Posts Tagged ‘Fandom’

As social media platforms enter their collective adolescence – Facebook is fifteen, YouTube fourteen, Twitter thirteen, tumblr twelve – I find myself thinking about how little we really understand their cultural implications, both ongoing and for the future. At this point, the idea that being online is completely optional in modern world ought to be absurd, and yet multiple friends, having spoken to their therapists about the impact of digital abuse on their mental health, were told straight up to just stop using the internet. Even if this was a viable option for some, the idea that we can neatly sidestep the problem of bad behaviour in any non-utilitarian sphere by telling those impacted to simply quit is baffling at best and a tacit form of victim-blaming at worst. The internet might be a liminal space, but object permanence still applies to what happens here: the trolls don’t vanish if we close our eyes, and if we vanquish one digital hydra-domain for Toxicity Crimes without caring to fathom the whys and hows of what went wrong, we merely ensure that three more will spring up in its place.

Is the internet a private space, a government space or a public space? Yes.

Is it corporate, communal or unaffiliated? Yes.

Is it truly global or bound by local legal jurisdictions? Yes.

Does the internet reflect our culture or create it? Yes.

Is what people say on the internet reflective of their true beliefs, or is it a constant shell-game of digital personas, marketing ploys, intrusive thoughts, growth-in-progress, personal speculation and fictional exploration? Yes.

The problem with the internet is that takes up all three areas on a Venn diagram depicting the overlap between speech and action, and while this has always been the case, we’re only now admitting that it’s a bug as well as a feature. Human interaction cannot be usefully monitored using an algorithm, but our current conception of What The Internet Is has been engineered specifically to shortcut existing forms of human oversight, the better to maximise both accessibility (good to neutral) and profits (neutral to bad). Uber and Lyft are cheaper, frequently more convenient alternatives to a traditional taxi service, for instance, but that’s because the apps themselves are functionally predicated on the removal of meaningful customer service and worker protections that were hard-won elsewhere. Sites like tumblr are free to use, but the lack of revenue generated by those users means that, past a certain point, profits can only hope to outstrip expenses by selling access to those users and/or their account data, which means in turn that paying to effectively monitor their content creation becomes vastly less important than monetising it.

Small wonder, then, that individual users of social media platforms have learned to place a high premium on their ability to curate what they see, how they see it, and who sees them in turn. When I first started blogging, the largely unwritten rule of the blogsphere was that, while particular webforums dedicated to specific topics could have rules about content and conduct, blogs and their comment pages should be kept Free. Monitoring comments was viewed as a sign of narrow-minded fearfulness: even if a participant was aggressive or abusive, the enlightened path was to let them speak, because anything else was Censorship. This position held out for a good long while, until the collective frustration of everyone who’d been graphically threatened with rape, torture and death, bombarded with slurs, exhausted by sealioning or simply fed up with nitpicking and bad faith arguments finally boiled over.

Particularly in progressive circles, the relief people felt at being told that actually, we were under no moral obligation to let assholes grandstand in the comments or repeatedly explain basic concepts to only theoretically invested strangers was overwhelming. Instead, you could simply delete them, or block them, or maybe even mock them, if the offence or initial point of ignorance seemed silly enough. But as with the previous system, this one-size-fits-all approach soon developed a downside. Thanks to the burnout so many of us felt after literal years of trying to treat patiently with trolls playing Devil’s Advocate, liberal internet culture shifted sharply towards immediate shows of anger, derision and flippancy to anyone who asked a 101 question, or who didn’t use the right language, or who did anything other than immediately agree with whatever position was explained to them, however simply.

I don’t exempt myself from this criticism, but knowing why I was so goddamn tired doesn’t change my conviction that, cumulatively, the end result did more harm than good. Without wanting to sidetrack into a lengthy dissertation on digital activism in the post-aughties decade, it seems evident in hindsight that the then-fledgling alliance between trolls, MRAs, PUAs, Redditors and 4channers to deliberately exhaust left-wing goodwill via sealioning and bad faith arguments was only the first part of a two-pronged attack. The second part, when the left had lost all patience with explaining its own beliefs and was snappily telling anyone who asked about feminism, racism or anything else to just fucking Google it, was to swoop in and persuade the rebuffed party that we were all irrational, screeching harridans who didn’t want to answer because we knew our answers were bad, and why not consider reading Roosh V instead?

The fallout of this period, I would argue, is still ongoing. In an ideal world, drawing a link between online culture wars about ownership of SFF and geekdom and the rise of far-right fascist, xenophobic extremism should be a bow so long that not even Odysseus himself could draw it. But this world, as we’ve all had frequent cause to notice, is far from ideal at the best of times – which these are not – and yet another featurebug of the internet is the fluid interpermeability of its various spaces. We talk, for instance – as I am talking here – about social media as a discreet concept, as though platforms like Twitter or Facebook are functionally separate from the other sites to which their users link; as though there is no relationship between or bleed-through from the viral Facebook post screencapped and shared on BuzzFeed, which is then linked and commented upon on Reddit, which thread is then linked to on Twitter, where an entirely new conversation emerges and subsequently spawns an article in The Huffington Post, which is shared again on Facebook and the replies to that shared on tumblr, and so on like some grizzly perpetual mention machine.

But I digress. The point here is that internet culture is best understood as a pattern of ripples, each new iteration a reaction to the previous one, spreading out until it dissipates and a new shape takes its place. Having learned that slamming the virtual door in everyone’s face was a bad idea, the online left tried establishing a better, calmer means of communication; the flipside was a sudden increase in tone-policing, conversations in which presentation was vaunted over substance and where, once again, particular groups were singled out as needing to conform to the comfort-levels of others. Overlapping with this was the move towards discussing things as being problematic, rather than using more fixed and strident language to decry particular faults – an attempt to acknowledge the inherent fallibility of human works while still allowing for criticism. A sensible goal, surely, but once again, attempting to apply the dictum universally proved a double-edged sword: if everything is problematic, then how to distinguish grave offences from trifling ones? How can anyone enjoy anything if we’re always expected to thumb the rosary of its failings first?

When everything is problematic and everyone has the right to say so, being online as any sort of creator or celebrity is like being nibbled to death by ducks. The well-meaning promise of various organisations, public figures or storytellers to take criticism on board – to listen to the fanbase and do right by their desires – was always going to stumble over the problem of differing tastes. No group is a hivemind: what one person considers bad representation or in poor taste, another might find enlightening, while yet a third party is more concerned with something else entirely. Even in cases with a clear majority opinion, it’s physically impossible to please everyone and a type of folly to try, but that has yet to stop the collective internet from demanding it be so. Out of this comes a new type of ironic frustration: having once rejoiced in being allowed to simply block trolls or timewasters, we now cast judgement on those who block us in turn, viewing them, as we once were viewed, as being fearful of criticism.

Are we creating echo chambers by curating what we see online, or are we acting in pragmatic acknowledgement of the fact that we neither have time to read everything nor an obligation to see all perspectives as equally valid? Yes.

Even if we did have the time and ability to wade through everything, is the signal-to-noise ratio of truth to lies on the internet beyond our individual ability to successfully measure, such that outsourcing some of our judgement to trusted sources is fundamentally necessary, or should we be expected to think critically about everything we encounter, even if it’s only intended as entertainment? Yes.

If something or someone online acts in a way that’s antithetical to our values, are we allowed to tune them out thereafter, knowing full well that there’s a nearly infinite supply of as-yet undisappointing content and content-creators waiting to take their place, or are we obliged to acknowledge that Doing A Bad doesn’t necessarily ruin a person forever? Yes.

And thus we come to cancel culture, the current – but by no means final – culmination of previous internet discourse waves. In this iteration, burnout at critical engagement dovetails with a new emphasis on collective content curation courtesies (try saying that six times fast), but ends up hamstrung once again by differences in taste. Or, to put it another way: someone fucks up and it’s the last straw for us personally, so we try to remove them from our timelines altogether – but unless our friends and mutuals, who we still want to engage with, are convinced to do likewise, then we haven’t really removed them at all, such that we’re now potentially willing to make failure to cancel on demand itself a cancellable offence.

Which brings us right back around to the problem of how the modern internet is fundamentally structured – which is to say, the way in which it’s overwhelmingly meant to rely on individual curation instead of collective moderation. Because the one thing each successive mode of social media discourse has in common with its predecessors is a central, and currently unanswerable question: what universal code of conduct exists that I, an individual on the internet, can adhere to – and expect others to adhere to – while we communicate across multiple different platforms?

In the real world, we understand about social behavioural norms: even if we don’t talk about them in those terms, we broadly recognise them when we see them. Of course, we also understand that those norms can vary from place to place and context to context, but as we can only ever be in one physical place at a time, it’s comparatively easy to adjust as appropriate.

But the internet, as stated, is a liminal space: it’s real and virtual, myriad and singular, private and public all at once. It confuses our sense of which rules might apply under which circumstances, jumbles the normal behavioural cues by obscuring the identity of our interlocutors, and even though we don’t acknowledge it nearly as often as we should, written communication – like spoken communication – is a skill that not everyone has, just as tone, whether spoken or written, isn’t always received (or executed, for that matter) in the way it was intended. And when it comes to politics, in which the internet and its doings now plays no small role, there’s the continual frustration that comes from observing, with more and more frequency, how many literal, real-world crimes and abuses go without punishment, and how that lack of consequences contributes in turn to the fostering of abuse and hostility towards vulnerable groups online.

This is what comes of occupying a transitional period in history: one in which laws are changed and proposed to reflect our changing awareness of the world, but where habit, custom, ignorance, bias and malice still routinely combine, both institutionally and more generally, to see those laws enacted only in part, or tokenistically, or not at all. To take one of the most egregious and well-publicised instances that ultimately presaged the #MeToo movement, the laughably meagre sentence handed down to Brock Turner, who was caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman, combined with the emphasis placed by both the judge and much of the media coverage on his swimming talents and family standing as a means of exonerating him, made it very clear that sexual violence against women is frequently held to be less important than the perceived ‘bright futures’ of its perpetrators.

