Fractal of Loops

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 woman.  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.

Woman’s Work: Feminist Characters in the The Laundry Files

Note: This essay contains spoilers for the entire Laundry Files series, which you will probably enjoy more if you read it with its plot twists intact.

The Laundry Files is an unlikely candidate for a source of feminist characters.  To date, all four novels, two novellas, and two short stories have been told primarily from the first person perspective of its male hero and most of the stories do not pass the Bechdel Test.  While the women of The Laundry Files rarely talk to each other, each of the female lead characters are strong, active, and well developed.  However, rather than having female characters exert agency and influence on the story by putting them in traditional leading or powerful roles, they occupy the same minor roles which women typically occupy in spy-thrillers or horror stories, (the two genres which The Laundry Files occupies).  But within the stories the characters either subvert or use traditionally non-feminist tropes in surprising and feminist ways.

The Damsel In Distress

In her recent series on tropes in video games, Anita Sarkeesian describes the trope of the Damsel in Distress as “a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character.  Usually providing the core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.”  The Damsel also frequently rewards the hero for rescuing her with her romantic interest and is notable for her passivity and lack of agency.  In many cases, the Damsel could be replaced by a valuable but inanimate possession, with very little alteration to the story.  This describes Mo’s role in The Atrocity Archives to a tee.  Bob, the male protagonist, is initially drawn into the case which makes up the plot of the story when he is sent to meet Mo, and then receives a phone call from her, telling him that she has been kidnapped.  He defies orders to rescue her and Mo is returned to England with him, and forced to join the Laundry before she is kidnapped, and rescued by Bob a second time.  Throughout the novel Mo is stripped of agency and shuttled around by Bob, The Laundry, and terrorist group who keep kidnapping her.  After the second kidnapping, she literally has to be carried out of her kidnappers’ base.

Within the context of The Atrocity Archives Mo’s damseling is somewhat justified in that she is a civilian and so lacks the skills to fight supernatural threats herself, while Bob works for an agency formed specifically to fight supernatural threats.  It is also somewhat redeemed, in that, while Bob and Mo do begin a romantic relationship over the course of the novel, Mo is the one who actively pursues a relationship with Bob based on her own interest in him (who is largely pleasantly shocked by her interest) rather than passively bestowing her romantic interest as a reward for saving her.  The run-up to her asking him out on their first date is a discussion, not about him saving her life, but about computing, in which they share an interest.  Mo, thereby, retains her romantic and personal agency, even when her agency within the story has been removed.

In the rest of the series, Mo turns out to be made of sterner stuff than your average princess and spends the next two novels returning the favor for Bob’s initial rescue.  Bob comments that “I rescued Mo once, years ago; it’s ironic, a real giggle, that she turns out to be stronger and tougher than I am.”  In The Jennifer Morgue it is Mo, not Bob who is deemed tough enough to literally become the quintessentially heroic James Bond, and who ultimately saves the day through an all-out assault on the villains, rather than the subterfuge Bob had been employing.  In doing so, she reveals to both the reader, and to Bob, that, rather than accept her Damsel role, she used it as a catalyst to become a hero.  This is followed up in The Fuller Memorandum when she is both the person who ultimately saves Bob from the Cult of the Black Pharaoh, but also the only person who they never successfully deceive.  Far from being reducing her to a love interest and a plot-driving prop, Mo’s time as a Damsel in Distress, and establishment as Bob’s love interest has turned Mo into one of the series bravest and most active heroes.

The Femme Fatale

The basic trope of the femme fatale is a beautiful and explicitly sexy, but also morally ambiguous or dangerous woman who is usually affiliated in some way with the villain.  She typically uses her sexuality as a tool or a weapon, and this is often contrasted negatively against a more virtuous romantic rival.  Like many femme fatales, Ramona Random is introduced in a strapless silk gown with “jewelry dripping from her in incandescent waves” and not only does she use her sexuality as a weapon, it has actually been weaponized.  As she warns Bob, “every guy I’ve ever slept with died less than twenty-four hours later.”  Bob is made to work with her, since she is a representative of the Black Chamber, another supernatural intelligence agency which is consistently positioned as antagonistic towards Bob’s own organization, The Laundry, and which is notorious for its unethical conduct.  Furthermore, throughout the majority of The Jennifer Morgue Ramona is contrasted, by Bob, against Mo (by then Bob’s long time girl-friend) who is, comparatively wholesome.  She is a model femme fatal, or would be if it wasn’t an enormous lie.

