Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

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.

 

 

 

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 Рas is traditional Рwith 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 Рmorality 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 clich√©. 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.

 

 

Trigger warning: in-depth discussion of attempted rape.

Despite my personal love of season 6, Seeing Red isn’t an episode I’ve watched often, for obvious reasons that are, I suspect, shared by pretty much everyone who’s either a fan of Spike and/or his relationship with Buffy. The bathroom scene is fucking difficult to watch, not only because it’s so starkly realistic, but because it pushes their already broken relationship over a seriously damning line. Attempted rape lands squarely and undeniably in the category of Things For Which No Partner Should Be Forgiven Under Any Circumstances – and in real life, that’s not a rule I’m ever going to bend, because there’s literally no excuse for it. No. Excuse. At. All. But in the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey land of SFFnal narratives, where characters can be soulless or possessed or otherwise have their terrible actions contextualised and explained (if not necessarily excused) by Magical Forces At Work – and, more to the point, where our years-long investment in a particular relationship makes us unwilling to surrender the attachment on moral grounds when we could just as easily say the writers screwed up and superimpose our preferred headcanon in order to get around it – things aren’t quite so clear-cut*.

And so, the rape scene.

You guys. I don’t know what to think.

The thing is, I’d forgotten it. Forgotten, since my last proper rewatch, the pattern of the relationship that preceded it, selectively remembering only what suited me. I’ve seen commentary to the effect that, in order for Spike to have the mental break-slash-epiphany that leads to him getting his soul back, it would’ve been enough if he’d tried to kill Buffy, drain her, or turn her – anything but an attempted rape. And on one level, I agree with that wholly. Such an alternate scene might well have lacked the horrific, oh-god-no, no¬†factor the existing one inspires, but that’s kind of the point: did we really need to go there? Narratively, there were other options available that would’ve got the job done, and which wouldn’t have left such a deeply problematic stain on their relationship. However we might define Spike’s actions in terms of his character and personal history within the show, there’s no way to separate that narrative from a wider cultural context, and as such, we have to view his subsequent redemption accordingly. By forgiving Spike, whatever the supernatural reasons and specificities involved, we are ultimately saying either that his attack didn’t fit with our preconceptions of his character, and therefore we can ignore it, or that attempted rape is something we can pardon under the right conditions, and while there might well be some people out there who have, for reasons of their own, gone down such a route in their own lives and made it work, as a general theme to impart to your audience, it’s not a great one.

Thus: the problem with the rape scene isn’t that it’s inherently unrealistic, but that it’s portrayed as something that Spike can recover from – and when you present your audience with a choice between pardoning the unpardonable Because Magic or completely severing all emotional allegiance to something they love, the majority will probably choose the former; not because they’re bad people or because they’re trying to trivialise an extremely serious issue, but because the unreality of fiction absolves them from making the harder choice that, morally, they’d hopefully want to make in real life. By which I mean: if it turned out someone you actually knew, someone you’d joked with and liked and hung out with on a regular basis for five years suddenly tried to rape their ex, then the fallout in your social circle, however clear-cut the facts of the case, would be epic. And as a result, I think that most people in that situation who acknowledged the truth of it¬†would wish, however fleetingly, that the rape attempt had never happened at all, ¬†not only because that would just be better, period, but because it would make things easier for them to deal with: the emotional dilemma of having to reconcile your friendly memories of someone with their hated identity as an attempted rapist would cease to exist in an instant – and that, that very understandably human but nonetheless deeply problematic temptation right there, is the reason why I dislike the presence of rape in this narrative: because no matter what arguments we make about shitty writing and sticking to headcanon, every time we duck the issue, we’re engaging in an emotional dry-run for wanting to handwave identical problems in real life. This is not a good thing; and in that sense, it would’ve been far better if the scene had never happened.

But.

As a piece of storytelling connected to and derived from established characterisation and plot?

It makes an awful kind of sense.

Because.

(Oh, god.)

 

(And oh, how my inner shipper wishes I hadn’t noticed this, because it makes everything so much harder¬†now; queue a bout of the mental moral gymnastics detailed above, plus buckets of self-flagellation. But.)

There are serious fucking consent issues in Buffy and Spike’s relationship, and the rape scene is a deliberate callback to each and every one.

