Posts Tagged ‘Narrative’

Yesterday, after tangentially mentioning Baen Publishing in a Twitter conversation about queer representation in SFF, several Baen aficionados took this as an invitation to harangue both myself and the person to whom I was was speaking about the evils of left-wing politics, both in genre and more generally. Mostly, this involved yelling about how socialism is evil and feminism is cancer, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, with a bonus discussion of Christianity in the context of various political systems. My personal highlight: the unironic claim, made by a Christian participant, that Christ was apolitical, which. Um. Yeah. About that:

You Keep Using That Word

Anyway.

While the thread eventually devolved in much the way you’d expect, the actual opening salvo by Patrick Richardson – made in response to the observation that Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, politically speaking, is somewhat at variance with the bulk of Baen’s catalogue –¬†was as follows: “It seems to be only the lefties that care about politics before story.”¬†Which view was quickly seconded by the same woman who later claimed that Christ was apolitical: “Of course! If the story is crap but the author is a nifty socialist, that’s totes awesome!”

Twitter, as anyone who routinely uses it can tell you, is good for many things, but nuanced, lengthy dialogue is¬†seldom one of them. And so, in addition to yesterday’s back and forth, I’m commenting here ¬†– because for all their brevity, these two statements perfectly encapsulate the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of most anti-diversity arguments.

I’ll deal with the second claim first, as it’s always struck me as being the most wilfully obtuse permutation of the stance. The idea that pro-diversity voices are wasting time, money and effort promoting books we don’t actually like¬†is almost cartoonishly absurd; as though diversity is a naked emperor and we the masters of his empty wardrobe. Listen: I have a toddler, a husband, an active social life, a packed writing schedule, multiple online streaming accounts and a TBR pile that stretches into infinity. If you really think¬†I’m going to waste valuable energy¬†advocating for stories that don’t give me pleasure, then either you’re projecting – which, given the willingness of certain Puppies to thusly waste their own time, is a disturbingly real possibility – or you’re grossly overestimating your knowledge of human nature.

Having already discussed, at length, the dissonance between how¬†recommendations made on the basis of diversity can appear to others and what they actually mean, I won’t revisit the details here. The salient point, however, is this: once you acknowledge that a book recommended on whatever basis is, by virtue of being recommended, a book enjoyed, then it’s virtually impossible to claim that diversity advocates are wilfully dismissive of¬†quality. Nor is the intention to treat “diverse books” as a distinct subgenre,¬†one elevated above its fellows without any regard for category or content otherwise. This¬†is, in fact, exactly the kind of ghettoisation the pro-diversity camp is actively trying to avoid – all the diverse books on one niche shelf at the back, instead of being a normal, integrated part of genre. This accusation¬†likewise ignores the fact that, actually, it’s quite common to group and recommend narratives¬†on the basis of their¬†tropes (friends to lovers, the Chosen One) or¬†thematic elements (classic quest, mythological underpinnings), particularly when we’re speaking to personal preference.

The problem is that, when talking to someone¬†who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all. Taste is always a murky thing to navigate in such arguments, but it’s an inescapable factor:¬†popularity and obscurity are both unreliable yardsticks where quality is concerned, and given the breadth of the human experience, there’s always going to be entrenched disagreement about what a good story is or should be; whether reading should¬†challenge our comfort zones or confirm them; whether it’s better to read a book that shows us our own experience or a different one. Nobody wants to be told what to like or how to like it, just as we all reserve the right to entertain ourselves on our own terms, and yet, to borrow a phrase, no man is an island. Taken collectively, our individual preferences can and do have an impact at the macro/cultural level that transcends their micro/personal origins, even though¬†the one is invariably a product of the other.

This is why the promotion of diversity is often discussed in moral/representational terms, particularly in connection with children: stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson. Even so, the idea is never that diversity should take precedence over quality, as some seem to fear, but rather, that we should aim to create stories Рstories in the plural, not the singular, though still bearing in mind the interrelationship between the individual and the collective Рwhich are both diverse and good.

So what, then, of stories that are good, but not diverse? Where do they fit in? Because, on the basis of everything I’ve said here, there’s an argument to be made – and some, indeed, have made it – that you cannot have quality without diversity at all.

While this is a useful shorthand claim to make when looking at the collective end of things as they currently stand –¬†which is to say, when acknowledging the historical lack of diversity and the ongoing need to remedy the imbalance¬†– as a dictum removed from context,¬†it not only ignores the rights of the individual, both as audience and creator, but opens up the question of whether a diverse story is¬†diverse enough. It’s a difficult problem¬†to navigate, and one that gives me a frequent headache. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that white liberal feminism (for instance) has a long and ugly history of ignoring the various racial and homophobic aspects of misogyny as experienced by women of colour and the queer community –¬†that there is, as Kimberle Crenshaw said, an intersectional component to oppression. ¬†As such, praising a novel¬†for its diversity doesn’t mean those aspects of the story are automatically exempt from criticism; far from it, in fact, which is one more¬†reason why I find the accusation that pro-diversity equals¬†anti-quality so laughable. The advocates of diversity are simultaneously its sharpest critics, and always have been, because we’re the ones who care about getting it, by whatever definition,¬†right.

But on the other hand, it’s an inescapable fact that stories are finite: no matter how much detail a given setting might contain, the author can’t focus on everything, or they’ll have no focus at all. By the same token, nothing and no one is perfect, least of all because ‘perfect’ means something different to everyone: the fact that an author drops the ball in one area doesn’t preclude them succeeding in another, and while the function of criticism is to discuss such contrasts – and while every individual reader is perfectly entitled to decide for themselves how such lines are drawn; to make their own decisions about content and execution¬†– declaring imperfection the antithesis of success does all creative efforts a disservice.

Which brings me back to that mercurial element, taste, and the fear, as expressed by Richardson, that even¬†acknowledging diversity as a factor means putting¬†“politics before story”. It’s a telling phrase: by its very construction, it implies that politics are external to stories,¬†instead of being a material component and/or a relevant lens through which to view them. Which, I would contend, they are. It’s not just that the personal is political: it’s that the political is seldom anything else. The only impersonal¬†politics are those which¬†affect other people; which is to say, they’re only ever impersonal to some, not objectively¬†so. The conflation¬†of political questions with abstract concerns can only occur when the decision-makers¬†don’t meaningfully overlap¬†with those¬†their decisions impact. Political apathy¬†is the sole province of the ignorant and the unaffected: everyone else, of necessity, is invested.

Speaking personally, then, and setting aside any other salient, stylistic factors, the¬†point at which my preference for diversity will likely see me jolted from an otherwise good book, such that I may well¬†question its claim to goodness,¬†is the point at which the¬†narrative becomes complicit in dehumanisation, particularly my own. What this means is always going to shift according to context, but broadly speaking, if an author leans¬†on ¬†offensive, simple stereotyping¬†in lieu of characterisation, or if groups that might be realistically present or active within a given context are mysteriously absent, then I’m¬†going to count that a negative.¬†Note¬†that a¬†story which is, in some active sense,¬†about dehumanisation – a misogynist culture; a slave-owning family – is not automatically the same as being complicit in¬†that dehumanisation. This is an important distinction to make: whereas a story about dehumanisation will, by virtue of the attempt, acknowledge what’s going on, even if the characters never question the setting – say, by portraying complex female characters within¬†a restrictive patriarchal system – a complicit story will render these elements as wallpaper: a meaningless background detail, like the number of moons or the price of fish, without ever acknowledging the implications.

