Posts Tagged ‘Sexualisation’

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

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

Have You Met A Human Woman

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

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

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

a) shows a female character alone;

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

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

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

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

a) Are they shown in isolation?

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

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

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

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

more of this, please

Warning: some talk of rape, explosive ranting.

As an Australian who now lives in the UK, I’m used to hearing about publications, conventions, writers’ groups, book giveaways and other SFFnal coolness that I can’t actually buy, attend or participate in on account of their being located in or otherwise restricted to the US of A, a country I tend to envisage as one of those freaky undersea fish with a luminous, prey-attracting barbel that lures you in with the promise of democracy and culture and New York, and then savages you with its monstrous teeth, fascism, bigotry, and New York (a city I’ve never visited, but which I nonetheless feel qualified to make jokes about Because Television). What this means in a practical, everyday sense is that, even when certain American things become accessible online in whatever manner, I tend to forget that fact, and so place them in the same mental box of Unattainable And Irrelevant Stuff that contains my failed attempt to learn algebra and the location of our iron. Thus: whenever I see someone talking about the SFWA, I feel a brief surge of enthusiasm – SFF! Writers! Things I like! – that transmutes into apathy the exact instant I remember that, as someone who is neither American nor published in America, I’m ineligible to join. I paid minor attention to the recent presidential electiony-thingy, largely because, as a reader of John Scalzi’s blog, it was sort of hard to miss, but otherwise, both the SFWA and its affiliated bulletin have existed wholly off my radar.

And then I read this. And this. And this. And the article uploaded for comment here¬†– that is to say, the recent piece in the SFWA Bulletin by Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg, two old white guys in their seventies who I’ve never heard of before, but who are evidently horrified by the prospect of Teh Womenz having an opinion about either SFF generally or the SFWA in particular, and especially one that’s critical of them. I managed to get a whole five sentences in before I started bristling, when Resnick said:

In my starving writer days, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, I wrote a couple of hundred words in what we euphemistically call the “adult field”. A lot of us did. You, me, Robert Silverberg, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, even Marion Zimmer Bradley (a woman). No one ever said we couldn’t, no one ever tried to stop or censor us.

This snippet sets off alarm bells on two counts: that prejudicial ‘even’ before Marion Zimmer Bradley’s name, and the despicably telling (a woman) after it, all put there to tell us that a woman did what we did (even though most women didn’t), so therefore our defence of it is justified. So, let’s be clear: I’m a twentysomthing woman, which means that Resnick and Malzberg aren’t talking to me – they are, instead, complaining about people like me to people like them; which is to say, to themselves, as the whole piece is a dialogue between them. Nonetheless, the fact that I’m the hypothetical subject of their ranting gives me the right of ranty reply. Which I intend to exercise. Vehemently. In detail.

I supplemented that income by editing a quartet of tabloids, like The National Enquirer – only worse. Never got busted, never got censored, never got castigated. Ditto with a trio of men’s magazines I edited.

Pardon me while I laugh hysterically at the idea that working for two of the most lingeringly sexist, misogynistic types of publication, in a position of editorial power, in the fucking seventies, and boasting about how nobody ever called you on your bullshit back then, as though this is somehow proof of the fact that bullshit neither happened nor deserved to be stopped when it did, constitutes an intelligent argument.

[I wrote] the “Tales of the Velvet Comet”, a four book series about an orbiting brothel. Sold it to a lady editor. Never heard a peep of protest from anyone.

Christ on a fucking bicycle. Three paragraphs in, and we’re already dealing with Poe’s Law levels of delusional self-justification. I could make a drinking game about this article: take a shot every time the author deliberately highlights the femaleness of the women he mentions, the better to explain how¬†these ladies never said I was sexist, so clearly their silence at a time when dissent could’ve seriously impacted their careers constitutes an impartial, absolute assessment of the non-offensiveness of my work, as well as speaking declaratively for all women, forever. Plus and also: an orbiting brothel? Seriously? Way to boast about perpetuating a trope that we here in the actual future think is both shitty and overused.

…I wrote The Branch, a rather blasphemous novel about the true Jewish Messiah who shows up about 50 years from now, which perforce had to prove that Jesus was a fraud. No one objected. I even sent copies to Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart [two ancient televangelists, one now dead]… Apparently neither of them were offended enough to even protest on their radio shows.

Wow. That’s a compelling defence, isn’t it? Two bigoted, Evgangelical rightwingers with probable antisemitic tendencies thought your efforts at debunking Judaism were A-Okay, or at least not utterly blasphemous? One of whom, Swaggart, became infamous for his ‘I Have Sinned’ speech, wherein his deeply hypocritical and sadly repressed dalliances with prostitutes* were brought to light? Yes. Clearly, these are well-adjusted, intelligent men whose failure to criticise the work you sent them unsolicited in a bid to orchestrate some cheap, sensationalist publicity is proof of your possession of an unassailable moral high ground. Do go on.

These days it’s difficult to go to a movie – or even turn on the cable TV – without seeing a bunch of naked bodies and a bunch of blood.

So it’s understandable that I thought the days of censorship were long gone.

Truly, the fact that you can see sexually objectified ladies on The Cable and get your old guy rocks off at the push of a button nowadays is a sign of social progress, while women offering public criticism of your shitty, dinosauric attitudes is exactly the same as an erasure of your civil rights.

Take a look at the cover to a recent edition of The SWFA Bulletin, issue number 200. There’s a warrior woman on it. Not a hell of a lot different from a few hundred warrior women who have graced the covers of our field’s books and magazines ever since C. L. Moore (a woman)

Drink.

created Jirel of Joiry. I think the warrior woman is wearing boots, but [though] it’s pretty dark and shaded in that area, I know she [sic] displaying less flesh than just about any bikini you can see on a beach in the country today.

This is a bit like a modern employer throwing his hands up and saying, ‘Seriously, what’s the problem? I only fired her because she was pregnant! Employers like me have been firing knocked-up broads like her since the 1920s!’ Newsflash, Mr Resnick: the fact that something has a long and prominent history doesn’t make it OK. Plus and also: the fact that your ‘warrior woman’ is displaying only moderately less flesh than a beach babe despite being depicted in the mountains, in a chainmail bikini,¬†in the fucking snow,¬†is a textbook example of why we need Women Fighters In Reasonable Armour¬†(and many other things like it). Don’t fucking lie to me: that isn’t armour she’s wearing, and she’s not a warrior woman: she’s a masturbatory fantasy from your misspent youth, and now you’re trying to act as though the past fifty years of equality never actually happened.

A group of younger writers and fans object to her presence on the cover of the Bulletin and they’re making quite a bit of noise about it.

Firstly: it’s not just young people objecting to this fuckery. Go ask some women SFF writers in your age bracket – hell, ask some men with more sense than arrogance. My father’s nearly a decade older than you, and he’d look askance at this idiocy with all the dignified side-eye of his eighty-one years. ¬†And secondly: yes. We are making noise. That’s what fans and writers do – we talk about things. Much like you’re doing now, in fact.

…it was our editor, Jean Rabe (a woman)

Drink.

whose decision it was to run it.

Women are not a goddamn hivemind, Resnick: one does not speak for all. Trotting out your sad string of Ladies Who Liked My Stuff isn’t some magical, argument-melting spell that renders your critics invalid.

It was also Ms Rabe’s request that you and I do a couple of Dialogues (issues #199 and #200) on the history of women in the field.¬†We addressed lady writers in the earlier issue, and lady editors and publishers in the later one.

Drink.

Drink.

And we seem to have offended some members every bit as much as the cover art did.

Why?

