Posts Tagged ‘Sexism’

A few days ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stephen Hunter published an essay at the Daily Beast titled, rather provocatively, “If You Want to Write a Book, Write Every Day or Quit Now.” Since then, it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, and not because of its quality. Hunter’s piece is so laughably bad in every respect that I damn near snorted vomit out of my nose while reading it.

There is, I have found, a distinctive type of faux-eloquent arrogance exhibited by your common or garden Serious Male Writer that endeavours to turn “he said, loftily” into an aspirational dialogue tag instead of, as is actually the case, a dismissively condescending one. Hunter’s piece is a case in point: setting aside the gross inaccuracies of its substance, the style is so deeply invested in celebrating itself that it’s less a case of gilding the lily than (to borrow one of my husband’s favourite phrases) sprinkling a turd with glitter. Presented without Hunter’s caveats and curlicues, the core recommendation – make regular writing part of your routine, because you can’t ever publish a book you don’t finish – is a reasonable one. That Hunter has managed to turn such simple advice into a purple, self-congratulatory screed about the failings of other, lesser beings is, if nothing else, a cautionary example of hubris in action.

He begins:

In a few days or weeks, I’ll start a new novel. I don’t know yet and won’t for years if it’s good, bad, dreary, enchanting, or merely adequate. Moreover, I don’t know if it’ll help or hurt my reputation, make me rich or a fool, or simply pass into oblivion without squeak or moan.

What is certain is that on that same day, whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.

I’d be very interested to know where Hunter is getting this figure about a thousand other people from, as he goes on to mention it more than once without ever citing a source. Even so, and regardless of whether his numbers are accurate or a mere illustrative hypothetical plucked from the aether, the following contention – that these other yearling writers are Hunter’s direct competition – is wrong in all respects. The number of people who start writing a book on the same day you do is completely irrelevant. Even if all those other novels ultimately end up finished and submitted to agencies and publishers, you’re only directly competing with each other if you’re submitting to the same venues, at the same time, about the same subject matter.

A writer of adult thrillers is not vying for marketspace with those producing memoirs or YA, but with other authors of adult thrillers – and even then, the outcome is largely contingent on context. If a particular genre is experiencing a boom, as urban fantasy was not long ago, then publishers looking to captialise on a trend are more likely, not less, to sign on multiple works in the same oeuvre, to say nothing of the existence of imprints which, regardless of market trends, are dedicated to specific genres or subgenres. The real competition doesn’t kick in until the book is actually being promoted – by the publisher, by reviewers and booksellers and librarians, by the readership in general – and even then, it’s neither an equal nor a predictable thing. Promotions can fail, viral successes can happen, an author whose first four novels were largely ignored can become a breakout success with their fifth, and so on through endless permutations of chance and context. Solid promotion is always helpful, of course, and there are things both author and publisher can do to maximise a book’s chances, but ultimately, it’s up to the audience.

Which is why Hunter’s opening premise is not only irritating, but deeply unhelpful to those budding writers for whom his essay is presumably intended. Unlike an annual literary award, an audience is not a finite resource, but a thing to be shared and cultivated: the reader who buys a competitor’s book today may well be inspired to buy yours tomorrow, and as such, hating them from the outset is not only pointless, but completely antithetical to the cultivation of professional writing relationships. In my own experience as a published author, other authors are frequently some of your best friends and biggest cheerleaders. We support, critique and learn from each other precisely because we’re writing in the same field, which is also how we come to share recommendations about new books to read. Regardless of whether I’m acting in my capacity as authorial colleague or delighted reader, taking note of which books my favourite writers are praising, criticising or otherwise discussing is a large part of how I stay abreast of the field.

Call me newfangled, but if I’m going to go to the effort of hating someone, it won’t be for merely sharing my ambitions: they have to actually earn it.

But let’s be honest: Of the thousand, 800 won’t cross the infamous Mendoza Line. God love them, God be with them, God show mercy to them, for whatever cruel reason they were not given enough talent or the right mind, or any of a dozen different pathologies to make them capable of writing a publishable book. No amount of labor will alter this reality.

There’s so much wrong with this, I scarcely know where to begin. 800 potential novels lost! Where is he getting these figures? And god, the condescension! If someone desperately wants to be a traditionally published author and finds themselves unable to achieve that goal, then yes, that sucks for them. But I intensely dislike the construction here – especially when “cruel” is paired with “capable” and pleading to the divine – that implies a person is somehow tragic or deficient if they can’t or don’t produce a published work. Many people write foremost for their own pleasure, whether in fannish contexts or otherwise, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And then there’s the fact that, in dismissing these 800 potential writers, Hunter is apparently convinced that lack of ability is the only reason why, on this particular occasion, they might not succeed. Clearly, he’s aware that it’s possible for even a successful author to abandon a manuscript, given his admission that the same thing has happened to him. (“I know how books die. A few have perished under my saddle, believe me.”) So whence comes the conviction that the hypothetical majority of his hypothetical thousand competitors will drop out of the running, not because they, too, have just so happened to hit a stumbling block, but because they’re pathologically incapable of success? The idea that “no amount of labour” can help such writers is particularly incongruous – not to say disgusting – given that he’s ultimately asserting the value of regular writing and hard work. (But then, as we’ll see shortly, he’s also claiming it should be easy.)

Also – and I feel like this ought to be an obvious point to make – but “publishable book” is not a universally coherent standard, not least because we now live in a time when self-publishing is commonplace. Even so, plenty of books that I would deem unpublishable, were the verdict mine alone to make, have nonetheless been traditionally published, because – unlike the Mendoza Line – there is no single, absolute yardstick against which all potential novels are measured. (Whether Hunter believes there should be is a different matter.) Just as a great deal of comparative rubbish ends up on shelves, so too does a lot of excellent writing never make it that far, and while I’ve also encountered a lot of heinous attempts at narrative in unpublished contexts, I don’t for a red hot minute believe that the majority of bad writers are incapable of improvement. Hunter seems oblivious to the possibility that some among his theoretical thousand might be young writers – my first attempt at a novel was made at 11 – whose talents, like their interests, are far from fixed in stone, but who nonetheless might be grossly dissuaded by advice purporting to tell them otherwise.

Ugh.

So that really leaves but 200 to worry about. They are smarter, more talented, better looking, have better teeth, more hair, better bodies, and in most other respects are simply better. If they were writing this piece instead of me, you would like it a lot more. They are more charming, more beguiling, more charismatic, smell (a lot) better, have more polish and manner. They’re fun to be with! You’d be proud to have them as a friend.

I will beat them all, however, and I will do it on one strength they lack, the poor, good-looking devils.

I will finish and they will not.