Because Buffy, thanks to a combination of self-hatred and fear of judgement, is deeply ashamed of her feelings for Spike. At the start of Tabula Rasa, when he confronts her about their kiss at the end of Once More, With Feeling, she tells him it was a one-off. But then, of course, it happens again – right at the end of the episode. As before, he confronts her at the start of Smashed; she tells him she’s disgusted with herself, and that it’s over. They argue; Buffy hits him; and when Spike hits back, he discovers his chip doesn’t work on her any more.¬†“You came back wrong,”¬†he tells her,¬†and though we later find out this isn’t true in any meaningful sense, at the time, Buffy seizes on it as a justification for all her new, dark feelings: ¬†if her lust and pain and rage are all explicable by some sort of demonic influence – if she’s not really human any more –¬†then giving full rein to her desires is not only understandable, but arguably something she’s incapable of preventing. When Spike attacks her again, she grabs him, shoves him to the wall, and kisses him – and then they keep on, quite literally, fuck-fighting. The next morning, at the start of Wrecked, Buffy regains her sense of shame and tries once more to put Spike off. “Last night was a mistake,” she says, to which he shoots back, “Bollocks. It was a bloody revelation.”¬†And then he pulls her into his lap. She tells him to stop. She tells him no. She even hits him a couple of times – and then she kisses him again. And then she pulls away from him. And then they fight. And then she leaves.

And¬†this sort of thing keeps happening. Not every time, but most of the time, if consent is initially refused by one, the other ignores it – and this is invariably shown to be the “correct” decision in terms of what the other person, usually Buffy, “really wants”. In Gone, when Spike comes to Buffy’s house in the morning, he feels her up despite the fact that she tells him no; but minutes later, he repeats the action (albeit while reclaiming his lighter) and her enjoyment of it is visible. But later in the same episode, the scales are reversed: Spike throws Buffy out of his crypt, but it’s strongly implied that before going, she ignores his request and goes down on him, even though he’s told her to get out. Their relationship is physically, sexually violent: both of them frequently bruise, cut and otherwise damage each other during sex that’s heavily implied to have BDSM and sub/dom qualities. In S7, for instance, Spike tells Buffy that “I’ve done things with you I can’t spell”, while earlier in S6’s Dead Things, he praises her for “the way you make it hurt in all the wrong places”.¬†In the same scene, Spike holds up a pair of handcuffs and asks if Buffy trusts him, strongly suggesting that she’s been the one tied down, for all that she later dreams of using them on Spike – a theory supported by the fact that, when she confesses the relationship to Tara, she asks herself aloud¬†“Why do I let Spike do those things to me?”¬†Yet though her answer to Spike’s trust question is¬†“Never”, it’s spoken in a tone that suggests she might be lying, if only to herself. And on three other occasions, we see Spike talk Buffy into having sex with him despite her initial reticence – once outside the Doublemeat Palace, once at the Bronze, and once in her front garden.

In S3’s Consequences, when Faith goes to Angel for moral support after accidentally killing a human, she tells him, with angry defiance, that¬†“Safe words are for wimps.” The line is both obvious bravado and a clear symptom of her self-destructive impulses: Faith is on the precipice of making some very dark choices, and in this moment, her youth and vulnerability contrast starkly with her aggression and rage. Three seasons later, the same line could very well be repurposed as the motto of Spike and Buffy’s sexual (though not their emotional) relationship. Contextualised by the presence of a safe word and an established set of rules, their repeated decision to ignore red flags over consent while causing physical harm to each other would be a totally different ballgame. Instead, they’re doing something that’s not only fucked up, but which is materially relevant to Spike’s actions in Seeing Red.¬†Because – and this is broken on a whole new level – not only have their sexual encounters always involved violence, but they have never established a benchmark for consent that doesn’t hinge on ignoring ‘no’ and ‘stop’.¬†So when Spike corners Buffy in her bathroom and tries to kiss her – when she pushes him away and says no – she’s effectively doing the exact same thing that has, in all their previous encounters, been interpreted as yes. Which means that he doesn’t start out trying to rape her –¬†not in the sense of his motivation, anyway. I mean,¬†that’s still what he’s actually doing, because Buffy is clearly withholding consent; but from Spike’s perspective, there’s a clear, demarcating moment when his actions actively turn to assault: when he realises the “usual” approach of grabbing and kissing isn’t enough, and says, aggressively,¬†“I’m going to make you feel it”.

