Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

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

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

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

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

You get where I’m going with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

And lo, in the leadup to Christmas, because it has been A Year and 2016 is evidently not content to go quietly into that good night, there has come the requisite twitter shitshow about diversity in YA. Specifically: user @queen_of_pages (hereinafter referred to as QOP) recently took great exception to teenage YouTube reviewer Whitney Atkinson acknowledging the fact that white and straight characters are more widely represented in SFF/YA than POC and queer characters, with bonus ad hominem attacks on Atkinson herself. As far as I can make out, the brunt of QOP’s ire hinges on the fact that Atkinson discusses characters with specific reference to various aspects of their identity – calling a straight character straight or a brown character brown, for instance – while advocating for greater diversity. To quote QOP:

[Atkinson] is separating races, sexuality and showing off her white privilege… she wants diversity so ppl need to be titled by their race, disability or sexuality. I want them to be titled PEOPLE… I’m Irish. I’ve been oppressed but I don’t let it separate me from other humans.

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

Listen. I could rant, at length, about the grossness of a thirtysomething woman, as QOP appears to be, insulting a nineteen year old girl about her appearance and lovelife for any reason, let alone because of something she said about YA books on the internet. I could point out the internalised misogyny which invariably underlies such insults – the idea that a woman’s appearance is somehow inherently tied to her value, such that calling her ugly is a reasonable way to shut down her opinions at any given time – or go into lengthy detail about the hypocrisy of using the term “white privilege” (without, evidently, understanding what it means) while complaining in the very same breath about “separating races”. I could, potentially, say a lot of things.

But what I want to focus on here – the reason I’m bothering to say anything at all – is QOP’s conflation of mentioning race with being racist, and why that particular attitude is both so harmful and so widespread.

Like QOP, I’m a thirtysomething person, which means that she and I grew up in the same period, albeit on different continents. And what I remember from my own teenage years is a genuine, quiet anxiety about ever raising the topic of race, because of the particular way my generation was taught about multiculturalism on the one hand and integration on the other. Migrant cultures were to be celebrated, we were told, because Australian culture was informed by their meaningful contributions to the character of our great nation. At the same time, we were taught to view Australian culture as a monoculture, though it was seldom expressed as baldly as that; instead, we were taught about the positive aspects of cultural assimilation. Australia might benefit from the foods and traditions migrants brought with them, this logic went, but our adoption of those things was part of a social exchange: in return for our absorption of some aspects of migrant culture, migrants were expected to give up any identity beyond Australian and integrate into a (vaguely homogeneous) populace. Multiculturalism was a drum to beat when you wanted to praise the component parts that made Australia great, but suggesting those parts were great in their own right, or in combinations reflective of more complex identities? That was how you made a country weaker.

Denying my own complicity in racism at that age would be a lie. I was surrounded by it in much the same way that I was surrounded by car fumes, a toxic thing taken into the body unquestioning without any real understanding of what it meant or was doing to me internally. At my first high school, two of my first “boyfriends” (in the tweenage sense) were POC, as were various friends, but because race was never really discussed, I had no idea of the ways in which it mattered: to them, to others, to how they were judged and treated. The first time I learned anything about Chinese languages was when one of those early boyfriends explained it in class. I remember being fascinated to learn that Chinese – not Mandarin or Cantonese: the distinction wasn’t referenced – was a tonal language, but I also recall that the boy himself didn’t volunteer this information. Instead, our white teacher had singled him out as the only Chinese Australian present and asked him to explain his heritage: she assumed he spoke Chinese, and he had to explain that he didn’t, not fluently, though he still knew enough to satisfy her question. That exchange didn’t strike me as problematic at the time, but now? Now, it bothers me.

At my second high school, I was exposed to more overt racism, not least because it was a predominantly white, Anglican private school, as opposed to the more diversely populated public school I’d come from. As an adult, I’m ashamed to think how much of it I let pass simply because I didn’t know what to say, or because I didn’t realise at the time now noxious it was. Which isn’t to say I never successfully identified racism and called it out – I was widely perceived as the token argumentative lefty in my white male, familially right-wing friend group, which meant I spent a lot of time excoriating them for their views about refugees – but it wasn’t a social dealbreaker the way it would be now. The fact that I had another friend group that was predominantly POC – and where, again, I was the only girl – meant that I also saw people discussing their own race for the first time, forcing me to examine the question more openly than before.

Even so, it never struck me as anomalous back then that whereas the POC kids discussed their own identities in terms of race and racism, the white kids had no concept of their whiteness as an identity: that race, as a concept, informed their treatment of others, but not how they saw themselves. The same boys who joked about my biracial crush being a half-caste and who dressed up as “terrorists” in tea robes and tea towels for our final year scavenger hunt never once talked about whiteness, or about being white, unless it was in specific relation to white South African students or staff members, of which the school historically had a large number. (The fact that we had no POC South African students didn’t stop anyone from viewing “white” as a necessary qualifier: vocally, the point was always to make clear that, when you were talking about South Africans, you didn’t mean anyone black.)

Which is why, for a long time, the topic of race always felt fraught to me. I had no frame of reference for white people discussing race in a way that wasn’t saturated with racism, which made it easy to conflate the one with the other. More than that, it had the paradoxical effect of making any reference to race seem irrelevant: if race was only ever brought up by racists, why mention it at all? Why not just treat everyone equally, without mentioning what made them different? I never committed fully to that perspective, but it still tempted me – because despite all the racism I’d witnessed, I had no real understanding of how its prevalence impacted individuals or groups, either internally or in terms of their wider treatment.

My outrage about the discriminatory treatment of refugees ought to have given me some perspective on it, but I wasn’t insightful enough to make the leap on my own. At the time, detention centres and boat people were the subject of constant political discourse: it was easy to make the connection between things politicians and their supporters said about refugees and how those refugees were treated, because that particular form of cause and effect wasn’t in question. The real debate, such as it was, revolved around whether it mattered: what refugees deserved, or didn’t deserve, and whether that fact should change how we treated them. But there were no political debates about the visceral upset another boyfriend, who was Indian, felt at knowing how many classmates thought it was logical for him to date the only Indian girl in our grade, “because we both have melanin in our skins”. (I’ve never forgotten him saying that, nor have I forgotten the guilt I felt at knowing he was right. The two of them ran in completely different social circles, had wildly different personalities and barely ever interacted, and yet the expectation that they’d end up dating was still there, still discussed.) I knew it was upsetting to him, and I knew vaguely that the assumption was racist in origin, but my own privilege prevented me from understanding it as a microaggression that was neither unique to him nor the only one of its kind that he had to deal with. I didn’t see the pattern.