By having the temerity to mention that Bea Mahaffey, who edited Other Worlds in the very early 1950s, was beautiful. (Which, according to every man and woman who knew her then, is absolutely true.) After all, we’re talking about an editor, not a pin-up model, so how dare we mention her looks? What business does that have here?

Fucking none, you moron. That is the actual point. We don’t care whether your assessment of her looks was accurate or how many goddamn witnesses you can find to back you up on that, even if we question you separately: have you ever described a male editor as handsome, or dropped in some extra verbage about how Tolkien was a doll? And on the extremely unlikely offchance that you can dig up one op-ed from 1962 where you vaguely referenced, in positive terms, the physical prowess of a young Stephen Donaldson, are you honestly claiming obliviousness to the long-lived and still ubiquitous double standard whereby women’s looks are deemed in some fundamental way to be representative of our competence (or lack thereof), whereas men, even in those rare instances when their appearance is remarked upon, aren’t held to anything even vaguely resembling the same standard?

For example, no-one ever mentioned JFK’s looks, do they?

Well, shit. I guess you are. And I just love how your single male counterexample is President Kennedy – that is to say, the ruler of a country, with all the associated press appearances and media coverage that necessary entails, and a man whose affairs actually impacted on his office, and are therefore materially relevant when discussing him. Yes. That is totally comparable to talking about the bodies of female writers and editors when it has no bearing whatsoever on their contribution to SFF.

So, Barry, just off the top of your head, what’s your opinion… of a writers’ organization that will let me say ‘fuck’ in these pages… but has some members that want to censor the word ‘beautiful’ and the thousandth painting of an absolutely generic warrior woman?

OK, you do understand that there’s a difference between saying ‘referencing her looks was unnecessary, and perhaps inappropriate given your evident obliviousness on the subject of sexism’, and ‘NOBODY IN THIS PUBLICATION SHOULD USE THE WORD BEAUTIFUL IT IS AN UNWORD AND BANNED FOREVER’, right? Nobody is censoring the word ‘beautiful’; we’re simply suggesting you needn’t have used it when you did. Similarly, if I say ‘stop threatening me with that knife’, I’m not saying ‘ban all knives’. I’m saying there’s an important contextual difference between chopping up carrots for dinner and my physical endangerment, and if that’s a distinction you’re either unwilling or unable to make, then I don’t want you anywhere near my kitchen.

Plus and also: the fact that your sexually objectified, ludicrously attired and probably frostbitten warrior woman is here deemed ‘generic’ – that is to say, so commonplace as to be normative – is part of the fucking problem. You know why? An actual warrior would be wearing armour, not a teenage boy’s wet dream of chainmail bikinis. And don’t even think of using Conan as a counterexample here: Conan is a male power fantasy who exists in a world without plate armour or chainmail, and where his lack of clothes therefore makes some species of sense; your covergirl, by contrast, clearly has access to proper protective gear but has, for mysterious reasons attributable only to penis-logic, elected not to wear it.

Let’s see what Malzberg has to say.

The question is whether those who object to Warrior Woman or ‘beautiful’ adjectivally applied to a woman are merely displeased or whether they want repetition censored. That isn’t clear to me and your description of these events leads me to infer that it isn’t clear to you either.

A cogent opinion! Huzzah! Points for Barry!

I don’t like the objections myself, and I find them offensive. Then again… I feel they have the right to complain loudly and often about those two examples… just as you and I have the right to complain loudly and often about what I take to be (dare I use the word) their stupidity.

Fair dues, there. For making actual sense, Malzberg earns himself the right to at least one non-sarcastic response from me.

But then again, if they want to shut us down… no more Woman Warriors and no offensive description of a beautiful woman as beautiful, well then there is a problem.

And here it is: while I can’t speak for everyone (see above re: women have no hivemind), I can say that, personally, I feel incredibly frustrated whenever the word ‘censorship’ is trotted out in these debates, not only because it has very grave and serious connotations that tend to obscure the issue at hand, but because it doesn’t accurately represent the desired outcome. If your actions stem from a problematic perception of women, forbidding those actions without altering your perception would achieve nothing. What we want isn’t for you to sit there, believing exactly as you do now but growing increasingly angry and resentful at being unable to express yourself: we want you to actually see us differently, such that you no longer view your past behaviour as acceptable, and subsequently never do it again.

It’s not censorship we want. It’s a change in your perceptions. Not self-censorship, which implies your original attitudes are simply repressed and waiting to bubble over: actual change, so that when you hear women say ‘please don’t depict us in chainmail bikinis, it’s demeaning and awful and contributes to terrible stereotypes that still demonstrably affect our treatment within SFF communities’, you respond with sympathy and respect.

There are, however, exceptions to this. We most definitely want to censor rape threats and racist slurs, for instance – not only because hate speech is illegal, but because allowing it within SFFnal communities creates unsafe, threatening environments for those of us who are subject to it, while simultaneously sending the message that bullying and abuse are OK. You have not engaged in hate speech here; therefore, we do not want to censor you. We do, however, want you to actually listen to us, and take on board the fact that what you’ve done is regressive and offensive.

What is somewhat disturbing, of course, is the anonymity (at least to me) of the complainers…

Hopefully, then, you’ll appreciate this very non-anonymous response, as well as everything else that’s been said on public blogs and otherwise under real names.

Oh lord, it’s Resnick’s turn again. Brace yourselves.

I went to the local Barnes & Noble superstore and began studying cover art.

And a lot of it abounded in bare, raw, pulsating flesh, totally naked from the neck to the navel. No question about it. It’s there for anyone else to see – and of course, since such displays seem to offend some of our members, to picket.

You know where I found it?

In the romance section. I’d say that just about every other cover shows a man’s bare torso… Clearly these are erotic covers, designed to get a certain readership’s pulse pounding.

As far as I know, no one’s tried to censor the publishers… Not even our moral SFWA crusaders.

Jesus, stop. Mike Resnick is officially banned from using words. Seriously, where the fuck do I even begin deconstructing this hot mess? With the fact that the abundance of bare-skinned cover art is not, in and of itself, proof that said art is desirable, positive, or OK? That’s like saying that because you can find a lot of brutal rape videos on the internet, it’s fine that you made your own brutal rape video in your basement. With the fact that there’s a big fucking difference between depicting sexualised images of both men and women on the covers of stories that are actually about sex, and depicting sexualised images of women alone on the covers of stories that have nothing or little to do with sex, except inasmuch as the male audience is being encouraged to construct objectifying fantasies? With the fact that, actually, there’s a growing movement of romance readers lobbying for different book covers, or who actively critique said covers as ridiculous, offensive, or just plain silly; and that, once you’ve complained about the anonymity of your detractors, you lose the right to make judgements about which movements they do or don’t support? Seeing as how, you know. You don’t actually know who they are?

…consider just how many muscular, near-naked Conan types have graced our covers over the years without nary a voice raised in protest.

*headdesk* He went there. He used The Conan Argument. First, and as stated earlier: Conan is a male fantasy. Objectified women are a male fantasy. Presenting one as the opposite of the other is about as useful as saying steak is the opposite of lamb: you aren’t making a meaningful distinction, and if the issue is trying to feed a vegetarian, you’re not even remotely close to understanding the actual problem. Second, Conan is of the past;¬†your ‘warrior woman’ isn’t. While you might be able to scrounge up one or two recent SFF releases with naked man-torso gleaming on the cover, they’d be a drop in the ocean compared to female objectification in the same timeframe, and when you compare both those things to the constant sexualisation of women elsewhere in society, your ‘warrior woman’ is reinforcing some seriously problematic shit that Conan and his briefly popular bretheren don’t even remotely approach.