But when Buffy kicks him away and stands, a look of horror crosses his face – and he stops. He says,¬†“I didn’t mean-“ but doesn’t finish the sentence. He realises what he’s done; and as he admits in S7’s Beneath You, it’s not something for which he can just apologise or ask forgiveness. It’s too big a betrayal. But in that moment in the bathroom, their whole relationship becomes a cautionary tale about the very important distinction between acknowledged, mutually agreed-upon BDSM pairings and just flat-out, fucked up, violent sex, and the absolutely vital importance of obtaining informed, enthusiastic consent on all occassions. Spike’s failure to have done so isn’t Buffy’s fault in any way, shape or form. But the fact that his assault is ultimately one big callback to their earlier lack of consent is absurdly problematic, in that it implies that his actions – at least initially – might be somewhat understandable; and that is profoundly fucking worrying, both as a thematic element and as a sign of writerly fail.

So, yeah. Regardless of whether you’re examining it in terms of action, implication, canon, context or narrative, this entire plotpoint is deeply – I’d even say irrevocably – borked. So instead of trying to pick a side, I’m just going to do what Buffy does: take things an episode at a time, and try to fight the evil where I see it.

 

*And that’s not necessarily a good thing, given its potential to influence our reactions to actual problematic behaviours in the real world by subconsciously priming us to forgive the people we’re predisposed to love, like, care about and/or feel invested in regardless of what they’ve done. I wrestle with this issue more or less constantly when it comes to my love of fictional characters whose actions are morally repugnant, but whose narratives continue to treat them as sympathetic figures after the fact. Which is bothersome on a different level: I acknowledge the existence of moral grey areas, I don’t insist on squeaky-clean heroes, and while I personally hold some specific crimes and criminals to be wholly irredeemable IRL, narratively speaking, redemption arcs are not only fascinating, but have the potential to ask some really interesting questions about the nature of heroism, anti-heroism, morality and forgiveness. So, yeah. It’s a bit of a mess. An interesting mess, to be sure! But a mess nonetheless, and in the absence of a hard answer, I tend to try and work things out on a case-by-case basis while regularly checking my subconscious assumptions by poking at them, always keeping in mind that because YMMV, my answers are not necessarily your answers. So, there’s that.

Let me show you how it works:

  1. A female, POC and/or LGBTQ politician/leader is appointed in your area. This is cause for celebration, because
  2. while you aren’t sexist, racist or homophobic, you’re all too aware of the fact that other people – and, more specifically, The System – are frequently biased in those directions, making it harder for such candidates to be accepted regardless of their qualifications. Certainly, this new person is a definite a minority among their high-powered brethren, which suggests that
  3. they must be exceptional in some way. Depending on the context, this specialness could be ascribed to any number of skills, passions or characteristics, but the most important thing is that
  4. despite their gender, race and/or sexual orientation – or rather, despite the biases of less enlightened people who consider such things a handicap – the candidate has succeeded. But no matter how glad you are to see them installed, it’s important to remember that
  5. the candidate did not succeed because of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation. Regardless of whether quotas and/or tokenism are a relevant in this instance (which depends entirely on the individual circumstances), it’s generally seen to be the job of obnoxious, right-wing objectors to claim, sneeringly, that so-and-so was only let in because of their gender, race and or/ sexual orientation, this being a basic means of undermining such a candidate’s qualifications from the get-go. Nonetheless,
  6. it’s clear that their gender, race and/or sexual orientation is a relevant factor in terms of how they’ll be perceived in their role, no matter how irrelevant it might be to their actual portfolio. But even though these details only matter to you in terms of your being happy to see The System veer away from straight white male dominion,
  7. should an instance arise (as it inevitably will) where the candidate is in a position to act (or not) on left-wing issues – and particularly where, either accurately or not, you perceive those issues to overlap with their own gender, racial and/or sexual identity – your natural expectation is for them to Do The Right Thing. And as you’ve already acknowledged that the candidate is special,
  8. you’ve automatically set yourself up to hold them – albeit with the best of intentions – to a higher moral, social and political standard than their straight, white and/or male counterparts. Even if you can acknowledge that people in positions of authority must, of necessity, compromise their own values in order to maintain alliances, get work done in the long term and keep their position within the party/organisation, all that hopefulness about seeing a female, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate in the arena can turn swiftly to feelings of betrayal should they compromise on the issues you care about,
  9. because they, of all possible candidates, should know better. But now they’ve gone and abused your trust; they’ve proved that they weren’t special after all – no better than their straight, white and/or male colleagues, really, and certainly worse in terms of causing you heartache, because of how they should have known better. And because you took their betrayal personally, rather than viewing it as a pragmatic (if irritating) function of their being a human in office, you can’t bear to support them any more. You’d feel like a hypocrite now, and anyway, keeping them in just to maintain diversity and at the expense of your principles would really be tokenism. And so you take the only remaining, logical course of action, and
  10. vote them out of office. It’s a shame they couldn’t live up to your expectations, but maybe the next woman, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate to come along will be different. After all, is it really so unreasonable to expect that your chosen leader be a flawless paragon of virtue?