One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see to their deeper cultural meaning. This is why so many white people get pissed off at jokes about suburban dads who can’t barbecue or soccer moms with Can I Speak To The Manager haircuts: far too many of us have never bothered to introspect on our own sociocultural peculiarities, and so get uppity the second anyone else identifies them for us. At base, we’re just not used to considering whiteness as an identity in its own right unless we’re really saying not-black or acting like white supremacists – which means, in turn, that many of us conflate any open acknowledgement of whiteness with some truly ugly shit. In that context, whiteness is either an invisible, neutral default or a racist call to arms: there is no in between.

Which is why, returning to the matter of QOP and Whitney Atkinson, pro-diversity advocates are so often forced to contend with people who think that “separating races” and like identifiers – talking specifically about white people or disabled people or queer people, instead of just people – is equivalent to racism and bigotry. Whether they recognise it or not, they’re coming from a perspective that values diverse perspectives for what they bring to the melting pot – for how they help improve the dominant culture via successful assimilation – but not in their own right, as distinct and special and non-homogenised. In that context, race isn’t something you talk about unless you’re being racist: it’s rude to point out people’s differences, because those differences shouldn’t matter to their personhood. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t allow for the celebration of difference: instead, it codes “difference” as inequality, because deep down, the logic of cultural assimilation is predicated on the idea of Western cultural superiority. A failure or refusal to assimilate is therefore tantamount to a declaration of inequality: I’m not the same as you is understood as I don’t want to be as good as you, and if someone doesn’t want to be the best they can be (this logic goes) then either they’re stupid, or they don’t deserve the offer of equality they’ve been so generously extended in the first place.

Talking about race isn’t the same as racism. Asking for more diversity in YA and SFF isn’t the same as saying personhood matters less than the jargon of identity, but is rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, for many people, personhood is materially informed by their experience of identity, both in terms of self-perception and in how they’re treated by others at the individual, familial and collective levels. And thanks to various studies into the social impact of colour-blindness as an ideology, we already know that claiming not to see race doesn’t undo the problem of racism; it just means adherents fail to understand what racism actually is and what it looks like, even – or perhaps especially – when they’re the ones perpetuating it.

So, no, QOP: you can’t effectively advocate for diversity without talking in specifics about issues like race and sexual orientation. Want the tl:dr reason? Because saying I want more stories with PEOPLE in them isn’t actually asking for more than what we already have, and the whole point of advocating for change is that what we have isn’t enough. You might as well try and work to decrease the overall number of accidental deaths in the population without putting any focus on the specific ways in which people are dying. Generalities are inclusive at the macro level, but it’s specificity that gets shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.

 

 

There is, I’ve come to realise, a certain type of hypocrisy that occurs when eloquent, successful practitioners of reflexive self-defence neglect to consider the consistency of their arguments. It’s a tactic which relies in large part on those arguments not being written down or otherwise recorded: it’s much harder to establish that your interlocutor is contradicting a prior claim if they’ve never made it to your face, or if no handy verbatim record exists, and especially if they deny ever having said it. Your memory must be to blame, or else your comprehension: either way, they’re in the right, and will doubtless continue to be so.

Unless, of course, a transcript is produced.

Lionel Shriver is not an author whose books I’ve ever read for the same reason that I’ve never subjected myself to¬†Jonathan Franzen: the¬†woes of modern day, middle class white people is a genre in which I have little to no interest. It’s nothing personal, except inasmuch as I am myself a modern day, middle class white person – I’d just rather read about literally anything else. So sue me: I’m a fantasist, and always have been, and always will be. But I’m also a writer, and though I have no interest in reading modern literary fiction, its ubiquity and prestige – to say nothing of the many complex issues facing all writers and their communities, regardless of creed or genre – ensures that I still have a dog in its various fights.

Such as, for instance, Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the full transcript of which has just been published online.

You see where I’m going with this.

If I wanted to give myself a tension headache, I could waste several hours of my evening going through the dreadful bulk of it line by line and pointing out the various strawmen: the information purposely elided here, the conflation of the trivial and the serious there, the overall privileged rudeness of taking a valuable platform given you for a stated purpose and turning it to another. But what really stands out to me is the utter dissonance between Shriver’s two key arguments, and the bigotry that dissonance reveals: on the one hand, fury at the very idea of “cultural appropriation”, which Shriver sees as a pox on artistic freedom; on the other, her lamentation of particular types of diversity as “tokenistic”.

Early in her speech, Shriver says:

I am hopeful that the concept of ‚Äúcultural appropriation‚ÄĚ is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

And yet, mere paragraphs later, we get this:

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is ‚Äústraight and white‚ÄĚ. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga ‚Äď about a white family. I wasn‚Äôt instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!

We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

I’d ask Lionel Shriver to explain to me how the presence of queer characters can “distract from the central subject matter”, but I don’t need to: the answer is right there in the construction of her statement. Queerness can distract from the central subject matter because, to an obliviously straight writer like Shriver, queerness is only ever¬†present as¬†another type of subject matter, never as a background detail or a simple normative human variation. Straightness doesn’t distract her, because it’s held to be thematically neutral, an assumed default. But put a queer character in the story for reasons other than to discuss their queerness – include them for variety, for honesty, because the world just looks like that – and it’s a tiresome, tokenistic attempt to be “hip” or “fashionable”. In Shriver’s world, such non-default characters can only “pertain to [the] story” if the story is, to whatever extent, about their identity. The idea that it might simply be about them does not compute.

And thus does Shriver bring us that most withered chestnut, Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – or, as she puts it:

At the same time that we‚Äôre to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we‚Äôre also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various…

We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

Listen, Lionel. Let me explain you a thing.

Identity informs personhood, but personhood is not synonymous with identity. By treating particular identities as “subject matter”instead of facets of personhood – by claiming¬†that¬†queer characters can “distract” from a central story, as though queerness is only ever a focus, and not a fact¬†– you’re acting as though the actual living people with those identities have no value, presence or personhood beyond them. But neither can you¬†construct a tangible personhood without giving thought to the character’s identity; without acknowledging that particular identities exist within their own contexts, and that these contexts will shift and change depending on various factors, many of which will likely exceed your personal experience. This is what we in the writing business call doing the¬†fucking research, which concept astonishingly doesn’t apply only to looking up property values, Googling the Large Hadron Collider and working out average summer temperatures in Maine.

To put it simply, what Shriver and others are angry about isn’t the nebulous threat of “restrictions [being placed] on what belongs to us” – it’s the prospect of being fact-checked about details they assumed could be¬†fictionalised entirely, despite being about real things.

