Fractal of Loops

They Get You Coming and Going – The Problem with Subtextual Bisexuals

Media representation for minority groups is crucially important.  I’ve written about this before.  Over on my Tumblr Dashboard, there are two major discussions about bisexual representation occurring.  The first is a long-running debate about the canonicity of Destiel (the romantic relationship between Dean Winchester and Castiel on Supernatural).  The second is the increasingly common identification of Steve Rogers as a bisexual character.

The argument surrounding Destiel is a long running one.  Viewers have been identifying and identifying with the romantic chemistry between Dean and Castiel since Castiel was introduced in season 4.  However, as the series is now set to enter what is most likely its final season, these discussions are escalating, with a recent twitter conversation #AskSupernatural, becoming inundated with accusations of queerbaiting.  Destiel, as a concept, is a complicated animal.  Interest in the pairing has an element of traditional romantic shipping; Dean and Castiel are leads in an emotionally intense and male heavy show.  But a lot of interest in the idea is based on real representation.  Making Dean and Castiel a couple would also make the characters (both of whom have had previous relationships with female characters) canonically bisexual.  This has become part of a larger discussion of Dean Winchester’s bisexuality as fans have noted that even outside of his emotionally intense relationship with Castiel, Dean is, in many ways already portrayed as a (closeted) bisexual man.  He flirts with men and develops crushes on them at several points in the series, is associated with queer icons and behaviours, and in one highly amusing scene in season 7, talks a lesbian through seducing a male guard.  In light of this, canonizing his relationship with Castiel would be simple way of making his long-running subtextual bisexuality, textual.  Which, for many of Dean’s bisexual fans, is much more meaningful than the state of his relationship with Castiel.

Following the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a similar discussion has surrounded Steve RogersWinter Soldier introduced both the characters of Sam Wilson and Sharon Carter.  Sharon Carter’s introduction is explicitly romantic.  She is suggested as a potential date for Steve by Natasha and flirts with Steve during their introduction.  However, Sam Wilson’s earlier introduction, follows a nearly identical set of romantic tropes, and has been described by the directors as a ‘meet-cute’, a term which describes an initial romantic meeting.  The fact that Natasha’s role in the narrative falls squarely into the role of the non-romantic action hero buddy highlights the strongly romantic elements of Sam’s role.  The film also centralized the relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes and directly compares that relationship with the explicitly romantic relationship between Steve and Peggy Carter.  Despite being introduced as the titular villain, Bucky’s role in the story is really that of the damsel in distress which Steve is saving, a role he also occupied in Captain America: The First Avenger where Steve is motivated to the initial bout of heroics which really make him Captain America in order to save Bucky, and after Bucky falls out of the train his fridging provides the motivation for Steve to sacrifice himself to defeat the Red SkullEven though it is Peggy, not Bucky who acts as Steve’s canonical love interest, Bucky continually occupies a set of feminine-coded tropes.  In the face of all this overwhelming subtextual queerness, there is an increasing number of fans who are pushing for this subtext to be acknowledged as text, by making Steve canonically bisexual.

Subtextually queer characters are insufficient as representation and queer, especially bisexual representation is shockingly lacking.  One of the main drives behind the campaigns to canonize Steve Rogers and Dean Winchester as bisexual characters is an attempt to correct this inequality.  However, it notably fails to mention the second, less noticeable double standard which makes these campaigns necessary.  A common complaint leveled by Destiel shippers is that if Castiel had been played by a woman, Dean and Cas’s relationship would already be canonical.  This typically means, variously, that they would have kissed or had sex on screen, or that their relationship would have been verbally acknowledged.  However, this complaint about how a heterosexual relationship would most likely be treated differently by the show overlooks a second difference.  If Castiel had been played by a woman and Dean and Castiel’s relationship was not treated or played any differently, they would almost certainly be accepted as a romantic couple anyway.  Similarly, despite a number of near identical scenes between Steve and Sam and Steve and Peggy and Sharon Carter, Peggy and Sharon are recognized as love interests or potential love interests for Steve, while Sam isn’t.

There are actually two failures of bisexual representation occurring.  There are too few bisexual characters, but the standards a bisexual character has to meet to be accepted is also higher than for a straight character.  These two things are, obviously, related.  The underrepresentation and erasure of bisexual and other queer characters is driven by a set of heteronormative ideas; that bisexual characters are unnecessary, not real, or too racy or sexual to be included in a mainstream work and that writing a story about a bisexual character will somehow cause their bisexuality to overwhelm the story and make it a ‘bisexual story’.  This can be seen fairly strikingly in some of the comments made about the idea of Steve Rogers being bisexual, claiming that making him bisexual would somehow be debasing or oversexualizing him.

But the fact that a character can only be accepted as bisexual when their bisexuality is made overwhelmingly obvious is another aspect of heteronormativity; the idea that people are straight unless proven without a doubt otherwise and it directly feeds the idea of bisexuals and other queer characters as hypersexual.  When they aren’t being sexual on screen they become invisible.  And this double-standard of proof is damaging in a lot of ways, because it extends not only to how we read fictional characters, but how we treat real people.  The whole need for queer people to come out is driven by the fact that if they don’t they will be assumed to be straight.  Bisexuals also face a second force of mononormativity, which is why bisexual people who enter long term relationships are often assumed to have ‘become’ either gay or straight depending on the gender of their current partner.  Because people are only accepted as bisexual when their sexuality is placed obviously in the foreground, it then feeds the continued idea of bisexuality as fundamentally racy, explicitly sexual thing.

It is however, important to recognize that explicitly spelled-out representation serves a double function.  Subtextual representation is recognized almost exclusively by queer people, while more obvious representation which cannot be ignored, does double duty as representation, but also as education.  People who still need to be educated about what bisexuality is and what it means, do not have the tools needed to identify non-explicit representations.  But the quest for better bisexual representation should ultimately be about bisexual people, not subsumed into an educational endeavor.  Somewhere, and at some point, space needs to be made for bisexual characters without neon signs over their heads.

There is no obvious solution to this problem.  Accepting subtextually bisexual characters like Steve Rogers and Dean Winchester is a comforting form of solidarity within the queer community, but it feeds the erasure of more explicitly bisexual characters.  Refusing to accept that characters are bisexual unless they are stated to be, in turn, feeds the idea that overwhelming proof of bisexuality is necessary and that more subtle portrayals of bisexuality, like Steve Rogers and Dean Winchester can be safely dismissed.  Short of dismantling the whole heteronormative structure (which will, unfortunately, likely take some time) there is no ideal way to balance these two competing needs.

 

 

I’m Glad You Saw Me – Asexuality and Asexual relationships in The Game of Thrones

I saw a lot of Tumblr posts about Game of Thrones before I ever started watching it so I came to the series aware that Lord Varys was characterized as asexual.  Naturally, when I found out that he was a Eunuch I immediately became very incensed and spent the subsequent three seasons gnashing my teeth and preparing to be righteously outraged at this mischaracterization.

So, having now caught up, I’m going to have to apologise for all my pre-emptive rage because it turns out that Varys really is asexual.  He makes it very explicitly clear to Prince Oberyn that his disinterest in all things sexual predates his being castrated by an evil magician.  Personally I really liked the scene and, as an asexual who has been doing a lot of fast-forwarding through Game of Thrones numerous uncomfortable looking sex scenes (seriously, everyone looks miserable, no one ever looks like they’re enjoying themselves), I definitely appreciated his jabs about the numerous messes that have been the direct result of people not being able to keep it in their pants.  The other element of Varys and Oberyn’s discussion, which I appreciated, was that while Oberyn was obviously surprised that Varys (or anyone) could be asexual, he seemed to take the idea to heart relatively rapidly and quite politely.

The second asexuality related scene, which I haven’t really seen talked about is Grey Worm’s scene with Missandei.  Identifying Grey Worm as an asexual character is problematic since he was castrated at a young age but I actually found his scenes with Missandei highly relatable and refreshing, especially given how gratuitously and often violently sexual the show is, to show a consensual, non-sexual scene.  Regardless of whether any asexual characters were involved, the model of romance shown here is asexual (and I find it very relatable, so consider this my admission of bias).  These are two people who don’t have any sort of sexual relationship but who obviously find each other very attractive anyway, and who interact in relatively non-conventional ways (through language lessons).  It’s a very sweet reminder in a very physically focused show that attraction doesn’t actually begin and end in your pants.

That’s not a sort of relationship I expected to see on TV anywhere.  Let alone the notoriously problematic Game of Thrones.  So good job Game of Thrones, you got this right.