Congratulations! You have now succeeded in holding minority candidates to such an unreasonably high standard on the basis of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation that you’ve effectively recreated the same type of discrimination you were so angry about in the first place. Wash, rinse and repeat, until society collapses or insomniac authors die from an overdose of facepalm.

This tutorial/rant brought to you by politics, the internet and human nature.

 

A Softer World: 642

Warning: spoilers for True Blood Season 4

Falling asleep last night, I found myself considering a question that’s been niggling at me for months: why is it that I’m fine with forgiving some True Blood¬†characters who’ve done terrible things in the past, but not others? Despite all the protestations and boundaries of my own ethical system, the distinction seems to have less to do with the type of terrible thing (up to a point) and more about why it was done.¬†By all accounts, I should find Eric Northman to be a more horrific vampire than Bill Compton; his torture and imprisonment of Lafayette alone is one of the more harrowing plots in an already gritty show. And yet, I don’t – and while a reasonable portion of that discrepancy can probably be attributed to the not inconsiderable charms of Alexander Skarsgard, the vast majority of it isn’t.

Looking at Bill’s history, we see an interwoven pattern of love and violence. For love of his maker, Lorena, he committed multiple atrocious murders, their goriness shown to us in a series of flashbacks. For love of Sookie, he took it upon himself to kill both her¬†pedophile¬†Uncle Bartlett and the¬†villainous, violent Rattrays. No matter how deserving of death we might view these characters to be, all their murders were premeditated, placing them well outside the show’s internally acceptable justification of self-defense which. By contrast, his multiple betrayals of Sookie – selling her to Queen Sophie-Anne, returning to Lorena, forcibly draining her blood – are all the worse for being committed against a loved one, even when we can acknowledge the extent to which his hand was forced.

In Eric’s case, however, there’s a sense in which the worst thing he’s done to Sookie personally (as opposed to her friends) is to buy her house and refuse to sell it back. Not only does this give him unprecedented control over her, but the house has such significance to Sookie that the threat of withholding it constitutes emotional blackmail. Compare this to earlier incidents: though Eric both tricked Sookie into drinking his blood and has forcibly bitten her, these crime are nullified – comparatively, if not absolutely – by the fact that Bill has done likewise in a far more awful manner. His history is violent, yes, but nonetheless designed to make us sympathetic: killing Nazis for one thing, and avenging his family’s murder for another. Elsewhere, his devotion to Godric and care for Pam are both used to underscore his benevolence and loyalty, whereas Bill, having first been a spy for Sophie-Anne, has more recently been revealed as a double agent, killing his queen with the aid of Nan Flanagan. Finally, there’s the terrible incident of Tara’s rape and imprisonment to consider. At the time, both Bill and Eric were witnesses to her plight, and it’s a significant mark against both of them that neither one helps her escape. The difference is that whereas Eric remains a relative stranger, his aid neither looked for nor expected, Tara and Bill are friends. When she pleads with Bill to free her, he refuses – and given what comes next, it’s this betrayal which damns him most of all.

