Posts Tagged ‘Analysis’

Warning: all the spoilers for Supernatural.

Eventually.

1.

Seen from the outside, love is always a matter of interpretation. Not just the question of its presence, but its nature and depth, its reciprocity and point (or points) of origin. There are, I would argue, as many kinds of love as there are people. Love isn’t static; it grows and changes, waxes and wanes and flourishes in unexpected hearts. To quote my favourite e.e. cummings poem:

and being here imprisoned,tortured here
love everywhere exploding maims and blinds
(but surely does not forget,perish, sleep
cannot be photographed,measured;disdains
the trivial labelling of punctual brains…

Human beings lie about love almost as frequently as we feel it. We lie about being in love – to ourselves, to others – for any number of reasons: because we’re malicious or ignorant; because we’re in denial; because we’re trying to survive or protect ourselves; because we can’t find better words for what we’re feeling; because we want it to be true; because we don’t.

As such, our stories reflect that fact. The observation that the course of true love never did run smooth was true before Shakespeare wrote it and will remain true long after we’ve forgotten he ever did, because when it comes to love, we’re all unreliable narrators. You can challenge the idea of love as presented in any story, because love means something different to everyone. As children,we learn that the fairytale princess always loves the prince, but as adults, we wonder if maybe Snow White simply traded one death for another; if the prince’s actual happily ever after didn’t have a beard and a barony.

Love is no less real for being unconsummated, unreturned, unexpressed, nor is it defined by the purity or rightness of its subjects. Loving someone no more precludes their abuse than excuses it; love can be toxic, suffocating, violent, insensible. Love’s best impulses don’t act as justifications for its worst, and yet we can feel both – do both, even – all at once, and never flinch from the contradiction, assuming we even recognise its presence.

In high school, my favourite history teacher once taught us about a Roman emperor who serially cheated on the wife he famously loved. A girl protested; how could he love her and cheat? Surely the two propositions were mutually exclusive. My teacher shook his head; it was more complex than that. The girl disagreed, as did several other students: being in love meant you didn’t do bad things. No, I said, he’s right. You can love someone and still hurt them. My classmates looked at me like I was a geek for agreeing with the teacher; the teacher looked at me sadly, like he knew how I knew, and wished I didn’t.

(I looked away.)

2.

Queerbaiting is a real problem.

Ideally, neither our culture nor our narratives should demand physical proof of queerness, as though a character’s sexual or romantic orientation is invalid unless actively demonstrated. The idea that our feelings don’t exist unless we’re seen to act on them not only puts aromantics and asexuals in the impossible position of having to prove a negative, but contributes to the same backwards reasoning that says bisexuality and pansexuality are incompatible with, even disproved by, monogamy; as though the act of choosing one person makes you fundamentally incapable of being attracted to someone of a different gender. Our sexuality is not confirmed according to whether we’ve acted on it: virginity is not the same as asexuality, having only had partners of one gender doesn’t preclude our attraction to those of another, and thinking we were straight at sixteen doesn’t mean we can’t identify as gay at sixty. Sexuality is a continuum, a spectrum and an exploration, and exactly as diverse and complex as we ourselves. Ideally, therefore, queer interpretations of narrative should be considered every bit as natural and normative as heterosexual ones, with the validity of neither said to hinge on whether or not, in that crassest behind-the-bikesheds whisper, the persons involved have done it yet.

However.

Pragmatically, there is still a wretched and unfair need for queer narratives to be made explicit in text; to bear a greater burden of narrative proof than their heterosexual counterparts, the better to normalise the idea that actually, we shouldn’t need to justify them at all. Let’s be real: was there anyone who watched the first four seasons of Castle or the first six seasons of Bones who doubted that Castle and Beckett, Booth and Brennan were into each other from the outset – or at the very least, who doubted that the audience was meant to infer their attraction? This is what tropes are for: they tell us the romance is there before the relevant parties ever act on it, so that if and when they do, it’s not a total shock to the audience.

But when the tropes come, and come, and come, and the action never does – when one kind of romance is inevitably confirmed, and another inevitably left as subtext, despite employing the same narrative devices – then what you get is queerbaiting, pure and simple, and whether it’s the result of malice, ignorance, creative dissonance, creative compromise, network/editorial pressure or a combination of all five, it still contributes to the erasure of queer narratives. Because while, ideally, we shouldn’t conflate love and romance with sex and physical intimacy – while we shouldn’t view the former as being any less real, or less narratively present, without the vindication of the latter, and especially not when romantic tropes are otherwise clearly in use – the present cultural default is so powerful and so omnipresent that, somewhat paradoxically, it’s only through demonstrative, explicit acts of queerness that we can hope to progress to a place where the absence of physical consummation in a given narrative isn’t due to erasure, but because the audience understands it to be an optional aspect of romance.

This kind of canon-endorsed subtextual validity is already normal for heterosexual pairings; extending it to everyone else, therefore, is not only fair, but optimal.

3.

Stories, like people, are subject to change.

On screen, the presence of unexpected chemistry between actors can lead the writers to incorporate new romantic options into future films or episodes, or to reconsider the implications of previous scenes in light of audience interpretation. Particularly in the current day and age, when the combination of social media platforms and the convention circuit allows for an unprecedented back and forth between fans and creators, external commentary has the power to influence future narrative choices.

Evolving a narrative doesn’t override the fact that, once upon a time, you were hostile to the very idea of change. You can take a story in new directions, but you can’t retcon your past intentions, and there is a very clear difference between, on the one hand, a creator wanting to make a queer romance textually explicit and being prohibited from doing so, and on the other, deciding on an endgame queer romance only after years of publicly denying that such a thing had any narrative traction whatsoever. A positive change in perspective, if and when it comes, should always be applauded as a progressive development, but that’s not the same as grating total amnesty for every prior offence. As with personal evolution, we should be capable of acknowledging that someone has changed without claiming either that they were perfect all along or that the change is invalidated by the very behaviour that precipitated it.

People, like stories, are subject to improvement.

It’s complicated, is what I’m saying. But somehow, we muddle through.

4.

With all that established, let’s talk about Supernatural.

Technically, Destiel – the relationship between Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel, which is arguably the most prominent queer ship in any modern fandom – isn’t held to be canon. Dean and Castiel haven’t kissed on screen and aren’t formally dating, and while romantic subtext has been a part of their interactions since Castiel’s introduction at the start of Season 4, the greater burden of proof that’s culturally expected of queer narratives says that their relationship must therefore be platonic until proven otherwise, where proof means physical/sexual intimacy. The issue has been further muddied by the fact that there are clear differences of opinion on the subject among the show’s cast and creators: some object to it outright, some acknowledge the textual basis for the interpretation without supporting it as a canonical option, some are on the fence, and some are openly in favour of it.

