Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

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

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

Bug or feature - yes

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

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

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

To quote:

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

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

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

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

More, however, is to come:

The two generations of us who are old enough to have been alive when the original three Star Wars films emblazoned their genius into our pop-cultural legacy appreciate the nostalgia of Han and Leia’s warm embrace… However, the youngest generations, the Millennials, as well as the first arrivals of the yet undefined new cohort, are internalizing very different messages about love, connection, sacrifice and the beauty and richness of both maleness and femaleness. They aren’t looking to the mature characters as their role models or heroes –

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

In the immortal words of Bender Bending Rodruigez:

oh your god

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider these claims, for instance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it’s her loss, not ours.

Skinner - the children are wrong

Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: TFA

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

Here’s the longer review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s the bi erasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Generally speaking, I don’t make a point of giving a shit about Jonathan Franzen; there’s the unavoidable sense that it might encourage him. This is, after all, a man who casually contemplated adopting a war orphan in the hope said child might teach him about Teh Yoof, and as much as I yearn to inhabit the parallel universe where that only happened in the Woody Allen film about Franzen’s life (a universe, I might add, in which Allen himself is not a fucking paedophile), our own bizarre reality holds with smug tenacity to the dictum that truth, like so many other curious biological functions, is frequently stranger than fiction. I mean, for the love of god, you cannot make this shit up:

Franzen said he was in his late 40s at the time with a thriving career and a good relationship but he felt angry with the younger generation. “Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.”

He added: “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me.”

Instead, Henry Finder, his editor at the New Yorker, suggested he meet up with a group of new university graduates. “It cured me of my anger at young people,” Franzen said.

Jonathan Franzen, everyone: a real live David Williamson antagonist.

Naturally, then, when I stumbled on a review of Franzen’s latest novel – titled, rather unambiguously, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Is an Irrelevant Piece of Shit – I filed it away in my mental Drawer of Schadenfreude for later edification and enjoyment. Having now consumed said hatchet job, however, what I’ve mainly taken away from it – apart from yet more reassurance, were it needed, that Franzen’s work isn’t for me – is a sense of overriding irritation at seeing genre fiction hung up, yet again, as a literary whipping boy. Specifically: Franzen’s work is so bad that the reviewer – listed only as CML – can’t seem to find anything else to compare it to.

In this way, Purity, whose author aspires to universality in a way only an author contemptuous and jealous of pulp can, is worse than lowbrow genre fiction. The prose from the early chapters is less polished than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the sex is less sexy than Fifty Shades of Grey. Purity tries harder than these books, and fails more miserably…

Look: there’s a lot of intelligent criticism to be levied at the Harry Potter series, but calling Rowling’s prose unpolished does not, I would argue, fall into that category, and especially not when you’re implicitly likening the degree of failure to E. L. James’s total misapprehension of the words consent, abuse and erotica. It’s downright profane, lumping Rowling and James together under the maladapted, sneering label of lowbrow genre fiction; like saying that spray-on Easy Cheese is the same as good Brie. Genre labels aside, it’s also salient that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (thank you very much) was originally written for children, and is therefore possessed of a plainer diction than either James or Franzen aspires to. Even so, it still contains easy, comic prose like this –

There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

– while Fifty Shades of Grey contains prose like this:

“‘Argh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity.

In point of fact, the only real similarity between James and Rowling is the fact that they’re both women who’ve made an absurd amount of money from their writing, which – really? Given the entire range of the literary canon to choose from, the two authors CML elects to backhandedly insult by saying, in effect, “they’re bad, but Franzen’s even worse” are arguably the two most successful female writers of recent times? James alone I can buy; however popular her books might be, no one has ever argued that it’s thanks to her riveting prose style. But paired with Rowling – paired with equal contempt with Rowling? Yeah, no: I’m gonna call sexist bullshit on that one. In this same vein, it’s worth mentioning that CML also links to John Dolan’s scathing 2010 denunciation of Franzen’s then-latest novel, The Corrections, referring to it as “a masterpiece” – which, largely, it is, except for the part where it features the single most unselfaware profession of blatant misogyny by someone attempting to decry misogyny that I’ve ever fucking witnessed:

It’s just not accurate — I mean the misogyny in this paragraph, its depiction of feminist academics as crazed hypocrites. I live with these people. Until last year I literally lived with an American Women’s Studies professor; so I’m entitled to say, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney, “I know these people in my goddamn BLOOD!” They’re no prizes, God knows; they’re bitter and sullen and above all deeply confused; but I must say that Franzen’s venomous depiction of them gets it all wrong. As any academic knows, the real surprise about Women’s Studies professors is that very, very few of them resemble the firebreathing dyke stereotype. Most of them are wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids.

See that, kids? That, right there, is a textbook example of what we in the feminism biz call a majestic display of assfuckery (that’s a technical term). I mean, really, for reals: that shit belongs in the same Bizzaro World Woody Allen film as Frazen’s adoption aspirations. Here’s a hint, men of the academic and literary spheres: if your big insider secret about Women’s Studies professors is actual goddamn surprise that they’re not all fucking stereotypes – you know, like the MISOGYNISTIC AS FUCK, OLD AS THE LITERAL SUFFRAGETTE MOVEMENT STEREOTYPE that feminists are really just “wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids”then it’s entirely possible that you should shut your goddamn cakehole on the subject.

But I digress.

The point being, in slamming a book which is, by all accounts, Franzen’s laughably inept attempt to engage with feminism (among other things), it would be super helpful if the reviewer did not invoke the spectre of actual sexism as their literary ally by, for instance, consistently likening Franzen’s lack of skill to that possessed by women writers.

Which brings me to this little gem:

For Purity, like the rest of Franzen’s oeuvre, reads like a fanfic or rough draft from a creative writing student.

Nor is CML the only reviewer to negatively compare the sex in Purity to that of fanfic. According to Madeleine Davies:

But being dull—a perception that, admittedly, is totally subjective—isn’t the true crime of Franzen’s craft. It’s his stilted, erotic fan fiction-esque descriptions of sex, descriptions that imply that he doesn’t really understand how sex works or what feels good, particularly for women—as well as his continued deployment of sexual metaphors that should condemn him to life in Literary Sex Jail.

And look – okay. I get that, for most people in the literary world, fanfiction means Fifty Shades of Grey, which is unremittingly terrible in every possible respect, but it’s also a form of writing that’s overwhelmingly produced and consumed by women, so no, you don’t get to use it as a casual synonym for bad writing without that pinging my Dogwhistle Sexism senses. Fanfic is a body of work that seldom if ever sees its best works elevated to the status of literary ambassadors for the pure and simple reason that its adherents don’t get to choose what makes it to the mainstream; instead, the whole thing is treated as a lucky dip for proper writers to rummage around in, pointing and laughing at whatever they dredge up. I’ve written before, at length, about the inherent hypocrisy in how fanfiction is commonly defined and valued – which can be roughly summarised as: Public Domain Works Adapted By Famous Men = Great Literature, Copyrighted Works Adapted By Unknown Women = Trash Porn – and don’t intend to rehash the argument here. What I will do, however, for the edification of those who’ve never bothered to actually read any fanfic before dismissing it wholesale – and who, given the high probability of encountering gay sex therein, will likely never do so – is share a few quotes in support of the genre’s quality.

First, though, here’s a quote from Franzen’s Purity – something which, according to both CML and Davies, is bad enough to merit comparison with the dread fanfictions:

Your little body had once been deeper inside your mother than your father’s dick had ever gone, you’d squeezed your entire goddamned head through her pussy, and then for the longest time you’d sucked on her tits whenever you felt like it, and you couldn’t for the life of you remember it. You found yourself self-alienated from the get-go.

Oh god, MY EYES.

Look. Okay. So that’s appallingly terrible and makes me want to go bathe in industrial bleach, but in the interests of fairness, let’s also consider a Purity excerpt that has nothing to do with sex – a sort of prose-style baseline:

There’s the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you’re a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don’t, there’s no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity. But identity in a vacuum is also meaningless. Sooner or later, the inside of you needs a witness. Otherwise you’re just a cow, a cat, a stone, a thing in the world, trapped in your thingness. To have an identity, you have to believe that other identities equally exist. You need closeness with other people. And how is closeness built? By sharing secrets. . . . Your identity exists at the intersection of these lines of trust.

