Posts Tagged ‘Tropes’

Warning: major spoilers for the entire Captive Prince trilogy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three major contextualising reasons for this.

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

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

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

Laurent smiled.

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

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

“Too late, sweetheart,” said Damen.

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

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

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

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

Get him out of here,” said Laurent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicaise turned red, under the paint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A breath of amusement from Laurent…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I can only hope we continue to do better.

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

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

Late last year, due in no small part to the visibility of its online fandom, I finally discovered the Dragon Age games. Seeing that there were three of them, I started – 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.



Jurassic World is a film that attempts to highlight the dangers of crassly commercialising dinosaurs by… well, crassly commercialising dinosaurs.

The irony of this was apparently lost on the writers.

Look: I get it. You wanted an excuse to make a dinosaur that was bigger than a t-rex, but you couldn’t be bothered looking up giganotosaurus or spinosaurus and anyway, that whole Meddling Mad Science angle is so appealing, why not go there instead? So you wrote an excuse for it into the script about how Kids These Days with their internets and their rap music are just so jaded that only bigger, better, newer dinosaurs can hold their attention, and then you spent the whole film explaining why building bigger, better, newer dinosaurs with Meddling Mad Science is, in fact, a terrible idea. But before all the carnage and death, when you were showing us the excited younger brother dragging his disaffected sibling through the park – and I’m sorry, but even with the 3D glasses on, it still looks like a plastic model in the panning shots – you made the mistake of assuming your actual audience is just as jaded as your fictional one. As such, you didn’t bother with a slow reveal, or a sense of wonder, or any sort of visual tease with the dinosaurs at all, which is more than a little disappointing for those of us who’ve been waiting for this film since 1997 (The Lost World was okay, but Jurassic Park III never happened, shhh). Everything was presented as ordinary, mundane, boring, right up until it all went to shit; and even then, your CGI indominus rex wasn’t a patch on Jurassic Park’s t-rex, not least because you couldn’t be bothered to keep the size and scale of it consistent, so that it gets noticeably bigger or smaller depending on the scene –

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the sexism.

Let’s talk about Karen’s chirpy, passive-aggressive exchanges with her sons and husband. Let’s talk about how, when Zach’s girlfriend asks him to send her photos from his week away so she won’t forget what he looks like, then tells him she loves him, and Zach replies by basically shouting YEAH BYE and noping out to the car, she still stares adoringly after him, as though this is a thing an actual, emotionally invested girlfriend would do. Let’s talk about how Zach then spends the first half of the film staring creepily at every teenage girl he encounters. Let’s talk about Karen’s assumption that of course her single sister is going to want kids – not if she has them, but when – and the way she breaks down in guilt-inducing tears on the phone because Zach is just so mean to his little brother sometimes and why isn’t Claire there to make him play nice?  Let’s talk about Claire being criticised in the narrative for being trepidatious around a pair of kids she’s too busy to mind and hasn’t seen in seven years, as though she’s not doing her sister a bigass favour by taking them in the first place. Let’s talk about how Claire is apparently so clueless despite her high-powered job that not only can’t she remember how old her nephews are or how long it’s been since she’s seen them – as though this information never came up when the trip was organised – but when she’s out hunting them down, she unironically asks if Owen can track their scent, as though this is a skill that actual humans possess.

Let’s talk about how, after that one meeting with the executives we never see again, Claire is criticised by literally every man she encounters regardless of age and rank – Larry, her underling; Masrani, her boss; Zach and Gray, her nephews; Owen, her (ugh) love interest; Hoskins, the obligatory InGen douchebag who isn’t eaten by raptors anywhere near soon enough – and how not a single fucking person treats her as competent. Let’s talk about how the narrative never even tries to portray her as good at her job, given the whole ‘let’s send people into the indominus rex paddock before activating the tracking beacon that would’ve told me it was there the whole time’ fiasco that literally causes dozens of deaths and the ruin of the entire theme park. Let’s talk about how, when she finally does do something awesome by rescuing Owen from a pterodactyl, her nephews respond by asking who Owen is and, even though Claire just did something totally badass while Owen lay on the ground, he’s the one they want to stick with for protection. Let’s talk about how, when Claire has the similarly good idea of leading the t-rex out to fight the indominus, she somehow ends up lying behind it on the ground in an actual swimwear model pose, having spent the entire film steadily shedding clothing. Let’s talk about the needlessly protracted, gratuitous death of Zara. Let’s talk about Zach telling Gray not to cry about their parents getting divorced, even though he only found out about it himself that fucking second, because guys aren’t meant to do that, damn it! Let’s talk about how, in accordance with this dictum, the only other people who cry on screen are women.

Let’s talk about what the fuck the scriptwriters were even on when they wrote this mess, sweet Christ on a goddamn bicycle. Because even without all the shit mentioned above – and it is, as Dr Ian Malcolm so famously said, one big pile of shit – the script is more full of dropped threads than an amateur’s sewing basket.

One big pile of shit

The whole thing about Zach and Gray’s parents getting divorced? Never mentioned again. Zach’s girlfriend? Never mentioned again. The reason for Zach’s apparent lack of commitment to said girlfriend? Never even discussed. The opening gambit about Claire not wanting kids, which is – one charitably assumes – meant to evoke the same claim originally made by Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park? Irrelevant, given that, unlike Alan, Claire doesn’t then spend the whole film bonding with Zach and Gray; in fact, they barely communicate, and the boys end the film liking Owen more than her. (And don’t even get me started on the very salient contextual difference between one half of a lovingly married couple playfully bringing up the subject of kids with their male spouse, who eventually changes his mind, and a single professional woman being pressured to want children by a sibling who, to make the whole thing even more ironic, is going through a divorce.) The reason for Dr Wu’s apparent defection to InGen? Never explained. Owen’s status as a navy guy who somehow got tapped to work as a fucking dinosaur behaviouralist despite the fact that, as far as the script is concerned, he’s never even worked with animals before? Not explained. The thing where Gray is apparently smart enough to know everything there is to know about the park – and can apparently repair and jumpstart a decades-old Jeep he instantly identifies by make and model, Jesus Christ – but still somehow believes that his brother once killed a ghost to save him? I literally cannot even.

