Saturday, October 22, 2011

Slash Fiction as Feminist Activity

It's no secret that I'm a pretty big fan of slash fanfiction; writer of much, reader of much more. There are many and varied reasons to enjoy slash, from the most basic counterpart to male interest in lesbianism (one man is hot, so two men are hotter) to more nuanced narrative concerns like the interesting conflicts inherent in social taboos and so on. If you ask me why I'm into slash, I'm likely to give you a different answer on any given day of the week; there are just so many angles to the subject. It's something I think about an awful lot, but one possible explanation did not occur to me until just recently, and it seems to explain a lot.

A friend recently said to me that he thought that any gay material at all in a given piece of work was both "necessary and sufficient" to keep me interested. Which isn't true, but it got me thinking about counterexamples. When do I not need gay characters or gay undertones to enjoy something? When do I dislike something if it doesn't have those qualities? For the most part, there's one common thread that binds these distinctions: the presence or lack of interesting female characters.

I've only recently started to notice how very few interesting female characters there are in media, particularly in the games industry. I mean, I've always been aware of the problem, at least peripherally - but somehow recently it has come into much sharper focus for me. It might have something to do with this rather interesting article I read, linked by a friend: To my someday daughter. But everywhere I turn, I feel like I'm seeing new examples of stupid, vapid, shallow presentations of the feminine.

Case in point: my boyfriend and I just bought an indie game called "Dungeon Defender." It's a good game - a hybrid of action RPG and tower defense that is better than any other attempt at the genre mix that I've seen. The narrative isn't anything particularly novel, but it's cute enough to be less tired than it by rights should be. There are four character classes you can play as, all of which have predefined genders. They are: the squire/knight character (male, human), the sorcerer's apprentice (also male... presumably human? Hard to tell under the robe and hat), the monk (male, human), and the huntress (female, elf).

When you are on the character select screen, choosing which hero you would like to customize to play as, each character has a little animation upon selection. For the three male characters, this is basically a battle animation. They hold up their sword or staff, or in the case of the monk, go into a meditation pose. Know what the elf girl does? She turns around and wiggles her butt at you. That's right - she's even wearing a low-slung belt so you can see the small of her back and the very top of her butt when she does it. And this is the indie scene - don't even get me started on the triple-A atrocities.

Little things like this didn't used to bother me, but the older I get, the more they do. Maybe it's just that as I grow up, I expect the people around me and the things I'm consuming to also grow up and be more mature as well, and it seems like they're falling behind. Or, as I'm sadly realizing, they fell behind long ago. Most big game studios aren't even pretending anymore.

So what does all this have to do with slash? Well, consider the average romance featuring one of these women. Who am I supposed to identify with? The shallow save-me damsel that exists solely to be captured and to be the reward for the hero upon completing his quest? The bad-ass leather-boot-clad action dominatrix whose sole qualities are "is hot" and "can blow shit up"? Why would I want to identify with these women? They're not real people. They're cardboard cutouts. Not only do I not feel kinship with them, I feel abhorrence towards them.

So if I'm going to identify with someone, I'm much more likely to pick the character that matches me emotionally - or at least has emotions I can empathize with - than I am to pick the character that has boobs. And because I like men, I want the character I identify with or care about to like men. It seems the natural extension or progression of my empathy. It's not that simple, of course, but it proves to be surprisingly true across a very broad variety of cases. The characters I slash are most often the characters I feel empathy for. I hardly ever feel empathy for female characters in anything these days. Because they're barely characters.

Going through the media that I've been consuming lately, I started asking myself - who do I slash, and why?

Avatar: the Last Airbender
I don't slash anyone. Katara is an awesome, complex female character, as are support character females like Toph and Suki.

I slash Dean and Castiel. There are interesting female characters in the series, but they're only ever bit characters; one-or-two-episode players. Mostly there are just NO female characters on the show.

I'm interested in the canon gay couple, but I don't slash anyone non-canon. I find Rachel and Quinn, while stereotypes, to still be somewhat interesting - at least enough that I care about their emotions and what they're going through. And the shallowness of their characters is balanced out by the fact that the gay couple is actually canon.

Kingdom Hearts
I slash the hell out of this series - Sora and Riku particularly (although one-sided), and Axel and Roxas as a close second. Female characters? Basically one - Kairi (and Namine, who is also Kairi). Know what she does in the game? Mostly get captured. And sometimes wait longingly on an island for her man to return. At least Riku and Axel are somewhat interesting.

No slash pairings, despite the tempting target of Troy and Abed. Annie, Britta, and Shirley are at least as complex as any of the male characters. (They are still fairly simple as characters in these sorts of comedies are, but they can at least be described with actual personality monikers - Naive, Uptight Activist, Religious, etc., rather than as "the girl.")