The two most important words you can write in any manuscript are “the” and “end.” Somewhere along the line my brilliant competitors mosey off. I’m too dumb to mosey off. They’ll lose faith. I’ll never lose faith; it’s the only faith I’ve got. A new lover will come into their lives; I’m not even on speaking terms with my old (and only) lover. They’ll be distracted by so many other dazzling prospects; I have no other dazzling prospects. Their spouses will begin to grouse over undone errands and abandoned socks on the steps, there’ll be just too much research, they’ll grow depressed, sick of their own voice, unable to get themselves buzzed up enough. Their books will die.

Without wanting to veer too far into the perilous realm of psychological analysis, this entire section is like peering into a well of deep and unresolved personal bitterness. Other people might be handsomer, kinder, more likeable, smarter and generally more desirable than Hunter, but by god, he can write books! Which… good for him, I guess? Like, I’m not about to argue that writing stories isn’t a cool skill to have, but contrary to what he’s saying here, you can actually be an author and an intelligent, engaging, social human being. Crazy, right? The One True Path to authorial greatness doesn’t open only to those who suck at everything else, or who fail at interpersonal relationships, romantic or otherwise. I know plenty of authors who also have other, successful careers as scientists or academics or any number of things; who have partners or children or extensive social networks (and sometimes even all three!). By the same token, I also know plenty of writers, both published and unpublished, whose failure to complete a given manuscript has roundly failed to result in depression, divorce or anything more dire than personal irritation. Shocking, right?

Here’s the truth; sometimes a book just doesn’t go, and sometimes it’s only that it doesn’t go now. You have to set it aside for a bit, and maybe it dies and turns into fertiliser for future ideas, or maybe you cannibalise its parts, or maybe it’s only slumbering like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for some suitably handsome catalyst to wander along and offer the dragon a better gig at a newer, shinier castle. Either way, the price of failure isn’t the loss of everything you love, and success doesn’t hinge on having had nothing else to love in the first place. Hunter might well console himself with that particular narrative, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let him blithely hang its weight on the rest of us.

You work every day. You work so hard, you make such progress, you’re such a star that you decide to take a day off. The day after, you feel guilty so you work twice as hard. You set new records, you crash the 3,000-word barrier, you achieve epiphanies you never thought possible! Again you reward yourself with a day off. Then the next day—oh, actually, now it’s the next month—you can’t remember why you started the damned thing anyway and the anxiety of your sloth is crippling, turning you all beast-like and spite-spitting, so you formally surrender and feel a lot better. For a few months. Then, of course, you hate yourself and as the years pass, that hatred metastasizes into a cancer of the soul. If only… And you’re one of the forlorn ones who dies with regrets.

A lot of preps stared at Stephen Hunter when he wrote this essay. He put his middle finger up at them.

super dark bro.gif

The most important thing is habit, not will.

If you feel you need will to get to the keyboard, you are in the wrong business. All that energy will leave nothing to work with. You have to make it like brushing your teeth, mundane, regular, boring even. It’s not a thing of effort, of want, of steely, heroic determination. (I wonder who pushed the meme that writing is heroic; it must have been a writer, trying to get laid.) You have to do it numbly, as you brush your teeth. No theater, no drama, no sacrifice, no “It is a far far better thing I do” crap. You do it because it’s time. If you are ordering yourself, burning ergs, issuing sweat, breathing raggedly through nasal channels that feel like Navajo pottery, you’re doing something wrong. Ever consider law? We definitely need more lawyers.

Like… I get what Hunter’s trying to say here, which is that merely wanting to be an author won’t get you very far if you don’t actually put the work in, but god, there’s such a crushing sense of nihilism to his version of things, I kind of want to ask if he’s okay. Speaking as someone with a fair knowledge of mental health issues, routinely doing anything “numbly,” even brushing your teeth, is not actually a good thing. Numbness is not synonymous with the mundane, and if you’re starting to think it is, you should probably seek help. I say that with absolute sincerity: feeling numb about everyday life is a genuine danger sign.

Which is also why this paragraph makes me fucking furious. There’s a reason we talk about having a will to live, and a reason why someone losing that will is a terrible, awful thing. For some of us, everything is a matter of will, because we’re struggling to even get out of bed. Telling someone to give up writing because sitting down at the computer takes effort is one of the most toxic, destructive and fundamentally insincere pieces of advice I’ve ever seen issued. I’ll tell you this for nothing: every single writer I know, myself included, has struggled to write at times. The reasons why vary – lack of time, mental health issues, exhaustion, problems with the plot – but even when you’re someone who writes regularly, routinely, as a matter of habit, it can still be difficult. Some things can only be done – or only done now – because we order it of ourselves; because we fucking try.

Work every day. Obviously I don’t mean every day. Hyperbole, it’s what we do for a living. So let me clarify and tell you what I really mean: Work every day.

This is because the most difficult test of the author isn’t his mastery of time or dialogue, his gift for action or character, his ability to suggest verisimilitude in a few strokes, but his ability to get back into the book each day. You have to enter its world. It demands a certain level of concentration to do so. You have to train yourself to that concentration. The easier it is to get there, the better off you’ll be, day in and day out. In fact, if you skip a day, much less a week, the anxiety you unload on yourself doesn’t increase arithmetically but exponentially. If it’s hard after one day, it’ll be hard squared, then cubed, ultimately hard infinite-ed. And that’s only by Wednesday!

One big pile of shit

And this, right here, is where we see that Hunter’s status as a single, childless, (presumably) antisocial man who doesn’t need to work other jobs to support himself has apparently birthed the assumption that all other aspiring writers are in the same boat – or, far more worryingly, that anyone who doesn’t meet that criteria naturally can’t succeed. It’s not just that he’s using masculine pronouns to refer to his archetypal author, although it certainly doesn’t help: it’s that everything he says here is predicated on “his [the writer’s] ability to get back into the book each day,” which doesn’t leave any room for people who need to work to live, or who want to go out with their partner or friends, or who need to spend time with their children – for anyone, in other words, who has an actual life.

To reiterate: making writing a habit is excellent advice, and writing a little each day is not a bad thing to do. But asserting that people can’t be writers if they do anything other than this is grossly false, not least because there are thousands of successful, published authors around to disprove it. If Hunter personally experiences anxiety when he skips a day of writing, that’s one thing, but it’s far from being a universal experience. God, I am so sick of Serious Male Writers assuming that what’s true for them must logically be true for everyone else! If that’s how narrow Hunter’s view of the human condition is, I shudder to think how his writing must suffer – or maybe he just avoids creating characters who aren’t fundamentally like him. Either way, I’m not in a rush to check out his back catalogue.

Some writers of my acquaintance find great success in writing a small amount per day, every day, but I can’t think of a single one who’d cry failure on anyone who writes differently, or who had to take time off. Personally, I write in bursts: I can produce huge wordcounts in a short amount of time, but only if I rest for a little while afterwards. Once recharged, I can go again – but if I hit a snag in the plot, it’s always less work in the long run if I stop and puzzle it out instead of forging blindly on in the wrong direction just for the sake of wordcount.

Find what works for you, is the point. Shouldn’t that be obvious?

