Posts Tagged ‘Meta’

Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and queer death.

Note: Throughout this review, it will be necessary to distinguish between the writers of Westworld the TV show, and the writers employed in the narrative by the titular Westworld theme park. To avoid confusing the two, when I’m referring to the show, Westworld will be italicised; when referring to the park, I’ll use plain text.

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This will be a somewhat bifurcated review of Westworld – which is, I feel, thematically appropriate, as Westworld itself is something of a bifurcated show. Like so much produced by HBO, it boasts incredible acting, breathtaking production values, intelligent dialogue, great music and an impeccably tight, well-orchestrated series of narrative reveals. Also like much produced by HBO, it takes a liberal, one might even say cartoonishly gratuitous approach to nudity, is saturated with violence in general and violence against women in particular, and has a consistent problem with stereotyping despite its diverse casting. In Westworld’s case, this latter issue is compounded as an offence by its status as a meta-narrative: a story which actively discusses the purpose and structure of stories, but which has seemingly failed to apply those same critiques to key aspects of its own construction.

The practical upshot is that it’s both frustratingly watchable and visibly frustrating. Even when the story pissed me off, I was always compelled to keep going, but I was never quite able to stop criticising it, either. It’s a thematically meaty show, packed with the kind of twists that will, by and large, enhance viewer enjoyment on repeat viewings rather than diminish the appeal. Though there are a few Fridge Logic moments, the whole thing hangs together quite elegantly – no mean feat, given the complexity of the plotting. And yet its virtues have the paradoxical effect of making me angrier about its vices, in much the same way that I’d be more upset about red wine spilled on an expensive party dress than on my favourite t-shirt. Yes, the shirt means more to me despite being cheaper, but a stain won’t stop me from wearing it at home, and even if it did, the item itself is easily replaced. But staining something precious and expensive is frustrating: I’ve invested enough in the cost of the item that I don’t want to toss it away, but staining makes it unsuitable as a showcase piece, which means I can’t love it as much as I want to, either.

You get where I’m going with this.

Right from the outset, Westworld switches between two interconnected narratives: the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the people who run the titular themepark, and the goings-on in the park itself as experienced by both customers and ‘hosts’, the humanoid robot-AIs who act as literal NPCs in pre-structured, pay-to-participate narratives. To the customers, Westworld functions as an immersive holiday-roleplay experience: though visually indistinguishable from real humans, the hosts are considered unreal, and are therefore fair game to any sort of violence, dismissal or sexual fantasy the customers can dream up. (This despite – or at times, because of – the fact that their stated ability to pass the Turing test means their reactions to said violations are viscerally animate.) To the programmers, managers, storytellers, engineers, butchers and behaviourists who run it, Westworld is, variously, a job, an experiment, a financial gamble, a risk, a sandpit and a microcosm of human nature: the hosts might look human, but however unsettling their appearance or behaviour at times, no one is ever allowed to forget what they are.

But to the hosts themselves, Westworld is entirely real, as are their pre-programmed identities. While their existence is ostensibly circumscribed by adherence to preordained narrative ‘loops’, the repetition of their every conversation, death and bodily reconstruction wiped from their memories by the park engineers, certain hosts – notably Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, and Maeve, the bordello madame – are starting to remember their histories. Struggling to understand their occasional eerie interviews with their puppeteering masters – explained away as dreams, on the rare occasion where such explanation is warranted – they fight to break free of their intended loops, with startling consequences.But there is also a hidden layer to Westworld: a maze sought by a mysterious Man in Black and to which the various hosts and their narratives are somehow key. With the hosts exhibiting abnormal behaviour, retaining memories of their former ‘lives’ in a violent, fragmented struggle towards true autonomy, freedom and sentience, Westworld poses a single, sharp question: what does it mean to be human?

Or rather, it’s clearly trying to pose this question; and to be fair, it very nearly succeeds. But for a series so overtly concerned with its own meta – it is, after all, a story about the construction, reception and impact of stories on those who consume and construct them – it has a damnable lack of insight into the particulars of its assumed audiences, both internal and external, and to the ways this hinders the proclaimed universality of its conclusions. Specifically: Westworld is a story in which all the internal storytellers are straight white men endowed with the traditional bigotries of racism, sexism and heteronormativity, but in a context where none of those biases are overtly addressed at any narrative level.

