are confident, competent, masterful and who are also respected for being vulnerable? Are boys shown males being loved for who they are rather than given only brief admiration for when they ‚Äúchange‚ÄĚ or sacrifice their bodies? Or are boys primarily shown men in roles of being shamed, of being dangerous, of being mocked or of being beaten or murdered as punishments for their ‚Äúbadness‚ÄĚ?

As much as it frustrates me, I always find it unutterably sad when feminism is blamed for the failings of patriarchy, as though the fight for gender equality, and not the specifics of its original imbalance, are responsible for enforcing toxic¬†masculinity. As such, Couture’s complaints are difficult to address, not because they lack answers – or, necessarily, merit – but because, as her later statements on the subject make clear, she’s hellbent on blaming feminism for misogyny’s evils, and has thereby conflated the two.

Thus: while it is entirely relevant to ask about the negative messages men are receiving from visual media, you can’t divorce that question from the wider context – namely, that men, and especially straight white men,¬†are still responsible for creating¬†the vast majority of films¬†while simultaneously occupying the majority of roles within them, to the point of being grossly, disproportionately represented. To cite a recent statistic, only 7% of Hollywood directors are female, with the same study finding that 80% of films made in 2014 had no female writers at all; while in 2014-15, less than half of all speaking roles on broadcast TV went to women. Indeed, in picking Star Wars: The Force Awakens as the subject of her ire, Courture conveniently ignores that it was both written and directed entirely by men, for all that she seems eager to blame its failings on the false empowerment of women. (One of the three producers, Kathleen Kennedy, is female, but set alongside director/producer/writer J. J. Abrams, fellow producer Bryan Burk and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, the odds, to paraphrase¬†The Hunger Games, are not exactly in her favour.)

As such, when Couture argues that “the incessant derision of males and the promotion of female hostility is having serious repercussions for our culture,” she’s making a fundamental error, assuming the relationship between the two phenomenons is causative rather than correlative: that female empowerment is causing a dearth of positive representations for men. In reality, they¬†come from the same source: that of patriarchy and its toxic, narrow, harmful concept of masculinity, which is always constructed at the expense of women. The pushback Couture identifies – that of female anger, which has both positive and negative expressions – is not responsible for the decades of sexist stories that portray men as emotionless, disposable and domestically incompetent, but is rather railing against it. Hook, line and sinker, she has bought the MRA myth that feminists are responsible for every evil patriarchy has ever wielded against men, and so is helping to perpetuate it.

Consider these claims, for instance:

The consequences go beyond mere entertainment laughs. The incessant derision of males and the promotion of female hostility is having serious repercussions for our culture: Natural boy behavior is pathologized in schools, causing boys to be prescribed mind-altering psychotropic drugs in epidemic numbers. Young men are subverting higher education as campuses have become increasingly hostile to young males, viewing them as sexual predators and obstacles to women. Empirical research has shown that sexual and domestic violence by females against males is equal to or has surpassed male violence against women. While innumerable organizations and campaigns are in place to empower girls and women, and to bring attention to violence against females, there are no such counterparts to empower boys and men and bring attention to violence against males. Most tragically, 80% of all suicide victims are men and boys.

Let’s address them one at a time, shall we?

Point the first: What, exactly, does Courture mean by “natural boy behaviour”? The fact is, we socialise boys and girls differently from birth, while¬†biological sex is a spectrum rather than a binary. As such, we have a great many cultural myths about gendered behaviour as innate that are really the product of social conditioning, and which frequently work to the detriment of boys and girls. For instance: while¬†active boys are sometimes¬†over-prescribed medication on the basis of their gender, girls with genuine mental illnesses and learning difficulties are being underdiagnosed for the same reason: a socially constructed idea of how they “should” behave and what the condition “always” looks like. Medical sexism is a pernicious thing: now that an entrenched masculine stereotype for boys with ADD/ADHD exists – and with the symptoms that most often present with boys held up as the yardstick for ‘normal’ presentation – the conditions themselves are seen as fundamentally masculine, leading doctors to miss their presentation in girls.

Point the second: According to a recent White House task force, one in five university students in the USA experiences sexual assault on campus, while in the UK, one in three female students is assaulted or abused on campus. Disproportionately, the victims of these assaults are female, the perpetrators male, and while that fact should by no means be used to diminish the experiences of male victims or those abused by women, it should stand as a factual rebuke of¬†Couture’s irresponsibly dismissive language, which seems to treat the entire thing as a fiction conjured for the sole purpose of disadvantaging men. Never mind that study where one third of college men admitted their willingness to rape a woman if they thought they could get away with it,¬†an admission made largely because, if the word ‘rape’ wasn’t actually used, the men in question were much more likely to endorse the behaviour. Even when the victims are male, as in the Joe Paterno case, universities have a less than stellar track record in dealing with rape and assault on campus. It’s endemic, it’s awful, and it’s unutterably misogynistic in its treatment of everyone involved, and if Couture’s big takeaway from the scope of the problem is that¬†it might encourage women to see men as obstacles, and not the fact that sexual assault is happening with such frequency, then I can summarise her position in two words: rape apology.

Point the third: While it’s certainly true that rates of domestic violence against men tend to be under-reported, especially when the perpetrators are female, the recording of such data is, at present, highly politicised, with great variation in the results produced. What is demonstrably true, however, and directly counter to Couture’s assertion, is that certain¬†campaigns and institutions exist do to empower and help men who experience such violence, though not in greater or equivalent numbers as those that exist for women. There are men’s shelters, charities that provide free counselling to victims of violence and sexual assault regardless of gender (I used to work for one), and there are innumerable men’s rights groups actively discussing the problem – though whether the rampant misogyny of many such institutions ever translates into actual help, I’m not sure. But certainly, if we’re pointing fingers at who created the toxic masculine stereotype that “real men” are neither victims nor ask for help, then I’m going to put the blame squarely at patriarchy’s feet, and note that, rather than being opposed to helping such men, it’s frequently ¬†feminists who are first in line to do so.

Similarly, in point the fourth: the fact that 80% of suicides are men is not the fault of feminism, but of patriarchy, and for the exact same reasons listed above – the insistence that men be emotionless and strong rather than seeking help leaves them feeling as though they have no other way out. While there are an increasing number of campaigns designed to address this, there’s still a way to go: but “the promotion of female hostility” has absolutely zilch to do with their tragic necessity.

Boycotting media sources and walking away from campaigns and institutions that promote disunity and hostility between females and males or that exclude males from empowerment, concern and protection, is the fastest way to make systemic changes.

Clearly, this is a sentiment I agree with; I just have zero faith in Couture’s ability to apply it with any degree of intelligence. In fact, her determination to shoehorn Finn and Rey into fitting a preconceived mould¬†has lead her to miss the obvious: that¬†Star Wars: The Force Awakens is utterly opposed to toxic masculinity. As male heroes, Finn and Poe are both kind, selfless and considerate of others. They don’t objectify women, but respect, accept and befriend them as equals. They don’t hide their emotions, but are overt in their concern for their friends and for each other. While skilled, they don’t brag or boast or needlessly start fights, but use their prowess to defend the people they care about. It’s Kylo Ren, the villain, who lashes out when angry; who represses his emotions; who’s afraid to be seen as weak. Finn, Rey and Poe succeed because they seek help when they need it, come back for their friends, and open their arms to strangers.

And if Couture really can’t see that – if she’s determined to view youthful self-determination, gender equality and kindness as some bizarre attack on men?

Then it’s her loss, not ours.

Skinner - the children are wrong

Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: TFA

Tonight, I went with my husband to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens,¬†courtesy of a marvellous friend who agreed to childsit for us. (Which is, in case you were wondering, the reason why I hadn’t seen it sooner.) Here’s the short review: I LOVED IT. I loved it SO MUCH that, even hours later, I’m still humming the Star Wars theme under my breath and while vibrating with joy, because whatever criticisms my rational brain might have of the structure, the rest of me doesn’t care, not because it’s Star Wars and therefore inviolate, but because it’s been a long time since watching a film made me feel that purely happy.