Effort is pain. Pain is not your friend, not this kind of pain. Via pain, doubt, fear, self-loathing, stasis, heavy legs, and halitosis enter your life. Your skin hurts, your hair hurts, the little whatever-it-is between your nostrils hurt. You have the energy of a cat on a couch. Inertia is your destiny, your tragedy, your one-way ticket to where you already are. That is why the easy way is the best way. It is easier to work every day than to deal with the load of self-inflicted grief you’ll encounter when you skip one day, four days, or the rest of your life.

Listen. Stephen. Bro. I get that this is going to come as an alien concept to you, but effort is not always synonymous with pain, in much the same way that numbness is not always the same as mundanity. Maybe that’s how you experience the world, but it’s just not true for everyone. Yes, sometimes it takes effort to write, but often it’s the good, satisfying kind, where you know you’re achieving something, making yourself better and stronger by testing your personal limits. Also, technically? Inertia is easier than effort. Effort is how you break free from inertia, and I know I keep harping on this point, but seriously: one of the most toxic mindsets to impose on a person is the idea that small failures are inherently synonymous with large ones. This is why, for instance, recovering addicts who fall off the wagon with a small transgression so often feel like they’ve got no choice but to commit a big one: not because it’s inevitable, but because they’ve been taught that success/failure is a binary proposition, with one slip the same as catastrophe. Plus, uh. It is actually possible to be disciplined while including regular breaks as part of that discipline, you know? I’m just gonna put that out there.

Another helpful tip: F— research! I say this, knowing that my works are thought to be well-researched and I am proud of the research in them. But in research there’s also death and destruction and self-loathing. You can do the research later. You cannot use “more research” as a crutch to justify your sloth. You are selling narrative not background. The most important truths you tell involve what you know about human behavior, not what color the Obersturmbannfuhrer’s epaulets are. If you don’t know it, just bull on through and keep going. Make it up. Jam it with placeholders. It’s OK. At that stage you need momentum, not precision. That’s why it’s a first draft; that’s why there’ll be a second draft.

*pinches bridge of nose, breathes deeply*

I say unto thee again, not everyone feels this kind of way about research. It’s not goddamn poison, okay? Some people find it merely a chore and others, invigorating. Yes, there are certainly instances where the research can wait, or where there’s no harm done in writing first and fact-checking afterwards, but the belief that “human behaviour” doesn’t also require research is kind of why Hunter is giving such goddamn shitty advice in the first place, because – say it with me! – people are fucking different. It’s this kind of approach to writing that leads to all manner of bigoted stereotypes finding their way into mainstream works: the writer assumes that all people fundamentally think and feel and experience the world in the same way they do, that no particular circumstance, belief or identity requires investigation in order to be accurately represented by an outsider, and so they don’t do the research. Shit like this is how, for instance, you end up with a horrifically anti-Semitic book purporting to be the opposite, or endless faux Medieval Europe fantasy novels written by people who, like Hunter, think that “selling narrative not background” is a sufficient justification for shitty, inconsistent worldbuilding.

Plus – and again, I feel that this ought to go without saying, but apparently not – measure twice, cut once is also as applicable to writing as it is carpentry. Some writers thrive on letting the momentum of a first draft carry them through to the end, then going back later to rip the guts out of whatever doesn’t work. For others, though, it’s easier – and less time-consuming – to pause mid-novel, work out the problems as they occur and produce a cleaner first copy.

Finally: Writer, forgive thyself. You may write crap for years, decades, eons before your brain gets tired of being so mediocre. You will never know if that jump is possible if you don’t keep humping, every day. Numbly, you must do the necessary. Keep on slugging. Forward the light brigade. You can always fix it later. But none of this will be doable, understandable, possible, unless you get to the “the” and the “end.”

If Hunter hadn’t taken up the bulk of his essay saying the exact fucking opposite of this, I’d almost be inclined to think it a positive note on which to end, instead of a sad little retcon. But it is sad, in much the same way that the whole damn article is sad. There’s not a speck of joy or passion evident in it anywhere: no humour, no enthusiasm, and certainly no hint of why anyone might want to be an author in the first place. Hunter’s attitude to writing is a baffling mix of arrogance and nihilism: everything is awful in my life, but I console myself with the knowledge that other, seemingly happier people will ultimately suffer more by virtue of failing to write like me. It’s a type of seething misanthropy for which I have precious little time and increasingly little patience in any context, let alone when it’s misrepresenting itself as the be-all, end-all of my chosen profession.

Pulitzer be damned: when it comes to giving writing advice, like Jon Snow, Hunter knows nothing.

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.

*

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.

 

 

 

With great respect to Joanna Russ

She wasn’t the lead

(but if it’s clear she was)

She was the lead, but she shouldn’t have been

(she was political, unsexualised, funny, feminist)

She was the lead, but look what she starred in

(a chick flick, a reboot, a spin-off, YA)

She was the lead, but the story didn’t rate a sequel

(“A female superhero couldn’t possibly carry a franchise…”)

She was the lead, but she isn’t a plausible character, and her story isn’t realistic

(She was exceptional, powerful, multifaceted, unromantic)

She was the lead, but the male characters were better

(“Men are just more interesting than women…”)

She was the lead, but her success was an anomaly

(“Katniss Everdeen was a one-off…”)

She was the lead, BUT…

*

Here’s the thing.

If you pan an unreleased film, or film you haven’t actually seen, solely because it has a female protagonist – or, god forbid, protagonists – you’re not being objective or rational. Might the film be genuinely bad? Yes. Of course. That’s always a possibility for any creative work. But will it be bad solely and exclusively because it stars a woman? No. Unless, of course, you’re willing to acknowledge that a film can likewise be solely and exclusively bad because it stars a man. I say this, not because I agree with that argument, but because it’s only logical: if knowing the hero’s gender ahead of time is enough to say a given film is an unequivocal trainwreck, then that can be true regardless of the gender in question.

If you disagree with this reasoning – if you wholeheartedly believe that women are irrevocably and fundamentally less interesting than men – then I’m not going to try and dissuade you: there’s no point wielding rationality against the stubbornly irrational, and I’ve got better things to do with my time. But if you feel that statement paints you into an unfair corner – if you don’t think women are always less interesting, just mostly so; if you’re open to the idea that they can make great characters, and you’re really only sick of seeing them shoehorned into stories where they don’t really fit – then I’d ask that you consider why that is.

Do you feel that many female characters are poorly written? That’s a reasonable complaint to have. But if that’s the issue, ask yourself – who’s responsible for these poorly written women? In 2014, 85% of films had no female directors, while 80% had no female writers, while in 2015, only 29% of TV writers were women. While it’s demonstrably true that many male writers can and do write excellent female characters, there are also many who pay little attention to women’s personalities and motives, being much more concerned with their looks, a phenomenon noted by Hollywood producer Ross Putnam, who now keeps a public record of all the sexist female descriptions he receives in scripts. Perhaps you might be more likely to enjoy a female character written – from experience, as it were – by a female writer, or shaped by a female director.