Every element of Ramona’s femme fatale persona has been imposed on her by an external agency.  Her exaggerated looks and sex appeal are the result of a glamour (essentially an illusion), her weaponized sexuality is the result of a succubus, a demon the Black Chamber has forcibly anchored to her to control her, since she isn’t working for them willingly.  Her interest in the case of Jennifer Morgue and Bob specifically is also externally forced on her, first by the Black Chamber, then by the Destiny Entanglement created by the Laundry, and then finally by the James Bond Geas which forces the characters of the Laundry Files to conform to the plot and characterization of a James Bond novel, where femme fatales are common.  Even her supposed romantic rivalry with Mo is subverted.  Ramona and Bob are not romantically interested in each other, and Mo is more concerned about Ramona being a threat to Bob’s life than his romantic attention.  While the two women are presented by the flow of the narrative as competing Bond girls to Bob’s 007, it is revealed that Bob and Ramona are, in fact, the good and bad Bond Girls supporting Mo.  Mo then further subverts the fate of the typical femme fatale, by saving both bond girls (rather than the more typical route of killing the femme fatale or leaving her at the mercy of the villains), specifically by destroying the elements binding her to the artificial femme fatal role thereby freeing her to pursue her own interests.  While she has not recurred within the series, so her current actions are unknown, Ramona is not punished either for her prior alliance with Bob’s enemies, for having her own goals to pursue, or for her use of sex and sexuality to pursue them.

The Mary Sue

The Mary Sue is a trope which originated in fanfiction and refers to an idealized female character who is improbably powerful and skilled and desirable or interesting to the main characters and who either lacks flaws or whose flaws are seen as in some way endearing.  The Mary Sue uses her powers to derail the narrative away from the canonical leads and towards themselves.  This is usually seen as a negative trope, and Mary sue characters are widely regarded as poorly written.  Notably, this refers almost exclusively to female characters. Just as there is no fully developed male equivalent of the Damsel in Distress or the Femme Fatale, male characters are rarely characterized as Mary Sues, even when they meet all the criteria.  Batman is a word perfect Mary Sue, but far from rendering him poorly characterized or unlikeable, his exaggerated traits are what have made him such an iconic and beloved character.  It is only when the idealized character is female that they are accused of being unrealistic, derailing or unlikeable.

Persephone Hazard was orphaned in the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia at eight, made her way to Italy and was adopted by an Italian duke at ten.  She graduated high school at fifteen but when her adoptive parents were murdered she founded and ran the world’s most successful private occult intelligence network instead of attending university.  She is a genius, she looks like a model, she knows multiple martial arts, and is skilled with multiple weapons.  She is a skilled hacker and computational demonologist but she is also psychic and a powerful magician.  This makes her much less ordinary and much more powerful than any other character in the series.  Bob, the protagonist, is assigned to follow her lead so while the story of The Apocalypse Codex is told from Bob’s point of view, it is Persephone’s actions which drive the plot.  These are all features of a classical Mary Sue, especially her dominance in someone else’s story, which is otherwise largely restricted to transformative fiction.

However far from derailing Bob’s story, his apparent retreat to the sidelines to follow Persephone actually drives his character development and reveals an important plot twist.  So, while she appears to be an outsider derailing Bob’s story Persephone is actually an element of the wider Laundry Files universe who Bob is just now encountering as his own character develops.   Persephone Hazard is not a Mary Sue, Persephone Hazard is Batman.

