Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

The last few weeks or so, I’ve seen the same video endlessly going around on Facebook: a snippet of an interview with Simon Sinek, who lays out what he believes to be the key problems with millennials in the workplace. Every time I see it shared, my blood pressure rises slightly, until today – joy of joys! – I finally saw and shared a piece rebutting it. As often happens on Facebook, a friend asked me why I disagreed with Sinek’s piece, as he’d enjoyed his TED talks. This is my response.

In his talk, Sinek touches on what he believes to be the four core issues handicapping millennials: internet addiction, bad parenting, an unfulfilled desire for meaningful work and a desire to have everything instantly. Now: demonstrably, some people are products of bad parenting, and the pernicious, lingering consequences of helicopter parenting, wherein overzealous, overprotective adults so rob their children of autonomy and instil in them such a fear of failure that they can’t healthily function as adults, is a very real phenomenon. Specifically in reference to Sinek’s claims about millennials all getting participation awards in school (which, ugh: not all of us fucking did, I don’t know a single person for whom that’s true, shut up with this goddamn trope), the psychological impact of praising children equally regardless of their actual achievements, such that they come to view all praise as meaningless and lose self-confidence as a result, is a well-documented phenomenon. But the idea that you can successfully accuse an entire global generation of suffering from the same hang-ups as a result of the same bad parenting stratagems, such that all millennials can be reasonably assumed to have this problem? That, right there, is some Grade-A bullshit.

Bad parenting isn’t a new thing. Plenty of baby boomers and members of older generations have been impacted by the various terrible fads and era-accepted practises their own parents fell prey to (like trying to electrocute the gay out of teenagers, for fucking instance), but while that might be a salient point to make in individual cases or in the specific context of tracking said parenting fads, it doesn’t actually set millennials apart in any meaningful way. Helicopter parenting might be comparatively new, but other forms of damage are not, and to act as though we’re the only generation to have ever dealt with the handicap of bad parenting, whether collectively or individually, is fucking absurd. But more to the point, the very specific phenomenon of helicopter parenting? Is, overwhelmingly, a product of white, well-off, middle- and-upper-class America, developed specifically in response to educational environments where standardised testing rules all futures and there isn’t really a viable social safety net if you fuck up, which leads to increased anxiety for children and parents both. While it undeniably appears in other countries and local contexts, and while it’s still a thing that happens to kids now, trying to erase its origins does no favours to anyone.

Similarly, the idea that millennials have all been ruined by the internet and don’t know how to have patience because we grew up with smartphones and social media is – you guessed it – bullshit. This is really a two-pronged point, tying into two of Sinek’s arguments: that we’re internet addicts who don’t know how to socialise properly, and that we’re obsessed with instant gratification, and as such, I’m going to address them together.

Yes, internet addiction is a problem for some, but it’s crucial to note it can and does affect people of all ages rather than being a millennial-only issue, just as it’s equally salient to point out that millennials aren’t the only ones using smartphones. I shouldn’t have to make such an obvious qualification, but apparently, I fucking do. That being said, the real problem here is that Sinek has seemingly no awareness of what social media actually is. I mean, the key word is right there in the title: social media, and yet he’s acting like it involves no human interaction whatsoever – as though we’re just playing with digital robots or complete strangers all the time instead of texting our parents about dinner or FaceTiming with friends or building professional networks on Twitter or interacting with our readerships on AO3 (for instance).

The idea, too, that millennials have their own social conventions different to his own, many of which reference a rich culture of online narratives, memes, debates and communities, does not seem to have occurred to him, because we’re not learning to do it face to face. Except that, uh, we fucking are, on account of how we still inhabit physical bodies and go to physical places every fucking day of our goddamn lives, do I really have to explain that this is a thing? Do I really have to explain the appeal of maintaining friendships where you’re emotionally close but the person lives hundreds or thousands of kilometres away? Do I really have to spell out the fact that proximal connections aren’t always meaningful ones, and that it actually makes a great deal of human sense to want to socialise with people we care about and who share our interests where possible rather than relying solely on the random admixture of people who share our schools and workplaces for fun?

The fact that Sinek talks blithely about how all millennials grew up with the internet and social media, as though those of us now in our fucking thirties don’t remember a time before home PCs were common (I first learned to type on an actual typewriter), is just ridiculous: Facebook started in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, tumblr in 2007 and Instagram in 2010. Meaning, most millennials – who, recall, were born between 1980 and 1995, which makes the youngest of us 21/22 and the eldest nearly forty – didn’t grow up with what is now considered social media throughout our teenage years, as Sinek asserts, because it didn’t really get started until we were out of high school. Before that, we had internet messageboards that were as likely to die overnight as to flourish, IRC chat, and the wild west of MSN forums, which was a whole different thing altogether. (Remember the joys of being hit on by adults as an underage teen in your first chatroom and realising only years later that those people were fucking paedophiles? Because I DO.)

And then he pulls out the big guns, talking about how we get a dopamine rush when we post about ourselves online, and how this is the same brain chemical responsible for addiction, and this is why young people are glued to their phones and civilisation is ending. Which, again, yes: dopamine does what he says it does, but that is some fucking misleading bullshit, Simon Says, and do you know why? Because you also get a goddamn dopamine rush from talking about yourself in real life, too, Jesus fucking Christ, the internet is not the culprit here, to say nothing of the fact that smartphones do more than one goddamn thing. Sinek lambasts the idea of using your phone in bed, for instance, but I doubt he holds a similar grudge against reading in bed, which – surprise! – is what quite a lot of us are doing when we have our phones out of an evening, whether in the form of blogs or books or essays. If I was using a paperback book or a physical Kindle rather than the Kindle app on my iPhone, would he give a fuck? I suspect not.

Likewise, I doubt he has any particular grudge against watching movies (or TED talks, for that matter) in bed, which phones can also be used for. Would he care if I brought in my Nintendo DS or any other handheld system to bed and caught a few Pokemon before lights out? Would he care if I played Scrabble with a physical board instead of using Words With Friends? Would he care if I used the phone as a phone to call my mother and say goodnight instead of checking her Facebook and maybe posting a link to something I know will make her laugh? I don’t know, but unless you view a smartphone as something that’s wholly disconnected from people – which, uh, is kind of the literal antithesis of what a smartphone is and does – I don’t honestly see how you can claim that they’re tools for disconnection. Again, yes: some people can get addicted or overuse their phones, but that is not a millennial-exclusive problem, and fuck you very much for suggesting it magically is Because Reasons.