Listen: I have years of routine exposure to academic philosophy under my belt at this point, and I’ve seen conference-level exposition on the nature of haecceity with more passion than that, and that was before the bar opened.

How, then, does fanfiction compare?

Let’s have a look at some of that supposedly atrocious sex I’ve been hearing about. Hell, I’ll even go the hetero option, just to aid the comparison:

Bellamy breathes out harshly and presses his face into her cheek for a second, a gesture so oddly sweet that she actually tears up a little. I’m so glad it’s him, she thinks, and grips his neck with one hand, scratching at his scalp and getting paint in his hair. I lied before, I’m so glad it’s him.

She doesn’t know how long it lasts, because she loses herself in it the second he starts to move again, holding her knee in one hand and her hair in the other. Her whole body feels like one long, giant current, and every spot he touches is like a live spark, a jolt of electricity, and of course he was right. Of course she should’ve known it’d be like this.

At some point, he must kiss her, or maybe she kisses him, or maybe it doesn’t matter because who cares who started it when it’s so good, when she feels devoured in the best way possible, so small beneath him but so powerful, all at once. Clarke wants it to last forever. She wants to go back in time and yell at herself for not doing this sooner. She wants to do it again and it’s not even over yet. She wants.

Inconceivable, by jaegermighty

Well, okay. But surely the queer romance is universally terrible, right? It’s just so inherently laughable, all those ordinarily stoic men kissing each other like it might be a thing that actually happens every day in our actual world. Right?

Dean inhales, hard. “I’m sorry. I’m dropping this on you and you don’t need-” he babbles, and then Cas is coming forward to grab him by the front of his shirt and kiss him until he shuts the fuck up. “Oh Jesus,” Dean says, when they break apart for a second. Cas’s mouth is reddening and his hands are knotted in Dean’s shirt like he’s hanging off a cliff. He looks almost as wide-eyed and hysterical as Dean feels. There is nothing happening in Dean’s brain: it’s white noise and static and the sound of loose change being shaken in coffee cans. “Holy crap,” Dean says, and pulls Cas in again by the back of his neck. Dean starts out in charge and then finds himself backed into the fridge while Cas opens his mouth and sucks the curve of Dean’s bottom lip, atomically vaporizes Dean’s top ten hits from his sexual history without unbuttoning anyone’s shirt. It is not quite how Dean expected- or feared- this would go. “What the fuck,” Dean murmurs, cupping Cas’s face with one hand so he can kiss up and down the other side of his face, under his eyes, along his cheekbones, while Cas shuts his eyes and sighs like’s falling apart. “What the fuck was I waiting for?”

“I don’t know,” Cas says. “I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you ever-”

“Why didn’t you?”

okay, cupid, by orange_crushed

But what about philosophy, internality? Does fanfic have any real insights into human nature comparable to what you might find in a published novel?

It doesn’t stop. He can’t stop.

He manages to stop lying to everyone else, but only because it’s so goddamn frustrating when they don’t realize that he’s lying his ass off with almost every word he speaks, and he gets tired of being angry all the time, but he can’t stop lying to his father.

Little lies. Stupid lies. Obvious lies. Any lie-opportunity that presents itself and Stiles is all over it like he’d be all over Lydia if she wouldn’t mace his ass into the ground a second later.

Because his father always knows, always calls him out on it, and Stiles latches on to this when all other signs of affection dry up after his mother’s death.

(Stiles doesn’t blame his father. He wouldn’t want to hug the kid who’d killed the love of his life, either.)

The Trouble With Reclining Your Body in a Horizontal Position, by apocryphal

What about poetry, then – actual poetry, that hits like a gutpunch? Can fanfic do that?

Some nights, I wish you’d kill me

I want to be the body lying face down in the bathtub

There’s more dignity in that

Than in being

Your love interest

Recycled Hymns, by taylorpotato

Beautiful language, then – not literal poetry, but prose that enthrals in its own right. Does that ever make an appearance?

Stars spilled carelessly across the carpet of the sky, flickering silver jacks and cat’s eye marbles. Filling him up like a cup, brimming him over. The stars change, even when nothing else can. Case in point: he can see the lights of his motel flickering in the distance. Orange, red. Warm like a campfire. Again, again. The vacancy sign is crooked. It’s always crooked. It dangles a skinned cord and vibrates when the wind blows, glares brighter and fades in tiny surges, an artificial heart throbbing in the transformers. Currents are not constant, even if they seem that way: he can stare into light bulbs without blinking if he wants to, and heaven makes the bulbs wax and wane the way they really do, the way they did even when he wasn’t looking. Heaven is awash with the details of life, and heaven affords the time to observe them. He’s only a hundred meters out from the parking lot, or however many he wants to be. For a second he stands in the road and looks up. Cranes his neck back until the trees disappear from the edges of his vision, until there is nothing but night washed over him, nothing in his eyes but stars. The sky turns overhead so slowly they leave trails pulled out like taffy, bright shivering rows like the cut of a ship through still water. The wake. Here out in the middle of nowhere, the air smells like ozone and forest, like asphalt, a little like rain.

apocrypha, by orange_crushed

Can fanfiction be, not just comic, but witty? Can the prose itself make the reader laugh, instead of just describing madcap shenanigans?

When Derek comes home the next day Stiles is sprawled almost upside down on the faded leather couch, one leg thrown over the back and his head flopped over the edge. He drops his book onto his chest and smiles at Derek.

“Are you reading a book about crabs?” Derek asks, in a tone, Stiles feels, of unnecessary judgement.

Stiles slithers into a more conventional position so Derek can get a better look at the cover of Walking Sideways: The Remarkable World of Crabs.

“I’m learning a lot, dude. Did you know that there’s an actual word in science for the tendency of nature to try and evolve a crab?” He brandishes the book like a missionary tract. “Like, crabs are such a good design concept that different branches of the evolutionary tree are constantly going ‘hey, fuck it, let’s make a crab.’ There are like four totally unrelated species that independently arrived at crabbiness.”

“How embarrassing for them,” says Derek. “Like they showed up at the party wearing the same outfit.”

Stiles shoots him a shit-eating grin. “I thought you’d be personally interested, since you’re clearly a member of a new fifth species.”

Don’t Worry Baby, by kalpurna

Hell, I’ll even put my money where my mouth is: you want to take a look at my fanfic, make this argument personal? Here’s the start of my first ever foray into the Supernatural fandom:

The body is only a vessel, an earthly chalice into which the ocean of his being pours; but it is also, in the end, a body, and like all bodies, it has its mandates. Eat. Sleep. Dream. Touch. Though every atom of his borrowed flesh has died and risen, died and risen and died again, reassembled from powder to shards to pottery like an archaeologist’s miracle, still the heart that beats only as a formality refuses to do otherwise, a blood and lightning sentinel. The body is flightless, his wings visible only between blinks, an arcing shadowflash of furled storms tethered to scapulae, tendons, spine. Except when Famine touched him, he has no use for food; yet still, the stomach rumbles, the lips imbibe, the throat swallows. A ritual; the body is pious, or superstitious, or maybe just stupid. He can’t decide which. Perhaps it’s all three. But either way, it is also his piety, his superstition, his stupidity. He is not of the body, but the body is of him, and with him, and he is with it, a skin into which he has stitched himself so often that his true form – or is it now, rather, his other form? – is scarred with needlemarks, the broadest of which is Memory, and the deepest of which is Love.

Storge. PhiliaAgape. All this he has known before now: love of family, love in virtue, love of God.

Eros, though – eros belongs to bodies, and to such bright creatures as inhabit them.

Even angels.