And okay, look. I get that a not inconsiderable portion of the internet has become rather swoony on the subject of Chris Pratt’s Captain Tight Pants transformation, but the scene where he’s introduced fixing a classic motorbike outside his charming bungalow while sipping Coke from a glass fucking bottle like he’s recreating Dylan O’Brien’s Teen Vogue photoshoot, and then proceeds to get all up in Claire’s business by making at least one horrible innuendo, mocking how terrible she was on their date and grinning because she’s a corporate suit who doesn’t understand the animals or like getting her hands dirty, while she stands there in what is effectively a jungle wearing a pristine white business suit? Yes, hello: nineteen eighty-four called, it wants its Romancing the Stone tropes back.

Comparison - jurassic stone

I mean, come ON.


Actually, scrap that: Romancing the Stone was a better film than Jurassic World, not least because it had a sense of its own ridiculousness, as well as – case in point – a scary gang boss who loved romance novels. And, you know, actual chemistry between the two lead characters, instead of the cardboard bickering that’s meant to pass for that between Pratt and Howard. Which, in fairness, is less their fault than it is a consequence of the utterly abysmal script, which riffs shamelessly on the original film with zero understanding of what made it work. (Hint: it wasn’t a Jimmy Fallon cameo.)

In Jurassic Park terms, then, here’s how bad the characterisation in Jurassic World is: Claire is a female version of Donald Gennaro, the bloodsucking lawyer famously eaten while taking a shit, who spends the whole film being alternately condescended to and hit on by a hybrid of Dr Ian Malcolm and Robert Muldoon, aka Owen. Their chemistry is dismal, their one kiss is worse, and both of them get less emotional development and catharsis than Blue the velociraptor, who’s probably just grateful – given that her siblings are called Charlie, Delta and Echo – that she wasn’t named Foxtrot.

Cool gyroscopes, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for Jupiter Ascending, we get this:

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

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

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

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

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

Warning: all the spoilers for Supernatural.



Seen from the outside, love is always a matter of interpretation. Not just the question of its presence, but its nature and depth, its reciprocity and point (or points) of origin. There are, I would argue, as many kinds of love as there are people. Love isn’t static; it grows and changes, waxes and wanes and flourishes in unexpected hearts. To quote my favourite e.e. cummings poem:

and being here imprisoned,tortured here
love everywhere exploding maims and blinds
(but surely does not forget,perish, sleep
cannot be photographed,measured;disdains
the trivial labelling of punctual brains…

Human beings lie about love almost as frequently as we feel it. We lie about being in love – to ourselves, to others – for any number of reasons: because we’re malicious or ignorant; because we’re in denial; because we’re trying to survive or protect ourselves; because we can’t find better words for what we’re feeling; because we want it to be true; because we don’t.

As such, our stories reflect that fact. The observation that the course of true love never did run smooth was true before Shakespeare wrote it and will remain true long after we’ve forgotten he ever did, because when it comes to love, we’re all unreliable narrators. You can challenge the idea of love as presented in any story, because love means something different to everyone. As children,we learn that the fairytale princess always loves the prince, but as adults, we wonder if maybe Snow White simply traded one death for another; if the prince’s actual happily ever after didn’t have a beard and a barony.

Love is no less real for being unconsummated, unreturned, unexpressed, nor is it defined by the purity or rightness of its subjects. Loving someone no more precludes their abuse than excuses it; love can be toxic, suffocating, violent, insensible. Love’s best impulses don’t act as justifications for its worst, and yet we can feel both – do both, even – all at once, and never flinch from the contradiction, assuming we even recognise its presence.

In high school, my favourite history teacher once taught us about a Roman emperor who serially cheated on the wife he famously loved. A girl protested; how could he love her and cheat? Surely the two propositions were mutually exclusive. My teacher shook his head; it was more complex than that. The girl disagreed, as did several other students: being in love meant you didn’t do bad things. No, I said, he’s right. You can love someone and still hurt them. My classmates looked at me like I was a geek for agreeing with the teacher; the teacher looked at me sadly, like he knew how I knew, and wished I didn’t.

(I looked away.)


Queerbaiting is a real problem.

Ideally, neither our culture nor our narratives should demand physical proof of queerness, as though a character’s sexual or romantic orientation is invalid unless actively demonstrated. The idea that our feelings don’t exist unless we’re seen to act on them not only puts aromantics and asexuals in the impossible position of having to prove a negative, but contributes to the same backwards reasoning that says bisexuality and pansexuality are incompatible with, even disproved by, monogamy; as though the act of choosing one person makes you fundamentally incapable of being attracted to someone of a different gender. Our sexuality is not confirmed according to whether we’ve acted on it: virginity is not the same as asexuality, having only had partners of one gender doesn’t preclude our attraction to those of another, and thinking we were straight at sixteen doesn’t mean we can’t identify as gay at sixty. Sexuality is a continuum, a spectrum and an exploration, and exactly as diverse and complex as we ourselves. Ideally, therefore, queer interpretations of narrative should be considered every bit as natural and normative as heterosexual ones, with the validity of neither said to hinge on whether or not, in that crassest behind-the-bikesheds whisper, the persons involved have done it yet.


Pragmatically, there is still a wretched and unfair need for queer narratives to be made explicit in text; to bear a greater burden of narrative proof than their heterosexual counterparts, the better to normalise the idea that actually, we shouldn’t need to justify them at all. Let’s be real: was there anyone who watched the first four seasons of Castle or the first six seasons of Bones who doubted that Castle and Beckett, Booth and Brennan were into each other from the outset – or at the very least, who doubted that the audience was meant to infer their attraction? This is what tropes are for: they tell us the romance is there before the relevant parties ever act on it, so that if and when they do, it’s not a total shock to the audience.