And do not even get me started on the total fuckery of millennials being accustomed to instant gratification because of the internet. Never mind the fact that, once again, people of any age are equally likely to become accustomed to fast internet as a thing and to update their expectations accordingly – bitch, do you know how long it used to take to download music with Kazaa using a 56k modem? Do you know how long it still takes to download entire games, or patches for games, or – for that matter – drive through fucking peak-hour traffic to get to and from work, or negotiate your toddler into not screaming because he can’t have a third juicebox? Because – oh, yeah – remember that thing where millennials stopped being teenagers quite a fucking while ago, and a fair few of us are now parents ourselves? Yeah. Apparently our interpersonal skills aren’t so completely terrible as to prevent us all from finding spouses and partners and co-parents for our tiny, screaming offspring, and if Mr Sinek would like to argue that learning patience is incompatible with being a millennial, I would like to cordially invite him to listen to a video, on loop, of my nearly four-year-old saying, “Mummy, look! A lizard! Mummy, there’s a lizard! Come look!” and see what it does for his temperament. (We live in Brisbane, Australia. There are geckos everywhere.)

But what really pisses me off about Sinek’s millennial-blaming is the idea that we’re all willing to quit our jobs because we don’t find meaning in them. Listen to me, Simon Sinek. Listen to me closely. You are, once again, confusing the very particular context of middle-class, predominantly white Americans from affluent backgrounds – which is to say, the kind of people who can afford to fucking quit in this economy – for a universal phenomenon. Ignore the fact that the global economy collapsed in 2008 without ever fully recovering: Brexit just happened in the UK, Australia is run by a coalition of racist dickheads and you’ve just elected a talking Cheeto who’s hellbent on stripping away your very meagre social safety nets as his first order of business – oh, and none of us can afford to buy houses and we’re the first generation not to earn more than our predecessors in quite a while, university costs in the States are an actual goddamn crime and most of us can’t make a living wage or even get a job in the fields we trained in.

But yeah, sure: let’s talk about the wealthy few who can afford to quit their corporate jobs because they feel unfulfilled. What do they have to feel unhappy about, really? It’s not like they’re working for corporations whose idea of HR is to hire oblivious white dudes like you to figure out why their younger employees, working longer hours for less pay in tightly monitored environments that strip their individuality and hate on unions as a sin against capitalism, in a context where the glass ceiling and wage gaps remain a goddamn issue, in a first world country that still doesn’t have guaranteed maternity leave and where quite literally nobody working minimum wage can afford to pay rent, which is fucking terrifying to consider if you’re worried about being fired, aren’t fitting in. Nah, bro – must be the fucking internet’s fault.

Not that long ago, Gen X was the one getting pilloried as a bunch of ambitionless slackers who didn’t know the meaning of hard work, but time is linear and complaining about the failures of younger generations is a habit as old as humanity, so now it’s apparently our turn. Bottom line: there’s a huge fucking difference between saying “there’s value in turning your phone off sometimes” and “millennials don’t know how to people because TECHNOLOGY”, and until Simon Sinek knows what it is, I’m frankly not interested in whatever it is he thinks he has to say.

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

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

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Warning: major spoilers for the entire Captive Prince trilogy.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape, slavery, child abuse, paedophilia.

Late last year, a friend recommended I try the Captive Prince trilogy by C. S. Pacat, describing it as an excellent queer fantasy romance series. I made interested noises and then, somewhat typically, forgot about it until it cropped up again on my tumblr dash. I don’t know what alchemical combination of blogs I’m currently following to make this so, but thus far, everything I’ve ever read, watched or played on the basis of hearing about it through tumblr has been something I’ve loved, or at least enjoyed despite whatever criticisms I’ve made of it. That being so, and as it was my birthday that weekend, I shelled out for an ebook of the first volume, Captive Prince, and decided to give it a try before bed.

I stayed up until 5am to finish it, then read the next two volumes – Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising – in less than a day. They’re not long books, but length aside, I couldn’t put them down, and given how much I’ve recently struggled to stay immersed in any story long enough to finish it, that’s saying something. The series is, as advertised, a queer fantasy romance, but while it’s certainly SFF, it counts as fantasy only inasmuch as it’s set in an original secondary world – there’s no magic or mythical creatures, with the focus instead resting on romance and politics.

These are not, by a long shot, perfect books; in fact, they contain a great many elements I traditionally despise, and which would ordinarily cause me to run a mile in the opposite direction. Which is, in part, why I’ve spent the past three months drafting this review: to get my head around exactly how and why I enjoyed them anyway. Because I did enjoy them, for all that I’m about to launch into a lengthy, detailed criticism of their failings, and as easy as it would be to simply write them off as a guilty pleasure, I feel like they deserve more than that.

Here’s the blurb for Captive Prince, the first volume:

Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the truthful heir to the throne of Akielos, but when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.

Beautiful, manipulative and deadly, his new master Prince Laurent epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is as it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.

For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone else…

Straight away, then, it needs to be acknowledged: this is a world in which slavery, and especially sexual slavery, is normative, and where the primary romance is between a character who, at the outset, is enslaved by the other. Also salient is the issue of race: Laurent is white, while Damen, who’s described as being olive-skinned and dark-haired, is not. Those are going to be hard limits for some people, and with good reason. It’s not something I want to minimise or elide. As I recently had cause to say elsewhere, the fact that I can discuss these elements at a remove is a consequence of privilege: that I enjoyed – or was, rather, able to enjoy – the books otherwise is both personally disquieting and a concession I’d never expect of anyone else.

That being so, it’s also relevant – to me, at least – that Captive Prince was first published online, as an ongoing original  fanfic/slash story, with the first two volumes serialised between 2008 and 2012: by contrast, the content of Kings Rising, which only came out this year, is entirely new. Online, there’s an explicit culture of tagging and author/reader interaction in digital slash circles, both for fanfic and original works, that serves to contextualise which elements of a story are intended for reader critique, and which are explicitly included as a deliberate kink. It’s why, I’ve discovered, there are tropes and stories I’m happy to read in fanfic that I’ll baulk at elsewhere, and nor am I the only person of whom that’s true. It makes a significant difference to know that the author knows that a particular trope or exchange is problematic, and is writing it that way on purpose, as an exploration of flawed humanity or as a dead dove indulgence, instead of having to wonder if they genuinely think it’s okay.