Knowing this, then – knowing that the story was spread, discussed and argued about on social media, along with thousands of other, similar accounts; knowing that, even in this context, some people still freely spoke up in defence of rapists and issued misogynistic threats against their female interlocutors – is it any wonder that, in the absence of consistent legal justice in such cases, the internet tried, and is still trying, to fill the gap? Is it any wonder, when instances of racist police brutality are constantly filmed and posted online, only for the perpetrators to receive no discipline, that we lose patience for anyone who wants to debate the semantics of when, exactly, extrajudicial murder is “acceptable”?

We cannot control the brutality of the world from the safety of our keyboards, but when it exhausts or threatens us, we can at least click a button to mute its seeming adherents. We don’t always have the energy to decry the same person we’ve already argued against a thousand times before, but when a friend unthinkingly puts them back on our timeline for some new reason, we can tell them that person is cancelled and hope they take the hint not to do it again. Never mind that there is far too often no subtlety, no sense of scale or proportion to how the collective, viral internet reacts in each instance, until all outrage is rendered flat and the outside observer could be forgiven for worrying what’s gone wrong with us all, that using a homophobic trope in a TV show is thought to merit the same online response as an actual hate crime. So long as the war is waged with words alone, there’s only a finite number of outcomes that boycotting, blocking, blacklisting, cancelling, complaining and critiquing can achieve, and while some of those outcomes in particular are well worth fighting for, so many words are poured towards so many attempts that it’s easy to feel numbed to the process; or, conversely, easy to think that one response fits all contexts.

I’m tired of cancel culture, just as I was dully tired of everything that preceded it and will doubtless grow tired of everything that comes after it in turn, until our fundamental sense of what the internet is and how it should be managed finally changes. Like it or not, the internet both is and is of the world, and that is too much for any one person to sensibly try and curate at an individual level. Where nothing is moderated for us, everything must be moderated by us; and wherever people form communities, those communities will grow cultures, which will develop rules and customs that spill over into neighbouring communities, both digitally and offline, with mixed and ever-changing results. Cancel culture is particularly tricky in this regard, as the ease with which we block someone online can seldom be replicated offline, which makes it all the more intoxicating a power to wield when possible: we can’t do anything about the awful coworker who rants at us in the breakroom, but by God, we can block every person who reminds us of them on Twitter.

The thing about participating in internet discourse is, it’s like playing Civilisation in real-time, only it’s not a game and the world keeps progressing even when you log off. Things change so fast on the internet – memes, etiquette, slang, dominant opinions – and yet the changes spread so organically and so fast that we frequently adapt without keeping conscious track of when and why they shifted. Social media is like the Hotel California: we can check out any time we like, but we can never meaningfully leave – not when world leaders are still threatening nuclear war on Twitter, or when Facebook is using friendly memes to test facial recognition software, or when corporate accounts are creating multi-staffed humansonas to engage with artists on tumblr, or when YouTube algorithms are accidentally-on-purpose steering kids towards white nationalist propaganda because it makes them more money.

Of course we try and curate our time online into something finite, comprehensible, familiar, safe: the alternative is to embrace the near-infinite, incomprehensible, alien, dangerous gallimaufry of our fractured global mindscape. Of course we want to try and be critical, rational, moral in our convictions and choices; it’s just that we’re also tired and scared and everyone who wants to argue with us about anything can, even if they’re wrong and angry and also our relative, or else a complete stranger, and sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and enjoy a thing without thinking about it, or give yourself some respite, or exercise a tiny bit of autonomy in the only way you can.

It’s human nature to want to be the most amount of right for the least amount of effort, but unthinkingly taking our moral cues from internet culture the same way we’re accustomed to doing in offline contexts doesn’t work: digital culture shifts too fast and too asymmetrically to be relied on moment to moment as anything like a universal touchstone. Either you end up preaching to the choir, or you run a high risk of aggravation, not necessarily due to any fundamental ideological divide, but because your interlocutor is leaning on a different, false-universal jargon overlying alternate 101 and 201 concepts to the ones you’re using, and modern social media platforms – in what is perhaps the greatest irony of all – are uniquely poorly suited to coherent debate.

Purity wars in fandom, arguments about diversity in narrative and whether its proponents have crossed the line from criticism into bullying: these types of arguments are cyclical now, dying out and rekindling with each new wave of discourse. We might not yet be in a position to stop it, but I have some hope that being aware of it can mitigate the worst of the damage, if only because I’m loathe to watch yet another fandom steadily talk itself into hating its own core media for the sake of literal argument.

For all its flaws – and with all its potential – the internet is here to stay. Here’s hoping we figure out how to fix it before its ugliest aspects make us give up on ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

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As busy as I’ve been today, my attention has nonetheless been drawn to Robert Silverberg’s recent post on File 770, wherein he seeks to defend himself against charges of racism and sexism stemming from his reaction – made privately, but later reported publicly – to Nora Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award acceptance speech. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that I’m lucky enough to call Nora a friend, while Silverberg, both as man and author, is a virtual stranger to me. On the night of the Hugo Awards in question, I was briefly introduced to him by a third party as one of the nominees for the Best Fan Writer award, which category he was set to introduce. He looked at me in a way which, both at the time and on reflection, felt as if I was not so much being seen as looked through. I mention this, not to cast further aspersions on the man – Silverberg was not obliged to pay me any special attention, nor did I expect it from him – but to be honest about our limited interaction, which extended not much further than a hello and a brief period of standing in the same circle.

I do know, however, that Silverberg is a beloved figure to many fellow SFF writers, such that his original reaction to Jemisin’s speech and the things he’s written now are distressing on a personal level. Once upon a time, I might have sworn and shouted about Silverberg’s post, but 2018 has been a very long year, and I am tired. Yelling at Silverberg will not make me feel better about the state of the world, and so I will rather attempt to explain, for the sake of anyone who might want such an explanation, why Silverberg’s comments have produced such an upset reaction.

The problem, at base, stems from Silverberg’s misapprehension of four key points. Specifically:

  1. His evident failure to understand the relevance of Jemisin’s experience, and the experiences of those like her, to both the work for which she was being awarded and its context within the SFF world currently;
  2. His apparent belief that a Hugo speech should not be politicised;
  3. His mistaken belief that Jemisin was angry in the first place; and
  4. His confusion as to what, exactly, he’s being accused of.

To quote the File 770 piece:

At San Jose, the Best Novel Hugo went — for the third consecutive year — to a writer who used her acceptance speech to denounce those who had placed obstacles in her path stemming from her race and sex as she built her career, culminating in her brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon aimed at someone who had been particularly egregious in his attacks on her.  Soon after the convention, I commented, in a private chat group, that I felt that her angry acceptance speech had been a graceless one, because I believe that Hugo acceptance speeches should be occasions for gratitude and pleasure, not angry statements that politicize what should be a happy ceremony.  I said nothing about her race, her sex, or the quality of her books.  My comment was aimed entirely at her use of the Hugo stage to launch a statement of anger.

I would not presume to comment on her experience of having had racist and sexist obstacles placed in her career path.  I have no doubt that she did face such challenges, and I’m sure the pain created by them still lingers.  I in no way intended to add to that pain.  However, it seemed to me that this writer, after an unprecedented three-Hugo sweep and considerable career success otherwise, had triumphed over whatever obstacles were placed in her path and need not have used the Hugo platform to protest past mistreatment.

Beginning with my first point: by his own admission in his original comments, Silverberg has not read Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for which she won the unprecedented three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards. Both individually and as a series, the Broken Earth is about exactly the issues that Jemisin raised in her speech: bigotry, prejudice, institutional cruelty, and how goddamn difficult it is to overcome all these things in pursuit of change. To everyone who has read and understood her books, Jemisin’s speech is in clear conversation with them, and therefore makes perfect thematic sense.

But at another level – that of real-world SFF politics – the points she made were also deeply relevant, not just in a general sense, but to the actual goings-on at that convention. As I’ve previously recounted elsewhere, throughout the weekend of the 2018 Worldcon, right-wing protesters affiliated with the Sad Puppy movement showed up in front of the building with the aim of harassing congoers. Some chanted actual Nazi slogans; others carried pro-Trump signs. Antifa and police showed up in response, and while the original protesters were few and handily dealt with, their physical presence was just one manifestation of an increasingly ugly culture of far-right bigotry in the SFF community: one with which Silverberg himself, as he points out, has now become unwillingly associated, as his private comments were initially posted on website run by one of the more prominent Puppies. This same man is known for casting racist abuse at Jemisin, which event she alluded to in her speech.

Which brings us to the second point: Silverberg’s seeming objection to the political content of the speech. I say seeming, because I’m not entirely sure he means this particular comment in quite the way it reads – or at least, I have difficulty believing that he thought through the full implications. Because, dear God: has there ever been a time when Hugo speeches weren’t political? I’ve been on the SFF scene for nearly a decade – which, granted, is a pittance compared to Silverberg’s tenure – and in that time, I’m pretty sure that every single Hugo Awards ceremony has featured multiple speeches whose contents touch on politics in some way, sometimes because of events surrounding the con itself, as in the Sad Puppy era, or else just due to the political nature of the work that was being awarded. Even if that’s a new development in the history of the Hugos – and I’m inclined to think it isn’t – it’s still an ample precedent for Jemisin’s speech.

The alternative explanation here is that Silverberg is using the word “politicize,” not as a literal criticism of Jemisin’s decision to reference politics, but for daring to say something that could, potentially, split the room in terms of its reception. And I just, like. Not to be all glibly millennial, but it’s a fucking awards ceremony, Robert. By definition, the choice of winner is always a bit politicised, in that individual people have different tastes and different reasons for voting for particular candidates, and the overlapping discussion of pros and cons, merits and failings, has a tendency to get heated, not to say personally felt. Name me a major awards ceremony in which, in any given year, not a single person claims that the argument for Winner X was politicised, or that there were political reasons why Nominee Y missed out, and I will fall over backwards in astonishment.

Either way, this seems like a strange and incongruous complaint to make of Jemisin in particular, as though she were the lone culprit of something unprecedented. It strikes me as being the type of complaint you’d only raise if you were disquieted by her speech and looking to blame that reaction on her, sans personal introspection as to why that might be. What Jemisin accomplished with her win was unarguably historic – and, just as unarguably, took place within a political context where there was demonstrable, immediate overlap between the issues raised in her work, the issues raised in her speech, events at the con where she was being awarded, events within the wider SFF community, and the broader political reality of living in 2018. Which is a large part of why her win, in addition to being historic, was historically meaningful – which is why, in turn, her speech was so overwhelmingly well-received by people other than Silverberg.