But when the tropes come, and come, and come, and the action never does – when one kind of romance is inevitably confirmed, and another inevitably left as subtext, despite employing the same narrative devices – then what you get is queerbaiting, pure and simple, and whether it’s the result of malice, ignorance, creative dissonance, creative compromise, network/editorial pressure or a combination of all five, it still contributes to the erasure of queer narratives. Because while, ideally, we shouldn’t conflate love and romance with sex and physical intimacy – while we shouldn’t view the former as being any less real, or less narratively present, without the vindication of the latter, and especially not when romantic tropes are otherwise clearly in use – the present cultural default is so powerful and so omnipresent that, somewhat paradoxically, it’s only through demonstrative, explicit acts of queerness that we can hope to progress to a place where the absence of physical consummation in a given narrative isn’t due to erasure, but because the audience understands it to be an optional aspect of romance.

This kind of canon-endorsed subtextual validity is already normal for heterosexual pairings; extending it to everyone else, therefore, is not only fair, but optimal.


Stories, like people, are subject to change.

On screen, the presence of unexpected chemistry between actors can lead the writers to incorporate new romantic options into future films or episodes, or to reconsider the implications of previous scenes in light of audience interpretation. Particularly in the current day and age, when the combination of social media platforms and the convention circuit allows for an unprecedented back and forth between fans and creators, external commentary has the power to influence future narrative choices.

Evolving a narrative doesn’t override the fact that, once upon a time, you were hostile to the very idea of change. You can take a story in new directions, but you can’t retcon your past intentions, and there is a very clear difference between, on the one hand, a creator wanting to make a queer romance textually explicit and being prohibited from doing so, and on the other, deciding on an endgame queer romance only after years of publicly denying that such a thing had any narrative traction whatsoever. A positive change in perspective, if and when it comes, should always be applauded as a progressive development, but that’s not the same as grating total amnesty for every prior offence. As with personal evolution, we should be capable of acknowledging that someone has changed without claiming either that they were perfect all along or that the change is invalidated by the very behaviour that precipitated it.

People, like stories, are subject to improvement.

It’s complicated, is what I’m saying. But somehow, we muddle through.


With all that established, let’s talk about Supernatural.

Technically, Destiel – the relationship between Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel, which is arguably the most prominent queer ship in any modern fandom – isn’t held to be canon. Dean and Castiel haven’t kissed on screen and aren’t formally dating, and while romantic subtext has been a part of their interactions since Castiel’s introduction at the start of Season 4, the greater burden of proof that’s culturally expected of queer narratives says that their relationship must therefore be platonic until proven otherwise, where proof means physical/sexual intimacy. The issue has been further muddied by the fact that there are clear differences of opinion on the subject among the show’s cast and creators: some object to it outright, some acknowledge the textual basis for the interpretation without supporting it as a canonical option, some are on the fence, and some are openly in favour of it.

And then, too, there’s the issue of the characters themselves, whose particular complexities only serve to make Destiel an even more fascinating case study. Castiel is an angel occupying the body of a human man. His ‘true form’, we’re told, is ‘about the size of your Chrysler building’, and angels in their original state are described as ‘junkless’, with Castiel describing himself at one point as ‘a wavelength of celestial intent’. By his own admission, Castiel is ‘indifferent to sexual orientation’, and within the show, he has – like the angel Raphael – inhabited both male and female vessels. Castiel is also shown to be capable of feeing sexual attraction, though when he first appears, he’s canonically virginal, to the point of being confused by his body’s reaction to watching pornography. But while Castiel has demonstrated both romantic and sexual attraction to a number of women – as an angel, we see him kiss a demon (Meg) and an angel (Hannah); as a human, he sleeps with a Reaper (April) and tries to date his human employer (Nora); and in the alternate future of the Endverse, he’s depicted as sexual to the point of hedonism, organising regular orgies – we’ve never seen him physically involved with a man.

But over and over again, it’s also stated, not just that Castiel loves Dean Winchester, but that he’s in love with him – and Dean knows this, a fact which, as of Season 10, has been confirmed both canonically and by writer Robert Berens. It’s worth taking a moment to examine the progression of Castiel’s feelings, the better to show how unequivocally and consistently they’re presented in Seasons 4 through 10. Whatever accusations of queerbaiting can be fairly levelled at Supernatural, and regardless of whether the original intention was always to present Castiel as someone romantically in love with Dean, on the basis of the evidence, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to deny that this is, in fact, a perfectly valid interpretation of canon:

Castiel - Gripped You Tight

Destiel - Shoulder Touch

Uriel - Castiel Likes You

Castiel - I did it all for you

Destiel - Shoulder Touch 1

Castiel - I Gave Everything For You

Castiel - And This Is What You Give Me

Stench Of That Impala

Castiel - Too Close To The Humans In My Charge

Castiel - Yearning

The One In The Trenchcoat Who's In Love With You

Castiel - I Always Come Whe You Call

Castiel - Redeem Myself




Castiel - S7


He Was Your Boyfriend First

Metatron - Save Dean Winchester


Castiel is an angel; for Dean’s sake, he disobeys Heaven. He loses his wings. He literally falls, and if you can think of a more powerful narrative declaration of love than that of an angel falling for a human, with all the metaphoric and mythological resonance that entails, I’d be interested to hear it. The fact that Castiel loves Dean is repeatedly affirmed in canon, not just through inference, but direct, unequivocal statements. In Season 6, Balthazar describes Castiel to Dean as ‘the one in the dirty trenchcoat who’s in love with you;’ in Season 9, Metatron states that Castiel’s goal was ‘to save Dean Winchester’, reiterates that his plan was ‘all about saving one human’ and then concludes that Castiel is ‘in love… with humanity;’ and in Season 10, Dean refers to Sam and Castiel as ‘the people who love me’. Castiel loves Dean, and Dean knows it: that’s indisputable.