Thus: while I’ve clearly come late to the party and didn’t see the original discussions surrounding, in particular, the early chapters of Pacat’s work, when they were first posted online, the fact that this engagement took place at all – that the story was written in expectation of such engagement – seems relevant to analysing it now. Master/slave romances are a longstanding staple of both erotica and slash, and while that fact doesn’t magically exempt them from criticism either in terms of individual execution or as a discreet phenomenon, it does situate the device itself as, well – a device, one Pacat recognises as such, and which she likely discussed with readers when the story first went up; a discussion to which I have no access, but which nonetheless impacted how and why the story was told as it was.

Here is the thing I struggle with about erotica/romance: the fact that something is explicitly written as a sexual fantasy doesn’t exempt it from criticism, but nor is a reader who enjoys such fantasies automatically wrong to read them uncritically. The act of writing is always an act of fantasy, of construction, but sexual fantasies, by their very nature, occupy a uniquely personal space. It is quite possible to compartmentalise what one finds acceptable in normal life versus what one finds arousing in fantasy, as fiction, within a controlled narrative space; and yet it’s also possible to confuse the two on both ends, to assume that privately desiring a thing excuses its uncritical replication, or to trust that such uncritical replication means there’s nothing to criticise in the first place. Our kinks are our own, but to a large extent, they’re also socially influenced, and as such, the primacy of particular narratives, uncritically viewed and ubiquitous, can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The issue becomes further muddled if we attempt to draw that salient distinction between sex and romance, particularly in the context of their interrelated tropes. Sexual fantasies are not the same as romantic fantasies, though there may be some overlap. Speaking personally – which, on the ultimate Your Mileage May Vary topic, is really all I can do – I have a deep mistrust of erotica whose romance elements are meant to be inferred from the hotness of the pornography alone, particularly in instances where the sexual fantasy elements either negate or raise serious questions about the healthiness of the corresponding emotional relationship. Which is where we run into something of a unique, arguably moral but certainly critical, conundrum: how, exactly, does one negotiate the intersection of kink with criticism?

On the one hand, it can’t be denied that the idea of sexual slavery is, for many, an arousing fantasy; and more, that their enjoyment of the concept in fiction isn’t contingent on it being portrayed exclusively as a meta-fantasy of the characters. By which I mean: however abhorrent one might find the concept of sexual slavery in real life, such that physically indulging in such play would (one hopes) take place only under the pre-negotiated auspices of safe, sane and consensual or RACK, the very fact of knowing that a story is fictional, and therefore a fantasy constructed for the reader, can void the need for the characters to engage in similar negotiations. Consent is therefore established, not between the protagonists, but between the reader and the work itself: instead of safewording, all we need do is set the book aside, the characters undamaged by virtue of being imaginary. That being so, a story doesn’t need to internally establish the immorality of slavery, sexual or otherwise, in order to scratch the itch of an otherwise deeply consent-oriented kink.

On the other hand, and regardless of whether the presence of slavery is either intended or able to satisfy a kink, we are not wrong to critique it, and especially not when its inclusion is narratively unexamined. Slavery still exists, both sexually and otherwise; its victims are myriad, their stories appalling. Its impact on histories both individual and collective is staggering, indelible, undeniable and ongoing, and even without any personal experience of or connection to such suffering, we have every right to be horrified by narratives or characters which do not unequivocally denounce it, or which feature it at all, for that matter.

Likewise in this instance, given the historical intersection of racism with both slavery and pornography (both straight and queer), it’s impossible to argue that race simply doesn’t matter, or insist that the characters be judged wholly on the basis of the setting. Calling a mandingo portrayal a kink instead of a trope (for instance) doesn’t make it any less racist – but then, the intersection of racism with fandom is something we, meaning white fans, are still notoriously bad at navigating. The “don’t like, don’t read” culture of fanwriting, which is frequently cited as grounds for critical exemption, is a case in point. While fair enough in theory – fans are, after all, working for free, for pleasure – this doesn’t change the fact that the persistent elision of POC characters, coupled with the joint problems of authorial stereotyping and reader pushback when they do appear, can make a space that otherwise prides itself on its inclusiveness both hostile and alienating to fans of colour, who are then further criticised for violating fan etiquette when they react. As ever, it’s a problem of wider social problems converging in fanspace: fanwriters didn’t create racism, but we can certainly bring it with us, and as Captive Prince began in fanfic communities, it’s certainly a relevant aspect of the discussion.

And then, on that perennially metaphoric third hand, there’s the issue of critical narrative immersion: the decision to accept that slavery is part of the worldbuilding, and to separate our judgement of its objective immorality from our judgement of how skilfully (or not) the world and its characters are constructed, and how they work on their own terms. This is a tricky thing to do, inasmuch as it involves embracing a deliberate form of cognitive dissonance: the parallel rendering of two disparate opinions on the same subject, both accepted, yet never quite reconciled. It’s this third path I find myself taking with the Captive Prince trilogy, further contextualised by my awareness of the other two options. Doubtless, there are some who’ll perceive me as drastically overthinking things, while others might assert that I’m thinking too little, or from the wrong perspective. That being so, the best I can attempt is honesty, both emotional and intellectual: to show my working where possible, and to admit the lack of it otherwise.

Here, then, is the short version of my opinion, by way of prefacing the longer one: Pacat is an excellent writer, one whose style and depth both demonstrably improve as the series progresses. That the first book was written online, in the context of fanfiction and that community’s discussion of both kink and sexuality is, as mentioned, salient in examining its portrayal of sexual slavery, particularly in comparison to the third. The abiding impression I have – or instinct, rather – is that, having used the concept of sexual slavery as a kinky premise for a story being updated live, the setup meant as an excuse for Damen to be deposed and enslaved by his half-brother rather than as a nuanced exploration of culture, Pacat was unable to go back and change things once the story took off. This potentially explains why the first book treats sexual slavery as a normative, largely unexamined central focus; why the second moves almost completely away from slavery without ever really addressing it; and why the third attempts, albeit tentatively, to acknowledge it as wrong without ever really probing its initial acceptance and the implications thereof.

