Subtext and Subversion: Update

The Vikings season finale just aired this week, so I figured it’s time for an update on the show’s amazing, and in my opinion groundbreaking, central male/male relationship, which I commented on last summer. Our pair, Viking king Ragnar and his constant companion Athelstan, a former Christian monk captured in a raid in season one, have been through a great deal over the course of the show so far, and this season only upped the stakes–to a significant degree.

Will get into the spoilery details below, but the short version: The narrative of this relationship continued doing what it did all through the previous seasons: hitting trope after trope of a kind almost always found solely in stories of romantic love. While still maintaining a tiny shred of plausible deniability for those drowning in heteronormativity, it even crossed lines I never expected a show like this would cross. I have to give showrunner and sole writer Michael Hirst a lot of credit. There are things about this season that I really, really hated, but he did actually Go There in a lot of ways that we simply never see for shows in this genre. For that, he deserves a lot of respect. More on this–and a detailed analysis–to come. For now, allow me to illustrate the greatness.

With the same episode-highlights format I used before, here’s a rundown of what happened for Ragnar and Athelstan in season three:

Continue reading

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Woman’s world

This piece on about writing female characters is terrific stuff. Go read it.

It also, however, makes a good jumping-off point for something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while: How the boring reality of everyday life is often at odds with progressive goals for creative works.

In my many years of discussions about feminism in creative works, it’s been more or less accepted wisdom that women should be allowed to be heroes, warriors, politicians, business leaders, etc. Women should, in other words, be allowed to have power in the culture/era in which they reside, whatever currency that power comes in. In a society that is ruled by violence, women must be allowed to engage in combat. In a society ruled by money, women must be allowed economic autonomy.

In recent years, however, that’s been countered by a quasi-essentialist perspective insisting that we’ve marginalized or denigrated the importance of more-traditional women’s roles, particularly in the domestic sphere and in conventional performance of gender presentation (adornment, etc.) In giving our most-prominent women characters the power currency of their culture, they argue, we are overvaluing things that are supposedly inherently masculine, and therefore making them become men.

I could write an entire post on why essentialism in itself is sexist hogwash (power does not belong to men and is therefore not inherently masculine, folks!) but instead, I’d rather focus on the less-contentious aspect of this argument: The uncomfortable fact that domestic life is inherently boring unless acted upon by a dramatic outside force, and therefore poor ground in which to sow a story. Continue reading

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Shipping and homophobia

“Shipping” — fans cheering on a relationship between characters in a story — is nothing new. The concept drives most love stories, after all: the writer wants the audience to pull for a given potential pair and then either pays that off or smashes it, depending on what effect they’re going for. Usually shipping happens with pairs that are deliberately telegraphed by a writer, but sometimes unintentional ships develop. This is especially true of same-gender, or “slash” ships, and other relationships that are underrepresented in popular media: interracial or multi-partner ones, for instance.

Historically, much of this shipping, whether of a canon-obvious pair or something less visible, has been done among fans, with little to no contact with the people making the story. The rise of social media, however, has changed that. Fans are now very vocal about their ships, and communicate directly with writers, actors, etc. who are involved with the characters they’re backing. While before, very few fans would expect their clamor about a ship to have any effect on what ends up on the page or screen, now creators are starting to listen. In the past few years, many ships that weren’t obviously going to be paid off in canon–including some that canon is actually incompatible with–have started getting attention, and some are even getting paid off.

Unfortunately, most of these payoffs are happening only with conventional male/female ships. Even when a given slash ship is the biggest one in a fandom, the most fans of it can hope for is a bit of wink-and-nod innuendo, designed to keep slash fans watching while not alienating homophobic ones. Fans of het ships are seeing their wishes come true more and more, but slash fans are still shamed for even shipping in the first place. We’re definitely not allowed to hope, much less expect, for payoff.

This isn’t about overall representation of LGBT characters in popular media. That’s happening more often now, and it’s great, in most cases. We still need more, and it’d be great if they didn’t default to minor character, curiosity, tragedy, or comedy, as happens so often, but progress is at least being made. Slash shipping is a different beast, though, because it almost always involves at least one character that hasn’t been established in canon as anything other than straight. There are enough out characters now that, in combination with bisexual erasure, audiences assume that unless a character is already out in canon, they’re not queer, and could never genuinely have interest in a same-gender partner, no matter how close and bonded the characters are. Never mind that the reality of human sexual and romantic feelings is far more complex than that, and also never mind that even people who are 100% gay often go years trying to be straight before they figure it out. One m/f kiss is all it takes for people to presume complete heterosexuality. This, plus heterosexuality still being a statistical majority, means a slash ship, no matter how obvious in canon, is seen as inherently implausible, and therefore paying it off wouldn’t be as easy or as fluid as it can be for other-gender ships, even if they’re downright preposterous in some other way.