With Castiel’s feelings thus confirmed, the obvious point of contention is whether or not Dean feels the same way. The argument that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual is one that’s had traction in the fandom since Season 1, long before Castiel appeared on the scene, in part because the Winchester brothers being mistaken for boyfriends was an early running gag – so early, in fact, that in Dean’s case, the ‘joke’ about him being sexually interested in men is made several episodes before he’s ever shown to be romantically involved with a woman. (Sam, by contrast, starts the show in a heterosexual relationship.) In fact, Supernatural’s creator, Eric Kripke, has stated that the brothers are named after Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the protagonists of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, whose structure and themes are also incorporated into the show’s mythology; but Dean Moriarty was, in reality, Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, a bisexual man who was both a womaniser and involved over many years with Alan Ginsberg. (The fact that Castiel is also based on another canonically bisexual man, Hellblazer’s John Constantine, is of similar relevance; Kripke created Castiel in Constantine’s image after he was unable to obtain permission to use DC’s character.)

This being so, the fact that Dean Winchester is frequently portrayed as a ladies’ man is hardly proof of his disinterest in men, and especially not when you consider the character’s origins. Fascinatingly, in a 2008 interview – which dates to the second half of Season 3, and therefore prior to Castiel’s introduction – actor Jensen Ackles said of his character:

Dean’s a bit of a pool shark and also a bit of a gambler.  It doesn’t really show it all the time, but it’s definitely implied that there are poker games and pool matches that they can win some money on.  And who knows?  Dean’s a promiscuous kind of guy.  Who knows how he drums up the funds that they use?

The implication being that Dean has, perhaps, prostituted himself from time to time; and while this isn’t quite Word of God, it’s nonetheless pertinent to the question of Dean’s character, partly because Ackles mentions it as a possible consequence of Dean’s promiscuity, and therefore his of sexuality, rather than describing it as something that might happen for purely financial reasons; but also because, given the dive bars, truck stops and seedy environments frequented by the characters, the overwhelming likelihood is that, if Dean Winchester were to sell himself, it would most likely be to men. All of which is, of course, completely hypothetical; and yet it remains highly relevant, because for all the years of queerbaiting, avoidance and public backpeddling on the subject of Dean’s (bi)sexuality as engaged in by certain of the cast and writers – some of whom have subsequently left the show, changed their position or been told outright to avoid discussing the issue – it seems clear that, even in the early days, the question must have occurred more than once, and to more than one person, without ever being adequately resolved.

It doesn’t take over a decade of creative disagreement to resolve a non-issue, for the pure and simple reason that, if there was no issue, there’d be nothing to address. Which begs the question: if a character can be convincingly argued to be bisexual on the basis of the canon, is proof of consummation really required to make that analysis valid? In the real world, a bisexual man who has only ever been involved with women is no less bisexual than someone who’s slept with people of different genders. That being so, if we assert that Dean Winchester can’t be bisexual unless we see him actually kiss a man, we’re effectively arguing that sexual orientation is contingent on physical consummation – and that is reductive bullshit.

Yet at the same time, there’s an understandable need to distinguish between the literal limits of canon, and valid interpretations of same. Thus: if it’s unreasonable to argue that physical consummation is the only means of proving someone’s sexuality within a narrative (straight characters, after all, are routinely assumed to be straight even when their sexuality is never explicitly labelled as such – even when we never see them romantically involved with another person – because heterosexuality is such an implied cultural default that we consider it to go without saying), then what’s the actual burden of proof? What needs to happen – or what might have happened already – in order for us to say that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual?

In 4.14 ‘Sex and Violence’, Dean and Sam encounter a siren: a creature who attracts men by turning into, in Dean’s words, ‘whatever floats the guy’s boat’. For all the original victims, this meant women with whom they eventually developed a sexual relationship; but when the siren approaches Dean, it does so in the guise of Nick Monroe, a male FBI agent who shares Dean’s taste in classic rock and classic cars. ‘I gave him what he needed,’ the siren tells Sam, ‘And it wasn’t some bitch in a G-string. It was you. A little brother that looked up to him, that he could trust. And now he loves me.’ That being so, while ‘Nick’ might be borrowing from Sam in terms of Dean’s emotional needs, that doesn’t change the underlying sexuality of siren mythology, in which they represent the fulfilment of a romantic/sexual fantasy. When the siren similarly enthrals Sam, asks the brothers to fight and says that ‘whoever survives can be with me forever,’ it’s not a platonic promise. Sam’s own research describes the siren as a ‘beautiful creature’ capable of ‘enticing’ men with their ‘allure’: at every turn, the language speaks to sexuality and desire, and given that Supernatural’s canon involves multiple instances of Sam and Dean being mistaken for a gay couple on the basis of their interactions, having the siren exploit their fraught relationship dynamic as a means of seducing Dean is not only in keeping with the character’s preferences, but a move with ample narrative precedent.

In 5.8 ‘Changing Channels’, Dean and Sam are trapped by the Trickster, aka Gabriel, in a series of TV shows – one of which, Dr Sexy MD, a clear parody of Grey’s Anatomy, is something Dean watches as ‘a guilty pleasure’. However, while Dean tries to downplay his affection for the show, he’s clearly enough of a fan to not only identify the primary characters and explain their respective backstories to Sam, but his intimate knowledge of the lead character’s physical appearance is what ultimately reveals the Trickster’s presence. Gabriel, disguised as Dr Sexy, is wearing tennis shoes, an incongruous detail that prompts Dean to challenge him. ‘I swore,’ he says, ‘that part of what makes Dr Sexy sexy is the fact that he wears cowboy boots.’ This, then, is a direct admission from Dean that he finds another man sexually attractive; and not only does he cop to finding the character sexy, but meeting him in person renders him visibly flustered.