Over to you, Barry!

Our Warrior Woman protesters and enemies of the adjective… fall into the category of what Right Wing radio talkers call ‘liberal fascists’, and I cannot disagree with that description… I agree wholly with at least one [radio talker], Sean Hannity. He says: ‘The difference between the so-called liberals and conservatives is that the liberals want to shut us down. They truly do not believe that we should have airtime. They truly believe that we should be banned. We do not feel that way about them. We don’t like their positions but we acknowledge their right to expression. They do not extend us the same courtesy.’

Sean. Fucking. Hannity.

Take a moment to savour the balls-out insanity of both this segue and its implications.

Sean Fucking Hannity, who pals around with Neo-Nazis. Sean Fucking Hannity, who gives airtime – and therefore legitimacy – to a guy who believes that one of America’s biggest mistakes was giving women the vote. Sean Fucking Hannity, who once described a female Democrat as looking like a “a slutty flight attendant”. Sean Fucking Hannity, whose panel featuring “absolutely everyone who might have something relevant to say about women’s health” was composed entirely of men.

Listen here, Malzberg. Listen close. You know why some things get banned? Because they’re fucking dangerous. Because they hurt people. On a scale of Newt Gingrich to Rush Limbaugh, Hannity might not be as utterly batshit as some of his colleagues, but that doesn’t make his views any less fucking dangerous. I’m happy to let the opposition speak, but not when their words, or the words of those they support, encourage the erasure of my rights, or the rights of others, or help to incite violence against innocent people. You want to make this a left wing/right wing debate? Then acknowledge the fact that you, as of right this fucking second, are on the side of the racists, the misogynists, the bigots and the isolationists.

I might want you to shut the hell up and learn something about sexism, but Hannity and his ilk want me to shut the hell up and surrender my rights or they’ll take them by force.¬†How dare you. How dare you even suggest, in the same fucking sentence, that your SFFnal critics are fascists for decrying your sexism while quoting an inflammatory liar¬†whose politics don’t just want us silent, but legally disempowered?

How fucking dare you. 

Oh, look. Resnick’s talking again. Joy.

The New York Review of Science Fiction took some potshots at me because, to quote them, “Is Resnick’s space-bottled African culture ever sexist!”

First, it’s not Resnick’s space-bottled African culture. It’s the culture of the Kikuyu tribe, and indeed about 97% of the tribes in Africa.

Oh.

My.

Fucking.

God.

*explodes from racefail overload*

Really, Resnick? Fucking REALLY? 97% of the tribes in Africa resemble the Kikuyu in their sexism – 97% of African tribes are sexist?

I just. I cannot. I have lost the ability to even.

Have some more quotes, sans commentary. The lunacy really speaks for itself, and I’m losing the will to live.

Who should women want making decisions on what they are allowed to read… Andrea Dworkin? Do you want the State or Federal Government (or the Supreme Court) telling you what you are allowed in your bedroom, or with whom?…

You know, I think a lot of this brouhaha is because we’re Old White Guys… Old White Guys should only write about what they know, which as far as said group is concerned is other Old White Guys… We can’t have any black friends, because our generation was composed exclusively of slave-owners. We can’t even say ‘homosexual’, let alone define it or say it without cringing. Everybody knows that…

When all is said and done, we didn’t run the kind of diatribe you hear from almost every top-selling rap star these days…

If they can get away with censoring that, can you imagine what comes next? I’m pretty sure Joe Stalin could imagine it.

*collapses under the sheer weight of Poe’s Law in evidence, dies angrily, rants from beyond the grave*

Old men yelling at clouds. That’s all this is. Bitter old sexist, racist morons yelling at clouds and ranting about the good old days in the 60s and 70s, back when women and minorities experienced even more discrimination than they do now and had the good grace to be silent about it, all while issuing dire warnings about how, if we fascist liberals get our way, then Andrea Dworkin will be ruling our sex lives from her vagina-shaped throne adopt the smouldering ruins of democracy, burning copies of Conan the Barbarian to feed the massive coal-electric furnaces that power her mighty Dildoswords. Hoards of quivering castrati, their genitals removed with the ironic aid of pinking shears and egg scissors, will howl in the quiet darkness of this intellectual night, sharing their secretly hoarded copies of R. Scott Bakker novels for solace, all while desperately hoping that tomorrow’s meal of panfried goat uterus will be enough to sustain them through to the morrow.

What a fucking dabacle.

*I’m not being critical of prostitutes, male or female, nor of Swaggart for using them, except to the extent that it involved cheating on his wife. I’m more commenting on the telling hypocrisy and denial of a hardcore Evangelist trying to cover up his own sexuality out of a sense of shame. Whatever else you can say about the guy, clearly, he was neither happy nor emotionally healthy, at least as far as his sexuality went.

ETA: This post was originally titled Old Men Yelling At Clouds: SFWA Lunacy. I then changed that last word to idiocy, as it was pointed out to me that the use of lunacy was ableist; but as idiocy is also abelist, I’ve changed it to sexism.

I’ve now reached the end of S4 of The X Files, and am happy to say that I’m still enjoying the show. Granted, it hasn’t improved on race issues, which has lead to some truly cringeworthy moments – as I noted before, with few exceptions, POC predominantly appear in the show as extensions of or vehicles for their supernatural and/or religious beliefs, with a strong tendency towards negative and/or highly stereotyped portrayals of both – and Scully is still being damselled in ways that Mulder isn’t by virtue of gender, but overall, the quality has remained impressively consistent. I’m especially enjoying the strength of the continuity: not only are there multiple regular callbacks, both large and small, to the events of previous episodes and seasons, but the way these references are braided together to form a cohesive background of conspiracies and character development is extremely well done. In modern television, a policy of as-you-go retconning seems to have long since become the default order of business, and as someone who appreciates background details, it’s refreshing to see them treated with the care they deserve.

But as before, what really stands out is the skill with which Scully and Mulder are rendered as characters, and the extent to which their relationship subverts the usual presentations of TV gender roles. Having observed in S1 and S2 how non-sexualised Scully is, for instance, it still came as a surprise to realise – or rather, to hear my husband observe – that Mulder is frequently sexualised in her place: often, he’s shown running around shirtless or wearing nothing but a towel, and as of the penultimate episode of S4, we’ve seen him naked in the shower. Skinner, too, is shown in a similar light, with multiple bare-chested appearances and one prolonged, overtly¬†voyeuristic¬†scene of him in his underwear. While I can certainly think of several more recent shows that feature male sexualisation as a regular component, I’m hard-pressed to think of any that do so instead of, rather than as an accompaniment to, female sexualisation, let alone where the male nudity isn’t filtered through the lens of an on-screen female gaze. By which I mean: in order not to frighten straight male viewers, men only tend to be sexualised on screen when in the presence of a straight female characters – their gaze, whether lustful or embarrassed, is overwhelmingly used as a barrier to protect straight men from seeing male bodies as sexual objects; that way, such viewers can continue to identify with sexualised male characters without actually feeling objectified themselves, because their identification is with the idea of being attractive to fictional women rather than unknown audience members. Take away the on-screen women, however, and what you’re left with is a man whose sexual appeal is only meant for the audience – an inherently radical prospect, when the most sought-after demographic are straight young men who’ve been socially conditioned to panic at even the slightest whiff of homoeroticism. And yet, this is exactly how The X Files runs its sexuality: shirtless Mulder and Skinner shown in contexts where neither Scully nor any other female character is there to see them, such that their nudity is for the benefit of the audience alone. (Scully does see Mulder in the shower, but it’s a profoundly unsexy encounter given his state of psychological shock, and she doesn’t react at all to seeing him undressed.)