Which One of Us is the Machine? – Agency and Humanity in the Halo’verse

Master Chief (John-117), the main character of the Halo franchise is described by Eddie Smith, the game’s concept artist as “a consummate professional.  He does his job, walks off, doesn’t even get the girl.”  In its full context this quote refers more to John’s personality than his relationships, but it is an interesting observation.  It would be far more accurate to say that the girl, Cortana, got him.

Cortana is one of the UNSC’s most capable military AIs, and, just before the beginning of Halo:CE is given permission to pick whichever Spartan she wants to escort her on a top secret mission (which is subsequently derailed in the events leading up to the game).  She, by virtue of her special skill set, is allowed to pick which ever Spartan she finds appealing and John, her choice, is simply informed that he will be working with her.  Inverting the usual pattern of ‘getting the girl’ where the male hero is essentially awarded a woman for his heroic achievements.  This is part of a larger pattern in Halo, Cortana has agency and John lacks it.

Superficially, the way John and Cortana’s agency plays out appears counterintuitive.  John, as both the lead and the primary playable character of the Halo games is the leader of the Spartans and spends the games running and shooting and saving the world.  Cortana, being an AI, is stationary and relies on John to take her from place to place.  In the games, she exists largely in the background, conveying information and unlocking doors.  In the novels, she has more page time, but most of what she does still occurs from John’s perspective, meaning that the results are much more prominent than the activities.

But activity cannot be mistaken for agency.  Although Cortana’s actions occur primarily off screen, her decisions drive the plot.  John, in stark contrast to Cortana, is overwhelmingly passive.  It is Cortana who finds Halo in the first place, when she decides to investigate the symbols on a Forerunner artifact rather than following UNSC protocol and making a random slip-space jump away from Earth.  By contrast, in the final scenes of Fall of Reach John asks to be allowed to decide his own fate and join his fellow Spartans on Reach, but is denied and leaves aboard the Pillar of Autumn against his own wishes.  This state of affairs is reflected in the opening cutscene of Halo: CE, which is the original piece of Halo media and therefore serves as the first introduction of the characters for many viewersIn Cortana’s initial introduction within Halo: CE, which is the original piece of Halo media, she is in control of the warship Pillar of Autumn and using it to battle Covenant troops.  John begins the game in the consummately passive state of cryogenic stasis and stays that way until Cortana wakes him up.

Once they arrive on Halo, Cortana becomes responsible for coordinating the movements of human troops on Halo whose chain of command John enters.  In The Flood John’s passive acceptance of his superior’s orders are brutally highlighted in a scene where Major Antonio Silva, who leads the ODSTs on Halo, calls John a ‘freak’ and an ‘experiment’ and insults his fellow Spartans, who have just died defending Reach.  Throughout the tirade John does absolutely nothing.  Cortana is the one who locates Halo’s controls, and discovers the Flood and the function of the Halo rings and prevents Halo’s activation by stealing the Index.  Interestingly, since Cortana is an AI, a sentient computer program, for her, hacking Covenant computers is a physically violent activity, just as shooting Covenant soldiers is for John, although this is discussed only in passing in the novels and never addressed in the games.  When John and Cortana are briefly separated while John attempts to rescue Captain Keyes from the Flood, John is perfectly willing to take orders from Halo’s AI 343 Guilty Spark, and trustingly follows Spark’s orders until only Cortana’s intervention prevents him from accidentally activating Halo and wiping out all life in the galaxy.  Tellingly, this takes place in a scene where Cortana manifested in a much larger than usual version of her usual hologram, and the hovering Guilty Spark literally argue over John’s head about what he should, or should not do with the Index (a moot point, since Cortana has pre-emptively stolen the data).

Like Halo: CE and The Flood, the plot of First Strike is driven events where Cortana makes decisions and John accedes to the decisions of others.  During the events of First Strike there are repeated references to the tension between what John wants to do and what he actually does.  John briefly takes charge of the survivors from Halo but he does so in the context of a larger mission assigned to him and readily gives it up when the mission changes, even though he dislikes and disagrees with Lieutenant Haverson, who takes his place.  He attempts to complete the earlier mission even though he would rather return to Reach.  Then he accepts that mission being scrubbed even though he views it as sacrificing “his dignity and pride… for the greater good” (First Strike) to deliver information Cortana obtained on Halo and during the subsequent battle with a Covenant AI.  When they do go to Reach with the data, on John’s suggestion, he does not suggest looking for any surviving Spartans, which is so transparently what he actually wants that his entire team realises it (and discuss it as soon as he leaves the room).  Cortana is also the one who discovers that the Covenant have located Earth which drives the plot of the latter half of the novel and the second two Halo games.

Throughout Halo 2 John follows the same pattern, obeying orders from Lord Hood, Miranda Keyes and Cortana.  Just before the finale of the game, Cortana makes the decision to remain on the second Halo to prevent the Flood from reaching Earth and summarily banishes John back to Earth, even though he would obviously prefer not to leave her behind.  This point is subtly underlined by the fact that the Forerunner ship he returns to Earth in apparently has no controls.  John exits the ship by leaping from near orbit and begins Halo 3 unconscious, with his armour locked into rigidity.  Cortana then sends a message calling John back despite being held captive by the Gravemind.  The active role Cortana plays in these proceedings is obscured somewhat by the problematic and totally unnecessary rape-imagery associated with her capture by the Gravemind, but the fact remains that she both chose to stay and to leave.  At the end of Halo 3, when both John and Cortana are trapped in the wreckage of the Forward Unto Dawn, Cortana is the one who remains awake and in charge of the situation while John returns to the ultimately passive state of cryogenic sleep, trusting Cortana to watch over him.

Halo 4 opens with John and Cortana still alone and stranded, being pulled into the gravity well of the planet Requiem, so, for the second time, John falls onto the battlefield and begins the game unconscious.  Immediately after crash John receives the news that Cortana has reached the end of her lifespan and is dying of dementia-like rampancy.  Despite growing increasingly debilitated over the course of the game, Cortana still maintains roughly the same level of agency as she has in the earlier games; guiding John and the crew of Infinity through Requiem.  Where the previous three games disguised John’s dissociation from the larger decision making process behind a veneer of activity, the storyline of Halo 4 emphasizes it at every turn.  Right from the get-go, John insists that they can return to Earth and have Dr Halsey fix the problem, but, especially as Cortana continues to deteriorate, this is cast more as denial and desperation than a real plan.  John’s attempts to get Cortana back to Earth are also repeatedly derailed, by the appearance of the Prometheans, by Captain Del Rio’s terrible orders, and then by the need to save Earth from the Didact.  Captain Del Rio takes every available opportunity to insult John, accusing him of no longer being effective as a soldier because of his age and the four years he has just spent involuntarily out of the field.  John, like always, takes the abuse without comment.  In the final levels of the game, it is Cortana, not John, who stands up to Captain Del Rio by attempting to force Infinity to stay on Requiem, while John only intervenes to save Cortana’s life.  Even though John walking out on Del Rio is a hugely climactic moment, especially for such a passive, generally obedient character, it’s a stunningly understated response to someone trying to kill your dearest friend.  He takes Cortana’s chip and returns it to his helmet without ever touching Del Rio, and refuses to hand it over with a firmly stated “No, Sir” but without raising his voice.  This long awaited act of self-determination is also complicated by the fact that it actually runs totally contrary to his own goals.  John wants to return to Earth with Cortana as soon as possible, especially since the very same scene he leaves from makes it clear that her condition is deteriorating, but he leaves Infinity (which is headed back to Earth) to fight the Didact because he feels he has a duty to protect humanity.  The defiant nature of John leaving is further undercut when he returns to Earth and learns that the UNSC high command agrees with his decision and that rather than John being penalized for disobeying Del Rio’s orders, Del Rio has been punished for abandoning him.

John’s interactions with the Didact, the primary antagonist he is supposedly fighting, are the very height of passivity.  In each of John’s three confrontations with the Didact he ends up suspended in mid-air, unable to move before he can get close enough to act and is then forced to listen helplessly while the Didact monologues at him.  Even though she is struggling to remain lucid, it is Cortana, who finally captures and restrains the Didact and disables his ship by making use of the very fragmentation process which is killing her.  John spends the first half of their final fight suspended in midair, and the second half hanging helplessly from a light-bridge by one hand, while Cortana battles the Didact to a standstill.  When he finally does confront the Didact directly by shoving him into his ship’s reactor core, it bears more resemblance to the sort of symbolic coup d’grace which female victims in horror films are sometimes allowed to administer to defeated villains, than an action hero besting a serious antagonist.

