Posts Tagged ‘Tropes’

Warning: all the spoilers for Supernatural.

Eventually.

1.

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.)

2.

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.

However.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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

 

 

Emmanuel

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.

5.

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.   

I started watching the Hawaii Five-0 remake on LoveFilm Instant in a fit of cynical boredom. I expected it to be hilariously terrible; I expected to get ten, maybe fifteen minutes into the first episode and then give up due to an eyeroll-induced migraine. I expected cheesy dialogue, mediocre to terrible acting from everyone who wasn’t either Daniel Dae Kim or Grace Park, cardboard characterisation and nonexistant plotting, because I mean, seriously: Hawaii Five-0 remake.  Given all my trepidations, it’s a wonder I bothered watching at all. But I also wanted to see some blue skies and tropical, non-Scottish scenery, and so I thought, why not? And yes, the first episode did managed to find not just one, but two different excuses for Grace Park to be scantily clad (first in a bikini, and then by having her strip to her underwear); and yes, the stereotype of the big fat, friendly Hawaiian guy who sells shaved ice and has one toe dipped in the criminal underworld was textbook enough to cause even someone who’s never been to Hawaii to look sideways at it; and yes, the entire premise of all these ludicrously elaborate big-time crimes being committed on a tiny island is blindingly unrealistic; but somehow, I found myself watching a second episode. And a third. And a fourth.

And now, as I’m nearing the end of season one, I’ve realised I kind of love it.

At the most basic level, the characterisation and writing work. The banter between Steve McGarrett and Danny Williams is sharp, lively and highly enjoyable, providing a solid narrative anchor for the total overthetopness of their crime-solving techniques. Their personalities clash in the usual odd-couple way, but due particularly to Scott Caan’s energetic Danny, the partnership never feels stale. The plots are, as predicted, ridiculous, but despite the fact that the comparative smallness of Hawaii makes them feel noticeably more ridiculous than they would if the show were set elsewhere, they’re otherwise no more ridiculous than the usual procedural fair, but with the added bonus that, as the show is shot on location, you get plenty of gorgeously sweeping vistas of oceans and jungles and mountains and rainbows and actual goddamn sunlight thrown in, which tends to make up for it. Daniel Dae Kim’s Chin Ho Kelly and Grace Park’s Kono Kalakaua are both meaty, well-rounded characters who, in a refreshing twist, are allowed to have a racial heritage that matters to them as people without defining them totally or nudging them into caricature territory; and even though all three Five-0 men are afflicted with Suitably Dramatic Manpain Backstories – McGarrett’s dead parents and villain-oriented vendetta; Danny’s complex relationship with his ex-wife and shared custody of his daughter; Chin’s false accusations of corruption and the subsequent implosion of his life – the main team nonetheless manages to interact in a way that feels supportive, human and everyday in all the right ways.

All of which makes the show engaging and fun, yes. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Because: OK. If you’re like me, and you watch a lot of procedurals, then chances are, you’ve noticed how many of them reflexively try up the stakes and increase emotional investment, not just throughout the series as a whole, but particularly in the first and early episodes, by killing or damselling attractive, young, and overwhelmingly white women. To give some examples, the first episodes of Bones, Castle, House, True Blood, Angel, The Mentalist, Elementary, Sherlock, Supernatural, The Killing and Twin Peaks all involve dead women; and indeed, several of them base their entire premise, or the premise of whole seasons, around female-oriented murders. And that’s not an anomalous sample group, either: if you were to go and check the first episode of every procedural, crime or thriller/suspense oriented show of recent years, then I’d be prepared to lay good money that the vast majority of first deaths, or first imperilments, will be of conventionally attractive young white women. 