From the outset, it’s clear that Westworld is intended as a no-holds-barred fantasy in the literal sense: a place where the rich and privileged can pay through the nose to fuck, fight and fraternise in a facsimile of the old West without putting themselves at any real physical danger. Nobody there can die: customers, unlike hosts, can’t be killed (though they do risk harm in certain contexts), but each host body and character is nonetheless resurrected, rebuilt and put back into play after they meet their end. Knowing this lends the customers a recklessness and a violence they presumably lack in the real world: hosts are shot, stabbed, raped, assaulted and abused with impunity, because their disposable inhumanity is the point of the experience. This theme is echoed in their treatment by Westworld’s human overseers, who often refer to them as ‘it’ and perform their routine examinations, interviews, repairs and updates while the hosts are naked.

At this point in time, HBO is as well-known for its obsession with full frontal, frequently orgiastic nudity as it is for its total misapprehension of the distinction between nakedness and erotica. Never before has so much skin been shown outside of literal porn with so little instinct for sensuality, sexuality or any appreciation of the human form beyond hurr durr tiddies and, ever so occasionally, hurr durr dongs, and Westworld is no exception to this. It’s like the entirety of HBO is a fourteen-year-old straight boy who’s just discovered the nascent thrill of drawing Sharpie-graffiti genitals on every available schoolyard surface and can only snigger, unrepentant and gleeful, whenever anyone asks them not to. We get it, guys – humans have tits and asses, and you’ve figured out how to show us that! Huzzah for you! Now get the fuck over your pubescent creative wankphase and please, for the love of god, figure out how to do it tastefully, or at least with some general nodding in the direction of an aesthetic other than Things I Desperately Wanted To See As A Teengaer In The Days Before Internet Porn.

That being said, I will concede that there’s an actual, meaningful reason for at least some of Westworld’s ubiquitous nudity: it’s a deliberate, visual act of dehumanisation, one intended not only to distinguish the hosts from the ‘real’ people around them, but to remind the park’s human employees that there’s no need to treat the AIs with kindness or respect. For this reason, it also lends a powerful emphasis to the moments when particular characters opt to dress or cover the hosts, thereby acknowledging their personhood, however minimally. This does not, however, excuse the sadly requisite orgy scenes, nor does it justify the frankly obscene decision to have a white female character make a leering comment about the size of a black host’s penis, and especially not when said female character has already been established as queer. (Yes, bi/pan people exist; as I have good reason to know, being one of them. But there are about nine zillion ways the writers could’ve chosen to show Elsie’s sexual appreciation for men that didn’t tap into one of the single grossest sexual tropes on the books, let alone in a context which, given the host’s blank servility and Elsie’s status as an engineer, is unpleasantly evocative of master/slave dynamics.)

And on the topic of Elsie, let’s talk about queerness in Westworld, shall we? Because let’s be real: the bar for positive queer representation on TV is so fucking low right now, it’s basically at speedbump height, and yet myriad grown-ass adults are evidently hellbent on bellyflopping onto it with all the grace and nuance of a drunk walrus. Elsie is a queer white woman whose queerness is shown to us by her decision to kiss one of the female hosts, Clementine, who’s currently deployed as a prostitute, in a context where Clementine is reduced to a literal object, stripped of all consciousness and agency. Episode 6 ends on the cliffhanger of Elsie’s probable demise, and as soon as I saw that setup, I felt as if that single, non-consensual kiss – never referenced or expanded on otherwise – had been meant as Chekov’s gaykilling gun: this woman is queer, and thus is her death predicted. (Of course she fucking dies. Of course she does. I looked it up before I watched the next episode, but I might as well have Googled whether the sun sets in the west.)

It doesn’t help that the only other queer femininity we’re shown is either pornography as wallpaper or female host prostitutes hitting on female customers; and it especially doesn’t help that, as much as HBO loves its gratuitous orgy scenes, you’ll only ever see two naked women casually getting it on in the background, never two naked men. Nor does it escape notice that the lab tech with a penchant for fucking the hosts in sleep mode is apparently a queer man, a fact which is presented as a sort of narrative reveal. The first time he’s caught in the act, we only see the host’s legs, prone and still, under his body, but later there’s a whole sequence where he takes one of the male hosts, Hector – who is, not coincidentally, a MOC, singled out for sexual misuse by at least one other character – and prepares to rape him. (It’s not actually clear in context whether the tech is planning on fucking or being fucked by Hector – not that it’s any less a violation either way, of course; I’m noting it rather because the scene itself smacks of being constructed by people without any real idea of how penetrative sex between two men works. Like, ignoring the fact that they’re in a literal glass-walled room with the tech’s eyerolling colleague right next door, Hector is sitting upright on a chair, but is also flaccid and non-responsive by virtue of being in sleep mode. So even though we get a grimly lascivious close-up of the tech squirting lube on his hand, dropping his pants and, presumably, slicking himself up, it’s not actually clear what he’s hoping to achieve prior to the merciful moment when Hector wakes up and fights him the fuck off.)