It’s also notable that Mulder, while still a masculine character, is allowed to display emotions that are traditionally deemed feminine: he not only cries freely, but does so in the presence of other people, rather than at home, alone, while drunk, as a sign of repression. Similarly, Scully is allowed to display traditionally masculine traits without this compromising her femininity: she aggressively confronts congressmen, senators, generals, senior government officials and other powerful figures, and yet is never once characterised or described as nagging, bitchy or shrill – even her enemies respect her competence without slighting her gender, and that’s a rare thing. This dynamic is exemplified in S4’s¬†The Field Where I Died, which deals with the idea of past lives: though not a fantastic episode in and of itself, the fact that Mulder was said to be female in one of his past lives, while Scully was male at least twice (once as Mulder’s father, and once his commanding officer, both positions of command and power over her colleague) says a lot about the show’s willingness to subvert gender dynamics – as does the fact that this information is presented without question.

All in all, then, I’m looking forward to the start of S5, and keen to see where the rest of the show is headed. Even if it starts to head downhill from this point (and let’s be honest – most TV shows tend to go a bit wonky in their fourth or fifth season) I’m glad to have seen this much.

Recently, I’ve started watching my way through The X Files, a show that was big enough to amorphously dominate my pop cultural recollections of tween- and teenhood, but which, with the exception of two lone episodes circa the sixth or seventh season, I’ve never actually watched before. For a show that first aired in 1993 – which is to say, a show whose first season is now twenty years old – the overall feel is surprisingly undated, partly because of the massive stylistic influence it had on later programming, but also because, right from the get-go, Scully and Mulder have access to both mobile phones and the internet. This might seem like a minor detail at first, especially given the hilariously dated brick-style phones and grey box laptops everyone is using, but it’s incredibly significant in terms of plot: as others have pointed out, many classic Seinfeld gags would be voided now by the presence of mobile phones, while their virtual absence from Buffy¬†meant the main cast spent seven seasons getting in trouble in ways they couldn’t now. But because The X Files¬†was about characters with access to what was then exclusive, expensive technology, there’s a structural modernity to even the earliest episodes that sets it apart from other 90s shows.

By the same token, however, it’s impossible to forget that these early seasons effectively codified the relevance of multiple tropes whose usage is now ubiquitous in both its SFnal and crime procedural heirs – most prominently, the protracted UST between Scully and Mulder, arguably the ur-example of a narrative device so commonplace now as to be practically requisite for crime-fighting partnerships. Having only just reached the end of season two, I can’t yet comment on how the portrayal changes throughout the series, but initially at least, it’s striking to note how the cinematography treats their relationship in comparison to the default practice of more modern shows. In programs like Bones, Castle and Fringe, for instance, moments of intense physical and emotional connection between the male and female leads are almost invariably shown in closeup, replete with soulful reaction shots to underline their significance and further highlighted by the addition of meaningful glances and strong musical cues. By contrast, and despite the undeniable intensity of their relationship as shown through their actions, interactions and dialogue, Scully and Mulder’s closest moments are overwhelmingly shot in wideview, so that the audience watches from a distance: there’s no lingering focus on where and when their hands touch, no sudden cutaway so we can see the one gazing hungrily at the other, and no special score to help us infer attraction, which means that the audience isn’t constantly being hit over the head with Proof That They Secretly Love Each Other. Instead, we can get on with seeing them as individuals whose relationship isn’t their most defining quality, and while they’re still rescuing each other from dire peril every other week (more of which shortly), the end result comes across as refreshingly objective.

It’s also noteworthy how unsexualised Scully is in terms of her clothes and appearance. So far, with the exception of a single scene in the pilot episode where she appears in her underwear,we’ve never seen her in anything more form-fitting than a full length, long-sleeved dress – and even in the pilot, it’s notable that instead of sexy lingerie, she’s wearing sensible, comfy-looking white underwear with an elastic waist. Most of the time, she cuts around wearing a massive, shapeless overcoat; even her hair is a practical length to be worn loose, and when tied back, it actually gets to look messy. Accordingly, the camerawork isn’t overly concerned with her body: we see detail on her face and hands often enough, because her expressions and actions matter, but in two ¬†seasons, I’ve never noticed a ‘male gaze’ moment where the camera sweeps her from top to toe, or else follows the line of a male character’s vision to indicate that he likes what he sees. In fact, I can only think of a single male character who has overtly passed comment on her physical attractiveness, and that was done playfully, in a way that was neither demeaning nor predatory. Which isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with female characters being presented in ways that acknowledge their sexuality – Kate Beckett of Castle, for instance, is very purposefully a woman who enjoys and owns her body, and that’s done extremely well. It’s just that overt sexiness and all the secondary trappings thereof have long since become a default setting for TV heroines, as has male gaze camerawork: any visible underwear is always sexy lingerie and usually shown gratuitously; long hair is always impractically long and often worn loose to ¬†emphasise feminine beauty even in situations where any practical woman would tie it back; work clothes are form-fitting, cleavage-revealing and invariably paired with high heels, even for women who spend all day walking and running; and cosmetic disarray only ever enters the picture as a sign of emotional distress. It’s so low level and constant that half the time I just tune it out, but even so, it’s rare I can get through an action movie these days without gritting my teeth over female soldiers and scientists with perfect flowing princess hair, and oh my god, can we please have a fucking heroine with a ponytail or – let’s go crazy – hair that comes to¬†above her shoulders? But Scully, though well-groomed, smartly dressed and physically attractive, if unconventionally so by today’s¬†exorbitant¬†standards, is still allowed to be practical; to look comfortable, rather than like she’s constantly on display, such that you can go whole episodes without being forced to acknowledge her body at all.

And then there’s Mulder: the handsome young hotshot who’s difficult to work with, but whose crazy theories and mad, brilliant deductions inevitably turn out to be right. That’s a character we see a lot of, now – The Mentalist’s Patrick Jayne, Greg House of House –¬†and while the archetype by no means began with Mulder, Sherlock Holmes being a far more established and obvious antecedent, he’s nonetheless an obvious forerunner to many of the leads we currently see on TV. However, I find it interesting to note that, whereas more recent iterations of this character-type tend to be abusive, inconsiderate, rude, arrogant or some admixture thereof – traits which serve to justify why others find them difficult to work with – Mulder’s outsider status stems not from any overtly obnoxious flaws, but simply because his convictions are so radical. Combined with his consideration of and empathy for others, this makes him much more reminiscent of Holmes than many other characters with an ostensibly closer connection to Doyle’s creation, at least in terms of personality. Despite the propensity of modern adaptations to render Holmes as an uncaring, selfish egotist whose bad manners are justified only by his genius, the original Sherlock, while certainly confident of his abilities and prone to a bluntness born of equal parts distraction and haste, was never deliberately cruel, nor did he disdain the feelings of others; and on occasions when he did cause hurt or offense, his habit was to apologise. In much the same way that Scully’s treatment contrasts with the current default sexualisation of ¬†female leads, therefore, Mulder’s kindness and willingness to listen contrast with the overt displays of arrogance and insensitivity which are increasingly normalised as acceptable and even justifiable when delivered by a particular kind of (straight, white, male, maverick) hero.