And then, too, there’s the issue of the characters themselves, whose particular complexities only serve to make Destiel an even more fascinating case study. Castiel is an angel occupying the body of a human man. His ‘true form’, we’re told, is ‘about the size of your Chrysler building’, and angels in their original state are described as ‘junkless’, with Castiel describing himself at one point as ‘a wavelength of celestial intent’. By his own admission, Castiel is ‘indifferent to sexual orientation’, and within the show, he has – like the angel Raphael – inhabited both male and female vessels. Castiel is also shown to be capable of feeing sexual attraction, though when he first appears, he’s canonically virginal, to the point of being confused by his body’s reaction to watching pornography. But while Castiel has demonstrated both romantic and sexual attraction to a number of women – as an angel, we see him kiss a demon (Meg) and an angel (Hannah); as a human, he sleeps with a Reaper (April) and tries to date his human employer (Nora); and in the alternate future of the Endverse, he’s depicted as sexual to the point of hedonism, organising regular orgies – we’ve never seen him physically involved with a man.

But over and over again, it’s also stated, not just that Castiel loves Dean Winchester, but that he’s in love with him – and Dean knows this, a fact which, as of Season 10, has been confirmed both canonically and by writer Robert Berens. It’s worth taking a moment to examine the progression of Castiel’s feelings, the better to show how unequivocally and consistently they’re presented in Seasons 4 through 10. Whatever accusations of queerbaiting can be fairly levelled at Supernatural, and regardless of whether the original intention was always to present Castiel as someone romantically in love with Dean, on the basis of the evidence, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to deny that this is, in fact, a perfectly valid interpretation of canon:

Castiel - Gripped You Tight

Destiel - Shoulder Touch

Uriel - Castiel Likes You

Castiel - I did it all for you

Destiel - Shoulder Touch 1

Castiel - I Gave Everything For You

Castiel - And This Is What You Give Me

Stench Of That Impala

Castiel - Too Close To The Humans In My Charge

Castiel - Yearning

The One In The Trenchcoat Who's In Love With You

Castiel - I Always Come Whe You Call

Castiel - Redeem Myself

 

 

Emmanuel

Castiel - S7

 

He Was Your Boyfriend First

Metatron - Save Dean Winchester

 

Castiel is an angel; for Dean’s sake, he disobeys Heaven. He loses his wings. He literally falls, and if you can think of a more powerful narrative declaration of love than that of an angel falling for a human, with all the metaphoric and mythological resonance that entails, I’d be interested to hear it. The fact that Castiel loves Dean is repeatedly affirmed in canon, not just through inference, but direct, unequivocal statements. In Season 6, Balthazar describes Castiel to Dean as ‘the one in the dirty trenchcoat who’s in love with you;’ in Season 9, Metatron states that Castiel’s goal was ‘to save Dean Winchester’, reiterates that his plan was ‘all about saving one human’ and then concludes that Castiel is ‘in love… with humanity;’ and in Season 10, Dean refers to Sam and Castiel as ‘the people who love me’. Castiel loves Dean, and Dean knows it: that’s indisputable.

With Castiel’s feelings thus confirmed, the obvious point of contention is whether or not Dean feels the same way. The argument that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual is one that’s had traction in the fandom since Season 1, long before Castiel appeared on the scene, in part because the Winchester brothers being mistaken for boyfriends was an early running gag – so early, in fact, that in Dean’s case, the ‘joke’ about him being sexually interested in men is made several episodes before he’s ever shown to be romantically involved with a woman. (Sam, by contrast, starts the show in a heterosexual relationship.) In fact, Supernatural’s creator, Eric Kripke, has stated that the brothers are named after Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the protagonists of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, whose structure and themes are also incorporated into the show’s mythology; but Dean Moriarty was, in reality, Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, a bisexual man who was both a womaniser and involved over many years with Alan Ginsberg. (The fact that Castiel is also based on another canonically bisexual man, Hellblazer’s John Constantine, is of similar relevance; Kripke created Castiel in Constantine’s image after he was unable to obtain permission to use DC’s character.)

This being so, the fact that Dean Winchester is frequently portrayed as a ladies’ man is hardly proof of his disinterest in men, and especially not when you consider the character’s origins. Fascinatingly, in a 2008 interview – which dates to the second half of Season 3, and therefore prior to Castiel’s introduction – actor Jensen Ackles said of his character:

Dean’s a bit of a pool shark and also a bit of a gambler.  It doesn’t really show it all the time, but it’s definitely implied that there are poker games and pool matches that they can win some money on.  And who knows?  Dean’s a promiscuous kind of guy.  Who knows how he drums up the funds that they use?

The implication being that Dean has, perhaps, prostituted himself from time to time; and while this isn’t quite Word of God, it’s nonetheless pertinent to the question of Dean’s character, partly because Ackles mentions it as a possible consequence of Dean’s promiscuity, and therefore his of sexuality, rather than describing it as something that might happen for purely financial reasons; but also because, given the dive bars, truck stops and seedy environments frequented by the characters, the overwhelming likelihood is that, if Dean Winchester were to sell himself, it would most likely be to men. All of which is, of course, completely hypothetical; and yet it remains highly relevant, because for all the years of queerbaiting, avoidance and public backpeddling on the subject of Dean’s (bi)sexuality as engaged in by certain of the cast and writers – some of whom have subsequently left the show, changed their position or been told outright to avoid discussing the issue – it seems clear that, even in the early days, the question must have occurred more than once, and to more than one person, without ever being adequately resolved.

It doesn’t take over a decade of creative disagreement to resolve a non-issue, for the pure and simple reason that, if there was no issue, there’d be nothing to address. Which begs the question: if a character can be convincingly argued to be bisexual on the basis of the canon, is proof of consummation really required to make that analysis valid? In the real world, a bisexual man who has only ever been involved with women is no less bisexual than someone who’s slept with people of different genders. That being so, if we assert that Dean Winchester can’t be bisexual unless we see him actually kiss a man, we’re effectively arguing that sexual orientation is contingent on physical consummation – and that is reductive bullshit.

Yet at the same time, there’s an understandable need to distinguish between the literal limits of canon, and valid interpretations of same. Thus: if it’s unreasonable to argue that physical consummation is the only means of proving someone’s sexuality within a narrative (straight characters, after all, are routinely assumed to be straight even when their sexuality is never explicitly labelled as such – even when we never see them romantically involved with another person – because heterosexuality is such an implied cultural default that we consider it to go without saying), then what’s the actual burden of proof? What needs to happen – or what might have happened already – in order for us to say that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual?