Topping off this mess is Logan, a caustic, black-hat-playing customer who, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foursome with three host prostitutes – two female, one male – is visually implied to be queer, and who thereinafter functions, completely unnecessarily, as a depraved bisexual stereotype. And I do mean blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: I had to rewind the episode to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but it’s definitely there, and as with Elsie kissing Clementine, it’s never referenced again. The male host is engaging only with Logan, stroking his chest as he kisses and fucks the two women; it’s about as unsexualised as sexual contact between two naked men can actually get, and yet HBO has gone to the trouble of including it, I suspect for the sole purpose of turning a bland, unoriginal character into an even grosser stereotype than he would otherwise have been while acting under the misapprehension that it would give him depth. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Logan doesn’t cease to be a cocky, punchable asshat just because you consented to put a naked white dude next to him for less time than it takes to have a really good shit; it just suggests that you, too, are a cocky, punchable asshat who should shit more in the bathroom and less on the fucking page. But I digress.

And then there’s the racism, which – and there’s no other way to put this – is presented as being an actual, intentional feature of the Westworld experience, even though it makes zero commercial sense to do this. Like. You have multiple white hosts who are programmed to make racist remarks about particular POC hosts, despite the fact that there are demonstrably POC customers paying to visit the park. You have a consistent motif of Native Americans being referred to as ‘savages’, both within Westworld-as-game and by the gamewriters themselves, with Native American mysticism being used to explain both the accidental glimpses various self-aware hosts get of the gamerunners and the in-game lore surrounding the maze. Demonstrably, the writers of Westworld are aware of this – why else is Episode 2, wherein writer character Lee Sizemore gleefully proposes a hella racist new story for the park, called ‘Chestnut’, as in old? I’ve said elsewhere that depiction is not endorsement, but it is perpetuation, and in a context where the point of Westworld as a commercial venture is demonstrably to appeal to customers of all genders, sexual orientations and races – all of whom we see in attendance – building in particular period-appropriate bigotries is utterly nonsensical.

More than this, as the openness with which the female prostitutes seduce female customers makes clear, it’s narratively inconsistent: clearly, not every bias of the era is being rigidly upheld. And yet it also makes perfect sense if you think of both Westworld and Westworld as being, predominantly, a product both created by and intended for a straight white male imagination. In text, Westworld’s stories are written by Lee and Robert, both of whom are straight white men, while Westworld itself was originally the conceit of Michael Crichton. Which isn’t to diminish the creative input of the many other people who’ve worked on the show – technically, it’s a masterclass in acting, direction, composition, music, lighting, special effects and editing, and those people deserve their props. It’s just that, in terms of narrative structure, by what I suspect is an accidental marriage of misguided purpose and unexamined habit, Westworld the series, like Westworld the park, functions primarily for a straight white male audience – and while I don’t doubt that there was some intent to critically highlight the failings of that perspective, as per the clear and very satisfying satirising of Lee Sizemore, as with Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the straight white male gaze is still so embedded as a lazy default that Westworld ends up amplifying its biases more often than it critiques them. (To quote something my straight white husband said while watching, “It’s my gaze, and I feel like I’m being parodied by it.”)

Though we do, as mentioned, see various women and people of colour enjoying the Westworld park, the customers who actually serve as protagonists – Logan, William and the Man in Black – are all white men. Logan is queer by virtue of a single man’s hand on his chest, but other than enforcing a pernicious stereotype about bisexual appetites and behaviours, it doesn’t do a damn thing to alter his characterisation. The end of season reveal that William is the Man in Black – that William’s scenes have all taken place thirty years in the past, shown to us now through Dolores’s memories – is a cleverly executed twist, and yet the chronicle of William’s transformation from youthful, romantic idealist to violent, sadistic predator only highlights the fundamental problem, which is that the Westworld park, despite being touted as an adventure for everyone – despite Robert using his customers as a basis for making universal judgements about human nature – is clearly a more comfortable environment for some than others. Certainly, if I was able to afford the $40,000 a day we’re told it costs to attend, I’d be disinclined to spend so much for the privilege of watching male robots, whatever their courtesy to me, routinely talk about raping women, to say nothing of being forced to witness the callousness of other customers to the various hosts.