In combination, the effect is to make a twenty-year old show feel markedly more progressive than many which postdate it, at least as far as the main characters are concerned. When it comes to issues of race, however, the picture is much more grim. Specifically: the show has made a habit of introducing POC characters whose ethnicity and/or religious beliefs are a source of dangerous supernatural powers, or else of intimating that the religious and cultural beliefs of various POC groups are inherently magic or suspect. Thus far, we’ve had a Native American werewolf, an African American whose zealous Christianity has lead him to track down and kill his former associates, a white soldier using Haitan voodoo to perpetrate atrocities, and a community of cannibalistic white people whose Eebil Cannibalism stems solely from the fact that one of them spent time with a tribe of Indians back in the day and picked up their Eebil Ways. By contrast, white religious beliefs are given positive associations: an alien species living in disguise as a white Christian community, for instance, is portrayed as using Christian beliefs – or at least, the semblance of them – to curb their more dangerous impulses, while white Romanian priests use ritual magic to drive out evil spirits. I’d like to believe that later episodes will improve on this point, but given the extent to which modern shows are still rampantly perpetuating these same stereotypes, I’m not holding out much hope.

What’s really struck me about The X Files, however, is how rich a narrative resource it is for conversations about damselling and gender. Almost every episode, either one or both of the protagonists is put in life-threatening danger, which means that, more often than not, they end up requiring rescue. In terms of who ends up rescuing who, the scores are pretty much equal: both Scully and Mulder regularly go to extraordinary lengths to save each other, whether it’s from exposure to a deadly virus or death at the hands of a killer. There’s no notable imbalance in the hurt/comfort ratio, and nor are such incidents used as gratuitous fodder for emotional confrontations built on romanticised damage, which is very much a positive. In episodes where both characters are imperiled at once, the threat usually comes from a neutral source, faceless government agents and unknown toxic/biological agents being favourite.¬†But when only one is endangered, the type of peril faced is markedly gendered. While Mulder frequently ends up in trouble from what I’ll call an excess of initiative – being first through the door, going off alone, taking risks, pursuing dangerous people – Scully tends to be targeted by male villains for kidnap, experimentation and abuse. Thus, while Mulder tends to save Scully from the predations of specific villains, Scully tends to save Mulder from the consequences of his own actions – meaning, in essence, that whereas male characters are targeted a result of their boldness, female characters are targeted because they’re female, or because they’re perceived to be weak. It does help that Scully is seldom a passive victim, fighting back even while terrified and frequently helping to rescue herself before Mulder arrives on the scene, but even so, the difference is striking.

Overall, then, despite certain qualms, I’m enjoying The X Files, both as a series and as a narrative exercise. Given that the entire collection is nine seasons long, I can’t guarantee that I’ll make it the whole way through, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I plan to give it a try.

Warning: All The Spoilers, much rant.

Far back in the mists of time – which is to say, in April 2011 – I reviewed Zack Snyder’s¬†Sucker Punch, a deeply problematic film which, despite its apparently noble intentions, succeeded only in replicating and reinforcing the selfsame sexist, exploitative tropes it ostensibly meant to subvert. Similarly, in August last year, I weighed in on the controversy surrounding Victoria Foyt’s¬†Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a self-published YA novel whose deeply problematic use of racist language and imagery overwhelmingly outweighed its stated goal of “turn[ing] racism on its head”, a dissonance which was further compounded by Foyt’s equally problematic responses to her critics. And now, by way of kicking off 2013, I’m going to review Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, ¬†a novel which, while certainly not as egregious in its awfulness as either Foyt or Snyder’s work, fails in a conspicuously similar manner, viz: by unconsciously perpetuating exactly the sort of objectionable bullshit it was (one assumes) intended to critique.

In a nutshell, then: The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a privileged, clever yet disaffected youth with a deep-seated sense of entitlement and a private longing for the magical, fictional world of Fillory, a wholly unsubtle Narnia substitute. Aged seventeen, Quentin is diverted away from Princeton and selected instead to learn real magic at the exclusive Brakebills College, aka Hogwarts For Assholes, where he spends five years being oblivious and dissolute while becoming progressively more awful, and very occasionally encountering things that are relevant at the finale. After graduating, he and his equally unlikable friends live a pointless, overindulgent life in Manhattan  until a former classmate shows up with the news that Fillory is real; on travelling there, the young magicians  encounter a terrible enemy whose defeat is only achieved at the expense of one of their lives. Horribly wounded, Quentin is left to recuperate in Fillory while his remaining friends bugger off home; eventually, he returns to Earth, abandons magic and gets a desk job Рright up until his friends return and convince him to come back to Fillory as a co-regent king, at which point he flies out a window to join them. The End.

Despite being well-written, from a purely technical standpoint, The Magicians is a structural mess, being simultaneously too rushed and too flabby: there’s simply too much happening that doesn’t actually matter, like welters games and the South Pole trip, and while Grossman does his best to skip us swiftly through Quentin’s five years at Brakebills, the fact is that, in a novel which boasts no meaningful secondary plots, it’s not until page 348 of 488 that the characters actually enter Fillory – meaning, by implication if not intent, that the first three quarters of the novel function as little more than an increasingly tedious prologue. As a narrative gambit, this could still have worked if Grossman had used those early sections to focus on solid characterisation, or if anything Quentin learned at school proved relevant in the final, climactic battle. Instead, the secondary characters – yearmate and eventual girlfriend Alice, punk rival Penny, and senior libertines Eliot, Janet and Josh – are barely fleshed out beyond a bare minimum of backstory and a few offhand eccentricities, while in the end, it’s Penny who finds the way into Fillory and Alice who dies to defeat the villain. Quentin, by contrast, winds up a passenger in his own story, contributing nothing meaningful (or at least, nothing useful) despite his apparent specialness and remaining, from go to woe, a thoroughly passive character. Which begs the question: why did Grossman feel the need to show Quentin’s entire tertiary education before letting him go to Fillory? Why, when so little time is spent on characterisation or building a sensible magic system – the latter’s fundamentals are purposefully vague and glossed-over, so that despite the amount of time Quentin spends in classrooms, it’s never really apparent what he’s actually learning, while two new characters, Anais and Richard, are introduced well after the halfway mark for no readily apparent reason – was it necessary to prolong the trip between worlds?

The answer, I suspect, has to do with the story’s moral; or at least, with what one might reasonably construe to be the moral, or the point, or whatever you’d like to call it. As a character, Quentin’s developmental trajectory is that of a disaffected, selfish, horny teenager transitioning into a disaffected, selfish, sexist adult, and while the ending eventually reveals these characteristics to have been deliberate authorial choices, early on, it’s harder to tell whether Grossman realises just how unsympathetic his protagonist really is. Once Quentin graduates from Brakebills, in fact, it’s like a switch has been flipped: whereas before it was possible to attribute most of his failings to youthful, privileged obliviousness, once freed from the confines of college, his bad behaviour escalates dramatically, leaving little doubt that we, the audience, are meant to identify it as such. For all his dissatisfaction with various aspects of his life, ¬†it never occurs to Quentin that he might be the cause of it; always, he assumes his own unhappiness to be either the result of some fundamental flaw in how the world works, or else the fault of some specific person. This lack of self-awareness is key to his passivity: instead of trying to change things, he waits for the problem, whatever it is, to fix itself, and then feels misunderstood and thwarted when his misery remains. Only his affection for Fillory remains constant – Fillory, the perfect other world into which, despite all the magic of his everyday existence, he still secretly yearns to escape. But even once he arrives there, Quentin is still unhappy, prompting a furious Alice to utter what is arguably the novel’s Big Reveal:

“‘I will stop being a mouse, Quentin. I will take some chances. If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.’

‘You can’t just decide to be happy.’

‘No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.'”

Quentin struggles to understand this point, but later, once he’s returned to Earth after Alice’s death, the lesson hits home:

“In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.”