The Laundry Files combines the horror and spy thriller genres, neither of which are traditionally kind to female characters; like the disposable blonde victim of a horror flick or the classic, vapid Bond Girl.  The women of The Laundry Files exist in the roles you would expect for the genre.  They are supporting characters in a story about and told by a male spy, and they are connected to tropes which are highly gendered and usually sexist.  The Damsel in Distress and The Femme Fatale, when played straight, are less fully formed characters, and more problems for men to solve.  The idea of The Mary Sue is specifically a condemnation and a mockery of the idea of female characters whose abilities are unmatched within a narrative.   Mo, Ramona and Persephone are all capable, active characters.  This is not due to the roles they occupy within the narrative, which are typically considered limiting, but to how seriously they are taken within those roles.  The Laundry Files is a man’s story, but its also a spy’s story, so while men are good at sneaking and stealing secrets, to really change the playing field or burst in and save the day, you need a woman.

Everyone Needs a Superhero

Master Chief is my favourite superhero.  Unfortunately, this sentence is more complex than its syntax would suggest.  To explain why Master Chief is my favourite superhero, I must first demonstrate that he is a superhero. The definition of a Superhero is vague and largely based on a set of shared traits, which can be found on Wikipedia.  Primarily, superheroes are heroic protagonists who have superhuman abilities, a definition for which Master Chief definitely qualifies.  However, the secondary defining traits are less clear.  Superheroes typically have a distinctive outfit or supersuit.  Master Chief’s armour is distinctive to players of the Halo games, but within the Halo universe his armour is designed to anonymise him.  By deliberate design only other SPARTANs can tell the armoured SPARTAN-IIs apart.  Superheroes have secret identities with separate, ordinary lives.  Master Chief’s identity is secret, his last name has been erased from all records and most people don’t know his given name or what his face looks like.  However, he lacks is a separate life.  Unlike Iron Man, who can take of his armour and turn back into Tony Stark, when Master Chief removes his armour, he just happens to not be wearing armour.  The third major characteristic of a superhero is that he has a goal or moral code which drives him to be heroic and to fight a specific set of enemies.  Master Chief’s enemies for the majority of the series of games and novels are the Covenant but his goals and heroic actions are almost completely driven by the goals of the larger military organization he is part of, the UNSC.    Master Chief Petty Officer, is, in fact, his military rank.  Over the course of the novelized backstory to the games Master Chief first fights insurrectionists (rebels against the larger united government) and the Covenant.  In both cases he has no personal grudge against these groups whatsoever.  When the insurrectionists and the UNSC put aside their differences to fight the invading Covenant and then when the Covenant fractures and half the Covenant forces join the humans to fight the other half, Master Chief operates comfortably alongside his new allies.  His own major goal, ensuring the safety of his team of SPARTANs and the AI Cortana, is typically subordinated to his orders to the point that only a handful of an original thirty or so SPARTANs survive.

Master Chief certainly has the major qualifications to be a superhero.  He is a person with a secret identity, superhuman abilities and distinctive equipment, which he uses to fight a distinct group of enemies for specific reasons.  However, he does not possess any of them in a typical unalloyed manner.  Most of his superheroic traits have at least some variations from those of more classical superheroes.  While he is a superhero, he is an irregular one.  The quality of the evidence for Master Chief’s classification as a superhero is, in the end, largely irrelevant, because whether he actually is a superhero has no bearing on the fact that he is my favourite superhero.

I am a sheltered, delicate, emotional flower at the best of times, and grade eight was not the best of times.  In the grand scheme of things nothing that happened to me was particularly objectively awful, but it was enough that I spent the vast majority of the year as an over-wrought bowl of miserable emotional Jello.  One particularly relevant ordeal was that, for the first time in my educational career, I encountered a truly bad teacher.  My grade eight humanities teacher was a mediocre educator, who was unpleasant to interact with, and who abused her position of power.  I had already come to terms with the idea that sometimes teachers are just not very good at their jobs, but faced with a teacher who bullied my friends and shouted privileged information about me to the crowded school library I could not cope.  I was young, and sheltered, and meek, and the mere idea of standing up to authority figures terrified me.  To my emotionally overwrought thirteen and fourteen year old self, she might as well have been a supervillain bent on world domination.

I was a young teenager, I was an utter and unashamed nerd and I read constantly, so I was perfectly positioned to become very interested in comics, which are the primary home of most classical superheroes.  But no one I interacted with regularly was a comics fan, and so I was never really introduced to them.  Instead, a friend of the family introduced my family to Halo (this was some time before the release of Halo 2).  I loved Halo.  I loved it to bits.  So did the rest of my family, and in short order and X-Box and a copy of the game were procured.