Ultimately, even Cortana’s death becomes a triumph of her own agency.  Cortana’s defeat of the Didact, which is her crowning act of self-determination allows her to die not as a helpless victim of rampancy, but on her own terms, after saving her Spartan and fulfilling her last wishes of being able to say goodbye to John while standing, for the first time, in her own, independent physical form.  But Cortana’s victory strips John of even the illusion that he can fulfil his own goal of saving his friend.  When he insists he isn’t going to abandon her, and that it is job to protect her, she informs him that the actions she has already taken mean that she is virtually dead already, and reminds him that while he was supposed to protect her, she was supposed to protect him too, which again asserts her agency, and then vanishes, leaving John hanging helplessly in space.

John and Cortana’s complex relationship with agency reflects their complex relationship with humanity.   Cortana is an AI, meaning that she is technically a very complex computer program.   Despite this fact, Cortana is, especially in the Halo games, one of the most accessible and human characters.  Cortana uses an avatar which gives her a human appearance.  When her avatar is visible, people will typically address and respond to it, even though technically she is present throughout any computer system and she would be able to see and hear them wherever they looked.  She uses this avatar to emote and respond to other characters in typically human ways.  She also has most of the games dialogue and the most overt emotional responses to their events, although this is more evenly split in the novels where John’s thoughts and feelings, like Cortana’s participation in the action, are more obvious.

Perhaps more importantly, Cortana is treated as a person by almost every character.  Captain Keyes and Lord Hood in Halo: CE and Halo 2 respectively treat Cortana respectfully and include her in the decision process as does Dr. Halsey and, obviously John.  Seargent Johnson and Foehammer banter with her readily and treat her like another soldier.  Even the Gravemind, who captures and tortures Cortana treats her as an independent individual to the same extent he does the Master Chief and the Arbiter.  In Halo 4 the Librarian tells Cortana about the Didact and his history at the same time as she tells John, even though she refers to Cortana as an ‘ancilla’, which is an odious term meaning maid and derived from the Latin term for a female slave.  Two characters violate this pattern.  The first is 343 Guilty Spark who, in addition to referring to Cortana as a ‘construct’ betrays Master Chief twice and murders Seargent Johnson, marking him as a very obvious antagonist.   The second is Captain Del Rio who treats Cortana as a piece of malfunctioning equipment and is punished for it by the narrative when he loses command of Infinity

John-117, once again in direct contrast to Cortana, is a human solider who is treated like a piece of equipment.  Most obviously, in both the games and the novels, where Cortana is always referred to by name John is usually referred to only by his rank Master Chief or his call sign ‘Sierra-117’ or ‘Spartan-117’.   In a scene early in The Flood John notes that, after the fall of Reach (this occurs before he discovers that Dr. Halsey and some of the Spartan-II’s have survived) he and Cortana are probably the only people alive who even know what his name is.  Where Cortana is a machine highly identified with a human avatar, John is a human highly identified with a machine-like suit of armour.  The first physical description of John in Fall of Reach is “the ghostly iridescent green of the armor plates and the matte black layers underneath made him look part gladiator, part machine.  Or perhaps to the bridge crew, he looked as alien as the Covenant.”  Another first impressions that people have of him later in the same book are that he and the other Spartans are “more like robots than flesh and blood”.  At the beginning of The Flood the technician responsible for reviving John from cryo describes him as “almost as alien, and certainly as dangerous as the Covenant… like a figure from mythology – otherworldly and terrifying… the mirrored visor on his helmet made him all the more fearsome, a faceless, impassive soldier built for destruction and death.”   When the cadets of Hastati Squad see a video of a Spartan in Forward Unto Dawn their initial questions are “what do you think that thing was…  What can it be…  Did you see the size of that thing?” [all emphasis mine].

The description of John as inhuman and machine-like by the other characters carries over to their treatment of him.  Where it is unexceptional for Cortana to be treated like a person and failure to do so marks characters as antagonists, this sort of casual dehumanization of John and the other Spartans is totally ordinary among relatively sympathetic characters.  Sam the cryo technician is “glad that he was up here in the observation theater, rather than down on the Cryo Two main floor with the Spartan.”  Nonetheless, Sam is relatively well developed for a character who only lives for a few pages (corresponding to less than a minute of game-play) and his death is treated as sad, not as a narrative comeuppance for treating the leading protagonist like an armed explosive.  Andrew Del Rio treats John, as well as Cortana poorly, but it is clearly the latter that he is punished for.  Antonio Silva is frankly verbally abusive to Master Chief and although he eventually dies on Halo so do a very large number of much more heroic characters including Captain Keyes who in addition to being fairly heroic in his own right typically treats Master Chief well, and who actually tells Silva, that “what makes the Chief so effective isn’t what he is, but who he is.” So Silva’s death cannot be framed as narrative punishment for his bullying.

Instead, people who extend normal courtesies to John, like Captain Keyes in the previous example, are typically marked as exceptional or heroic.  One of the ways that the morally complicated Doctor Halsey is framed as a protagonist (which is not consistent throughout every Halo text) is her interactions with ‘her’ Spartans.  She is one of the only non-Spartans who can tell the Spartans apart while they have their armour on, and “unlike everyone else who greeted the Master Chief and stared at his uniform, medals, ribbons or the Spartan insignia, Dr. Halsey stared into his eyes” (Fall of Reach).  Even in Halo 4 where Doctor Halsey is framed more negatively and is being prosecuted as a war criminal she reminds of her interrogators that “your mistake is seeing Spartans as military hardware.”  Admiral Whitcomb, introduced in First Strike is set up as heroic partly because when he introduces himself to John “he strode to the Chief and shook his hand – a gesture very few non-Spartans cared to endure – pressing bare flesh into a cold unyielding gauntlet that could pulverize their bones.”  Of all the Hastati squad cadets, Tom Lasky is the first to express any kind of confidence in the Master Chief in Forward Unto Dawn, reassuring his squad mates that “he’s gonna come back – I believe him.”  Later, in Halo 4 Lasky sides with Chief and Cortana over Del Rio and is ultimately rewarded with command of the Infinity.  In the epilogue, it is Lasky who reminds John that “soldiers aren’t machines, we’re just people.”

It is a well-worn science fiction trope that people have feelings and machines don’t, but it is equally well known that people can make decisions, while machines facilitate the choices of others.  These are the two elements which are addressed when determining the nature of humanity in Halo.  In Halo 4, faced with both her increasingly immanent death and the need to stop the Didact, Cortana says “I can give you over forty thousand reasons why I know that sun isn’t real.  I know because the emitter’s Rayleigh effect is disproportionate to its suggested size.  I know because its stellar cycle is more symmetrical than that of an actual star.  But for all that, I’ll never know if it looks real… if it feels real… before this is all over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.”     Superficially, humanity is connected to emotions.  Emotions are what humanize the non-human Cortana.  We know she isn’t a machine, because even though she doesn’t know if the sun feels real, the grief this causes her is obvious, as are her feelings throughout the Halo series.  Her human appearance and its associated expressiveness make her feelings clear to both the other characters, and to the player.  John’s feelings in the scene, as in most of the series are more difficult to discern, his facial expressions and body language are obscured by his armour.  He talks less than Cortana and his voice is more level.  Even within the text “some people say they’re [Master Chief and the other Spartans] not even humans in those suits – that their just machines” and Doctor Halsey the non-Spartan character who arguably understands the Spartans best struggles to talk to John in some cases because “his impenetrable armour made discussions with normal social conventions nearly impossible”.  This juxtaposition of an emotional computer and a seemingly emotionless man seems to be the target of Cortana’s request.  But that issue is, in fact, resolved long before Cortana’s sun monologue.  There is ample evidence throughout the series that John has emotions.  Even in the sun monologue cut scene John is shifting uncomfortably, but before that he has also been shown grieving over the deaths of the Spartans at Reach, then rejoicing when he finds out some of them have survived.  Even drawing only from Halo 4 this conversation is preceded by the highly emotional reveal of Cortana’s rampancy, and follows immediately from the emotionally charged scene of John disobeying Del Rio’s orders.  It is followed by two utterly heartbreaking conversations, the first on Ivanoff station as John attempts to comfort Cortana after her exposure to the composer and then the epilogue where he begs her uselessly not to leave him alone.  When Cortana asks “which one of us is the machine?” the idea that John is unfeeling like a machine is already not well supported and by the time the idea comes up again when Lasky reminds Chief in the epilogue that “soldiers aren’t machines.  We’re just people,” the idea that John doesn’t feel is ridiculous.