Here’s the longer review:

Inevitably, because I live online, I went in slightly spoiled. I knew who Kylo Ren was, as well as the ultimate fate of Han Solo, though I managed to suppress that latter piece of information sufficiently to still be slightly surprised by it. And of course – of course, internets, have you met me? – I knew that Finn/Poe was the big queer ship that everyone was thrilled about. Crucially, both Oscar Isaac and John Boyega have said, in interview, that their onscreen relationship¬†was being played as a romance, and while I recognise that a great many people will likely assume they’re joking – because valid queer subtext, such joke, amirite? – I’m going to calmly point out that if one of them was female, the media and its attendant critics would likely have accepted this as Word of God confirmation that they’ll be canon in the future.

So: with all that established, what struck me right from the off was how the three main characters – Rey, Finn and Poe – were all introduced in ways that evoked direct comparison with the original trio. Rey, a mechanic, pilot and trainee Jedi abandoned by her birth parents on a desert world, reminds us of Luke Skywalker. Poe, a member of the rebellion on a secret mission captured by the Dark Side, but not before smuggling out vital information in a droid, reminds us of Leia Organa. And Finn, a good guy trying to make a break from bad people, initially bent on running, but who ultimately stays to help his friends, reminds us of Han Solo. Each new character has a clear forerunner, yet still develops in original directions.

This is not accidental. It is, in fact, both purposeful and obvious, and in light of all the attention surrounding Finn and Poe, it seems extremely pertinent to note that their dynamic, not Finn and Rey’s, is the one held up as a mirror to Han and Leia’s. When Rey flies off to find Luke at the end of the film, echoing Luke’s earlier quest to find Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, she leaves an unconscious Finn with a forehead kiss, murmuring “thank you, my friend” – a declaration which reads as more platonic than romantic. Which isn’t to deny at all that the two have chemistry; far from it, in fact, and as a card-carrying bisexual, I’m more than happy to endorse the idea that Finn is equally attracted to both Rey and Poe. ¬†But as the fierce initial pushback to the deliberate lack of a¬†romantic relationship between Sherlock and Joan Watson on Elementary makes clear, our cultural narrative¬†has almost as much trouble accepting platonic friendships between men and women as with explicit queerness of any kind, which makes it all the more vital to at least consider them options.

Arguably, in fact, the former is a direct consequence of the latter. If queer relationships are dangerous things to portray, then letting men and women interact without any¬†sexual/romantic pressure is a gateway crime: a means of undermining the sexist, heteronormative mandate¬†that members of the opposite sex can’t ever be just friends. Narratively, if a man isn’t shown to be interested in an available woman, the worry becomes that we’ll think him interested in men, which – you know that cultural, learned tendency we have, to assume that everyone is straight unless it’s explicitly stated otherwise? The reason why coming out is a thing? Shit like this is where that comes from: a constant barrage of narrative cues designed to reassure us that The Hero Is Hetero, even if nothing sexual¬†happens, their usage so deeply tied to proof of straightness that identical cues presented between members of the same sex are frequently considered insufficient proof of queerness.

All that being said, examining Finn/Rey as ¬†a romantic Luke/Han dynamic is similarly fascinating, and also of potential¬†queer interest. Considering that Harrison Ford kissed Mark Hamill during a take of one or their more emotive scenes, it’s clear that Ford, ¬†at least, was aware of the potential to take the subtext in a different direction. In fact, to delve briefly into the annals of fannish history, people did ship Han/Luke at the time of the original trilogy, though it was considered taboo to do so, not least because Lucasfilm issued protocols asking that¬†fanzines¬†stick to family friendly content, which – thanks to homophobia – was not considered to include queer romance. I would therefore argue that The Force Awakens, regardless of how you divvy up the romantic potential, is deliberately evoking queer subtext: if Finn/Rey, you’re retroactively queering up Han/Luke, albeit by inference, and if Finn/Poe, you’re acknowledging explicit queerness in Episode VII.

Given the directness of these comparisons, it doesn’t escape notice either that Rey and Poe, who recall Luke and Leia, have no scenes together. Not only does this nix the creation of a traditional love triangle firmly in the bud, but it has the effect of making Finn – not Rey – the central romantic object. Off the top of my head, I can list approximately ninety-eight million narratives in which a central trio comprised of two men and one woman will focus on the woman as a sexual lynchpin without actually making her the hero. Even if, as per Harry Potter and Hermoine Granger, the tension for potential Girl Theft¬†only exists in the mind of the jealous third party, it’s a dynamic we’ve seen over and over and over again – but in The Force Awakens, it’s Finn who has the key relationships with Rey and Poe, who never meet, and Rey who saves the day.

Plus, well.¬†It’s pretty hard to deny the validity of a queer interpretation when Poe tells Finn to keep his jacket because he looks good in it, then leans back, looks him up and down, and bites his fucking lip. I mean, come on.

Nor is it insignificant that Finn and Poe are both played by men of colour. Fandom – and particularly that aspect of fandom focused on m/m pairings – is frequently a sea of white: that Finn/Poe has been embraced¬†so quickly, so prominently is an enormously positive thing in its own right. Similarly, at a time when black children, and particularly black boys, are viciously denied the right to childhood by the evils of ingrained, systematic racism, John Boyega’s portrayal of Finn is even more important. As anyone who’s seen Attack the Block could already attest, Boyega is a talented, versatile actor, deserving of this and many more major roles. But in terms of representation, the fact that Finn is not only a joyful, comedic character, but consistently welcomed by his new allies, is doubly significant. Narratively, it would be easy to justify members of the Resistence being sceptical of, even hostile towards, a confessed former Stormtrooper, regardless of his actions. Instead, Finn is never once viewed with suspicion; is never called upon to justify his goodness; is always viewed with humanity, praised for his strength and kindness in resisting familiar evils, rather than being forced to prove himself worthy of trust.

When was the last time the big screen allowed a kind, funny black boy to become a hero without demanding first that he suffer suspicion for his origins? When was the last time a kind, funny black boy became a hero at all, let alone an arguably queer one?

And then there’s Rey: a competent, quick-witted heroine whose skills are exactly those of Luke and Anakin Skywalker – a great mechanic, pilot and an instinctively capable Jedi warrior, equally at home when¬†talking to droids or climbing walls – and who, for her gender, is being called a Mary Sue. Dear anyone who has made this argument: shut the fuck up forever. The ultimate Mary Sue is Batman, and you’ve never given two shits about how he’s an inventor and a badass vigilante¬†and a billionaire and a businessmen and a detective and totally hot¬†right now, because he’s a guy, and you expect male protagonists to be awesome at everything, whereas girls should have a few flaws so we don’t forget about Eve being ultimately responsible for Original Sin. Daisy Ridley does an amazing job of conveying Rey’s complex mix of strengths and vulnerabilities, and I loved every minute of it. (And no, I don’t give a shit that she successfully used a lightsabre on her first try. So did Finn, and I don’t see you calling him overpowered.)

Yes, there were times when the structure of The Force Awakens¬†lagged a little, when the plot either jumped or ran thin, but it’s hardly the only Star Wars film of which that can be said, and it certainly succeeded in many other ways that the previous films didn’t, up to and including the spine-tingling sight of gorgeous wrecked star destroyers littering the desert. Yes, it would’ve been nice to see more Maz and Captain Phasma and women of colour, and for Leia and Rey to have had an actual conversation; and yes, it would’ve been brilliant for the queerness to be explicit. But right at this moment, I honestly don’t care. Whatever its flaws,¬†The Force Awakens¬†left me feeling utterly joyful: I smiled the entire way through it, because for the first time, that¬†nameless galaxy far far away finally feels big enough for all of us.

 

Sometimes, the most compelling books to read are also a fascinating mess, in equal parts frustrating and subversive. Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On is such a book, and even having finished it, I’m still not sure which I want more: to fling it against the wall or recommend it.