In 4.14 ‘Sex and Violence’, Dean and Sam encounter a siren: a creature who attracts men by turning into, in Dean’s words, ‘whatever floats the guy’s boat’. For all the original victims, this meant women with whom they eventually developed a sexual relationship; but when the siren approaches Dean, it does so in the guise of Nick Monroe, a male FBI agent who shares Dean’s taste in classic rock and classic cars. ‘I gave him what he needed,’ the siren tells Sam, ‘And it wasn’t some bitch in a G-string. It was you. A little brother that looked up to him, that he could trust. And now he loves me.’ That being so, while ‘Nick’ might be borrowing from Sam in terms of Dean’s emotional needs, that doesn’t change the underlying sexuality of siren mythology, in which they represent the fulfilment of a romantic/sexual fantasy. When the siren similarly enthrals Sam, asks the brothers to fight and says that ‘whoever survives can be with me forever,’ it’s not a platonic promise. Sam’s own research describes the siren as a ‘beautiful creature’ capable of ‘enticing’ men with their ‘allure’: at every turn, the language speaks to sexuality and desire, and given that Supernatural’s canon involves multiple instances of Sam and Dean being mistaken for a gay couple on the basis of their interactions, having the siren exploit their fraught relationship dynamic as a means of seducing Dean is not only in keeping with the character’s preferences, but a move with ample narrative precedent.

In 5.8 ‘Changing Channels’, Dean and Sam are trapped by the Trickster, aka Gabriel, in a series of TV shows – one of which, Dr Sexy MD, a clear parody of Grey’s Anatomy, is something Dean watches as ‘a guilty pleasure’. However, while Dean tries to downplay his affection for the show, he’s clearly enough of a fan to not only identify the primary characters and explain their respective backstories to Sam, but his intimate knowledge of the lead character’s physical appearance is what ultimately reveals the Trickster’s presence. Gabriel, disguised as Dr Sexy, is wearing tennis shoes, an incongruous detail that prompts Dean to challenge him. ‘I swore,’ he says, ‘that part of what makes Dr Sexy sexy is the fact that he wears cowboy boots.’ This, then, is a direct admission from Dean that he finds another man sexually attractive; and not only does he cop to finding the character sexy, but meeting him in person renders him visibly flustered.

Dr Sexy

Dean - Flustered By Dr Sexy

 

In 8.13 ‘Everybody Hates Hitler’, Dean is canvassing for a case in a university bar when he becomes suspicious of a man he suspects of tailing him. Irritated, Dean approaches in his fake FBI guise and asks why he’s being followed; the man, Aaron, replies that ‘I thought we had a thing back at the quad, you know – a little “eye magic” moment’, which results in Dean being, once more, flustered. ‘Yeah. Uh, okay,’ he replies, ‘but no – uh, no moment. This is a… federal investigation.’ A few scenes later, it’s revealed that Aaron really was following Dean, and only pretended to hit on him as a diversionary tactic – but while Dean doesn’t know this in the moment, as a point of analysis, it’s relevant to interpreting their reactions at the bar. Because when Aaron responds to Dean’s apparent FBI status by saying, coyly, ‘Is that supposed to make you less interesting?’, Dean’s expression lifts, as though he’s genuinely interested – while Aaron, who clearly didn’t expect his gambit to go anywhere, starts to look out of his depth.

Aaron - Less Interesting

Dean and Aaron

By the time Dean leaves the bar, he’s so distracted that he stutters his goodbye to Aaron, walking backwards and bumping into a table. Later, however, when Aaron reappears and reveals that he really was tailing Dean after all, Dean’s reaction is hardly disaffected. ‘So, wait,’ he says. ‘What you’re saying is that you and me – we, uh, didn’t have a moment?’ When Aaron replies in the negative, Dean looks disappointed; he remarks to Sam that ‘he was my gay thing’ – a callback to his earlier description of their encounter – then tells Aaron, ‘It was really good. You really had me there. It was very smooth.’ Dean was both flustered and flattered by what he thought was a genuine attempt to pick him up; enough so that having Aaron’s actual disinterest revealed was a let-down.

Dean - Flustered By Aaron

Dean - He Was My Gay Thing

 

It’s also relevant that, in the DVD commentary for this episode, writers Ben Edlund and Phil Scgriccia explicitly acknowledge the romantic aspects of the encounter:

Ben Edlund: Well, that’s the weird thing is that it reads in this weird way where it does feel like Dean’s a little bit like—It’s almost like a romantic comedy kind of fluster. Which is very interesting for the character Dean, because it just sort of suggests this weird [laughs] this potential.

Phil Sgriccia: [laughs] This potential for love in all places.

Ben Edlund: Oh, Aaron and Dean, they could come together. He’s had a rough life. He’s a hard character to, to, you know. To settle down with.

This is, I would argue, Word of God confirmation of Dean’s bisexuality. Dean has the ‘potential’ to date men; the scene plays like a ‘romantic comedy’; he and Aaron ‘could come together’. Taken in isolation, both the scene and the remarks of the writers would still read as definitive, but in combination with the events of 4.14 and 5.8 in particular, it seems incontrovertible that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual. He might not always be comfortable with that fact – an uncertainty that’s wholly in keeping with his characterisation – but after ten seasons, that it is a fact seems no longer up for debate. There is more than sufficient evidence that Dean is attracted to men, and to argue that it somehow doesn’t count because we haven’t actually seen him kiss anyone is a fundamental erasure of the fact that someone’s sexual orientation isn’t contingent on their performance of it.

Which brings us back to the ultimate question: given that Dean is bisexual, and given his awareness of the fact that Castiel loves him, does Dean also love Cas? And if their affections are mutual – and if both of them are cognisant of this fact – then can we successfully argue that Destiel is canon, on the not unreasonable basis that relationships neither begin nor end with physical intimacy? And if so, then how is their romance supported by the presence of tropes in the text?

In 1.12 ‘Faith’, we learn that Dean believes in evil, but not in good, a dissonance which surprises Sam. Their subsequent exchange is one of the most powerful – and prescient – in the entire show:

Sam: Maybe it’s time to have a little faith, Dean.

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

Sam: How can you be a sceptic? With the things we see every day?

Dean: Exactly. We see them, we know they’re 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.

Similarly, in 2.12 ‘Houses of the Holy’, we learn that Dean doesn’t believe in angels – an irony of foreshadowing, given the events of Season 4 onwards. Once again, his scepticism surprises Sam, and the ensuing conversation neatly mirrors their exchange in 1.12:

Dean: I’m just saying, man, there’s just some legends that you just, you file under “bullcrap”.

Sam: And you’ve got angels on the bullcrap list. 

Dean: Yep.

Sam: Why?

Dean: Because I’ve never seen one. 

Sam: So what?

Dean: So I believe in what I can see.

Sam: Dean! You and I have seen things that most people couldn’t even dream about. 

Dean: Exactly. With our own eyes. That’s hard proof, okay? But in all this time I have never seen anything that looks like an angel. And don’t you think that if they existed that we would have crossed paths with them? Or at least know someone that crossed paths with them? No. This is a, a demon or a spirit.

Dean doesn’t believe in a higher, benevolent power, because his daily experience of the world’s brutalities makes such a faith impossible. He’s also fiercely self-hating, though he goes to great lengths to pretend otherwise, to the point where we often learn more about Dean’s internal life through monsters who access his thoughts than we do from Dean himself. In 1.6 ‘ Skin’, for instance, a shapeshifter wearing Dean’s body – and who therefore has intimate knowledge of his personality, memories and feelings – sums Dean up by saying, on his behalf, ‘Me? I know I’m a freak. And sooner or later, everybody’s gonna leave me.’ Later, in 3.10 ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’, Dean is stuck talking to his nightmare-self, who first taunts him – ‘I know how dead you are inside. How worthless you feel… Daddy’s blunt little instrument. Your own father didn’t care whether you lived or died. Why should you?’  – and then turns into a demon, warning him that ‘You’re gonna die. And this? This is what you’re going to become.’ 