It’s not just that, overwhelmingly, complicit stories tend to be dismissive of people like me, though that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that, at the level of worldbuilding and construction, I find them boring. One of my favourite things about genre novels is learning the rules of a new time and place – the customs, language, history and traditions that make up the setting – and as such, I don’t enjoy seeing them treated as¬†irrelevant. For instance: if I’m told¬†that the army of Fictional Country A has always accepted female soldiers, but¬†that women are the legal subjects of their husbands, with no effort made to reconcile the apparent contradiction, then I’m going to consider that a faulty piece of worldbuilding and be jerked out of the story. Doubly so if this is just one of a number of similar elisions, all of which centre on women in a narrative whose complexities are otherwise lovingly considered; triply so if there are no central female characters, or if the ones that do appear are stereotyped in turn. (And yes, I can think of multiple books offhand to which this particular criticism applies.)

Call it the Sex/Hexchequer Test: if an elaborate, invented system of magic or governance is portrayed with greater internal consistency than the gender roles, then the story is probably sexist. Which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that it has nothing else to offer and should be shunned at all costs – imperfection, as stated above, is not the antithesis of success. But if someone wants to avoid the book on those grounds, then that’s entirely their business, and at the very least, I’ll likely be cranky about it.

And thus my preference for good diverse stories, which tend not to have this problem. It’s not a question of putting politics ahead of the story: it’s about acknowledging that all stories, regardless of authorial intention, contain politics, because people are political, and people wrote them. In real life, politics only ever seem¬†impersonal if they impact someone else; in fiction, however, that’s what makes them visible. Stories aren’t apolitical just because we happen to agree with them or find them unobjectionable: it just means we’re confusing our own moral, cultural and political preferences with a neutral default. Which doesn’t mean we’re obliged to seek out stories that take us out of our comfort zone this way, or like them if we do: it just means that we can’t gauge their quality on the sole basis that this has, in fact, happened.

And yet, far too often, this is exactly what diversity advocates are criticised for doing: as though¬†acknowledging the political dimensions of narrative and exploring them, in whatever way, deliberately, is somehow intrinsically bad; as though nobody sympathetic to certain dominant groups or ideologies has ever done likewise. Well, they have: you just didn’t think it mattered overmuch, because you agreed.

It’s not about quality, Mr Richardson; it never was. It’s about visibility – who lives, who dies, who tells your story¬†– and whether or not you noticed.

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

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

Bug or feature - yes

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

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

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

To quote:

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

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

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

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

More, however, is to come:

The two generations of us who are old enough to have been alive when the original three Star Wars films emblazoned their genius into our pop-cultural legacy appreciate the nostalgia of Han and Leia‚Äôs warm embrace…¬†However, the youngest generations, the Millennials, as well as the first arrivals of the yet undefined new cohort, are internalizing very different messages about love, connection, sacrifice and the beauty and richness of both maleness and femaleness. They aren‚Äôt looking to the mature characters as their role models or heroes –

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

In the immortal words of Bender Bending Rodruigez:

oh your god

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider these claims, for instance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it’s her loss, not ours.

Skinner - the children are wrong

By this point in the media/meta cycle, oceans of virtual ink have already been spilled on the comparative flaws and virtues of Jupiter Ascending, a film that is almost universally perceived as being both nonsensical and glorious. Now that I’ve finally seen it, however – because those of us with toddling offspring¬†tend to be reliant on iTunes for our theatrical jollies, shut up – I’m moved to weigh in on the matter.¬†Specifically: while I’ve seen a great deal said about the absolute comic insanity of JA’s¬†wordlbuilding¬†– bees that recognise royalty! flying space werewolves! floating sofas! – nowhere have I seen it pointed out that actually, Jupiter Ascending¬†is basically an equally batshit redo of¬†The Matrix.

I mean, look. Internets. I get that The Matrix was kind of seminal for all of us here who saw it in our tweens and teens and twenties, and it’s such a goddamn shame they never made a sequel and all that, but really. Really. How long has it been since you actually sat down and watched it? I know that it’s a hallowed classic that tends to exist in this weirdly exalted geek mental space, but if you’re going to pass judgement on the hilarity of Eddie Redmayne’s creepy sociopath¬†voice, you’re going to need to cite me chapter and verse as to why Hugo Weaving’s inflected robot-drawl is any better. If you think it’s kinda twee that the film ends with Jupiter Jones donning space gravity boots and flying over Chicago, you have to justify why that’s inherently different to Neo rocketing into the sky in his black leather Coat of Awesome.

To be clear, I love The Matrix, and I love Jupiter Ascending. This isn’t me trying to pull down the former or devalue the latter; far from it. I’m just trying to point out that, except for the fact that¬†The Matrix has a grim cyberpunk aesthetic and a passive male protagonist who’s endlessly rescued by a hot, badass woman in black leather before finally coming into his own, while Jupiter Ascending has a colourful space opera aesthetic and a passive female protagonist who’s endlessly rescued by a hot, badass man in black leather before finally coming into her own, they’re basically the exact same fucking film.

I mean, okay. Let’s break this shit down, shall we?

At the start of their respective films, both Neo and Jupiter are dissatisfied with their everyday lives, dreaming constantly of something beyond the mundane. In both cases, we witnesses their respective love-interests – Trinity and Caine – being leather-clad badasses before they ever encounter Neo and Jupiter, which meetings are ultimately assisted/enabled by friends who only appear at the start of each story. When Neo is first taken in by Agent Smith, who vanishes his mouth and injects him with a literal tracking bug while splaying him, bare-chested, over a table, he’s left thinking that the experience was a dream, after which, it’s Trinity who proves otherwise. Similarly, when Jupiter first encounters aliens, her mind is wiped, leaving her doubtful that anything really happened; the second time, however, she’s splayed in mid-air in a hospital gown and injected in the neck, at which point, she’s rescued by Caine. Neo is initially sceptical that he’s The One, while Jupiter likewise doubts the claim that she’s a Recurrence; each character is granted their special status by right of birth with an element of spiritual predetermination – even reincarnation – in an otherwise (pseudo)scientific context, and each has the ‘real’ truth of the world explained to them by an authoritative third party – Morpheus for Neo, and Stinger for Jupiter – who acts as a mentor to their love-interest.

Once taken aboard their respective spaceships, they each encounter a smooth-speaking man – Cypher for Neo, Titus for Jupiter –¬†who, under the pretence of telling them the unvarnished truth of their new situation, effects a betrayal. This leads to the imprisonment of Morpheus and Stinger, both of whom are rescued by their prot√©g√©s, Trinity and Caine. (It’s also worth remarking that these mentor-figures each have plot-significant names: Morpheus for the king of dreams who rescues Neo from sleep, and Stinger Apini, which is doubly evocative of the bees which ultimately reveal Jupiter’s heritage.) Cue some dramatic fight scenes with lots of guns and explosions, a pair of climaxes wherein Neo and Jupiter triumph over Agent Smith and Balem Abrasax before being immediately rescued from¬†peril by Trinity and Caine, with secondary spaceship rescues also¬†effected¬†by Tank and Diomika Tsing, and a matched set of closing scenes where our protagonists soar off into the sky, and the symmetry is complete.