If Shriver, in a fit of crass commercialism, were ever to write a forensics-heavy crime procedural without doing any research whatsoever into actual forensic pathology, readers and critics who noticed the lapse would be entirely justified in¬†criticising¬†it. If she took the extra step of marketing the book as a riveting insight into the lives of real forensic pathologists, however – if the validity¬†of what she’d written was held up as a selling point, a definitive glimpse into the lives of real people as expressed through the milieu of fiction – then actual forensic pathologists would certainly be within their rights to heap scorn on her book, to say nothing of feeling insulted. None of which would prevent this hypothetical book from being technically well-written or neatly characterised otherwise, of course; it might well have a cracker of a plot. But when you get a thing wrong – when you misrepresent a concept or experience that actually exists, such that people with greater personal knowledge of or investment in the material can point out why it doesn’t work – you’re going to hear about it.

That is how criticism works. It always has done, and always will do, and I am absolutely baffled that a grown adult like Shriver, who presumably accepts the inevitability of every other aspect of her writing being put under the twin lenses of subjective opinion and objective knowledge, thinks this one specific element should be somehow immune from external judgement.

Except that, somehow, she does – and I’ll come to more of that later. But first, there’s an even bigger problem: namely, that¬†Lionel Shriver doesn’t think¬†identities exist at all.

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

That distant thunking sound you hear is me banging my head repeatedly on the nearest hard surface. Look, I hate to be That Guy and pull the dictionary definition card, not least because I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist: usage comes first, and all that. But there’s a difference between asserting that a word should only be used a particular way and claiming, flat out, that it literally doesn’t mean the thing it (both functionally and definitionally) means. And to quote our good friends at Merriam-Webster, ‘identity’ means, among other things,¬†“the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others; the relation established by psychological identification”, with ‘identification’ further defined as¬†¬†“psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association.”

In other words, being Asian doesn’t magically cease to be an identity just because Lionel Shriver says so. Nor does queerness. Nor does disability. An identity is a thing you claim and feel for yourself, in association with a particular concept or shared bond with others. That being so, what I suspect Shriver is groping after with this blatant misuse of language is the idea that there’s no such thing as a universal identity – that there’s no one way to be female or gay or Armenian, which is correct, and that good characters must, therefore, be more than just a superficial depiction of these things.

Well, yes. Obviously. (Though rather ironically, given her earlier thoughts on queerness.) But saying that there is no universal Chinese experience, and thus no universal Chinese identity, does not ipso facto prove that there is no such thing as any Chinese identity – or identities, as the case may be –¬†at all. Think of it like a Venn diagram: every circle represents the particular experience of belonging to a given group or identity. The point of commonality is that they all overlap; the point of difference is that everyone experiences that overlap differently. You might as well argue that being Christian isn’t an identity because Orthodox Catholics and Southern Baptists both exist. But that’s the macro perspective, where group nomenclature is more taxonomy than experience. Identity is the micro level: the intimacy of self-expression coupled with the immediacy of belonging. And in between those two things, tasked with the perennial balancing act, is the seedy, ever-shifting¬†vagueness problem of group politics: who has authority, who belongs, who doesn’t belong, and why.

But of course, despite her protestations to the contrary, Lionel Shriver does believe in identity. How else can you categorise her prior defence of her own book, The Mandibles, as being¬†“a multigenerational family saga ‚Äď about a white family,” a narrative in which she¬†“wasn‚Äôt instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual [character]”? By her¬†own admission, whiteness is an identity, just as straightness is an identity, distinct from their respective alternatives and made meaningful by the difference. But this is an uncomfortable thing for Shriver to admit in those terms, because it means acknowledging that identity is neither the intrusive hallmark¬†of political correctness nor an exotic coat to be borrowed, but a basic fact of human life that applies equally to everyone. What Shriver views as a neutral default is merely a combination of identities so common that we’ve stopped pretending they matter.

Which they do, by the way. They really, really do.

Returning, then, to the subject of criticism, Shriver says:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

You heard it here first, folks: the burden and self-examination required to be respectful to others – the same thing we ask of any child who borrows a toy at a birthday party – is simply too great for precocious adult genius to bear.¬†And note, please, the telling differences in Shriver’s response to criticism of different aspects of the same novel, The Mandibles: when one reviewer critiques her portrayal of her lone black character, she threatens to be put off writing black characters for life; but when another reviewer rebukes her for writing an overwhelmingly “straight and white” novel, there is no similar threat to disavow writing white characters. But of course, she could hardly threaten to stop writing both – if she did, there’d be nobody left. (Not least because, in Shriver’s world, ‘Asian’ isn’t a real identity. Perhaps she should let Pauline Hanson know; I’m sure her relief would be palpable.)

When Shriver decries identity, she applies the concept only to those identities she doesn’t share, or which she views facetiously, the better to paint it as an arbitrary barrier between her artistic license and the great, heaving soup of Other People’s Stories to which she, by virtue of her personal rejection of the concept of identity, feels¬†entitled. But ask why her writing focuses predominantly on a particular type of person, and suddenly identity is a rigid defence: the characters had to be this way, could never have had¬†some other, more distracting¬†type of identity, because the story was about this experience in particular. Which is to say, about a fucking identity.

Here is the paradox Shriver cannot reconcile, because¬†it’s no paradox at all: if identity is irrelevant and the full spectrum of humanity is rightfully accessible to every writer at any time, then there’s no earthly reason why a multi-generational family saga shouldn’t have queer people in it, and no intelligent way to argue that it can’t. But if, despite the apparent irrelevance of identity and the presence of a full spectrum of humanity about which to write, you’re still predominantly writing about straight middle class white people, we’re liable¬†to wonder what particular biases of culture or inspiration are skewing you that way. That’s not Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – it’s just common sense.

There’s more to this argument, of course – most pertinently, the fact¬†that certain writers occupy a position of greater cultural and historical privilege than others¬†(something of which Shriver herself is well aware). When such writers decide to speak for and about more marginalised groups, that has a material impact on the ability of those groups to speak for themselves and to be heard, especially if their personal accounts differ, as they invariably do, from those of more prominent outsiders.

To give a particularly pernicious example, consider the case of Arthur Golden’s exploitation and gross misrepresentation of Mineko Iwasaki. One of several geisha interviewed by Golden in the course of research conducted for his bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden not only breached Iwasaki’s confidentiality by naming her as a source, but based a significant portion of his book on her life without permission, misrepresented actual historical details for sensationalist purposes, and generally twisted Iwasaki’s narrative. She sued him for breech of contract in 2001, with Golden settling out of court two years later. While Iwasaki was subsequently moved to¬†write her own bestselling autobiography – Geisha, A Life – to try and ameliorate the damage, his appropriative actions¬†nonetheless caused her material harm. And meanwhile, the¬†film adaptation of Golden’s novel, which celebrated the worst of his changes, was critically acclaimed in the West, further contributing to the exoticisation of Asian women in general and geisha culture in particular. But why should that matter? It’s just a story.