North Hell, by sysrae

Look: I could do this all night, and I’m only active in a tiny number of fandoms. There’s always been good fanfic, and there will always be good fanfic, and I’m honestly not sure which is currently making me angrier: seeing the entire medium judged in absentia to the standards of E. L. James, or used as a quick, easy way to denigrate (male) writers like Franzen by dismissively comparing them (him) to women you’ve never heard of, who write under pseudonyms and use the word cock without let or hindrance in stories whose titles have the temerity to be stolen from William Shakespeare and Pablo Neruda, Radiohead and Richard Siken.

You don’t have to convert to fandom. Just, for the love of god: can we stop trying to lambaste Purity and its predecessors by comparing them to fanfiction, please? Because every time that happens, you’re not insulting Franzen.

You’re insulting fanfic.

And frankly, it deserves better.

On the phone from the Middle East, where he is currently deployed, Torgersen lamented what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters, by Amy Wallace

In light of this year’s Hugo Award results, and with particular reference to Amy Wallace’s excellent rundown on the Puppies affair, I feel moved to address the Sad, rather than the Rabid, contingent. Per Torgersen’s remarks above, and setting aside every other aspect of the debate that renders me alternately queasy or enraged, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something fairly fundamental to the problem that’s consistently misunderstood by the Puppies, and which, when explained, might go a long way towards explaining the dissonance between what they think is happening and what is actually happening. Not that I particularly expect Torgersen or Correia to listen to me at this point; or if they did, I’d be greatly surprised. Even so, the point seems worth stating, if only for the sake of greater clarity.

When it comes to debating strangers with radically different perspectives, you sometimes encounter what I refer to as Onion Arguments: seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail. There are layers to what’s being misunderstood, to what’s missing from the conversation, and unless you’ve got the time and inclination to dig down to the onion-core of where your perspectives ultimately diverge, there’s precious little chance of the conversation progressing peacefully. After all, if your interlocutor thinks they’ve asked a reasonable, easy question, your inability to answer it plainly is likely to make them think they’ve scored a point. It’s like a cocky first-year student asking a 101 question and feeling smug when their professor can’t condense the four years of study needed to understand why it’s a 101 question into a three-sentence answer. The problem is one as much of attitude as ignorance: having anticipated a quick response, your interlocutor has to be both willing and interested enough to want to hear what might, at least initially, sound like an explanation of a wholly unrelated issue – and that’s assuming you’re able to intuit the real sticking point straight off the bat.

So: inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.

Right?

Wrong.

But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.

Let’s start with layer one: context. While there’s always been an element of diversity in SFF – you can’t ignore the contributions of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler, or pretend that the Golden Age greats never wrote about politics – as the Puppies themselves agree, it’s only comparatively recently that a movement in favour of promoting diversity has flourished. Setting aside the question of whether this is a good or a bad thing, or merely just a thing, at a practical level, increased diversity in narrative means you’re adding a new set of variables to any critical equation, which in turn requires a new way to discuss them. For example: if the vast majority of protagonists in a given genre are straight, white men, then critically speaking, there’s little need to mention their straightness/whiteness/maleness when making reviews or recommendations, because none of these details are relevant in distinguishing Story A from Story B, or Character A from Character B. Instead, you talk about other things – the quality of the characterisation, for instance – and consider it a job well done.

Which, contextually, it is. And somewhat understandably, if this is what you’re used to, it can be easy to assume that ever mentioning race or gender or sexuality in a review is irrelevant – even when the characters are more diverse – because these details, whatever else they might indicate, have no bearing on the quality of the story.

Except, of course, they do, as per the evidence of layer two: experience. Who we are and where we’ve come from impacts on our construction; on our beliefs and personalities. Returning to a situation where straight white male characters are the default, a reviewer would be within their rights – would, indeed, be doing a good job – to discuss how Character A’s working class upbringing informs his personality, especially when compared with Character B’s more aristocratic heritage and attitudes. A veteran soldier will have a different perspective on combat to someone who’s only ever studied tactics at a remove, just as an old man who’s recently outlived the love of his life will think differently about romance to a teenager in the throes of his first infatuation. These details are critically pertinent because they demonstrate how and why two characters can experience the same story in radically different ways, and if we as readers happen to have some points in common with Character A or Character B, we’re always going to compare our own experiences with theirs, no matter how fantastical or futuristic the setting, because it helps us gauge whether, in our opinion, the writer has done a good job of portraying their thoughts and feelings realistically.

And so it is with details like race and gender and sexuality. A queer character will have different experiences to a straight one, particularly if they live in a homophobic culture; someone who’s religious will have a different outlook on life to someone who’s an atheist; a person from a racial and cultural minority will experience their surroundings differently to someone from the racial and cultural majority; someone who grows up poor will approach wealth differently to someone who’s always had it. How relevant these details are to individual characterisation and worldbuilding – and how successfully they’re executed within a given story – will, of course, vary on a case by case basis; but of necessity, they matter more often than not, and therefore deserve to be mentioned.

Which means that, if the straight white man is no longer the default character, but is rather just one of a number of options, his straightness, whiteness and maleness will be subject to new scrutiny, both in the present and as a retroactive phenomenon. This is layer three: awareness. All stories, no matter how fantastic or futuristic, are ultimately the product of their times, because their writers are the product of their times, too. We might envisage new worlds, but what we consider new depends as much on what we think is old as what we think is possible; our taboos change with the decade or century or according to cultural context; particular writing styles go in and out of vogue; and audiences, depending on their tastes and when they’re raised, expect a range of different things from narrative.

The retroactive criticism and analysis of old works has always been part of literary tradition; what changes is the present-day yardstick against which we measure them. Right now, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift spanning multiple fronts, both political and creative: we’re aware that stories are being told now which, for various reasons, haven’t often been told before, or which didn’t receive much prominence when they were, and which are consequently being told by a wider range of people. Depending on your personal political stance, and as with the question of diversity in the context layer, you might view this as a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing – but regardless of your beliefs, you can’t deny that it’s happening, and that it’s having an impact. As a direct result of this, many of us are now looking at old stories – and at old defaults – in a new light, which means that certain narratives and narrative elements which, by dint of once being so common as to void discussion, were considered thematically neutral, are now being treated as political. (Which, really, they always were – but more on that later.)

As our cultural taboos have shifted – as queerness has become decriminalised (if not always accepted) and rights extended to everyone regardless of race and gender (though still often enacted with prejudice) – the types of stories it’s acceptable to tell have changed, just as it’s now possible for a wider range of storytellers to be heard. We’re all aware of these changes, and whether we like them or not, their visibility makes us question our stories in ways we haven’t before. Thus: while there is nothing noteworthy in choosing to write a straight, white male protagonist in a cultural milieu where almost all protagonists share these qualities, the same act carries more meaning when the combination is understood to be just one of a number of possible choices; and especially where, of all those choices, it’s the one we’ve seen most often, and is therefore, in one sense, the least original. Which doesn’t make such characters inherently bad, or boring, or anything like that; nor does the presence of such characters – or the success of such writers – preclude the simultaneous presence of diversity. It simple means we have an increased awareness of the fact that, up until very recently, a certain type of character was the narrative default, and now that he’s not – or at least, now that he’s not to some people – it’s worth asking whether his presence is a sign that the writer, whether consciously or unconsciously, is perpetuating that default, and what that says about the story in either case.

Which brings us to the fourth layer: representation. Following on from the issue of awareness, consider that, as a wider variety of stories are now being told by a wider variety of people, a wider range of protagonists has consequently entered the narrative market. As with context and awareness, you might think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing: regardless, it is happening, and will doubtless continue to happen. As such, a wider percentage of the audience is now having stories written both by and about them – or at least, about people like them – than in previous years; which means that, in response to the former dearth of such narratives, there’s been a corresponding rise in people requesting or recommending them primarily or prominently on the basis of their representational elements.