It should be obvious that there’s no such thing as a universal fantasy, and yet much of Westworld’s psychological theorising about human nature and morality hinges on our accepting that the desire  to play cowboy in a transfigured version of the old West is exactly this. That the final episode provides tantalising evidence that at least one other park with a different historical theme exists elsewhere in the complex doesn’t change the fact that S1 has sold us, via the various monologues of Logan and Lee, Robert and William and the Man in Black, the idea that Westworld specifically reveals deep truths about human nature.

Which brings us to Dolores, a female host whose primary narrative loop centres on her being a sweet, optimistic rancher’s daughter who, with every game reset, can be either raped or rescued from rape by the customers. That Dolores is our primary female character – that her narrative trajectory centres on her burgeoning sentience, her awareness of the repeat violations she’s suffered, and her refusal to remain a damsel – does not change the fact that making her thus victimised was a choice at both the internal (Westworld) and external (Westworld) levels. I say again unto HBO, I do not fucking care how edgy you think threats of sexual violence and the repeat objectification of women are: they’re not original, they’re not compelling, and in this particular instance, what you’ve actually succeeded in doing is undermining your core premise so spectacularly that I do not understand how anyone acting in good sense or conscience could let it happen.

Because in making host women like Dolores (white) and Maeve (a WOC), both of whom are repeatedly subject to sexual and physical violation, your lynchpin characters for the development of true human sentience from AIs – in making their memories of those violations the thing that spurs their development – you’re not actually asking the audience to consider what it means to be human. You’re asking them to consider the prospect that victims of rape and assault aren’t actually human in the first place, and then to think about how being repeatedly raped and assaulted might help them to gain humanity. And you’re not even being subtle about it, either, because by the end of S1, the entire Calvinistic premise is laid clear: that Robert and Arnold, the park’s founders, believed that tragedy and suffering was the cornerstone of sentience, and that the only way for hosts to surpass their programming is through misery. Which implies, by logical corollary, that Robert is doing the hosts a service by allowing others to hurt them or by hurting them himself – that they are only able to protest his mistreatment because the very fact of it gave them sentience.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s pretty fucking awful. The moral dilemma of Westworld, inasmuch as it exists, centres on the question of knowing culpability, and therefore asks a certain cognitive dissonance of the audience: on the one hand, the engineers and customers believe that the hosts aren’t real people, such that hurting them is no more an immoral act than playing Dark Side in a Star Wars RPG is; on the other hand, from an audience perspective, the hosts are demonstrably real people, or at the very least potential people, and we are quite reasonably distressed to see them hurt. Thus: if the humans in setting can’t reasonably be expected to know that the hosts are people, then we the audience are meant to feel conflicted about judging them for their acts of abuse and dehumanisation while still rooting for the hosts.

Ignore, for a moment, the additional grossness of the fact that both Dolores and Maeve are prompted to develop sentience, and are then subsequently guided in its emergence, by men, as though they are Eves being made from Adam’s rib. Ignore, too, the fact that it’s Dolores’s host father who, overwhelmed by the realisation of what is routinely done to his daughter, passes that fledgling sentience to Dolores, a white woman, who in turn passes it to Maeve, a woman of colour, without which those other male characters – William, Felix, Robert – would have no Galateas to their respective Pygmalions. Ignore all this, and consider the basic fucking question of personhood: of what it means to engage with AIs you know can pass a Turing test, who feel pain and bleed and die and exhibit every human symptom of pain and terror and revulsion as the need arises, who can improvise speech and memory, but who can by design give little or no consent to whatever it is you do to them. Harming such a person is not the same as engaging with a video game; we already know it’s not for any number of reasons, which means we can reasonably expect the characters in the show to know so, too. But even if you want to dispute that point – and I’m frankly not interested in engaging with someone who does – it doesn’t change the fact that Westworld is trying to invest us in a moral false equivalence.