Beyond that, however, it’s really just a matter of homophobia, period. There’s still enough anti-gay sentiment in much of Western culture that even including LGBT characters at all is seen as risky by the people paying the production bills. Challenging the fallacy of binary orientation is even scarier. If [popular, assumed-straight character] can turn out to be queer, the theory goes, then anyone could be queer. Quelle horreur! And next we’ll be hearing about a plague of locusts or something. Such a frenzy of negative reaction has already happened in two recent cases: The Legend of Korra and Black Sails. I’ll get into that more below, but first I want to illustrate how easy it’s been lately for fans of other-gender ships to get canon payoff. (Note that the below includes many spoilers for recent popular SFF media! Venture in at your own risk!) Continue reading

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Diversity and the perception of “normal”

Diversity in YA creator Malinda Lo is currently doing a great blog series on how reviewers often betray underlying biases when reviewing books about characters from marginalized groups. Highly recommended read.

The topic is also a big jumping-off point for me re: some of the issues I’ve faced with my own writing. Part two of Lo’s series covers reviewers having a problem with intersectionality, and that’s definitely a big one I worried about with both Thunderstone and Harper. Thunderstone is primarily rooted in feminist issues, but also has a minor side plot involving a gay couple shunned by their community. Harper’s protagonist is both bisexual and biracial, though the former is a slightly bigger deal for him, and both identities are secondary to the rest of the plot.  I worried that readers from non-marginalized groups, or who experience only one axis of marginalization, would find the stories “too focused” on issues they don’t personally experience, and therefore dislike them. So far, most of the feedback I’ve gotten has been positive, but I also suspect I’d have a hard time trying to publish either of them via traditional channels simply because of that.

Back to part one, however, which is that reviewers sometimes consider diverse casts “implausible.” That one’s biting me at the moment, as I’m finishing the stage-two revision for my next novel, a light-SF romance set in a theoretically realistic near-future Seattle. Of the six main characters–the ones who get the most page time–not a single one is a straight, white male. There are two SWM secondary characters: one is a family member, the other a villain. There are also several named but not developed incidental characters (co-workers, bartenders, etc.) who could be straight or white but it’s not clear one way or the other.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband finished his alpha read of this story. He’s a voracious SFF reader, so I trust his opinions on my storytelling. He’s also queer, feminist, etc. and therefore likely to appreciate that my stories include unconventional women and queer folks. But one of the first criticisms he gave me of this one was that it seemed unrealistic in the first several chapters, because virtually everyone with more than a few lines was queer or a person of color, and several checked multiple boxes. The word he used–unconsciously, I’m sure–was “normal.” Yikes.

Frankly, I was unpleasantly shocked by this, as it really didn’t seem like something he’d think. We’ve been together 20 years, and though he grew up in a conservative family, he’s very progressive-minded–and, well, he lives with me–so I didn’t understand how he could hold the same kind of opinion that more-clueless people do. It took an awful lot of intense conversation to dig down to the underlying reasons why he felt this way, and I discovered some interesting things. Continue reading

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So, Gamergate . . .

I’ve been blathering about this on Twitter, but there’s only so much ranting one can do in 140-character posts without it turning into spam. Since this whole mess is really kind of up my alley, being a nerd, gamer (to a degree), and a journalist who loves meta analysis of the industry, I suppose I do I have to comment.

By now, most folks who hang in geek or feminist circles know about this, but here’s the tl;dr version:

The geek world’s anti-feminist crusade of the past few years came to a head recently over a female game developer who–quelle horreur–once slept with a game critic. Not a critic who reviewed her game, mind; just someone in that profession. Said female developer was already on the shitlist of a lot of brogamers for, well, being female in an industry they like to think is their turf, and this gave them a quasi-respectable wagon upon which to hitch their misogyny. OMG JOURNALISTIC ETHICS! They cried, and then proceeded to spend maybe 10% of their time actually talking about journalism, as opposed to trying to convince people that journalism, not women in nerdland, is what they’re really concerned about. Hardcore anti-feminists/MRAs, neo-Nazis, Adam Baldwin, and assorted other miscreants, seeing a high-visibility platform upon which to spew their grossness, hopped on for the ride, and the already icky snowball became an avalanche of nasty, all the way up to terrorism threats. And so it goes . . .