Which brings us to the third point: his misapprehension of Jemisin’s anger. Because Jemisin, for all that she spoke with passion, was not angry: she was triumphant. The point of mentioning everything she’d overcome to win and how bad things have been in the world – just as things had been bad in the world of her books – was to speak with hope for the future: to say that, like her characters, we can endure and make things better. She talked about working her ass off to succeed because, over and over again, the accusation flung at minority authors within the SFF community, including Jemisin herself, is that any success we have is due wholly to insincere virtue-signalling on the part of others; that we’re not really talented and deserving, but are rather the creative equivalent of an unloved diversity hire, selected for tokenism and nothing else. Jemisin knew this, as did everyone who cheered during her speech. We recognised it for what it was: a powerful, happy celebration of triumph over adversity.

Triumph, as I should not have to tell a fellow writer, is not synonymous with anger – but when you have been socially conditioned to see an outspoken, passionate black woman as an inherently angry figure, the unconscious leap is an easy one to make. Which is where we come to the fourth point: Silverberg’s failure to understand exactly what he’s being accused of, and on what basis.

In penning his self-defence piece on File 770, Silverberg goes into detail about how he cannot possibly be sexist or racist, because he has black writer friends and has published women. There are many ways to respond to such a trite assertion, the majority of which are profane, but in this particular instance, I’m going to go with this one: Silverberg has confused conscious racism and sexism with unconscious (racist and sexist) bias. Specifically: as he does not actively think of women and people of colour as inferior – and is, indeed, opposed to the logic of those who do – he believes he cannot be rightly accused of committing racist or sexist acts.

Silverberg sincerely believes this to be true – and in another decade, such a statement might well have been viewed as self-evident by those who shared his political leanings. The problem is that we now know, quite conclusively, that this belief is wrong – a fact that has been repeatedly born out by academic research into unconscious bias and related fields of study. Whether we like it or not, we all unconsciously absorb information about the world which influences our actions and reactions, particularly about groups of people to which we don’t belong or with which we have little personal experience. This is why, for instance, dogwhistling in politics is an actual thing: a bigoted speaker need only reference the myth of “welfare queens,” for instance, and even though the majority of welfare recipients in the US are white, many of them seniors, using the system out of genuine need, the image we’re meant to picture is that of a young, unmarried black mother, deliberately bearing children just to sponge more from the state.

One of the most pernicious such myths is that of the angry black woman. This myth has been deeply embedded in the cultural and political narratives of Western nations, and particularly the US, for a long goddamn time; long enough and deeply enough to have wormed its way into the subconscious of even the most well-meaning white people. The salt in the wound of this myth, of course, is that black women, both presently and historically, have suffered a great deal of mistreatment about which to be legitimately angry – but a failure to smile and a slightly raised voice is enough to see anything they say, whether actually spoken in anger or not, dismissed as unreasonable hostility.

This is why Silverberg’s comments about Jemisin’s speech were seen as racist, and why his decision to counter that accusation by saying, in essence, “but I have black friends!” both misses the point and further cements the verity of the original complaint. (As, for that matter, does his decision to double down by using phrases like “brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon,” as though she did anything with a heavy, unwieldy statue other than hold it.) Racism isn’t exclusively defined as such by intent, but by the pattern to which it contributes and the impact it has on the affected party, just as a wound isn’t only a wound if it was delivered on purpose. If a careless hand-talker flings their arm out in conversation and knocks an unsuspecting passerby into a table, that person is still injured, and the correct response is to apologise for hurting them and figure out how to prevent a recurrence – not to claim that, since you didn’t mean to do it, it didn’t really happen.

Now: in saying all this, I have one tiny sliver of sympathy for Silverberg, and that comes from having his comments in a private forum made public without his knowledge or consent. I am sympathetic, not because I think this makes a meaningful difference to their content, but because nobody likes to be on the wrong side of a breech of digital etiquette, and because there’s a difference between speaking an opinion to a close group of friends and declaring it from a public pulpit. Had his original remarks not been made public, and had he instead been called upon to speak publicly before making them, he might well have spoken less candidly and with greater thought to the impact. But the fact remains that he meant what he said, regardless of the circumstances under which he said it – something he has now confirmed by way of his self-defence essay, which rather negates my feeling sorry for him in this instance.

Do I think that Robert Silverberg is, at the core of his being, in his most deliberate acts and comments, racist and sexist? No. But do his intentions make him immune from taking racist and sexist actions, or saying racist and sexist things, out of ignorance or privilege or sheer unconscious parroting? Not in the slightest. Because – and this is the hardest truth for a lot of people to swallow – no-one is completely morally perfect. While it might behove us at times to be generous with forgiveness, and while there’s certainly many valid criticisms of online callout culture to be made – let he who is without problematic behaviours cast the first stone of discourse, etc –  acknowledging our fallibility shouldn’t stop us from trying to do better.

Silverberg is in the doghouse, not because he’s being viewed as a monster, but because he made an ignorant, hurtful comment and elected to double down on it rather than show some humility and learn from those he impacted.

Here endeth the explanation.

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.

Content warning: all the spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inqusition. 

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

Late last year, due in no small part to the visibility of its online fandom, I finally discovered the Dragon Age games. Seeing that there were three of them, I started – as is traditional – with the first one, Dragon Age: Origins. Unsurprisingly, given that both were created by BioWare, the gameplay mechanics reminded me of nothing so much as Knights of the Old Republic – morality engines, dialogue trees and a politically diverse circle of supporting characters engaging with a mute (to the player) protagonist; being attacked in temporary arenas between one map and the next; even the battle menus and combat style felt similar. Though underwhelmed by the ridiculousness of the female body types on offer (NOT EVERY NPC NEEDS THE SAME IMPLAUSIBLY PERFECT BOOBS REGARDLESS OF AGE OR HEIGHT, OH MY GOD), offput by the smattering of bizarre (both contextually and as a narrative choice) misogyny and lukewarm on the general DNDishness of the setting, I nonetheless found myself getting sucked in.

My first Warden was a Dalish elf, Lyna Mahariel. I fell into romancing Alistair with her almost by accident, which is precisely why the relationship was so compelling: it felt natural, a slow-burn progression from comrades to lovers, and despite a brief flirtation with Zevran, Lyna stayed with him. Yet even when the ease of the connection made me think the game was subtly engineered to give Alistair and the Warden a happily ever after, the plot itself proved satisfyingly more complex. Depending on my actions and despite being romanced, Alistair could still become a wandering drunk or the king of Ferelden, assuming he didn’t stay a Grey Warden – and even with that particular outcome, Morrigan’s actions at the finale were an unexpected complication. Though I ultimately stalled out on the final battle – as is typical of me when first playing a game, I’d largely ignored such vital things as weapons upgrades and advanced tactics in favour of the emotional storyline, and thereby left myself critically underpowered – the franchise had won enough of my favour that I moved straight ahead to Dragon Age 2.

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

Ordinarily, when given the chance to make a custom game protagonist, I stick to women, not because I dislike male characters, but because I’m so rarely offered the choice to play as anyone else. Years ago, in a deliberate departure from this norm, I rolled a male Jedi in Knights of the Old Republic. Despite having played the game three or more times by that point, I’d never realised Bastila was a potential romance option: I’d only ever played as a woman, and while I’d always found her more compelling than Carth, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that a male protagonist would get different dialogue options until I saw it mentioned online. But when I tried to play that way, I was shocked by how quickly I became bored. There are so many stories about talented, exceptional men taking command in a crisis that the game itself felt vastly less original than when I played as a woman: those opening scenes, instead of being revelatory, felt utterly cliché. At the time, I’d encountered so few visibly queer narratives in any form of media – and none at all in video games – that I couldn’t even articulate the problem as one of homophobia in KOTOR’s construction. Instead, there was just a nameless sense of frustration, exclusion: why should I have to enjoy the game less in order to access more of it? Why couldn’t I romance Bastila as I was?

Despite winding up in a hetero romance in Origins – I never quite warmed enough to Leliana enough to want to pursue her, though Isabela, in her brief appearance, charmed the hell out of me – I appreciated the visibility of queerness as an option. Going into DA2, however, I knew that Anders was a male romance option, which I hadn’t known initially about Zevran or Leliana. In fact, that was almost all I knew: I’d seen fanart of some other characters online, but for whatever reason, most of what had crossed my path involved Anders. Armed with this knowledge, for the first time in over twenty years of gaming, I chose to play a male character in direct anticipation of the fact that he could – and would – be queer. Like me, I thought, hands gripping the controller. Hawke is queer like me. And what was more, the game itself was going to let me prove it.

An invisible detail, at least at the outset. But knowing I could act on it – knowing it mattered – made the story new for me in a way I hadn’t expected; made it intimate, powerful. My warrior Hawke, who looked like Aragorn and snarked like Sam Vimes – who could’ve passed for any one of dozens of fantasy heroes in films and books and TV shows – was queer, not just because I said he was, but because the game agreed. I had no idea who Anders was, but goddamn, was I ready to find out.

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

Given a paucity of options, scraps can feel like a banquet. Possibly I knew, in some habitual mental recess, that Anders wasn’t the only queer romance option available to me, but starting the game, that’s certainly how it felt. I never imagined that all four love interests – four, not five; I haven’t yet played with Sebastian – would be accessible regardless of Hawke’s gender, let alone that I’d be tempted by all of them. (Though Morrigan is straightlocked, she and Leliana struck me as having more and better chemistry than either did with my Warden.) But having begun the game with a specific option in mind – an option which already felt revelatory, even before I’d met the mage – I didn’t expect to be so comprehensively swayed by an alternative.

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment I sold my soul to Dragon Age, but it probably involves lyrium tattoos and the voice of Gideon Emery, is what I’m saying.