And thus, the moral: that wherever you go, you take yourself with you, such that trying to cure your unhappiness by forever yearning after idealised childhood fantasies is doomed to terrible failure. Having vanished into Fillory, the novel’s villain, Martin Chatwin – formerly thought by Quentin to be a fictional character – became the only one of his siblings to stay there forever, an escape which Quentin had always privately envied. But Martin has become a monster, making terrible pacts for power and peace, and all for want of the necessary strength to live in the real world. For an SFF novel, then, this seems to be a particularly cutting message: by first making Quentin an identifiable character for exactly the sort of passive loner stereotypically associated with fandom, and then morphing him into a bitter, unhappy, sexist whose problems stem almost entirely from his lack of self-awareness and his uncritical love of Fillory/Narnia, Grossman is arguably passing negative judgement on a large portion of his own readership, rebuking their drive for escapism as little more than a sign of selfish immaturity. Or at least, if that’s not the intended moral – which is still possible, given that the story ends with Quentin’s return to Fillory – then it certainly ups the ante for the rest of the novel’s problems.

Because however actively or subtly Grossman is trying to critique the sense of entitlement felt by a particular subset of sexist male fans, The Magicians is still saturated with such a high level of background offensiveness that, more often than not, it serves to reinforce exactly the sort of problematic behaviour that it ostensibly means to debunk. Most obviously – and most prominently, as a female reader – is the overwhelmingly negative treatment of women. As I had early cause to observe, most every female character Quentin encounters is unnecessarily sexualised, and often in such a way as to diminish their competence. This isn’t just a consequence of being in Quentin’s point of view; as an attitude, it seeps into the background narration, such that his observations become indistinguishable from Grossman’s. At the most basic level, this resolves itself into a fixation with breasts in particular; we hear about them with just enough regularity to become complacently problematic, so that by the end of the novel, we’ve dealt with the following descriptions:

“…the radiant upper slopes of her achingly full and gropable breasts…” –¬†page 77.

“… he was suddenly aware of her full breasts inside her thin, high-necked blouse.”¬†– page 117.

“At one point one of her slight breasts wandered out of her misbuttoned cardigan that she wore with nothing under it; she tucked it back in without the slightest trace of embarrassment.” – page 252.

“She was whole, thank God, and naked – her body was slim, her breasts slight and girlish. Her nails and nipples were pale purple.” – page 355.

“As he watched she bent over the map, deliberately smooshing her tit into Dint’s shoulder as she did so.” – 405

“The back of her blouse gaped palely open… he could see her black bra strap, which had somehow survived the operation.” – page 409.

“She wore a tight black leather bustier that she was in imminent danger of falling out of.” – page 486.

And that, of course, is just the breasts; there’s plenty of sexualised but largely unnecessary references to other female body parts, too.¬†Add it all together – and compare the prevalence of same to the absence of comparable male descriptions, with the possible exception of a giant’s penis – and you have a story that’s irrevocably written in the male gaze, not just as a consequence of having a straight male protagonist, but because this is what Grossman has chosen to highlight. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze as a literary device, but in a book which is attempting, at least in part, to critique sexism, deploying a variant of the male gaze that focuses wholly on female bodies in a context utterly disconnected from their value as people – and which is never actively acknowledged, let alone flagged as negative – cannot help but be problematic. And then there’s the use of pejorative, sexualised language and gendered insults to contend with, as per the following examples:

“Merits are for pussies,’ he said.”¬†– page 52.

“…Janet got shriller and pushier about the game, and her shrill pushiness became less endearing. She couldn’t help it, it was just her neurotic need to control everything…”¬†– page 152.

“‘Emma wasn’t a cow,’ Josh said. ‘Or if she was, she was a hot cow. She’s like one of those wagyu cows.'” –¬†page 228.

“‘That’s what she wants everybody to think! So you won’t realise what a howling cunt she is!'”¬†– page 237.

“‘If that bothers you, Georgia,’ Fogg said curtly, ‘then you should have gone to beauty school.'”¬†– page 269.

“‘Quentin,’ she said, ‘you have always been the most unbelievable pussy.'”¬†– page 306.

“‘Don’t you¬†fucking¬†speak to me!’ She slapped wildly at his head and shoulders with both hands so that he ducked and put up his arms. ‘Don’t you even dare talk to me, you whore! You fucking whore!'”¬†– page 309.

“She was right, a thousand times right, but if he could just make her see what he saw – if she could only put things in proper perspective. Fucking women.”¬† – page 311.

“‘Oh, come on Quentina.¬†We’re not looking for trouble.'”¬†– page 333.

“Asshole. That slutty nymph was right. This is not your war.”¬†– page 409.

“‘That bloody cunt of a Watcherwoman is still at it, with her damned clock-trees.'”¬†– page 434.

Subtler and more pervasive than all of this, though, is the extent to which Quentin passes negative judgement on the sexuality of the women around him – which is to say, more or less constantly. That might be written off as part of his obnoxious personality, but as with so much else, Grossman seems unable to keep from speculating beyond those bounds. Janet’s sexual choices are frequently scrutinised; within moments of meeting a female Fillory resident, Quentin judges her to be a lesbian on no greater basis than her hair and clothes; it’s even suggested that Anais has somehow managed to sleep with a male stranger while the group is busy exploring a tomb. And then there’s Quentin’s habit of blaming the women around him for his own choices. Unhappy with Alice, he blames her for his bad decisions; having cheated on Alice with Janet, he blames Janet for tempting him; for all the choices he makes in Fillory, he blames Jane for letting him go there. Surely, this just another consequence of his flawed personality; and yet he never seems to blame any men for the things that go wrong in his life. For Quentin, women are always the ones at fault, and it’s this fact, rather than his penchant for blaming others, which reads as unconscious bias.

The sex, too, is deeply problematic, not least because Quentin’s first time with Alice takes place when both of them have, along with all their classmates, been transformed into arctic foxes – something their (male) instructor has cooked up as a way for the group of horny teenagers to let off steam while studying at the bleak South Pole. But what’s never discussed is the issue of consent this raises; or rather, the lack thereof.¬†“He caught a glimpse of Alice’s dark fox eyes rolling with terror and then half shutting with pleasure,” we’re told of their union on page 191 – and somehow, miraculously, despite having betrayed no obvious interest in Quentin before – nor he in her, apart from the single requisite instance of noticing her breasts – they end up in a relationship not long afterwards. There’s never any talk about whether this encounter constitutes rape, or whether it did for any of the other students while turned into foxes; instead, and somewhat disturbingly, the incident leads Quentin to nickname Alice ‘Vix’, as in Vixen, though the sobriquet is only ever used once. Similarly, when we’re told on pages 193-194 that this same isolated class has started to indulge in orgies – “… they would gather in apparently arbitrary combinations, in an empty classroom or in somebody’s bedroom, in semi-anonymous chains, their white uniforms half or all the way off, their eyes glassy and bored as they pulled and stroked and pumped…”¬† – it feels like nothing so much as an¬†unnecessary¬†male fantasy, not least because, under the circumstances, nobody can possibly have any access to birth control. Doubtless, Grossman intended it as a throwaway line, but all it does it contribute to the subconscious sexism of the story: without wanting to divide his readership too sharply along gender lines, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that more female readers than male were perturbed by the potential for unwanted pregnancies in this section.