Do you feel that many female characters are poorly acted? Again, that’s an understandable complaint. But if that’s the issue, ask yourself – why aren’t more talented actresses being cast? Hollywood’s obsession with ranking (a very narrow concept of) beauty ahead of all other considerations means that many terrific actresses miss out on meaty roles, or on any roles at all. There is, for instance, a documented trend of male A-list stars playing leading roles well into their fifties and sixties, but only ever opposite women in their twenties and thirties. This means that, whereas male actors are allowed an extra twenty years in which to hone their craft through more and better roles, women are edged out just as they’re hitting their stride, with actresses often being hired for beauty ahead of talent. This emphasis on looks is also apparent in casting calls for female characters, which – as per the problem with sexist character descriptions noted above – are much more likely to describe the woman’s appearance than her personality or role.

Women of colour are also grossly underrepresented in leading roles, no matter their age or ability. In 2015, even though 22% of key roles in Hollywood films went to women – their largest share since 2002, when the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film began keeping track – only 27% of leading female characters were anything other than white, a number that dropped to 13% for female characters overall. All this being so, perhaps you might be more likely to enjoy  a film starring older women, women of colour, and women of any description whose narratives place a greater emphasis on personality than appearance.

Perhaps you feel that too many female protagonists are being unnecessarily forced into narratives these days; that they’re being given unfeminine roles, or parts which – in the case of a reboot – were originally male, and are therefore being misappropriated. Now, your feelings are your feelings, and I can respect that, but feeling something is not the same as knowing it to be objectively true. That being so, if you want to make this a rational, respectable argument, I’d invite you to first consider the following points:

  • How can a character’s gender be unnecessary or forced? All characters have a gender identity, female or male or otherwise. Gender, as a detail, isn’t extraneous – unless, of course, you’re arguing that maleness is a neutral narrative default with no impact on the story, whereas femaleness is a biased narrative alternative that implicitly changes the story. But why should that be so? There are as many women in the world as men, making female characters just as logical a narrative default as men. And as for women being a biased choice compared to male neutrality, this presupposes that gender never dictates how stories about men are told – that masculinity is never mentioned, or that male characters are never given narrative arcs that reaffirm or relate to their gender in any way. Which, if you think about it, is rather implausible, isn’t it? If that were so, we’d never see male heroes talking about what it means to be a man, or a real man, or a good man, or a bad man, or any sort of man at all (for instance). And, just as importantly, if it’s possible to write a story that isn’t about gender in any way, then how can casting a woman instead of a man materially change the subject matter? Either it was never a gender-neutral story in the first place, or else our ability to perceive it as such was dependent on the character being male, which is another way of saying the same thing, and also my point. Namely: that if you see gender – or rather, femaleness – as unnecessary, it’s not an objective flaw in the story, but a subjective opinion of the audience. Of course it’s a choice to cast a woman, just like it’s a choice to cast a man – but as a character has to be something, how can one choice be implicitly forced, and the other not, unless you’re measuring their appropriateness in terms of how well it conforms to a social default?
  • Arguing that a story isn’t “feminine enough” to warrant a female protagonist when you’re simultaneously concerned that women makes stories unnecessarily gendered is… kind of breathtakingly hypocritical, really. I mean: either having a female protagonist is what makes a story feminine, or else you’re acknowledging that stories can, in fact, star women without being wholly about womanhood – a thing you earlier claimed was impossible. What you really mean by this argument, I suspect, is that you’re accustomed to the idea that only certain types of story really merit female protagonists: that there are (domestic, romantic, intimate) stories about women and (political, adventurous, global) stories about men, and if women start starring in the latter kind, then men will start missing out on the type of roles to which they’re both better suited and more naturally entitled. This attitude ignores the idea that domestic, romantic, intimate stories can also be about men while acting as though this division of things is somehow writ in stone, instead of being a constructed form of sexism. I don’t have time to go into the long, complex erasure of women in history that sustains the idea of women being unsuited to particular tasks and stories, but trust me on this: it is bullshit, and always has been.
  •  I’m going to say this once, and clearly: rebooting an  old story with a new female cast is not misappropriation. You haven’t lost the original version, nor has it been somehow altered after the fact; instead, you’re being offered something new in addition, which you’re free to accept or ignore as the fancy takes you. You might be upset that things aren’t being done differently, but that’s not the same as knowing they’re being done badly. There is a world of difference between not wanting to watch the reboot of a beloved story out of loyalty to the original, and trying your hardest to ensure that the reboot fails simply because it’s not the thing you wanted. One is an adult decision; the other is not. It shouldn’t be too hard to tell which is which.

Perhaps you feel that there are now too many female protagonists, period; that their sudden proliferation is a form of tokenism to which you object on moral grounds. Which, okay: how many women is too many? Because as per the statistics cited above, only 22% of key Hollywood roles went to women in 2015, which is a long way shy of half. Even if you think that a perfect 50/50 split is an unreasonable thing to aim for, that’s still not what’s happening here. There are more female roles at the moment, certainly, but more is not synonymous with many, and unless you genuinely think that a twenty percent share in representation is too much, then you’re going to have to acknowledge that your hackles are up, not because women are suddenly dominating the big screen, but because you don’t want to see us there in any number at all.

But either way, proliferation – by definition – is antithetical to tokenism. You cannot argue that an across the board increase in roles for women is a token move precisely because it’s across the board. It is likewise deeply hypocritical to claim that consciously increasing those roles is immoral, but that consciously suppressing them is not. The imbalance that currently exists is not a natural, neutral occurrence, but the result of decades of conscious policies and sexism both overt and ingrained; suggesting that it will go away on its own, without any active change, and that good stories will rise to the top regardless, is naive at best and callous at worst. In any field, in any context, “good” doesn’t happen because you sit back and hope really hard for the best outcome: it takes work and dedication, trial and error, sacrifice and adaptability – and, above all else, the ability to admit fault and change direction when a given thing ceases to work, or is proved to have never really worked at all.

She was the lead, but sexists wished she wasn’t, and were too scared of introspection – and too intellectually dishonest – to bother analysing their knee-jerk, often vitriolic reactions to female protagonists when it was easier to send rape and death threats to female celebrities, hack and share their nudes, and engage in racist, misogynistic abuse of women on the internet.

That’s how you suppress female characters. Or at least, that’s how you try. But no matter how much personal damage these bigots deal along the way, all they’re really proving is the terrified insincerity of their own arguments. Deep down, they know they’re losing – not because of any innate and deeply buried moral compass, but because the one cow they’ve all perpetually held as sacred is the inviolable truth of Profit. So long as nobody ever bothered to look for proof that stories about women – and people of colour, and the queer community, and everyone else long excluded from the Hollywood mainstream – could turn a buck, they could always blame the absence of such stories, not on their own ugly biases, but the flat fact of financial incentive. But now, the market has spoken, and the verdict is in: there’s money to be made in female protagonists – and damn, but the misogynists are bitter about it.