Fenris, as a character, isn’t easy to woo. By turns, he’s defensive and laconic, prickly and aloof. If I had to pick the single biggest failing of Origins as a game, it would be the Warden’s silence: it’s hard to get a solid read on character reactions when half of every conversation is rendered without body language, inflection, tone. But Hawke, however you play them, is an undeniable presence – a character whose foibles exist, not just in the player’s mind, but on screen. I’d meant to romance Anders, but his intensity soon proved far more unsettling than even his spirit possession. “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” he vows, at a point where Hawke has done nothing more than flirt while exhibiting kindness to mages. It was – and is, I believed, intended to be – a red flag, hinting at the tragic events of the game’s finale: a violent, possessive promise whose fervency is utterly disproportionate to the not-even-yet-a-relationship to which it refers. And besides, I was fascinated with Fenris, a character whose trope-riddled construction ought to have undermined him – he is, in every literal particular, a touch-starved amnesiac elven ex-slave with magic tattoos, waifu combat prowess and impossibly white hair; the archetypal broken bird in every way but gender – but which only served to make him more compelling.

Seventeen hours into the game, having bungled all my initial interactions with Fenris, I quit and restarted in order to romance him properly. Even though I was playing through the exact same levels back to back, I never lost my interest.

Right now, I’ve just embarked on my second, also back to back playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. (I’ve also got a new Origins game on the go – romancing Zevran, this time – but while I’m having fun, I’m enjoying Inquisition more.) The third game confused me when I first tried it, not least because the combat and controls are so markedly different to those of DA2. The jump button is contextually ridiculous, the open world slows the emotional pacing – doubly so in my case, as I’d assumed personal quests would trigger automatically, and so missed many pertinent conversations -and it’s easy to miss the subtleties of the war table. Almost, I gave the whole thing up after the first few hours. But given how much I’d loved DA2, I decided to stick around, if only to give Inquisitor Callum Trevelyan the chance to romance Dorian. (In this new game, I’m Asha Adaar, and flirting with everyone I meet. It’s glorious.)

But the thing is –

The thing is, I meant for this to be a post about Thedas itself: about the politics and problems of the various games, where I stand on mages and templars, and how this all impacts my love of the characters, whose backgrounds and personalities are, with a few notable exceptions, overwhelmingly well-constructed. And we’re still going to get to all that stuff: the real meta is forthcoming. But what I had to say first – what I want to make clear – is how fucking important these games are to me, in their exploration and open acceptance of queerness. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, the extent to which I currently overidentify with Krem Aclassi and Dorian Pavus cannot be measured by your human science. Dragon Age is the first time I’ve ever played as a queer character in video games, at a time when I badly needed exactly that sort of representation, and for that gift, I will love it forever, flaws and all.

Which is why – or one reason why, at least – I feel profoundly irritated by criticism of Dorian’s portrayal in Inquisition: specifically, the idea that his companion quest is badly written because it’s about his queerness. This is a position for which I would maybe have some sympathy if Dorian was the only queer character in Inquisition, instead of – as is actually the case – one of six (or seven, depending on your Hawke). Even if we discount non-romanceable characters – and I’d rather not, frankly; the fact that the Inquisitor can’t sleep with Krem or Hawke or Leliana doesn’t make their presence in the narrative any less important – we’re still left with Sera, Josephine and the Iron Bull, none of whose arcs are contingent on their sexuality.

Nor, despite hinging on Halward’s rejection of Dorian’s queerness, is his quest unrelated to the main plot. In a narrative driven by a Tevinter magister’s misuse of blood magic, Dorian’s arc serves as a poignant microcosm of the whole: where Corypheus attempts to forcibly remake the entire world, Halward Pavus attempts to forcibly remake his son. In a game where the Inquisition allies with the mages at Redcliffe, this comparison is rendered even more devastating by the actions of Alexius, Dorian’s mentor, who similarly abuses magic in an attempt to save his own son, Felix: an awful, inverted parallel to Halward’s actions, but with far greater repercussions. Just as pertinently, the inclusion of what amounts to magical conversion therapy in Thedas – we’re never told exactly what “change” Halward meant to affect, but the implications are universally frightening – is powerful all by itself, not least because it doesn’t end in tragedy. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly one narrative that engages with queer conversion and still has a happily ever after – the 1999 film But I’m A Cheerleader – and while there are doubtless others, that doesn’t detract from their rarity.

What irks me most about this dismissal of Dorian’s arc, however, is the way in which it implicitly categorises Sera, Bull and Josephine as not queer enough. This might seem paradoxical, given the nature of the original complaint, and yet we have an unfortunate cultural tendency, in our discussions of queerness, to situate gay men as being somehow more queer than anyone else; or at least, more significantly so. In this context, I’m thinking particularly of bi/pan erasure: left to their own romantic devices, Bull and Dorian end up together, and yet every complaint I’ve seen which cites this as part of Dorian being an obviously queer character neglects to complain likewise of Bull.

Oh, but it’s not like that! Dorian is flamboyant, and Bull isn’t! Dorian draws attention to his sexuality, and Bull doesn’t! Listen, I don’t know what game you guys were playing, but it’s Bull who initiates all the early flirting and sexual banter: he’s open about his queerness from the outset, whereas Dorian takes a long time to be anywhere near so comfortable. By the same token, the fact that Dorian is cultured and witty doesn’t make him flamboyant, and even if we’re talking about his clothing choices, Bull’s the one who goes around top-half naked except for a leather harness, joking about his pecs. I’ve often seen Dorian criticised along such lines, but never Bull – even, or perhaps especially, when such observations more rightly apply to him.

It’s like a kind of straw pareidolia: the seeing of stereotypes where none exist, the better to criticise them. Nor is it the only such example of what I’m coming to think of as the DA fandom’s peculiar meta-blindness: a sort of, if not exactly wilful, then stubborn oversimplification of culture and context. Which isn’t to say that I’ve never read any good DA meta, or that the franchise itself is somehow flawless – neither of those things are remotely true. Rather, I suspect, it’s a reflection of confusion in the source material. As a franchise, Dragon Age is intensely invested in discussing the politics and ramifications of fictional axes of oppression (mages, elves) in a setting that borrows heavily from historical axes of oppression (slavery, aristocracy), but which frequently stumbles when it comes to current axes of oppression (race, gender), all of which intersect with each other in various complex ways.

The practical upshot is that, as the creators have a tendency to neglect the current implications of their fictional and the historical elements in unfortunate ways, fans are correspondingly quick to confuse creation with endorsement: that is, to conflate the deliberate inclusion of particular fictional or historical injustices with the unconscious perpetration of current prejudices. This loss of subtlety can be particularly vexing when it comes to historical (or historically inspired, at least) axes, which are most often a synthesis of the fictional and the current, though in one particular instance, I have every sympathy as to why.

I want to tread very carefully here, but given how integral the concept is to the morality problems of DA2 and Inquisition in particular, I don’t think it’s possible to unpick the world of Dragon Age without addressing slavery. And so – carefully, carefully – I’m going to try.

Right off the bat, it needs to be acknowledged: slavery, with all its awful, degrading consequences, is a theme more current than historical, no matter how much some of us pretend otherwise. That being so, the issue – the concept – is vastly more personal to some than others, and for a number of different reasons. Because of my privilege, I’m not one of those people, but that doesn’t make me magically objective on the topic: it just means that, no matter how abhorrent I find the particulars, I’m not going to hurt myself by discussing them, though I may well, despite the best of intentions, hurt others in the attempt. As such, I’m going to try and situate this analysis firmly in the context of Thedas itself, drawing on historical comparisons only if absolutely necessary.

In DA2, the primary conflict is between mages and templars, with Anders and Fenris acting as mirrored exponents for the extreme end of each position. Anders, a human apostate escaped from the Circle, is outraged by the abuse and captivity of mages, seeking to free them by (almost) any means necessary. Fenris, an elven slave escaped from Tevinter, which is run by magisters, doesn’t believe that mages can be trusted without oversight. Anders compares the Circle to slavery; Fenris, who has been a slave – and subject to considerable, horrific abuse in that capacity – disputes the comparison. It’s also pertinent to note that, whereas Anders belongs to a human majority, Fenris is an elf, which makes him both a minority and a member of a race specifically targeted for slavery. Further compounding this from a player’s perspective, although this element isn’t discussed in-game, is the fact that Anders is white, while Fenris is brown.

What’s also deeply relevant, in terms of how magic works in Dragon Age, is the fact that mages are oppressed along a fundamentally fictional axis. By this, I don’t mean to say that mages aren’t hurt in realistic ways, or that their treatment has no real-world parallels: they are, and it does. But as with the various supernatural creatures of True Blood – a show which made overt and frequent comparisons between, for instance, anti-vampire sentiment and the historical persecution of black and Jewish people – the fundamental, inborn quality which sees mages classed as dangerous isn’t just a racist myth of inferiority, but a thing which actually exists in context. Namely: mages have magic, which grants them access to the Fade, where demons live. Mages can be corrupted or possessed by demons, either accidentally or willingly. Mages have the capacity to use blood magic, some of which discipline is merely stigmatised, but much of which involves material hurt to others, and all of which, if mishandled or poorly executed, can result in demonic release or possession.

This being so, all mages, trained or untrained, regardless of their intentions, are at least potentially dangerous by virtue of what they are: the seed of fear used to justify their oppression is, at base, true. In fact, the Dragon Age system of magic is one of the more damning and punitive I’ve ever encountered in fiction. In other settings, for instance, it’s common for mages to be dangerous only when untrained: accidental harm can be clearly distinguished from intentional harm, making rational caution of mages easier to distinguish from irrational fear. But in Dragon Age, whenever mages dream, they have to listen to actual whispering demons. Mages are constantly under siege from malevolent entities seeking to corrupt or control them, and while it’s often said in-world, usually by someone like Anders, that “Tevinter exists, and the world hasn’t ended” – meaning, there is a place where mages live without Circles, and it hasn’t imploded – the fact that Tevinter not only spawns Corypheus, who does almost destroy the world, but is a slave-based empire responsible for centuries of imperialism makes it… not a morally compelling argument.

Elves, by contrast, while similarly fictional, are mistreated solely on the basis of a racist myth of inferiority: they might not actually exist, but the axis of their oppression is certainly real. Which means, returning to the specific setup of DA2, that comparing Fenris with Anders – to say nothing of the two camps they ultimately represent – is an activity rife with pitfalls. Mages are human – or elven, or Qunari – and their magic is inborn. It can’t be repressed and, except at the expense of being made Tranquil, which is abhorrent, it can’t be removed. At the same time, magic itself – the act of having magic at all – is arguably terrifying. Even without the prospect of a child being taken from their parents to be raised in a Circle, Jedi-style but without the galactic kudos, being a mage means a lifetime spent contending with literal demons. Being a mage is like being born with a sword in your hand: the presence of the weapon is no guarantee of aptitude, you’re as likely to cut yourself as do harm to others, and it makes you a visible target of mortal fear and monstrous appetites both.