Note, too, that both stories hinge on combating regimes – the Machines and the Abrasax dynasty –¬†that ritualistically harvest and liquefy human beings in order to extend their own lifespans, though whereas humans created Machines in¬†The Matrix, in Jupiter Ascending, the Abrasax seeded humanity. In this sense, the two films are bookends, thematic mirror images of each other: The Matrix is dystopian, set after a cataclysm has already occurred, and so¬†ends with Neo escaping into a reality both harsher and more honest than the one he’s known.¬†Jupiter Ascending, however, which presents a more hopeful vision of the future, allows Jupiter to save the Earth before it can be destroyed: unlike Neo, Jupiter returns home with a renewed appreciation for her life, a couple of awesome gadgets and a flying werewolf boyfriend. Neo’s journey is full of self-doubt – though Morpheus believes in him, he fails his first jump in the simulator and is, at least ostensibly, denied his Chosen One status by the Oracle – and only comes full-circle when he learns to believe in himself. Jupiter’s journey, by contrast, is full of external validation: the bees confirm her as royalty, and she’s consistently treated as such, but the story ends with her realisation that she doesn’t need to rely on what other people think of her – that she is, first and foremost, in charge of her own life.

There’s an undeniable Star Wars vibe to the world of Jupiter Ascending: we’re shown lots of races living together, a complicated alien bureaucracy, fabulous costumes and futuristic technology. It’s a setting that consistently develops outwards, showing Jupiter the potential for both human and personal expansion. The Matrix, by contrast, takes place in a wasteland; ‘the desert of the real’, as Morpheus says. The false matrix can be developed inwards, a literal fantasy realm, but the actual¬†world is finite, limited, broken, and while the subsequent two films eventually show humanity making peace with the Machines, it’s a pax brokered by Neo’s death. In Jupiter Ascending, however, it’s Jupiter’s refusal to die that saves the Earth, ensuring that the planet remains in her keeping rather than passing to Balem.

As such, the primary differences between The Matrix and Jupiter Ascending can be summarised as follows:

  • One has an everyman male protagonist with a badass female love interest; the other has an everywoman female protagonist with a badass male love interest.
  • One has a gritty cyberpunk aesthetic, replete with lots of blacks, greys, greens and BDSM-style leather outfits; the other has a colourful space opera aesthetic, replete with lots of golds, purples, reds and couture-style silk outfits.
  • One is thematically dark, focussed on the consequences of hubris and the aftermath of cataclysm; the other is thematically hopeful, focussed on the possibilities of expansion and the prevention of death.
  • One has a secondary cast made memorable both by their diversity and visually distinct outfits, though most of these characters die; the other has a secondary cast made memorable both by their diversity and visually distinct outfits, though all of these characters live.
  • One has a protagonist without any apparent familial ties to a world that is subsequently proven to be imaginary; the other has a protagonist with deep familial ties to a world that is subsequently prove to be more important than ever.

In other words, and despite their many similarities otherwise, The Matrix is gritty, dark and stereotypically masculine, while Jupiter Ascending is bright, hopeful and stereotypically feminine – though both, as I said at the outset, are equally batshit. Look, don’t make that face: yes, Jupiter Ascending has bees that recognise royalty and Jupiter trying to sell her eggs for a telescope and grey abducting aliens and the ‘I’ve always loved dogs’ line and a scene where Caine gets an honest to god maxipad stuck to one of his man-wounds, but The Matrix has flying squid robots and Neo climbing along the outside of an office building because a stranger told him to and actual Men In Black and ‘there is no spoon’ and a scene where Neo dives headfirst into a pavement that goes all Looney-Tunes liquid and springs him back up again. You’re meant to laugh at obvious absurdities at various points in both of them, is what I’m saying – hell, I remember seeing The Matrix at the cinema at the impressionable age of thirteen and laughing my fucking ass off every time Agent Smith spoke – but that doesn’t meant they’re any less awesome for being purposefully comic.

I find it telling, therefore, that while both films received a certain amount of praise and censure on release, there’s a marked difference in how their respective¬†Wikipedia entries describe what is arguably a very similar critical reception, at least at the level of popular opinio. According to the entry for The Matrix:

“It was generally well-received by critics,¬†and won four Academy Awards as well as other accolades including BAFTA Awards and Saturn Awards. Reviewers praised The Matrix for its innovative visual effects, cinematography and its entertainment. The film’s premise was both criticized for being derivative of earlier science fiction works, and praised for being intriguing. The action also polarized critics, some describing it as impressive, but others dismissing it as a trite distraction from an interesting premise.

“Despite this, the film has since appeared in lists of the greatest science fiction films,¬†and in 2012, was added to the National Film Registry for preservation.”

But for Jupiter Ascending, we get this:

“Although critics praised the visuals, world-building, and originality, the general attitude toward the film was negative, with most criticism focused on incoherence in the screenplay and an over-reliance on special effects.¬†Despite this, the film has found a¬†cult following, particularly among female sci-fi fans who appreciate the film’s campiness, and that the film deviates from typical gender dynamics in a genre that is traditionally male-centric.”

And okay, look: I get, again, that The Matrix both won awards and grossed more money than Jupiter Ascending. It’s an awesome film, and a totally deserving classic! Nonetheless, it seems relevant that while both were praised for their visual effects, Jupiter Ascending is deemed to have an ‘over-reliance’ on them that The Matrix, a film which showed a helicopter crashing into a glass skyscraper in slow motion and which basically pioneered the ‘combatant frozen in midair while the camera spins around them’ trick, apparently lacks. Similarly, while the weirdness of The Matrix doesn’t stop it having an ‘interesting premise’, Jupiter Ascending has ‘incoherence in the screenplay’, despite the fact that they’re both telling largely identical stories.

So¬†while it’s not a new opinion that Jupiter Ascending is deeply reminiscent of the tropes of teen girl¬†fanfiction – hello, angel werewolf boyfriend!¬†– and while it’s similarly been stated that most action movies are, in fact, written as million-dollar endorsements of the fantasies of teenage boys, I haven’t seen it pointed out that, in this case, you’ve already got a film written and directed by the exact same people telling the exact same story but in a thematically inverted way, such that you can arguably use it as yardstick for gauging the extent to which the comparative femininity and hopefulness of Jupiter Ascending¬†have counted against it in the popular consciousness.

All of which is a way of saying: Jupiter Ascending is both awesome and flawed, but no more so than The Matrix, which leads me to think there’s more than a little sexism involved in its constant devaluation. Which doesn’t mean you’re sexist for thinking The Matrix is a better film – to each her own, as they say. But JA is space opera, which is meant to be lavish and rich and weird, and given that the Wachowskis are predominantly vaunted for The Matrix and V for Vendetta, which are gritty and dystopian and yes, stereotypically masculine, I can’t help feeling that Jupiter Ascending is frequently judged a failure simply for not being those things, instead of for its performance of an inherently campier genre.

Basically, I loved it, and you will prise my hovering space-throne sofas from my cold, dead hands.