Ignoring for the moment all questions of quality – which, yes; I’m aware that’s the discussion we’re ultimately having, but bear with me – it should be a point of basic human empathy to understand why this is important; or at the very least, why representation matters to so many people. Despite our ability to empathise and connect with characters whose lives and experiences are utterly different to our own, we still like to see ourselves represented in fiction from time to time, not only as a form of validation – you’re worth telling stories about – but because, amidst so much difference, it’s a point of connection, affirmation, identity. Yet because straight white male characters were so long the default – and because that default, by virtue of its ubiquity, was considered politically neutral – changing the recipe, as it were, is still a visibly deliberate act: it makes the reader aware that the author chose for the character to be male or female, queer or straight, black or white (to give the simplest binary permutations), which awareness refutes the mythical idea of characters as the immaculate, fully-fledged gifts of some inviolable Muse, beyond the writer’s ability to pick or alter; and as such, there’s a reflexive tendency to conflate deliberate with forced, where the latter term carries implications of artificial, false, arbitrary, tokenistic. When these attributes don’t describe us, it’s easy to forget that actually, people like that do exist in the real world, and in considerable numbers; they’re not just something the author has made up out of whole cloth, and the fact that we might be surprised to see them in a given story doesn’t mean, ipso facto, that they’re incongruous within it.

As such, there’s a developing trend towards recommending stories which feature traditionally under-represented groups, not just as some arbitrary exercise, but because we’re aware that members of those groups might actually want to read those stories, and will, as a consequence, have a material interest in that aspect of the contents. But for precisely this reason, such recommendations are seldom indiscriminate, based, as Torgersen and the Puppies fear, solely on the presence of Character A regardless of execution or context – because even though protagonists have long defaulted to being straight, white and male, there’s an equally long tradition of other groups being portrayed badly. The fact that a book contains multiple female characters is no guarantee that those characters are written well, let alone inoffensively, just as the presence of POC within a classic text doesn’t mean their portrayal and treatment isn’t screamingly racist – which is why, when you see  diversity advocates recommending books on the basis that Character A is queer (for instance), the implication is that the filtering for quality has already taken place; that Character A both exists in a well-written narrative and isn’t a walking stereotype. The entire point of the exercise is to promote stories, not on the basis of token or forced diversity alone, but which portray diversity well – and because an author writing from their personal, in-depth experience is likely to have an extensive understanding of the topic, this support naturally extends to mentioning if, for instance, the author of a story starring multiple queer characters is queer themselves, not because there’s an assumption that straight people can’t write excellent stories about queer individuals, but because within any field or group, there’s always going to be a degree of insight or insider knowledge that can only be understood through personal experience, and it’s worth recognising which books are likely to replicate it, especially if we’re insiders, too, and are therefore more likely to notice if those perspectives are missing.

Consider, for instance, the probable insights contained in a military SF novel written by serving soldier, as distinct from one written by a military historian, as distinct again from one whose author’s knowledge of combat, tactics and fighting comes primarily from what they’ve read or seen in other fictional stories. The different backgrounds and knowledge-bases of these hypothetical authors says nothing about how well they write fiction, or how skilled they might be at other aspects of storytelling; they might have wildly different narrative styles and work within very different worlds, such that comparing their books, for all that they ostensibly share a genre, is a tricky proposition. All three books could be excellent in different ways, and all three books could be poor. But if someone you knew  to be both a good judge of fiction and possessed of actual combat experience – let’s call them Sam – handed you the first writer’s book and said, “Read this! The author actually served overseas!”, you’d probably deduce from context that, having served themselves, Sam was telling you that this writer gets it; their experience is my experience, or close enough to mine to be recognisable, and they know what they’re talking about. 

Similarly, if Sam praised either of the other two books for the military content, you’d understand that they were speaking from a position of personal experience: that, to someone with firsthand knowledge of fighting, the tactical/combat elements didn’t feel unrealistic or forced. By the same token, if Sam disliked the first book, you might take the criticism seriously while considering that, as the author was writing from their own first-hand perspective, too, a lack of realism wasn’t necessarily at fault, so much as a clash of opinions. But if Sam told you categorically that the third writer had no idea what they were talking about – that, regardless of any other qualities the book might have, the military aspect was hopeless – you’d be inclined to take that criticism more seriously than if a civilian friend with no grasp of tactics recommended it wholeheartedly; but depending on your own status as civilian, historian or soldier – and how badly you wanted to read the book for other reasons – your own reaction could be different again.

What I mean to say is this: seen from the outside, it’s easy to look at the members of a community recommending stories on what seems to you a superficial basis, and to conclude that, actually, nobody in that conversation is concerned with quality at all. But as per the fifth layer – language – what you’re really witnessing is a collectively understood shorthand: a way of signalling quickly that this book or that is worthy of attention based on a deeper awareness of commonly-held priorities, with respect accorded to those whose recommendations are supported by their personal experiences. Particularly on Twitter, where conversations between small groups are visible to non-participants and where character limitations make exposition difficult, it makes sense that bloggers, writers and critics alike try to be as succinct and powerful in their advocacy as possible. Just as I would accord a greater critical weight to the judgement of a soldier recommending a military SF novel, if a person of colour praises a book for its positive racial representation – or, conversely, criticises its lack thereof – I’m going to consider that relevant.

Which all ties in neatly to the final layer: taste. I’ve said before, and will say again, that I’m a firm believer in the value of negative reviews. Not only do they serve an important critical function, but as another person’s taste is seldom identical to our own, they help us construct a more useful idea of where our interests overlap with the critic’s, and where they diverge. Demonstrably, there’s an audience right now for diverse fiction: for stories which reject the old defaults and showcase a wider range of people, themes and places. The fact that some people enjoy such works does not, in and of itself, make them good works, just as popularity is no guarantee of goodness, either. The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist: creative endeavours are funny like that. There’s always going to be a sort of tension between technique and passion, skill and heart, not because those things are in any way diametric opposites, but because we can never quite agree on whether one is more important than the other, or if you can really have one without the other, or where the distinction between them lies if, for instance, the most heartfelt aspects of a story are only so because of their technically sound expression.

As such, creative awards are contentious creatures – have always been so; will always be so – inasmuch as presenting one represents the imposition of an objective judgement into a fundamentally subjective medium; and because all claims to objectivity are inherently political, so must awards be political, too. This isn’t new information, though some people, like the Puppies, have become mightily outraged at the revelation that what they’ve historically perceived as a lack of politics was, in fact, merely a political bias towards their own comfort. That they are no longer predominantly catered to, they perceive as being under attack; what they call the forced introduction of politics into a formerly neutral space is rather the revelation of existing politics through a natural process of change. A sandbar might be solid for years, but when it shifts with the ocean and so makes new waves, it hasn’t betrayed the people standing on it – though possibly, it might have collapsed sooner beneath their weight, especially if they mistook it for solid and made it the foundation of an improbable edifice.

I guess what I want to say is this: despite what the Puppies think, the rest of us aren’t interested in diversity without quality, and as we’re all acutely aware, the failure mode of diversity is stereotype, which concept isn’t exactly on handshake terms with quality in the first place. That we want to celebrate historically silenced voices and perspectives doesn’t mean we’re doing so purely to spite you, or that we’ve lost all sense of judgement: if our tastes extend to seeing in fiction those versions of ourselves you’re disinclined to write, then who are you to tell us we aren’t entitled to our preferences? Nobody is saying you can’t tell your stories; we just might not want to read them, the same as you evidently have no desire to read ours. That’s not the genre being attacked – it’s the genre changing, and whether you change with it or not, we’re still going to like what we like.

Stop fighting the riptide, Puppies. As any Australian could tell you, it’s the surest way to drown.

One of my biggest pet peeves in visual media is what I tend to think of as the Perfect Hair Problem. It happens when female characters in physically active professions end up consistently sporting long, perfectly coiffed locks that are never tied back and certainly never cut. Their hair is never messy, because it’s never allowed to be practical or, god forbid, ignored altogether. Whether they’re cops or mercenaries or superheroes, their unbound manes swish freely as they run into battle. Their hair is always a decorative thing, because the people making the show or the film in question are always conscious of the woman’s beauty: they know they’re telling a story, and so use that license to render her as prettily perfect in difficult situations as, realistically, such women would seldom be. We’re most of us suckers for beauty, after all, and in the end, we know it’s pretend – so what does it really matter?