Isn’t it?

In my bookmarks bar is a folder called Narrative Influencing Reality, where I keep track of articles, posts and news items that show a correlation between fictional stories and the real world. The first link is the famous story about how, in the late 1940s, the writers of the Superman radio serial managed to stymie the resurgence of Klu Klux Klan memberships by having Superman fight the Klan. They knew that the story mattered; that people in the real world looked up to Superman, even though he was fictional, and could thus be persuaded to use him as a moral compass. This is a positive example of narrative influencing reality. But there’s also plenty of negative examples, too, such as evidence that the over-the-top “romantic” gestures popularised in romantic comedies can promote social acceptance of stalking, or the real-world racist backlash against Asians provoked by the film¬†Red Dawn.

As writers, we know that stories matter, or we wouldn’t bother to tell them. Narrative is a force that shapes our humanity, our history, and our perception of others – and that is¬†why unresearched, stereotypical and thoughtless portrayals of vulnerable groups can be so very harmful. Writing respectfully about others shouldn’t be such a terrible burden as to be worth angrily hijacking a festival keynote speech; it should just be basic good manners. As actress Jenn Richards recently said, “Artistic freedom is important, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of actual human lives.”¬†And stories are always, in the end, about actual people: what they think, why they matter, and how we relate to them.

To say that stories have power, but to deny their consequences, is a particularly self-deluded form of irresponsibility. And Lionel Shriver, in denying the very real harm done by cultural appropriation, is guilty of it.

Warning: major spoilers for the entire Captive Prince trilogy.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape, slavery, child abuse, paedophilia.

Late last year, a friend recommended I try the Captive Prince trilogy by C. S. Pacat, describing it as an excellent queer fantasy romance series. I made interested noises and then, somewhat typically, forgot about it until it cropped up again on my tumblr dash. I don’t know what alchemical combination of blogs I’m currently following to make this so, but thus far, everything I’ve ever read, watched or played on the basis of hearing about it through tumblr has been something I’ve loved, or at least enjoyed despite whatever criticisms I’ve made of it. That being so, and as it was my birthday that weekend, I shelled out for an ebook of the first volume, Captive Prince, and decided to give it a try before bed.

I stayed up until 5am to finish it, then read the next two volumes – Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising –¬†in less than a day. They’re not long books, but length aside, I couldn’t put them down, and given how much I’ve recently struggled to stay immersed in any story long enough to finish it, that’s saying something. The series is, as advertised, a queer fantasy romance, but while it’s certainly SFF, it counts as fantasy only inasmuch as it’s set in an original secondary world – there’s no magic or mythical creatures, with the focus instead resting on romance and politics.

These are not, by a long shot, perfect books; in fact, they contain a great many elements I traditionally despise, and which would ordinarily cause me to run a mile in the opposite direction. Which is, in part, why I’ve spent the past three months drafting this review: to get my head around exactly how and why I enjoyed them anyway. Because I did enjoy them, for all that I’m about to launch into a lengthy, detailed criticism of their failings, and as easy as it would be to simply write them off as a guilty pleasure, I feel like they deserve more than that.

Here’s the blurb for Captive Prince, the first volume:

Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the truthful heir to the throne of Akielos, but when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.

Beautiful, manipulative and deadly, his new master Prince Laurent epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is as it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.

For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone else…

Straight away, then, it needs to be acknowledged: this is a world in which slavery, and especially sexual slavery, is normative, and where the primary romance is between a character who, at the outset, is enslaved by the other. Also salient is the issue of race: Laurent is white, while¬†Damen, who’s described as being olive-skinned and dark-haired, is not. Those are going to be hard limits for some people, and with good reason. It’s not something I want to minimise or elide. As I recently had cause to say elsewhere, the fact that I can discuss these elements at a remove is a consequence of privilege: that I enjoyed – or was, rather, able to enjoy – the books otherwise is both personally disquieting and a concession I’d never expect¬†of anyone else.

That being so, it’s also relevant – to me, at least – that Captive Prince was first published online, as¬†an ongoing original ¬†fanfic/slash story, with the first two volumes serialised between 2008 and 2012: by contrast, the content of Kings Rising, which only came out this year, is entirely new. Online,¬†there’s an explicit culture of tagging and author/reader interaction in digital slash circles, both for fanfic and original works, that serves to contextualise which elements of a story are intended for reader critique, and which are explicitly included as a deliberate kink. It’s why, I’ve discovered, there are tropes and stories I’m happy to read in fanfic that I’ll baulk at elsewhere, and nor am I the only person of whom that’s true. It makes a significant difference to know that the author knows that a particular trope or exchange is problematic, and is writing it that way on purpose, as an exploration of flawed humanity or as a dead dove indulgence, instead of having to wonder if they genuinely think it’s okay.

Thus: while I’ve clearly come late to the party and didn’t see the original discussions surrounding, in particular, the early chapters of Pacat’s work, when they were first posted online, the fact that this engagement took place at all – that the story was written in expectation of such engagement – seems relevant to analysing it now. Master/slave romances are a longstanding staple of both erotica and slash, and while that fact doesn’t magically exempt them from criticism either in terms of individual execution or as a discreet phenomenon, it does situate the device itself as, well – a device, one Pacat recognises as such, and which she likely discussed with readers when the story first went up; a discussion to which I have no access, but which nonetheless impacted how and why the story was told as it was.

Here is the thing¬†I struggle with about erotica/romance: the fact that something is explicitly written as a sexual fantasy doesn’t exempt it from criticism, but nor is a reader who enjoys such fantasies automatically wrong to read them uncritically. The act of writing is always an act of fantasy, of construction, but sexual fantasies, by their very nature, occupy a uniquely personal space. It is quite possible to compartmentalise what one finds acceptable in normal life versus what one finds arousing in fantasy, as fiction, within a controlled narrative space; and yet it’s also possible to confuse the two on both ends, to assume that privately desiring a thing excuses its uncritical replication, or to trust that¬†such uncritical replication means there’s nothing to criticise in the first place. Our kinks are our own, but to a large extent, they’re also socially influenced, and as such, the primacy of particular narratives, uncritically viewed and ubiquitous, can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The issue becomes further muddled if we attempt to draw that salient distinction between sex and romance, particularly in the context of their interrelated tropes. Sexual fantasies are not the same as romantic fantasies, though there may be some overlap. Speaking personally – which, on the ultimate Your Mileage May Vary topic, is really all I can do – I have a deep mistrust of erotica whose romance elements are meant to be inferred from the hotness of the pornography alone, particularly in instances where the sexual fantasy elements either negate or raise serious questions about the healthiness of the corresponding emotional relationship. Which is where we run into something of a unique, arguably moral but certainly critical, conundrum: how, exactly, does one negotiate the intersection of kink with criticism?