Where am I going with this? That love is simultaneously the best and worst justification for committing terrible crimes, and also a leading cause of terribleness when love is the thing betrayed. Acting against a loved one, no matter how pure or necessary the motive, is bad. Acting for a loved one in a terrible way, no matter how pure the motive, is just as bad, but mitigated in cases of extreme necessity. Acting for a loved one in a pure or necessary way is good – which should hardly need to be said, except that distinguishing these latter instances from one another is where we tend to struggle. By this point in True Blood, pretty much every single character has either committed murder, attempted murder, betrayed their friends, run amok or otherwise behaved badly, to the extent that eliding certain events and justifying others is the only way to like anyone. But even then, some crimes stand out as¬†unforgivable – it’s just that we don’t always agree on which these are,¬†and the emotional byplay as the characters argue their respective cases is fascinating.

And that’s where the opening comic comes in: because doing terrible things for love has become the show’s¬†raison d’etre. Whether it’s Sam and Tommy’s relationship with the Migginses, Sookie sheltering a mind-wiped Eric, Tara lying to Naomi about her real identity, Lafayette dealing drugs to pay for Ruby-Jean’s hospice, Crystal imprisoning Jason, Amy betraying Hoyt, Bill imprisoning Marnie or any one of a hundred other scenarios, True Blood has somehow become a show about the intrinsic difficulties of trying to redeem dysfunction. After three seasons of madness and bloodshed, the cast has been left demoralised and broken. Nobody is innocent, and where we once were quick to judge this character or that as being virtuous or villainous, both those terms have now been rendered fundamentally moot.

As to whether that answers my opening question, I’m not sure. Every fandom has arguments against or in favour of particular characters, but in the case of True Blood, it really is impossible to hinge that debate on superior moral fortitude. For my part, the line I draw, however shakily, seems to hinge on love. Killing someone in self-defense is one thing, but killing to show how much you care is a contradiction in terms.

Unless you’re Eric Northman. Then it’s OK.

Sort of.

So, people. Have we all heard of James Frey?

Neither had I, until I checked my Google reader yesterday eve, and saw John Scalzi explaining at length why Frey should be kicked in the balls. Since then, I’ve read the original NY Times Books piece on the unimaginably sleazy contracts being pimped by his company, Full Fathom Five; writer Maureen Johnson’s take on said asshatery (spoiler: it involves criticism!); Lili Wilkinson’s POV and a redux by local blogger, Megan Bourke. All of which makes me want to put Frey in a cage fight with Nicholas Sparks, and then throw in a few rabid wolves, and then set them both on fire. With napalm. (The wolves will be spared.)

So, for those of you too lazy to click the above links, here are Frey’s crimes in a nutshell. Note that I’m stealing this summary verbatim from Maureen Johnson, partly because I, too, am lazy, but mostly because her summary is awesome. Thus:

“A few years ago, James Frey (author of ‚ÄúA Million Little Pieces,‚ÄĚ the book that was claimed to be a memoir, was picked by Oprah, then turned out to be fictional, ending with an appalling session on Oprah‚Äôs couch) decided to put together a company in order to grind out YA books. The writers who sign up to this company sign mind-boggling contracts that essentially pay them more or less nothing and offer them zero protection …

“The contract says that the company can give you credit or not give you credit, as it desires. They can force you to write another book, or they can drop you like a hot potato, for no reason.

“The contract has no audit provision. What does that mean? It means that they can pay you ANY AMOUNT OF MONEY and you just have to accept that the percentage you‚Äôre getting is the percentage you are due, and that you are getting an accurate reporting of the number of books sold. And let me tell you, even on good and honest contracts, human error is common. Companies make mistakes on their reports all the time. It‚Äôs not necessarily malicious‚ÄĒthings just get messed up. So in James Frey world, his company could provide you with statements saying the book sold one thousand copies and that the advance was fifteen dollars, and you might know that the book has sold many thousands of copies and the advance was a hundred thousand dollars, but there would be nothing you could do about it. You will literally never be able to verify the advance the book sold for, the foreign rights deals, or the sales.”

So, yeah. Urge to stab, anyone?