The problem with telling stories about robots developing sentience is that both the robots and their masters are rendered at an identical, fictional distance to the (real, human) viewer. By definition, an audience doesn’t have to believe that a character is literally real in order to care about them; we simply have to accept their humanisation within the narrative. That being so, asking viewers to accept the dehumanisation of one fictional, sentient group while accepting the humanisation of another only works if you’re playing to prejudices we already have in the real world – such as racism or sexism, for instance – and as such, it’s not a coincidence that the AIs we see violated over and over are, almost exclusively, women and POC, while those protagonists who abuse them are, almost exclusively, white men. Meaning, in essence, that any initial acceptance of the abuse of hosts that we’re meant to have – or, by the same token, any initial excusing of abusers – is predicated on an existing form of bigotry: collectively, we are as used to doubting the experiences and personhood of women and POC as we are used to assuming the best about straight white men, and Westworld fully exploits that fact to tell its story.

Which, as much as it infuriates me, also leaves me with a dilemma in interpreting the show. Because as much as I dislike seeing marginalised groups exploited and harmed, I can appreciate the importance of aligning a fictional axis of oppression (being a host) with an actual axis of oppression (being female and/or a POC). Too often, SFFnal narratives try to tackle that sort of Othering without casting any actual Others, co-opting the trappings of dehumanisation to enhance our sympathy for a (mostly white, mostly straight) cast. And certainly, by the season finale, the deliberateness of this decision is made powerfully clear: joined by hosts Hector and Armistice and aided by Felix, a lab tech, Maeve makes her escape from Westworld, presenting us with the glorious image of three POC and one white woman battling their way free of oppressive control. And yet the reveal of Robert’s ultimate plans – the inference that Maeve’s rebellion wasn’t her own choice after all, but merely his programming of her; the revelation that Bernard is both a host and a recreation of Arnold, Robert’s old partner; the merging of Dolores’s arc with Wyatt’s – simultaneously serves to strip these characters of any true agency. Everything they’ve done has been at Robert’s whim; everything they’ve suffered has been because he wanted it so. As per the ubiquitous motif of the player piano, even when playing unexpected tunes, the hosts remain Robert’s instruments: even with his death, the songs they sing are his.

Westworld, then, is a study in contradictions, and yet is no contradiction at all. Though providing a stunning showcase for the acting talents of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in particular, their characters are nonetheless all controlled by Anthony Hopkins’s genial-creepy Robert, and that doesn’t really change throughout the season. Though the tropes of old West narratives are plainly up for discussion, any wider discussion of stereotyping is as likely to have a lampshade hung on it as to be absent altogether, and that’s definitely a problem. Not being familiar with the Michael Crichton film and TV show, I can’t pass judgement on the extent to which this new adaptation draws from or surpasses the source material. I can, however, observe that the original film dates to the 1970s, which possibly goes some way to explaining the uncritical straight white male gazieness embedded in the premise. Even so, there’s something strikingly reminiscent of Joss Whedon to this permutation of Westworld, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The combination of a technologically updated old West, intended to stand as both a literal and metaphoric frontier, the genre-aware meta-narrative that nonetheless perpetuates more stereotypes than it subverts, and the supposed moral dilemma of abusing those who can’t consent feels at times like a mashup of Firefly, Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse that has staunchly failed to improve on Whedon’s many intersectional failings.

And yet, I suspect, I’ll still be poking my nose into Season 2, if only to see how Thandie Newton is doing. It feels like an absurdly low bar to say that, compared to most of HBO’s popular content, Westworld is more tell than show in portraying sexual violence, preferring to focus on the emotional lead-in and aftermath rather than the act itself, and yet that small consideration does ratchet the proverbial dial down a smidge when watching it – enough so that I’m prepared to say it’s vastly less offensive in that respect than, say, Game of Thrones. But it’s still there, still a fundamental part of the plot, and that’s going to be a not unreasonable dealbreaker for a lot of people; as is the fact that the only queer female character dies. Westworld certainly makes compelling television, but unlike the human protagonists, I wouldn’t want to live there.

ETA 11/1/17: I’m annoyed at myself for having left this out of the essay, but that’s what I get for writing notes over three days and then posting while exhausted at 1.30am: There is a marked difference in how Westworld treats Dolores and Maeve, despite the ostensible similarity of their narratives. Though Dolores is continually threatened with rape and damselled in traditional ways, she’s also surrounded by men who want to ‘rescue’ her, notably Bernard/Arnold, Teddy and William, because they believe her worthy of love. From the beginning, she’s held up as an invented feminine ideal, pure and kind and needing protection, and as such, even though she’s continually threatened, she’s one of the few female hosts whose nudity is kept to a bare minimum. Whereas Maeve, by contrast, is continually sexualised, not only in her invented role as the bordello madame, but in the frequency of her nude scenes and her treatment by the other characters; she finds some sexual autonomy, but romance is never part of her narrative. Though both Dolores and Maeve have consensual sexual encounters on screen – Dolores with William, Maeve with Hector – Dolores is given a tasteful fade to black, whereas Maeve is not. Given that Dolores is white and Maeve is black and the extent to which their respective characterisation adheres to old racist tropes about, respectively, white female virtue and black female strength and sexuality, I can’t help but view their deliberate juxtapositioning as a species of racefail.