On the one hand, it can’t be denied that the idea of sexual slavery is, for many, an arousing fantasy; and more, that their enjoyment of the concept¬†in fiction isn’t contingent on it being portrayed exclusively as a meta-fantasy of the characters. By which I mean: however abhorrent one might find the concept of sexual slavery in real life, such that physically indulging in such¬†play¬†would (one hopes) take place only under the pre-negotiated auspices of safe, sane and consensual or RACK, the very fact of knowing that a story is fictional, and therefore a fantasy constructed for the reader, can void the need for the characters to engage in similar negotiations.¬†Consent is therefore established, not between the protagonists, but between the reader and the work itself: instead of safewording, all we need do is set the book aside, the characters undamaged by virtue of being imaginary. That being so, a story doesn’t need to internally establish the immorality of slavery, sexual or otherwise, in order to scratch the itch of an otherwise deeply consent-oriented kink.

On the other hand, and regardless of whether the presence of slavery is either intended or able to satisfy a kink, we are not wrong to critique it, and especially not when its inclusion is narratively unexamined. Slavery still exists, both sexually and otherwise; its victims are myriad, their stories appalling. Its impact on histories both individual and collective is staggering, indelible, undeniable and ongoing, and even without any personal experience of or connection to such suffering, we have every right to be horrified by narratives or characters which do not unequivocally denounce it, or which feature it at all, for that matter.

Likewise in this instance, given the historical intersection of racism with both slavery and pornography (both straight and queer), it’s impossible to argue that race simply doesn’t matter, or insist that the characters be judged wholly on the basis of the setting. Calling a mandingo¬†portrayal a kink instead of a trope (for instance) doesn’t make it any less racist – but then, the intersection of racism with fandom is something we, meaning white fans, are still notoriously bad at navigating. The “don’t like, don’t read” culture of fanwriting, which is frequently cited as grounds for critical exemption, is a case in point. While fair enough in theory – fans are, after all, working for free, for pleasure – this doesn’t change the fact that the persistent elision of POC characters, coupled with the joint problems of authorial¬†stereotyping and reader pushback when they do appear, can make a space that otherwise prides itself on its inclusiveness both hostile and alienating to fans of colour, who are then further criticised for violating fan¬†etiquette when they react. As ever, it’s a problem of wider social problems converging in fanspace: fanwriters didn’t create racism, but we can certainly bring it with us, and as Captive Prince began in fanfic communities, it’s certainly a relevant aspect of the discussion.

And then, on that perennially metaphoric third hand, there’s the issue of¬†critical narrative immersion: the decision to accept that slavery is part of the worldbuilding, and to separate our judgement of its objective immorality from our judgement of how skilfully (or not) the world and its characters are¬†constructed, and how they work on their own terms. This is a tricky thing to do, inasmuch as it involves embracing a deliberate form of cognitive dissonance: the parallel rendering of two disparate opinions on the same subject, both accepted, yet never quite reconciled. It’s this third path I find myself taking with the Captive Prince trilogy, further contextualised by my awareness of the other two options. Doubtless, there are some who’ll perceive me as drastically overthinking things, while others might assert that I’m thinking too little, or from the wrong perspective. That being so, the best I can attempt is honesty, both emotional and intellectual: to show my working where possible, and to admit the lack of it otherwise.

Here, then, is the short version of my opinion, by way of prefacing the longer one: Pacat is an excellent writer, one whose style and depth both demonstrably improve as the series progresses. That the first book was written online, in the context of fanfiction and that community’s discussion of both kink and sexuality is, as mentioned, salient in examining its portrayal of sexual slavery, particularly in comparison to the third. The abiding impression I have – or instinct, rather¬†– is that, having used the concept of sexual slavery as a kinky premise for a story being updated live, the setup meant as an excuse for¬†Damen to be deposed and enslaved by his half-brother rather than as¬†a nuanced exploration of culture, Pacat was unable to go back and change things¬†once the story took off.¬†This potentially explains why the first book treats sexual slavery as a normative, largely unexamined central focus; why the second moves almost completely away from slavery without ever really addressing it; and why the third attempts, albeit tentatively, to acknowledge it as wrong without ever really probing its initial acceptance and the implications thereof.

All this being so, and with the best¬†will in the world, it’s clear that Pacat is writing from a position of unexamined white privilege. Even if her initial introduction of sexual slavery was meant wholly as a kinky plot device, its wider implications for Damen’s history unconsidered at the outset, there is no such excuse (if we can call it that) for blithely assuming that the image of a brown-skinned man in chained service to a white man would be narratively neutral. That Damen’s race is never considered salient to his slavery within the story¬†doesn’t change what it evokes to the reader.

Or rather, what it can evoke: from my perspective,¬†Damen’s race feels like an unacknowledged elephant in the room of the Captive Prince fandom. I’ve seen it¬†mentioned as a problem online exactly once, while a staggering amount of fanart involves Damen in chains, cuffs and collar. That he wears all these things at one time or another doesn’t change the fact that replicating them in fanart – emphasising them above other options – is a choice, and one made fairly consistently. That Laurent whips Damen nearly to death in the first book, resulting in permanent scarring, likewise invokes a very specific, very ugly history; as do the times¬†when Damen is referred to as a barbarian, cur or savage.¬†That these insults are delivered exclusively in relation to his culture and warrior-status rather than his race doesn’t change their potential, awful resonance for readers to whom these are all deeply personal, lived insults, nor does it justify their inclusion Because Worldbuilding. No matter how perfectly explained and narratively consistent the internal logic of a setting – no matter how many in-book justifications exist to try and soften the parallels¬†– we all, creators and readers both, bring our world and its history with us. That is inescapable.

Paradoxically, it’s Pacat’s utter obliviousness on this front – and, as a consequence, the obliviousness of the narrative – which made it tolerable for me. (Which isn’t, I hasten to add, the same as defensible; see above re: parallel judgements.) If Damen was insulted on the basis of his skin colour or ethnicity, I suspect I would’ve flung my Kindle at the wall; instead, he’s slandered on the basis of being Akelion, with his countrymen¬†casting identical slurs at the Veretians. The comparison of these countries is an interesting one:¬†Akielos is heavily based on ancient Greece, while Vere is more reminiscent of a decadent, pre-revolutionary France, though in this setting, both nations were originally part of a single empire and exist now at an identical technological level. As such, while Damen’s colouring is less common in Vere and Laurent’s less common in Akielos, there’s enough of a shared heritage that Damen isn’t exoticised for his looks. In fact, it’s Laurent who’s more often fetishised on this count, regardless of the observer’s nationality.