Against this worrying backdrop, Quentin’s abysmal treatment of Alice is almost par for the course: clearly, his decision to sleep with Janet is a bad one preceded by plenty of warning signs, not least of all his own admission engaging in “manic flirting and pawing” (page 279) while out at parties. That he then blames Janet for his bad choices – “She’d sabotaged him and Alice, and she was loving it” (page 327) – is one thing, as is his earlier complaint that “if Alice had any blood in her veins she would have joined them” (page 291). This is clearly vile behaviour, and not even Quentin’s obliviousness to that fact is sufficient to conceal it from the reader. But once again, their relationship issues are grounded in a more subtle form of sexism, such as the fact that, even though Alice’s plans to study in Glasgow are effectively vetoed for Quentin’s sake – “the idea of being separated didn’t particularly appeal to either of them, nor did the idea of Quentin’s aimlessly tagging along with her to Scotland” (page 359) – there’s no awareness of the fact that she, in turn, has “put off the kind of civil-service appointment or research apprenticeship that usually ensnared ¬†serious-minded Brakebills students so she could stay in New York with Quentin” (page 77): her sacrifice is simply taken for granted and never mentioned again, even when Quentin’s behaviour worsens.

Alice’s whole character, in fact, is a major strike against The Magicians: not just because she ends up stuffed in the fridge, which is a gross offence in and of itself, but because her relationship with Quentin is utterly unfathomable. In a series of implausible leaps, he goes from noticing her breasts, to thinking she smells “unbe-fucking-lievable” as a fox (and then mounting her), to wondering if he might love her, to their suddenly being together, after which he proceeds to treat her, on balance, very poorly indeed. Alice, though, is the stronger magician by far; what she sees in Quentin is a mystery, and even after he’s cheated on her, she ends up apologising to him for daring to sleep with Penny by way of revenge, saying, “I don’t think I understood how much it would hurt you” (page 404). And Quentin’s response?¬†“‘Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time'”¬†(page 405). Never mind that, of the two of them, Alice is the proactive one; she agrees with him about her mousiness, because that’s her role in the story: Grossman has written her in as Quentin’s love interest, and so she puts up with his crap above and beyond what her personality indicates she otherwise would or should. Quentin might not be a hero, but he’s still the protagonist, and in such a profoundly male gaze narrative, that means he gets the girl he wants for no better reason than that he wants her; that she dies saving his life from an enemy he summoned through sheer idiocy is hardly fair compensation.

There’s more I’d planned to say about the problems in The Magicians – about Grossman’s uncritical use of the words gimp, cripple and retarded; about the offhand and inappropriate treatment of Eliot’s sexual preferences; ¬†about the weird, peculiar arrogance of alluding to Narnia and Hogwarts so crassly and overtly, as though the best way to deconstruct the complex issues surrounding either world is simply to populate them with scheming, selfish assholes; about every other instance of objectionable sexism that leapt out at me while reading, and which I dully noted down; about the incredibly lazy worldbuilding, handwaved early on in the piece as ultimately unimportant, yet still full of holes and fridge logic – but then I’d be here forever. ¬†Clearly, I didn’t enjoy the book: though pacey and intriguing at the outset, the further I progressed with the narrative, the more I became fractious, bored and angry at the whole thing, as though I were being forced along on a lengthy, pointless car trip with unpleasant company on a hot day. I finished largely out of stubbornness, and to an extent, I’m glad I did, if only for the catharsis: various plot points left open in the early stages were closed out at the end, and at least now I can say I’ve read it. But even though Grossman’s actual writing style is clear and concise, his storytelling is not. The Magicians could easily have been a good 200 pages shorter without losing anything important, while the core conceit – that of sending a grown, troubled Fillory/Narnia fan into their beloved childhood world in order to force a confrontation with their own inadequacies – might well have made better fodder for a short story or novella than a novel.

And underpinning every other objection was the sexism; the pervasive sense that not only was Quentin mistreating, demeaning or otherwise objectifying every woman he encountered, but that Grossman’s own subconscious bias and investment in the male gaze was helping to normalise this bad behaviour rather than, as was hopefully his intention, critique it. Even once the full extent of Quentin’s flaws were revealed, I couldn’t help feeling that story was more concerned with perpetuating sexism at a background level than deconstructing it on a conscious one, and when combined with the other structural and narrative issues pervading the text, the overall reading experience was one of exasperation. As much praise as it’s received, therefore, and as much as I embarked on reading it in a spirit of hopeful optimism, The Magicians was a profound disappointment; I won’t be reading the sequel, and whatever else Grossman writes afterwards, I’ll be predisposed to view it with trepidation.

 

 

Dear Mr Rudd,

Since your triumphant¬†ascention to the Prime Ministership, there seems have been some confusion about who, exactly, was elected. It’s true that I (and others of like mind) voted for the Labor Party under your erstwhile helmsmanship; but that does not mean, Mr Rudd, that we voted for you. You were merely the vehicle with which we ousted the long-loathed Howard. This is not to say we don’t appreciate your governance, or rather, the governance of your party. We do. We are really ecstatic at the prospect of a Labor federal government. But¬†the honeymoon has ended, Mr Rudd – as, indeed, was¬†inevitable – and the time has come for straight talkin’.

Let me be frank. We don’t like Kevin the Man. He is not who we voted for. He might share flesh with our PM, but as far as we’re concerned, he’s a totally different entity. We are interested in his opinions only insofar as they mirror those of Kevin the Prime Minister. We are extremely uninterested – not to say unimpressed – with any effort to make Kevin the Man a spokesman for our nation. Kevin the Man is entitled to his opinions, just like any other citizen. But he is not entitled to lend them Prime Ministerial authority.¬†¬†

Which brings me, Mr Rudd, to the subject of Olympia Papapetrou.

When you tell an 11-year-old girl that her naked self constitutes an abusive image, it is you Рnot the photographer and not her subject Рwho has brought abuse to the party. Consider her portrait as a Rorschach test for your psyche. Where it is possible to see beauty, innocence, fragility, youth, childhood, art, you see only naked sexuality, adult, abusive and paedophelic. This says nothing about Olympia Papapetrou, Mr Rudd, but considerably more about you. Personal opinions aside, you did not become Prime Minister through an inability to compromise, act tactfully or otherwise shut up on cue. Such evasions are your meat and drink, Mr Rudd, just as they are for all effective politicans: and you are very effective. Shaming Olympia Papapetrou was not your only option, because whatever morality is professed by Kevin the Man, Kevin the Prime Minister holds right of veto Рor should, when it comes to public speaking.

Here is a photo a mother took of her child. Here is a photo that child loves Рcherishes as an image of herself. If it comes to hold a taint for her, that taint is your doing, Mr Rudd. Because in your capacity as Prime Minister of Australia Рwhich capacity you are in whenever the cameras are rolling Рyou told an eleven-year-old girl that her naked body is ugly, wrong, and a symbol for the most depraved act that could ever be perpetrated against it.

Child protection advocates seem curiously uninterested in Olympia’s right to defend her portrait, and for no better reason than her age. In another five or seven years, if she still loves the photo, will they listen then?¬†Perhaps such advocates are, ultimately, used to speaking¬†for children, not to them. There is condescention in the view that children cannot think for themselves, which assumption children’s rights advocates have spent the better part of a century trying to correct. To then turn around and claim the exact opposite – that Olympia cannot know her own mind, and is utterly unentitled to enjoy a photograph of herself, or to comment intelligently on it, because of her age¬†– is deeply, insultingly hypocrtical.

Mr Rudd, the office of Prime Minister means more than a right to be heard or to make political judgements: it means the responsibility to do so with intelligence, forethought and a measure of objectivity. We ordinary citizens may complain on blogs or at the pub, in the street or to friends with more freedom than you now possess: because we are ordinary. When you stepped into the top job, you did so at the expense of your right to free and public opinion, because although the Prime Minister is a person, their office is not. Australia cannot speak with the voice of Kevin the Man, but only with that of Kevin the Prime Minister, his government and their people.