Warning: all the spoilers for Kingsman.

For a week or so now, I’ve been wanting to talk about¬†Kingsman: The Secret Service,¬†which I was finally able to watch, and which I genuinely loved. Not only is it an engaging, well-acted, well-scripted action movie that is funny, touching and littered with pop cultural hat-tips, but it manages the difficult trick of being both an homage to and a biting debunk of the James Bond franchise. Specifically: Kingsman takes all of Bond’s hallowed trappings – the spy gadgets, the sharp suits, the suave badassery – and explicitly removes both the misogyny and the classism that traditionally underpins them.¬†Being a Kingsman, or gentleman spy, as explained by veteran Harry Hart to¬†prot√©g√© ¬†Eggsy Unwin, isn’t about having the right accent or upbringing, but “being comfortable in your¬†own skin” – the exact opposite of Bond’s womanising, macho fa√ßade and aristocratic heritage.

In taking this stance, Kingsman also takes a stab at traditional, toxic notions of masculinity. Eggsy, we’re told, was once a skilled gymnast – possibly even Olympic-level material – but was forced to stop because of his violent, sexist stepfather’s ideas about gender roles. Eggsy is protective of his mother and younger half-sister, Daisy, and respectful of his colleague, Roxy, without ever being paternalistic or condescending, because Eggsy’s version of masculinity – the version encouraged by Harry Hart – is predicated on treating women as equals. Similarly, when confronted by the privileged, upper-class snobbishness of the other young white men in Kingsman training, it’s¬†both striking and significant that the three outsiders – that is, lower-class Eggsy and the two female candidates – instantly bond together against them. This kind of intersectional solidarity across the boundaries of class, gender and, I would argue, sexuality (though we’ll come to that later) isn’t something you often see in action films; and nor is there¬†a whisper of either competition or romance between Eggsy and Roxy. Instead,¬†we’re given a situation where the two outsiders become, not lovers or rivals, but friends, their relationship one of mutual respect and support, and given how rarely that happens, I’m always going to appreciate it.

On the downside, it stands out that all the Kingsman candidates are still white; as does the fact that the villains, Valentine and Gazelle, are, respectively, a MOC¬†who speaks with a lisp and a disabled WOC. Given the whiteness and overwhelming maleness of the Kingsmen, this isn’t a great state of affairs; but at the same time, both Valentine and Gazelle are spectacular, memorable characters. In defiance of stereotypical roles for black men, Valentine – played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson – is a software genius who gets sick at the sight of blood, while Gazelle, a double amputee, fights ruthlessly using her leg-blades. And while it doesn’t quite compensate for casting POC villains against an otherwise white cast, it’s nonetheless salient that the film expressly chooses to hang a very meta lampshade on the James Bond parallel in the following conversation between Harry Hart and Valentine:

Valentine: You like spy movies, Mr DeVere?

Harry: Nowdays, they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones? Marvellous. Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.

Valentine: The old Bond movies Р oh, man! Oh, when I was a kid, that was my dream job: gentleman spy.

Harry: I always felt the old Bond films were only as good as the villain. As a child, I rather fancied a future as a colourful megalomaniac.

Valentine: What a shame we both had to grow up.

This exchange is telling on several levels: not only does it expressly evoke the contrast with Bond while making a neat comparison between Harry and Valentine, but it makes a very literal statement about the reasons behind Valentine and Gazelle’s characterisation. When Harry says that modern spy films are ‘a little serious’, the camera pans to Gazelle’s bladed legs, which she’s artfully displaying for him: Kingsman is not a serious film, and in this moment, we’re meant to recognise its self-aware attempt to recapture the hijinks of classic Bond while simultaneously making something new. But by the same token, a not insignificant portion of Kingsman’s strength comes from its villains – from their originality, vibrancy and memorability. So while the decision to present the Kingsmen as an all-white institution battling two POC villains is still problematic, especially at the level of visual/thematic storytelling, it also gives us two extremely charismatic POC characters: Gazelle’s fight scenes are some of the most amazing I’ve seen in a long time, and given the extent to which this turned her disability into a strength, it’s significant that, when she is defeated, it’s not because this strength is somehow recast as a weakness. She is never rendered helpless, her weaponised disability is never turned into an Achilles heel, and villain or not, Gazelle is undeniably awesome.

By the same token, it’s also significant that the film’s ultimate concept of villainy isn’t personified by Valentine and Gazelle at all, but rather by men like Arthur and Kingsman dropout Charlie¬†– that is to say, by rich, privileged, powerful white men who’ll happily crush others to ensure their own survival – and, at the other end of the scale, by agents of toxic masculinity like Eggsy’s stepfather, Dean, who routinely asserts his dominance through aggression and domestic violence. In fact, there’s a neat parallel between Eggsy and Roxy’s infiltration of the Kingsman system and Valentine and Gazelle’s calculated ascendency through the echelons of privilege: all four characters are agents of change against the entrenched systems of (straight, white, male) power. As such, it’s notable that the implants Valentine has his wealthy¬†patrons wear to protect against his ultimate, population-thinning weapon also gives him control over them: Valentine exploits the self-serving nature of his clients’¬†survival instinct, but clearly has no intention of handing over the reins to the same class of people who, according to his philosophy, ruined the world in the first place.

If this was all there was to the substance of Kingsman, it would still be an excellent movie. But what I really want to dissect is the extent to which Kingsman can be read as a direct challenge to the idea of heteronormativity as a narrative default, and why this is so important.

In our culture, the unspoken rule – not just in storytelling, but in real life – is that everyone is assumed to be straight until proven otherwise. This is why, for queer people, coming out is never just a thing you do once: we have to do it over and over in endless new social contexts, because unless we expressly state our sexual orientation, most people – and especially straight people – will assume we’re heterosexual. There are many frustrating consequences to this, one of which is the struggle to see queer interpretations of narrative treated with the same subtextual validity as their straight counterparts. There are, for instance, plenty of tropes which, if enacted between a man and a woman, are invariably seen – and, indeed, treated as – inarguable preludes to romance: the classic establishment of a “will they, won’t they” UST dynamic, as per the lead pairings in shows like Bones, Castle and Fringe. Over and over again, we’re taught that such tropes are implicitly romantic; but when the same narrative devices are used to create charged encounters between two men or two women, these same implications are often fiercely resisted. Even in scenarios where a character’s sexuality has never been expressly stated – even if we’ve never seen that character involved in a canonical romantic relationship – they’re still assumed to be straight; and if they have had a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, then (the dominant logic says) they can’t possibly be bisexual or closeted or anything other than 100% hetero, because queerness, unlike straightness, can never be implicit or subtextual: it’s either overt, or it isn’t there at all.

As such, and because popular narratives are overwhelmingly more likely to canonise straight pairings than queer ones, the on-screen¬†PDAs of confirmed heterosexual couples end up being used as yardsticks for the validation of queer relationships. That is: until or unless a proposed queer couple meets the minimum standard for PDAs as established by a straight couple in the same story, then none of their interactions can be deemed romantic, even if, prior to the straight relationship becoming canon, it was still assumed to be a valid romantic prospect due to the presence of the same romantically-charged tropes now deemed insufficient to legitimise the queer relationship. (Because heteronormative double standards, that’s why.)