Having sold his soul to save his brother, Dean dies at the end of Season 3 and goes to Hell – and then, at the start of 4.1 ‘Lazarus Rising’, he’s rescued by Castiel, waking in his grave with an angelic handprint branded onto his shoulder. Not that Dean knows it at the time; he spends the whole episode trying to find out who brought him back, and when Castiel finally shows up – sparks literally flying; his first appearance makes lightbulbs explode – Dean Winchester, who doesn’t believe in angels or a greater good, is suddenly confronted by one of the former who saved him for the latter, and who recognises his self-hatred without for a minute accepting it:

Castiel: I’m an Angel of the Lord.

Dean: Get the hell out of here. There’s no such thing.

Castiel: This is your problem, Dean. You have no faith…

Dean: Well, I’m not buying what you’re selling, so who are you really?

Castiel: I told you.

Dean: Right. And why would an angel rescue me from Hell?

Castiel: Good things do happen, Dean.

Dean: Not in my experience.

Castiel: What’s the matter? You don’t think you deserve to be saved?

Castiel - What's The Matter

Castiel - You Don't Think You Deserve To Be Saved

Up until this point, Dean’s deepest insecurities have been mostly voiced by monsters: demons and nightmares who fling his self-hatred in his face, weaponising his thoughts. But Castiel does the opposite: in one conversation, he goes straight to the root of everything Dean loathes about himself and summarily upends it. You don’t think you’re worthy of salvation; and yet, I saved you, because you are. And while Dean doesn’t instantly accept it – ‘If there is a God out there, why would he give a crap about me?’, he asks in the next episode – that doesn’t detract from the significance of Castiel’s actions.

Though Dean is constantly at odds with Heaven’s plans for him, his connection to Castiel continues to develop, changing into something more than platonic affection. In 5.3 ‘Free To Be You And Me,’ during a particularly tense conversation, Dean says, ‘So, what, I’m Thelma and you’re Louise and we’re just going to hold hands and sail off this cliff together?’ – a reference to the fact that the women then share a kiss, and whose inference is emphasised, rather than diminished, by Dean’s body language.

Thelma - 1Thelma - 2

Thelma - 3

 

By Season 6, it’s Castiel’s love for Dean – specifically, his desire to let him live a human life, rather than dragging him back into angelic politics – that ultimately causes him to commit an act of gross betrayal, colluding with Crowley and opening the gate to Purgatory, releasing the Leviathans back into the world. When this leads to Castiel’s death – or appears to, at least – we see Dean collecting Castiel’s bloody trenchcoat, the only remaining piece of him, and keeping it.

Dean - with the trenchcoat

 

Romantic symbolism aside, this happens at a time when Dean’s regular car, the Impala, soon becomes too conspicuous for regular use, and has to be exchanged for a series of different vehicles. So when, some fifteen episodes later, Castiel finally reappears, an amnesiac living as faith healer under the name Emmanuel, and Dean still has the coat to hand – kept neatly laundered and folded in the trunk of his car – we know that he’s been carrying it with him, swapping it into each new vehicle, either as a talisman or in the hope that Castiel would return. Though not explicitly romantic, this is clearly a loving gesture, one which is neatly paralleled by Dean carrying Bobby’s hip flask after his death. In both cases, the object has sentimental value, representing Dean’s strong attachment to the original owner; and just as Bobby’s ghost returns to help him, tied to the flask, so does the coat contribute to the restoration of Castiel’s sense of self.

At the end of the season, Dean and Castiel end up trapped and separated in Purgatory, with Dean’s quest to find Castiel told in flashbacks throughout the start of Season 8. It’s at this point, I would argue, that Dean’s feelings begin to take on an overtly romantic dimension. He prays to Castiel ‘every night’ in Purgatory, and when he finally tracks him down through a literal world of monsters, his joy and relief are palpable.

Dean - Where's The Angel

Purgatory Hug

Purgatory Hug 2 Purgatory Hug 3

 

Castiel, we learn, is being hunted by Leviathans; he stayed away from Dean in an attempt to keep him safe. Dean, however, point-blank refuses to leave Purgatory without Castiel.

Dean - Eye Of The Needle Dean - Nobody Gets Left Behind Dean - Not Leaving Here Without You

 

But when Castiel stays behind anyway – a deliberate decision on his part, in penance for his previous actions – Dean is so distressed, he distorts his own memories of the event. Unable to believe that Castiel stayed by choice, he mentally reframes his abandonment as the result of Castiel giving up, yet simultaneously berates himself for having failed. That he then starts to see Castiel – a side-effect of Cas’s impending return by angelic means – is something he explains to himself as a consequence of grief and guilt, much like Sam hallucinating his girlfriend, Jess, directly after her death. As such, when Castiel finally reappears in 8.7 ‘A Little Slice of Kevin’, Dean’s yells at Cas for staying behind and, in the process, reveals his true feelings: ‘Look, I don’t need to feel like hell for failing you, okay? For failing you like I’ve failed every other godforsaken thing that I care about! I don’t need it!’   

At first glance, this seems a fairly poor declaration of love; and yet, I’d argue, that’s exactly what it is. Canonically, Dean has said the words ‘I love you’ exactly once: in 5.16 ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, where he relives a memory of talking to his mother as a four-year-old (‘It’s okay, Mom. Dad still loves you. I love you, too. I’ll never leave you.’). Otherwise, it’s something he only ever expresses obliquely, like in 2.20 ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’, when dream-Mary says she loves him, and Dean replies, ‘Me, too.’ He also expresses the sentiment through references, as in 8.20 ‘Pac Man Fever’, when Charlie Bradbury says ‘I love you’ and Dean, in a clear evocation of Han Solo’s famous line, responds with, ‘I know.’

Because Dean Winchester, as we well know by now, is not only self-hating, but actively feels responsible for every bad thing that happens to his loved ones. In fact, he even says this explicitly in 2.22 ‘All Hell Breaks Loose: Part Two’, while blaming himself for Sam’s death: ‘I guess that’s what I do. I let down the people I love.’

Dean - I Let Down The People That I Love

So when Dean says that he’s failed Castiel ‘like I’ve failed every other godforsaken thing that I care about’, that’s not an idle statement. It’s a direct reference to the fact that Dean thinks loving someone predestines him to let them down. The logic runs in a loop: he loves Cas, therefore he failed him; he failed Cas, therefore he loves him. The one is proof of the other.

Dea - For Failing You

By 8.17 ‘Goodbye Stranger’, Castiel has been reprogrammed by Naomi and the other angels, undergoing specific training to make him capable of killing Dean. The two of them argue over the angel tablet, and even as he fights Naomi’s control, Castiel beats Dean bloody – at which point, Dean echoes something he said to Castiel in Purgatory, a declaration strong enough to break through his conditioning and bring him back: I need you.