In short, mages vs templars in Dragon Age is a morality problem with no obvious, easy solutions: the ultimate in quis custodiet ipsos custodes. The potential danger posed by mages doesn’t justify the abuse to which they’re subjected under the Circle system, but nor is the general fear of mages irrational. Contextually, magic is almost like a disease vector, with demonic abuse as the virus: skill and intention won’t necessarily prevent a mage from infecting themselves or others, which leaves vigilance as the only real recourse. It’s zombie apocalypse logic in a fantasy setting, but hard to identify as such because, in most other fantasy settings, which create our collective expectations of the genre’s baseline, magic-users aren’t persecuted with anywhere near so valid a reason.

And for players trying to navigate moral decisions surrounding the use and restriction of magic, the issue is further compounded by the fact that, in all three games, it’s magic that fuels the enemy, and mages from within the protagonist’s camp who ultimately betray their allies. It’s worth analysing this pattern in-depth, if only because the actual gameplay mechanic – which is to say, the handwavy justification for the creation of multiply-spawning, must-be-killed-to-death enemies for the party to encounter – can often serve to obscure exactly how fucked up the situation is when viewed at a remove.

In Origins, on joining the Grey Wardens, the protagonist learns that the Wardens are initiated by drinking darkspawn blood, a ritual which, if it doesn’t kill them outright, will shorten their lives and eventually require them to commit suicide. In Redcliffe, it’s the Arlessa’s decision to keep her son, Connor, away from the Circle that leads to his demon possession and the death of almost an entire town. At the Circle on Lake Calenhad, the rebellion of a cabal of mages leads to the death or possession of almost their whole number, along with every templar bar one – Cullen Rutherford, more of whom later – who was trapped with them. In the Brecilian Forest, the Dalish Keeper, Zathrian, is revealed to have used his magic to create a monstrous werewolf, whose bite has infected hundreds of innocents over a period of decades. In Orzammar, the Paragon Branka becomes so consumed with the need to replicate an ancient magical technology that she allows her friends and lover to be consumed by darkspawn; is even willing to kill other dwarves in order to make new golems. And after all this, there’s the final sacrifice: Morrigan’s magic can help to defeat the archdemon, but at the cost of virginal Alistair, who prizes family connections and romantic fidelity, siring a child he’s never allowed to see with a woman he hates. “Good” magic might beat “evil” on the battlefield when reduced to the status of a tool defined by the hand which wields it, but it’s the callousness of a power-hungry apostate that packs the emotional suckerpunch at the finale, and with everything that’s come before, it’s hard to view it as an isolated incident.

Similarly, in Inquisition, despite the ostensible division between mages and templars when it comes to picking allies, abuse of magic and demonic interference is the root problem in both camps. Corypheus, the long-dead Tevinter magister-turned-demigod, uses both primeval red lyrium – an effectively magical substance – and various mages and demons to try and destroy the world. Demons pour into Thedas from a rip in the Veil, and while, as always, magic is used to combat magic, the emotional betrayal of the finale comes when Solas, the elven apostate, is revealed to be the trickster god Fen’Harel, whose quest to remake a past age anew was ultimately what caused the rise of Corypheus and the near-breaking of the world.

And thus, returning to DA2, the strangeness of the contrast between Fenris and Anders, templars and mages. The city of Kirkwall, where the story unfolds, is also called the City of Chains, having been founded by Tevinter mages and famed, once upon a time, for being a major slave-trading hub. The Gallows, where the Circle mages now live, was formerly reserved for slaves, and in snippets throughout the game, we also learn the city itself is constructed in such a way as to make the Veil thinner. Blood magic is performed more easily, yet goes awry more often, while demons are stronger, more powerful there: the legacy of Tevinter and its magical priorities, or (possibly) something darker, buried underground. While there’s a clear thematic comparison in mages living where magisters once kept slaves – and while it’s clear that the resident templar Knight-Commander, Meredith, has always taken a hard line against her charges – we also learn at the finale that her ultimate descent into madness is the result of infection by red lyrium: by, in essence, the very same magic she feared. And once again, it’s the resident apostate, Anders, who concludes the game with an emotional betrayal, orchestrating a magical explosion that kills hundreds of innocents in a strike against, not the templar order, but the Chantry, which in Kirkwall was run by a moderate.

I don’t know how else to say this but baldly: by game’s end, Anders is a terrorist. Blowing up the Chantry is a literal act of terrorism, being as how it constitutes a military strike on a non-military target, and if it were performed by a character who wasn’t an attractive white guy, I’m guessing that description of him wouldn’t be so rare. And no, before you mention it, in this specific instance, I don’t care that the Chantry is ultimately responsible for creating the templar order: Grand Cleric Elthina appointed Knight-Commander Meredith, but she was also trying to compromise with the mages, blocking Meredith’s call for the Right of Annulment. Anders, in picking the Chantry as his target, specifically states, “There can be no half-measures… there can be no peace. I removed the chance of compromise because there is no compromise.” Only a Sith deals in absolutes, and that is not the language of someone who’s sorry to murder strangers. 

The extent to which the extremity of this stance can be attributed to Anders being possessed by Justice/Vengeance – and therefore the extent of his personal culpability, were the spirit removed- is going to vary depending on who you ask. Personally, I’m inclined to judge him – him meaning Anders/Justice as a single entity – in the context of his actions throughout the game, and in that light, he remains consistent throughout. Romantically, I shied away from Anders because of his violent intensity, and given his claim to Hawke that “Justice disapproves of my obsession with you,” I’m inclined to view his earlier promise – “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” – as a sign that, even when acting on his own impulses, Anders is still possessed of some frightening qualities. And Justice, by the magical rules of Dragon Age, was originally a pure spirit. From the examples set by Wynne and Cole, we know it’s possible for benevolent spirits to remain benevolent while possessing humans; similarly, according to Solas, good spirits can become “twisted”, their nature “defiled” by humans who misuse them. Even though it’s Justice who convinces Anders to fight the oppression of mages, therefore, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that Anders himself corrupts the spirit to Vengeance.

But however you attribute Anders’s actions, canonically speaking, it’s hard to argue against his hypocrisy. Speaking to Fenris, he says of the Circle mages, “They’re slaves! You should want to help them.” And yet, despite having made this comparison, Anders is singularly dismissive of Fenris’s actual experience of slavery, saying to Hawke, “He has let one bad experience colour his whole world. Surely you want someone more open-minded?” Worse, in the same conversation – and despite his vehement objection to Cullen’s claim that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me,” – he says of Fenris – to Hawke, but in Fenris’s hearing – “He seems less a man to me than a wild dog.” This is an abominable insult, and quite deliberately so: in fact, it’s a rare, clear instance where the fictional, historical and current axes of oppression all completely align. Fictionally, elves are oppressed in Thedas, with one of the most common slurs – “rabbit” – being animal in nature; by the same token, Anders is also aware that Fenris’s name, given to him by his abusive former master, means “little wolf”. Historically, slaves have often been compared to animals in such derogatory terms; which is why, currently, referring in particular to a brown man as a “wild dog” – especially when the speaker is a white man – is reminiscent of some truly ugly things.

But of course, Anders is an attractive white man presented as a viable romantic option for the protagonist, and so we – culturally conditioned creatures that we are – don’t readily stop to consider that he is simultaneously written as a prejudiced hypocritical terrorist; and more, that he is written this way on purpose. We are meant to be morally conflicted by Anders, just as we are meant to be morally conflicted by Morrigan and Solas – and yet, over and over and over again, in discussions of all three characters, I see their deliberate failings written off as BioWare’s accidental failings, as though the writers are merely including problematic or offensive dialogue for no good reason, and not because it’s serving the purpose of demonstrating bigotry in the characters. Morrigan’s appropriation of elven culture in Inquisition isn’t the result of BioWare failing to consider the negative implications of a human drinking from the Well of Sorrows, but a deliberate choice designed to make the player uncomfortable; hence the clear comparison with Dorian, who understands exactly why he, as a human mage from Tevinter, shouldn’t be the one to steal elven secrets, even if the intention is preservation.

Inarguably, part of the problem is the sheer complexity and length of the games themselves. A single playthrough of Inquisition alone can take upwards of eighty hours, and even then, you’re not going to witness anywhere near the full total of cutscenes and dialogue options. Being a compulsive dork, I tend to play through the first time with a Wiki open on my iPad, just in case I get stuck; the phenomenon I’m observing, that meta-blindness, may simply be the result of multiple players writing from incomplete perspectives. If you don’t take Dorian to the Arbor Wilds and ask him his opinion at the Well of Sorrows, for instance, it won’t be immediately obvious that his counterexample to Morrigan exists – and yet, at the same time, I can’t help thinking that whiteness, beauty and romantic availability go a long way towards fostering the automatic assumption that, regardless of what such a character said, if it makes them look bad or cruel or bigoted, it’s a writing error until proven otherwise. See also: Solas telling a Tal-Vashoth Inquisitor that “Qunari are savage creatures… but you have shown a subtlety in your actions,” which insult has lead someone to ask, without any apparent irony, “Does BioWare not realise what they’re doing?”. Yes, random internet person: yes, they do. They want you to think Solas is an asshole.

There is also, I’ve found, an even more disturbing parallel to this phenomenon of presumed white character innocence: assumed brown character guilt. For every post I’ve seen that criticises BioWare for unintentionally painting Solas or Morrigan in a bigoted light, I’ve seen at least three others castigating Dorian – not the writers, but Dorian himself – for being a former slave owner.

Take a moment for that particular double standard to sink in.

By this toxic, racist logic, if a white character is problematic or bigoted, it’s because BioWare made a mistake and didn’t realise the negative implications – but if a brown character is problematic or bigoted, it was clearly intentional, and the character cops the flak. Consider, for instance, the problem of Vivienne: a black woman whose racial identity, as others have pointed out, is almost an afterthought, unattached as it is to any particular region in Thedas. Vivienne is often criticised for being cold, impersonal or cruel, but while I’ve sometimes seen the more problematic aspects of her characterisation attributed to BioWare, who perhaps didn’t consider the current racial implications of making their lone black female character an advocate for systematic oppression (an unchanged Circle, in this case), more often than not, she’s simply dismissed as unlikeable.