But now, consider Kingsman: a film in which there isn’t a single straight kiss on screen. Though Eggsy’s mother is married to Dean, the relationship is an abusive one, and we never see any affection between them. Though we’re given snippets of physical contact between Valentine and Gazelle that hint at a romantic relationship, it’s never confirmed aloud. And though Eggsy, in another reference to classic Bond, supposedly ends the film by sleeping with a princess – and although we see her half-naked in bed, rolling over for him – we don’t actually see them do anything together. Which means that, somewhat unprecedentedly, there’s clear subtextual parity between straight and queer interpretations of Kingsman: the usual bar is set so low that, as nobody in the whole film either kisses anyone or overtly declares their sexual preferences, any move to interpret the characters as straight on the basis of tropes, word usage and behavioural cues alone grants equal validity to the thesis that they’re queer for the same reason.

For instance: as part of their Kingsman training, Eggsy, Charlie¬†and Roxy are all asked “to win over… in the Biblical sense” a chosen target – the same target, in fact, for each of them: a pretty young woman. All three trainees are subsequently seen attempting to do just this, and while none of them succeeds, the fact that Roxy is asked to seduce a woman alongside Charlie¬†and Eggsy – coupled with the fact that she appears just as enthusiastic about it as they do – is arguably suggestive of her queerness. Even if a viewer set on a heteronormative interpretation wants to insist that Roxy is only ‘playing gay’ for the sake of the mission, on the basis of the evidence, it’s just as likely that Eggsy and Charlie¬†are both queer men engaged in ‘playing straight’. By which I mean: if it’s possible that one of the trio is willing to seduce the target despite their own sexual preferences, then it’s just as likely that this person is Eggsy or Charlie¬†as it is Roxy, not only because each of them is equally willing to attempt an explicitly sexual conquest, but because we have no canonical reason to think any of them are straight. By the same token, if Eggsy and Charlie’s enthusiasm is proof enough to deem them sexually attracted to women even without any followthrough, then the same must logically be true of Roxy. As such, the only way to insist that there are no queer characters in Kingsman is to purposefully enact a heteronormative double standard that goes above and beyond the usual yardstick set by straight PDAs: to insist that subtext is enough to prove straightness, but insufficient to prove queerness, even under identical conditions.

Canonically, therefore, there is at least one queer character in Kingsman¬†– but, just as canonically, it’s the viewer’s prerogative to decide who they are. The only other narratives I’ve ever known to pull this trick successfully are Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, where the use of ‘she’ as a default pronoun by the inhuman narrator means that determining individual gender – and, in the case of characters stated to be in relationships, sexual orientation – is entirely up to the reader.

As such, building a case to support the queerness of particular Kingsman characters is more than just an academic exercise: it’s a necessary means of engaging the canon through subtext. And thus, consider Eggsy Unwin. When Eggsy and Harry’s conversation in the pub is interrupted by Dean’s cronies, Harry goes to leave – until, that is, one of the men calls out:¬†“if you’re looking for another rent boy, they’re on the corner of Smith Street”. Now, given that Eggsy is, in canon, perfectly willing to engage in criminal activities to financially support his family – and given that the speaker knows this – his word choice becomes significant. He doesn’t tell Harry to find a rent boy, but another¬†rent boy, thereby implying that Eggsy is one himself. Ordinarily, if such a line were delivered in a film whose straight yardstick demanded a higher burden of proof for queerness than subtext alone,¬†the heteronormative assumption would be that this is only an insult, meant to demean Eggsy by implying both that he has sex for money, and that he does so with men, thereby besmirching not only his straightness, but Harry’s. But even¬†if we agree that, yes, the statement is undoubtedly meant to be insulting, the phrasing suggests the possibility that it’s also true – that Eggsy either is or was a rent boy, and is therefore potentially* queer.

If we choose to interpret this line¬†as proof of Eggsy’s queerness, then, a subsequent conversation with¬†Harry would seem to endorse it further.¬†When Harry tries to explain to Eggsy what their relationship as Kingsmen will be, this exchange takes place:

Harry: Did you see the film Trading Places?

Eggsy: No.

Harry: How about Nikita?

Eggsy: [shakes his head]

Harry: Pretty Woman?

Eggsy: [scrunched face of near recognition, as though he’s heard of it, but not seen it]

Harry: All right. My point is, the lack of a silver spoon has set you on a certain path, but you needn’t stay on it. If you’re prepared to adapt and learn, you can transform.

Eggsy: Oh, like in My Fair Lady!

Harry: Well, you’re full of surprises. Yes, like My Fair Lady. Only in this case, I’m offering you the opportunity to become a Kingsman.

What’s¬†interesting about these cinematic comparisons is that each film suggests a different set of implications for Eggsy and Harry’s relationship, though all are predicated on a poor or disenfranchised person (Eggsy) being given a second chance by someone more powerful (Harry). Trading Places is about a male hustler given an opportunity to succeed by a powerful man, albeit in a cynical context; Nikita is about a female criminal trained as an assassin by a powerful man; Pretty Woman is about a female prostitute and¬†a rich man falling in love; and My Fair Lady – which, crucially, is the one, they both agree on – is likewise about a poor woman being trained into aristocratic manners by a educated man, with the two eventually falling in love. Of these four comparisons, only one references a relationship between two straight men (though interestingly, in Trading Places, the Harry character still befriends a female prostitute); the other three all compare Eggsy to a female character whose primary relationship is with a man, once platonically (Nikita) and twice romantically (Pretty Woman and My Fair Lady). In a film that’s already had one character refer to Eggsy as a rent boy, the comparison with Julia Roberts’s character arguably takes on double significance, and when you couple this with the fact that both Harry and Eggsy choose cinematic examples that suggest the potential for a romantic relationship between them, there’s a compelling case to be made that this is, in fact, exactly what’s happening. (The fact that, in a later scene in the same location, Harry makes a joke about Eggsy losing his suit-wearing virginity – “one does not pop one’s cherry in fitting room two” – is also suggestive of sexual/romantic banter between the two.)

There is, in other words, a very good reason for the vast quantity of Hartwin slash that began appearing on my tumblr dashboard long before I ever saw the film: canonically, we have as many¬†reasons to think that Eggsy is a bisexual action hero as he is a straight one, and if we could be forgiven for seeing a romantic subtext to Harry’s¬†Pretty Woman/My Fair Lady/cherry-popping comments were Eggsy’s character female, then it’s only reasonable to suggest that same subtext applies between two men. Personally, I like to think that Charlie, Roxy, Eggsy and Harry are all queer – and the best part is, you can’t tell me otherwise.

Kingsman, then, while flawed in some respects, is nonethless a thoroughly fun – and, I would argue, surprisingly subversive – film. Certainly, it’s one of the more enjoyable action flicks I’ve seen in a long time, and when the promised sequel arrives, I’ll definitely be in line to see it.

 

*In the context of sex work for financial necessity, of course, there’s no default assumption that a person’s choice of client reflects their preferences otherwise. Nonetheless, when it comes to subtextual interpretations of narrative, we can argue that, in this case, it does, provided we stop short of assuming it always must.