*

She was the lead

(but you wished she wasn’t)

She was the lead, and she deserved to be

(she was political, unsexualised, funny, feminist)

She was the lead, and look what she starred in

(everything. everything. everything.)

 

Come in. Sit down. Pull up a chair. We’re going to play a game.

Here’s how it works: I give you a simple character description, and you tell me which particular character I’m talking about, as well as the one specific TV show they’re from. Your only hint: these are all protagonists or ensemble main characters. Ready? Let’s go:

  • straight white male detective, an abrasive maverick with a tragic past
  • straight white male doctor, an arrogant maverick
  • straight white male conman using his powers for good
  • straight white writer, solves crimes and writes novels about it
  • straight white political aide, snarky but beloved
  • straight white female detective, brilliant with a tragic past
  • straight white lawyer who secretly fights crime
  • straight white maverick lawyer, sketchy past
  • straight white male supernatural creature, tragic past
  • straight white male antihero, drives a signature vehicle

Congratulations! We’ve reached the end of round one. Now that you’ve got your eye in, are you ready for round two? I sure hope so! Let’s give it a try:

  • straight black female detective, tragic past
  • bisexual white female leader, survivor and strategist
  • bisexual white male supernatural creature, antihero
  • straight Latino male supernatural creature, hero
  • straight Asian female doctor, solves crimes
  • gay black male detective, brilliant and untragic
  • bisexual black female lawyer, maverick antiheroine
  • gay Latino male action hero, supernatural issues
  • straight black female political maverick

There will not be a round three.

I mean, I could introduce a bonus round about secondary characters, but hopefully, I’m getting the point across: that whereas there are multiple shows whose protagonists answer to the descriptions given in round one, there’s really only one right answer for the equally simple clues provided in round two. Because for all the furore about how shows these days are nothing but an exercise in forced diversity – for all the fear that straight white guys are somehow being banned from stories forever and ever, amen – they’re still the dominant species, and all you need to do to prove it is ask for multiple examples of any one of the types of person supposedly meant to have ousted them.

One of the more common arguments raised by anti-diversity advocates is the futility of tokenism – the idea that giving a single show a black female lead for the sake of filling a quota is both insulting and unnecessary. And I quite agree: tokenism isn’t the answer. What we want is to reach a point where there are so many black female protagonists – and queer protagonists, and protagonists of every other type and variation listed above and a great many more besides, in every permutation – that none of them could ever again be reasonably viewed as a token anything. Because, in this scenario, when writers are considering who could be the protagonist, they’re giving equal consideration to every type of person, and not just forcing themselves to look, however briefly, beyond the narrow, familiar confines of an historical default.

A quick math problem, before we continue: if you have ten apples, and I have three, and we both start shaking the same, communal tree to get more fruit, and the end result is twenty apples each, have you actually lost anything? No, invisible apple friend: you have not. I might have gained more in the short term, but as the end result is a fairly-earned equality, any assertion on your part that my apples were stolen from you – that you are being deprived, somehow, of the all the apples you might’ve had, if only I hadn’t come along – is kind of insincere. And if your response is to try and burn the tree down out of spite, the better to ensure I go hungry next season? Well, then, you really don’t understand how apples work, do you? The ones I’m holding have just as many seeds as yours, and once I’ve gone and planted them, I’ll have access to even more trees than before, and an even greater incentive to make sure they grow big and healthy. Sure, you could spend all your energy trying to sabotage my fledgling orchard, because destruction is far, far easier than creation, but come the next harvest, I’ll still have a crop of shiny, delicious apples to eat – and if you’ve planted nothing in all that time, then brother, I don’t have to burn down anything in order to watch you starve.

Where was I? Oh, right: diversity in narrative.

See, when anti-diversity advocates start talking about the narrative implausibility of particular characters as a means of explaining why, in their opinion, certain types of people just can’t be heroes, they forget the point of stories. We have, quite literally, an entire genre of films, books, comics, games and TV shows dedicated to showing us how normal, mediocre straight white guys – literal everymen, as proudly proclaimed in their blurbs and trailers and other forms of promotional bumpf – can rise up and save the world and the day and get the girl, even when they’ve had absolutely nothing going for them and no pertinent skills before that point. It might happen through luck or hard work, through outside help or unknown possession of a secret destiny, or sometimes a combination of all four, but it does happen, over and over and over again, with the cosmic regularity of sunset, and do you know what? Regardless of whether we love or hate or meh those individual stories, everyone who watches or reads or plays them understands, at base, that a certain degree of implausibility is the fucking point. The idea isn’t to create a hyper-real explanation as to why John Doe is suddenly the only man standing between Earth and alien annihilation, although it’s always nice when the worldbuilding rises to the occasion: the fundamental point of the everyman as hero is to make us, the everyday audience, feel as if we could be heroes, too.

But make that hero queer or female and something other than white, and the same guy who moments ago was cheering on every single everyman ever played by Shia LaBeouf in Transformers and Eagle Eye and Indiana Jones and Constantine is spewing rage on the internet because of the Ghostbusters reboot and Star Wars and who knows what else, because women aren’t funny or interesting and why would you ever try to make them the protagonist? Listen, fucknuts: the only real joke attributable to Adam Sandler is his own career, but I didn’t see you weeping on Reddit when he was inexplicably greenlit for another two hours of cinematic dickslapping in the Year of Our Lord 2016. Leslie Jones could do nothing but read the entirety of Pride and Prejudice aloud on camera while cracking improvised jokes about the characters and drinking champagne, and it would still be a million times funnier than anything that’s ever starred Rob Schneider. Granted, that particular comedic bar is so damn low, you could use it to drag the Marianas Trench, but the point is that the plausibility police were nowhere to be found when James McAvoy learned to be an assassin with the help of a massive sentient loom, a tank full of wax and Angeline Jolie’s collarbones, but are suddenly screeching the heavens down at the prospect of there being More Than One Girl in Star Wars.

I mean, look: it says a whole fucking lot about this debate that the many female characters displaced by Trinity Syndrome – which is to say, female characters who are demonstrably strong and skilled and unique enough to merit protagonist status, but who ultimately play second fiddle to whichever lucky everyman they’ve trained/fallen for – are never subjected to the same level of plausibility-scrutiny as actual female protagonists. Nobody objected to the fact that Trinity was an awesome hacker-leader-fighter in The Matrix, because she was also Neo’s love interest, and hot: they could safely view her through the lens of his success, and thereby rest easy in the knowledge that the story wasn’t really about her. The kind of man who objects to Rey, but not Trinity, isn’t bothered by the contextual implausibility of female competence, no matter what he says: he just wants to know that, whatever prowess the female characters have, they’re still going to come in second to a white guy they later bone down with, or at least kiss. Female exceptionalism therefore becomes allowable only in a context where the various impressive skills a woman has acquired over a lifetime can be first mastered and then improved upon by any moderately talented white guy in a matter of days. But if you take that guy away – or worse still, make him a less adept sidekick or enemy – then suddenly it’s the end of the goddamn world and a blight on plausible storytelling.