Dorian’s case, I feel, is slightly trickier (see above re: privilege and slavery), and yet his characterisation as a “slavery apologist” niggles at me. Specifically: it niggles because a similar claim isn’t ever made of Cullen Rutherford.

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

In Origins, Cullen is the lone templar survivor of the disaster at the Lake Calenhad Circle, a deeply traumatic experience which – somewhat understandably – leaves him with a vehement fear of mages. As such, when we see him in DA2, he’s Knight-Commander Meredith’s right hand; that he ultimately aids Hawke and the mages against her (if you take that option) doesn’t change the fact that, for the seven year duration of the game’s events, he’s been complicit in some pretty horrific atrocities, including summary executions, regular torture and confinement, mages being unfairly made Tranquil, and their systematic rape and sexual abuse. That Cullen hasn’t necessarily done all these things himself doesn’t absolve him of his role in letting them flourish; certainly, he knows about some of it, and does nothing. But by the events of Inquisition, he’s finally learned to question: though still traumatised, he’s willing to work with mages, and acknowledges them as people. Give the man a cookie!

Particularly in DA2 – which is to say, in with reference to the Kirkwall Circle, supervised by Cullen – we’re encouraged to compare Circle conditions to slavery. And certainly, whatever we might conclude about the innate dangers of mages and the practises of Circles elsewhere, in that time and place, it’s a very apt comparison. Dorian, by contrast, is raised in Tevinter – a place where elves are enslaved by virtue of being elves, but where humans can choose to indenture themselves as an alternative to poverty. This latter option is historically reminiscent of Rome, on which Tevinter is largely based, but at the same time, it’s very clear that Tevinter is its own ecosystem.

Many moons ago, I expressed my irritation with a phenomenon I think of as Sexism Without Sexists: stories where women are oppressed as a narrative default, but where the male heroes are never shown to be overtly sexist, thus enabling the creation of stories where female agency is restricted (and female characters correspondingly minimised) without damaging the likeability of the male protagonists. Since Origins, Tevinter has been established as a slave-owning country, and seldom treated with any moral subtlety as a consequence. Which, yes, on the one hand, if a country is pro-slavery, we can be pretty sure they’re not a bunch of stand-up guys. But on the other hand, one of the most horrific things about slavery is the fact that, for those not enslaved, it becomes a background element: that life goes on around it, facilitated by it, and mostly without critiquing it. And in both DA2 and Inquisition, it’s clear that BioWare is trying to move beyond simplistic, Black Hat notions of Bad Guy cultures, even if they are still using literal evil monsters like Corypheus (because fantasy tropes). Together with the changes to Tevinter, this shift is exemplified by the steady development of the Qunari from ‘conveniently warlike culture of monstrous-looking invaders’ to ‘startlingly original and complex culture of weirdly socialist, polyamorous, non-monogamous philosopher-warriors’, which is definitely a change for the better.

Similarly, in addition to establishing Tevinter and the Qunari as convenient Bad Guys, Origins also set the precedent for both nations being majority dark-skinned, or at least non-white, which… I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s problematic. By the same token, whitewashing both races in future games as a “fix” to this would’ve been equally unpalatable – and so, instead, BioWare has gone about giving their cultures nuance and depth, trying to create something positive from the mess of their early mistakes. If we’d never heard of Tevinter before Inquisition, that would be one thing; but as part of a developing narrative about an established world, it’s vital to look at how portrayals of both Tevinter and the Qunari have become more complex since Origins.

And thus, Dorian Pavus: a character intended to represent a positive scion of Tevinter without making obnoxious use of Slavery Without Slavers. It would’ve been easy in the extreme to paint Dorian as an abolitionist from birth; to make him a convenient exception to everything we hate about his country. Instead, BioWare took the harder option of acknowledging that yes, good people, however we define so perilously nebulous a term, aren’t magically immune to the uglier sides of the cultures which raise them; that questioning has to be learned. Dorian is critical of slavery, but that doesn’t mean he automatically accepts that abject poverty is somehow marvellous, either. Consider, in-game, the treatment of Kirkwall’s Circle mages; the treatment of elves in Ferelden alienages. Whether fictional, historical or current, a system of oppression doesn’t have to be called slavery in order to be morally reprehensible, or to mimic certain of slavery’s abuses.

(By the same token, when Solas says to Dorian, “If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today,” the fact that Dorian replies with “I… don’t know that I can do that,” isn’t apologia for slavery, but a literal statement of fact. He, Dorian, physically cannot do this thing, because Dorian is only one person. When Solas says “you” in this conversation, he’s talking about Dorian in the singular, not Tevinters in the plural, as contextualised by their previous remarks: Solas, being a provocative shit, is suggesting Dorian do an impossible thing, and Dorian, being honest, is acknowledging that he can’t, not stating that he shouldn’t.)

The care taken to construct Dorian’s perspective, however, is most obvious when you compare his remarks on slavery to those of Fenris. In DA2, during Fenris’s personal quest, the slave Orana exclaims, “Everything was fine until today!” To which Fenris, quiet and raw, replies, “It wasn’t. You just didn’t know any better.” This remark is a reference to Fenris’s time with the Qunari Fog Warriors on Seheron – people who helped him during his first separation from Danarius, but who he subsequently killed on his master’s orders. (“Are you my master now?” Orana asks next. And then, when Fenris says not, “But… I can cook. I can clean! What else can I do?”) Slavery, as Fenris knows all too well, is a mindset as much as an institution: obedience, even (or perhaps especially) to one’s abusers, is a habit not easily broken.

And Dorian understands this, too. Asked about slavery, he says, “Back home, it’s… how it is. Slaves are everywhere. You don’t question it. I’m not even certain many slaves do.” His subsequent statement – “Some slaves are treated poorly, it’s true. But do you honestly think inescapable poverty is better?” – isn’t exactly a glowing denunciation; at best, it reads as flippant understatement mixed with false equivalence. Yet even so, you’ll have to explain to me, please and thank you, why this is a fundamentally more repugnant, more utterly unforgivable statement than Cullen’s claim, in DA2, that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me.” Dorian, however wrongheadedly, is at least acknowledging that slaves don’t deserve to be mistreated; Cullen’s statement is far more viciously biogted, denying his charges even their basic humanity. And whereas Cullen has personally presided over the monstrous abuse at the Kirkwall Circle, Dorian, we’re told, has never seen his family mistreat their slaves, nor owned any himself. He spends the rest of the game – this comment being made early on – expanding his horizons.

Dorian Pavus has far fewer sins to his name than Cullen Rutherford when it comes to the abuse of powerless people under his control, yet of the two, it’s Dorian who’s more often cast as irredeemable, Dorian’s fans who are asked to justify their affection. The truth is, both men are morally complicated- BioWare, it seems, don’t do anything so dreary as simplex morality if they can help it – and both are offered redemption by the narrative. Cullen wants to find a new way for mages and templars to work together; Dorian wants to reform Tevinter. I’m not going to criticise anyone who draws the line at absolving them for their sins or who fundamentally dislikes either character, but I can and will point out the hypocrisy of fandom, as a collective entity, routinely pardoning the straight white man while demonising the queer brown one.

Returning briefly to the topic of queerness: while I understand the disappointment some fans felt regarding the romance options in Inquisition – specifically the fact that, unlike in DA2, the love interests had static orientations, rather than being protagsexual – I also think there’s value in acknowledging that queerness isn’t amorphous, but is constructed from multiple different identities. A protagsexual Dorian, for instance, by dint of being bi/pan, wouldn’t have had the same conversion therapy arc; or at the very least, it couldn’t have been told the same way. The fact that two people are queer doesn’t mean they have identical experiences of queerness, and as much as I’d love to romance Cassandra as Asha Adaar – and as much as my gleeful bisexual heart will forever love DA2 for making everyone bi/pan, it’s literally canon, fight me – it’s equally important to acknowledge a spectrum of sexual preferences and their potentially different narrative impact. (Dear BioWare, if you’re listening: why not alternate this approach from game to game? Make the next DA protagsexual again, and the one after that more specific. ALL THE QUEER ROMANCEABLES, huzzah!)

Nor is this the only important aspect of Inquisition which, from where I’m sitting, seems to get less praise than it deserves. In many respects, in fact, it’s rather revelatory, not least because the Inquisition itself is driven by women. The Inquisitor is saved from the fade by the spirit of Divine Justinia, then taken into custody by Cassandra and Leliana, the right and left hands of the now-dead Divine, who’ve taken it upon themselves to recruit, among others, Cullen and Josephine. This, too, feels like a correction of early DA errors: Origins in particular is notable for having established an ostensibly egalitarian world – or at least, a world in which women can equally fight and rule and lead in various capacities, and where the primarily religious organisation is female-dominated – while simultaneously making almost all the relevant, authoritative NPCs men. DA2 makes a stab at correcting this, but ultimately, Grand Cleric Elthina, Leandra Hawke, Patrice, Hadriana and Knight-Commander Meredith are either politely ineffectual or wickedly corrupt: it’s First Enchanter Orsino, the Viscount and his son, Commander Cullen, Danarius, Gamlen, the Arishok and a succession of male intermediaries who show a full range of moral complexity while nudging the plot along.

In Inquisition, however, not only does Josephine’s introduction render the Inner Circle predominantly female, but the game’s entire narrative is arguably split, at least in part, along gender lines. This is, of necessity, subtly done; which is to say, the women are neither absent nor saintlike, the men made of sterner, more complex stuff than straw. Rather, we’re shown a series of power struggles in which women are granted a variety of roles, and where male arrogance is largely expressed as a function of contextual male privilege. Grand Enchanter Fiona is pitted against Magister Alexius; Warden-Commander Clarel de Chanson against Lord Erimond; Cassandra against Lord Seeker Lambert (or his demon impersonator); Calpernia against Corypheus; Briala and Empress Celene against Duke Gaspard. Not all these struggles have the same dynamic, and yet, over and over again, Inquisition shows us what happens when women who’ve been manipulated and lied to by powerful men decide to fight back. Like Sera sticking up for the little people and the continual presence of small, domestic quests amidst far bigger crises, there’s a profound, continuous undercurrent of, not just inclusivity, but recognition of the fact that everyone matters when you’re saving the world, especially if you’re planning to remake it as something better when you’re done.