Now, this whole thing ammounts to an exercise in weapons-grade asshatery. And I am outraged! But what really made me crazy was the following paragraph of the NY Books piece, which itself was written by one of the MFA students approached by Frey:

“It appeared that putting out my first book wouldn‚Äôt be as easy as Frey had made it seem. But Full Fathom Five was proceeding apace. In June, Almon put out word that they were looking for new writers for four untitled young-adult projects: a project about a girl raised in a cult who ‚Äúsuddenly begins to remember her previous life‚ÄĚ; an ‚Äúuntitled paranormal love story‚ÄĚ about teen lovers, one dead, in which ‚Äúwe watch the couple struggle to communicate: he miserable in heaven, and she understandably distraught‚ÄĚ; an ‚Äúuntitled apocalypse idea‚ÄĚ about a girl who enrolls in a summer camp and ‚Äúfinds herself in for a hell of a lot more than rope climbing‚ÄĚ; and a ‚Äúhigh-school revenge project‚ÄĚ in which ‚Äúfour girls from separate cliques at a high school discover they‚Äôve all been date-raped by the same guy and team up to plot vicious revenge.‚ÄĚ

Now, look. In the right hands, all of those ideas could be awesome. In fact, being as I am both a YA fantasy/SF reader and writer, there is every chance that if I picked up a book espousing one of those plots under different circumstances, I might buy it. Neither am I some sort of crazed artistic purist, viewing the relationship between creativity and money the same way a hardcore Calvinist might the relationship between the physical body and sex, viz: as two interrelated entities that can only interact at the junction of shame and pragmatism. I get that writers want to make money – I am among them! – and I also understand that this can involve assessing what sells and what doesn’t, and then acting accordingly.

But when I see someone laying down such a seedy series of contracts as Frey has done, given his history of shameless lying for sensationalism, and in the context of creating so-called marketable concepts with the aim of outsourcing them to as-yet unnamed writers, I throw up a little in my mouth.

I mean, a story about a group of teenage girls who’ve all been date-raped by the same guy and their subsequent revenge? That synopsis ought to have a restraining order issued against the phrase “wacky hijinks ensue”, and yet in the context of Frey’s production, that’s exactly what I hear next. Let’s not even go into the idea of yet another paranormal romance about the problems of one dead teenager struggling to love a live one; or rather, let’s not go there when the concept, instead of being someone’s beloved brainchild, has inevitably been chosen for its perceived marketability by Frey and then foisted off onto a different writer who, given the contract they’ll be offered, will have no artistic control whatever.

Bottom line: at this point in the proceedings, the only thing I’d pay for in relation to James Frey is to watch him be strapped down in an arena while John Scalzi, Lili Wilkinson and Maureen Johnson kicked him in the balls, over and over again.

Goddam asshats. Must they ruin everything?

Despite the vehement protestations of my formerly nine-year-old self, chances are that I’ll have kids of my own at some point in the future. Even were that not the case, I’m still the kind of gal who routinely plunges her head into the ice-cold waters of the blogsphere, and am therefore reasonably up to date on the current furor vis-a-vis motherhood. Specifically, the fact that nobody seems to know what to make of it. As Lynn Harris points out, a lot of hate for the feminine side of parenting is being bandied about by non-parents; Emma Gilby Keller is making the case for women who haven’t heard the ticking of their biological clocks and refuse to see this as a personal failing; Gen Y mum Nicole Madigan is, not unreasonably, fed up with being treated as though mothers as a demographic are still entrenched in the 1950s; and more than one person is wondering about how children should (or shouldn’t) fit into the public sphere. No matter whose side you’re on, any discussion of modern motherhood seems to imply a certain amount of outrage, anxiety and general handwringing, which, given that the prospect of giving birth is already terrifying, let alone being responsible for a tiny helpless being encoded with an unspecified, potentially lethal mix of yours and your partner’s DNA, is about as close to notions of ‘helpful’ or ‘comforting’ as the Oort Cloud is from Earth. Which is to say, very fucking distant.