It takes Hawaii Five-0 until episode five before they either investigate a woman’s murder or rescue a damsel in distress, while the next focussed damselling of a female character doesn’t happen until episode eleven. And that might seem like an inconsequential thing, but seriously: do you know how rare that is, to be able to watch a procedural show where women aren’t being kidnapped or raped or murdered every three episodes? It doesn’t happen. But not only does Five-0 avoid the trope, it actively subverts it, producing multiple episodes where female characters thought to be victims really aren’t, or where women in vulnerable positions end up showing astonishing strength. And then there’s Kono, who, yes, is the only woman on the team, and a young, attractive one at that. But notwithstanding the events of episode one, she’s never sexualised by her colleagues – by which I mean, she’s not presented as a love interest for any of the men she works with, and again, that shouldn’t be so hard to come by in a TV show, but it is. This is a procedural without sexual chemistry; a show where a young, intelligent, kickass WOC has three older male mentors who actually fucking treat her respectfully, who don’t make comments about how hot she is, whose sex life isn’t the subject of skeevy jokes or subplots, and who gets to be her own person rather than a romantic prop for someone else. There’s even a moment in one of the early episodes where Kono remarks that of course, she’s going to be the one who has to go look after a child-witness, because she’s the woman; and she gets told that no, it’s because you’re the rookie, and that’s what rookies do – and you know what? She actually gets to be a rookie without that being an excuse for lady-incompetence or a cute way to make the sole female character less powerful: because not only do we see her demonstrate extraordinary skill, but we also see her being taught and praised by her mentors, asking for advice and receiving it, making mistakes and learning from them. Kono isn’t a sex object, she’s not a blank space and she’s not an office romance waiting to happen, and off the top of my head, I honestly can’t think of another crime show with a female character like her.

But the most important thing about Five-0 is the diversity. On the downside: so far, there haven’t been many native Hawaiians in the show, which is disappointing. But otherwise – and I cannot stress this enough – even though the main cast is two white guys and two POC, on an episode by episode basis? POC are the majority, and they appear in every possible capacity. And this is so, so significant in terms of modern procedurals, because as with the first-episode dead woman, there’s another toxic pattern common to the oeuvre, namely; that nine times out of ten, the only POC victims we see are either criminals, poor (where poor is coded to imply unworthiness) or possessed of criminal pasts, and even if we’re meant to sympathise with them, that sympathy is always filtered through the bigoted lens of accepting them despite their shady histories and/or poverty. This logic is so pernicious, it frequently extends to main characters, which is why Tara and Lafayette of True Blood, Eric Foreman of House, Kimball Cho of The Mentalist, Alfredo of Elementary, and Javier Esposito of Castle are all revealed to have criminal backgrounds and/or to have struggled out of poverty. POC characters whose personal histories are defined by neither class warfare nor illegal dealings, by contrast, are very seldom presented as victims. When POC are murdered, these stories overwhelmingly whisper to us, it’s not because they’re good people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – it’s because they lived in bad neighbourhoods, because they were poor or had criminal friends or were criminals either recently or at some point in the past; because they were gang members or illegal aliens or some other kind of Other. And as a result, these stories teach us – however subtly, unintentionally or against our better judgement – to feel less sorrow when POC are killed, and especially MOC, who are far more often portrayed as violent bogeymen than sympathetic victims. 

But Five-0 flips all that. We sympathise with illegal immigrants whose only crime is being undocumented; we sympathise with POC victims, and the families of victims, who are monied, middle-class and working class rather than exclusively poor; and, over and over again, we’re invited to identify with MOC, who are portrayed as loving, caring, peaceful, hardworking citizens – and family men, too – with enough regularity that, when we do invariably encounter POC gang members or criminals, their criminality isn’t implied to correlate with their race. Five-0 humanises POC victims in a way that no other procedural I’ve ever encountered does, and not just as a one-off, but as an actual thematic element to the show.