All this being so, and with the best will in the world, it’s clear that Pacat is writing from a position of unexamined white privilege. Even if her initial introduction of sexual slavery was meant wholly as a kinky plot device, its wider implications for Damen’s history unconsidered at the outset, there is no such excuse (if we can call it that) for blithely assuming that the image of a brown-skinned man in chained service to a white man would be narratively neutral. That Damen’s race is never considered salient to his slavery within the story doesn’t change what it evokes to the reader.

Or rather, what it can evoke: from my perspective, Damen’s race feels like an unacknowledged elephant in the room of the Captive Prince fandom. I’ve seen it mentioned as a problem online exactly once, while a staggering amount of fanart involves Damen in chains, cuffs and collar. That he wears all these things at one time or another doesn’t change the fact that replicating them in fanart – emphasising them above other options – is a choice, and one made fairly consistently. That Laurent whips Damen nearly to death in the first book, resulting in permanent scarring, likewise invokes a very specific, very ugly history; as do the times when Damen is referred to as a barbarian, cur or savage. That these insults are delivered exclusively in relation to his culture and warrior-status rather than his race doesn’t change their potential, awful resonance for readers to whom these are all deeply personal, lived insults, nor does it justify their inclusion Because Worldbuilding. No matter how perfectly explained and narratively consistent the internal logic of a setting – no matter how many in-book justifications exist to try and soften the parallels – we all, creators and readers both, bring our world and its history with us. That is inescapable.

Paradoxically, it’s Pacat’s utter obliviousness on this front – and, as a consequence, the obliviousness of the narrative – which made it tolerable for me. (Which isn’t, I hasten to add, the same as defensible; see above re: parallel judgements.) If Damen was insulted on the basis of his skin colour or ethnicity, I suspect I would’ve flung my Kindle at the wall; instead, he’s slandered on the basis of being Akelion, with his countrymen casting identical slurs at the Veretians. The comparison of these countries is an interesting one: Akielos is heavily based on ancient Greece, while Vere is more reminiscent of a decadent, pre-revolutionary France, though in this setting, both nations were originally part of a single empire and exist now at an identical technological level. As such, while Damen’s colouring is less common in Vere and Laurent’s less common in Akielos, there’s enough of a shared heritage that Damen isn’t exoticised for his looks. In fact, it’s Laurent who’s more often fetishised on this count, regardless of the observer’s nationality.

That being said, things turn murky again on re-examining the issue of slavery. Like ancient Greece, Akielos is a slave culture, and at the start of the first book, our assumption is that the same is true of Vere. In fact, from Damen’s introductory perspective, Vere’s version of slavery is far more horrifying in its abuses than anything practised in Akielos, and as such, we’re inclined to sympathise with his outrage (which is, note, a different thing to agreeing with his corresponding defence of his homeland’s practices). The problem is that Damen is, in this respect, an unreliable narrator – not intentionally, but by virtue of cultural ignorance. The story is premised on the deposed, imprisoned Damen, along with a contingent of trained slaves, being sent as a gift to Laurent’s uncle, the Regent of Vere; this makes slavery seem normal in Vere, as does the presence of ‘pets’ kept by the nobility for sexual use.

Not unreasonably, Damen assumes the pets are slaves, and so, in turn, does the reader. It’s only later that we discover this isn’t true: pets are more akin to courtesans, occupying contractual, paid positions. With this information in hand, the opening scenes in Vere – which are, to say the least, both violent and debauched – are cast in, if not a redeeming light, then one in which consent isn’t quite so thoroughly disregarded. Damen and the other slaves are still vilely mistreated, but given the slow reveal of the Regent’s particular monstrousness, it’s not initially clear that this abuse is ultimately the Regent’s doing alone, rather than constituting a widespread cultural practice.

As such, once it becomes clear that Vere is not, in fact, a slave culture, our perception of Damen’s outrage – and of him – is necessarily forced to shift. From the outset, we know that he’s slept with slaves before, and that slaves are prized, treated gently, and praised for their submission in Akielos. Indeed, it’s the abuse of this submissiveness that rouses Damen’s ire, to the point where he intercedes with Laurent to have the other slaves gifted to an ambassador from neighbouring Patras, who knows enough of their training and value to treat them kindly. The slaves themselves – or one in particular, Erasmus, whom we take as being a spokesman for the others – are grateful for this opportunity; the question of freeing them is never raised. Which is where, once again, we run up against the intersection of kink and criticism: the ‘submissiveness’ in question is described in ways that make it feel highly reminiscent of BDSM, with submission offered as part of a reciprocal relationship involving a duty of care, both emotionally and physically, on the master’s behalf. Erasmus’s new master, for instance, is outraged by his rape in Vere, expressing a heartfelt refusal to sleep with him until or unless the other man is ready.

And yet, for all that we’re meant to be thinking of BDSM – for all that masters under the Akielios/Patras system care greatly about the wellbeing of their slaves – this is still an arrangement without consent. Slaves are taken as captives and trained; the practice is a legitimate source of anger in Vere, whose people suffer in border raids. Damen, raised to view this type of slavery as normative, sees nothing wrong with it, and as this seemingly ‘gentler’ alternative is being contrasted with the violent environs of Vere, the narrative doesn’t encourage us to question his assessment. But Vere, despite the depravity of its Regent, is not a slave culture; Akielos is. Yet even in his captivity, Damen doesn’t engage in any real reflection on the wrongness of of slavery (though Laurent makes some pointed remarks about it before then) until Kings Rising; at which point, now freed and fighting to reclaim his country, he eventually pledges to end the whole institution.

Obviously, this is a positive development, for all that it feels like too little, too late; and yet I can’t help thinking that, once again, the problem lies with Pacat’s inability to edit those early chapters. The first book, Captive Prince, treats sexual slavery as an uncritically examined kink/conceit in a way that the subsequent two volumes do not, but on which their events are nonetheless based. This forces Pacat to walk a very thin line in expanding on her own, unalterable canon: to address slavery as an evil – and to acknowledge the past abuses of the protagonists – without presenting them as wholly irredeemable, at least within the context of her world. That she manages this is a testament to her skill as a writer; nonetheless, I’d be remiss not to point out that the problem is one of her own making. Or, looked at another way, a problem of success: had the stories remained online, contextualised by fanfic’s tagging and commentary system – or had they been less popular, such that editing might have passed unnoticed prior to mainstream publication – my reaction might well have been different. At the very least, it might have been easier to distinguish intention from accident.