Dean - I Need You (Purgatory)

Dean - I Need You

Crucially, the line in 8.17 was originally written as ‘I love you’, and even with the change in the final product, the emotional resonance remains. The significance of this particular scene, however, is a twofold catharsis, and one that directly parallel’s Castiel’s original rescue of Dean. In 8.7, when Castiel sets Dean straight about how and why he was left behind in Purgatory, they have an exchange that eerily mirrors their initial conversation in 4.1, but with the roles reversed: this time, it’s Dean who’s trying to save Castiel, and Castiel asserting the impossibility of the act:

Castiel: I pulled away. Nothing you could have done would have saved me, because I didn’t want to be saved.

Dean: What the hell are you talking about?

Castiel: It’s where I belonged. I needed to do penance. After the things I did on earth and in heaven, I didn’t deserve to be out. And I saw that clearly when I was there. I… I planned to stay all along. I just didn’t know how to tell you. You can’t save everyone, my friend… though, you try.

It was Naomi, not Dean, who rescued Castiel from Purgatory; but it was Dean who rescued him from Naomi’s control, which was the greater danger.

Dean Winchester says I love you in many ways, and this is one of them.

5.

Seen from the outside, love is always a matter of interpretation. Not just the question of its presence, but its nature and depth, its reciprocity and point (or points) of origin. If the audience can reasonably doubt the sincerity of a character who professes their love overtly, but whose actions say otherwise, then by the same token, we may also claim the existence of a love that’s never formally professed, but which is nonetheless demonstrated.

Canonically, Castiel loves Dean Winchester. Canonically, Dean Winchester is bisexual. Canonically, Dean Winchester knows that Castiel loves him. Canonically, Dean Winchester cares for Castiel, and blames himself for failing him. Canonically, Dean Winchester defines himself as someone who fails the ones he loves.

Canonically, Dean Winchester loves Castiel.

Destiel is canon.

This doesn’t mean that Supernatural isn’t guilty of queerbaiting, or that Destiel is by any means a slam dunk for queer representation in narrative. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to rummage through gifset after gifset, script after script, to prove the validity of a relationship which, had it been identically constructed between straight characters, would long since have been accepted as obvious, even without any physical consummation. In fact, returning to the heterosexual pairings mentioned earlier – Castle/Beckett and Booth/Brennan – it’s interesting to note that both those couples kissed on screen long before their relationships were ever considered official; Castle/Beckett as part of an undercover disguise, and Booth/Brennan at a coworker’s dare. In both instances, while kissing was deemed proof of mutual attraction, it didn’t cement their relationships; and why would it? Love is a separate thing to physical intimacy, and kissing does not a couple make. A Destiel kiss would demonstrate the presence of physical attraction – and it would certainly go a long way towards offering visual confirmation of queerness in the narrative – but it wouldn’t be the thing that proves the characters are in love.

In discussing whether ships are canon or not, fandom has an understandable tendency to want tangible evidence: something to which we can point, without fear of contradiction, as proof of a pairing’s validity. Queer relationships are grossly underrepresented on screen, yet queerbaiting abounds, and as such, we place a premium – necessarily so, for the sake of both visibility and progress – on physical displays of affection, conventional declarations of Official Togetherness and explicit textual labelling as means of proving that certain relationships exist, and that the characters subscribe to specific orientations. But we cannot make this the be-all, end-all of the dialogue, not only because some relationships and orientations are always going to defy conventional labelling, but because this materially erases the possibility of asexual, non-physical or slow burn relationships while simultaneously reinforcing the idea that you’re not ‘really’ dating someone unless you’ve kissed, or fucked, or met some other arbitrary benchmark for physical intimacy that has no meaningful relevance to how you feel about someone, except that it makes the observer feel more comfortable in their judgement.

We aren’t wrong to want visible representation, nor are we wrong to loudly decry the hypocritical prevarications, circumlocutions and general pigheadedness of creators who, when asked directly, neither admit nor deny the sexual complexity of their characters, but who instead take the queerbaiting middle path of implying-without-saying and pat themselves on the backs for doing even that much. But at present, the general fandom conception of what constitutes a canon relationship is woefully oversimplified, juvenile in its obsession with have they kissed and are they going steady. Critical analysis is about building a case on the basis of the evidence and arguing it successfully, which – I hasten to point out – isn’t the same thing as silencing all disagreement: the fact that someone might make a coherent case for different versions of the same narrative doesn’t mean their logic is flawed, but rather than the text supports multiple interpretations with equal validity (which is often a hallmark of a good story). Canon isn’t only the fixed facts of the narrative, but the process by which we interpret them, and when we forget that, we risk diminishing the story, making it static rather than fluid, freezing it in carbonite, alive but dead.

Destiel is canon because it’s a conclusion that can be logically drawn on the basis of the evidence. That doesn’t make it the only possible conclusion, but it does mean it’s a valid one. Creative intent can certainly be used to support a textual interpretation, as per Word of God comments, but just as the audience can (for instance) reasonably assert the presence of racism in a narrative whose creators swear blind they never intended any such thing, so too can we reasonably assert the presence of a relationship which, while not expressly confirmed as such, is nonetheless consistently demonstrated. Yes, we need to continue demanding more and better unambiguous representation; yes, we need to continue to call out queerbaiting; and dear god, yes, does Supernatural ever have some problems.

But Destiel is a valid canonical interpretation of the show and its characters, and while there are other interpretations to be had – even contradictory ones – that doesn’t make it anything less than legitimate.

So there.

Cas-Jimmy - Understatement

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Though gifs have been around since 1987, the format has achieved a new prominence in the past few years, and has now become an increasingly integral part of online discourse . Given their early history, this is arguably a surprising development. Back in the 1990s, gifs tended to be brightly coloured, often garish pixel animations, and before the end of the decade, their usage had became synonymous with bad web design. Their overuse was partly responsible for the development of the phrase banner blindness, and in 1999, there was even an early Penny Arcade strip, Macromedia FlashDance, satirising the problem:

PA gif strip

As more sophisticated image formats were developed, gifs fell out of favour, and though they remained in usage as a source of internet humour throughout the early noughties, it wasn’t until photo-based social media platforms like tumblr began to take off post-2010 that the format started to achieve its current prominence. The widespread availability of simple gif creation tools has also contributed to their ubiquity, as has the fact that, ten years on from the arrival of YouTube, it’s now extremely easy to find high-quality video of just about anything online. Like a literal equivalent to the proverbial Rule 34, if a video exists, it can – and probably will – be giffed, and given the fact that the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee just issued a press release consisting almost entirely of gifs, it seems fair to say that both the medium and practice has gained a traction beyond the subcultural.