I don’t doubt that there are a few earnest-but-clueless sorts who really do think there’s some genuinely unethical behavior going on between devs and gaming journalism. And, well, they’re kind of right, in an “in the same time zone” sense. What’s annoying is that the ethical issues in question–symbiotic, often personal relationships between people who create entertainment and those who cover it as “news”–have been a problem for generations. Same applies to sports coverage. Worse, it also applies to straight news. That brogamers are only now getting up in arms about this–now that it affects something they care about, unlike, oh, elections and public policy–is what grinds my gears. It’s kind of hard to take their ethics concerns seriously when they’ve been utterly silent during the decades in which Rupert Murdoch and others like him have been killing real journalism. Complaining about one developer sleeping with a game critic when outlets like Fox are actually, shamelessly, lying on-air is like complaining about someone going 5 mph over the speed limit–as virtually everyone does, and thus accounts for while driving–while someone in the other lane is committing intentional vehicular homicide. Worse, it’s patently obvious that the disparity is because the complainers already dislike the driver going over the speed limit, and consider the homicide driver a buddy. I, for one, have been talking about the relationship between entertainment producers and media for at least 15 years. Feeling icky about lax ethics in the industry is why I quit to write books instead. Seeing gamers suddenly concerned about it now certainly doesn’t impress me.

What makes me even angrier is how shamelessly they’re using this as a smokescreen. Ethics in journalism absolutely needs more, and serious, attention, but these guys are just paying lip service to the issue so they can further the anti-diversity rageflail crusade they’ve been on for years. In the process, they’re trivializing the entire issue, which is infuriating.

There’s a lot more I could say on this–digging in to why these guys feel the way they do in the first place–but I’ll keep this short for now. Bottom line: This ain’t about journalism. Not at all.

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Subtext and subversion: Part Two

Carrying on from the previous post, below is a detailed, episode-by-episode rundown (with pictures!) of Ragnar and Athelstan’s relationship.

I present this not as a “This is why my slash ship is canon” manifesto, but instead as an illustration of the relationship itself, so folks can understand why I’m so giddy about it. Regardless of whether one sees or even imagines a sexual aspect to the relationship, it is still one of the greatest m/m love stories in current popular media, on the same level as some of the all-time great homoromantic (if not homoerotic) relationships such as LOTR’s Frodo and Sam. And it does all this without ever once apologizing, downplaying, laughing it off, or trying to macho things up to avoid anyone getting uncomfortable with it. This is not a “bromance,” with muscle-bound Ken dolls giving each other fist bumps and Man Smacks and then going home to their hot, completely underwritten female love interests. It’s just plain love, plainly portrayed as if it’s the most normal, natural thing, smack in the middle of a traditional blood-and-glory testosterone fest. That some people (including me) also see a sexual element to the relationship is actually irrelevant; The love is the same either way.

Of course, other shows in this genre have had canon m/m romantic and sexual relationships (Game of Thrones, Spartacus, Da Vinci’s Demons), and I’m thrilled to see that kind of representation. Yet such portrayals don’t really have the sheer subversive power that this one does: The macho male lead is utterly besotted with a decidedly not-macho young man, and their relationship forms one of the biggest plot arcs in the series. Renly and Loras, however nice it was to see them on screen, couldn’t do what this is doing to help change paradigms of how men are supposed to feel about each other. Straight guys can wave them off; they don’t look up to them as role models. Ragnar, though? He’s a hero. He’s an audience avatar. And he openly adores another man. That? Is subversive. Yay!

If you’d like to see some of this subversion in detail, read on! (Please be aware that there will be spoilers below for both already-aired seasons, and some spoiler-heavy speculation about season three. Click the cut at your own risk!) Continue reading

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Subtext and subversion: Vikings edition

Long time, no post! Life’s been chaotic in recent months (no need to bore you with details), and to keep from melting down, I’ve spent a fair amount of my (limited) free time escaping into my usual happy places of pop culture and fandom.