As if further complications were required, there’s also Laurent’s early treatment of Damen to consider. At base, the Captive Prince trilogy is an enemies to friends to lovers narrative, with each book representing one of those three stages. However unexamined the wider issues of slavery and consent raised by Pacat’s cultures and worldbuilding might be, it works in the series’ favour that there’s no introduction of romance between Laurent and Damen until the two are eventually placed on an equal footing. And yet – again – the offences of the first book cast a long shadow: in particular, three early offences that set the tone for Damen’s early hatred of Laurent. Namely: Damen is badly whipped at his instruction; is forced to engage in a fight where, if he loses, he’ll be raped by the winner (which involves him being prepped for penetrative sex beforehand); and is given oral sex by a pet, with Laurent instructing said pet on what to do.

Definitionally, these latter two acts – the prep and the oral sex – are forms of rape, but the narrative never acknowledges them as such. Damen wins the rape-fight by knocking out his opponent, and therefore escapes having to either rape or be raped, but that doesn’t change what was done to him beforehand, even if it never comes up again. Similarly, in the instant with the pet – which is orchestrated by people other than Laurent, whose complicity is politically forced – although Damen is initially unwilling and unaroused,  Laurent’s instruction results in his physical enjoyment of the act. While the two later discuss this event, it’s never described as a violation; which, on the one hand, is Damen’s prerogative, and as we’re in his perspective, we’re clear on his lack of trauma. If such a scene were present in a fanfic, I’d expect it to be tagged for dubcon – and perhaps, as per the story’s initial serialisation, it was. It’s exactly the sort of scene I can imagine being written for erotic value, as an explicit kink/fantasy, but as stated earlier, the ambiguity on this point, absent any authorial footnoting, is a source of personal unease. The whipping, however, has a different derivation, and is, somewhat strangely, situated within the narrative as being the most forgiveable of these actions despite being the most violent.

There are three major contextualising reasons for this.

Context the first, which constitutes a major reveal of the final book: that Laurent has known all along that Damen is Damianos, the man who killed his brother Auguste six years ago, ending a war that resulted in Akelios annexing a northern Veretian province, the death of Laurent’s father, the king, and the ascent of his uncle to the regency. Context the second, which a canny reader can intuit from various, increasingly obvious clues from the first book onwards, but which isn’t explicitly confirmed until the third: that Laurent’s uncle, a paedophile, abused him for years after his brother’s death – was able to do so without any threat of discovery or oversight precisely because Auguste was dead, and Laurent was left alone. And context the third, which leads directly to the whipping: after the rape-fight, whose conclusion involves Damen being propositioned by an underage boy, Nicaise (who we later learn is the uncle’s pet), Damen and Laurent have the following exchange:

“So my slave is bashful in the arena. Don’t you fuck boys in Akielos?”

“I’m quite cultured. Before I rape anyone, I first check to see if their voice has broken,” said Damen.

Laurent smiled.

This conversation happens in a bathing room, where Damen is shortly instructed to wash Laurent – not with any sexual overtones, but as a servile chore. Nonetheless, Damen becomes aroused, and when Laurent notices, this happens:

“Don’t be presumptuous,” said Laurent, coldly.

“Too late, sweetheart,” said Damen.

Laurent turned, and with calm precision unleashed a backhanded blow that had easily enough force to bloody a mouth, but Damen had had quite enough of being hit, and he caught Laurent’s hand before the blow connected…

Damen let his gaze wander downwards – wet from chest to taut abdomen – and further. It was really a very, very nice body, but the cold outrage was genuine. Laurent was not even a little amorous, Damen noted; that part of him, quite as sweetly made as the rest, was quiescent.

He felt the tension hit Laurent’s body, though the tone didn’t change overmuch from its usual drawl. “But my voice has broken. That was the only prerequisite, wasn’t it?”

Damen released his grip, as though burned. A moment later, the blow he had thwarted landed, harder than he could have imagined, smashing across his mouth.

Get him out of here,” said Laurent.

From Damen’s perspective – which is to say, the only perspective we’re given – Laurent is capricious, violent and cold: the kind of person who’ll whip a slave bloody for a minor infraction, or enter him in a rape-or-be-raped fight against a violent opponent for fun. He doesn’t introspect about Laurent’s motives, because he doesn’t need to: he only needs to hate him and survive.

From Laurent’s perspective, however, things are rather more complex. His abuser, who is currently engaged in a labyrinthine effort to see him discredited, dead or preferably both before he can take the throne in his own right, has just handed him the man he hates most in the world as a slave and publicly ordered him not to kill or harm him, such that any disobedience will see Laurent suffer. Trying to get around this injunction, Laurent pits Damen in the only kind of fight that won’t violate his uncle’s command – because it’s his uncle who encourages the rape-fights, though usually between willing pets – against one of his uncle’s men, who Damen subsequently defeats.When they then discuss this fight, Damen makes a joke about his own willingness to rape, which Laurent, a rape victim, construes – not unreasonably – as a threat. He reacts accordingly.

And it’s here, at the crux of this context, that we find the real reason I stuck with Captive Prince despite its rape-fixation – a device I find nominally abominable – and other problematic elements: the psychology. The steady reveal of Laurent’s motives and characterisation – accompanied, of necessity, by the similar reveal of his uncle’s monstrousness- is one of the most wrenching portrayals of abuse and gaslighting that I’ve ever seen. Damen and Laurent are both deeply flawed characters, and Pacat, in writing them, is aware of this. The point of their eventual romance isn’t to prove that either man was ever perfect, or to suggest that perfection is a retroactively bestowable state, but to engage with the psychological and emotional complexities their relationship presents, unpicking the reasons for their initial, mutual antipathy.