Dr Sexy

Dean - Flustered By Dr Sexy


In 8.13 ‘Everybody Hates Hitler’, Dean is canvassing for a case in a university bar when he becomes suspicious of a man he suspects of tailing him. Irritated, Dean approaches in his fake FBI guise and asks why he’s being followed; the man, Aaron, replies that ‘I thought we had a thing back at the quad, you know – a little “eye magic” moment’, which results in Dean being, once more, flustered. ‘Yeah. Uh, okay,’ he replies, ‘but no – uh, no moment. This is a… federal investigation.’ A few scenes later, it’s revealed that Aaron really was following Dean, and only pretended to hit on him as a diversionary tactic – but while Dean doesn’t know this in the moment, as a point of analysis, it’s relevant to interpreting their reactions at the bar. Because when Aaron responds to Dean’s apparent FBI status by saying, coyly, ‘Is that supposed to make you less interesting?’, Dean’s expression lifts, as though he’s genuinely interested – while Aaron, who clearly didn’t expect his gambit to go anywhere, starts to look out of his depth.

Aaron - Less Interesting

Dean and Aaron

By the time Dean leaves the bar, he’s so distracted that he stutters his goodbye to Aaron, walking backwards and bumping into a table. Later, however, when Aaron reappears and reveals that he really was tailing Dean after all, Dean’s reaction is hardly disaffected. ‘So, wait,’ he says. ‘What you’re saying is that you and me – we, uh, didn’t have a moment?’ When Aaron replies in the negative, Dean looks disappointed; he remarks to Sam that ‘he was my gay thing’ – a callback to his earlier description of their encounter – then tells Aaron, ‘It was really good. You really had me there. It was very smooth.’ Dean was both flustered and flattered by what he thought was a genuine attempt to pick him up; enough so that having Aaron’s actual disinterest revealed was a let-down.

Dean - Flustered By Aaron

Dean - He Was My Gay Thing


It’s also relevant that, in the DVD commentary for this episode, writers Ben Edlund and Phil Scgriccia explicitly acknowledge the romantic aspects of the encounter:

Ben Edlund: Well, that’s the weird thing is that it reads in this weird way where it does feel like Dean’s a little bit like—It’s almost like a romantic comedy kind of fluster. Which is very interesting for the character Dean, because it just sort of suggests this weird [laughs] this potential.

Phil Sgriccia: [laughs] This potential for love in all places.

Ben Edlund: Oh, Aaron and Dean, they could come together. He’s had a rough life. He’s a hard character to, to, you know. To settle down with.

This is, I would argue, Word of God confirmation of Dean’s bisexuality. Dean has the ‘potential’ to date men; the scene plays like a ‘romantic comedy’; he and Aaron ‘could come together’. Taken in isolation, both the scene and the remarks of the writers would still read as definitive, but in combination with the events of 4.14 and 5.8 in particular, it seems incontrovertible that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual. He might not always be comfortable with that fact – an uncertainty that’s wholly in keeping with his characterisation – but after ten seasons, that it is a fact seems no longer up for debate. There is more than sufficient evidence that Dean is attracted to men, and to argue that it somehow doesn’t count because we haven’t actually seen him kiss anyone is a fundamental erasure of the fact that someone’s sexual orientation isn’t contingent on their performance of it.

Which brings us back to the ultimate question: given that Dean is bisexual, and given his awareness of the fact that Castiel loves him, does Dean also love Cas? And if their affections are mutual – and if both of them are cognisant of this fact – then can we successfully argue that Destiel is canon, on the not unreasonable basis that relationships neither begin nor end with physical intimacy? And if so, then how is their romance supported by the presence of tropes in the text?

In 1.12 ‘Faith’, we learn that Dean believes in evil, but not in good, a dissonance which surprises Sam. Their subsequent exchange is one of the most powerful – and prescient – in the entire show:

Sam: Maybe it’s time to have a little faith, Dean.

Dean: You know what I’ve got faith in? Reality. Knowing what’s really going on.

Sam: How can you be a sceptic? With the things we see every day?

Dean: Exactly. We see them, we know there real.

Sam: But if you know evil’s out there, how can you not believe good’s out there, too?

Dean: Because I’ve seen what evil does to good people.

Similarly, in 2.12 ‘Houses of the Holy’, we learn that Dean doesn’t believe in angels – an irony of foreshadowing, given the events of Season 4 onwards. Once again, his scepticism surprises Sam, and the ensuing conversation neatly mirrors their exchange in 1.12:

Dean: I’m just saying, man, there’s just some legends that you just, you file under “bullcrap”.

Sam: And you’ve got angels on the bullcrap list. 

Dean: Yep.

Sam: Why?

Dean: Because I’ve never seen one. 

Sam: So what?

Dean: So I believe in what I can see.

Sam: Dean! You and I have seen things that most people couldn’t even dream about. 

Dean: Exactly. With our own eyes. That’s hard proof, okay? But in all this time I have never seen anything that looks like an angel. And don’t you think that if they existed that we would have crossed paths with them? Or at least know someone that crossed paths with them? No. This is a, a demon or a spirit.

Dean doesn’t believe in a higher, benevolent power, because his daily experience of the world’s brutalities makes such a faith impossible. He’s also fiercely self-hating, though he goes to great lengths to pretend otherwise, to the point where we often learn more about Dean’s internal life through monsters who access his thoughts than we do from Dean himself. In 1.6 ‘ Skin’, for instance, a shapeshifter wearing Dean’s body – and who therefore has intimate knowledge of his personality, memories and feelings – sums Dean up by saying, on his behalf, ‘Me? I know I’m a freak. And sooner or later, everybody’s gonna leave me.’ Later, in 3.10 ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’, Dean is stuck talking to his nightmare-self, who first taunts him – ‘I know how dead you are inside. How worthless you feel… Daddy’s blunt little instrument. Your own father didn’t care whether you lived or died. Why should you?’  – and then turns into a demon, warning him that ‘You’re gonna die. And this? This is what you’re going to become.’ 