Much like Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Carry On began life as a metastory, one the author invented and referenced within an earlier novel: Palimpsest¬†in Valente’s case, and¬†Fangirl in Rowell’s. What makes this even more fourth-wall in Rowell’s case is that, in Fangirl, the stars of Carry On – Simon Snow and Basilton ‘Baz’ Grimm-Pitch – are the hero and antagonist, respectively, of a Potteresque series of YA novels about whom Fangirl’s¬†protagonist writes queer romantic fanfic.

And when I say Potteresque, I do mean that quite literally: Simon and Baz are students at a magical boarding school in England (Watford), to which Simon (a magical orphan in the Normal world) was brought at age eleven by its powerful headmaster (the Mage) because his power was prophecied. The parallels are many, obvious and intentional. Even if you haven’t¬†read¬†Fangirl –¬†in which,¬†rather than being a wholesale Potter surrogate, the Simon Snow books are inserted¬†as an equally popular peer series – the native similarities hang a lampshade on the comparison all by themselves. (Almost recursively so, at times: it’s lampshades all the way down!)

While this is understandable, it’s also slightly awkward. No matter how immersed I was, I never quite lost my background awareness that the only reason any of it existed was because Rowell couldn’t slip Harry x Draco into Fangirl without finding herself on¬†the business end of a lawyer. Which is, simultaneously, both Carry On’s strength and weakness: strength, because the story is intended as a subversive take on the Chosen One trope, with specific reference to Harry Potter; weakness, because it never quite develops into anything more original, despite the central queer relationship.

So when I say that¬†Carry On reads like fanfic, I mean that as neither censure nor compliment, but rather as an objective description of narrative style. I happen to love fanfiction – have spent a not inconsiderable portion of the last eighteen months immersed in both writing and reading it, in fact – which is why I feel qualified to make the comparison. By virtue of referencing characters, settings and concepts the readership already knows, in whose central relationship they already feel invested, fanfics have a natural tendency to skip over setting and worldbuilding – not because they’re badly written, but because, more often than not, such information is contextually extraneous. It’s what lends the genre such an addictive, compelling immediacy, like picking up a favourite book at the most exciting chapter –¬†the purest distillation of that much-vaunted piece of Writing Advice, to start the story when something is really happening.¬†Easy to do, when your readership already knows the backstory of even minor characters by heart, but trickier far to execute if you’re simultaneously building a world from scratch.

That Rowell manages to achieve this feeling with original characters is due in part to how heavily she leans on her audience’s peripheral Potter-knowledge, but that’s hardly a bad thing; is rather, I’d argue,¬†a sign of her willingness to treat her audience¬†as intelligent. Given the cultural dominion of Harry Potter, surely only a snobbish or oblivious fantasy writer would assume their readers ignorant of the narrative, and as commentary on said story is half the point of Carry On, it makes sense to assume a trope-literate audience and work from there. Even so, it’s skill that makes it work: Rowell’s¬†writing is clean and comic, buoying the story along at pace, and while the story is flawed – as I’ll soon discuss – it’s certainly never boring.

As you might expect, Carry On’s¬†strongest aspect¬†is the romantic relationship between Baz and Simon, which is executed with humour, warmth and nuance. Forced together as roommates via a magical selection process in their first year at Watford, both boys have spent the majority of that time purporting to despise each other, caught on opposite sides of a magical divide: Baz, the talented scion of an old, prestigious family at odds with the new regime, and Simon, the poor upstart ward of the Mage, apparently destined for greatness but unable to marshal his power. In a literary tradition where, for ostensibly non-homoerotic and visibly sexist reasons, male heroes¬†are often depicted as having more nuanced, complicated relationships with their antagonists than with their¬†apparent female love interests, it’s deeply satisfying – and wholly enjoyable –¬†to see the trope so thoroughly¬†queered up. It calls to mind Kate Beaton’s excellent comic about a pirate and his nemesis: true to the old dictum about love and hate being opposite sides of the same coin, there’s a point at which constantly obsessing about another person’s whereabouts and motives bleeds into caring about their wellbeing, and Rowell hits that junction right in the narrative sweet spot.

Baz and Simon’s relationship is the solid heart of the story; everything else, however, feels¬†either sparse, rushed or both. Where Harry Potter’s story is told in seven novels, Simon Snow’s is crammed into one, as though our familiarity with the layered details of Rowling’s story means we don’t need the other six books of Rowell’s. As such, it works exceedingly well as commentary, but falls somewhat flat on its own account.¬†This is particularly disappointing when it comes to the political complexities of Rowell’s world. Given more scope, the Mage’s actions, motives and betrayal could have cored a devastating punch; instead, the other characters are never given the poisoned catharsis of knowing the whole picture, while the wider consequences of Simon’s existence are conveniently elided at the finale.

Structurally, then, Carry On succeeds or fails depending on how¬†you grade it. By the standards of most comparable original works, it’s undernourished, but still good comic, romantic fantasy fun; by the standards of fanfic, it’s T-rated excellence. As I enjoy both types of writing, that leaves me somewhat stumped for judgement – or would do, if not for the existence of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona.¬†Released some five months prior to Carry On, Nimona¬†portrays the same sort of complex, antagonistic, morally grey and (ultimately) queer relationship between male nemeses that Carry On¬†does, to poignant effect. Likewise, thanks to the graphic format, it conveys an original setting in brief, but without feeling thin as a consequence – and as it isn’t directly riffing on a specific prominent work, but rather subverts a general knowledge of fairytales, it stands more strongly on its own merits.

And Nimona, unlike Carry On, doesn’t base a central subversive premise – that of queer male romance – on a slew of sexist tropes.

At its most basic level, Carry On has a Women In Refrigerators problem. Both Simon and Baz have conspicuously dead mothers – Lucy and Natasha, respectively – and while both speak from the grave in the course of the story, this is hardly great representation. Natasha barely appears except as motivation for Baz, and though Lucy gets some POV sections, when she actually tries to speak to Simon, who doesn’t know who she is, her visitation comes so hard on the heels of Natasha’s that he naturally confuses her with the other dead ghost mother, a mistake that’s never corrected. The fact that Lucy’s silent narrative is key to the whole story doesn’t quite mitigate the fact that none of the characters hear it, nor does it make her history any less tragic.

And then there’s Agatha, Simon’s ex-girlfriend: blonde and beautiful, longing for Normalcy, and woefully underdeveloped. The problem isn’t that Agatha, with her dreams of escape and travel and her mediocre magic, is an unrealistic character; it’s just that, as she spends the whole book wanting to be somewhere else, her participation in the actual plot is minimal. Which is deeply frustrating, not only on its own account, but because she’s the character who comes closest to figuring out who Lucy is and why she matters, yet never shares her findings with anyone. Given that Agatha is both afraid of dying because of¬†Simon and of being the one to watch him die, the fact that she believes the lie of Lucy’s escape to America – that she identifies with it to the point of going there herself, when Lucy is really dead in a way that would horrify Agatha – is a symmetry I found more ugly¬†than not, yet all over representative of her wasted potential. Yes, there’s something positive in Agatha living when Lucy died, but as Agatha’s escape at the finale is enabled by the death of yet another innocent woman – and one who, for some reason, appears to accept her own murder as justified at the last second, which, what? – any positive parallels are rather grossly ruined.

By contrast, Penelope Bunce, Simon’s best friend, comes across more vividly, if only because she gets so much more stage time; otherwise, she’s decidedly Hermione, but without the activism. That she’s a non-stereotyped person of colour – as is Baz, for that matter – is a significant point in the book’s favour, but at the same time, her POV sections are often so immediate as to deny her vital introspection. She has a boyfriend in America, but though she mentions him, we never really see her think about him, even though he’s clearly significant, and while we’re given a reason why her life is so Simon-centric,¬†I couldn’t help wishing that we got to see more of her own her own terms. It doesn’t help that her relationship with Agatha is largely defined by jealousy over Simon: the only chapter in which the two interact away from the boys is literally described, in text, as a Bechdel pass – “It’s good to have a life that passes the Bechdel test,”¬†her mother says of them, prompting Penelope to respond with a grumbled quip about her mother’s lack of female friends – and in a novel full of gratuitously hung lampshades, this one is arguably the most glaring.