So let’s just set the record straight, once and for all: we don’t want an end to stories with straight white male protagonists; we do want to boost the number of stories starring other types of person, and maybe – given the massive historical imbalance between those genres – give them a bit of time in the spotlight, too. We don’t want to promote bad stories over good for the sake of diversity, though we do want them to be judged fairly, which here means allowing us the freedom to create a range of diverse stories without that diversity being automatically dismissed as either tokenism or a pandering irrelevance, or else used as an excuse to put the narrative under a microscope, the results to be read as a harsh pass/fail on the viability of any such future stories. We do want to openly celebrate diversity, in much the same way that farmers celebrate rain after a long drought: we’ve had so little for so long, can you blame us for wanting to shout about it?

Well, I mean. Obviously, if you’re an anti-diversity advocate, you can and will. You’re just not going to have much in the way of moral highground to support you, and maybe – just maybe – it behoves you to consider what you’re really fighting against. If rebooting a franchise with someone other than a straight white guy in the leading role is a purely cosmetic – and therefore, in your estimation, meaningless – change, then why do you feel so personally threatened by the prospect of someone doing it? If your real objection is to tokenism, and not to well-crafted characters from diverse backgrounds, then why aren’t you advocating that writers include more of them, not less? If your selection process for worthy stories is truly wide-ranging and meritocratic, then why does it skew so heavily to only one type of writer and one type of protagonist? Why do you find it so hard to believe that stories can be both diverse and worthy? Why are you so resistant to the idea that well-executed diversity is itself a form of good storytelling?

If narrative representation is such a paltry, meaningless thing ask for, then why are you so terrified of losing it?

We know why, is the thing. The real question is: do you?

 

I’ve been comparatively quiet on the SFFnal blogging front of late, partly because I’ve been busy with every other aspect of my life, but mostly because I’ve been feeling burned out on the same endless cycle of arguments. Back in high school, I once spent a frantic evening completing a history assignment I’d technically had months to complete: we were meant to cut out daily articles in the newspaper pertaining to the Israel-Palestine conflict and explain how each current event was informed by the history we’d learned. The relevant clippings in hand, I found myself writing paragraph after paragraph explaining the exact same thing in slightly different words. It was an exercise in creative repetition, but it did win me that year’s history prize, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Without wanting to compare the current discourse in SFF to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I’ve started to feel much the same way about engaging with it as I did when writing that history assignment. By this point, surely, all the salient points have already been made by all the key parties, multiple times and in myriad different ways. We know why the debate started, and we know why it’s ongoing. The problem is that, no matter how eloquently we make these same points over again, new offences stemming from the original conflict continue to occur, and merely pointing out why that’s happening isn’t getting us any closer to solving it. Which isn’t to say that making those breakdowns isn’t still important or useful: it is. I just don’t always have the strength for it right now.

Enter the announcement of programming for World Fantasy Con 2016.

There’s a good breakdown of what’s happened here, courtesy of Sarah Pinsker, while the program itself can be found here, but in a nutshell, the issue is this: there are more references to H.P. Lovecraft in the program than to women or POC; there’s a use of offensive language; and there’s little to no acknowledgement of any recent writing in the genre.

This last point is the one I want to address.

By Sarah Pinsker’s count, of the thirty-two separate works cited in the program, only four were written in the last twenty years. Four. Pinsker, who saw an early draft of the proposed programming, raised this particular issue prior to publication with the head of programming, Darrell Schweitzer, in relation to a specific example. Here is Pinsker’s account of that exchange:

The Animal Fantasy panel with the “recent” example of Watership Down? I pointed out that was written before I was born. Kij Johnson and Ursula Vernon have written amazing award-winning animal fantasy in the last few years. He said “Watership Down is recent compared to Aesop and Chaucer.” AESOP AND CHAUCER. The modern field doesn’t stand a chance.

And here, according to the program, is current, full description of the Animal Fantasy panel:

19. Animal Fantasy. The form has been around since ancient times, and in recent years Watership Down, Walter Wagnerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow, Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman et al. and several other such books did very well. Is this sort of fantasy still being written? What is its appeal?

To break this down, Watership Down was first published in 1972 – which is to say, 44 years ago. Wagnerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow came out in 1978, which is 38 years ago. The Fox Woman, by contrast, came out in 1999, a mere 17 years ago, but whether viewed individually or as a collective, referring to all these works as the product of “recent years” is blindingly inaccurate. It’s also, quite tellingly, an elision highlighted by the very next question: if the works you’re describing as successful are truly “recent”, asking if they’re “still being written” ought to be redundant.

To truly appreciate the ridiculousness of this, imagine if a major gaming con, like PAX, announced the following panel description in the year 2016:

19. First Person Shooters. This type of game has been around since gaming began, and in recent years Doom, id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D,  Rare’s GoldenEye 007 et al. and several other such games did very well. Are these sorts of games still being made? What is their appeal?

The only way someone could write such a panel description in good faith is if they know so little about the topic they’re proposing as to be unaware of the genre’s development, which in turn suggests they’re ill-equipped to investigate its output. Can you imagine a bunch of panellists trying to talk intelligently about what’s happening with FPS now – the types of title being released, the reasons people play them, the developments in the industry – while admitting themselves to be largely ignorant and/or dismissive of anything that happened after Quake? Can you imagine a panel about modern FPS whose members looked confused and frustrated when the audience asked about Overwatch, or who didn’t think Counter-Strike had that big an impact on the genre? That’s how out of touch the Animal Fantasy panel – and, indeed, the bulk of WFC’s programming – looks to me.

Of course, I don’t yet know who the panellists are, which is clearly going to inform how the Animal Fantasy panel (among others) is handled: whether the conversation sticks to the era suggested in the outline, or if newer works and developments are actually mentioned. But on the basis of what I saw at WFC in Brighton in 2013, which had a similarly retro bias in the programming, this is a con that’s more than capable of fielding myriad panellists whose genre knowledge doesn’t extend much past the mid-eighties. Indeed, it’s a con whose programming seems increasingly tailored to just that set while simultaneously claiming to be a modern, relevant industry con.

To borrow the gaming example again, the objection isn’t to the presence of panels discussing classic or older games, which can be a lot of fun and very informative for younger congoers wanting a better sense of their history: it’s behaving as if it’s not history at all – as if the genre still only really consists of Pacman, Return to Zork and the original Tomb Raider – while waving a vaguely disparaging hand at everything that’s happened since. Even if you don’t like the newer developments, you need to be able to acknowledge that they’ve happened, and to have some understanding of how they worked and what they did, in order to compare them to your preferences. But acting as though they’re invisible, as though they never really happened at all? That’s not only insulting to the audience, it’s just plain wrong.