Having sold his soul to save his brother, Dean dies at the end of Season 3 and goes to Hell – and then, at the start of 4.1 ‘Lazarus Rising’, he’s rescued by Castiel, waking in his grave with an angelic handprint branded onto his shoulder. Not that Dean knows it at the time; he spends the whole episode trying to find out who brought him back, and when Castiel finally shows up – sparks literally flying; his first appearance makes lightbulbs explode – Dean Winchester, who doesn’t believe in angels or a greater good, is suddenly confronted by one of the former who saved him for the latter, and who recognises his self-hatred without for a minute accepting it:

Castiel: I’m an Angel of the Lord.

Dean: Get the hell out of here. There’s no such thing.

Castiel: This is your problem, Dean. You have no faith…

Dean: Well, I’m not buying what you’re selling, so who are you really?

Castiel: I told you.

Dean: Right. And why would an angel rescue me from Hell?

Castiel: Good things do happen, Dean.

Dean: Not in my experience.

Castiel: What’s the matter? You don’t think you deserve to be saved?

Castiel - What's The Matter

Castiel - You Don't Think You Deserve To Be Saved

Up until this point, Dean’s deepest insecurities have been mostly voiced by monsters: demons and nightmares who fling his self-hatred in his face, weaponising his thoughts. But Castiel does the opposite: in one conversation, he goes straight to the root of everything Dean loathes about himself and summarily upends it. You don’t think you’re worthy of salvation; and yet, I saved you, because you are. And while Dean doesn’t instantly accept it – ‘If there is a God out there, why would he give a crap about me?’, he asks in the next episode – that doesn’t detract from the significance of Castiel’s actions.

Though Dean is constantly at odds with Heaven’s plans for him, his connection to Castiel continues to develop, changing into something more than platonic affection. In 5.3 ‘Free To Be You And Me,’ during a particularly tense conversation, Dean says, ‘So, what, I’m Thelma and you’re Louise and we’re just going to hold hands and sail off this cliff together?’ – a reference to the fact that the women then share a kiss, and whose inference is emphasised, rather than diminished, by Dean’s body language.

Thelma - 1Thelma - 2

Thelma - 3


By Season 6, it’s Castiel’s love for Dean – specifically, his desire to let him live a human life, rather than dragging him back into angelic politics – that ultimately causes him to commit an act of gross betrayal, colluding with Crowley and opening the gate to Purgatory, releasing the Leviathans back into the world. When this leads to Castiel’s death – or appears to, at least – we see Dean collecting Castiel’s bloody trenchcoat, the only remaining piece of him, and keeping it.

Dean - with the trenchcoat


Romantic symbolism aside, this happens at a time when Dean’s regular car, the Impala, soon becomes too conspicuous for regular use, and has to be exchanged for a series of different vehicles. So when, some fifteen episodes later, Castiel finally reappears, an amnesiac living as faith healer under the name Emmanuel, and Dean still has the coat to hand – kept neatly laundered and folded in the trunk of his car – we know that he’s been carrying it with him, swapping it into each new vehicle, either as a talisman or in the hope that Castiel would return. Though not explicitly romantic, this is clearly a loving gesture, one which is neatly paralleled by Dean carrying Bobby’s hip flask after his death. In both cases, the object has sentimental value, representing Dean’s strong attachment to the original owner; and just as Bobby’s ghost returns to help him, tied to the flask, so does the coat contribute to the restoration of Castiel’s sense of self.

At the end of the season, Dean and Castiel end up trapped and separated in Purgatory, with Dean’s quest to find Castiel told in flashbacks throughout the start of Season 8. It’s at this point, I would argue, that Dean’s feelings begin to take on an overtly romantic dimension. He prays to Castiel ‘every night’ in Purgatory, and when he finally tracks him down through a literal world of monsters, his joy and relief are palpable.

Dean - Where's The Angel

Purgatory Hug

Purgatory Hug 2 Purgatory Hug 3


Castiel, we learn, is being hunted by Leviathans; he stayed away from Dean in an attempt to keep him safe. Dean, however, point-blank refuses to leave Purgatory without Castiel.

Dean - Eye Of The Needle Dean - Nobody Gets Left Behind Dean - Not Leaving Here Without You   

But when Castiel stays behind anyway – a deliberate decision on his part, in penance for his previous actions – Dean is so distressed, he distorts his own memories of the event. Unable to believe that Castiel stayed by choice, he mentally reframes his abandonment as the result of Castiel giving up, yet simultaneously berates himself for having failed. That he then starts to see Castiel – a side-effect of Cas’s impending return by angelic means – is something he explains to himself as a consequence of grief and guilt, much like Sam hallucinating his girlfriend, Jess, directly after her death. As such, when Castiel finally reappears in 8.7 ‘A Little Slice of Kevin’, Dean’s yells at Cas for staying behind and, in the process, reveals his true feelings: ‘Look, I don’t need to feel like hell for failing you, okay? For failing you like I’ve failed every other godforsaken thing that I care about! I don’t need it!’   

At first glance, this seems a fairly poor declaration of love; and yet, I’d argue, that’s exactly what it is. Canonically, Dean has said the words ‘I love you’ exactly once: in 5.16 ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, where he relives a memory of talking to his mother as a four-year-old (‘It’s okay, Mom. Dad still loves you. I love you, too. I’ll never leave you.’). Otherwise, it’s something he only ever expresses obliquely, like in 2.20 ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’, when dream-Mary says she loves him, and Dean replies, ‘Me, too.’ He also expresses the sentiment through references, as in 8.20 ‘Pac Man Fever’, when Charlie Bradbury says ‘I love you’ and Dean, in a clear evocation of Han Solo’s famous line, responds with, ‘I know.’