The lingering difference between Cortana and John, which confirms that she is a human and calls his humanity into question is not emotionality, but agency.  Agency has been connected explicitly to humanity within the Halo’verse.  In Thursday War, another AI, Black-Box reflects that “their choices are what make them human – good and bad.  If I take away their choices, I take away their humanity.”  What does that say about Cortana who has choices even when her mind is falling apart around her?  She is granted agency repeatedly over the course of the series, and at the same time, the characters she interacts with consistently respect and reinforce her humanity.  What does that say about John, whose choices are taken away from him time after time?  His agency is repeatedly taken away and his humanity is repeatedly questioned or denied by the people around him.  John’s apparently symbolic defiance of Del Rio, in this context, serve not to actually accomplish his goals but to reassert the fact that John is an independent person who is, however infrequently he may do it, capable of making decisions for himself.  It is, notably, only after he walks out on Del Rio that the question of John’s humanity comes up, and Lasky reaffirms that “we’re just people.”

Construction of Normalcy

Within stories set in fantasy worlds the reader relies on the author to construct normalcy for the setting.  Frogs don’t talk in real life, so if you encounter a talking frog, you would justifiably consider it highly abnormal, but when you read about a fictional talking frog in a totally fictional world, you rely on the narrative to tell you if the frog should be read as abnormal, or if it’s a perfectly normal part of the setting.  In fantastical stories which are set in versions of the real world with fantastical elements, either urban fantasy or science fiction, how normalcy is constructed within a story becomes more complex.  When parts of the reader’s everyday reality are present then what they consider normal and abnormal in their own lives is also going to play a role in the story.  The way normalcy in constructed within these speculative fiction stories can confirm the viewer’s version of normalcy, they can contradict the viewer’s version of normalcy or they can coexist with the viewer’s version of normalcy.

Within the combined universe of Torchwood and Doctor Who, the normalcy of the real world defines normal within the story.  Both stories have point of view (POV) characters who are considered normal people; the world they inhabit prior to being introduced to the fantastical elements of the story is shown to be similar to the world of the viewer.  The more fantastical elements of the story are then set up as specifically abnormal and remain that way throughout both series.

The first episode of season one of the new Doctor Who series, “Rose”, opens with a montage which portrays the daily life of the character Rose, who becomes the POV character for the season.  During the montage she wakes up, travels to work in a service job, eats lunch with her boyfriend, returns to work [1].  This establishes Rose as normal and allows readers t extrapolate from what they know without any more details.  Rose’s life is normal.  This is made more explicit in “The Army of Ghosts”, which opens with a clip of Rose travelling through London on a bus before meeting the Doctor in the previous season.  Rose’s voiceover contextualizes what is happening in the scene as: “For the first nineteen years of my life, nothing happened, nothing at all.  Not ever.” [2]. With the implication that the ordinary events of her life do not need to be described.  She then continues; “And then I met a man called the Doctor.” [2].

The Doctor leads an explicitly abnormal life, both in the sense that it is very different from that of his companions and the viewer would expect, and in the sense that he also considers it abnormal.  He describes a normal life as “the one adventure I can never have” [3].  Another character, reflects that “The Time Lord has such adventures.  But he could never have a life like that”, in reference to an ordinary life.  The Doctor, is so far from normal, that normal is actually impossible for him.  The Companions, who do have access to normalcy, have two separate aspects of their lives “Real life, and Doctor life” [4], there is no option offered to have a combined life.

The companions’ “real” and “Doctor” lives [4] are physically separated by the text.  When the companions leave to travel with the Doctor, they literally leave their homes to travel to far off places and times in the TARDIS.  If the Doctor comes to them, it is usually due to an invasion of hostile aliens or something equally disruptive.  In these cases, even though the Companions may be physically present in the same time and place as their “real lives”, the events and routines which comprise normalcy are suspended in favour of invasions of Slitheen [5,6], Cybermen [2], or mysterious black cubes [4].  During these events the characters themselves conspire to keep the normal and abnormal elements separate.  The Doctor and his Companions are aided in this by two government organizations, UNIT and Torchwood which both engage any abnormal incursions to remove them from normal spaces as fast as possible, but also cover up the events so that the majority of the normal population will remain entirely ignorant of the abnormal one.

The agency Torchwood, which is examined in its own television show acts as an encapsulated version of the separation of normal and abnormal elements within the larger Doctor Who universe.  The members of Torchwood work out of a base under the city of Cardiff, so even though they work in a familiar location, they remain, like the Doctor’s Companions, physically separated from the city’s normal inhabitants.  The initially normal POV character Gwen Cooper, who is recruited from the police in the first episode says of the other Torchwood employees “You’ve been hidden down here too long.  Spending so much time with the alien stuff, you’ve lost what it means to be human” [7].  Like The Doctor, Captain Jack Harkness, who is the leader of Torchwood and a time traveller from the future, openly acknowledges his own abnormality and asks Gwen to “remind us.  Tell me what it means to be human in the 21st century.” [7].

Like the Doctor’s Companions, Gwen has access to both an abnormal life with Torchwood, and a normal life, personified in her boyfriend, Rhys Williams, who is entirely normal and unconnected to Torchwood.  This differentiates Gwen from the other members of Torchood, none of whom have long term partners at the start of the series and none of whom ever have long term romantic relationships which occur outside of either the other Torchwood staff, as with Jack Harkness and Ianto Jones [8], or other abnormal characters as with Toshiko Sato and Tommy, a soldier from World War One, kept in cryogenic stasis [9].  Jack warns Gwen, in the episode “Day One”, not to be consumed by her job because “You have a life, perspective.  We need that… Go home Gwen Cooper; eat lasagne, kiss your boyfriend, be normal.  For me.” [8].  Jack, like the Doctor, is well aware of his own abnormality.

Even though Torchwood is one of the agencies which works to separate the Doctor and the abnormality he brings with him from the normal world, and are coded normal in reference to the Doctor, they are not normal by comparison to the viewer or the normal characters of the show.  Gwen’s struggle to maintain her relationship with Rhys, which begin almost as soon as she starts working for Torchwood, exemplify this.  Torchwood literally stands between the normalcy of regular life and the abnormality of the Doctor, which places them in a liminal state; more normal than The Doctor, but not actually normal.  Within the universe of Doctor Who and Torchwood, normal is not defined in a binary manner but with varying degrees of abnormality stretching away from normal.

However, abnormality can also be defined in reverse, as is the case with the Harry Potter universe.  Harry Potter, who’s POV the reader follows through the story, begins the story in the Muggle world, which is, from the reader’s point of view, normal and moves into the magical Wizarding world, which isn’t, but within the story it is the magic using Wizards, not the Muggles, which are considered normal.

This impression is created partly by volume.  Harry spends the vast majority of each book interacting with Wizards, so that the majority of people he, and therefore the reader, interacts with regularly wear cloaks, carry wands and don’t find anything particularly remarkable about owls delivering post [11].  His various friends and acquaintances are also all eager to inform him of the standards of normalcy of his new world.  When Rubeus Hagrid, who is responsible for introducing Harry to the Wizarding world, finds out that Harry is unaware that he is a wizard, his response is “Do you mean ter tell me… that this boy – this boy!  – knows nothin’ abou’ – about ANYTHING?”  When Harry informs him that he is not entirely ignorant and ‘can, you know, do maths and stuff.”  Hagrid ‘simply waved his hand.’ [11].  In dismissing the primary school curriculum, which represents the standard, basic knowledge that all people in British Muggle society are expected to have as irrelevant, Hagrid succinctly warns readers to reset their expectations.  Hagrid, the ‘Keeper of the keys and grounds at Hogwarts’ [11], also acts as a gatekeeper into the magical world.  He acts as the first source of the new norms which both Harry and the reader are expected to use.  This is reinforced by Hagrid’s highly unusual appearance.  Harry’s first knowing encounter with the Wizarding world is with “a giant of a man…His face… almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard.” [11].

To reinforce the idea that it is the Wizards, not the Muggles, who represent the internal standard of normalcy, there are very few Muggle characters and although their behaviour is ostensibly normal, their characterization is not.  The Dursleys, Harry’s Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and his cousin Dudley view and present themselves as ‘perfectly normal, thank you very much.’ [11].  However, it becomes rapidly apparent that the Dursleys are not normal at all.  Dudley is overweight and a bully who ‘hated exercise – unless of course it involved punching somebody’ [11].  Aunt Petunia is ‘the nosiest woman in the world and spent most of her life spying on her boring, law-abiding neighbours.’ [12].  Uncle Vernon’s normal days involve yelling at multiple people in his job at Grunnings’ drill company and when Harry begins receiving letters from Hogwarts he panics to the point that he ‘got out a hammer and nails and boarded up the cracks around the front and back doors so no one could go out.  He hummed ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ as he worked, and jumped at small noises.” [11].  All behaviour which very few people, Muggles or not, would consider reasonable.  Vernon’s sister Aunt Marge is similarly portrayed as needlessly cruel, she ‘delighted in buying Dudley expensive presents while glaring at Harry as though daring him to ask why he hadn’t got a present too’ [12].  She is also atypical in appearance, ‘very like Uncle Vernon; large, beefy and purple-faced, she even had a moustache, though not as bushy as his” [12].  Frank Bryce, has been ostracized by his community as a suspected murderer since “War turned him funny, if you ask me” [13] and his devotion to the old house and grounds he maintains “amounted almost to an obsession” [13].  Both the campground manager Mr Roberts and the Muggle Prime Minister are objects of humour.  Mr Roberts is cheerfully oblivious to his campsite being filled with wizards, and the Muggle Prime Minister spends every appearance in a state of bewildered alarm.  He asks questions which, while internally reasonable, always take place a good deal after the readers have already learned the answers, giving the impression that he is stupid and slow on the uptake.  Hermione’s parents, the only Muggle characters presented without any form of notable dysfunction, have no dialogue.