In that sense, Olympia Papapetrou – naked or clothed¬†and regardless of age –¬†has more entitlement to her public opinion than you. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, Mr Rudd. And you are neither.

Sincerely,

Foz

Of late, both politicians and the media are confusing three related – but distinct – concepts, viz: sex education, sexuality, and child sexualisation. The Bill Henson controversy is a case in point: but before that, some definitions.

Let’s be clear. Sex education is, funnily enough, educational: explaining the whats, whys and huhs of the downstairs¬†plumbing for no smuttier purpose than the stoppage of misinformation. Sexuality is where things get naughtier – although more nebulously defined, it¬†connotes a willingness to engage in, or a curiosity about, what one might actually do with a partner. Child sexualisation is essentially age-inappropriate, marketing overtly sexual products or ideas to¬†a too-young demographic, to a detrimental (or at least, morally reprehensible) effect. It is also tied to exploitation: portraying pubescent or pre-pubescent youth in an inappropriately¬†adult, sexual fashion.

If looked at on a scale, we might consider sexual education the least innocuous of the three, and child sexualisation the most damaging. Sexuality dwells in the expansive middleground of context, sometimes clear-cut, sometimes grey. And now, three topical issues: Bill Henson’s photographs, Parliamentry debate over sexual content in Dolly magazine, and the primary school teacher fired for posing nude in a women’s magazine.

Ready? Then let’s dive in.

We in Australia¬†are highly confused about sex, particularly as relates to young people. While John Howard has left the building, the Religious Right has not, and despite our being citizens of a 21st century Western nation, moral unhappiness about public sexuality¬†remains a contentious issue. Parliamentarians debating the content of Dolly magazine are concerned with the prospect of stray seven-or-eight-year-olds reading material almost universally intended for those in their early and mid teens – but why? It seems logical to acknowledge that if we live in a sexually enlightened society, younger¬†children might end up hearing about sex before the official deadline.¬†But if we, as adults,¬†are mature and sensible enough to reassure them, this seems a small price to pay for producing, in turn, teenagers who are mature and sensible about sex. Let’s go further: it is a¬†fact that whenever age-sensitive material is produced, someone outside the intended audience will see it.¬†But should that alone stop us producing it? More than anything else, political posturing about hypothetical small children reading grown-up columns betrays a different fear: that the intended audience of such information is¬†under eighteen and more legitimately curious than pundits find comfortable. Put another way: adults don’t like that teenagers think about sex.

The grey area here is, unsurprisingly, the fault of sexuality. Although the legal age of consent in Australia is 16, many adults struggle with the idea of fourteen-or-fifteen-year-olds wondering Рperhaps innocently, perhaps not Рabout what lies ahead. Ultimately, it seems wiser to educate intelligently about sexuality and sexual practice (a la the disputed Dolly columns) as well as biology where interest is shown: the alternative is a potentially harmful ignorance, or learning from unsuitable sources. Not all young teens are interested in sex, but then, this is not the percentage of the population most likely to be reading Dolly Doctor.

We are just as confused about adult sexuality in the context of younger folk. When Lynne Tziolas was fired, it wasn’t for bringing sexually explicit material into her primary school class, publicising¬†her nude photos to students or inappropriately referencing her employers: it was simply because, as a primary teacher, the school found the idea of her public sexuality offensive. That the intended audience was adult changed nothing; nor did they seem moved by the fact that, until they fired Lynne and the issue hit the media, her students were entirely unaware¬†of what had happened. Having a¬†healthy sex life didn’t impact on her ability to teach well (her students petitioned to have her back), but the school’s reaction was all too familiar to anyone who keeps an eye on the headlines. Whenever a figure in public life has an affair, swaps lovers, gets divorced or generally appears to be more sexual than a crotchless doll, society gets in a tizzy. We like our celebrities to lead nice, compartmentalized lives: the bits we want to see, and the bits we don’t. Poor old Miley Cyrus learned this lesson recently after posing in mildly explicit photos. Had the media not had a field day about a teenaged children’s entertainer getting some of her kit off, it seems doubtful that any of her tiny fans would have noticed. The¬†impact of moralists worldwide publicly shaming a 15-year-old for daring to feel comfortable in her own skin seems¬†a more genuine cause for concern¬†than the idea that a 15-year-old might want to take such photos in the first place. Similarly, even assuming Tania Zaetta did sleep with troops in Afghanistan, she should be guilty of nothing more sensational than breaking the military conditional against hanky-panky. Instead, society is up in arms that she might’ve had s-e-x, which makes our collective media covering of the issue look like a bunch of ten-year-olds giggling behind the bike sheds.

Which, with depressing inevitability, leads us to Bill Henson’s oh-so-controversial photos of young, nude girls. Now, I’ll happily admit to voting for Kevin Rudd, and I still maintain it was a fantastic idea, but I do wish he’d keep his moralising mouth shut on the subject of art. Depending on who you’ve been reading, the ‘problem’ arising from Henson’s work might be described as: the inability of twelve-or-thirteen-year-olds to give intelligent consent to being photographed nude; the idea of child pornography; why the photos constitute art; whether banning¬†the display¬†is an act of undue censorship; or all of the above. For me, it¬†boils down to the following question:¬†does nudity alone make an image pornographic? To which I answer: no, nor should it ever. Henson has a history of taking disquieting, melancholy snaps; the purpose of art is to provoke thought and emotion; and he has certainly fulfilled both criteria. Better than anything else, both the photos themselves and the public’s reaction has put a finger on what I’ve spent the last umpteen paragraphs trying to elucidate: that we are uncertain about¬†our sexuality, the sexuality of our youth, and what it means in the context of our society.¬†

Yes, the images are unsettling: they’re meant to be. Are they explotative? Regardless of what the law says, it seems¬†intellectually condescending to say that teenagers don’t have the intelligence to speak on their own behalf, and hypocritical that advocates of children’s rights have here declared themselves¬†uninterested in¬†children’s voices. Similarly, it would be naive of me to claim that all Henson’s models will feel as happy as they do now¬†for the rest of their lives: everyone changes. From person to person,¬†the photos have probed a tender spot, because rather than child sexualisation,¬†they touch on sexuality in youth. The models and their families are content with the results; the unease is in the viewers, and if so many people are incapable of looking at naked girls and seeing nothing but Hustler, then the problem is bigger than we think.

How, then, do I define child sexualisation? How about: kids’ pole-dancing kits and sexy clothing, child beauty pageants, children’s make-up kits, and post-pubescent models selling clothes to women decades their senior. How is this last different from Henson’s photos, I hear you cry? Call me new-fashioned, but there is a world of difference between pretending twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds are 25 for the purpose of marketing, and showing that twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds can possess a disquieting sexuality of their own. Rather than being superficial, it is the distinction of context – why we create an image, and for what purpose – which determines how it should be labelled. Photos become pornographic when they are made with pornography in mind; Bill Henson’s photos became thought-provoking when they were made with povoking thought in mind. And whether or not people are happy to admit it, this is the context in which they have been overwhelmingly viewed: they have made us think, debate, argue and consider our idea of sexuality in a way we otherwise mightn’t, and that cannot be to anything but the good.

Ultimately, then, the same is¬†true of all societal sexual discourse. The thoughts or arguments might not always be comforting; but that’s why they’re important.

 

Addendum: For those interested, I agree entirely with Larissa Dubecki.