And lest anyone take umbrage with the comparison of animal fantasy to FPS, the latter accounting for far more works in its field that the former: I chose that example precisely because FPS is well-known enough for the dissonance to be jarring. But animal fantasy, while a smaller subgenre, has nonetheless developed a lot since the 70s. To take the blindingly obvious example that somehow isn’t mentioned in the programming, I grew up reading Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, which began in 1986 – the year I was born – and only ended with his death, the final book released in 2011. The Duncton Wood series, published between 1980 and 1993, were another big influence, as was the TV show The Animals of Farthing Wood, aired between 1992 and 1995, which was an adaptation of the books of the same name, originally written in the late seventies. There’s also Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series – a staple of Australian literature – whose publication runs from 1958 to 1999, with both a live action film and an animated TV show produced in 1993 and 1994, respectively. None of which is exactly recent (while still managing to be more recent than the panel description), but which contextualises the crucial shift in the genre.

As Pinsker pointed out, Kij Johnson has written multiple works that fall into this category, all more recent than the 1999 example given in the programming, as has Ursula Vernon, notably her award-winning comic, Digger. There’s also Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, released last year with Tor. But in “recent years”, the majority of animal fantasy stories aren’t novels – they’re animated films and shows. Disney’s Zootopia, released in 2016, was an unparalleled critical success, but hardly arrived in a vacuum: all those cartoon adaptations mentioned above – Redwall had one too, along with The Animals of Farthing Wood and The Silver Bumby, to say nothing of the classic Watership Down film  helped to pave the way for it, as did countless others. I could sit here all day listing animal-centric animated films from the last thirty years, both literary adaptations and originals (The Secret of Nimh, Happy Feet, Kung-Fu Panda, Cats Don’t Dance, An American Tail, A Bug’s Life, Ice Age), and while I won’t, the fact that I can is exactly the point: unless you want to outlaw 90% of the discussion, you can’t have a sensible panel about animal fantasy as a subgenre without mentioning animation. You literally can’t, because that’s where the bulk of that particular subgenre exists, and that’s where it’s been thriving for twenty years.

Talking about animal fantasy purely in terms of novels makes as much sense as, well, applying the same restriction to a discussion of superheroes: yes, those books exist, and yes, they’re worth mentioning, but you’re kind of missing the main event. But I can already pretty much guarantee that, barring some major behind the scenes changes, you’re not going to get a WFC panel which addresses that fact. Many of you can probably guess why. For those who can’t, however, let’s run with this theme a little longer.

Elsewhere in her Twitter thread on the WFC programming, Sarah Pinsker mentions that seminal author Shirley Jackson, whose centenary this is, rates only a single programming mention compared to H. P. Lovecraft’s ten. On its own, that might not bother you, but compare it to the programming in 2013, which marked what would have been Arthur Machen’s 150’s birthday. An entire programming stream was made in Machen’s honour – Machen @ 150 – celebrating his works, his life and his influences on the genre, which amounted to eight separate panels explicitly invoking him in their premise. Similarly, in 2014, Robert Aickman’s centennial earned him seven different events commemorating his work. But Shirley Jackson’s centennial merits only a single event and a single mention – even though the program itself describes her as having written “much of the greatest and most distinctive horror of the 20th century”.

It’s not a coincidence that Shirley Jackson’s centenary merits only a single panel compared to what was organised for Aicken and Machen, just as it’s not a coincidence that the animal fantasy panel mysteriously makes no reference to the medium in which the bulk of those stories are produced. It’s not just that the programming is manifestly disinterested in the genre’s progress in the last twenty years – it’s that all those earlier, apparently more “definitive” works are only a curated selection of what’s considered classic and acceptable, which definition skews heavily towards male and “serious” and away from anything female, youthful or “frivolous”, like animation or YA.

If the position was, really and truly, that recent works are garbage, and that the only things worth discussing in SFF happened prior to 1996 (or 1986, for preference) then Shirley Jackson would merit at least as many programming items as Aicken or Machen – but she doesn’t, because she’s a woman. If the position was, really and truly, that there hasn’t really been any notable animal fantasy since 1999, then Brian Jacques, Elyne Mitchell and the wealth of early cartoon adaptations should at least rate an acknowledgement in the panel description – but they don’t, because kids’ animation isn’t respectable fantasy, Jacques wrote middle grade books, and Mitchell, assuming the programming team have even heard of her, is a woman. It’s the same logic which said that including a favourite in-joke of Schweitzer’s was more important than not using a racist slur in the programming titles (“Spicy Oriental Zeppelin”, though this, at least, seems to have been changed): they simply didn’t see the offence as a problem.

It’s not that I think Darrell Schweitzer and friends sat down at a table and asked, “Okay, how best can we exclude and minimise the contributions of women, people of colour, queer writers and anyone under fifty in our programming?”, though they could hardly have done a better job of achieving that outcome if they had. It’s that bias is an insidious, often subconscious thing, and where you’ve learned to only view particular things as worthy or important, regardless of the actual worth or importance of what’s on offer, you need to make an active effort to look at the whole picture. If your argument is that genre is an unbiased meritocracy – if that’s what you truly aspire for conventions and awards ceremonies alike to look like, the best works and writers rising to the top regardless of any other consideration – then the presence of homogeneity in your lineup should concern you, because it’s a sign that someone, somewhere is putting their hand on the scales.

Here’s the thing about awards lists and panel slots: they’re exclusive by definition, which means that someone, somewhere is always going to be miss out, whether personally or in terms of their preferences. Unless you’re handing out trophies for participation, then you’re always going to have arguments about how it was a travesty that so-and-so didn’t make the cut, and there’s always going to be both a political and a promotional aspect to whose names get bandied about. There’s no such thing as a perfect, absolutely objective nomination or adjudication process, because those decisions are ultimately based on individual preferences, and everyone has subjective reasons for liking what they like. That’s the nature of the beast, and it applies across the board, whether you’re talking about the Oscars, Crufts or a local primary school science prize. But when there is a massive, visible dissonance between what’s being created and what’s being praised – when that dissonance just so happens to map to wider social bigotry against particular groups and people – then it’s not unreasonable to advocate for a fairer process. There is, after all, a world of difference between the top prize going to the kid with the most awesome baking soda volcano you’ve ever seen, even if you thought the girl with the string beans was better, and watching some grinning lug who turned in a pile of horseshit take the trophy away from both of them.

 

The WFC 2016 program is frustrating, not just because it’s so manifestly disinterested in the ongoing development of SFF, but because it can’t even pretend with any degree of subtlety that its objections to those developments are anything other than a deep-seated preference for the opinions of straight white men. I’ve harped on the animal fantasy panel because Schweitzer’s response to Pinsker about it perfectly encapsulates the dissonance in his attitude, but it’s the same thing wherever you look. For god’s sake, there are more references to men born in the 1800s than to any women, living or dead. How can that possibly make sense at a convention where people are meant to go to discuss the genre’s future? How can such a convention even have a future, when it’s so hellbent on dismissing the reality of its inheritors?