But far from being innocuous, this small, visual detail is part of a larger problem, one that serves to steadily erase female characterisation on the screen. Though men on TV are similarly meant to be handsome and held to their own particular physical standards, the female equivalent is frequently narrower and more exacting, especially when it comes to age and bodytype, and because there’s a greater expectation that female bodies be showcased to their best advantage at all times, that in turn influences the costumes their characters are given – how put-together they’re meant to look at any given time, and in what way – to a much higher degree. Yes, there are certainly some individual outliers and exceptions, but as an aggregate phenomenon, women on the screen are meant to look immaculate, regardless of whether their characters would realistically do so, in ways that men are not.

And as such, this changes the nature of their characterisation at a fundamental level: it’s an absence of individuality, an absence of personal expression replaced, all too often, with similar permutations on a bland, fashionable sameness. How we dress and the importance we ascribe to various types of personal grooming and deportment says a lot about us as people, and even if only subconsciously, we viewers notice the absence of those quirks in ladies on the screen and react accordingly: we know something’s missing, even if we can’t quite pin it down. Consider the women you actually know; the ways they dress and look. My mother is 5’11 and grew up feeling self-conscious about her legs, and so seldom displays them, even in warm weather. Her hair is cut short for practical reasons; she’s equally likely to wear men’s shirts as women’s, prefers loose clothes to tight, wears very little makeup, and seldom bothers with high heels, because she doesn’t need to extra height and finds them uncomfortable anyway. My mother-in-law, by contrast, is about 5’1 and has always had a strong interest in fashion. Though short, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear heels: she prefers flats, especially ballet flats – shoes that are both pretty and comfortable. She takes great care with her earrings, glasses and bracelets: at any given time, they’ll all be colour-coded to match whatever outfit she’s wearing, which will invariably be something interesting, the pieces drawn from many different places but all complimenting each other. Because I know them both, I can see how their respective personalities and interests influence their clothes, but even if they were strangers to me, they’d still be visually distinct enough – even beyond the disparity in heights – to signal their different tastes.

Women on the screen, however, are not allowed such unique aesthetics. Their hair is long, because our cultural beauty standards privilege women with long hair, and invariably worn loose, kept in place with spray and sheer force of will; their clothes are expensive and form-fitting, because we’re meant to admire their aspirationally well-toned bodies, which we can’t do if they’re wearing loose things or layers; their shoes have high heels, because we consider that fashionable, even for women who spend all day on their feet; their makeup is immaculate, their nails are manicured, and to me, they look largely like alien creatures, because 90% of the time, there’s a disconnect between who their appearance says they are and what their character is meant to be. The Perfect Hair Problem fritzes with my ability to recognise these women as three-dimensional people the same way that driving into an area with bad reception makes the car radio go staticky and faint: in both instances, there’s an urge to slap the box and tell the responsible mechanism to cut it out, and if that fails, to switch channels – but as in the metaphoric backwoods, the signal is glitchy everywhere, and occasional service is better than nothing at all.

To be clear: I’m not saying I fail to connect with female characters just because they’re dressed and coiffed a certain way, or that every female character who fits that description is necessarily poorly written. I’m saying it bugs me that women on screen are seldom allowed to deviate from a set aesthetic, even if it suits their personalities: aren’t allowed to shave their heads or not shave their armpits or shove their hair up in an unkempt bun or wear long skirts with boots or t-shirts that aren’t nipped at the waist; aren’t allowed to be visually distinct in ways that go much beyond hair colour, or which forever render particular clothing choices off limits, just because we might think they’re less pretty like that. I’ve never seen a teen girl protagonist on TV who favours loose or baggy clothes who wasn’t a cartoon character; I’ve seldom seen black women characters with natural hair, which is an entire issue in its own right. Purely on the basis of their characterisation and personal priorities, your geeky-pretty Queen of Tech should not have an aesthetic that’s functionally identical to that of the partygirl teenage heiress, which in turn should be distinct from that of the hard-working lawyer, and no, it doesn’t count if you give the tomboy character a basic, sensible wardrobe, but then find endless narrative excuses to show her dressed up after hours or give her the She’s All That treatment, Arrow, I am looking squarely at your first season. Something I still love about The X Files is the fact that Scully spends basically nine years swathed in an enormous beige overcoat or the most ridiculous nineties jacket with her hair in a sensible bob, because that’s the kind of woman she is, and her wardrobe is allowed to reflect it.

For how strongly and readily our sexist culture insists that women love clothes and shoes and makeup and expressing themselves individually through fashion, TV shows and movies sure do hate to show them actually doing it unless their “individual” tastes just to happen to magically coincide with What Magazines Think Is Hot. But men are allowed to be as fashionable or unfashionable as they like – can be as messy or scruffy or long-haired or short-haired or daggy or geeky or well-groomed or quirky or casual as their characterisation demands – because their visual presentation is always meant to support their personality instead of emphasising their beauty first and their personhood second. It’s a default that Orphan Black is, of necessity, particularly adept at subverting: with Tatiana Maslany playing so many characters, there’s a clear need to establish clear visual identities for each of them. Cosima is not Helena is not Allison is not Sarah: Maslany nails their different vocal tics and physical mannerisms with a skill that’s almost eerie, but the performance is still aided by how clearly their individual looks relate to who they are.

And I for one would very much like to see more of it.

1.

A few years ago, I tried to read Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. I made it about halfway through before the roaring anti-Semitism finally drove me to fling the book at the wall, never to be resumed. I still don’t know how the story ends, but once I’d calmed down enough to think about it, I was struck by the difference in characterisation between Rowena and Rebecca, and what that particular contrast still says about the way we write women in fiction. Rowena, as Ivanhoe’s beloved, is meant to be the personification of all the feminine virtues of Scott’s period – beautiful and pure and obedient and yearning – while Rebecca, reading between the very broad lines, is someone we’re meant to root for despite her Jewishness without ever liking her best.

Except that, for precisely this reason, we do; but even though he wrote her that way, Scott doesn’t seem to realise it. Rowena never reads like an actual human woman because she was never intended to be one: she is, quite literally, a platonic ideal, and that makes her dull and lifeless in addition to being passive. But because Rebecca has to work to even be seen as a person in the first place, she’s much more fully human than Rowena ever is. Rebecca fights; she wins admiration by her actions, by sinking her teeth into the story and demanding to be seen: she has rough edges and strength of character, she’s narratively active, and as such, it’s impossible not to like her.

Here is what I took away from Scott’s treatment of these women: Rowena, passive and set on a pedestal, is what he thought women should be, while Rebecca, active and human, is what he grudgingly acknowledged women were; or could be, at the very least, if they actively tried to overcome the handicap of their gender.

And thus the question I ask myself, when examining female characters on the page or screen: is this woman a Rowena, or a Rebecca? Meaning: has she been written as an ideal, so defined by what the author wants her to do – usually for a man’s benefit, or to benefit his narrative (which classification, I hasten to point out, applies equally to female villains, who benefit the hero’s narrative by being Evil Because Cartoonish Misandry And/Or Incompetence) that she doesn’t come across as an actual human being? Or has she been written as a person, comprehensive and flawed and possessed of agency, even or especially if it makes her seem unlikeable or imperfect?

Slowly but surely, we’re getting more Rebeccas. But most of the time, for a very long time, Rowena has dominated.

2.

There’s this feeling I get, whenever I read a Rowena-heavy story. It’s a physical sensation, a sort of ephemeral chill that sinks into me with every male-only page, every chapter where women only exist to fill in the edges of stories that are really concerned with men. It feels cramped, like I’m crawling into some metaphysical box, and the older I get, the less comfortable it is, and the sooner I have to pull out again, the narrow confines chafing across my shoulders. It feels small in those stories, as though there’s no room for me there. I feel the same way about heteronormative storytelling: the more aware of myself I become, the more conscious of my own identity, the stronger the impulse to scream at books that don’t so much as acknowledge my existence. I feel a similar level of disgust about whitewashed stories, but being white myself, that visceral, squeezing element is missing – it’s an intellectual outrage, rather than a personal affront, and while it still makes me angry, I can’t pretend it’s the same thing. Not, to be perfectly clear, because I think the absence or stereotyping of POC is somehow less important; rather, it’s the difference between seeing your best friend punched in the face, and being punched yourself. Both assaults are utterly unacceptable, but one blow you feel secondhand, and the other in the flesh.