But despite the now-common presence of gifs in online news articles and their widespread use as reaction images, very little seems to be being said about the profound, almost radical impact they’re having on our critical analysis of visual media. Gifs are looped videos: perpetually in motion. They show discreet, specific moments of narrative, and while the format is silent, the fact that they can be captioned or subtitled enables the preservation of dialogue. Which means, in essence, that for the first time in the history of visual media studies, we can directly compare multiple sections of multiple videos on the one screen, at the same time, in a loop, without having to wrangle multiple muted video players, assuming that was ever a viable option. Because gifs can be embedded in a piece of text, we can illustrate a digital essay on a given film or TV show by literally showing the reader the scene, or scenes, we’re describing, without requiring that they click away from the page. And because gifs are looped, we never have to stop and rewind: we can immerse ourselves in the subtleties of a given moment – the repeated sweep of a well-executed panning shot, the subtleties of an actor’s microexpressions – without additional technical distractions.

And this is significant: not just because it enables a deeper, more thorough analysis of visual media, but because it makes that analysis both overt and accessible in a way it wasn’t before. A well-constructed gifset is a thing of tremendous beauty, and the more of them I see, the more I’m convinced that we’re in the midst of an academic paradigm shift. It’s not just that gifsets let us contrast the dialogue, cinematography, composition and acting of various visual narratives side-by-side in unprecedented ways, or even the fact that anyone, potentially, can make one; it’s the that this tremendously useful ability is online-only at a time when the vast majority of academic writing, even when digitally accessible, is stuck in static, access-restricted, locked-in formats, despite the fact that most everyone else is using free blogging platforms. Technically, gifs can be inserted into PDFs, but it’s uncommon to try, difficult to achieve, and without the use of particular plugins, the end result won’t work – and as PDFs are seemingly the most common form of academic document, that presents something of an obstacle to their adoption.

Academic publishing, as an institution, is one of the most nakedly dinosauric and profit-driven industries around. Much content is peer-reviewed for free, saving publishers the expense of paying for professional editors. For books, cover designs are frequently minimalist, again saving on production costs, and in the case of journals – and despite the often exorbitant cost of subscribing to their output – contributors are unpaid. While there can be significant differences in practice from discipline to discipline and some notable exceptions regardless, generally speaking, academic publishing takes advantage of its captive audience of students and professors in order to charge sky-high prices for textbooks and journals alike, despite the comparatively low overheads involved in their creation. As such, the innovation of something that’s desperately relevant to academic critical analysis, but which is currently proliferating for free in non-academic formats, not only due to its widespread accessibility and pop cultural origins, but because academic journals haven’t yet moved to include it, is worth investigating further.

Because gifs, I would contend, are relevant to more disciplines than just film studies, which is the obvious one to mention. Arguably their greatest point of utility is their ability to magnify microexpressions: those fleeting, tiny, there-and-gone tics that often betray our deepest reactions to things, and which, for all the volumes they speak in person, can be so easily lost in other formats. While this newfound ability to study the nuanced microexpressions of actors has undeniably added to both our appreciation and interpretation of their performances, it also has significant utility when turned elsewhere. Gifs of politicians, journalists and other prominent figures abound, and are slowly but steadily changing the nature of public discourse. Not only is there something powerful in being able to capture, recycle and disseminate (for instance) Tony Abbott’s lecherous wink during a radio interview with a pension-aged sex-line worker, but distributing gifsets of political interviews or parliamentary sessions has become commonplace even beyond their countries of origin, with the captions sometimes appearing in translation. Though full episodes of The Daily Show aren’t legally available outside the USA, for instance, gifsets of its various sketches and interviews are frequently shown elsewhere, their creation and dissemination falling within the guidelines of fair use, and the same is equally true of other programmes.

That being so, it’s hardly surprising that gifsets have inspired an enormous amount of analysis, meta and commentary online, the vast majority of which exists outside of traditional academic channels. Which isn’t to say that such content lacks either academic merit or rigour, however informal the use of language; rather, it means that academic conversations are no longer happening within purely academic spaces. In fact, given the undeniable presence of both amateur and professional academics on sites like tumblr, whose digital format both enables back-and-forth discourse and the ability to site sources through links, there’s an argument to be made that the internet had lead to the creation of a new type of academic space, one as yet unmediated by academic institutions. The proliferation of gifs is just a small part of this, but as a highly visible facet of the phenomenon, it makes for an interesting point of entry into some of these larger developments.

However academia develops in the coming decades, it would be foolish to underestimate the relevance of the internet and visual media – and of the ability of pop cultural innovations to have academic applications.

 

 

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency – had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our awareness of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on her physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because, to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality, as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race – or along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour – can provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze – those facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story – is similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

So far this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Broken Bird characters – and apparently, I’m not the only one. Why are they overwhelmingly women? What does their popularity say about our narrative-cultural obsession with romanticising damage, and particularly female damage? Is it possible to write Broken Birds without romanticising their trauma? Can we really say that most Broken Birds are strong female characters when the trope overwhelmingly rejects femininity? And why do such heroines abound in UF and PNR in particular?

It’s an issue I’ve had Feelings about for some time. I learned and fell in love with the trope as a teenager; which is to say, uncritically and before I knew there were words for the patterns I saw in stories, let alone how to apply them. I gravitated to Broken Birds so wholeheartedly that my own early writing is saturated with them. Unconsciously, I’ve built my whole understanding of narrative on a bedrock of Broken Birds – and that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because the logic of such characters is ultimately founded on the deeply problematic romanticising of damage.

No human being is perfect. As the tattooed left arm of a recent bus driver so eloquently proclaimed, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Even the most well-adjusted person has hang-ups, and as conflict drives stories, it only makes sense that drama and damage be omnipresent in narrative. Traumatic origins make for interesting reading, just as terrible occurrences make for good story-fodder. No matter how grand or intimate the scale of events, calamity and catastrophe stalk the pages of every novel – and rightly so. Small wonder, then, that we routinely exalt characters who rise above the horrors they’ve endured while still being influenced by them. Show us tormented souls struggling for redemption. Show us travel-weary nomads, battle-scarred warriors, guardians of grey areas and hard-boiled detectives. Show us heroes with pasts and antiheroes shackled by honour. Show us doctors who can’t heal themselves and untrusting cynics searching for love. Show us unseen scars and visible. Show us pain, and that pain is survivable.

But never forget that damage has a cost.

Romanticised damage is heroin chic for the soul: no matter how angry, hurt or soulful it looks,  its expression is ultimately constrained by glamour. Real damage is rampant, inconvenient and frequently unbeautiful. Romanticised damage self-medicates, but is never addicted; represses and explodes, but never unfixably; abuses friendships, but never beyond salvation; drinks, but never vomits or blacks out;  seeks self-destruction, but always nobly; hurts itself, but never others; expresses sarcasm, but never joy. On a fundamental level, romanticised damage is an expression of authorial image-consciousness: a limiting awareness of the fourth wall that shies away from having the protagonist behave irredeemably, lest their sympathetic status or morality thereinafter be called into question.