The normal wizards are rigidly separated from the abnormal Muggles by the text.  When Harry is in the Muggle world, he is denied access to all magic and Wizarding elements until he is actively transitioning back into the Wizarding world, and once he has re-entered the Wizarding world, he has minimal to no contact with the Muggle world.  For the reader, this clear separation, which lacks any of the gradations of abnormality seen in Doctor Who or Torchwood, helps to prevent any confusion between their normal standards, and the new ones they have been introduced to.  Within the text, this rigid division is maintained by a specialist government organization, the Ministry of Magic [11].  As with UNIT and Torchwood, it is the relatively normal group, which polices the division of the normal from the abnormal.

Rather than simply creating a world with both normal and abnormal elements, the Harry Potter universe also provides a new set of norms to judge them by.  Both the structure of the text and the actions of the characters are used to first create these norms and then to police them, by associating old norms with traits which most people already consider both abnormal and negative.  The universe of the television show Sanctuary, like Harry Potter and Doctor Who contains both normal and fantastical elements, in this case, a parallel ecosystem of supernatural creatures called Abnormals, but fails to create a rigid distinction between its normal and abnormal elements.

The viewers are first exposed to these abnormal elements through an ostensibly normal POV character, Will Zimmerman, by Helen Magnus, a key figure who is coded as abnormal.  This opening mirrors the interaction between the Doctor and his Companions on Doctor Who.  However, the differences between normal and abnormal on Sanctuary are, right from the beginning, much less clear than those on Doctor Who.  First, while Will is not an Abnormal by the standards of the show, he is not considered normal and struggles to fit into normal society.  In the pilot episode he has already been thrown out of the FBI for his odd theories and is shown struggling to fit into a local police force [14].  His overall unease with daily life is symbolized by chronic insomnia, which resolves once he enters the Sanctuary [15].  Helen Magnus is a similarly liminal figure, officially abnormal but with strong links to normalcy. While she is technically an Abnormal, she was born as a regular human, and became an Abnormal through her own experimentation, which is typically not the case [16].  But she passes very well as a normal person, her only Abnormality being her very long life span.

Normal and Abnormal characters in Sanctuary are also not strictly segregated in either time or space.  Abnormals, by contrast to the aliens of Doctor Who or the wizards of Harry Potter, are highly integrated into human society, but not evenly distributed throughout it.  Instead, Abnormals are associated with the fringes of society.  They interact primarily with the poor, as with the immigrant family in the pilot [14] or the largely homeless Folding Men [17], or with criminals like the smuggler Jimmy [18], or the thief Bruno Delacourt [19] and are tend to cluster in unstable neighbourhoods, like the Fifth Ward, where The Sanctuary is located [20].  Abnormals in these groups and places all interact freely with normal humans and are treated as honorary ‘normal’ members of their communities, but the communities they live in are highly marginalized by normal society as a whole.  This is another area where Magnus and her Sanctuary occupy a liminal role.  She is able to interact with marginalized individuals, either Abnormals like Jimmy and Bruno, or humans like the weapon’s dealer Silvio [21, 22], but she is also equally able to interact with very privileged members of society, like Lilian Lee, the head of the United Nations Security Team [23].

Even though many people in the Sanctuary universe interact with Abnormals in the course of their everyday lives, they are largely unaware of it, due to the work of the Sanctuary.  Like UNIT, Torchwood and the Ministry of Magic, the Sanctuary exists to “protect the two dominant species of this planet from one another” [24].  But while in the universes of Doctor Who and Harry Potter, the normal elements of society are responsible for policing the abnormal ones, in Sanctuary the Abnormals are self-policing.  Helen, who runs the whole Sanctuary is an abnormal, but images of the other heads of house (the leaders of individual Sanctuaries) show that many are more obviously Abnormal, including the amphibian Terrence Wexford, who briefly runs the New York Sanctuary [25] and Onryuji, the head of the Japanese sanctuary who has opaque, swirling eyes, which he hides behind sunglasses [25].

The placement of Abnormals within society in Sanctuary highlights a division between normal and abnormal which is hidden in the other two texts.  Within the everyday elements of speculative fiction texts, there is already an established division between the elements of our everyday lives that we consider normal and those we don’t.  In Sanctuary, Abnormal creatures associate primarily with abnormal or marginalized people.  This ties the elements of the story which are abnormal in a fantastical way to another kind of abnormal element; those which we expect as part our day to day lives, but nonetheless, would be considered outside of the norm, like criminals or the very poor.   Which effectively highlights the presence of this division.

How fantastical forms of abnormality are constructed within a text reflects how abnormality is viewed in it.  In Doctor Who, the abnormal elements are highlighted, but they are also celebrated.  The Doctor and his Torchwood equivalent Captain Jack Harkness are abnormal outsiders, but they are heroic outsiders.  Doctor Who, via the character of the Doctor is also quick to highlight and celebrate human exceptionality, emphasizing on several occasions that “there is no such thing as an ordinary human” [26] and that in “900 years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before” [27].  Highlighting the abnormal elements of the heroes provides a basis for embracing the diversity of more ordinary characters, and by extension, readers and viewers.

In Harry Potter the opposite approach is taken.  Harry, the apparent outsider is reaffirmed as both normal and heroic, while the initially normal seeming Dursleys, and other Muggles are simultaneously shown to be both abnormal and objectionable.  Challenging norms and standing up to authority figures is a major theme of the Harry Potter series.  Over the course of the series, Harry goes on to repeatedly challenge authority figures and break rules and is usually shown to be correct in doing so.  The initial inversion of the readers internal ideas of normalcy provide the mental basis for Harry’s continued challenges to the replacement ideas which are provided by the text.  Having initially accepted Harry’s norm as superior to their own, readers are also primed to accept it over Draco Malfoy’s [11], Voldemort’s [11-13, 28] or The Ministry of Magic [28].  They are also, by extension, encouraged to carry that same willingness to challenge normalcy in favour of goodness and heroism back into their own lives.

Sanctuary takes a third approach, aiming to expand the whole concept of normal.  Even though Will (and by proxy the viewer) initially sees the Sanctuary as hiding an abnormal element of the world, as he settles in, he gradually adopts a new form of normal which includes both the norms of his old world, and the more fantastical ones which he has been introduced to by Helen Magnus.  Will initially views Abnormals as monsters and reacts to them with fear and disgust [14], but over time he comes to appreciate, and eventually becomes good friends with his abnormal coworkers, Helen [16], Big Guy [14] and Henry Foss [16].  When Sanctuary shows Will coming to “embrace the full spectrum of our reality” [14], by accepting Abnormals as normal, it is also asking its viewers to be more accepting of the marginalized and societally abnormal groups of people with which Abnormals are metaphorically associated.   

 

References

 

[1] Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 1 “Rose” (2005)

[2] Doctor Who, Season 2, Episode 12 “The Army of Ghosts” (2006)

[3] Doctor Who, Season 2, Episode 13 “Doomsday” (2006)

[4] Doctor Who, Season 7, Episode 4 “The Power of Three” (2012).