The fact that Laurent’s abuse remains opaque to Damen for much of the trilogy while becoming increasingly clear to the reader is a neat trick of characterisation and writing both. It simply never occurs to Damen, whose blind trust in the goodness of family is why his half-brother, Kastor, was able to capture and enslave him in the first place, as a possibility. For the same reason, Damen doesn’t understand the combination of tolerance, kindness and brutal honesty with which Laurent treats his uncle’s pets. When Damen rejects Nicaise, for instance, Nicaise becomes hostile to him; dangerously so. When Laurent appears both lenient with Nicase’s actions while criticising his person, it confirms Damen’s belief in Laurent’s cruelty; yet Laurent, in these moments, is speaking from awful experience, his words as cutting to himself as to Nicaise, though only he knows it:

“Do you take wine, or aren’t you old enough yet?”

“I’m thirteen. I drink whenever I like.” Nicaise scorned the tray, pushing at it so hard it almost overbalanced. “I’m not going to drink with you. We don’t need to start pretending politeness.”

“Don’t we? Very well: I think it is fourteen by now, isn’t it?”

Nicaise turned red, under the paint.

“I thought so,” said Laurent. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do, after? If I know your master’s tastes, you have another year, at most. At your age, the body begins to betray itself.” And then, reacting to something in the boy’s face, “Or has it started already?”

The red grew strident. “That isn’t any of your business.

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Laurent.

Nicaise opened his mouth, but Laurent continued before he could speak.

“I’ll offer for you, if you like. When the time comes. I wouldn’t want you in my bed, but you’d have all the same privileges. You might prefer that. I’d offer.”

Nicaise blinked, and then sneered. “With what?”

A breath of amusement from Laurent…

“I don’t need you. He’s promised. He’s not going to give me up.” Nicaise’s voice was smug and self-satisfied.

“He gives them all up,” said Laurent, “even if you’re more enterprising than the others have been.”

“He likes me better than the others.” A scornful laugh. “You’re jealous.” And then it was Nicaise’s turn to react to something he saw in Laurent’s face, and he said, with a horror Damen didn’t understand, “You’re going to tell him you want me.

“Oh,” said Laurent. “No. Nicaise… no. That would wreck you. I wouldn’t do that.” Then his voice became almost tired. “Maybe it’s better if you think I would. You have quite a good mind for strategy, to have thought of that. Maybe you will hold him longer than the others.” For a moment it seemed as if Laurent would say something else, but in the end he just stood up from the bench and held his hand out to the boy. “Come on. Let’s go. You can watch me get told off by my uncle.”

Reading this scene the first time, it’s easy think that Laurent’s perception of Nicaise is jaded, unconcerned – especially as the reader, like Damen, is still new enough to the fact of Nicaise’s status to be horrified by it. Nor does that final line carry the same resonance as it does on a reread, as the revelation of the Regent’s paedophilia is yet to be made. Knowing what comes later, however, many such early exchanges are rendered chilling. More than once, the Regent criticises Laurent for being “childish“, repeatedly belittling him as someone unfocused, selfish, disloyal. That he still rebukes him like a child is an early warning sign, yet similarly easy to miss on a first pass:

The Regent’s expression changed. “I see you can’t be talked to. I won’t indulge your current mood. Petulance is ugly in a child and worse in a man. If you break your toys, it is no one’s fault but your own.”…

“I heard you killed your horse.” [said Damen]

“It’s just a horse,” said Laurent. “I’ll have my uncle buy me a new one.”

These words seemed savagely to amuse him; there was a jagged, private edge to his voice.

The reveal, when it comes, is a suckerpunch precisely because it’s been so long in building: we know that the Regent is trying to outmanoeuvre Laurent, but not what the history is between them. And then, having backed Laurent into a political corner – enabled, in part, by Laurent’s decision to protect Damen, who just saved his life – in full view of the court, this happens:

“There. It is done. Come,” said the Regent to Laurent, extending his right hand…

Laurent came forward, and knelt before him gracefully, a single kneecap to the floor.

“Kiss,” said the Regent, and Laurent lowered his head in obedience to kiss his uncle’s signet ring…

After a moment, Damen saw the Regent’s hand lift again to rest in Laurent’s hair and stroke it with slow, familiar affection. Laurent remained quite still, head bowed, as strands of fine gold were pushed back from his face by the Regent’s heavy, ringed fingers.

“Laurent. Why must you always defy me? I hate it when we are at odds, yet you force me to chastise you. You seem determined to wreck everything in your path. Blessed with gifts, you squander them. Given opportunities, you waste them. I hate to see you grown up like this,” said the Regent, “when you were such a lovely boy.”

In this moment, Laurent is utterly alone; is revealed to have been alone ever since Damen killed his brother and protector. This doesn’t excuse his mistreatment of Damen, but it does contextualise his rage, and as a reader, there’s something powerfully compelling about telling an abuse survivor’s narrative this way: as a trauma whose consequences, even when witnessed by others, are frequently misunderstood by them. Laurent’s soldiers repeatedly describe him as “frigid“, referring to the fact that he never takes lovers; like Damen, they assume he’s emotionally cold, not that he’s protecting himself. Throughout Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising, during their scattering of emotionally and/or sexually intimate moments, Damen frequently reflects on the odd gaps in Laurent’s knowledge without ever realising their cause. Or rather, he knows part of the cause – that Laurent, in every aspect of his life, is someone who wants to remain in control, while physical intimacy requires both trust and negotiation – but not the base reason why. It’s an exquisitely consistent piece of characterisation, and one that Pacat writes with absolute believability.

That Pacat is able to take the hostile dynamic between Damen and Laurent presented in the first book and make anything legitimately romantic of it, let alone something quite affectingly so – even to a reader both conscious of her elisions and critical of the premise – is nothing short of astonishing. Though Damen notes Laurent’s physical charms in Captive Prince, there’s no hint of romance or genuine attraction between them until the power imbalance is addressed in Prince’s Gambit, and the two begin to engage in something approaching equality, with no consummation until the two are on an even footing. This is a vital point: whatever blunders Pacat makes with regard to slavery and despite her racefail, she is scrupulous in acknowledging the pitfalls of a power imbalance on a nascent romance.

At the same time, her skill in this respect also serves to cast her failures into stark relief. Returning to the issue of Akeilos being a slave culture while Vere, despite its initial appearances, is not, we’re put in the unfortunate position of reading a narrative in which our primary slave character is a man of colour, with slavery as an institution is predominantly enforced by his own (mostly POC) nation. Particularly given the later reveal – again, in Kings Rising – that Laurent is a secret abolitionist, something which had hitherto only been hinted at, there’s a jarring dissonance in the realisation that Damen, an enslaved character, has been more accepting of slavery throughout the books than his putative (white) master. Which… yeah. To use a technical term, that is super fucked up.