Which is, in a nutshell, how Broken Birds work. Their tortured pasts provoke a specific empathy that their darker impulses must never negate, in order that the one continue to justify the other. It’s a precisely calibrated balancing act that annoys the hell out of me, because – among other things, which we’ll get to – it effectively hardwires the character for emotional stasis. Too much healing, and they stop being broken, which nine times out of ten kills the narrative premise; too much distress, and the dysfunction stops being cute and starts looking villainous, or at best obscenely selfish. Both transitions are narratively workable, but Broken Birds are meant to be beautiful, haunting, troubled: if they can’t rescue themselves, we have to want them to be rescued; if they can rescue themselves, then they’re not broken; and if they can but don’t, then the reason – whether selfishness or stupidity – must render them less attractive, and therefore less birdlike.

Which is where we come back to our first two questions: why are most Broken Birds women, and what does that say about our obsession with female brokenness? By way of answer, I’m going to propose a radical notion: that damage has, narratively speaking, become the go-to justification for escapism.

Consider the following hypothetical premise: a successful, happy twentysomething with a loving family, interesting friends, a good career and a caring partner is suddenly drawn into a fascinating, chaotic and hitherto unknown world of action, adventure and intrigue. This world, however, is swiftly proven to be incompatible with living a normal life. Instantly, the question becomes: Which do they sacrifice? Who gets hurt? Obviously, narratively, we know they’re going to choose whatever this new world entails, because that’s the point – but even though we’re already gunning for a particular outcome, we still want the transition to be painless. This is why so many characters in YA novels are orphans, or have distant, absent or abusive parents: because when the action calls for them to leave home and face the forces of darkness – as it invariably will – we don’t want their loved ones to be injured by the choice. Even though we’ve already chosen a thousand times over in favour of quests, we still don’t want there to be a cost to starting them, because we don’t want to begin by thinking of our protagonist as a selfish, hurtful ass – which is what we, the reader, would be if we upped and left our comfortable life for one of thrills and adventure.

But damage excuses all that. If a character has nothing to lose by jumping headlong into their brave, new world – if nobody will miss them, or if they’re so broken that it excuses selfish decisions – then the usual cost is waived. The damage heaped on the characters is a way of alleviating not just their guilt at going, but our own for wanting it to be easy. For wanting to like them right from the outset.

For wanting to run away, too.

Because no matter what else they might achieve, stories with a new world component are always going to have escapist elements. Narratively, damage is used to justify that escape, to the point where trauma preceding adventure has long since become a cultural default. As a result, we readers absorb the pattern. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we connect damage with freedom; and that makes damage romantic, because it implies – however carelessly, however unintentionally – that the best way out of our everyday lives is to wait for them to implode. In the real world, enacting life-altering change takes extraordinary courage. Travel, changing careers, moving away from our loved ones, swapping partners, going on adventures, living wildly – none of this comes easy, or quickly, or free. But in stories, we can fantasise about all our responsibilities being taken away by fate, thus freeing us up to go on as many adventures as we like without ever having to justify wanting more than what we have.

And this is not a bad or unhealthy thing. The very attraction of ‘my life explodes and then I have adventures’ fantasies is that the vast majority of us never really expect – or, crucially, want – these things to happen. Their safety and entertainment value both stem from their supreme unlikelihood. We know we only get one life, and yet it’s human nature to want more than that; infinitely so. Stories, at their most fundamental level, exist to mitigate this knowledge. Like the third good fairy at Princess Aurora’s christening, we cannot alter this truth entirely, and so, instead, we soften it a little. Thus, like Aurora, instead of pricking our fingers and dying, we enter prolonged dream states and become Sleeping Beauty. We conjure up the ghosts of other existences so that we may live more, not less, continuing down internal roads when real ones are closed to us. Or, as Lewis Carroll put it:

Anon, to sudden silence won,

In fancy they pursue

The dream-child moving through a land

Of wonders wild and new,

In friendly chat with bird and beast —

And half believe it true.

But there is a world of difference between the offhand way we can treat with personal tragedy in our own private, escapist fantasies and the way we ought to treat them out loud, in reality, on paper. Because the thing we all know – the thing we must forget in order to dream our funny, broken, parallel lives – is that real trauma isn’t romantic. Without wanting to imply any necessary, absolute causation between an author’s personal experiences and the stories they write, I would suggest, as a matter of empathic intuition, that someone who has (for example) suffered the loss of their closest family members would be much less likely to casually include this fact in their protagonist’s backstory than someone for whom such personal grief remained purely hypothetical. Or, to put it another way: we respect such rights and losses as we have taught ourselves to respect, which is why good authors – or at the very least, well-intentioned ones – do research. If, on setting out to write a story, we can recognise our own cultural, sexual, historical and/or racial ignorance in areas relevant to our narrative, then why not acknowledge emotional ignorance, too?

In SFF, the simple answer is: because half the fun is making things up. If escapism is still the order of the day – if we can still tell stories where the culture, sexuality, history and races are imaginative extrapolations on the real – then why are emotions any different? And on the surface of things, that’s a fair point. I don’t have to think it’s plausible that a group of sheltered Hobbits from the Shire would find the courage to walk into the fires of Mount Doom in order to enjoy the story, because part of the willing suspension of disbelief inherent in the fictional act – and particularly in SFF – is accepting that, however rare such people might be in the real world, the majority of leading characters tend to be exceptional. Fiction is not like reality TV, shoving a metaphoric story-camera into the homes of ordinary folks in the hopes of striking an eventual dramatic jackpot. Instead, we have already decided our protagonists are different or special, because that is why we are there.

But the leeway this buys us is limited. Real-world causality must always apply to some extent, so that even if we’ve already decided the protagonist is exceptional, their actions still have to make sense. In order to create believable stories about imaginary cultures, races, gender relations and histories, the narrative has to be grounded in something familiar. And, while there’s no rulebook stating this has to be emotional content – which could easily prove impractical in stories about alien, hybrid or other inhuman characters  – more often than not, we mean it as a default. No matter how strange the society or how impossible the scenario, protagonists must still adhere to the rules of the world we’ve written them; and where we’ve left humanity as the default social setting, that means we have to understand their emotions.

Which is why romanticised damage comes off as an indicator of bad writing: even allowing for the fact that your mileage may vary, it still suggests a lack of emotional research; and as such damage is arguably a defining characteristic of Broken Birds, that puts them at a high risk for poor characterisation. To be clear: this is not a blanket attack on stories whose protagonists have traumatic pasts or origins or who continue to undergo suffering, for the simple reason that not all damage is romanticised. As a rule of thumb, romanticised damage is damage portrayed without realistically negative consequences, or whose consequences tend towards the protagonist being cursed with awesome. Such as, for instance, describing a character who has all the behavioural hallmarks of being an alcoholic without ever actually calling them one, or making them black out, or showing them throw up, or do anything but function at 110% while living almost entirely on hard liquor.