I’ll admit to being fascinated by the whole malarkey – not just because I’m an opinionated snark, or because the entire buisness reeks very faintly of rubbernecking, but because it’s something in which my future self is, presumably, invested. Like everyone else, I want to know how to do this right, but despite my historical belief in the idea that moral/social absolutes are arbitrary if necessary human constructs rather than universal fixtures, it is still something of a rank shock to discover that there is no inviolable Way of the Parent, let alone Way of the Responsible Adult. Except for that part about not sticking forks in electrical socks, which, really, is only common sense.

But I digress.

The point being, there’s a lot of parenting turmoil to wade through, most of it directed towards or inflicted upon mothers themselves. And while I’m hardly about to cut in on the stroller-bashing queue, I think I’ve finally pinned down what makes me, personally, uncomfortable about the whole buisness. It’s not the idea of the Yummy Mummy that stings, although I dislike the emphasis it puts on what are frequently unrealistic standards of beauty. It’s not the helicopter, cotton-wool parenting, either, although it makes both my inner sixteen-year-old and my outer twentysomething roll their eyes. It’s not even the obnoxious, ignore-the-kids-as-they-go-on-a-public-rampage non-approach to parenthood, or the designer stroller brigades. I might lament each one in turn, but they’re not trends I feel personally threatened by: call it crazy, madcap optimism, but I’d like to think that whatever neuroses I develop as a consequence of motherhood will have less to do with social ephemera than the quirks and peculiarities of my own offspring. No: what makes me edgy in all of this is the idea that motherhood has once again become a lifestyle.

It’s a thought which simultaneously intrigues and repulses. On the one hand, everyone has the right to choose their own life. Who am I to criticize anyone for wanting the best for their children, or for taking pride in the process? Feminism has failed, and failed roundly, if it says that a woman ceases to be a feminist the moment she decides to be a stay-at-home mother, or if she cares about the type of stroller in which she perambulates her child. But on the other hand, it feels as though the current argument that children should comfortably pervade every facet of adult life – pubs, restaraunts, movies – is a reprimand on the notion that parenthood is something adults might want to take a break from. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be easy for parents to take their children places, but even within the realms of shared public space, some areas – like parks – are more intuitively child-friendly habitats than cramped pubs. Children aren’t a disease or a nuisance, some squalid facet of humanity to be sequestered from polite society until their debutante ball: they are people, they are important, and every adult, no matter how vociferous on the subject of ‘breeders’, was one once. But neither are children accessories, undetachable scions that can’t be left off the parental radar without risk of permanent personality failure.

It’s a mess, in short, one we all have to sort through in accordance with our individual beliefs and intuitions, which goes some way towards accounting for all the different types of motherhood on offer. Sometimes, in the absence of absolute moral certainty, you just have to agree to disagree. But it’s the lifestyle element of modern mothering I baulk at: because lifestyles are all about appearances, and if there’s one thing I think childhood and parenting – and life in general, for that matter – shouldn’t boil down to, it’s an emphasis on how things look to other people, as opposed to how they actually work. And yet, this is exactly what I end up doing: looking at other mothers, who are after all the only rubric available, and judging, via their appearance, how likely they are to be engaged in the persuit of motherhood-as-a-lifestyle as opposed to motherhood-in-general. If I mistrust designer prams, Yummy Mummies and kids on parade, it’s because I worry that these are the trappings of motherhood-as-a-lifestyle, and while they certainly can be, particularly in conjunction, they are not definitive indicators. They are the accessories of stereotype, not its core. But with mothers and motherhood now so visible in public – which is a different part of the debate in and of itself –¬† it is frequently the case that these external signs are all we have to go by.

We are, in short, trying to find a definition for modern motherhood that suits. Women are juggling children and careers, personal lives and dedicated play schedules, the desire to spend time in adult company vs the practical difficulties of foisting one’s offspring off onto anyone else, even for an afternoon, in a climate where childcare costs approximately nine zillion squared to the power of sod off. We are having children at older ages, where an increased amount of disposable income to spend on the trappings of childhood – clothes, strollers, toys – often equates to time poverty, resulting in guilt and the desire to take the kids out wherever possible, even where that means sandwiching adult social time into a playdate at the local pub. And, as was ever the case, there is no easy answer. Society has changed, and mothers, intentionally or not, are changing with it. There is value in trying to stick up for what we think parenting should be, but if all that means is talking about the Good Old Days and judging by appearances, it won’t get us very far.