Because Dean Winchester, as we well know by now, is not only self-hating, but actively feels responsible for every bad thing that happens to his loved ones. In fact, he even says this explicitly in 2.22 ‘All Hell Breaks Loose: Part Two’, while blaming himself for Sam’s death: ‘I guess that’s what I do. I let down the people I love.’

Dean - I Let Down The People That I Love

So when Dean says that he’s failed Castiel ‘like I’ve failed every other godforsaken thing that I care about’, that’s not an idle statement. It’s a direct reference to the fact that Dean thinks loving someone predestines him to let them down. The logic runs in a loop: he loves Cas, therefore he failed him; he failed Cas, therefore he loves him. The one is proof of the other.

Dea - For Failing You

By 8.17 ‘Goodbye Stranger’, Castiel has been reprogrammed by Naomi and the other angels, undergoing specific training to make him capable of killing Dean. The two of them argue over the angel tablet, and even as he fights Naomi’s control, Castiel beats Dean bloody – at which point, Dean echoes something he said to Castiel in Purgatory, a declaration strong enough to break through his conditioning and bring him back: I need you.

Dean - I Need You (Purgatory)

Dean - I Need You

Crucially, the line in 8.17 was originally written as ‘I love you’, and even with the change in the final product, the emotional resonance remains. The significance of this particular scene, however, is a twofold catharsis, and one that directly parallel’s Castiel’s original rescue of Dean. In 8.7, when Castiel sets Dean straight about how and why he was left behind in Purgatory, they have an exchange that eerily mirrors their initial conversation in 4.1, but with the roles reversed: this time, it’s Dean who’s trying to save Castiel, and Castiel asserting the impossibility of the act:

Castiel: I pulled away. Nothing you could have done would have saved me, because I didn’t want to be saved.

Dean: What the hell are you talking about?

Castiel: It’s where I belonged. I needed to do penance. After the things I did on earth and in heaven, I didn’t deserve to be out. And I saw that clearly when I was there. I… I planned to stay all along. I just didn’t know how to tell you. You can’t save everyone, my friend… though, you try.

It was Naomi, not Dean, who rescued Castiel from Purgatory; but it was Dean who rescued him from Naomi’s control, which was the greater danger.

Dean Winchester says I love you in many ways, and this is one of them.


Seen from the outside, love is always a matter of interpretation. Not just the question of its presence, but its nature and depth, its reciprocity and point (or points) of origin. If the audience can reasonably doubt the sincerity of a character who professes their love overtly, but whose actions say otherwise, then by the same token, we may also claim the existence of a love that’s never formally professed, but which is nonetheless demonstrated.

Canonically, Castiel loves Dean Winchester. Canonically, Dean Winchester is bisexual. Canonically, Dean Winchester knows that Castiel loves him. Canonically, Dean Winchester cares for Castiel, and blames himself for failing him. Canonically, Dean Winchester defines himself as someone who fails the ones he loves.

Canonically, Dean Winchester loves Castiel.

Destiel is canon.

This doesn’t mean that Supernatural isn’t guilty of queerbaiting, or that Destiel is by any means a slam dunk for queer representation in narrative. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to rummage through gifset after gifset, script after script, to prove the validity of a relationship which, had it been identically constructed between straight characters, would long since have been accepted as obvious, even without any physical consummation. In fact, returning to the heterosexual pairings mentioned earlier – Castle/Beckett and Booth/Brennan – it’s interesting to note that both those couples kissed on screen long before their relationships were ever considered official; Castle/Beckett as part of an undercover disguise, and Booth/Brennan at a coworker’s dare. In both instances, while kissing was deemed proof of mutual attraction, it didn’t cement their relationships; and why would it? Love is a separate thing to physical intimacy, and kissing does not a couple make. A Destiel kiss would demonstrate the presence of physical attraction – and it would certainly go a long way towards offering visual confirmation of queerness in the narrative – but it wouldn’t be the thing that proves the characters are in love.

In discussing whether ships are canon or not, fandom has an understandable tendency to want tangible evidence: something to which we can point, without fear of contradiction, as proof of a pairing’s validity. Queer relationships are grossly underrepresented on screen, yet queerbaiting abounds, and as such, we place a premium – necessarily so, for the sake of both visibility and progress – on physical displays of affection, conventional declarations of Official Togetherness and explicit textual labelling as means of proving that certain relationships exist, and that the characters subscribe to speific orientations. But we cannot make this the be-all, end-all of the dialogue, not only because some relationships and orientations are always going to defy conventional labelling, but because this materially erases the possibility of asexual, non-physical or slow burn relationships while simultaneously reinforcing the idea that you’re not ‘really’ dating someone unless you’ve kissed, or fucked, or met some other arbitrary benchmark for physical intimacy that has no meaningful relevance to how you feel about someone, except that it makes the observer feel more comfortable in their judgement.

We aren’t wrong to want visible representation, nor are we wrong to loudly decry the hypocritical prevarications, circumlocutions and general pigheadedness of creators who, when asked directly, neither admit nor deny the sexual complexity of their characters, but who instead take the queerbaiting middle path of implying-without-saying and pat themselves on the backs for doing even that much. But at present, the general fandom conception of what constitutes a canon relationship is woefully oversimplified, juvenile in its obsession with have they kissed and are they going steady. Critical analysis is about building a case on the basis of the evidence and arguing it successfully, which – I hasten to point out – isn’t the same thing as silencing all disagreement: the fact that someone might make a coherent case for different versions of the same narrative doesn’t mean their logic is flawed, but rather than the text supports multiple interpretations with equal validity (which is often a hallmark of a good story). Canon isn’t only the fixed facts of the narrative, but the process by which we interpret them, and when we forget that, we risk diminishing the story, making it static rather than fluid, freezing it in carbonite, alive but dead.