(Correction, 11.06.15 РIn the original version of this post, I mistakenly listed Charlie’s character as Rufus. This has now been fixed.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Warning: All the spoilers for Supernatural, especially Season 10. Trigger warning: discussion of rape.

The first time I tried to watch Supernatural, I gave up midway through the first episode, irked¬†by the show’s highly stereotyped portrayal of women. Though I subsequently found myself sucked back in by the promise of the premise and lead characters both – and while I’ve never been shy about my affection for the show overall –¬†the range and treatment of female characters in the first nine seasons has, with few exceptions, remained disappointing.

Traditionally, Supernatural¬†has¬†used¬†the deaths of women as emotional motivators in the developmental arcs of its male protagonists, all of whose pasts are littered with female loss. Beginning with Mary Winchester and Jessica Moore in the very first episode, the body count steadily ratchets up, claiming established characters like Ellen and Jo Harvelle, Bela Talbot, Ava Wilson, Pamela Barnes, Anna Milton, Meg Masters and Ruby alongside women whose connection to the Winchesters, or to other male characters, is frequently rendered equivalent to wearing a red shirt in Star Trek.¬†Sarah Blake, Madison, Tessa, Emma, Karen Singer, Channing Ngo and Gwen Campbell, to name just a few, all die to amp up the emotional tension for the boys, and while Dean’s girlfriend, Lisa Braeden, escapes alive, the fact that she does so with her memories wiped denies her any agency in the decision.

Though undoubtedly a show whose male characters also die in staggering numbers – getting close to Sam and Dean Winchester is practically a death sentence, regardless of gender – Supernatural has also tended to offer its men both a higher chance of resurrection and a wider range of characterisation, and when you couple this fact with the highly sexist language of the early seasons in particular, it’s easy to see why the majority female fanbase has often felt, if not underappreciated, then certainly misunderstood by the show’s creators. The fact that the series was originally intended to attract a male audience – a fact incorporated into¬†early meta episodes like ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ (5.9), which portrayed the fanbase for the Supernatural books as predominantly male – goes some way towards explaining this; the creators expected one type of audience and found themselves with another.¬†This does not, however,¬†excuse the treatment of the female characters, even early on: a story may be intended by its creators to be male-oriented without disrespecting, stereotyping or belittling either women or femininity, and vice versa (though our frequent failure to make such a distinction is of a piece with the rest of our cultural baggage around gender roles, and looks to remain so for some time).

Yet slowly but surely, Supernatural has begun to catch up to its own audience, introducing recurring female characters like Charlie Bradbury, Jodie Mills and Donna Hanscum, and making a (mostly) sincere attempt to engage with its fans on topics like queerbaiting, shipping, diversity¬†and sexism. Which isn’t to say the dialogue isn’t prone to insensitivity, missteps and¬†one-sided preaching, or that all parties¬†have always been respectful of one another; the conflicting opinions run too deep for that, and after ten years on the air, three different showrunners and the omnipresent spectre of network approval as a meddling factor, the various camps – both within the fanbase and the show itself – are entrenched enough that sometimes, agreeing to disagree is as close to a compromise as can be managed.

Undeniably, one of, if not the most contentious such¬†issue is the question of Dean Winchester’s sexual orientation. With a significant portion of the internet¬†currently revelling in the popularity of Dean and Castiel’s still-apparently-platonic relationship – according to tumblr’s year-end statistics, Destiel is now the most popular ‘ship on a site with somewhere between 30 and 50 million users, while multiple media outlets, including¬†Buzzfeed, MTV¬†and¬†TV Guide,¬†have all described them as a romantic couple – the fact that the pair have shared the screen¬†in only two of the current season’s nine episodes hasn’t gone unnoticed, leading to rampant speculation about what this might mean, given that the show’s 200th episode, ‘Fan Fiction’ (10.5), expressly mentions Destiel as a concept. (And with the recent confirmation of a canon romance¬†between the two lead female characters of Avatar: The Legend of Korra¬†– a relationship heavily and deliberately inferred throughout the show, but never made explicit due to network pressures – the question of Destiel, and of how we distinguish ‘romantic’ vs ‘platonic’ relationships on screen between same sex couples where PDAs are verboten, seems more pertinent than ever.)

Which is perhaps why Season 10 of Supernatural has, in some quarters, been met with a critical reception not dissimilar to that of Season 8 of The X-Files, when viewer anxiety over the fate of Agent Fox Mulder, absent and presumed dead until the finale, lead to the dismissal of a narrative arc that was otherwise much stronger than that of the preceding Season 7. Indeed, one of the reasons that rewatching a film or rereading a book is not only emotionally satisfying, but (I would argue) critically necessary, is that the context in which we encounter a story¬†can dramatically alter our perception of it. Though TV shows air week to week, with the distribution of episodes frequently spaced around one or more season breaks, they are still constructed as narrative wholes, and as such,¬†there’s a world of difference between watching the finished product unspoiled, as it airs, and watching the same episodes spoiled, in a glut, or for the second time. That being so, anyone watching the first half of Season 10 of Supernatural in tense¬†anticipation of Dean/Cas interactions – and it’s hardly a small number of fans who are thus invested¬†– may well have been, not only¬†disappointed, but actively frustrated. Apart from ‘Soul Survivor’ (10.3) and ‘The Things We Left Behind’ (10.9), Dean and Castiel are kept apart, moving along narrative trajectories that not only failed to intersect, but which saw both of them romantically engaged, however fleetingly, with different women.

On the Destiel front, then, Season 10 has thus far been slow going. But despite the wider implications of Dean and Castiel’s relationship, it would be a grave mistake – and even, I’d go so far as to say, an actual injustice – to judge the latest season purely through this lens. Because not only is Season 10 steadily unfolding a coherent, engaging narrative arc built, unlike the melodramatic angel wars of Season 9, on the importance of human relationships, it’s also doing something utterly unprecedented in the history of Supernatural: it’s wholeheartedly handing the reins to the women, and doing so with a respect, a sincerity and a deftness of touch that’s all the more powerful for coming from a show with such firmly¬†sexist beginnings. It’s a tonal shift so profound and omnipresent across every single episode as to be inarguably deliberate, and when taken as a whole, the effect is gamechanging.

To give a sense of the extent of the shift, while only 20.93% of episodes across the first eight seasons passed the Bechdel Test, and with Season 9 not much better, the pass rate for Season 10 thus far is 100%. That’s a staggering improvement even before you get to actual context of the episodes themselves, and once you do, the results are even more profound. There simply isn’t another way to put it: Season 10 of Supernatural¬†is fundamentally invested in discussing issues of sexism, gender roles¬†and female agency, and has managed to do this without either retconning the main characters, turning them into white knights or changing¬†the tone of the show, and if that’s not an endeavour worthy of praise, then I don’t know what is.

Right from the outset, sexist and misogynistic behaviour is actively subjected to criticism. In¬†‘Black’ (10.1), Demon!Dean is shown to be in a sexual relationship with Ann Marie, a waitress at a bar. When her ex shows up and corners her, Dean violently beats him, his aggression fuelled by the Mark of Cain – but though Dean tries to pass his actions off as chivalrous – ‘I protected your honour, didn’t I?’ – Ann Marie calls him out. ‘Seeing you take on Matt,’ she says, ‘I was like, no one’s ever done that for me before. But then you kept going and going, and I realised whatever is going on with you has nothing to do with my honour at all.’¬†They argue, and Dean eventually responds by calling Ann Marie a ‘skank’ – but again, she gets the last word, leaving the audience¬†in no doubt as to how unacceptably she’s being treated: ‘Now, see? I’m so screwed up myself I’m gonna walk out of here thinking I actually deserved that.’