That being said, things turn murky again on re-examining the issue of slavery. Like ancient Greece, Akielos is a slave culture, and at the start of the first book, our assumption is that the same is true of Vere. In fact, from Damen’s introductory perspective, Vere’s version of slavery is far more horrifying in its abuses than anything practised in Akielos, and as such, we’re inclined to sympathise with his outrage (which is, note, a different thing to agreeing with his corresponding defence of his homeland’s practices). The problem is that Damen is, in this respect, an unreliable narrator – not intentionally, but by virtue of cultural ignorance. The story is premised on the deposed, imprisoned Damen, along with a contingent of trained slaves, being sent as a gift to Laurent’s uncle, the Regent of Vere; this makes slavery seem normal in Vere, as does the presence of ‘pets’ kept by the nobility for sexual use.

Not unreasonably, Damen assumes the pets are slaves, and so, in turn, does the reader. It’s only later that we discover this isn’t true: pets are more akin to courtesans, occupying contractual, paid positions. With this information in hand, the opening scenes in Vere – which are, to say the least, both violent and debauched – are cast in, if not a redeeming light, then one in which consent isn’t quite so thoroughly disregarded. Damen and the other slaves are still vilely mistreated, but given the slow reveal of the Regent’s particular monstrousness, it’s not initially clear that¬†this abuse is ultimately the Regent’s doing alone, rather than constituting a widespread cultural practice.

As such, once it becomes clear that Vere is not, in fact, a slave culture, our perception of Damen’s outrage – and of him – is necessarily forced to shift. From the outset, we know that he’s slept with slaves before, and that slaves are prized, treated gently, and praised for their submission in Akielos. Indeed, it’s the abuse of this submissiveness that rouses Damen’s ire, to the point where he intercedes with Laurent to have the other slaves gifted¬†to an ambassador from neighbouring Patras, who knows enough of their training and value to treat them kindly. The slaves themselves – or one in particular, Erasmus, whom we take as being a spokesman for the others – are grateful for this opportunity; the question of freeing them is never raised. Which is where, once again, we run up against the intersection of kink and criticism: the¬†‘submissiveness’ in question is described in ways that make it feel highly reminiscent of BDSM, with submission offered as part of a reciprocal relationship involving a duty of care, both emotionally and physically, on the master’s behalf. Erasmus’s new master, for instance, is outraged by his rape in Vere, expressing a heartfelt refusal to sleep with him until or unless the other man is ready.

And yet, for all that we’re meant to be thinking of BDSM – for all that masters under the Akielios/Patras system care greatly about the wellbeing of their slaves – this is still an arrangement without consent. Slaves are taken as captives and trained; the practice is a legitimate source of anger in Vere, whose people suffer in border raids. Damen, raised to view this type of slavery as normative, sees nothing wrong with it, and as this seemingly ‘gentler’ alternative is being contrasted with the violent environs of Vere, the narrative doesn’t encourage us to question his assessment. But¬†Vere, despite the depravity of its Regent, is not a slave culture; Akielos is. Yet even in his captivity,¬†Damen doesn’t engage in any real reflection on the wrongness of of slavery (though Laurent makes some pointed remarks about it before then) until Kings Rising; at which point, now freed and fighting to reclaim his country, he eventually pledges to end the whole institution.

Obviously, this is a positive development, for all that it feels like too little, too late; and yet I can’t help thinking that, once again, the problem lies with Pacat’s inability to edit those early chapters. The first book,¬†Captive Prince, treats sexual slavery as an uncritically examined kink/conceit in a way that the subsequent two volumes do not, but on which their events are nonetheless based. This forces Pacat to walk a very thin line in expanding on her own, unalterable canon: to address slavery as an evil – and to acknowledge¬†the past abuses of the protagonists – without presenting them as wholly irredeemable, at least within the context of her world. That she manages this is a testament to her skill as a writer; nonetheless, I’d be remiss not to point out that the problem is one of her own making. Or, looked at another way, a problem of success: had the stories remained online, contextualised by fanfic’s tagging and commentary system – or had they been less popular, such that editing might have passed unnoticed prior to mainstream publication – my reaction might well have been different. At the very least, it might have been easier to distinguish intention from accident.

As if further complications were required, there’s also¬†Laurent’s early treatment of Damen to consider. At base, the Captive Prince trilogy is an enemies to friends to lovers narrative, with each book representing one of those three stages. However unexamined the wider issues of slavery and consent raised by Pacat’s cultures and worldbuilding might be, it works in the series’ favour that there’s no introduction of romance between Laurent and Damen until the two are eventually placed on an equal footing. And yet – again – the offences of the first book cast a long shadow: in particular, three early offences¬†that set the tone for Damen’s early hatred of Laurent. Namely: Damen is badly whipped at his instruction; is forced to engage in a fight where, if he loses, he’ll be raped by the winner (which involves him being prepped for penetrative sex beforehand); and is given oral sex by a pet, with Laurent instructing said pet on what to do.

Definitionally, these latter two acts – the prep and the oral sex –¬†are forms of rape, but the narrative never acknowledges them as such. Damen wins the rape-fight by knocking out his opponent, and therefore escapes having to either rape or be raped, but that doesn’t change what was done to him beforehand, even if it never comes up again. Similarly, in the instant with the pet – which is orchestrated by people other than Laurent, whose complicity is politically forced – although Damen is initially unwilling and unaroused, ¬†Laurent’s instruction results in his physical enjoyment of the act. While the two later discuss this event, it’s never described as a violation; which, on the one hand, is Damen’s prerogative, and as we’re in his perspective, we’re clear on his lack of trauma. If such a scene were present in a fanfic, I’d expect it to be tagged for dubcon – and perhaps, as per the story’s initial serialisation, it was. It’s exactly the sort of scene I can imagine being written for erotic value, as an explicit kink/fantasy, but as stated earlier, the ambiguity on this point, absent any authorial footnoting, is¬†a source of personal unease.¬†The whipping, however,¬†has a different derivation, and is, somewhat strangely, situated within the narrative as being the most forgiveable of these actions despite being the most violent.

There are three major contextualising reasons for this.

Context the first, which constitutes a major reveal of the final book: that Laurent has known all along that Damen is Damianos, the man who killed his brother Auguste six years ago, ending a war that resulted in Akelios annexing a northern Veretian province, the death of Laurent’s father, the king, and the ascent of his uncle to the regency. Context the second, which a canny reader can intuit from various, increasingly obvious clues from the first book onwards, but which isn’t explicitly confirmed until the third: that Laurent’s uncle, a paedophile, abused him for years after his brother’s death – was able to do so without any threat of discovery or oversight precisely because Auguste was dead, and Laurent was left alone. And context the third, which leads directly to the whipping: after the rape-fight, whose conclusion involves Damen being propositioned by an underage boy, Nicaise (who we later learn is the uncle’s pet), Damen and Laurent have the following exchange:

“So my slave is bashful in the arena. Don’t you fuck boys in Akielos?”