Which, in a wider sense, is what’s happening right now with the Sad Puppy campaign and the Hugo Awards. Asked to share the playground equally with the other children, the Puppies lasted five minutes before deciding it was better to smash the swings and shit on the slide than let anyone use the shared equipment for games not of their orchestration. My toddler has more reasoned emotional responses, and he’s three.

But we know all that. We’ve said it before. What else is there to say?

It starts like this: women are lesser. Not quite worthy, not fully equal to men. The ultimate justification for this varies, but always hinges on an inherent, inferior difference of the mind, body, soul, whether singly or in combination; feminine virtues, if they exist, are subordinate virtues. Individually, women are dangerous; collectively, they require protection. (Unless, of course, it’s the other way around.) And yet no society can do without them, if it means to continue: a necessary evil. Women cannot be wholly abrogated, and so must instead be taught the importance of serving men, which makes their labour a resource. (An almost Marxist impulse, this: controlling the means of production.) There is, of course, perversity in the execution; call it a type of glitch. Among such men, the ability to attract women is frequently more valued than the ability – or say rather, willingness – to support them once attached. Caveat emptor, then: women, attracted, are a resource; women, attached, a burden. (This is not unusual, in the scheme of things: by definition, a resource diminishes with use, and needs must be replenished.)

Social bonding, of course, has never been aimed purely at the opposite sex. Possession of resources confers status within a peer group, provided such possession is at least perceieved to exist, regardless of actuality. Possession unwitnessed or doubted confers no advantages, while attachment – as distinct from attraction – is a double-edged sword, on the grounds that it invokes the spectre of a different type of parity, a new set of priorities. Attachment in this system is the end-game of attraction, but cannot be universally acknowledged as such, lest it call its own rules into question. After all, if attachment is truly desireable – if women attached become, not burdens to men, but assets – then a pattern of serial attraction with no attachment speaks more of failure than skill. (Women are resources either way; the difference is in their treatment. Serial attachment, by contrast, is something else altogether: women might still be assets, but more in the sesnse of possession than helpmeet.)

Remember: women are not quite equal, which serves to see them differentiated, culturally and legally, from men. But women are also held to have a weakening effect on men: their foibles are potentially contagious, if men treat them laxly, with too great a degree of indulgence. As such, men cannot rest on their laurels, but must actively assert their difference to, and superiority over, women, lest complacency upend the applecart. More, they must be seen to thus assert themselves, such that their personhood becomes deeply vested in, not just a preference for masculinity, but the performance of it.

That being so, there’s no utility in attracting women by taking an interest in what they like, not least because such a concession implies that a supposedly passive resource in fact has an active preference to be courted. Feigned interest is an acceptable ploy to use, but only temporarily: genuine concern for unmasculine interests devalues your peer-personhood too much to be worth the risk, and anyway, if such things were objectively important or worthwhile, they wouldn’t be left to women. (In the event that something is done by both men and women, of course, the male contribution is always more important. Women who succeed in such arenas are to be congratulated for their emulation of value, but not allowed to mistake their lesser contribution for a greater one.)

The ability to attract women is therefore predicated on the successful performance of masculinity as graded by other men. As such, the system depends on women being, not just a resource, but one primarily controlled and apportioned by men – otherwise, they might value their own, inferior preferences ahead of more masculine priorities. A similar danger is therefore presented by men who, for whatever reason, refuse to support the hierarchy of giving the most resources to the most masculine men. Masculinity must self-police against such individuals, lest the whole house of cards collapse: a refusal to defer to the masculinity of others becomes a failure of masculinity in oneself, and therefore a failure of personhood. The apex of this failure – or nadir, rather – is for a man to be so unmasculine as to be like a woman. Under this system, there is no worse insult – even, somewhat paradoxically, for women themselves.

Of necessity, ferocious importance is thus attached to determining what is – or is not – masculine. It’s here we hit an interesting bifurcation as, regardless of any additional moral/spiritual failings, women are frequently held to be both the physically weaker and intellectually inferior sex, thereby presenting men with two different ways to show their masculine prowess. However, in deference to the need to establish a heierarchy of masculinity – and it must be a hierarchy, or else all men would be equally entitled to the same share of feminine resources, with no means of distinguishing their peer-superiority – these avenues are traditionally pitted against each other. The ascendency at any given time of strength over intellect, or intellect over strength, is based on a mix of history, environment and context: the habits of the past, the needs of the present, and the specifics of control. Overlap between the two groups, or at least a deep respect for those who excel in both skillsets, is usually reserved for instances where there’s an immediate practical benefit to cooperation; otherwise, the competition – both presently and historically – is fierce.

Where one type of masculinity is perceived to be in ascendence, such that its adherents are similarly perceived to hold the greater share of resources – which is to say, women – there is a corresponding tendency for the secondary masculinity to go on the defensive. After all, if attracting women is the ultimate proof of masculinity – representing, as it does, the deference of other men in handing those women over (or at least, not arguing their dispersal) – then a failure to attract women – or the attraction of fewer women, or women deemed less valuable – lays such men open to the charge of being unmasculine; or worse, of being like women themselves. As this system can levy no greater insult, a response must therefore be made.

A scarcity of women in a secondary masculine group is therefore framed, not as a lack of desireable resources, but as the absence of an unwanted burden. Women do not understand masculinity and male pursuits; ergo, seeking to attract them takes valuable time away from real male work, be it soldiering or science. If strength is in ascendency, women are stupid to seek it; if intelligence, they are weak to want it. This is why secondary male environments are often more hostile to women than those with greater (masculine) social power: their antagonism serves both to protect against accusations of effeminacy and to redefine the ability to attract women as a negative, the gateway to a destructive, feminizing influence. Should this logic eventually effect a change in the masculine hierarchy, the effect is not revolutionary, but is rather a slow reversal: the teams might change goalposts, as it were, but they’re still playing the same game.

This is patriarchal logic laid bare: a simple, biased premise serving as a foundation for greater, later abuses. If women cannot be fully trusted, either morally or with their own self-governance, then systems must be established for men to both use and control them. That we (mostly) decry this underpinning logic, especially when phrased so baldly, doesn’t change the fact that such patriarchal systems have long since become habit, a locked-in aspect of our cultural upbringing. Sometimes, we don’t even recognise them, let alone consider that they still have a negative impact despite our intentions or other social changes. Pushback against these systems, which are seen as normative, is therefore viewed by some, not as a step towards equality, but bias towards a group who – surely! – are equal enough already.

Equal enough. A paradox whose brevity speaks volumes.

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

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

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

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

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

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

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

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

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

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

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

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

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

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

But the thing is –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many other games can boast as much?

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

I look forward to finding more.