Similarly, in ‘Reichenbach’ (10.2), we see Demon!Dean at a strip club, where he touches a dancer without permission, then beats up the bouncer who comes to her rescue, his behaviour¬†presented as a consequence of the Mark of Cain. Yet in the same episode, when Crowley sends Dean to kill the cheating wife of a man, Lester, who sold his soul for the hit, Dean ends up killing Lester instead, disgusted by¬†his misogynistic double standards – he wants his wife dead because of her infidelity, yet freely confesses to having cheated first, because ‘It’s different when guys¬†do it.’ In an episode that’s expressly about Dean’s ambiguous moral status – sometimes demonic, yet sometimes not; enough so that Crowley yells at him to ‘Pick a bloody side!’ – it’s not an accident that Dean’s disrespect of women is presented as demonic, while his championing of them hints at his humanity. Elsewhere in the same episode, angel Hannah goes to visit the imprisoned villain, Metatron, who taunts her in an aggressively sexist fashion, leering as he refers to the ‘white-hot spark’ between them and describing her as ‘desperate to be dominated’.¬†¬†Hannah responds, very satisfyingly, by slamming Metatron’s face into the bars of his cell, and while Castiel is present for some of their exchange, it’s notable that Hannah is the one given the satisfaction of responding to Metatron’s abuse, just as Ann Marie was given the space to name and shame Dean’s cruelty.

This respect for female agency is pivotal to the season’s success: though misogyny is consistently entangled with villainy across all nine episodes, its status as an expressly gendered form of abuse, rather than just another type of evil, is always made clear, while the women it affects are, without fail, validated in their responses. Though Sam, Dean and Castiel are far from bystanders, over and over and over again, Season 10 gives us women who save themselves and each other, and whose cathartic moments of confrontation aren’t stolen by the boys. In ‘Paper Moon’ (10.4), it’s returning werewolf Kate who ultimately kills her renegade sister Tasha, not the Winchesters, while both the captured women in ‘Fan Fiction’ (10.5) and their showrunning friends are treated as equal participants in the defeat of the goddess Calliope, their right to interpret the Supernatural stories validated by both Dean and – more pertinently – Chuck.

Which isn’t to say that women are consistently saints through Season 10; far from it. Along with Tasha and Calliope, we’re also given other female villains in the form of renegade angel Adina, shapeshifter Olivia and the witch Rowena, Crowley’s long-lost mother and a likely candidate for the season’s Big Bad. Additionally, in ‘Ask Jeeves’ (10.6), we’re also given Heddy and Beverly, older women who make an effort to foist themselves on Sam despite his obvious discomfort. Though their characterisation is part and parcel of the episode’s Cluedo theme of stereotypical socialites in a murder mansion, it’s one of the few sour notes as regards the season’s portrayal of gender; not because the women are sexually confident, but because they repeatedly ignore Sam’s boundaries in a way that’s played for laughs without being called out as inappropriate, their eagerness and age presented as¬†justification to view them as comic.

The fact that this is the only instance of demonstrable sexism that goes unchallenged in the season* is striking: a blind spot on the part of writers who are otherwise making a clear effort. But then, Sam being assaulted by women for laughs is a running joke in Supernatural, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why it snuck through unchallenged: prior to the events of ‘Ask Jeeves’, there was his drugging by and marriage to Becky Rosen, his longtime stalker, in ‘Season Seven, Time For A Wedding!’ (7.8) and his groping by Gertrude Case (also an older woman) in ‘Red Sky at Morning’ (3.6).¬†What makes this gag even more objectionable in Sam’s case, however, is the fact that he is, canonically, a victim of rape – a revelation¬†made explicit in ‘Hello, Cruel World’ (7.2), when he hallucinates Lucifer calling him ‘bunkmate’ and reminiscing about their time in the Cage, when Sam was ‘[his] bitch, in every sense of the word’. There is literally no other way to interpret this than as an admission of rape, and yet this detail¬†is never addressed again. Instead, Sam continues to be assaulted for laughs – because undesirable women wanting him is funny; because their touching him despite his discomfort is apparently even funnier – and while his experience with specific tortures demonstrably triggers him at other times, sexual assault, for all that it happens repeatedly, never does.

That being said, in all other respects, Season 10 endeavours to be sensitive on the subject of sexual abuse. In ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ (10.7), when Sam and Dean encounter a demon-run brothel, it’s significant that the phrase used to describe the treatment of the (human) women is ‘forced prostitution’, rather than simply prostitution alone – a pivotal distinction between choice and coercion. Again, the emphasis on female agency comes to the fore: when her pimp is tricked into a confrontation with the Winchesters, it’s Shaylene who responds to his misogynistic abuse by killing him, and while this cuts short the interrogation, she still manages to provide the necessary information on her own initiative. Elsewhere, two other women, Catlin and Elle, are ‘rescued’ from similar circumstances by Rowena, whose magical abuse soon leads to Elle’s death. But when Rowena tries to talk Catlin into sticking with her, praising her as ‘strong’ while calling Elle¬†‘weak’,¬†Catlin responds by agreeing that yes, she is strong – at which point, she punches Rowena in the face and walks away. Adding a further layer to their interactions is the fact that, prior to Elle’s death, Rowena tries to manipulate the women into trusting her by taking them to a fancy restaurant. When the head waiter snobs Catlin and Elle because of their clothes, Rowena casts a spell to make him do their bidding, and while her motives are unquestionably selfish¬†and cruel – like Elle, the waiter dies – this is nonetheless another instance¬†of sexism (Elle and Catlin are upset by the waiter’s attitude, then happy at being allowed to stay) that’s flagged as such in the narrative.

Further fleshing out the depiction of female agency in ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ is Hannah’s decision to let her vessel, Caroline, return to her husband. Throughout the season, we’ve seen Hannah struggle to understand humanity and human feelings in much the same way that Castiel once did; she experiments with her body and the reactions it can elicit from both herself and Cas, but when confronted by Caroline’s husband, she reconsiders her claim on the person¬†she’s wearing. ‘Caroline was inside me, screaming out for him, for her life back,’ Hannah says. ‘These feelings – they aren’t for me, for us. They belong to her.’¬† And thus comes one of the most powerful, graceful exits of a female character in the entire run of Supernatural: Hannah not only¬†chooses to leave, but does so in a way that is expressly considerate¬†of the wishes of another woman, Caroline. That we don’t hear the dialogue between them doesn’t make its impact any less real. Both Hannah and Caroline are granted agency through a respectful negotiation, and when Castiel watches Caroline’s reunion with her husband, he’s prompted to consider the former family of his own vessel, Jimmy Novak, in turn.