So, yeah. It’s still not perfect – there are other stereotypes in play, there’s zero queer representation, and I’d love it if Kono had a female mentor-character, or even just another woman, to talk to – but especially given how sceptical I was at the outset, Hawaii Five-0 has more or less floored me by casually subverting some of the most pernicious and ubiquitous tropes of the genre while still being joyfully full of explosions and car chases and scenes where Grace Park kicks ass, and it also – oh, joy of joys! – has multiple female and POC writers on staff, which, you know. Makes a damn difference.  (And also, Daniel Dae Kim’s cheekbones? YES.) So if you were on the fence or thinking of giving it a miss, maybe give it a look-see: the first episode isn’t the best, but beyond that, it’s definitely a show worth watching.   

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture the scene: our competent, clever, kickass heroine has just undergone a significant emotional change. Maybe she knows who the killer is, or has suddenly learned that a friend is in danger. Perhaps she’s uncovered a crucial piece of evidence or identified a traitor. Or maybe it’s something more personal: the death of a loved one, a startling revelation, the prospect of an unpleasant choice, an unexpected setback, a heated argument with a sexy-yet-frustrating antagonist. Whatever the catalyst, our heroine is energised, angry, likely upset and probably needing to blow off steam. So what does she do?

She goes alone into a dangerous situation, bites off more than she can chew, and promptly finds herself so overwhelmed that the next thing you know, she’s captured, bleeding, unconscious, imperiled and generally up shit creek. While a male character in similarly dire straits will likely James Bond his way out of things via a sequence of improbable badassery – bullet-dodging, some deus ex machina assistance, a judicious application of poorly-constructed handcuffs and the inevitable revelation that being cornered was part of his plan all along – our heroine will, instead, be rescued by her handsome, protective male love interest, with whom she will then have some soulful eye contact and cuddling at the very least. And instead of feeling irked by this, the audience is meant to feel vindicated.

Why?

Because Prince Saves Damsel is one of the oldest tropes in the book, and not even the advent of Strong Female Characters (TM) has caused it to lose its power. Instead, we’ve simply warped it a little: the Damsel is now a Kickass Damsel, endowed with just enough agency, power and awesomeness to fool the casual observer into thinking that she, too, could potentially have her own James Bond moment. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she won’t: the odds are stacked against her, not so she can show her strength by overcoming them solo, but as justification for her forthcoming rescue. Crucially, her decision to go alone into danger is always praised as bravery or self-sacrifice – a species of gendered martyrdom – or else couched in a language designed to give the impression that, however foolish her actions might seem in retrospect, they were wholly justified at the time: by anger, by urgency, by the unavailability or physical distance of allies. Ultimately, though, these excuses are all just component parts of a narrative sleight-of-hand trick constructed for a single purpose: to make us forget, or to disbelieve, that the heroine was ever really a Damsel.

Let me break down the narrative logic:

In order to have a charged, emotional moment with her love interest, the heroine – who, for a whole different set of sexist reasons, invariably struggles with intimacy – needs to be rendered vulnerable in his presence. Simply catching her at a moment of personal weakness won’t do the trick: her issues are so deep-seated that unless she was actively dealing with some new trauma, she’d clam right up again – but generally speaking, that’s the sort of major collision you save for later in the relationship, ideally as the catalyst for spending the night together (as per the classic hurt + comfort = sex/spooning equation). Right now, you’re just trying to show that the sexy antagonist cares for her – but because you want to draw out their relationship, you can’t have them kiss or screw right away; instead, they need to connect emotionally, but in a situation that realistically limits their ability to get it on. Solution: send the heroine into danger, watch her get wounded, and have the love interest show up to rescue her, not because she called him in as backup, but because he secretly cares so much for her wellbeing that he was heading to help out anyway. And voila! Not only is her vulnerability and physical weakness excused, but so is his protectiveness and greater competence – the classic Prince Rescues Damsel scenario reconstructed, but in such a way as to couch the Damsel’s endangerment as strength and the Prince’s heroism as sensitivity.