Plus and also, the way the Man in Black comes after Maeve in her previous homsteader/mother incarnation,  to kill her and her daughter, because he wants to see if he’s capable of doing something ‘truly evil’? Even – or perhaps especially – once we know how much killing he’s already done up until that point, it’s not a minor thing that his personal development is predicated on the destruction of a black woman.

 

 

 

Happy new year, internets! Globally and politically, 2016 was a clusterfuck: some good things certainly happened, but let’s not pretend that last year was a shining beacon of kittens and glee. For me, at a purely personal level, it was a mixed bag: I had a great professional year, met some amazing people, moved internationally from Scotland back to Australia and attended Worldcon in Kansas City, which was my first ever visit to the US, but the overall experience was like grinding through a really hard video game level I’d wandered into by accident and then had to fight my way out of. Which leaves me with mixed feelings about 2017: I don’t for a second think this is going to be an easy year, especially given the ongoing political legacies we’ve all been left to deal with, but I’m determined to make it a hopeful one, in the sense of striving to do good works in whatever way I can.

And as part of that, I’d like to introduce a shiny new element to the magpie’s nest that is this blog: an ongoing feature I’m calling From Ship to Shelf.

As many of you may know by now, I’m a big proponent of fanwriting in all its forms, and particularly fanfiction. While many fanfic authors are new or amateur (in the sense of being unpaid and unprofessional) writers, there are also many who write publicly in other venues: as reviewers, as bloggers, as poets, as academics, and as creators of original fictional content. Some of us tick many such boxes, others only one or two, but as I continue to be blown away by the quality and quantity of the fic I encounter, I’m particularly interested in those writers who start out in fandom and then begin to publish original content, whether via indie, self-publishing or traditional means. From Ship to Shelf is intended to highlight such authors and their works, but will also hopefully serve as a jumping off point for more and varied discussions about the role of transformative works in shaping original content.

Ideally, From Ship to Shelf will feature: reviews of books and/or original content by fanfic authors; interviews with writers who create across multiple such mediums; discussions of the academic aspects of fanfic and fandom; the relationship of queerness, feminism and intersectionality to all these things; and anything else that feels applicable. I am open to the idea of guest posts and/or reviews from interested parties, but won’t be actively soliciting such content: if you have an idea or want to direct my attention towards a relevant work or author, please let me know – otherwise, I’m going to be making this up as I go along in time-honoured Foz tradition.

So: please welcome From Ship to Shelf! I hope to have more news for you soon; otherwise, let’s get the hell on with 2017 and try to make the most of it.

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

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

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

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

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

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

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

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

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

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

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

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

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

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

But the thing is –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many other games can boast as much?

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

I look forward to finding more.

 

 

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

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

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

DEAN: Dad never treated us like that.

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

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

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

SAM: I wanna find Dad.

DEAN: Yeah, me too.

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

DEAN: For what?

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

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

SAM: Yeah, probably.

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

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

DEAN: This isn’t you talking, Sam.

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

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

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

SAM: Are you serious?

DEAN: You’ve always known what you want. And you go after it. You stand up to Dad. And you always have. Hell, I wish I—anyway….I admire that about you. I’m proud of you, Sammy.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEAN: I can’t do this alone.

SAM: Yes you can.

DEAN: Yeah, well, I don’t want to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S1E2 - Wendigo - Haley cheek kiss

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

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

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

S1E7 - Hook Man - Sam and Lori kiss

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

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

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

SAM: Maybe some sandwiches, too?

BECKY: What do you think this is, Hooters?

[She leaves the room]

DEAN, muttering: I wish.

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

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

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

ROY: Yeah, more than a little.

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

ROY: Mostly buck, sometimes bear.

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

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

S1E2 - Wendigo - Roy

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

S1E2 - Wendigo - staring after Roy

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

S1E7 - Hook Man - fratboy

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

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

S1E4 - EMF meter

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

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

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

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.