Destiel is canon because it’s a conclusion that can be logically drawn on the basis of the evidence. That doesn’t make it the only possible conclusion, but it does mean it’s a valid one. Creative intent can certainly be used to support a textual interpretation, as per Word of God comments, but just as the audience can (for instance) reasonably assert the presence of racism in a narrative whose creators swear blind they never intended any such thing, so too can we reasonably assert the presence of a relationship which, while not expressly confirmed as such, is nonetheless consistently demonstrated. Yes, we need to continue demanding more and better unambiguous representation; yes, we need to continue to call out queerbaiting; and dear god, yes, does Supernatural ever have some problems.

But Destiel is a valid canonical interpretation of the show and its characters, and while there are other interpretations to be had – even contradictory ones – that doesn’t make it anything less than legitimate.

So there.

Cas-Jimmy - Understatement

Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself: you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.

But here’s the thing: I fucking loved Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a sympathetic character, but that’s not the same as her actually being unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we need to do that, because it’s what we are.

But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even see in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.

And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where the audience is still encouraged to like them when they are.

Returning to Orphan Black, for instance, if Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to SwordfishDeath Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet, her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.

Which isn’t to say that we never see mothers struggling – it’s just seldom with their desire to actually be mothers. Maternal angels struggle with the day-to-day business of domesticity: how to deal with teenage chatback and those oh-so-hilariously forgetful sitcom husbands, how to balance the bills and keep everyone fed, how to find time for themselves amidst all their endless finding time for others. By contrast, selfish absentees are usually career-oriented single mothers in high-stress jobs, either unwilling or unable to find the appropriate amount of time for their children. Looking at the gender disparity in the characterisation of TV detectives who are also parents is particularly interesting: not only are the men more likely to have wives at home (to begin with, at least), they’re also more likely to be granted reconciliation with their children later. Contrast obsessive, depressive detective Kurt Wallander, who slowly rebuilds his relationship with his daughter, with obsessive, depressive detective Sarah Lund, who steadily destroys the possibility of a relationship with her son. Compare single fathers like Seeley Booth and Richard Castle, whose ability to parent well is never implied to be compromised by their devotion to the job, with single mothers like Alex Fielding and Gloria Sheppard, whose characterisation is largely defined by the difficulties of striking a balance between the two roles. Orphan Black’s Sarah is a rare creature, in that she falls outside the usual boxes for maternal categorisation, and in so doing forces us to re-examine exactly why that is.

In fact, though their respective shows and stories are utterly dissimilar in every other respect, in terms of her approach to motherhood, the character Sarah most reminded me of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping outlined above – Laura was a high-flying corporate lawyer and newly single mother whose decision to move to a small town and reconnect with her family constituted the titular sea-change – she was written with such complexity and feeling as to defy the cliché. She was eager and well-meaning, but just as often selfish and oblivious. Though she learned to slow down and listen to others over the course of three series, she never became a domestic goddess or a motherly martyr; nor did she magically lose her flaws or suddenly develop a perfect relationship with her children. Instead, she remained a prickly, complex character, quick to both give and take offence, but also introspective, passionate, sly and caring. Like Sarah, she wasn’t always sympathetic, but that didn’t stop me from loving her, flaws and all.

But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection. I’ve seen a bit of positive/sympathetic meta surrounding Once Upon A Time’s Regina, but otherwise, I can’t think of many overtly antagonistic female characters whose actions and motives are viewed as complex, and therefore potentially redemptive, instead of just as proof that they’re bad women. We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings that broke them, then we surely must owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

Throughout history, women’s legal status and protections have been tied to the question of whether or not they’re seen to be virtuous, whatever that means in context. The sworn virgins of Albania were granted equal status with men – indeed, were allowed to live and act as men – provided they never had sex, owing to a specific legal stricture which ascribed female virgins the same financial worth as men, while valuing women less. The big three monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all boast scriptures and/or religious laws that have, both historically and in the modern day, allotted specific legal privileges to women provided they remain virtuous; privileges which are invariably retracted should the woman in question be seen to have strayed, or become tarnished, or to have otherwise lost her virtue. We see this echoed in modern rape culture, which puts the onus for self-protection on women to such a degree that, far too often, if a woman is raped, her victimhood is viewed as a consequence of poor character – because if she really was innocent, then how did she let it happen? Why was she dressed that way, or out late, or drinking? Why, if she wasn’t already lacking in virtue, would she have been in the company of a rapist?

And so, our treatment of morally ambiguous female characters ends up paralleling some truly toxic assumptions about gender and morality. Women cannot act to redeem themselves independently, because under far too many laws, our need of redemption voids our right to try and reacquire it. Good women can redeem broken men, but good men can’t redeem broken women, because once we’re broken, we lose our virtue; and without our virtue, we’re no longer women, but monsters, witches and viragos.

Which is why, to come full circle, I fucking love the fact that Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning isn’t always sympathetic; isn’t always traditionally likeable.  She is, rather, an antiheroine in the most literal sense: and with all the Madonna/Whore bullshit we’re still caught up in imposing on women, that’s a class of character we desperately need to see more of.

(Note: I’ve only talked about men and women here, rather than third gender, genderfluid and other gender non-conforming persons, because it’s men and women we usually see depicted in stories, and whose narratives therefore form the bulk of our cultural stereotyping. The absence or elision of narratives concerning other genders, however, along with their own highly stereotyped portrayals when they do appear, is a problem in and of itself, and a contributing factor in the way men and women are stereotyped: because when we view gender purely as a fixed binary phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make it harder to see beyond the rules that binary has traditionally imposed on our thinking, repeatedly foisting “masculine”/”feminine” values onto successive new characters without ever stopping to think that actually, we might challenge or subvert those norms instead, a blindness which only helps to further perpetuate the problem.)

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl – because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! – but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes. And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do:  some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office.