Partly, the problem is one of length: if¬†Rowell had fleshed out Agatha and Penelope, instead of leaning on¬†their underlying archetypes, then we might have a better sense of who they are in relation to themselves and each other, instead of just seeing them next to Baz and Simon. Yet even so, the novel’s comparative shortness didn’t need to be an issue. The problem isn’t that a story about a queer male relationship dared to put a lesser emphasis on its women, but that it opted to do so in ways that reinforce sexism – which is to say, dead mothers, female sacrifice, and girls more rivals than friends because of boys. Penelope’s mother Mitali, Baz’s aunt Fiona and the goatherd Ebb were all good, meaty characters, but their perspectives and roles were limited, rendered less significant in the long run¬†than their seven years of history with the characters could merit. Which, on a practical level, I understand: given the obvious Potter comparisons and the nature of the project, I can’t imagine Rowell would’ve wanted to write a full Simon Snow series instead of just the effective final volume. But as narrative tradeoffs go, it’s hard not to note the downside.

And then there’s the bi erasure.

Look: I am a bisexual person. I exist! There is a word for me! But Carry On, despite being a story wherein words are literal magic, is apparently unwilling to consider this as a concept. Baz, we’re told, is gay: has never been with anyone but Simon, and is unattracted to women. But Simon, who’s dating Agatha at the start of the book – is contemplating being with her forever, in fact – is never allowed to use the word bisexual to describe himself, nor is it applied to him by anyone else, even in passing. Which… look. Being closeted is a thing. Not understanding your own sexuality is a thing. The world is full of people who thought they were straight, or were thought to be straight, who later came out as gay, even after they dated or kissed or slept with or married or had kids with someone – or ones! – of the opposite sex. This is absolutely a valid narrative! What feels decidedly less valid, however, is the fact that bisexuality is never once considered as a possible explanation for Simon being attracted to both Agatha and Baz, even though Simon himself is demonstrably unclear on the subject. Instead, we get this:

“And I don’t think I’m gay,” I say. “I mean, maybe I am, at least partly, the part that seems to be demanding the most attention right now…”

“No one cares whether you’re gay,” Baz says coldly.

And I just… partly gay? As in, attracted to more than one gender? As in fucking bisexual, or pansexual, or literally anything other than the “I don’t like labels/nobody cares/let’s not call it anything” school of weasel-wording bullshit consistently used to enforce the idea that gay and straight are the only options?¬†In the Potteresque language of¬†Carry On, it seems, bisexual has the same impact as Voldemort: the preferred term in both instances is that which shall not be named,¬†the better to render it palatable.¬†Throw in Simon’s bizarre pejorative at the end about dancing being¬†“well gay… even when it isn’t two blokes” – which, why the fuck is there any need to include that line in a supposedly queer-positive novel at all, let alone voiced by a character who hasn’t expressed any homophobia, internalised or otherwise, in 522 pages? – and the death of an underutilised queer woman at the finale – to say nothing of the fact that the only queer female relationship is one that happens off screen, only referenced ¬†when one or other of the characters is complaining about it – and I am moved to look askance at Carry On in its entirety.

Because, here’s the thing: as much as I enjoyed Fangirl¬†– and as refreshing as it was, to see both fanfic and fan culture rendered in such a positive light – it shied away from acknowledging the problematic aspects of the community. Such as, for instance, the fetishising of queer male relationships and the elision of female characters, and while I won’t go so far as to say that Rowell is guilty of this – and as much as I enjoyed the dynamic between Simon and Baz – Carry On¬†reads to me like an outsider take on queerness rather than a heartfelt exploration of it, the subversion born of novelty, not need, and so made superficial.

Which is ultimately what bothers me about the novel’s resolution. As compelling as it is to make the Mage the ultimate villain – or ultimately responsible for what’s gone wrong, at least – his status as a supposedly progressive reformer who secretly¬†broke everything¬†is never really addressed. From the outset, it’s clear that, as in the world of Harry Potter, historical¬†issues of magical privilege and exclusion have lead to Watford’s discrimination against various less powerful groups – biases that the Mage’s reforms, like Dumbledore’s egalitarian attitudes, are meant to try and rectify. Nimona, too, deals with similar themes: as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the institution supported by the apparent hero is an oppressive, abusive state, yet even knowing this, the morality is never rendered as binary. Similarly, and despite the presence of an evil Dark Lord, Rowling makes an effort to show the complexities of her world: Dolores Umbridge is often cited as being more terrifying than Voldemort for being more recognisable, the sort of sadistic bureaucrat we pray is never responsible for our future, while the Lovegoods, for all their faith in Harry, still give credence to any number of clearly false conspiracies.

But in Carry On, the political threads are left hanging, either handwaved at the finale or ignored completely. The fact that the Mage levies taxes on the powerful old families is cited as a negative behaviour equal to his coercive raids on their homes, for instance, yet we never quite see a distinction drawn between them, nor get any sense of how this works in a wider sense. If Rowell was trying to make a distinct point about the hypocritical evils of left-wing revolution – if the characters had actually discussed the politics of it in any depth, or if the consequences were rendered at more than a background level, like the familial crises caused by Penny’s brother serving in the Mage’s Men – then that would be one thing. I might disagree with such politics, but at least it would feel purposeful, consistent. As it stands, however, the novel feels blandly unconcerned with its own implications, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

In that sense, the English setting, as rendered by an American writer, feels like a metaphor for the novel’s failings: seeming ahead of substance. As an Australian who’s been living in the UK for almost five years now, and who was raised with many British cultural staples, there’s something quite jarring about Rowell’s inconsistent use of British idioms and references, like someone who’s so delighted by the novelty of usage that they haven’t stopped to think if it hangs together. Little things, like Simon using both ‘wicked’ and ‘cream-crackered’ while having no visible dialect – with accents never discussed, in fact, despite their clear significance –¬†or Baz joking about Simon having ‘chavvy’ friends, as though ‘chav’ is synonymous with ‘poor white trash’ instead of referring to a specifically garish urban middle-class subset without an obvious American equivalent. ¬†Even the title, Carry On, gives me pause: within the novel, it’s rendered as callback¬†¬†to the lyrics of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and as such, I’m not sure if Rowell is even aware of the Carry On films and¬†their place in British culture, let alone why her allusion to them, intentionally¬†or otherwise, is somewhat incongruous.

Given the paucity of representation offered to various groups in mainstream narratives, it’s understandable that we sometimes tend to criticise the ones that do appear¬†with disproportionate fervour: with so few¬†comparable¬†offerings, our emotional investment – and thus our corresponding potential to be personally disappointed – is far higher than when watching Hollywood’s latest straight white Chris explode things onscreen (for instance). But then, that’s the paradox of descriptive criticism: the fewer similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them individually, while the more similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them collectively. The only way to react to something in general terms, with general ambivalence, is if it’s abundant enough to be common: otherwise, your words and reactions are always going to be, of necessity, specialised, with just a touch of jargon. And while the clear solution is to make more things, that’s often easier said than done – especially if the burden of proof is set so high that none of us can bear to get it wrong, or to risk getting it wrong, and therefore never try at all.

Carry On, then, is something of a mixed bag. It’s messy in some respects and delightful in others – a product of the times, with all the praise and caveats that implies – but as a publicised¬†queer fantasy romance from a bestselling author at a major press, it’s also a rare enough beast to be important. Parts of it annoyed me greatly, but on balance, I enjoyed it: to paraphrase¬†the greatest¬†ever review of Jupiter Ascending, it is my¬†garbage. It is garbage for me,¬†¬†and given that I’m otherwise capable of squealing over garbage that manifestly isn’t for me, just because I’m halfway resigned to entire genres¬†treating me like an alien thing, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Carry On, despite its flaws, is definitely worth reading.