Nor is it irrelevant that, out of all the main characters, the three with the most prestigious, political backgrounds – Josephine, Dorian and Vivienne – are all people of colour. Cassandra, though technically royalty, is a warrior, not a diplomat: the other three are all consummate courtiers and intellectuals (though I wonder if, as a Nevarran, she might not be categorised as white-passing rather than white). Even the Iron Bull, who’s arguably a person of colour depending on how you categorise Qunari, is a spy, incisive, intuitive and literate in addition to being a massive, muscular brawler. And if you recruit the Templars, it’s Delrin Barris who proves the most honourable of his company, one of few brave enough to speak up against the corruption and brutality of his commanders. In a genre which so often exoticises people of colour while simultaneously marking them as Other by the standards of what’s contextually deemed civilised, it’s subversive as hell to take a European-inspired setting like Thedas – and particularly the deeply English/French duo of Ferelden/Orlais – and say that, actually, the people best suited to navigating these waters, out of everyone in the Inquisition, are all immensely competent outsiders: a straight black woman who’s risen to power on the basis of her extraordinary skill and acumen, a queer brown woman, nobly born, who’s managed to do likewise (and who’s bringing her family back into prominence with her), and a queer brown man from an enemy nation who still knows more about social etiquette and alliances than the commander of the Inquisition forces.

The fact that Inquisition gives us Krem, a trans male character whose companions all unhesitatingly accept him as such – and whose friendship with Bull gives me feelings – is another such diverse highlight. In fact, all our escapee Tevinter boys are rather striking, a confluence I’m discinlined to view as coincidental. Taken collectively, I’d contend, the Iron Bull, Fenris, Krem and Dorian represent four different facets of Tevinter society – the embedded Qunari; the elven slaves; the human soldier class; the aristocratic magisters – in an embedded, interrelated narrative that reads as a damning takedown of traditional, toxic masculinity.

The Iron Bull, while raised in the Qun to disregard romantic attachments, can nonetheless fall in love with either the Inquisitor or Dorian. At the same time, his hypermasculine attributes of size and strength aren’t tied, as is so often the case with such characters, to heteronormative ideals, but are rather complimented by a relaxed, comfortable, kinky pansexuality. Fenris, whose relationship with Danarius is strongly coded to imply rape (Danarius laciviously calls him “skilled” when taunting Fenris and Hawke; same sex relations in Tevinter are encouraged with favourite slaves; Fenris is touch-phobic), is one of a vanishingly rare number of male abuse victims shown in games. His arc in DA2 is – or can be; is ideally, I’d argue – one of healing and self-acceptance. Rather than relying on isolation and stoicism, Fenris heals through his friendships, by learning to trust the people he cares about; by talking, however privately, about his trauma. Krem is a trans character whose personal history, while involving flight from his family and betrayal in the army, is nonetheless presented utterly without self-hatred. Krem knows who he is, and while he can acknowledge that his life hasn’t always been easy, he isn’t a tragic character: his friends and romantic partners accept him, he’s great at his job, he’s got a killer wry sense of humour, and he doesn’t take crap from strangers. He’s level-headed, successful and just a little bit shy: a portrait in all respects of the kind of positive, diverse masculinity we so badly need to see more of.

And Dorian? Dorian is a privileged man oppressed by the same strictures of toxic, heteronormative masculinity which ostensibly see him elevated. Rather than opt for a life of misogyny and self-hatred, married to a woman he doesn’t like, love or respect, he asserts his own identity and questions the world that raised him. Conditioned to expect only physical attachment – not, like Bull, due to any cultural mandate against romance, but because his romantic inclinations don’t run in an approved direction – he nonetheless finds love and self-acceptance in the Inquisition, eventually using what remains of his privilege in the service of others. Put together, not only do all four men represent a spectrum of sexuality – Bull is pansexual, Fenris bisexual, Krem straight, Dorian gay – but their narratives engage with maleness in very different ways. None of them is a queer tragedy; all of them are men of colour; and all of them present masculinity as fluid, adaptable, variable.

How many other games can boast as much?

There’s a heartbreaking moment in DA2 when Fenris, hurt and vulnerable, asks – furiously, rhetorically – “What does magic touch that it doesn’t spoil?” (He’s covered in magic lyrium. He’s talking about himself. My heart.) It’s a question few fantasy narratives, buoyed by the genre’s love of magic as novelty, would think to ask with any degree of seriousness, let alone seek to answer with such complexity. Whatever failings can be heaped on the Dragon Age franchise, it’s hard to deny that they’re striving to tell new stories about a wide range of people; that they’re attempting, with each new game, to learn from prior mistakes; that their failures stem more often (now) from enthusiastic ambition than ignorance. In fact, they’ve created such a wealth of rich, detailed material that our critical analysis is still racing to catch up with the content: despite everything I’ve said here, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I look forward to finding more.

 

 

Despite the vast quantities of domestic!AU fanfic that exist to the contrary, there’s still a common misconception in TVlandia that romantic relationships are only really interesting when imminent or imperilled; that any sort of emotional contentment or continuity between the characters will be boring to watch. And yet platonic relationships, in which we’re also meant to invest, are just as frequently treated as rock-solid: inviolable except, potentially, at a few plot-critical junctures. And that’s a big problem for romantic pairings – or rather, for our ability to invest in them, because the plain fact is, you can’t successfully threaten to destroy a thing you’ve never committed to building. Not only will nobody care, but there’s literally nothing to tear down except your own expired eviction notices. When you make it your telegraphed aim, week in, week out, year after year, to perpetuate a will-they, won’t-they dynamic, it becomes increasingly hard to give a shit about the won’t-they episodes, because, just like a child threatening to run away to the circus, it doesn’t matter how loudly you scream And this time, I mean it! – we all know you’re bluffing.

Having gone this route, the writers then wonder why fandom is often far more invested in seeing those platonic (predominantly male/male) relationships become romantic than in their canonical (predominantly male/female) pairings. Which: yes, we want queer representation, and yes, we enjoy our own interpretations of the characters, but at base, the problem – as far as you TV writers are concerned, anyway – is trifold. Firstly, you’re limiting your romantic male/female interactions to fit a preordained narrative, which paradoxically weakens the same relationship they’re meant to promote by shallowing its development. Secondly, because you’re worried portraying a platonic male/female relationship in addition to your romantic one might confuse viewers as to who, in fact, the girl is meant to end up with, you don’t create any extraneous narrative potential between characters of the opposite gender. Which means, third and finally, that your same sex interactions are likely biased towards male-male, as most shows tend to have fewer female characters overall – and when they do appear, as per the first point, you’re usually orienting their participation around a single particular man, instead of letting them talk to each other – which means the most naturally developed, complex relationships portrayed are, overwhelmingly, between men.

Thus: having firmly invested your audience in the importance of a romantic relationship, you then proceed to use all the juiciest romantic foundations – which is to say, shared interests, complex histories, mutual respect, in-jokes, magnetic antagonism, slowly kindled alliances and a dozen other things – in male/male scenes, and then affect gaping surprise when your fanbase not only notices, but expresses a preference for it.

So you start to queerbait in earnest – because hey, you didn’t expect it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t capitalise on it! – but never commit to making anyone queer, because that would constitute a Change in the Narrative, and all your sexual prejudices aside, according to the ancient laws of syndication, changing the formula is bad. (Plus and also, I’m pretty sure at this point that all TV executives sign some of kind of blood oath on being greenlit to never use the word ‘bisexual’ on air, even in those rare instances when it actually fucking applies, oh my GOD.)

And maybe, once upon a time, when you could firmly count on homophobes and sexists being the majority viewership and the narrative had to be static each week so as to remain accessible in the pre-DVD- and online-streaming era, that was true. But here and now, this isn’t that world, and as such, I’m here to let you in on a little secret:

TV audiences aren’t opposed to change. We’re opposed to discontinuity, which is what happens when you contort the narrative into increasingly bizarre shapes in order to maintain a tired dynamic despite the clear potential to do differently. You’re always going to lose some old viewers and gain some new ones as the story progresses – that’s true of everything – but I guarantee you’ll lose more overall by substituting arbitrary, superficial changes for meaningful, complex ones.

Partly, the problem is one of uncertainty. Most TV shows are renewed on a yearly basis, which makes it hard for creators to invest in a long game up front. Stories with high school settings, I feel, are a particular victim of this: unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, most teen shows never anticipate their characters transitioning to college, and so keep them confined to a perpetual Twilight Zone of late adolescence, the actors getting older and older as their eventual graduation date becomes more and more ambiguous. More often, however, the real failing is one of details, devils relevant to: of creators either forgetting or refusing to keep track of developments which, while potentially irrelevant to plot mechanics, constitute a vital form of emotional continuity for viewers. A character whose actor leaves the show, for instance, might suddenly cease to be mentioned by their friends, no matter how vital they were before that point or how shocking their departure, while secondary characters routinely vanish from the narrative without any explanation. Charitably, this is another hangover from the days before box sets and streaming, when too many references to past events might potentially confuse new or casual viewers, but in the year 2016, that seems an increasingly thin excuse. At this point, if you’re constructing a show and not thinking about how it’ll hang together during a binge-watching session, when multiple repeat viewers are easily able to notice the inconsistencies, you’re doing it wrong.

Returning, then, to the problem of romance, why is will-they won’t-they still seen as such a reliable default? I have my suspicions, and once again – somewhat unsurprisingly, at this point – they’re rooted in sexism. While straight romance as endgame is a device common across all genres, and is therefore seen as an acceptable, even mandatory inclusion, writing romance as an ongoing or primary narrative component is consistently coded as feminine, and is therefore devalued. The politics of this distinction are subtle and tricky, but when combined with the gender of the writer, it’s usually the difference between a book being shelved in the romance/chick lit section or being billed as general fiction. Indiana Jones can romance Marian all the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s an action classic, but even with all the drug dealers, plane crashes and shootouts, Romancing the Stone is still a romantic comedy. The primary emotional arc of Cloverfield is centred on heterosexual romance – a fact made all the more intimate by the hand-held camera device – but god forbid we call it anything other than a horror/monster movie. Caught between the Scylla of Romantic Girl Cooties on one hand and the Charybdis of No Homo on the other, many creators have evidently deemed the true, Odyssian course to be Unresolved (Hetero)Sexual Tension. (Was that phrasing a thinly-veiled jab at City on Fire? Yes it was, internets. Yes it was. Fight me.)