This is, I suspect, the main reason why Broken Birds abound in UF and PNR – or rather, the reason why Broken Birds in those genres stand out as being particularly problematic. Remembering the implied covenant of exceptional characters, it can be harder for readers to gauge how exceptional a protagonist situated in a sufficiently distant or fictitious setting actually is, comparatively speaking. If we don’t know anything about their world, its culture and history except what the story tells us, then the emotional narrative becomes something of a closed system: the only facts available to us are those the author chooses to relate, and unless some misstep of writing or characterisation makes us question that system’s integrity, then it only makes sense to accept what we’re told as true. If, on the other hand, a story is set in the present day – however altered by magic, weird technology or alternative history – then the system is automatically thrown open for comparison with our existing knowledge-base; and that’s where things get interesting. Because if the story fails to invoke the unquestioning sanctity of our private loss/escape fantasies – if we expect greater emotional verisimilitude from a published narrative than from our daydreams – then we can claim to know exactly how exceptional a character must be in order for us to believe in their survival.

And Broken Birds, by definition, are limited. Integral to their nature is the requirement of our sympathy: there are some lines they cannot cross, yet they must still be damaged and mangled by circumstance enough that the question of their doing so arises. This creates what I’ll call the Dark Side Shortfall: a contradiction between the negative emotional trajectory objectively suggested by their circumstances and the author’s desire to keep them looking beautiful. A successfully written Broken Bird is one where the writing, characterisation and worldbuilding are solid enough that this limitation never looks like a limitation, but rather the only natural course of events: one where we believe, despite the existence of the trope, that the character would always have made those choices. But if we suspect we are being shielded – if it feels as though the only reason our hero keeps faith is because the author wants them to – then Houston, we have a problem.

Which is where the gender card comes into play, because despite all the advances of feminism and equality, we still think it’s less acceptable for women to be made unbeautiful, whether physically or emotionally, than it is for men. The reason most Broken Birds are women is precisely because we’re more prone to limiting female characters than male, and especially when those limitations are designed to keep us sympathetic – and attracted – to the characters. This is not necessarily a conscious process, although it certainly can be. Rather, it’s a problem of lineage. The classic literary antihero is the hardboiled detective, who, when recombined the femme fatale, becomes the Broken Bird  – an incestuous bleeding together of noir’s most powerful archetypes. But unlike Blade, who inherited all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of his diametrically opposed parents, the Broken Bird is a creature of contradictions. From the detective, she takes strength, cunning and a certain maverick flare. From the femme fatale, she takes vulnerability, a damsel complex and tragedy. In other words, the Broken Bird’s strengths are masculine, while its weaknesses are feminine. And, not unsurprisingly, this is not a combination that works out well for female characters.

Femme fatales, as the name suggests, are dangerous and duplicitous, with both qualities invariably tied to their gender. Classically, if they were ever redeemed, it was through love; but otherwise, while the hardboiled detective was constrained by a personal code of honour (if not the actual law), the femme fatale remained morally suspicious. She was traitor and adulteress, whore and heartbreaker, a liar on the run and a bad girl out for what she could get – and yet, crucially, never an antihero. That mantle was reserved for the men, who worked outside the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit. In noir, it was the women who made the hard choices, who rode their downward spirals and betrayed to stay alive; but they were also feminine, owning their sexuality and their gender even as they defied the culture and times that sought to label them.

But the typical female Broken Bird rejects femininity. Not sexiness – she’s still the femme fatale’s daughter, after all – but sorority, domesticity, and anything else that’s traditionally been deemed the purview of women. She will not like fashion; she will not wear dresses; she will not want children; she will not cook or clean or shop. She will, instead, be hard and beautiful and broken and, in the vast majority of cases, emotionally vulnerable, unsettled by her love for a man (or possibly two men) with whom, for various reasons, a traditional life is impossible. That’s a key word, impossible, because it points to a redaction of choice. Always, Broken Birds are sculpted by fate and damage: they can’t have normal lives or be like other women, they can’t can’t can’t – so loudly and so frequently that the question of want becomes buried. Broken Birds have trouble wanting. They’ve been burned so many times that they don’t (can’t) know their own desires; they don’t (can’t) know what’s possible in terms of their own happiness, except in the immediate short-term. But it’s this very confusion which frees them up for complicated, uncertain – but undeniably passionate – relationships, and for being rescued, over and over again, by white knights: men who, in a weirdly Freudian twist, quite closely resemble their hardboiled, femme fatale-redeeming fathers.

Does this make them inherently bad characters, or mean that they can’t be strong women? On both counts, no – but as an archetype that seems only to be growing in popularity and whose appeal is often taken at face value, I am much more uncomfortable with the idea of not asking these questions than with poking the trope and seeing what it means.

Footnote: I have, of late, become extremely leery of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ – or rather, of the fact that trying to identify protagonists as such invariably means holding women to higher standards than we do men, because we’re more invested in their measuring up to our personal, feminist ideals. This bugs me, because while the goal of encouraging more and varied fictional ladies is one I endorse wholeheartedly, the risk of unconscious left-wing bias actually making things harder for the groups we mean to support – whether characters or writers – is very real, and something I think we’re blinding ourselves to. Which possibly negates this whole post, inasmuch as I’m talking almost exclusively about the gender-oriented problems inherent in a particular trope, but still: if equality and progress is what we ultimately want from our stories, then we really need to start unpicking male tropes at least as vociferously as we do female; not just in terms of how those characters interact with women, but in terms of the negative lessons they unconsciously impart to men. That includes Broken Birds – and the romanticising of damage – across all genders.

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

For anyone interested in generational change and culture, I reccomend this fascinating article on Generation Z. While I disagree with making broad generalisations about generational personality types, there’s something wonderful (and a little awe-making) about the prospect of seeing how these genuine digital natives grow up. It’s not just the presence of computers in school, but the omnipresent fluency with which they’re used, and from what age – totally different to my own experience, when the new technology was still novel and effectively tacked on, curriculum-wise, to the old standards. The idea of environmental awareness at a young age is similarly exciting, and an interesting social experiement in its own right: despite our love of self-analysis, has anyone ever sat down and marvelled at the fact that one generation of human beings can instill an ethical structure in their successors that they themselves don’t share to the same degree? That we are, in this sense, able to successfully transmit a do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do policy? How remarkable is that?

Reading the article, my other thought was on meta-analysis. In wondering how Gen Z will evolve, the writer considered a wealth of factors – the economy, environment, politics, materialism, parenting, schools, technology and so on – but not the impact of public generational commentary. By which I mean: now more than at any other time, there is a wealth of visible media speculation on the nature of Gen Z compared to their predecessors, how they’ll turn out, what they’ll achieve, and given the very fact that Gen Z is so well-informed and socially literate, it seems impossible that they not notice this, and react. In this sense, the experiment of vocal social analysis is not a double blind: there is nothing to separate the speculation of the observers from influencing the behaviour of their subjects. And given how much hope is currently being invested in Gen Z – can they stop global warming? reduce carbon emissions? build a sustainable future? – I’ve got to wonder: will these visible expectations ultimately prove positive, or detrimental?