 

In video games, whenever I’m given the option of fighting with ranged or melee weapons, I go melee. Even in RPG and tactical combat settings, where the interface means my choice of weapon has little to no impact on the controls, I still skew strongly towards swords and knives over bows and guns, because some bizarre, lizardy part of my brain feels more vulnerable if my avatar isn’t armed for close combat. In games that let me control my character’s actions directly, my combat style is blunt and unsubtle: even if I don’t really have the stats for it, my default approach is to be a tank, running right into the thick of things and hitting¬†stuff until it dies. Even back when I was a regular Halo player (multiplayer against friends, never campaign), the sword was always my weapon of choice, followed closely by the shotgun and plasma grenades: in an environment where guns were the default, I still gravitated towards close-range weapons, because they felt, inexplicably, both safer and more satisfying.

Inevitably in the kinds of games I play, there are particular enemies, bosses and training fields where you’re strongly encouraged¬†to tailor your combat approach to deal with specific threats, or else suffer punitive damage. Rationally, I know this, and yet I hate doing it. It irks me to have to switch to ranged weapons because a particular creature is immune to ground attacks, or to switch in my mage as party leader because using anything other than fire magic against a certain boss will see me stalled midgame until I defeat them. Partly, this reluctance is due to stubbornness on my part – I’m an innately contrary person, and always have been – but mostly, I suspect, it’s because hacking my way through problems without having to overthink or plan my approach is something I find soothing about gameplay. In other contexts, I’m constantly having to try and adapt my metaphorical plan of attack to deal with obstacles and the actions of others, but in gamespace, I can simply repeatedly hit the thing and, even if there’s a more stat-appropriate way to minmax my way to victory, I’m still going to end up the Hero of Ferelden. I can be reckless in games, single-minded, and if that gets my avatar killed a few times, so what? They’ll always be resurrected.

But still, in games, there’s that moment where I enter a new area, or start a new fight, and realise that I’m overmatched. Maybe¬†I haven’t levelled my party enough, or maybe it’s just that these new enemies require a specific¬†approach, but either way, if I try to plough ahead in my usual fashion, I’m probably going to die a lot. Which leaves me with a choice: do I suffer a diminished enjoyment of gameplay by temporarily changing my tactics, or do I bash on, save repeatedly, and treat the whole thing as a training run?

Nine times out of ten, I’ll choose the latter approach. Ultimately, I’m gaming for pleasure, and that being so, I’d rather enjoy the challenge of a difficult level played on my terms than feel bored and disconnected by taking an approach which, while easier, doesn’t engage me.

Kind of like how I deal with writing.

I am, as mentioned, a stubborn, contrary person. Like many creative people, my inspiration is something of a Billygoat Gruff/Rum Tum Tugger: hypothetical projects always look more tempting than the ones to which I’ve committed myself, and no sooner have I started a thing than I want to start something else. It is, frankly, a fucking miracle that I ever finish anything at all. But I do it. I do it, because I approach my writing projects with the same blunt melee frenzy¬†as I do my battles in Knights of the Old Republic: I run at them headlong, heedless of strength and context, until I either emerge victorious or die in the attempt. But in real life, resurrection is a trickier process than merely loading from the last save point. I have to stop and recuperate; I have to change my tactics, which means anything from giving myself a series of mental health days to forcibly setting aside the thing I most want to work on in favour of completing the one that’s due. But once I’m back to strength – even if I’m taking punitive damage; even if it means dying again more quickly than I might otherwise – inevitably, I do it all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s how I work, and I’ve made my peace with that.

If my life right now was a video game, I’d be stuck in a monster-infested plateaux with minimal save points, enemies requiring the use of ranged weapons, and an under-levelled party. I owe multiple Patreon TV Roulette reviews accrued from the past two months, along with a still-incomplete novella and edits on my manuscript, to say nothing of needing to work on the sequel. I’m midway through writing an Ambush Novel I desperately want to finish, and am stalled in my updating of multiple fanfics which, while created purely for my own pleasure, are nonetheless an important sanity-check. I have five or six books waiting to be read for review, something like forty books to preferentially read for pleasure, and so many¬†blog posts to read in my capacity, along with Mark Oshiro, as editor of the Speculative Fiction anthology 2015 (which you should totally submit to here, btw!). I’ve just taken on an extra morning’s work at my dayjob, which brings me up to four days a week – two full days, one morning and one half-day – which means I now have no days at home without my toddler, as all his childcare time falls when I’m at work. I have visa crap to deal with, which is both expensive and stressful. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder to deal with, as I live in Scotland and the Months of Endless Dark are upon us. I have so much to do, and not enough time to do it in, and not enough strength to do it with.

And yet, I’ll get it done. I’ll push through, bashing and yelling and swinging my sword, because it’s what I do, and what I’ve always done. I might have to die a couple more times in the process – am currently resurrecting myself right now, as it happens – but damned if I’ll stop fighting.

Choose your weapons, world. I’ve chosen mine.

11/11/15 – ETA the following awesome graphic, which the excellent Samantha Swords made for me. Hail!

Warrior Within Sword Fire Image cropped 3

First up, some housekeeping: owing to having been viciously attacked by an Ambush Novel late last month, I’m currently behind on my Patreon blogging – I still owe a reward poem, my September review of¬†Ultraviolet, plus the October instalments for both Ultraviolet and Claymore. My sincerest apologies! I’m hoping to get up to date sooner rather than later, but I hope you’ll all bear with me in either case. Because:

I’m going to Fantasycon!¬†

I leave for Nottingham on Thursday. I’m staying at the con hotel, which is a first for me, and I’m super excited about the whole thing. For those who might be interested, here’s my schedule:

Friday 23 October

Panel: Doing ‘It’ Right: Love, Romance & Sexy Times

Time/Venue: 8.00pm, Conference Theatre

Description: Why are we often so reticent about love in genre fiction? Conversely sex seems to be everywhere, often done badly. How do we show love in a better light and balance plot tension with sexual tension? Warning: adult references (& childish innuendo)

  • the perfect sex scene: making up making out/making love
  • a matter of taste: where are the ‚Äėno-go‚Äô areas?
  • is love undervalued as a character motivation?
  • how can our characters express their feelings without mawkishness?
  • diversity and sexuality in genre fiction: what works and what doesn‚Äôt?
  • are ‚Äėromance‚Äô and ‚Äėconflict‚Äô mutually exclusive terms?
  • finding the right words: choosing appropriate vernacular

Moderator: Den Patrick
Panellists: Hal Duncan, Cassandra Khaw, Kim Lakin-Smith, Foz Meadows

Saturday 24 October

Reading: Me reading a thing Wot I Has Written

Time/Venue: 9.00pm, Reading Room

Description:¬†I’ll either be reading an unpublished short story, or – more likely – an excerpt from my forthcoming novel, An Accident of Stars.¬†Come along and find out!

Sunday 25 October

Panel: The Future of the Future

Time/Venue: 11.00am, Suite 1

Description: With technology regularly surpassing the boundaries of what seemed impossible only years earlier, it gets harder for writers to imagine futures by extrapolating from today’s world. This panel considers how we depict the world(s) yet to be.

  • key considerations for world-building ‚Äėtomorrow‚Äô
  • does the future need to be plausible?
  • must it be apocalyptic to be interesting?
  • exploring the morality of science & technology
  • how far can you go into the future before science fiction becomes fantasy?

Can genre fiction still ‚Äėboldly go‚Äô into the unknown?

Moderator: Foz Meadows
Panellists: Alex Lamb, Libby McGugan, Adam Millard, Ian Sales, Tom Toner

I intend to spend the rest of the con socialising, lurking and generally having a good time – if you see me, come say hi!

Continuing with my Dean-oriented¬†Supernatural rewatch,¬†the next five episodes in S1 – ‘Bugs’ (E8), ‘Home’ (E9), ‘Asylum’ (E10), ‘Scarecrow’ (E11) and ‘Faith’ (E12) – play an important role in establishing¬†the Winchester family dynamic. Up until this point, we’ve mainly dealt with Sam and Dean operating on their own, the wider arc of their father’s disappearance and their mother’s death taking a back seat to Monster of the Week hunts, the better to introduce us to the premise of the show. Now, though, we start to get a better sense of Sam and Dean as siblings with a complicated history, not just in terms of how they relate to each other, but regarding their very different relationships with John.