In other words, the Kickass Damsel requires rescue, not because she’s inherently weak, but because her strength and independence are only sufficient for getting her nobly into trouble, not awesomely out of it. At the same time, her love interest’s traditionally masculine protectiveness is justified both by her imperilment and his secret affections: he becomes the Badass Prince, whose aloof, macho and frequently antagonistic/sarcastic persona is ultimately constructed around a chivalrous, knightly core. Over and over again, we limit the competence of our female characters by placing them in perilous scenarios, not to test their skills, but to show how thoroughly they still need to be rescued; to make them vulnerable enough to fall in love, because if we wrote them as being emotionally well-adjusted and romantically inclined from the outset, they’d be deemed too feminine (whereas if we wrote them aromantically, they wouldn’t be seen as feminine enough). And the thing is, none of these tropes are inherently toxic; it’s just that, overwhelmingly, we don’t seem to realise that the Kickass Damsel is a loophole character, designed to blind us to her patriarchal base by disguising her as a feminist icon, and so we end up lauding her as though she were something else.

And I just… I would like to see more recognition of this fact, and more effort taken to write action heroes and heroines who don’t fit this mold so completely. Like triple-choc mudcake, some tropes are fine as a treat, but sickening if over-indulged – and in either case, you should never mistake them for broccoli.

Here’s a contentious statement: A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write. Stories reflect our culture even as they shape it, and as culture is an intrinsically political concept — in the sense of not only shaping and reflecting the politics of the people within it, but actively seeking to comment on how and why this happens — so too is storytelling. At base, fiction is an attempt to answer two different questions with a single answer: nobody can ask what if without first establishing what is. Assumption is as much a part of narrative as invention, and often betrays as much, if not more of the writer than anything they consciously create. Like it or not, our politics — by which I mean, our moral, social and spiritual beliefs about the world as refined through the lens of our individual biases, ignorance, privileges and experience — drive our assumptions; and in fiction, our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is become the parts of the story we assume the reader already knows — the characters, tropes and logic we assume to be universal, or at least unimportant, and which therefore require neither examination by the audience nor explanation by us. They’re our personal default settings, where personal is the operative word: not everyone will share them, and we forget that at our peril.

For instance: as a teenager, I wrote a number of escapist stories that all began with a bored, frustrated girl of about my age being suddenly rescued from maths class by magic, aliens or something similarly fantastic. I’ll give you three guesses as to my least favourite subject — but while I was fully aware of replicating my own bias, I never saw the harm in doing so. And why would I have? It was my bias. The fact that it was fairly benign doesn’t change its status as an assumption, viz: an aspect of the story that I didn’t intend the prospective reader to question, and whose universality I therefore took for granted — not because I thought that everyone secretly hated maths, but because I wasn’t interested in the feelings and opinions of people who liked it. While the primary point of narrative is certainly to make the reader think, imagine and question beyond the norm, that can only happen if both reader and writer agree on what normal actually is; and if the reader’s own opinions and experiences aren’t encompassed by the writer’s take on what’s normative — if, in fact, they are absent altogether, or else marginalised, twisted and scoffed at — and the reader notices the dissonance, then the likelihood is that they’ll become hostile to the author, or at least to their assumptions, and conclude that the speculative, what if elements are fundamentally flawed by virtue of having been extrapolated from an inaccurate view of reality.

Here’s another, considerably less benign assumption my teenage self made: that white people live in cities and towns, while brown people live in tribal groups in the forest, desert or plains. Not that I’d have phrased it that way if you asked me outright — obviously, I knew people of all nationalities could live in all types of places! But subconsciously, from the culture in which I lived and the tropes I’d absorbed from exposure to other narratives, I’d nonetheless internalised the idea that the type of civilisation I found familiar must always be the work of white people. One brief flash of self-awareness at the age of 14 made me wonder if, just maybe, there was something offensive in my having a lone black character speak in broken English; the thought made me profoundly uncomfortable, and hopefully to my credit, I abandoned that version of the story not longer after. The one that ultimately replaced it, however, while certainly better in some respects — brown people building cities! egads! — was just as racially inept as its predecessors. This time, I wrote about a continent where the indigenous race was dark-skinned, long-lived, innately magical and not-quite-human, and where the human population was descended either from escaped slaves (black) or colonist farmers (white) — and despite having ostensibly created a setting where white-skinned humans were the minority and had arrived last of all, I still managed to have a light-skinned royal family and predominantly white protagonists.