“I’m quite cultured. Before I rape anyone, I first check to see if their voice has broken,” said Damen.

Laurent smiled.

This conversation happens in a bathing room, where Damen is shortly instructed to wash Laurent – not with any sexual overtones, but as a servile chore. Nonetheless, Damen becomes aroused, and when Laurent notices, this happens:

“Don’t be presumptuous,” said Laurent, coldly.

“Too late, sweetheart,” said Damen.

Laurent turned, and with calm precision unleashed a backhanded blow that had easily enough force to bloody a mouth, but Damen had had quite enough of being hit, and he caught Laurent’s hand before the blow connected…

Damen let his gaze wander downwards – wet from chest to taut abdomen – and further. It was really a very, very nice body, but the cold outrage was genuine. Laurent was not even a little amorous, Damen noted; that part of him, quite as sweetly made as the rest, was quiescent.

He felt the tension hit Laurent’s body, though the tone didn’t change overmuch from its usual drawl. “But my voice has broken. That was the only prerequisite, wasn’t it?”

Damen released his grip, as though burned. A moment later, the blow he had thwarted landed, harder than he could have imagined, smashing across his mouth.

Get him out of here,” said Laurent.

From Damen’s perspective – which is to say, the only perspective we’re given – Laurent is capricious, violent and cold: the kind of person who’ll whip a slave bloody for a minor infraction, or enter him in a rape-or-be-raped fight against a violent opponent for fun. He doesn’t introspect about Laurent’s motives, because he doesn’t need to: he only needs to hate him and survive.

From Laurent’s perspective, however, things are rather more complex. His abuser, who is currently engaged in a labyrinthine effort to see him discredited, dead or preferably both before he can take the throne in his own right, has just handed him the man he hates most in the world as a slave and publicly¬†ordered him not to kill or harm him, such that any disobedience will see Laurent suffer. Trying to get around this injunction, Laurent pits Damen in the only kind of fight that won’t violate his uncle’s command – because it’s his uncle who encourages the rape-fights, though usually between willing pets – against one of his uncle’s men, who Damen subsequently defeats.When they then discuss this fight, Damen¬†makes a joke about his own willingness to rape, which Laurent, a rape victim, construes – not unreasonably – as a threat. He reacts accordingly.

And it’s here, at the crux of this context, that we find the real reason I stuck with Captive Prince despite its rape-fixation – a device I find nominally abominable – and other problematic elements: the psychology. The steady reveal of Laurent’s motives and characterisation – accompanied, of necessity, by the similar reveal of his uncle’s monstrousness- is one of the most wrenching portrayals of abuse and gaslighting that I’ve ever seen. Damen and Laurent are both deeply flawed characters, and Pacat, in writing them, is aware of this. The point of their eventual romance isn’t to prove that either man was ever perfect, or to suggest that perfection is a retroactively bestowable state, but to engage with the psychological and emotional complexities their relationship presents, unpicking the reasons for their initial, mutual antipathy.

The fact that Laurent’s abuse remains opaque to Damen for much of the trilogy while becoming increasingly clear to the reader is a neat trick of characterisation and writing both. It simply never occurs to Damen, whose blind trust in the goodness of family is why his half-brother, Kastor, was able to capture and enslave him in the first place, as a possibility. For the same reason, Damen doesn’t understand the combination of tolerance, kindness and brutal honesty with which Laurent treats his uncle’s pets. When Damen rejects Nicaise, for instance, Nicaise becomes hostile to him; dangerously so. When Laurent appears both lenient with Nicase’s actions while criticising his person, it confirms Damen’s belief in Laurent’s cruelty; yet Laurent, in these moments, is speaking from awful¬†experience, his words as cutting to himself as to Nicaise, though only he knows it:

“Do you take wine, or aren’t you old enough yet?”

“I’m thirteen. I drink whenever I like.” Nicaise scorned the tray, pushing at it so hard it almost overbalanced. “I’m not going to drink with you. We don’t need to start pretending politeness.”

“Don’t we? Very well: I think it is fourteen by now, isn’t it?”

Nicaise turned red, under the paint.

“I thought so,” said Laurent. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do, after? If I know your master’s tastes, you have another year, at most. At your age, the body begins to betray itself.” And then, reacting to something in the boy’s face, “Or has it started already?”

The red grew strident. “That isn’t any of your business.

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Laurent.

Nicaise opened his mouth, but Laurent continued before he could speak.

“I’ll offer for you, if you like. When the time comes. I wouldn’t want you in my bed, but you’d have all the same privileges. You might prefer that. I’d offer.”

Nicaise blinked, and then sneered. “With what?”

A breath of amusement from Laurent…

“I don’t need you. He’s promised. He’s not going to give me up.” Nicaise’s voice was smug and self-satisfied.

“He gives them all up,” said Laurent, “even if you’re more enterprising than the others have been.”

“He likes me better than the others.” A scornful laugh. “You’re jealous.” And then it was Nicaise’s turn to react to something he saw in Laurent’s face, and he said, with a horror Damen didn’t understand, “You’re going to tell him you want me.

“Oh,” said Laurent. “No. Nicaise… no. That would wreck you. I wouldn’t do that.” Then his voice became almost tired. “Maybe it’s better if you think I would. You have quite a good mind for strategy, to have thought of that. Maybe you will hold him longer than the others.” For a moment it seemed as if Laurent would say something else, but in the end he just stood up from the bench and held his hand out to the boy. “Come on. Let’s go. You can watch me get told off by my uncle.”

Reading this scene the first time, it’s easy think that Laurent’s perception of Nicaise is jaded, unconcerned – especially as the reader, like Damen, is still new enough to the fact of Nicaise’s status to be horrified by it. Nor does that final line carry the same resonance as it does on a reread, as the revelation of the Regent’s paedophilia is yet to be made. Knowing what comes later, however, many such early exchanges are rendered chilling. More than once, the Regent criticises Laurent for being “childish“, repeatedly belittling him as someone unfocused, selfish, disloyal. That he still rebukes him like a child is an early warning sign, yet similarly easy to miss on a first pass:

The Regent’s expression changed. “I see you can’t be talked to. I won’t indulge your current mood. Petulance is ugly in a child and worse in a man. If you break your toys, it is no one’s fault but your own.”…

“I heard you killed your horse.” [said Damen]

“It’s just a horse,” said Laurent. “I’ll have my uncle buy me a new one.”