[5] Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 4 “Aliens of London” (2005)

[6] Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 5 “World War Three” (2005)

[7] Torchwood, Season 1, Episode 2 “Day One” (2007)

[8] Torchwood, Season 1, Episode 8 “They Keep Killing Suzie” (2007)

[9] Torchwood, Season 2, Episode 3 “To the Last Man” (2008)

[10] Torchwood, Season 1, Episode 3 “Ghost Machine” (2007)

[11] Rowling, JK (1997) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Bloomsbury; UK, London

[12] Rowling, JK (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Bloomsbury; UK, London

[13] Rowling, JK (2000) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Bloomsbury; UK, London

[14] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 1 “Sanctuary for All (Part 1)” (2008)

[15] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 3 “Fata Morgana” (2008)

[16] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 7 “The Five” (2008)

[17] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 8 “Folding Man” (2008)

[18] Sanctuary, Season 2, Episode 9 “Penance” (2009)

[19] Sanctuary, Season 4, Episode 6 “Homecoming” (2011)

[20] Sanctuary, Season 3, Episode 4 “Trail of Blood” (2010)

[21] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 2 “Sanctuary for All (Part 2)” (2008)

[22] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 5 “Kush” (2008)

[23] Sanctuary, Season 3, Episode 12 “Hangover” (2011)

[24] Sanctuary, Season 2, Episode 2 “End of Night (Part 2)” (2009)

[25] Sanctuary, Season 2, Episode 12 “Kali (Part 1)” (2009)

[26] Doctor Who, Season 3, Episode 6 “The Lazarus Experiment” (2007)

[27] Doctor Who, Christmas Special “A Christmas Carol” (2010)

[28] Rowling, JK (2003) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Bloomsbury; UK, London

 

We Will Stand Tall/ All Together

I have heard a rumour that some people are unhappy with the reveal of Eve Moneypenny at the end of Skyfall.  Since the original role was essentially the traditional romantically available secretary this isn’t particularly inexplicable, but I’m a bit thrilled about it.  The film goes to a lot of trouble to set Eve up as a skilled, competent MI6 agent.  Despite the fact she’s obviously young, she’s considered good enough to be working with Bond, and even though she ultimately makes an error in shooting him, it seems to be accepted that this is something that could have happened to anyone.  She hasn’t been penalized by M or anyone else, and James doesn’t seem especially upset.  When he tells her initially, that ‘Field work isn’t for everyone’ there’s no particular rancour, and it basically seems to be joking about it.  He also seems perfectly comfortable working with her later in the casino, highlighted when he asks for her help shaving and the camera lingers on her pressing a cutthroat razor against his neck.

Thematically Skyfall spends a lot of time on the idea of cooperation.  The chorus of the musical theme, Adele’s “Skyfall”, actually contains the lyrics “Let the sky fall/When it crumbles/We will stand tall/Face it all together” (emphasis mine) within the chorus.  This is the second point made when James asks Eve to help him shave, but it occurs with many other characters.  This is why, instead of kitting James out with his usual array of gadgets and retiring to the side-lines, Q instead gives James only the weapons specific to his skill-set, a gun and a radio, and carries out the more high tech operations himself.  Over the course of the movie, James goes from insulting Q about his age and reliance on technology, to appreciating and relying on his skills.  This is also why M, rather than issuing an assignment and letting 007 do his work, and ends up in the field along-side him and why Mallory goes from trying to shut down M’s division, to working with them and ultimately taking over M’s position after her death.

Nor do I think it is necessarily a bad thing that Eve is now occupying a traditionally female role as a secretary.  James Bond exists not only as a character, but also as an avatar of masculinity, and represents a very specific form of masculine power.  In a more typical Bond film structure where Bond receives orders and intelligence from M and gadgets from Q and then carries out his mission largely unsupported reinforces the supremacy of this mode of power; all the other characters essentially surrender their forms of power to James before the action begins.  The focus, within the film on M, rather than Bond as the locus of power, and James’ gradual acceptance of Mallory as an ally rather than an obstruction legitimizes the value of soft and political power as a valid alternative to physical violence.  Likewise James Bond’s increasing appreciation for Q’s highly technological skill set, places computerized warfare as equal to Bond’s more conventional form.  Metaphorically, this makes M, an older woman and Q, who is not only younger than Bond but physically much smaller and less visually masculine, equals to the classically masculine James Bond.  Conversely M’s defense of the continued usefulness of James and the 00 agents in general to the skeptical parliament ensure that Bond’s forms of power are equal to M and Q’s, not subservient to them.  Ultimately, this creates the case that ideally, a balance of all three forms of power are necessary.  This, once again, relates to the theme song “Put your hand in my hand/And we’ll stand”.

So when Eve repeats that ‘field work isn’t for everyone’ at the end of the film, the implication is clearly not that she’s now working behind a desk because she can’t cope with the rigours of working in the field, but that she considers this a better use of her skills, this is paralleled by M’s successor Gareth Mallory, who is also a desk-worker with a background in fieldwork.

Given how extensively Skyfall established both that Eve specifically is a powerful, competent character, that James Bond needs his supporting characters just as much as they need him, and that running and shooting are not the only way to be powerful in James Bond’s universe, Eve stepping behind Moneypenny’s desk, rather than into the field, is not a let-down, it is the culmination of the film.

Truly a Terrible Fairy

Can we all take a moment to discuss how awful Tinkerbell is?  Regina initially confesses to Emma that she did “what I always do” to Tinkerbell, which based on two season’s worth of evidence would seem to suggest that Regina had tricked her, or stolen her heart, or otherwise broken her either while pursuing her own goals, or just in a fit of rage.

But it is subsequently revealed that that isn’t what happened at all.  Tinkerbell came to Regina just after she married the king, while she is very angry at King Leopold and Snow White and still grieving for Daniel.  Tinkerbell immediately tells Regina, who is obviously skeptical, that what Regina needs is True Love, which will apparently remove all of her anger and pain and allow her to live Happily Ever After.  Tinkerbell is reprimanded for visiting Regina at all, which was in violation of fairy rules, but, convinced that she can solve Regina’s problems she steals some pixie dust and drags a largely unwilling Regina off to identify her True Love.  She then points to the back of a man’s head and leaves Regina standing outside of a tavern with instructions to go and talk to a perfect stranger and “let go of your anger”.  Regina runs off and never speaks to the man.  She tells Tinkerbell, later, that the spell didn’t work and calls her a “terrible fairy”, but Tinkerbell, sees through this, and immediately asks if Regina couldn’t summon up the courage to talk to the man she had indicated.  Regina admits that she didn’t want to because “I had true love and he died and I suffered”, at which point Tinkerbell gets angry at her since she stole pixie dust to help her.  Tinkerbell is then caught by the Blue Fairy and punished, not for helping or failing to help Regina, but just for stealing pixie dust, which didn’t belong to her in the first place.  Later she also accuses Regina of having ruined not only her own life and Tinkerbell’s, but also the life of the man who could have been her next true love.

So really Tinkerbell is both wrong and in the wrong.  She breaks fairy rules (which she had already been warned about) spontaneously and of her own free will, to offer Regina a sort of help she neither asked for nor wanted, and she blames Regina for being punished for the rules she broke.  Accusing Regina of ruining the life of the man she never talked to also shows that Tinkerbell seems to have a very poor grasp of the rules she is working within.

Tinkerbell’s earlier revelation that it is possible for someone to have more than one true love is a novel concept for the show and given that the magic of Once Upon a Time rests very heavily on the concept of True Love it is a very unexpected one.  Yet within the same episode Tinkerbell accuses Regina of ruining the life of the man who could have been her second True Love.  This is in total violation of her earlier statement that people have more than one True Love, and so, presumably her supposed partner could be happy with someone else, but it is also, to some extent, counter-factual.  At the end of the episode it is revealed that Regina’s mystery man is Robin Hood, who, it has been shown, is successfully and happily leading the Merry Men and raising a young son, so his life isn’t ruined at all.

Furthermore, even within the Enchanted Forest, where love is an immensely powerful force, falling in love has never been shown to be a panacea.  While some forms of love, like Snow and Charming’s love for each other and Emma’s love for Henry, are capable of great good, but only because those relationships are good.  But other forms of love, like Rumpelstiltskin love for Baelfire or the Genie’s love for Regina are toxic and damaging.  So Tinkerbell’s assertion that Regina can fix her problems just by finding love has already been shown to be false when she says it.

Maybe she is a terrible fairy after all.

Borrowing Narratives

There is a sort of standard narrative for young LGBTQIA people that goes “I always knew I was different/I felt differently than my friends/I wasn’t like the other kids”.  I had the opposite problem.  I honestly believed that my feelings were the kind of feelings that straight people had.  This was all well and good until I was about fourteen and suddenly all my friends started could talk about was sex.  They talked about wanting it, they talked about having or not having it, they made jokes about it, they related every conceivable subject and a few totally inconceivable ones to it.  It was bizarre.

This is a the part where a more self-aware, or possibly just better informed person might have taken a hint, but this was about six years before I would ever hear the word asexual, and I’d had five years of sex education which spent a lot of time emphasizing how to refuse sex, because there is still this pervasive idea that girls and women will inevitably be pressured into sex by men and that all teenagers will have to struggle to restrain their burgeoning sexual impulses.  So I thought I was straight and it made me feel like a freak.  Because everyone around me wanted sex, or as time went on, were having sex, and for everyone but me it was this fascinating, interesting, rewarding thing, that I didn’t get.