The fact that I had good intentions doesn’t make those early stories any less problematic, and while it’s true that I wasn’t trying to write politically about race, that doesn’t change the fact that I’d internalised enough negative stereotypes that not only had I failed to recognise them as negative, I didn’t even understand they were stereotypes. I had simply assumed that the tropes I’d employed were acceptable, neutral defaults, as inoffensive and apolitical as the classic fantasy usage of elves and dwarves. But our choices always speak to our opinions, whether we mean them to or not. Familiarity is synonymous with neither inoffensiveness nor neutrality, and while the infinite variety of human taste and experience makes it impossible to please everybody, let alone equally, there’s a wealth of difference between causing offence by actively challenging the assumptions of others, and causing offence by failing to challenge your own.

And the thing is, even if you’re aiming for the former option, you won’t always succeed: partly because, as stated, it’s impossible to please everyone, but mostly because we all still need some basic assumptions to work from. A single piece of fiction cannot question the entirety of itself, because then you’d be questioning questions — an infinite recursion without answer or end. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to ever challenge assumptions, either; the point is to accept that, all too often, it’s the things we take for granted — the things we neither explain nor question — that say the most about us as writers, political beings, and as people. The argument that stories shouldn’t be judged for anything their authors think is irrelevant therefore strikes me as having fundamentally missed the point of criticism: Creators shouldn’t have a monopoly on interpreting what they’ve made, while the assumptions which underpin a work are just as important as the inventions which make it unique.

To take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better reason than that the authors have assumed its existence either to be so fundamental to sentience, or its use as a trope so unremarkable in narrative, that they never considered excluding it. Or, alternatively, their efforts to write an equal society might come burdened with a whole new set of sexist assumptions, the most common one being to masculinise women without feminising men — there’ll be plenty of empowered female soldiers, leaders and spies, but not so many male nurses, teachers and domestics. (A big part of real-world sexism is still to exalt traditionally male pursuits as being objectively desirable for everyone while discrediting female ones as being objectively undesirable for everyone, but particularly for men.)

And then there’s the current, depressing trend in YA discrimiflip novels: stories which all too often base their supposedly egalitarian messages on simplistic, binary notions of discrimination and privilege by taking a mainstream, powerful group (men, the cisgendered, straights, white people, the able-bodied) and turning them into the victims of those their privilege currently discriminates against (women, QUILTBAG people, POC, the differently abled). Ostensibly, this is meant to engender sympathy for the other side among members of privileged groups, but when poorly handled — as, with few notable exceptions, it overwhelmingly seems to be — the egalitarian intention is buried by the surrounding weight of negative assumptions, foremost of which is the idea that there’s anything simple or binary about discrimination to begin with. The most notable recent example of such a discrimiflip novel is arguably Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden, where white people are Pearls and black people are Coals, but there are others, too: Laura Preble’s forthcoming Out, where Perpendiculars (straights) are considered abnormal in a world run by Parallels (gays), and Claire Merle’s The Glimpse, which, while not a straight social flip, nonetheless pits Crazies (those with mental illnesses) against Pures (who don’t).