In 2010, I went to see the film Buried, which is shot almost entirely from the perspective of someone buried alive in a small box. It made for an intensely claustrophobic viewing experience: even knowing the camera wasn’t going to suddenly cut to a different scene, you still expected it, still wanted it to, and the lack of variation swiftly became a physical itch, a writhing unease and discomfort.

That’s what homogeneous storytelling feels like from the other side, when all the characters like you are either Rowena or stereotyped or absent altogether: claustrophobic. Go away and watch Buried, and whatever else you think of it – I hated it for reasons that had nothing to do with the cramped perspective – at least you’ll learn what it’s like to read a book or watch a show where part of you keeps waiting for the POV to leap to something new, something other than unrelenting sameness, only it never does, and all you feel is the tension caused by the absence of innovation.

Like being buried alive.

3.

I’m sick of the Sad Puppies.

Look: let’s be honest. The Puppies, by their own admission, aren’t interested in stories about people like me, or the stories of other people who aren’t like them, or stories which feature political arguments other than their own. There’s something fundamentally paradoxical about their hatred of diversity: they seem to think of it as a box-checking exercise, some arbitrary, unrealistic obsession with describing impossible, or at least implausible, persons – but at the same time, they clearly believe such individuals not only exist, but do so in vast, conspiracy-carrying numbers, because who else do they think they’re arguing with? The real world, according to Puppy gospel, is being steadily overrun with politically correct SJWs who are all queer or black or female or disabled or – gasp! – some dread combination thereof, and because they resent this tyranny, they don’t want to encourage it by acknowledging those demographics in fictional stories. This doesn’t stop them arguing, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that their stories are really reflective of the real world, even though their daily lives (they claim) are defined by a ceaseless political struggle that their fiction never reflects, partly because it’s meant for entertainment purposes only (they say), but mostly (one suspects) because the only actual struggle they’ve experienced can be better described as a personal failure of empathy, viz: why the hell would anyone want to read a book about her?

“Her” being Rebecca, both literally and metaphorically. The Puppies are agoraphobic in a genre otherwise defined by sweeping claustrophobia: they want to stay in the buried box with the dwindling air supply, while the rest of us are desperately clawing to get out, away from them and into the sunlight. We want to breathe, to change the scene, and they’d rather we suffocated wholesale than let us.

4.

Here’s what fanfiction understands that the Puppies don’t: inversion and subversion don’t ruin the story – they just give you new ways to tell it, and new tools to tell it with. Take a platonic relationship and make it romantic; there’s a story in that. Take a romantic relationship and make it platonic; there’s a story in that, too. Take a human and make her a werewolf; take a werewolf and make him human. Don’t try and sidle up on hurt/comfort like it’s something you’re ashamed to be indulging in; embrace the tropes until you have their mastery. Take a gang of broken souls surviving the apocalypse and make them happy in high school; take a bunch of funny, loving high school kids and shove them in the apocalypse. Like Archimedes, fanfic writers find the soul, the essence of what makes the characters real, and use it as a fulcrum on which to pivot entire worlds, with inversion/subversion as their lever of infinite length.

Without order, nothing can exist; without chaos, nothing can evolve. So the saying goes, and so it is.

5.

A tip for male writers: if your female characters never defy your expectations – if they never surprise you, never throw a wrench in your plans, never successfully beg a greater share of the story and your attention than you’d initially planned on giving them – then you’re not really writing women. You’re giving us Rowena, not Rebecca; over and over and over.

Be wise to the difference.

For a while now, I’ve been hearing chatter about Seth Dickinson’s upcoming debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, due for release in September this year. Some of what I’ve heard has been extremely positive; some has been less so. Either way, I was intrigued enough to be interested, and today I finally read the first two chapters, which are currently available online at Tor.com.

My gut reaction thus far: creeping unease.

At a technical level, Dickinson writes extremely well. His prose is clean and sharp and compelling with a good sense of pace, and he has a knack for conveying great scope with few words. He’s also telling a story about queer people, people of colour, women, imperialism, politics and colonialism, which is always going to interest me at a visceral level, and as such, I was never bored.

However.

The thing about writing SFFnal stories is that, no matter how fantastic the setting or distant the future we might write, they’re still ultimately shaped by our very real, very human now: by our cultures, past and present, with all the attendant histories and contexts that entails. Sometimes, the connection is more obvious than others, as when we’re deliberately trying to evoke the shadow of ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy, but however we might invent, dissemble, hybridise, paraphrase or otherwise imagine new worlds, we’re not making anything out of whole cloth. Our fingerprints pattern the weave, reminding us of the reality we’re trying, however briefly, to escape, and whether we do it consciously or not, the process still occurs, as inevitable as sunrise.

Thus: when Dickinson writes about the Empire of Masks, with its paper money, bureaucratic service exam and sterile hatred of unhygienic behaviour, which here means homosexuality in all its permutations, what I think of is a cross between Imperial Britain and Imperial China, the language and bigotry of the former married to the institutions and scale of the latter. Adding to this impression, the denizens of Falcrest, home of this chimerical empire, are described as follows:

“This was the first impression Baru had of the Falcrest people: stubborn jaws, flat noses, deep folded eyes, their skin a paler shade of brown or copper or oat. At the time they hardly seemed so different.” 

Anglophone language and epicanthic folds: it’s not a subtle marriage, and in these two chapters, it feels like Dickinson has smashed imperial China and Britain together without much regard for the consequences of the fit. Which, ordinarily, might raise my eyebrow without stirring complaint – generally speaking, I’m a fan of cultural mashups, especially incongruous or startling ones. But here, given the prominent focus on homophobia and queer persecution, I can’t get past the real world implications; or, more specifically, the real world history.

Because beyond the horrific history between Britain and China, which frequently involves the former exploiting the latter, there’s the inescapable fact that Imperial China didn’t have anything even vaguely resembling the institutional homophobia Dickinson is describing, because in China – as in so many other parts of the world impacted by white colonialism – the sort of scientific, medicalised, systematic homophobia that situated being queer as an illness was a Western import. Nor is this a difficult fact to ascertain, as per the very first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on homosexuality in China:

“The existence of homosexuality in China has been well documented since ancient times. According to one study, homosexuality in China was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards. However, this has been disputed. Many early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships, accompanied by heterosexual ones. Opposition to homosexuality, according to the study by Hinsch, did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China. On the other hand, Gulik’s influential study argued that the Mongol Yuan dynasty introduced a more ascetic attitude to sexuality in general… Either way, it is indisputable that homosexual sex was banned in the People’s Republic of China from at least the twentieth century, until it was legalized in 1997.”

By comparison, the first British anti-sodomy law was the Buggery Act of 1533, which gave the crown the power to deal with an offence that had previously been handled exclusively by the Christian ecclesiastical courts. Consider this excerpt, for instance, from the Wikipedia article on homosexuality and psychiatry in a Western context:

“The view of homosexuality as a psychological disorder has been seen in literature since research on homosexuality first began. However, psychology as a discipline has evolved over the years in its position on homosexuality. Current attitudes have their roots in religious, legal and cultural underpinnings. In the early Middle Ages the Christian Church tolerated, or at least ignored homosexuality in secular cultures outside the Church. However, by the end of the 12th century hostility towards homosexuality began to emerge and spread through Europe’s secular and religious institutions. There were official expressions condemning the “unnatural” nature of homosexual behavior in the works of Thomas Aquinas and others. Unti the 19th century, homosexual activity was referred to as “unnatural, crimes against nature”, sodomy or buggery and was punishable by law, and even death. As people became more interested in discovering the causes of homosexuality, Medicine and Psychiatry began competing with the law and religion for jurisdiction. In the beginning of the 19th century, people began studying homosexuality scientifically. At this time, most theories regarded homosexuality as a disease, which had a great influence on how it was viewed culturally.”