In ‘Bugs’, when Sam openly identifies with a teenager, Matt, who doesn’t get along with his father, it results in the following exchange with Dean:

DEAN: Dad never treated us like that.

SAM: Well, Dad never treated you like that. You were perfect. He was all over my case. You don’t remember?

DEAN: Well, maybe he had to raise his voice, but sometimes, you were out of line.

They continue to bicker intermittently about their childhood throughout the episode, until – in the closing scene – they circle back to the topic of John, but from a different angle:

SAM: I wanna find Dad.

DEAN: Yeah, me too.

SAM: Yeah, but I just… I want to apologize to him.

DEAN: For what?

SAM: All the things I said to him. He was just doin’ the best he could.

DEAN: Well, don’t worry, we’ll find him. And then you’ll apologize. And then within five minutes, you guys will be at each other’s throats.

SAM: Yeah, probably.

Later,¬†in ‘Asylum’, Sam angrily questions why they always have to¬†“follow dad’s orders” – a disagreement that reappears at the finale, when Sam, controlled by a malevolent spirit, attacks Dean:

SAM:¬†I am normal. I’m just telling the truth for the first time. I mean, why are we even here? ‚ÄôCause you’re following Dad’s orders like a good little solider? Because you always do what he says without question? Are you that desperate for his approval?

DEAN:¬†This isn’t you talking, Sam.

SAM:¬†That’s the difference between you and me. I have a mind of my own. I’m not pathetic, like you.

By the end of the episode, it’s clear that the tension between them has escalated rather than resolved, and in¬†‘Scarecrow’, the two are divided enough to go their separate ways, albeit temporarily. Prior to this, Sam states that he doesn’t understand the “blind faith” Dean has in their father, and Dean replies that “it’s called being a good son” – a comeback that accepts, rather than disputes, the accusation of blind faith. When they finally reconcile, it’s because Dean apologises:

DEAN: Sam. You were right. You gotta do your own thing. You gotta live your own life.

SAM: Are you serious?

DEAN: You‚Äôve always known what you want. And you go after it. You stand up to Dad. And you always have. Hell, I wish I‚ÄĒanyway‚Ķ.I admire that about you. I‚Äôm proud of you, Sammy.

 

What further contextualises these conversations – and what makes them even more fascinating – are the events of ‘Home’ and ‘Faith’. In ‘Home’, which sees the Winchesters return to their childhood house in Kansas, Dean phones John in secret, crying as he begs his help; but though it’s ultimately revealed that John has been in town the whole time, he never replies or shows himself to his children. This absence is subsequently mirrored in ‘Faith’, when Dean is dying and Sam, again in private, phones their father – but whereas Dean’s call was a request for aid, Sam attempts to reassure John that he doesn’t need any. Again, John neither replies nor appears, and given the line about “blind faith” in the previous episode, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that this episode is not only titled ‘Faith’, but explicitly concerns Dean’s lack of it, religiously speaking. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that their conversation about John in ‘Scarecrow’ throws Dean’s denial of God in ‘Faith’ into an even starker light:

DEAN:¬†You know what I’ve got faith in? Reality. Knowing what’s really going on.

SAM: How can you be a skeptic? With the things we see everyday?

DEAN: Exactly. We see them, we know there real.

SAM:¬†But if you know evil’s out there, how can you not believe good’s out there, too?

DEAN:¬†Because I’ve seen what evil does to good people.

Dean has faith¬†in reality, and in evil as a truth of reality, but he doesn’t have faith¬†in good. But he does have faith in John Winchester – not because his father is good, but because his father is real, which (under this system) doesn’t preclude him being evil, too. Given this fact and the subsequent revelations of Sam’s demon blood, it’s doubly significant that, in ‘Home’, we’re given the first concrete evidence that, of the brothers, Sam is more similar to John: in rescuing two children from their childhood house, Sam’s instruction to the little girl, Sari, to “take your brother outside as fast as you can, and don‚Äôt look back” is, word for word, the same thing John once said to Dean.

In ‘Skin’, the shapeshifter used his access to Dean’s memories to express Dean’s fear that “sooner or later, everybody’s gonna leave me”, stating that both John and Sam have already done exactly that. It’s a fear that harks back to the pilot episode, when Dean explains why he’s come to get Sam in the first place:

DEAN:¬†I can’t do this alone.

SAM: Yes you can.

DEAN:¬†Yeah, well, I don’t want to.

Dean Winchester is afraid, not just of being alone in general, but of being abandoned by his family in particular. He feels that his father and brother are stronger than him, capable of leaving both Dean and each other to live independent lives in a way that he isn’t; he admires Sam’s ability to go off on his own, but not enough to deviate from his own loyalty to their father. Sam and John fight as they do precisely because they’re so similar; yet even then, it’s notable that neither Dean’s obedient faith nor Sam’s capable autonomy is sufficient to call John back to them in their respective moments of distress.

In addition to cementing the Winchester dynamic, these episodes also help to establish a fundamental aspect of Dean’s personality: the ongoing conflict between his more feminine interests and his desire to present as stereotypically masculine. In addition to the more overt jokes and statements made in support of Dean’s broader characterisation, this is also the point at which the narrative begins to subtly feminise him; or at least, to deliberately compare and contrast him with female characters, such as by paralleling his role with Sari’s in ‘Home’. ‘Bugs’ in particular is a great example of this.¬†Early in the episode, Dean¬†mentions having heard about mad cow disease on Oprah, to which Sam, astonished, replies, “You watch Oprah?”. In keeping with his established reluctance to appear feminine in front of his brother, Dean is visibly flustered, and after several awkward seconds, he changes the subject rather than addressing it. This is an overt instance of Dean’s hypermasculine front being challenged; more subtle, however, is the way in which the story compares him to the real estate agent, Lynda. When the Winchesters first arrive at the housing estate, Lynda gives her pitch to Sam, saying, “Who can say ‘no’ to a steam shower? I use mine everyday.” Sam is visibly disinterested, but when the brothers borrow an empty house for the night, Dean not only expresses his enthusiasm to “try the steam shower”, but is seen happily emerging from it the next morning, a towel wrapped around his head.

To be clear: there’s nothing inherently feminine about liking good showers or wrapping a towel around your head. But in the context of ‘Bugs’, Lynda’s praise and Sam’s disinterest in the steam shower situate it as a feminine thing, while visually, the fact that Dean is shown wearing¬†an elaborate towel-wrap – even though his short hair makes such¬†a style both difficult and redundant – is meant to hammer home the comparison. It’s something the audience is meant to notice, even if the brothers don’t, and contributes to the complexity of Dean’s character.

‘Bugs’ also marks the first time – but by no means the last time – that the Winchesters are mistaken for a gay couple. When Larry initially makes the error, a horrified Dean is quick to correct him; but when, minutes later, Lynda¬†makes the same mistake, Dean has a brief moment of awkwardness, then plays along with it, calling Sam “honey” before smacking him on the ass and walking off. The fact that he leaves is crucial to understanding his reaction: as per volunteering Sam to paint the fratboy Murph in ‘Hook Man’, Dean doesn’t correct Lynda because playing along enables him to embarrass his brother; yet at the same time, he still takes steps to absent himself, leaving Sam to cope with the awkward aftermath of his actions alone.

From this point of the show onwards, Dean starts to make more jokes about Sam being feminine or girly, expanding his habit of projecting his own insecurities onto his brother. In ‘Asylum’, he pokes fun at¬†Sam’s strange dreams by asking “Who do you think is the hotter psychic – Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Love Hewitt or you?” – a reference which, while ostensibly insulting Sam by feminising him, also demonstrates that Dean is familiar with the shows¬†Medium and Ghost Whisperer,¬†neither of which is exactly stereotypically masculine fare. (Which is, perhaps, why he follows this up with two references to The Shining in quick succession.) Similarly, Dean responds to Sam’s heartfelt words¬†at the end of ‘Scarecrow’ by deadpanning, “Hold me, Sam. That was beautiful,” making the both of them laugh. Yet at the same time, Dean’s habit of affirming his interest in women to Sam is still alive and well, as per his insistence in ‘Faith’ that “I’m not gonna die in a hospital where the nurses aren’t even hot.”