Which brings me, at long last, to the overwhelming number of YA-related arguments in the recent past over issues such as romance, racism, feminism, conduct and reviewing, and what strikes me as being the primary unifying factor in every instance: the presence of a dispute about interpretation versus intention — which is to say, a criticism of the author’s assumptions on the one hand, which cannot help but also be a partial critique of the author themselves, and the assertion that such criticism is unreasonable, irrelevant or unfair. Over and over again, in arguments about the portrayal of romance in YA novels (for instance), certain authors have been accused of presenting as healthy and desirable relationships which critics claim are literally abusive, toxic and dangerous, and regardless of where you might stand when it comes to individual novels, the fact remains that this debate has been stymied in large part by an overwhelming uncertainty as to whether such criticism is valid, and if so, to what extent.

The recent emergence of YA as a mainstream, successful genre and the overwhelming popularity of series like Twilight among both teenage and adult readers has fundamentally altered the concept of YA reviewing — which is to say, has ended its status as a separate kind of reviewing altogether. Prior to the advent of Harry Potter, it seems fair to say that YA novels were reviewed, not as books that anyone might like to read, but as books for children, the crucial difference being that, as children weren’t (and to a certain extent still aren’t) presumed to care about issues like politics, equality, feminism, bias and privilege, pretty much nobody was reviewing YA novels with those aspects in mind, let alone considering that their handling, presence or absence might be a relevant factor in judging the success of a given book. After all, we’ve traditionally maintained different critical standards for stories that are intended purely for entertainment value — action movies, for instance, are still graded wholly differently to serious drama — and prior to J. K. Rowling, what else was YA meant to be for but entertaining children? Certainly, there’s a long history of literary praise for youthfully-oriented issues-based novels, but that’s still a far cry from mainstream cultural analysis, and anything that smacked even slightly of magic or escapism was exempt from scrutiny (until or unless it was old and vaunted enough to be deemed a ‘classic’, of course, in which case scholars were right to treat it with reverence).

But now, in addition to the rise of digital reviewing – which, as I’ve said before, is particularly skewed towards genre novels – YA is being treated seriously. Not only did the success of Twilight prompt a flood of romantically similar titles, all of which have found themselves subject to the same scrutiny vis-a-vis the promotion of stalking and female passivity as the original, but it directly contributed to YA being critiqued for things like whitewashing, straightwashing, cultural appropriation, sexism, racism and homophobia, too — issues which had previously been the critical domain of mainstream literature, if and when they were discussed at all. Which, often enough, they weren’t, literary fiction being possessed of its own, separate-but-related battles with misogyny, classism, genre snobbishness and white male homogeneity. (Suggesting, perhaps, yet another reason why so much political literary criticism has fallen on YA of late: the old establishment still has its barriers up, so that those of us who wish to critique the negative assumptions of writers as manifested in fiction and deemed reflective of society have necessarily had to look elsewhere.) But still, the tension between those who view YA as pure escapism and those who hold it to a greater accountability remains, well, tense — because for every writer of YA who isn’t trying to be political, but whose assumptions about what is necessarily encode their opinions anyway, there’s a flock of readers ready and waiting to dissect their work as a manifestation of culture.

A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write; nor should they be, regardless of the intended age of the audience. Though pop cultural analysis has been sneered at in some quarters as an attempt to give trash entertainment a significance far above its station, it can’t be denied that the mainstream is a powerful reflection of our collective cultural subconscious: the assumptions and stereotypes we all quietly learn from childhood, but which many of us never learn to recognise openly, let alone question. Every time we construct a story without any thought as to the assumptions we’ve made that underpin it — assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ableness, privilege, ignorance, bias, identity — we run the risk of replicating the very problems we might otherwise condemn; or at the very least, of being lazy thinkers. The fact that it’s impossible to please everybody shouldn’t make us afraid to challenge ourselves or others; rather, we should try harder to ensure that we’re not alienating people through ignorance. But most importantly of all, we need to accept that no story is told in a vacuum: that the politics, beliefs and assumptions of authors are at least as important to the structure and creation of their narratives as those elements which are purely fictional — and that sometimes, there can be real and significant overlap between the two.