With these two different narratives in mind, here’s the view of homosexuality held by Dickinson’s fictitious imperial Falcrest, as described in Chapter One:

“She went into the school, with her own uniform and her own bed in the crowded dormitory, and there in her first class on Scientific Society and Incrasticism she learned the words sodomite and tribadist and social crime and sanitary inheritance, and even the mantra of rule: order is preferable to disorder. There were rhymes and syllogisms to learn, the Qualms of revolutionary philosophy, readings from a child’s version of the Falcresti Handbook of Manumission.”

Clearly, then, this is type of homophobia is far more in the British mould than the Chinese. And thus my unease: because while Dickinson’s Masquerade, as his empire is externally known, is a fictional culture, what it evokes, in terms of real world comparisons, is a narrative wherein an undeniably white, colonial, homophobic agenda is being utilised by POC against other POC. Throw in the fact that, post-Western influence, modern China was, for a period, intensely homophobic – something the casual reader is more likely to know about than, say, the passion of the cut sleeve – and you have a narrative that, whether intentionally or not, subtly reinforces the stereotype of homophobia as a predominantly non-Western, non-white problem.

Further complicating matters is the planned trajectory of the titular protagonist – that is, of Baru Cormorant – as a woman from a formerly queer-friendly culture having to repress that part of her identity in order to rise through the Falcresti ranks, the better to one day change their ideology. To be clear: I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a story where a secret outsider strives to change a toxic system from within; that’s good stuff. The problem is that, by the end of Chapter Two, Baru – now eighteen – is set to leave her home island of Taranoke for life in the imperial service, having aged eleven years since the start of Chapter One. And while, as stated, Dickinson writes with great technical skill, for a story that’s being set up to portray Baru as the intended saviour of Taranoke culture, it’s troubling that we see her behaviour almost exclusively through the lens of Falcresti mores.

By which I mean: beyond its queer and polyamorous acceptance, we’re shown very little about Taranoke culture, and thus don’t have the proper sense of what Baru is setting out to avenge or protect beyond a deeply simplistic narrative of Homophobia Is Wrong. Baru’s time at the Falcresti school under the sponsorship of her patron, Cairdine Farrier, is the kind of thing I could easily read books about in its own right, but which in either case demands far more attention than two brief chapters can supply, no matter how well written they might be. Instead, we see far more of Baru’s acceptance of Falcresti logic than we do comparisons or conflicts with what she was taught before then; even the other students seem to have accepted the colonial mandate that the families and family structures they’ve known all their lives are wrong, as per this section in Chapter Two:

“Children began to vanish from the school, sent back out onto the island, into the plague. “Their behaviour was not hygienic,” the teachers said. Social conditions, the students whispered. He was found playing the game of fathers –

The teachers watched them coldly as their puberty came, waiting for unhygienic behaviour to manifest itself. Baru saw why Cairdine Farrier had advised her on her friendships. Some of the students collaborated in the surveillance.”

This level of indoctrination and complicity, presented in the absence of any compelling reason as to why the Taranoke students are so quick to abandon their own culture, is utterly jarring. We don’t get a sense of fear or coercion or other social changes beyond the plague and its impact; the children are seemingly cut off from their parents and families long before then, and it’s all glossed so quickly that what should be a nuanced explanation of cultural change and colonialism – but which is still the apparent heart of the novel, given that Baru is meant to be motivated by her time here to come back and fix everything – is instead rendered in brief, like an unimportant aside before the real story starts.

As a queer reader, the portrait Dickinson paints of Falcresti homophobia is genuinely unsettling, which is why the commensurate lack of attention paid to Taranoke customs feels like such an imbalance. Two chapters in, and all we know of queerness so far is that people suffer for it: Baru loses one of her fathers to the invaders, her cousin is threatened with molestation under the guise of corrective rape, Taranoke is colonised, and Baru’s two external allies both abandon her when they learn what she did to try and protect her cousin.

It’s queer tragedy porn in a fantasy context, and from what I’ve been told about how the book ends, that never really changes; arguably gets worse, in fact. And while I applaud Seth Dickinson for wanting to tell a story about how Homophobia Is Bad, complete with a cast of characters who are queer and female and POC, I can’t applaud his apparent decision to do so by making said characters suffer unbearably because of their orientation, the better to let the audience know that Homophobia Is Wrong.

The problem, then, is that The Traitor Baru Cormorant comes across as being a novel about queer oppression that is – whether intentionally or not – written for a straight audience: that is, for people who can find novelty and drama in stories about unrelenting queer oppression because they’ve never personally experienced it, whereas those of us who have just want, by and large, to read about queer people being people, preferably complex ones who get their fair share of happy endings rather than the traditional tragedy.

So, yeah. I’ll reserve full judgement for when (and if) I make it through the rest of the book, but right now, it doesn’t bode well.

In this modern world of dogwhistle invective and coded slurs, wherein racist, sexist, homophobic ideology is frequently couched in ‘polite’ or ‘neutral’ terms, the better to distance its exponents from the bigoted reality of their actual opinions, it’s sometimes perversely refreshing when some properly oblivious specimen forgets the unspoken rule about code-switching into their Outside Politics Voice and lets us know what they really think, unfiltered. It’s like watching a slime-eyed troglodyte heave itself, gasping and wheezing, into the modern sunlight, an ugly-funny anachronism. You feel like you imagine David Attenborough does, whenever he has chance to narrate the cyclical reappearance of some particularly rare, hideous insect, but without the concern for its future preservation. Ah, you think to yourself, with almost fond revulsion, and here we see the Asshaticus Whatthefuckius, emerging slowly from its own distended rectum. Note the pungent aroma of gender essentialism and failure.

I am, of course, referring to Kyle Smith’s article in the New York Post about why women are incapable of understanding GoodFellas.

It’s such an astonishing trainwreck, I feel like I should be eating popcorn. “Yes,” says Smith, “Men like sports. Men watch the action movies and eat of the beef and enjoy to look at the bosoms.” Oh, wait, I’m sorry – that’s actually a quote from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, wherein teen everyman Xander Harris mocks Anya, a former vengeance demon who specialised in punishing unfaithful men, for her woefully stereotypical concept of masculinity. The fact that Smith’s article more or less embodies this sentiment but without the irony is why I’m actively repressing an outburst of violent laughter even now. Internets, I shit thee not: there are tears in my goddamn eyes.

For reals, though: let’s take a moment to see why Smith thinks ladytypes can’t possibly appreciate his precious dudeflick:

““GoodFellas”… takes place in a world guys dream about.Way down deep in the reptile brain, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy the Gent (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) are exactly what guys want to be: lazy but powerful, deadly but funny, tough, unsentimental and devoted above all to their brothers — a small group of guys who will always have your back. Women sense that they are irrelevant to this fantasy, and it bothers them.”

And in that moment, I swear a musclebound, dudebro angel wrapped in a beerstained fratboy toga descended beatifically from the heavens, gently set a calloused finger to Kyle Smith’s lips and lovingly whispered, “No homo.”

(Speaking of which, does anyone else find it odd when Manly Men proudly attribute their Manliest Male Impulses to their “reptile brain”, as though citing the least intelligent, least human, most distant part of their evolutionary history as an overriding impulse should somehow engender sympathy rather than alarm? Never mind the fact that actual reptiles are among Mother Nature’s finest genderbenders; it’s like someone saying, Yes, I know I’m a talented stockbroker, but my great-great-grandfather was a sheepfucking drunk, so deep down, there’s a part of me that just wants to shotgun a bottle of Tia Maria and really let wild at the petting zoo, you know? It’s biology, officer!)

And then it gets better:

“The wiseguys never have to work (the three friends never exert themselves except occasionally to do something fun, like steal a tractor-trailer truck), which frees them up to spend the days and nights doing what guys love above all else: sitting around with the gang, busting each other’s balls.