This turned out to be a real life-saver for me.  Halo got me through grade eight.  It rapidly became a routine that when I stomped through the door squawking that one of my friends had spent the entirety of gym class calling my other friends names, and I didn’t know why, or my humanities teacher had responded to one of my friends leaving class early to deal with some family problems by taken me aside to tell me not to let her be a bad influence on me, as though family problems could be somehow contagious (this actually happened), my mother would respond with a calm “go and shoot some aliens” and, after half an hour or so of vicarious violence in which I took my frustrations about incompetent, unethical teachers on Covenant invaders I would be rendered calm enough to talk about my problems like a human being.

I will clarify that I did not ever want to actually commit acts of violence against my teacher and given the opportunity, I would never have taken it, but I really felt, at the time, that she, like an army of technologically superior alien invaders, was the sort of reason why one might need a team of highly trained, armoured super-soldiers.

One of the interesting facts about Halo, is that there are two ways to interact with it as a player.  You can play the Master Chief as an escapist character, pretending that you are him, or you can play the Halo game as an interactive movie.  To assist in maintaining both of these modes of play, Bungie helpfully provided a set of novels (Halo: Fall of Reach, Halo: The Flood, Halo: First Strike), which is where the backstory and characterization for the Master Chief, Cortana and the rest of the cast can be found.  This way, players wishing to be the Master Chief can avoid learning anything about him, so as to better project themselves into the game, and those wishing to play the game like a movie can go and learn all they want.  I devoured the books.  I am a character oriented reader (and watcher and player) and I am, and was very good at becoming very emotionally involved with fictional people, so I rapidly became quite attached to Master Chief, who is a very complex character for someone who, in his primary medium, hardly speaks.

One of Master Chief’s more well-known in-game characteristics is that when he does talk, he does so in a distinctively calm, even tone of voice.  What is made clear in the books is that Master Chief does not sound calm because he is a robot, or unemotional, or because he is very good at coping with trauma and crises, which would be more typical of an action hero, but because he genuinely is calm.  To my emotionally overwrought self, the ability to be calm and unruffled in the face of a crash landing on an alien artifact surrounded by hostile forces following the probable death of all your friends (which are the novelized events immediately preceding the first Halo game), seemed like a much more impressive superpower than superstrength, or speed, or even luck, the trait that distinguishes Master Chief from his SPARTAN siblings within the Halo universe.

I could never have identified directly with Master Chief.  Even while playing the game without the backstory, the idea of me being a terrifying armoured super soldier was (and still is) too ridiculous.  I am a smallish, wimpy girl, who hates loud noises who when faced with an out of control teacher insulting her and her friends, ran away and played Halo.  There was nothing to be learned from Master Chief, his near supernatural level of calm is a personality trait, not something that can be imitated, and he’s far too poorly socialized to make a good role model.  Instead, he provided the same support as a more typical comic book superhero, that of a comforting myth.  It was the idea of a looming figure who could be sent to relegate humanity’s most terrifying enemies to bloody oblivion and who was indestructible apparently by sheer force of will that I needed.  If I could pretend that my petty autocrat of a teacher was in fact, an Elite and that shortly after I ran away Master Chief would come and deal with this latest Covenant incursion on human territory with his usual combination of daring, recklessness and assault rifles the reality of me fleeing from a pettily vindictive junior high school teacher with nary an alien in sight, was easier take.

Superheroes are heroic because of the people they save in their own, fictional universes, but their heroism carries over into the real world in the form of the people their stories save, comfort and inspire.  Now, as a young adult, living on my own, I have a large Halo 2 poster of Master Chief.  Initially I was reluctant to put it up.  Living in a studio apartment means that if you want something to be private it has to go in a drawer or a cupboard and I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk having to explain my love of Halo to everyone who came into my apartment.  I put it up.  I have come to appreciate having my very favourite superhero keeping an eye on me.  So far, my apartment has remained free of Covenant invaders.

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