With detailed romance viewed as a narrative contaminant, then, it seldom seems to occur to such writers that it’s infinitely more satisfying to watch a couple pull together against an external threat, or to navigate their togetherness in a way that isn’t suggestive of imminent breakup, than it is to watch the same two people endlessly circle, clash and fall back again without ever making progress. And oh, god, the number of TV shows that try to spice things up by introducing an unexpected third party, as though we’re not all sick to fucking death of love triangles already! Listen: if your idea of a “threat” to a nascent hetero pairing is to introduce a new straight love interest for one of them, unless you’re willing to actually made good on their potential chemistry – or, let’s go crazy, introduce a queer or poly dynamic – all you’re doing is wasting a character, because the audience already knows they can’t be permanent, and even though your job is to entertain, you’ve decided against any outcomes that might actually be surprising.

You know what is surprising, TV writers? Literally anything else.

So go the fuck forth, and do it.

 

Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: TFA

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

Here’s the longer review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Whenever we watch a film or read a book, regardless of genre, we always approach the narrative with a set of basic assumptions about its content. If the story is set in the present day, we’ll expect a certain degree of familiarity with the context, though obviously, these expectations will vary in accordance with where we live and where the story is set. If the story involves a discipline or profession with which we’re intimately acquainted, we’ll likely be more critical of its portrayal than otherwise, because any liberties taken or errors enforced will stand out to us. By contrast, if the subject matter is new, or if it involves something we only recognise as a vague conceptual outline, we’ll be more inclined to take the writer’s word for it – an accurate until proven in- mentality. Which is, somewhat paradoxically, how genre stereotypes often get started: if our only, first or primary exposure to a concept is through fiction, and if we automatically assume that what we’re shown is well-researched, then seeing it presented differently at a later date – even if the subsequent portrayal is more accurate – might trigger our scepticism, especially if we’ve seen multiple versions of the original lie, now leant a greater authority by the act of reiteration.

As such, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between an assumption based on fact, like our own, first-hand knowledge of a profession or practice, and an assumption which is itself based on other assumptions, like a popular, romanticised version of a certain historical era. For all that humans are voracious learners, we don’t always consider how or why we’re absorbing information until someone asks us to provide a source, and by then, it’s often too late.

But what happens when you apply this habit of assumptions to purely fictional concepts?

Science fiction and fantasy stories are full of impossible ideas which nonetheless influence our thinking, taking on lives of their own. Dragons don’t exist, but depending on how we first encountered them, we’re likely to have an opinion about their essential nature; on whether (for instance) they’re more properly treasure-hoarding monsters like Smaug, mystical protectors like Falcor, or soul-bonding companions like Mnementh and Ramoth. But while we might prefer a certain type of dragon, we’re also willing to accommodate changes to their mythology: our assumptions are more fluid than fixed, and if we see something new, our first thought won’t be that the writer is incompetent or misinformed, because we understand that fictional truths are malleable.

As such, we’re supremely unlikely to challenge the presence of a wide and varied range of dragons in SFF: the comic swamp dragons of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld don’t preclude the ferocity of Daenerys’s Drogon or the thoughtfulness of Temeraire, and even when we encounter dragons who completely subvert our Platonic ideal of the species – who don’t breathe fire, who can’t fly, who might be feathered instead of scaled – we still accept the possibility of them, because, well, it’s fiction! Dragons aren’t real, and so they can be whatever we want them to be, up to and including a shapeshifting race of scaly humanoids who live in a mountain-tree. But at the same time, we often hesitate to extend the same degree of narrative diversity to persons who actually exist, even within the parameters of fiction, because it violates one of our assumptions-based-on-assumptions, that women can’t or Vikings didn’t, and therefore hits a mental stumbling-block.

Which, as I’ve said before, is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements – magic, dragons, FTL travel – are anchored to the narrative by the presence of realism in other areas, like believable characters and settings; but when we start using familiar as a proxy-term for real, we run the risk of letting ill-formed assumptions dictate the limits of the possible – and when we’re dealing with fundamentally impossible situations, that’s an even more pernicious habit than usual. Which begs the question: what are our limits, exactly, when it comes to accepting fictional scenarios? Obviously, there won’t be a universal answer, but in terms of trying to establish a personal one, I’m going to borrow a terminology of limits from BDSM, which is surprisingly applicable: that is, the concept of hard limits, soft limits and requirement limits.

For these purposes – that is, a discussion of narrative preferences – I’m using the following definitions: a hard limit is an element whose inclusion we won’t tolerate under any conditions; a soft limit is an element we’ll entertain under particular conditions, but which otherwise breaks us out of the story and/or compromises its realism; and a requirement limit is an element without which we’ll struggle to enjoy the story at all. Speaking personally, then, and by way of quick example: I would consider the presence of three-dimensional female characters to be a requirement limit. If you effectively eliminate women from the narrative, then you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that you’ve constructed a realistic setting; and even if you include a host of plausible, plot-centric reasons for their absence (all male armies, gender-based plague) I’m still going to look askance at your decision to do so. By the same token, a soft limit would be something like owner/slave romances: I’m not wholly averse to them, but I strongly dislike seeing the issues of consent and power imbalance handwaved Because Feelings.

As to my hard limits, though: that’s an interesting question. Certainly, there are narrative elements for which I have a strong dislike, but in most instances, I’d still classify them as soft limits – that is, as devices that only bother me when they’re done badly, instead of at all – and with the exception of specific triggers, I suspect the same is true for most people. But if we’ve only ever seen an element written badly, or if it’s something we haven’t encountered before, we might reflexively write it off as unrealistic, when what we really mean is that it pushes a limit we weren’t conscious of having, or that its unfamiliarity takes us out of our comfort zone. Engaging with narrative is ultimately a question of immersion, the willingness of a reader to suspend their disbelief, and as with BDSM scenes, it’s difficult to do that if we don’t trust the other party not to accidentally hurt us.

(I have a theory that the emotional comedown we sometimes feel on finishing a powerful story is an equivalent phenomenon to sub-drop, which suggests the interesting counter-possibility that the lethargy and self-doubt often experienced by authors on completing a novel is a type of dom-drop, too. In both instances, there’s a neurochemical rush brought about by intense emotional stimulus – the act of either connecting with a story, or controlling it – that comes to a sudden end, and if we then, for instance, find ourselves feeling guilty about the extent to which we’re obsessing over fictional characters or frightened that what happens next is beyond our control, I see no reason why that couldn’t lead to other knock-on, physical effects. That being so, there’s a commensurate argument to be made that participation in fandom may work as a form of aftercare for creators and consumers alike: a way of reassuring ourselves that our feelings are valid and reaffirming our preferences, which adds a whole new dimension to creator/fan interactions. But I digress.)

Perhaps, then, our idea of realism in this context is less to do with facts and more a question of feelings. A story doesn’t have to be literally realistic, in the sense of conforming to real-world rules, in order for us to believe in the premise; rather, it just has to feel authentic, in the sense of convincing us that the setting is internally consistent, and while our notions of narrative authenticity are always going to be informed by our assumptions, we can still take a flexible approach.

Enter the concept of fanfiction: stories written about settings and characters with which we’re already familiar, but which exist for the express purpose of changing them. By its very nature, fanfiction plays with our expectations: we go in knowing exactly what happens in canon, but every story still interprets and alters that canon differently, and if the original work is incomplete – a show still airing, a film trilogy missing the final instalment, an ongoing series of novels – any fics written before the end are going to have different jumping-off points to those written post-completion. For instance, while it’s common practice for fanwriters to reverse or ignore particular canon deaths, not every fic which features canonically dead characters is a retcon. Instead, it might have been written at a point in time before the deaths had happened, extrapolating future events on the basis of an endpoint that was subsequently superseded: a bifurcation in the timeline, rather than an attempt at overwriting it, and readers will have to navigate the distinction.

As such, fanfiction requires its audience to continually adjust their assumptions, not just about what might happen, but about what has happened already, even when this means uprooting our base concept of the original story. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about known unknowns is a strangely apt description of this process, and is therefore worth quoting, not least because the man himself would probably shudder at the comparison:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Or, to put it another way: we know the fic will draw from canon (known knowns) and that parts of it will be excluded or altered (known unknowns), but not what original material the writer will contribute (unknown unknowns). To this, I would also add a fourth category, constituting our base assumptions about narrative and worldbuilding in general: things we hold to be relevant or true, but don’t consciously take into consideration unless forced to do so (unknown knowns). And fanfiction likes to play with these, too – for instance, by making small, pertinent alterations to an otherwise real-world setting and treating them as normative, rather than as an integral aspect of the plot. Which isn’t to say that original fiction doesn’t do likewise. It’s just that, for whatever reason, fanworks seem more willing to take the concept further, making blanket changes to social/sexual norms instead of simply inserting magic into familiar settings.

By way of example, I recently read a Wild West AU where everything was as you’d expect, except for the blanket social acceptance of homosexuality and lack of racism; the primary romance was between two newly married men, while the external conflict involved a pernicious neighbour trying to steal their ranch, and none of the cultural changes were ever questioned. For all that Hollywood can produce something as utterly batshit and ahistorical as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, I’ve never seen a mainstream narrative write an alternate history for the express purpose of exploring social equality in a different era – but steampunk guns, anachronistic swearing and giant mechanical spiders? No problem.

As an inevitable consequence of being human and having opinions about the world, we’re always going to take our assumptions with us into fiction. But being concerned with realism – or rather, with authenticity – and Malinda Lo has a fascinating essay on the subject, for anyone who wants to explore it in greater detail – doesn’t mean we should have to sacrifice whole fields of narrative possibility for lack of historical or personal precedent. The point of SFF isn’t to convince us that these stories could happen here, but to create a hypothetical elsewhere, parallel to our own, that’s sufficiently internally consistent, or engaging, or preferably both, for us to immerse ourselves anyway.

And if there are dragons involved, then so much the better.