Interestingly, and also in ‘Faith’, we see the first recurrence of Dean’s flirtatious braggadocio since his interaction with Jess in the pilot. When Layla overhears Dean express his lack of faith to Sam, she¬†suggests that “Maybe God works in mysterious ways” – at which point, Dean’s response is to visibly check her out, smiling as he replies with, “Maybe he does. I think you just turned me around on the subject.” They chat briefly, and once she’s gone, he remarks to Sam that “Well, I bet you she can work in some mysterious ways.” What’s significant here – and especially when writing with the benefit of hindsight – is the fact that Dean is dying; and unlike Sam, he doesn’t believe he’s about to get better. It’s a gallows flirtation: Dean is resigned to death, and so sees no point in restraining himself, an attitude that crops up again in Season 3, when Dean refuses to try and change his crossroads deal despite Sam’s determination to save him. But once Dean is healed – once he knows he’s going to live, and that Layla is going to die – his subsequent interactions with her never replicate this initial swagger. Instead, as with Haley in ‘Wendigo’ and Andrea in ‘Dead in the Water’, he connects with her, offering to pray for her at the end of the episode, making their exchanges bittersweet rather than sexual.

That being so, there’s really only a flash of Bi!Dean throughout these episodes; specifically, in ‘Scarecrow’. After Sam’s departure, Dean attempts to track down the missing couple, which endeavour sees him stymied by Scotty, an unhelpful mechanic. Throughout their exchange, Dean tries to be polite despite Scotty’s refusal to talk. Yet there’s also an interesting undercurrent to the conversation: having recognised Dean’s false alias, John Bonham, as a member of¬†Led Zeppelin – “Classic rock fan!” Dean says, approvingly – Scotty finally tells him, with a very small smile, “We don’t get many strangers around here.” Dean’s response is to grin and duck his head, nodding – and then to say, “Scotty, you’ve got a smile that lights up a room, anybody ever tell you that?”

image

And the thing is, it’s not really sarcasm; or at least, Dean’s smile as he says it is genuine. Seemingly, it’s a remark pitched to be taken one of two ways – as a friendly joke, or as a flirtation. Dean is, after all, trying to get information out of the man, and given that¬†“We don’t get many strangers around here”¬†is a variant¬†on a common pick-up line (other permutations being “I’ve never seen you here before” and “You must be new in town,” both of which are evocative of “Do you come here often?” and “What’s a guy/girl like you doing in a place like this?”), it’s not unreasonable to think that he’s hedging his bets, looking for an inroads into Scotty’s good graces. (And of course, it doesn’t hurt that the guy likes Zeppelin.) But the gambit fails on both counts, and Dean is left hanging awkwardly, muttering, “Never mind. See you around,” before finally walking off.

It was fun to see¬†these episodes again – this is my third watchthrough of the show,¬†and it’s fascinating to see how much there is in Season 1 that’s pivotal later on, or which sets a pattern for subsequent seasons. These episodes in particular are full of firsts: ‘Asylum’ marks the first time the brothers turn on each other due to supernatural meddling, as well as the first time a Winchester ends up in therapy as cover for a hunt, highlighting the fact that it’s something they actually need. ‘Scarecrow’ is both the first time the brothers part ways due to an argument and the first time they kill a god, while ‘Faith’ involves the first of Dean’s many, many deaths. I’m keen to keep up my analysis – and to see what else I might have missed on previous viewings.

Following on from my recent thoughts on the Supernatural pilot episode, I’ve decided to do a rewatch of the show, focussing in particular¬†on the question of Dean Winchester’s characterisation and sexuality. It’s no secret that I’m a staunch advocate of the Bi!Dean school of critical analysis, so I won’t pretend to be coming at this from a purely dispassionate angle; nonetheless, I think there’s enough textual evidence for the position to justify examining it in detail. That being so, I’m not going to talk exclusively about Dean’s sexuality, partly because you can’t usefully discuss that facet of the character in isolation from the rest of his personality, but mostly because – well. Supernatural is a big show with a lot of room for critique, and despite having a stated focus at the outset – and although this is far from being¬†my first time at the SPN¬†meta rodeo – there’s every chance I’ll want to discuss other elements of the show along the way.

With that established and the pilot already dealt with, let’s take a lot at the next few episodes of S1 – ‘Wendigo’ (E2), ‘Dead in the Water’ (E3), ‘Phantom Traveller’ (E4), ‘Bloody Mary’ (E5), ‘Skin’ (E6) and ‘Hook Man’ (E7) – and how they serve to establish Dean’s character.

It’s often asserted that early Dean in particular is unequivocally straight and stereotypically masculine, only developing past this from S2 onwards. But looking closely at the start of S1, a very different picture emerges: though Dean certainly strives to be seen a certain way, it doesn’t quite match up with who he really is.¬†In ‘Wendigo’, when Dean and Sam first meet Haley Collins, the sister of the missing hiker, Dean waits until her back is turned to silently mouth his appreciation of her at Sam. Yet this same degree of sexual swagger is missing from his actual interactions with her: he flirts, but more reservedly, always aware of the context. When Dean is finally forced to admit to having joined the search party under false pretences, revealing that he and Sam are brothers looking for their father, he and¬†Haley have this exchange:

HALEY: Why didn’t you just tell me that from the start?

DEAN: I’m telling you now. ‘sides, it’s probably the most honest I’ve ever been with a woman… ever.

It’s a matter-of-fact confession, not a flirtation, and as such, there’s something stripped bare about it. Just as saliently, however, Dean’s attraction to Haley, in contrast to the usual M.O. of womanising characters, is never just about her looks or her simple presence as an ostensibly available woman: his initial display of interest only happens after she shows her appreciation for his beloved Impala, and is further solidified by their shared status as protective older siblings caring for younger brothers in the absence of both parents. Dean connects with Haley, and at the end of the episode, her simple farewell kiss on the cheek leaves him visibly flustered – not the reaction you’d expect from someone who makes a habit of one-night stands:

S1E2 - Wendigo - Haley cheek kiss

This pattern immediately repeats itself in ‘Dead in the Water’, with Dean’s relationship with Andrea. Though he initially flirts with her at the police station, he does such a poor, clich√©d job of it that she actively – and amusedly – calls him out, saying, “Must be hard, with your sense of direction, never being able to find your way to a decent pickup line.” Rather than seeing this as a challenge, Dean takes the rejection for what it is and never propositions her again, though he continues to treat her respectfully; instead, the emotional core of the episode centres on his connection to Andrea’s son, Lucas, and the revelation that Dean witnessed his own mother’s death as a child, a trauma that continues to influence him. At the end of the episode, Dean is just as flustered by Andrea’s parting kiss as he was with Haley’s. If Dean is a womanizer, he’s a peculiarly innocent one, blushing before turning away and changing the topic, to the clear amusement of everyone else:

S1E3 - Dead in the Water - Andrea kiss 1 S1E3 - Dead in the Water - Andrea kiss 2

By comparison, Sam – who’s still in mourning for Jess – shows no such awkwardness during or after his kiss with Lori in ‘Hook Man’. Though he quickly stops, apologising to her, Sam is still portrayed as competent and confident, and given who we’re ostensibly meant to see as the more sexual brother, while Dean doesn’t try for a deeper kiss with either Haley or Andrea, Sam definitely does with Lori:

S1E7 - Hook Man - Sam and Lori kiss

What this suggests to me, and writing partly with the benefit of hindsight, is that Dean touch-starved, flustered by simple affection in a way that Sam isn’t. Whereas Sam has had the benefit of a nearly two-year relationship with Jess, becoming used to casual contact, Dean – as we’ll later learn – has never experienced anything even remotely so longlived or domestic. As such, he talks a big game around his little brother, constantly trying to prove that he both likes and is experienced with women, but the second things move beyond the theoretical, he turns shy.