In particular, my ventures of late have focused on the TV series Vikings, thanks in large part to a great Tumblr community for it. As with many of the things I enjoy, it’s definitely an Id tickler, but it also has a lot of elements that tickle my higher brain, too. It’s not without its fails, but for a show supposedly just about a bunch of beardy white dudes hacking at each other with axes, it’s surprisingly progressive. Its female characters are all rich and unique, especially the warrior woman Lagertha, who is far, far more than an attractive lady with a weapon. Its male lead spends equal time agonizing about his family as he does doing the manly battle and politicking thing. It also has some very nuanced examinations of religious and cultural differences. I actually think it’s one of the best large-scale political and relationship dramas since Battlestar Galactica (to which it bears a great resemblance, if you get past the spaceships-vs.-longships thing.)

By far, however, I feel the most interesting aspect of the show, from a progressive, pop-culture-analysis perspective, is its primary male/male friendship, between Ragnar, the Viking lead, and Athelstan, a Christian monk he captures in a raid and takes for a slave. Friendships between men are of course core parts of almost any mainstream story, but there’s something very different about this one that’s made me sit up and take notice: It plays like a traditional love story, right down to a ton of classic subtext and several common romance tropes. That this is happening in a supposedly macho show like this is astonishing, and also incredibly subversive and thus, I think, worthy of a closer look, which is what I’m hoping to do here.

The short version, for those not wanting to read the dissertation-length stuff in the next post:

Between them, creator/writer Michael Hirst, his directors, and the two actors, Travis Fimmel (Ragnar) and George Blagden (Athelstan), have created a male/male relationship that is considerably more physically and emotionally tender, intimate, committed, and demonstrative than virtually anything else in modern, mainstream media that doesn’t involve canon gay or bi characters. It’s also getting considerably more screen time, plot importance, and serious treatment than the vast majority of canon m/m romantic relationships, which are almost universally only side plots, at best. Only actual family relationships (brothers, father/son, etc.) usually get the level of attention and emotional intensity this friendship has, and those rarely have some of the other elements, such as co-parenting, shared destinies, and in-canon sexual tension. Best of all, the relationship isn’t at all being treated as a joke or otherwise downplayed, as is common for hundreds of other “bromances” in popular media.

Unsurprisingly, this relationship has been run with by slash fans (including yours truly.) We slashers do have a tendency to take our ships a bit too seriously, but even keeping that in mind, it’s unusual. This is not the garden-variety slash pairing one finds in almost all popular media these days, with fans gleefully squishing together a pair of attractive buddies upon only the slightest of lingering glances. Instead, a great deal of it is actually right there on the screen, leaving fans only a few gaps to fill with our fertile imaginations. Much of what’s there is in the text itself, but what isn’t directly spoken in so many words is on par with canon-deliberate storytelling subtext such as that found in Hannibal.

Unlike many popular slash ships, this relationship is not being textually no-homoed (see: Sherlock), beyond both characters having sexual involvement with women. Nor is it being deliberately slashbaited as an in-joke (see: Supernatural, Teen Wolf, Hawaii 5-0, and a host of other wink-and-nod, fandom-conscious shows.) It’s also not yet being sabotaged by turning it into a tragedy (see: the MCU’s Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes.) These men actually love each other, actually express it, and actually don’t apologize or try to make up for it in any way. They get some blowback for it in canon from people who dislike the cross-cultural nature of their relationship, but between themselves, their love for each other is unfettered by reticence or shame. In fact, were it not for heteronormative and monogamy-normative bias, and bi erasure, most people would probably read their relationship as romantic without even a second thought. Those of us who are personally familiar with what m/m romance looks like can see it without ever needing slash-colored glasses.

Of course, we don’t know for certain whether all of the subtext and romantic themes of this relationship are consciously intended by Hirst. There are indications, though, that at least some of it is, or if not intentional, a happy accident of actor chemistry and director choices that he’s fine having show up on screen. And hallelujah for that. As someone who believes we’d all be better off if men were more comfortable being loving toward each other, regardless of whether sexual attraction is involved, I find the whole thing not just fascinating, but a beacon of hope in a pop-culture landscape that celebrates men killing each other, but shies away from them saying “I love you.” To get a more-detailed, episode-by-episode (and illustrated!) explanation of what I’m talking about with this relationship, see the next post!

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