And yet (and yet), for all the series fails to examine slavery as an institution, there’s a very real examination of power imbalances, abuse and self-perception. Even when legally and physically enslaved, Damen always considers himself a prince: he never adopts a servile mindset, nor does he ever become, in the emotional sense, a victim, remaining instead a warrior in enemy territory. After the regent makes a failed attempt on Laurent’s life at the end of Captive Prince,  Damen and Laurent are forced into an uneasy alliance: Damen will try to keep Laurent alive in order to prevent a bloody, pointless war between Akielos and Vere, and by the start of Prince’s Gambit, though still technically a slave, Damen is no longer subject to the powerless indignities of the first book, but is treated in all important respects as a soldier and advisor. His servility thus becomes more theoretical than practical, and though he ultimately emerges as someone distressed by and opposed to slavery, the experience doesn’t touch his fundamental confidence.

Whereas Laurent, by contrast, has spent the years since his brother’s death effectively fighting a rearguard action, trying desperately to protect himself from his uncle without any friends or allies. Though perceived as cold and calculating, his position has been a source of fear, not confidence – fear of abuse, of abandonment, of murder. The more Laurent comes to trust Damen, the more his confidence in his own judgement unravels: he can’t believe he’ll be treated kindly, let alone find pleasure in anything they might do, which leaves him more fundamentally vulnerable – both around Damen and otherwise – than Damen ever is, despite his ostensibly greater position of power.

Ultimately, the Captive Prince series is a deeply problematic but nonetheless highly compelling narrative: one in which both protagonists are intrinsically flawed, and where certain of their actions, both independently and towards each other, are morally reprehensible, regardless of whether the narrative always recognises this fact. And yet their characterisation, the contextualising politics and the underlying psychology of their interactions is deft enough to make them both sympathetic; to  transcend their horrific beginning in the service of a romance that is genuinely affecting. Or so it felt to me, at least – as ever, Your Mileage May Vary, and as stated at the outset, I’m not going to argue with anyone who finds the fundamental problems with the story too glaring or painful to like anything else about it.

 

Though the first book is the weakest of the trilogy, Pacat writes a superb long game, where successive revelations cause our  understanding of the characters and their situations to turn on a dime. She is also, in every technical respect, an extraordinary writer. Her prose has a lyrical, graceful economy that’s utterly enviable, her characterisation ripe with psychological nuance: the same story in lesser hands – the same devices in lesser hands – would have nowhere near the same effect. Indeed, I’m still slightly baffled by how much I enjoyed the books despite my criticisms, and yet whenever I open them, I fall right back into the story. For all their failings, I already know these are books I’m going to read again, and while I can’t recommend them without significant racefail caveats, their success – both in terms of fanwriters moving into the mainstream and as a prominent example of queer romance – is representative of the changes currently overtaking the genre.

I can only hope we continue to do better.

It starts like this: women are lesser. Not quite worthy, not fully equal to men. The ultimate justification for this varies, but always hinges on an inherent, inferior difference of the mind, body, soul, whether singly or in combination; feminine virtues, if they exist, are subordinate virtues. Individually, women are dangerous; collectively, they require protection. (Unless, of course, it’s the other way around.) And yet no society can do without them, if it means to continue: a necessary evil. Women cannot be wholly abrogated, and so must instead be taught the importance of serving men, which makes their labour a resource. (An almost Marxist impulse, this: controlling the means of production.) There is, of course, perversity in the execution; call it a type of glitch. Among such men, the ability to attract women is frequently more valued than the ability – or say rather, willingness – to support them once attached. Caveat emptor, then: women, attracted, are a resource; women, attached, a burden. (This is not unusual, in the scheme of things: by definition, a resource diminishes with use, and needs must be replenished.)

Social bonding, of course, has never been aimed purely at the opposite sex. Possession of resources confers status within a peer group, provided such possession is at least perceieved to exist, regardless of actuality. Possession unwitnessed or doubted confers no advantages, while attachment – as distinct from attraction – is a double-edged sword, on the grounds that it invokes the spectre of a different type of parity, a new set of priorities. Attachment in this system is the end-game of attraction, but cannot be universally acknowledged as such, lest it call its own rules into question. After all, if attachment is truly desireable – if women attached become, not burdens to men, but assets – then a pattern of serial attraction with no attachment speaks more of failure than skill. (Women are resources either way; the difference is in their treatment. Serial attachment, by contrast, is something else altogether: women might still be assets, but more in the sesnse of possession than helpmeet.)

Remember: women are not quite equal, which serves to see them differentiated, culturally and legally, from men. But women are also held to have a weakening effect on men: their foibles are potentially contagious, if men treat them laxly, with too great a degree of indulgence. As such, men cannot rest on their laurels, but must actively assert their difference to, and superiority over, women, lest complacency upend the applecart. More, they must be seen to thus assert themselves, such that their personhood becomes deeply vested in, not just a preference for masculinity, but the performance of it.

That being so, there’s no utility in attracting women by taking an interest in what they like, not least because such a concession implies that a supposedly passive resource in fact has an active preference to be courted. Feigned interest is an acceptable ploy to use, but only temporarily: genuine concern for unmasculine interests devalues your peer-personhood too much to be worth the risk, and anyway, if such things were objectively important or worthwhile, they wouldn’t be left to women. (In the event that something is done by both men and women, of course, the male contribution is always more important. Women who succeed in such arenas are to be congratulated for their emulation of value, but not allowed to mistake their lesser contribution for a greater one.)

The ability to attract women is therefore predicated on the successful performance of masculinity as graded by other men. As such, the system depends on women being, not just a resource, but one primarily controlled and apportioned by men – otherwise, they might value their own, inferior preferences ahead of more masculine priorities. A similar danger is therefore presented by men who, for whatever reason, refuse to support the hierarchy of giving the most resources to the most masculine men. Masculinity must self-police against such individuals, lest the whole house of cards collapse: a refusal to defer to the masculinity of others becomes a failure of masculinity in oneself, and therefore a failure of personhood. The apex of this failure – or nadir, rather – is for a man to be so unmasculine as to be like a woman. Under this system, there is no worse insult – even, somewhat paradoxically, for women themselves.