There isn’t really anyone to talk to when you’re a teenager who just plain isn’t interested in sex.  There’s plenty of advice on how to refuse or resist having sex if you want to wait to have it, and on how to have it safely if you do, but it is taken as a fact, explicitly stated in sex education, and as an unspoken given in popular culture and daily life that as you grow up, you’ll have some urges, which make certain activities seem very interesting.  So there is a dearth of advice for those of us who don’t.  No one offers an explanation for what these feelings feel like, or why anyone might have them, that supposedly, comes pre-installed.

Some asexuals can keep up with the details of sexual culture, but I can’t.  I struggle to pick up on sexual innuendo, I can identify ‘sexy’ poses by rote, but they just look silly, sex scenes look like two people rolling around on a bed naked, I first learned that there is some emotional significance to the choreography of these scenes beyond (what I assumed was) titillation less than a month ago (I’m twenty-three at time of writing).  So when all my friends, my teachers, and, increasingly, my books and television shows started talking about sex as if I should know what was going on, I felt like everyone was talking over my head, and I hate not knowing things.

But, I didn’t have any way of describing my feelings apart from ‘different’, ‘not quite right’, and ‘kind of uncomfortable’, so, since I got crushes on boys, I figured, I was just a very weird straight person.  I wasn’t, of course, I was, and always have been, a fairly ordinary asexual person, but I didn’t know any other asexuals, I didn’t see any asexuals in the media consumed.  I didn’t even know the word.

Popular culture is not the best source of information and support about asexuality, but it was what I have always had.  Eventually I would end up (at nineteen) finding real information from AVEN (via a link from tvtropes), which is where I found the first explicit reference to asexuality as a sexual orientation.  But at fourteen, I had a set of Halo novels.  This was lucky for me, because they remain one of the few sets of novels I have which have exactly what I needed at the time; an asexual character.

Video game novelizations with a target demographic of 15-24 year old men are not, as a rule, a good source of information about LGBTQIA issues, and true to form there are no overtly queer characters in the original three Halo novels or any discussion thereof.  The Halo novels, are, in fact, something of a relationship free zone, with almost all the sex/romance content occurring as crude jokes or conversations between side characters.  The reason for this is that they were all written from the apparently asexual perspective of Master Chief.  This is not explicitly stated within the text.  Master Chief isn’t, and will probably never be, an explicitly asexual character.  But it didn’t matter to me, because he was the first character I saw who, sexually, looked and acted like I did.

Master Chief doesn’t have any sexual plot lines which was great, the closest he gets to romance is his low key and rather complex relationship with Cortana, which does not fit with any conventional romance narratives (now that I am older and better informed, I tend to describe their relationship as queerplatonic), and best of all, when people talk about sex (usually Marines making off colour jokes), he was as confused as I was.

This is not, to be clear, good representation of asexual people.  It isn’t actually representation at all, but I felt better.  Sure, everyone around me had fallen into a weird sex vortex and the fiction that I was the normal one was slowly slipping away.  But if the biggest badass in the (admittedly fictional) galaxy still couldn’t understand the weird sex jokes, then it was probably okay that I was having trouble with them.  Right?

This is the odd thing about queer representation (and representation in general).  Representation doesn’t have to be representation to work.  I do not believe for one second that the writers at Bungie wrote Master Chief as an asexual character, or considered the interpretation.  Given how little known it is, I would not be surprised if most or all of them were not aware that asexuality was a sexual orientation.  If I am represented by Master Chief, doesn’t he qualify as representation?  Conversely, how can I be represented as an asexual by a character who isn’t technically asexual?

Master Chief finds people making sexual comments bemusing and so do I.  I identify with this experience of (lack of) sexuality.  When I later come to identify as asexual (remember that I wasn’t using the term at the time because I’d never heard it), I retroactively identify Master Chief as an asexual character on the basis of the commonality, although it is far from universal among asexuals.  That is not good logic, but, once again, since identification is primarily based my feelings and experiences, that doesn’t matter, my emotional responses to video game characters do not need to be logical.

Queer (or other minority) representation has two purposes.  The first is for queer people to be able to see people like themselves in the media they consume.  Did I get this from my Halo novels… only sort of.   As much as I valued them at the time, what I really needed was to hear the term Asexual in a positive setting.  If I had had that, I wouldn’t have needed the relatively cold comfort I got from reading Halo novels in the first place.  Instead of spending five years feeling confused and growing increasingly worried that I was defective somehow I would just have found out that I have a relatively rare sexual orientation.  Identifying as asexual presents its own complications, but it is infinitely preferable to not having the words you need to describe yourself.

The second purpose of representation, is to expose other readers to the minority and provide visibility.  To do this, a characters sexual orientation must be explicit.  Characters who are asexual (or gay, or lesbian, or bisexual) only in subtext and implication are comforting to people who identify with them, but invisible to everyone else because they essentially rely on an internal sense of identification, like my realization that ‘hey, Master Chief doesn’t understand those jokes either’.  A sexual person reading the Halo novels is unlikely to even realize that a bemusement at sexual innuendo could be a really significant character trait, let alone make the leap that it might signify an entire sexual orientation.  A character who is openly asexual can communicate that that orientation exists, what it means, and even how it feels.

For asexual people who might be reading, watching or playing, this means a character can go from being a comfort to being helpful.  Once I eventually found the term asexual (still in the context of popular culture) having the word meant I could go and find real world information about asexuality, support, and even other asexuals to talk to.  Reading and playing video-games about an asexual space marine who was actually asexual would have been the perfect way to give me that basis.

This is how fictional superheroes save real people.  We need asexual space marines, gay detectives, pansexual knights in shining armour, genderqueer superheroes and demi-romantic wizards.  We need them to be common, unexceptional, obvious and referred to by name.  Then maybe we can get rid of some of the secrecy and the unpleasant narratives we’ve been stuck with.  Possibly with plasma grenades.

The Privilege of Ambiguity

Bisexual characters in the media are often negatively stereotyped as promiscuous and hypersexual.  The issue of characters with many sexual partners is complicated because even though a person’s degree of sexuality and number of partners should, hypothetically be morally neutral for everyone, the number of partners someone has is interpreted differently based on their identity.  In straight, white men, having many sexual partners is often seen as an accomplishment, or a sign of success or masculinity.  In women, especially queer women, promiscuity is seen as a character defect and is often punished, or associated with villainy.  The character Helena “HG” Wells in Warehouse 13 is a notable exception to this rule.

Helena’s bisexuality and large number of sexual partners is brought up in three scenes in three different episodes.  The first, in the episode “Buried” is also when she is first revealed to be bisexual.  In response to a question about Pete’s romantic problems she states that

HG WELLS: “I know a thing or two about the opposite sex – many of my lovers were men.”(With a reflective sort of smile.) 

(In response Pete stares, Myka smiles suggestively, and Claudia just turns and looks, with no particular expression on her face.)

PETE: “We’re gonna follow up on that at a later date but for now can we bring the focus back round to moi?” 

Helena’s active sex life is discussed further in “3-2-1” during a flashback to a case taking place in Victorian London, in a discussion with her partner at the time, Agent Wolcott.

HG WELLS: Sir James Eddington to be exact.  He and I were engaged in a, project, of sorts.  Brilliant man.  Sadly his wife never appreciated him.

WOLCOTT: Really HG, is there not a man in London whom you haven’t… charmed”.  (He looks embarrassed.)

HG WELLS: Oscar Wilde, and not for lack of trying.  (She makes a suggestive face and Wolcott and smiles.)

The third scene takes place in “Instinct” when Myka and Helena must gain illicit access to security camera footage in a police station where Wells has been working as a forensic scientist.

OFFICER CURTIS: Ladies?  Is she (he points to Myka) supposed to be back here?  This area’s off limits to visitors.

HG WELLS: Officer Curtis… I’m sure over the years you’ve impressed a lady or two by giving her a tour of the station?  (she grins suggestively)

OFFICER CURTIS: Been known to happen.

HG WELLS: Well, um.

(Myka smiles and looks embarrassed.)

OFFICE CURTIS: Oh, right.  Alright, rock on ladies.

These three scenes make up the bulk of the references to Helena’s sexual orientation and habits, and are remarkable for several reasons.  The first is that Helena’s bisexuality is never treated as especially shocking.  The largest reaction comes from Pete, in the first scene, and he views it largely as a distraction from his own personal issues.  Its’ also worth noting that Pete is consistently flippant, so the quip he makes should not necessarily be interpreted as having any real weight.  More remarkably, even though it is established in an earlier scene that Agent Wolcott, a Victorian gentleman, has worked extensively with Helena so, it can be assumed, knows that she also “charms” women, and Officer Curtis, a small town police officer, sees Helena attempting what he assumes to be a romantic tryst with another woman, neither of them mention it, despite the fact that neither are from demographics which are well known for open-mindedness.