When it comes to depiction of female friendship and agency, however, the relationship between Sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum in ‘Hibbing 911’ (10.8) is hard to beat. Not only is this a funny, engaging episode in its own right, but it manages the trick of taking two very different adult women – Jody is wry and antisocial; Donna is smiles and sunshine – and realistically developing their relationship in the context of a monster-of-the-week case. Again, there’s an emphasis on calling out sexism: both women are condescended to by a male gunseller, whom they eyeroll and mock, while Donna’s douchey ex-husband repeatedly fat-shames her until Jody gets him to stop. The fact that Jody actually calls his behaviour ‘fat-shaming’ while simultaneously reassuring Donna about her body is the kind of representation that we badly need more of; even better, however, is the fact that Donna is still allowed to feel embarrassed and upset at Jody speaking for her, rather than being obliged to accept the defence without comment. Both women are existing characters with complicated personal histories: though Jody has a teenage daughter, Alex, to care for, their relationship isn’t simplified either, and the fact that Jody still mourns the loss of her husband and son is something we’re allowed to feel along with her.

In fact, in a show whose male characters are so often defined by the loss of their wives, mothers, girlfriends and daughters, Jody’s status as a woman who has survived the loss of three significant men – her husband, son and Bobby Singer, with whom she was romantically linked – is striking, as is her near-death on a date with Crowley and her subsequent adoption of Alex. Jody’s development arguably parallels that of the Winchesters: like Sam, her romantic partners either end up dead or demonic, and like Dean, she’s been forced to watch the death of her child. Donna, however, with her incongruously cheery personality and slightly comic introduction to the series – at a weight-loss spa run by a fat-sucking pishtaco – is closer to that of Garth Fitzgerald, a dentist who became a hunter (we’ve been told) after killing the tooth fairy. Just as Garth’s friendliness was initially juxtaposed against Dean’s surly demeanour, so Donna’s smiles are juxtaposed against Jody’s scowls – and just as Dean ends up taking Garth under his wing, so ‘Hibbing 911’ ends with Jody offering to show Donna the ropes.

Rounding out the season thus far is ‘The Things We Left Behind’, a heartbreaking episode that reintroduces a now teenage delinquent Claire Novak – daughter of Castiel’s vessel, Jimmy – on the run from the foster system. Critically, the episode respects Claire’s anger: though Castiel tries his (clumsy) best to look after her, both he and Claire are acutely aware of the fact that her actual father is dead, and that Castiel can’t replace him. When Claire states that¬†Castiel is helping her out of guilt alone, Cas acknowledges the truth in the accusation while still expressing a desire to protect her. But even when Claire is effectively ‘sold’ by a man she considered a protector to a loan shark, who promptly tries to rape her, the story still gives her agency in her escape: she fights her attacker, and when Castiel breaks into the room, it’s Claire who takes advantage of the distraction to kick her assailant to the ground and flee. Yet neither is she shown to be unaffected by what’s happened: she is clearly distraught, looking to Cas for comfort that he anxiously provides, and as harrowing as the sequence is, it never once feels exploitative or sensationalist. Claire is a realistic character, flawed and brave: she makes her own choices and acts to protect herself, but is still allowed to be a scared, vulnerable girl distressed by a dangerous situation.

And what about Sam and Dean? After all the secret-keeping of Season 9, it’s both refreshing and necessary to see them attempt to communicate with each other; not that Dean isn’t still lying about the effects of the Mark of Cain, but they’re lies of emotion and omission rather than the informational, you-can’t-know-the-truth-Because-Reasons fibs of the previous season, and it both grounds their relationship while demonstrating its rockier edges. The parallels between Dean and Cole – an antagonistic ex-soldier whose monster father Dean killed in 2003 – are clear and deliberate: Cole has a wife and son he’s neglecting in pursuit of revenge against Dean, just as Dean lost Lisa and Ben to the hunting life. Though Cole may yet return later in the season, his use as an inverted foil for Dean’s transition from demon to human – Cole becomes more monstrous as Dean regains his humanity, while Dean’s acknowledgement of his own monstrousness pushes Cole to return to his family – is neatly cathartic, while at the same time, Cole’s¬†vendetta is what¬†allows Rowena’s escape, his exit as an antagonist leading directly into her establishment as one. But Dean’s transition from demon to human – and the question of what makes someone a monster – is also echoed elsewhere: both in Sam’s decision to risk the damnation of innocent souls, including Lester’s, in his pursuit of Dean and Crowley, and in the questionable humanity¬†of the rapist loan shark and his cronies, all of whom end up dead at Dean’s hand: monstrous men, for all that they’re not technically monsters.

Powerfully, there’s a direct line drawn between Dean’s behaviour¬†at the start of the season¬†his actions at the end of it. In ‘Black’, he attacks Ann Marie’s ex-boyfriend on the pretext of defending her honour while overtly relishing the excuse for violence;¬†in ‘The Things We Left Behind’, however, and despite the greater provocation of the threat to Claire, he genuinely tries to avoid the fight, yet still ends up killing to sate the Mark. In both instances, Dean’s violence is contextualised by a sexual threat to a specific woman, and in both instances, his use of violence as a response is coded as being attributable to¬†the Mark of Cain. But whereas Demon!Dean tries to justify his aggression by falsely claiming it as chivalry,¬†as¬†a human with the Mark, he¬†doesn’t attempt to defend his behaviour at all, even though he has a much better case to make. Not only did the other men attack him first, they were all complicit in the attempted rape of Claire – yet Dean is left numb and horrified, because the Mark has compelled him to murder, and though he could try and pretend otherwise, as he did with Ann Marie, he knows there is no chivalry in his violence. And if that’s not a valuable entry point for a conversation about masculinity, white knight behaviour and aggression-as-protection, then frankly, I don’t know what is.

Nine episodes in, and Season 10 of Supernatural has blown me away with its female characters, human themes and clear commitment to discussing gender roles, sexuality and agency. ¬†It’s a rare show that lasts this long to begin with, but a rarer one still that’s willing to go so far outside its traditional parameters in direct response to the fanbase, and while the execution isn’t always perfect, the fact that the writers are so clearly making an effort carries a lot of weight with me. As big a fan as I am of Destiel, I’d be selling the show short to paint it as the emotional be-all, end-all of everything, and while I’d like to see more of Cas and Dean together in the rest of the season – and I rather suspect we will – if the show keeps on in this new vein regardless, I’ll be a happy camper.

*In ‘Soul Survivor’ (10.3), Castiel refers to Hannah’s presence by saying ‘there’s a female outside in the car,’ a line which has been justly criticised. However, while I agree that this is a¬†poor choice of words, I’m inclined to view it as a more innocent slip; partly because ‘female’ is a word we’ve seen Cas use before within his awkward speech patterns – most notably in ‘Reading is Fundamental’ (7.21) – but also because there’s a potential contextual reason for the ambiguity it provides, inasmuch as it doesn’t betray whether Cas’s companion is human or angel. (Dean and Hannah don’t get along, which makes it understandable that he wouldn’t call her by name.) So while I still find the line jarring, I don’t think Castiel is being sexist.

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed¬†never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her¬†father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency¬†– had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this¬†was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a¬†narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our¬†awareness¬†of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film¬†especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of¬†women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage¬†with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on¬†her¬†physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because,¬†to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing¬†or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality,¬†as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race Рor along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour Рcan provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze Рthose facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story Рis similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t¬†underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force¬†them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please