Of necessity, ferocious importance is thus attached to determining what is – or is not – masculine. It’s here we hit an interesting bifurcation as, regardless of any additional moral/spiritual failings, women are frequently held to be both the physically weaker and intellectually inferior sex, thereby presenting men with two different ways to show their masculine prowess. However, in deference to the need to establish a heierarchy of masculinity – and it must be a hierarchy, or else all men would be equally entitled to the same share of feminine resources, with no means of distinguishing their peer-superiority – these avenues are traditionally pitted against each other. The ascendency at any given time of strength over intellect, or intellect over strength, is based on a mix of history, environment and context: the habits of the past, the needs of the present, and the specifics of control. Overlap between the two groups, or at least a deep respect for those who excel in both skillsets, is usually reserved for instances where there’s an immediate practical benefit to cooperation; otherwise, the competition – both presently and historically – is fierce.

Where one type of masculinity is perceived to be in ascendence, such that its adherents are similarly perceived to hold the greater share of resources – which is to say, women – there is a corresponding tendency for the secondary masculinity to go on the defensive. After all, if attracting women is the ultimate proof of masculinity – representing, as it does, the deference of other men in handing those women over (or at least, not arguing their dispersal) – then a failure to attract women – or the attraction of fewer women, or women deemed less valuable – lays such men open to the charge of being unmasculine; or worse, of being like women themselves. As this system can levy no greater insult, a response must therefore be made.

A scarcity of women in a secondary masculine group is therefore framed, not as a lack of desireable resources, but as the absence of an unwanted burden. Women do not understand masculinity and male pursuits; ergo, seeking to attract them takes valuable time away from real male work, be it soldiering or science. If strength is in ascendency, women are stupid to seek it; if intelligence, they are weak to want it. This is why secondary male environments are often more hostile to women than those with greater (masculine) social power: their antagonism serves both to protect against accusations of effeminacy and to redefine the ability to attract women as a negative, the gateway to a destructive, feminizing influence. Should this logic eventually effect a change in the masculine hierarchy, the effect is not revolutionary, but is rather a slow reversal: the teams might change goalposts, as it were, but they’re still playing the same game.

This is patriarchal logic laid bare: a simple, biased premise serving as a foundation for greater, later abuses. If women cannot be fully trusted, either morally or with their own self-governance, then systems must be established for men to both use and control them. That we (mostly) decry this underpinning logic, especially when phrased so baldly, doesn’t change the fact that such patriarchal systems have long since become habit, a locked-in aspect of our cultural upbringing. Sometimes, we don’t even recognise them, let alone consider that they still have a negative impact despite our intentions or other social changes. Pushback against these systems, which are seen as normative, is therefore viewed by some, not as a step towards equality, but bias towards a group who – surely! – are equal enough already.

Equal enough. A paradox whose brevity speaks volumes.

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.

 

 

Q: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work? A: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though. – Andrew Smith

The idea that Andrew Smith’s daughter is the first girl he ever had in his life is a staggering lie. For one thing, he has a wife, and presumably has, or had, a mother; and for another, women are half the global population. They have been his classmates, colleagues, girlfriends, relatives, and while not all those relationships will have had the same degree of meaning to him – while his connection to his daughter might be the most important of all – the idea that he was functionally isolated from women before he up and fathered one is bullshit. What he’s saying isn’t that he never had a chance to bond with women, but rather that, until he had a daughter, he didn’t, and wow does that tie into some ugly rhetoric about male ownership of women being a trigger for their caring about our wellbeing. (The fact that we still pitch women’s rights to men by giving them the what if it was your mother/sister/daughter/wife speech, as though it’s completely unreasonable to expect them to care about us on our own merits, is a case in point.)

There is, to me, a casual kind of sexism, a sort of paterfamilias handwave, that comes of a man who’s lived with a wife and daughter for almost twenty years blithely admitting his total ignorance of their gender. Never mind that this is also a lie, unless Smith seriously wants to double down and claim that, yes, the women he loves most in the world are fundamentally alien to him; the problem is that he saw nothing wrong with pretending they were strangers.

I don’t think Smith meant to do this: I suspect, rather, that he was trying to acknowledge the implicit criticism in the question without actually engaging it, and ended up blundering into a much thornier problem by accident, rather like stepping into the path of oncoming traffic in order to skirt an open manhole, which you then stumble into anyway, but not before taking a couple of motorists with you. Having brothers is not what stops you learning about women. Maleness can be insular, the culture of masculinity rigidly maintained, but just the mere presence of men is not, by itself, a thing that negates the simultaneous presence of women. Smith was ignorant, not because he had brothers, but because a combination of cultural influence and inherent privilege conspired to tell him that women weren’t worth learning about, and by ignoring the distinction, he points the blame away from himself, and from the culture in which he was raised – both of which can be subject to critical analysis – and onto an objective fact over which he has no control, and which therefore seems impervious to criticism. I was raised with four brothers, therefore I couldn’t possibly know about women. QED.

I’m not angry because Smith gave a flippant answer to a serious question; I’m angry because he seemingly didn’t care enough to realise that’s what he’d done. Even if Smith’s daughter was the first real girl in his life, he’s had seventeen years to consider that she, and other girls like her, are unique individuals capable of sustaining narrative interest, and to realise that his ignorance on that front is unacceptable. Citing her birth and his brothers as part-reasons why he hasn’t already done so is, therefore, if you’ll pardon my French, a really fucking lazy way of saying the dog ate my homework. Tacking a ‘but I’m trying to be better though’ on the end of that mess without understanding that literally every word preceding the final sentence proves its necessity is just adding insult to injury, like you’re aware there’s a problem, but couldn’t be bothered to check if your answer was part of it. Here is what I feel for Andrew Smith, and other men like him, who end up in these situations: embarrassed. You’re a professional writer who expressed a thing so glibly, so naively and so poorly ina professional context that you’re now put in the unenviable position of having to explain, over and over, that you didn’t actually mean the words you wrote. Which leaves you with a choice: either own up to having produced an astonishingly bad piece of writing, inasmuch as it utterly failed to communicate your actual views on women, and try to address why this happened, or defend the quality and cop to the sexism.

It’s your call.

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