The second is that while all three scenes are humorous, Helena is never the target of that humor.  In the first scene, Pete’s reaction is the main source of humour, specifically, his somewhat exaggerated gaping in response to Helena’s coming out is made to look silly when contrasted against Claudia and Myka’s much more measured reactions.  In the second, even though Agent Wolcott is rebuking Helena for her active sex life, the audience is fairly obviously meant to be laughing with Helena, at Wolcott.  Their discussion follows on from an earlier scene where Wolcott struggles to talk to Helena while she changes entirely hidden behind an opaque screen, so his discomfort comes across as old-fashioned prudishness rather than a legitimate complaint.  In the third scene, the humour comes from the fact that Officer Curtis is being deceived, not that Helena appears to be seducing someone in the middle of a busy police station, or that she is with another woman.

In fact, Helena’s sexual accomplishments are treated with a level of respect which is usually reserved only for straight, male characters.  In the first scene, brings up her sexual experience to demonstrate that she would make a good source of romantic advice.  The overall implication of the second scene is that Helena is attractive enough that only a gay man, Oscar Wilde, would be able to resist being seduced by her.  Here, the number of partners she has is treated as an accomplishment, the way it usually would be or a man, rather than a character defect which would be more typical for a portrayal of a bisexual woman.  Officer Curtis continues this trend by supporting her romantic intentions.  During his discussion with Helena and Myka he exchanges a series of suggestive looks with Helena which would be typically of two male friends in a male dominated environment.  Helena is, in this situation treated as a straight man, not a queer woman.  By contrast, Pete, who actually is a straight man is typically made fun of for having casual sex and Myka on various occasions refers to him as a “slut” and a “man-whore” for having sex with people connected to the cases they are investigating.  Although it is worth noting that her tone in both these instances suggests she is teasing him rather than offering serious criticism.

Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, Helena’s sexual orientation and number of partners is treated entirely separately from her behaviour as a character.  Helena is a very morally complicated character who shifts between antagonist and protagonist several times over the course of the series, and often has unclear motives.  While it is reasonably common for male characters to commit morally dubious acts and then redeem themselves, it is rarer for female or minority characters.  During Helena’s various moral switches she is judged entirely by her actions and there is no reference ever to the number or gender of her partners.  When she tries to bring about an ice age at the end of season two she is captured and punished for it, but when, the very next episode, she gives Myka advice, Myka considers it carefully and ultimately takes it.

In fact, even though Helena is, arguably, portrayed as mentally ill that is also not counted against her, but is actually seen as an ameliorating factor.  Pete refers to her rather unpleasantly as a ‘nut-job’, ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ when working against her in the season two finale while she is clearly acting as an antagonist and threatening his girlfriend but ultimately, her rage and depression at losing her daughter and time traveling (via the cryogenic mechanism of bronzing) in the present day from the early nineteen hundreds is seen as understandable.  When she later returns as a protagonist everyone, eventually, accepts her back and she returns to being a valued ally.

Characters who are morally complex or sexually adventurous are common and frequently very popular.  Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Harry Potter’s Severus Snape, Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Supernatural’s Dean Winchester and Sanctuary’s Nikola Tesla are characters who are well-liked within their respective fanbases and who are in some combination, morally complex, periodically or even predominately antagonistic  and sexually adventurous.  All of these characters however are straight[1], white, men.  The number of characters who fulfill the same complicated character archetype but who are not male, not straight, or not white are very limited.  Fictional minority characters are, unfortunately, not typically allowed the same range of behaviour and, more importantly, the same degree of redemption.


[1] Although most of them have relatively popular subtextual queer readings

No One Here Needs to Get Laid

I’ve decided that the phrase ‘you need to get laid’ needs to go die in a fire.  I’ve been very lucky, in that everyone I’ve come out to as asexual has been very supportive and well informed, so no one who knows that I’m ace has ever done it to me.  But I’ve had a few friends, who didn’t know I was ace, but did know I was a virgin, tell me that I needed to get laid.

I hate that statement with a burning passion.  I know that everyone who has aimed it at me has meant well.  They see me missing out on an experience they consider very important, and they want to help me have it.  I know they are my friends, and they love me and they mean well.  And I hate it.  No amount of good intentions makes that phrase anything other than a total invalidation of my feelings, wrapped in peer pressure, slathered in a liberal dose of judgement and condensed into five syllables.

For a long time, I thought that my hatred, searing though it was, was a personal thing, and I kept it to myself.  After all, its innocent enough when it isn’t being used on me, isn’t it?  I mean, aren’t a lot of people much happier when they have sex regularly?  They probably wouldn’t mind?  Right?  No.

If you are someone who for whatever reason does need to get laid, do you really need some nosy person informing of you of that fact?  No.  And its probably pretty embarrassing, and a little offensive, to have people blurt it out at you.

And when it comes down to it, half the time when people say ‘you need to get laid’, they don’t actually even mean that they think you’re sexually frustrated.  What they actually mean is ‘you need to calm down’ or ‘you need to take things less seriously’, or ‘I think you’re being prudish and uptight’, or some other variation on ‘I don’t want to take your feelings seriously, so I’ll make a snide remark instead’.

So seriously, stop saying that.

The Other Problem with Big Bang Theory

I loved this essay, but I want to take a second look at this little segment specifically.

Even Amy Farrah Fowler isn’t the geek girl representative we may have hoped for. She’s portrayed as distinctly asexual and when she mentions sex it’s always played for laughs, because of course intelligent, socially awkward women shouldn’t think about sex at all.

In fact, many viewers, especially asexual ones view Sheldon and Amy specifically as an asexual (and possibly aromantic) couple. This is why they feature here, on the AVEN cake graphic:

AVEN Cake

Asexuals are seriously lacking in representation of any sort, and achieving better representation and visibility are major issues within the asexual community.  Read as an asexual character, Sheldon has always been somewhat shallow and stereotyped.  Since all the characters are, to some extent, representations of specific geek stereotypes I personally wasn’t bothered by this in the earlier seasons.  Given the popularity of the character (see the AVEN cake, above) this opinion is probably not uncommon.  However, one specific stereotype, that asexuals are all neurodivergent or disabled in some way, has always been problematically associated with Sheldon, since he is both vocally uninterested in sex and

He is also read by many as autistic.  So much so that my friend who works at a school for autistic children believed he had Asperger’s Syndrome and once asked me how they got away with ridiculing a character with special needs.  I explained to her that no, Sheldon is not canonically autistic and she was shocked.  She told me that he was a totally accurate portrayal of someone on the autistic spectrum and had many characteristics of someone with Asperger’s – specifically the inability to recognise sarcasm or understand human emotion as well as the obsession with “his spot” and his distress when routine is changed.

It is a common and exceedingly obnoxious stereotype that asexuals are asexual due to some form of disability or mental illness.  There is a reverse and equally obnoxious stereotype that disability renders one asexual as well.  This is of course, entirely wrong in both directions and creates a lot of problems for both communities; asexuals, who must constantly justify their lack of desire as valid and non-pathological and the disabled community must constantly fight to be seen as sexual beings and have their sexual desires seen as valid.

Other than this though, Sheldon’s asexuality largely goes unremarked by the narrative and the rest of the characters and is allowed to stand, until the introduction of Amy Farrah Fowler, whose relationship with Sheldon has brought asexuality and its related awful tropes much further into the show’s line of fire.  Amy bears the brunt of many more of the nastier stereotypes about asexuals; that they are simply frustrated or despairing of ever having sex because they are awkward and unattractive.  As their relationship develops Amy does a rather abrupt turn about on the subject of sexual contact, which can be taken to either confirm these ideas or to be a particularly cruel parody of demisexuality.  Amy’s repeated experimental flirting with Penny and Bernadette is also a nod to yet another stereotype, that asexuality is, in fact, repressed same-sex attraction.  As a biromantic asexual, I found this particularly disheartening.  There is also numerous and repeated attempts by the other characters to either devalue the importance of that relationship or to try and pressure Amy and Sheldon into conforming to a more normative heterosexual relationship trajectory (something which real life asexuals frequently struggle with in a distinctly unfunny way).  Although this was the point when I gave up watching the show in utter despair I have also heard (from various commentary and also Wikipedia) that Sheldon and Amy are now moving towards having a sexual relationship after all, thus completing the bingo card of obnoxious asexual tropes; that asexuals are in fact sexual, just immature/late bloomers/very repressed.  And that is why I don’t watch Big Bang Theory anymore.

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