Ball-busting means cheerfully insulting one another, preferably in the presence of lots of drinks and cigars and card games. (The “GoodFellas” guys are always at the card table, just as the Rat Pack were, while the “Entourage” guys love video games.) Women (except silent floozies) cannot be present for ball-busting because women are the sensitivity police: They get offended, protest that someone’s not being fair, refuse to laugh at vicious put-downs. In the male fantasy, all of this is unforgivable — too serious, too boring. Deal another hand, pour another drink.”

I’m always amazed by the brazen failure of empathy that allows anyone to sit down and make declarative statements about the secret preferences of an entire gender via the simple expedient of assuming their own fantasies to be universal ones. I mean, look: let’s be real. Language is a tricky thing, and as such, it’s sometimes necessary, or at least useful, to speak in general terms about groups or concepts rather than having to qualify with extraneous wordage, over and over again, that you’re only talking about X thing or Y problem, when the actual context and topic of conversation has already made that clear. But this isn’t what Smith is doing: instead, he’s conflating his personal feelings with a platonic ideal of masculinity in a way that’s hilarious at best and downright worrying at worst.

Like, okay: I’m aware that I’m a female-presenting person without any Floozy Credentials and am therefore, in Smith’s book, The Goddamn Sensitivity Police and a wilful traitor to fun, but I’m pretty sure that, if I showed his article to every man I know, 99% of them would either burst out laughing or roll their eyes hard enough to necessitate immediate corrective surgery. But then again, I know a lot of guys who, like, actually respect women? And enjoy their company? And dislike vicious putdowns on principle? I mean, I derive great ironic satisfaction hate to ruin a perfectly good film review by pointing out that toxic masculinity actually does real damage to countless guys by telling them that Real Men are emotionless, misogynist dickbags who hurt their friends for fun and deal with their problems through stoic alcoholism and domestic abuse, but, yeah: that’s totally a thing, and it’s kind of hard to laugh at Smith’s suggestion that it’s a good thing when, quite patently, it’s not.

Plus and also, and speaking out of pure literary concern for Smith’s apparent status as a professional writer, there should be a limit on the number of times you can use the phrase “ball-busting” and its attendant variations in a 900 word article; and whatever that limit, I submit that eleven times – which is to say, at least once every hundred words – is a tad excessive. There’s an almost fetishistic quality to Smith’s obsession with balls and the busting or breaking thereof that GoodFellas apparently personifies, and while I’m not one to kinkshame – if a healthy, red-blooded American man enjoys a little CBT, then more power to him; whatever, as the kids say, creams your Twinkie – Smith’s actual point, assuming he had one beyond Manly Men Are Manly And Awesome And Women Are Shrewish Harridans, might have been better served by the occasional use of a non-testicular synonym for funning.

I mean, look. At the end of the day, Kyle Smith can have as big a hard-on as he wants for GoodFellas – can be as disdainful for the touchy-feely incomprehension of ladies and their dreary femotions as he wants – but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna bust his balls for promoting his toxic, sexist concept of what Real Men are as if it’s an obvious universal ideal, which: huh. Now, there’s a conundrum for you: if I’m crushing his cojones (see! the thesaurus is your friend) for having such an ass-backwards view of masculinity, does that make me Lorraine Brasco or a member of the sensitivity police?

It’s a paradox, your honour: bullshit all the way down.

Since the middle of last year, I’ve been writing quite a bit of fanfiction, and enjoying myself immensely in the process. Prior to getting sucked into the Supernatural fandom, it’s something I hadn’t done since high school, when I and my friends would collaboratively build elaborate Zelda fics and I’d make myself blush by writing Final Fantasy VIII stories where Squall and Quistis kissed. As such, and while I’d incorporated the occasional sex scene into my original fiction – first as a teen, and then as an adult – I didn’t have much experience with literary smut beyond the little I’d read. Given the regularity with which both fanfiction and romance are denigrated, therefore – and despite the fact that I think such denigration is bullshit – I fell into the trap of thinking that graphic sex would be easy to write. I mean, how hard could it be?

Very, is the answer, and now that I’ve produced some 350,000 words of smut and smut-adjacent prose, I can state quite categorically that doing so has made me a much better writer.

Here’s why:

As anyone who’s ever attempted one can attest, action sequences are among the trickiest types of writing to do well. Especially when it comes to a close-combat fight scene, there’s a real art to getting it right. At the level of raw bodily mechanics, you have to properly choreograph what’s happening such that both you and the audience can imagine it clearly, but without the prose style becoming either so detached or clinical that you lose momentum. By the same token, you’re essentially describing a series of related or identical actions taking place in quick succession, which impacts on your language choices. Ideally, you want to walk a fine line between repetition and simile, switching focus between intimate detail, like how it feels to land a blow, and the bigger picture of what’s going on – the setting, the time, the context. And then, of course, there’s the emotional component: why are the characters fighting? What are the stakes? How does everything that’s happened before this point influence their actions? What’s the dynamic of the exchange? Are the combatants evenly matched, or is there a disparity? How is it going to end?

There’s a lot going on, is what I’m saying, and if you get it wrong, you run the risk of throwing your audience out of the story.

And every single one of those factors applies to sex scenes, too.

Bad or mediocre sex scenes, like bad or mediocre action scenes, are ubiquitous precisely because there’s so much involved in doing them well. Even – or especially, rather – when you’re writing from the focussed point of view of a single character, it’s important to remember that the other participant/s have their own motivations: that they aren’t just passive sexual objects. Sex is communication, connection, negotiation, and how and why your characters go about having it will say a lot about them. Though I often find the slashfic obsession with who tops vs. who bottoms to be needlessly reductive and objectifying, given that women – who are the genre’s predominant writers and readers – are so frequently assumed to be sexually passive and uncritically portrayed as such, it’s easy to see the appeal of a setting where the sexual roles of familiar characters are instead argued on a case by case basis. It’s a lesson to bear in mind regardless of the gender/s involved in any sexual scene you’re writing: how someone behaves out of the bedroom doesn’t necessarily dictate their preferences within it, and in terms of furthering emotional characterisation, that’s a rich vein seldom tapped in other genres.

By the same token, and as I’ve angrily noted before, it’s often assumed that positive, consensual sex scenes serve a strictly pornographic function, such that, unless you’re actively trying to titillate your audience, the only sex that ought to appear in other genres is bad sex, or sexual assault, or rape. The logic here is maddening: that only violent, unpleasant or non-consensual sexual encounters can have such a transformative, narratively relevant effect on the characters that you’re justified in showing them in detail, rather than simply fading to black or leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. Not only does this completely elide the possibility that the details of good sex might be similarly relevant, but as an approach, it tends overwhelmingly to have sexist consequences: that is, if women are assumed to be the primary victims and men the primary perpetrators of sexual violence, and if this is the only type of sex we think is worth describing, then we end up reinforcing exactly the same toxic gender dynamics such scenes might ostensibly mean to criticise.

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: if you feel comfortable including rape, sexual assault, bad sex or sex that only one party enjoys in your stories, but aren’t similarly willing to write positive, consensual sex scenes, too, because you think they’re too porny or irrelevant, then you’re a hypocrite. Which isn’t to say that every book that includes assault needs to include consensual sex, too: that’s far too restrictive a mandate. Rather, I mean it as a general writing principle: to the extent that you’re willing to include sexual content at all, it makes no sense – and is, I’d argue, actively problematic – to restrict yourself to purely negative depictions across the board. Sex in all its forms can serve a narrative purpose, and if it also happens to be titillating sometimes, then so what? Literature is meant to make us feel things, and I see no reason bar a culturally ingrained sense of puritan shame that arousal should be considered a less valid, worthy response to evoke than fear, or grief, or horror.

Learning to write sex scenes has involved a steep but deeply beneficial learning curve. Unlike in the case of action sequences, there’s a level of self-consciousness that has to be shed in order to write them, and a unique level of cringeworthy ridiculousness that’s risked by getting them wrong. But I’d far rather read more books across all genres that at least attempt to write a variety of positive, communicative sex scenes that sometimes miss the mark than continue to live in a world where sexual pleasure – and especially female pleasure – is considered more taboo and less narratively relevant than graphic torture and rape.