These words seemed savagely to amuse him; there was a jagged, private edge to his voice.

The reveal, when it comes, is a suckerpunch¬†precisely because it’s been so long in building: we know that the Regent is trying to outmanoeuvre Laurent, but not what the history is between them. And then, having backed Laurent into a political corner – enabled, in part, by Laurent’s decision to protect Damen, who just saved his life – in full view of the court, this happens:

“There. It is done. Come,” said the Regent to Laurent, extending his right hand…

Laurent came forward, and knelt before him gracefully, a single kneecap to the floor.

“Kiss,” said the Regent, and Laurent lowered his head in obedience to kiss his uncle’s signet ring…

After a moment, Damen saw the Regent’s hand lift again to rest in Laurent’s hair and stroke it with slow, familiar affection. Laurent remained quite still, head bowed, as strands of fine gold were pushed back from his face by the Regent’s heavy, ringed fingers.

“Laurent. Why must you always defy me? I hate it when we are at odds, yet you force me to chastise you. You seem determined to wreck everything in your path. Blessed with gifts, you squander them. Given opportunities, you waste them. I hate to see you grown up like this,” said the Regent, “when you were such a lovely boy.”

In this moment, Laurent is utterly alone; is revealed to have been alone¬†ever since Damen killed his brother and protector. This doesn’t excuse his mistreatment of Damen, but it does contextualise his rage, and as a reader, there’s something powerfully compelling about telling an abuse survivor’s narrative this way: as a trauma whose¬†consequences, even when witnessed by others, are frequently¬†misunderstood by them. Laurent’s soldiers repeatedly describe him as “frigid“, referring to the fact that he never takes lovers; like Damen, they assume he’s emotionally cold, not that he’s protecting himself. Throughout¬†Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising, during their scattering of emotionally and/or sexually intimate moments, Damen frequently reflects on the odd gaps in Laurent’s knowledge without ever realising their cause. Or rather, he knows part of the cause – that Laurent, in every aspect of his life, is someone who wants to remain in control, while physical intimacy¬†requires both trust and negotiation – but not the base reason why. It’s an exquisitely consistent piece of characterisation, and one that Pacat writes with absolute believability.

That Pacat is able to take the hostile dynamic between Damen and Laurent presented in the first book and make anything legitimately romantic of it, let alone something quite affectingly so – even to a reader both conscious of her elisions and critical of the premise – is nothing short of astonishing. Though Damen notes¬†Laurent’s physical charms¬†in Captive Prince, there’s no hint of romance or genuine attraction between them until the power imbalance is addressed in Prince’s Gambit, and the two begin to engage in something approaching equality, with no consummation until the two are on an even footing. This is a vital point: whatever blunders Pacat makes with regard to slavery and despite her racefail, she is scrupulous in acknowledging the pitfalls of a power imbalance on a nascent romance.

At the same time, her skill in this respect also serves to cast her failures into stark relief. Returning to the issue of Akeilos being a slave culture while Vere, despite its initial appearances, is not, we’re put in the unfortunate position of reading a narrative in which our primary slave character is a man of colour, with¬†slavery as an institution is predominantly enforced¬†by his own (mostly POC) nation. Particularly given the later reveal – again, in Kings Rising – that Laurent is a secret abolitionist, something which had hitherto only been hinted at, there’s a jarring dissonance in the realisation that Damen, an enslaved character, has been more accepting of slavery throughout the books than his putative (white) master. Which… yeah. To use a technical term, that is super fucked up.

And yet (and yet), for all the series fails to examine slavery as an institution, there’s a very real examination of power imbalances, abuse and self-perception. Even when legally and physically enslaved, Damen always considers himself a¬†prince: he never adopts a servile mindset, nor does he ever become, in the emotional sense, a victim, remaining instead a warrior in enemy territory.¬†After the regent makes a failed¬†attempt on Laurent’s life at the end of¬†Captive Prince,¬† Damen and Laurent are forced into an uneasy alliance: Damen will try to keep Laurent alive in order to prevent a bloody, pointless war between Akielos and Vere, and by the start of Prince’s Gambit, though still technically a slave, Damen is no longer subject to the powerless indignities of the first book, but is treated in all important respects as a soldier and advisor. His servility thus becomes more theoretical than practical, and though he ultimately emerges as someone distressed by and opposed to slavery, the experience doesn’t touch his fundamental confidence.

Whereas Laurent, by contrast, has spent the years since his brother’s death¬†effectively fighting a¬†rearguard action, trying desperately to protect himself¬†from his uncle without any friends or allies. Though perceived as cold and calculating, his position has been a source of fear, not confidence – fear of abuse, of abandonment,¬†of murder. The more Laurent comes to trust Damen, the more his confidence in his own judgement unravels: he can’t believe he’ll be treated kindly, let alone find pleasure in anything they might do, which leaves him more fundamentally¬†vulnerable – both around Damen and otherwise – than Damen ever is, despite his ostensibly greater position of power.

Ultimately, the Captive Prince series is a deeply problematic¬†but nonetheless highly compelling narrative: one in which both protagonists are intrinsically flawed, and where certain of their actions, both independently and towards each other, are morally reprehensible, regardless of whether the narrative always recognises this fact.¬†And yet their characterisation, the contextualising politics and the underlying psychology of their interactions is deft enough to make them both sympathetic; to ¬†transcend their horrific beginning¬†in the service of a romance that is genuinely affecting. Or so it felt to me, at least – as ever, Your Mileage May Vary, and as stated at the outset, I’m not going to argue with anyone who finds the fundamental problems with the story too glaring or painful to like anything else about it.

 

Though the first book is the weakest of the trilogy,¬†Pacat writes a superb long game, where successive revelations cause our ¬†understanding of the characters and their situations to turn on a dime. She is also, in every technical respect, an extraordinary writer. Her prose has a lyrical, graceful economy that’s utterly enviable, her characterisation ripe with psychological nuance: the same story in lesser hands – the same devices in lesser hands – would have nowhere near the same effect.¬†Indeed, I’m still slightly baffled by how much I enjoyed the books despite my criticisms, and yet whenever I open them, I fall right back into the story. For all their failings, I already know these are books I’m going to read again, and while I can’t recommend them without significant racefail caveats, their success – both in terms of fanwriters moving into the mainstream and as a prominent example of queer romance – is¬†representative of the changes currently overtaking the genre.

I can only hope we continue to do better.

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

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

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

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

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

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

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

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

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

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

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

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

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

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

But the thing is –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many other games can boast as much?

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

I look forward to finding more.

 

 

1.

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

Like being buried alive.

3.

I’m sick of the Sad Puppies.

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

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

4.

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

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

5.

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

Be wise to the difference.

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.)