Though young, attractive women feature in both ‘Phantom Traveller’ and ‘Bloody Mary’, Dean has no romantic or sexual tension with any of them; the closest he comes is an awkward conversation with Amanda, the air hostess in ‘Phantom Traveller’, when he’s trying¬†to see if she’s possessed. This absence of flirtation is important for two reasons: firstly, because it establishes that Dean doesn’t hit on every woman he meets; and secondly, because it highlights that there was something special about both Haley and Andrea. It also helps to retroactively contextualise his treatment of Jess in the pilot: on a first viewing, it’s easy to view his objectification of her as a reflex, womanising overture, but even four episodes later, it’s clear this isn’t so. Dean’s comments to Jess are partially meant to annoy Sam, but mostly, they’re meant to get her out of the room so he and his brother can talk in private: as we see from Dean’s response to¬†Andrea’s rejection in ‘Dead in the Water’, he knows exactly what constitutes appropriate behaviour towards women who tell him no, and the fact that he chooses to be obnoxious with Jess has nothing to do with his libido and everything to do with the context.

In light of this dynamic, Dean’s interest in Becky in ‘Skin’ is fascinating, as we’re given two different perspectives on it: that of Dean himself, and that of his shapeshifted doppleganger. When Sam first mentions Becky, Dean immediately asks, “Is she hot?”, which question Sam rightly greets with a roll of his eyes. Then, later on, when Sam tries to get Becky out of the room so he and Dean can discuss the supernatural elements of the case, this exchange happens:

SAM: Maybe some sandwiches, too?

BECKY: What do you think this is, Hooters?

[She leaves the room]

DEAN, muttering: I wish.

On the surface, both these instances can be used to support the idea of Dean’s heterosexuality. Yet, as with the scene in ‘Wendigo’ where he silently telegraphs his appreciation of Haley to Sam, what we’re really¬†seeing is how Dean performs masculinity for his brother’s benefit, and not how he behaves towards actual women.¬†Dean’s actions throughout ‘Hook Man’ prove the same point: despite repeatedly reinforcing his interest in women¬†in conversations with Sam – “Yeah, I think she’s hot, too” and “stay out of her underwear drawer,” about Lori; “You’ve been holding out on me!” and “Think we’ll see a naked pillow fight?” about sorority girls – he barely interacts with any women at all, rendering the sentiments little more than talk. The closest he comes is eyeing a couple of girls at a party (though he also gazes after¬†a guy in the same scene); otherwise, the romantic arc is all about Sam and Lori. Similarly in ‘Skin’, though Dean enthusiastically introduces himself to Becky and says yes to her offer of a beer, that’s the extent of their flirtatious conversation; the rest of the time, they talk about the case. Thus: while Dean makes sure to let Sam know that he’s interested in women, this doesn’t really correlate with how frequently or aggressively he hits on women otherwise. Instead, it’s the shapeshifter¬†who claims that Dean would “bang her [Becky] if he could”, and the shapeshifter who goes to the house and smooth-talks his way into Becky’s good graces, hitting on her with a persistence and confidence that Dean is yet to display.

By contrast, these episodes also offer two interesting moments that ping my Bi!Dean radar: his encounter¬†with Roy in ‘Wendigo’, and his interaction with Murph the fratboy in ‘Hook Man’. In the first of these, Dean approaches Roy and baits him into the following conversation:

DEAN: Roy, you said you did a little hunting.

ROY: Yeah, more than a little.

DEAN: Uh-huh. What kind of furry critters do you hunt?

ROY: Mostly buck, sometimes bear.

DEAN: Tell me, uh, Bambi or Yogi ever hunt you back?

At this point, Roy physically grabs Dean by the shirt and gets in his face – and given that Dean’s being deliberately provocative, the logical assumption for both Dean and the viewer to make is that Roy is angry. Which is why Dean’s softly-drawled response – “Whatcha doing, Roy?” – ends up sounding provocative in a very different way: the line is delivered neither confrontationally, as you’d expect if Dean had been trying to goad Roy into a fight, nor in shock, apology or fear, as would make sense if Roy’s reaction had caught him off-guard. Even his expressions are at odds with the moment, both when Roy initially grabs him, when he looks like this:

S1E2 - Wendigo - Roy

and after he’s been let go¬†– after¬†it’s¬†revealed that Dean was about to step in a bear-trap – where he stares at¬†Roy like¬†this:

S1E2 - Wendigo - staring after Roy

In combination, the whole exchange comes off as Dean brattishly flirting with Roy, then looking put out when he doesn’t get the desired response; or at least, I can’t find another explanation as to why he looks so happy about being grabbed. By contrast, when Murph in ‘Hook Man’ asks Dean to help apply his body paint, Dean’s first response is to fob the task off onto Sam, saying “He’s the artist. Things he can do with a brush,” to Sam’s clear mortification. Yet at the same time, the first thing Dean does on entering is to look Murph¬†over, and despite his feigned disinterest, he’s clearly paying enough attention to point out – correctly – that Sam has “missed a spot” on Murph’s¬†lower back:

S1E7 - Hook Man - fratboy

When put together with Dean’s interactions with the Jericho police in the pilot episode, these two moments suggest an interesting pattern to how Bi!Dean behaves around men. With the Sheriff, Deputy Jaffe and Roy, Dean is deliberately provocative, low-voiced and smirking; but with Murph, he suddenly turns awkward,¬†pretending to read a magazine in order to hide the fact that he’s actually watching the whole thing. Why the change in approach? Because, unlike on the other three occasions, Sam is standing beside him. Though his brother is also present when Dean talks to Roy, he’s not in earshot, too far back to really witness their exchange. Just as Dean continually affirms his interest in women around Sam, behaving in a way that doesn’t actually reflect his interactions with them, so too does he change his approach to dealing with certain men, retreating into No Homo territory. (Watching with the benefit of hindsight, Dean joking in ‘Skin’ that “Sam wears women’s underwear” is a comparable instance of projection to Murph and the bodypaint: in both instances, Dean mocks his own private preferences by publicly asserting them as Sam’s.) The only potential outlier to this comes in ‘Bloody Mary’: when Sam first activates the night vision function on their video camera, Dean strikes a pose and asks, “Do I look like Paris Hilton?”, making this the second time he’s feminised himself, the first being his “My boobs” comment in the pilot episode. But even here, he’s got himself covered: the fact that he’s referencing straight pornography is, presumably, more salient than the fact that he’s comparing itself to the female star.

As for Dean’s other interests, even seven episodes into S1, it’s already clear there’s more to him than leather, cars and classic rock. In ‘Phantom Traveller’, we see evidence of his engineering abilities in the form of his homemade EMF meter, brandishing it with geeky delight when Sam asks why it looks “like a busted-up Walkman”:

S1E4 - EMF meter

Similarly, in ‘Skin’, Dean compares the shapeshifter’s ability to access his memories to ‘a Vulcan mind-meld’, while in ‘Hook Man’, he references Matlock – suggesting that his decision to call Sam a “geek” in the same episode is yet another case of projection.

On the basis of these episodes, then, it’s hard to see early Dean as anything like a womaniser. Though he certainly wants Sam to perceive him as a stereotypically masculine ladykiller, this isn’t born out in his actual interactions with women, while he becomes less provocative around men depending on whether or not his brother is watching. Even if you assume that Dean’s exchange with Jess in the pilot episode was meant to be representative of his usual behaviour – that he wasn’t trying to get rid of her; wasn’t trying to re-establish his masculinity for his brother’s benefit; wasn’t acting more confidently than usual in the knowledge that Jess was taken, and therefore extremely unlikely to reciprocate, making the whole thing more a power play than a flirtation – the next six episodes seemingly do their best to run as far and as fast in the opposite direction as possible.¬†Unlike James Bond, who hits on all attractive women regardless of context and presses whatever advantage they give him, at this point in the narrative, Dean Winchester is selective, has a preference for women to whom he feels a connection, is mindful of the context, and is flustered by simple affection.

Early Dean, in other words, is a projecting, over-compensating, touch-starved dork. No wonder we all love him.