Sherlock (BBC)/Sherlock Holmes
Very slashy, in both cases. In Sherlock (the slashier of the two, in my opinion), essentially no female characters, barring one bit character who is the female counterpart to an identical male character and a bland love interest non-character who's in about three scenes total. In Sherlock Holmes, two female characters whose personalities are, respectively: "love interest" and "feisty love interest."

I'm not saying this is a hard and fast rule - like, if there is a good female character, I 100% won't slash, and if there isn't I 100% will. I'm just saying, I'm most likely to take an interest in the emotional states and emotional underpinnings of characters that actually have emotions. Most of the time those characters are male. Asking me to care about the doings of a shallow piece of eye-candy is not only ridiculous, it's frankly insulting.

So there you have it - yet another reason to like slash; it's the feminist thing to do.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

GDC 2011: Unexpected Adventures in Classism

PART 1: The City of San Francisco

I am what my boyfriend likes to refer to as a “Country Mouse.” (From the Aesop fable. Look it up.) I’m not comfortable in cities at the best of times; I’m nervous around strangers on the street, particularly if I’m walking by myself, even if it’s in broad daylight. Part of it is because I grew up in rural Middle-of-Nowhere and attended undergraduate school at Slightly-North-of-Nowhere, and part of it is undoubtedly the numerous warnings I received before I came out to LA: don’t walk by yourself at night, make sure you’re always aware of your surroundings, cross the street if you see someone who makes you uncomfortable, etc. It certainly doesn’t help that I’m all of five feet tall and barely over a hundred pounds, not to mention the fact that I’m a young woman.

So when I came to LA for the first time to attend graduate school, I was nervous. My feelings were slightly mollified by the numerous enormous old trees on and around the USC campus – trees never fail to cheer me up and make me feel at ease – and the laid-back air of the city. Gradually I got used to life out here, and though I’m still far more nervous just walking the streets than I want to be, I’ve begun to feel more comfortable here than I ever expected.

This was my first year at GDC, and my first time ever visiting San Francisco. My very first impression of the city was that it felt far more like a city than LA did. It reminded me much more of being in Manhattan – tall buildings, people in a hurry to get somewhere, and a general air of tension and busyness. LA feels like someone took a city and placed it in Southern California, where everything from the city’s geography and the attitudes of the people within it melted in the heat, spreading out and slowing down and dripping across the map. San Francisco feels like a place where hip things are happening, where you have to keep on your toes and stay alert and grab hold of life as it swings and twirls around you. It’s got the beat and rhythm of a city, rather than the strange desert patience of LA. (Which is not to say that nothing happens in LA; very important things happen all the time – they just happen in air-conditioned office rooms. And they usually involve lawyers, which means they take at least three times as long as usual.)

After spending a little more time in San Francisco, my impression extended to include, most notably, the homeless. The homeless in San Francisco are not like the homeless in LA. For one thing, I’ve never seen a homeless person in LA with a sign saying “Need Money to Buy Weed.” The idea of giving someone change for having a sign that’s clever or something you want to read somewhat baffles me, but the signs – and the assumption that they would work – was everywhere we looked. Furthermore, it was the first time I’ve been approached by an obvious pan-handler trying to sell me a story. My own experience involved a woman who claimed to be diabetic, but I have a friend who experienced a full-on con – someone tried to get him to help pay for parking for a car that was about to be impounded with his family inside. Aside from these more notable eccentricities, the homeless were also just more aggressive and far more numerous than I’ve seen in LA. In the ten blocks that my friend and I walked home one evening, we were approached by perhaps five different people asking us for change – and saw several others that were asleep or didn’t come up to us.

I don’t want to preach or turn this into some kind of moralistic diatribe. This is obviously a problem in San Francisco, and the bizarrely entitled attitude that we seemed to get from some of the pan-handlers is probably a part of it. I just know that it brought to the forefront my urban paranoia – only in feeling it fresh again did I realize how much it had faded over my time in LA. This isn’t a reason to not go to San Francisco by any means – but it’s something I was acutely aware of while I was there. I wonder if the residents are aware of how large the problem is, or if they’ve simply become used to it.

PART 2: The Problem of Passes

As most people know, GDC is incredibly expensive. I was able to go only because I received a free Expo Pass as part of a raffle. The value of my pass – even if you pre-ordered it early – was roughly $200. This is basically out of my price range barring exceptional circumstances, and it’s actually the second-cheapest pass at the convention. The cheapest is the student pass for $75, which gives you access to almost nothing, and in order to receive the full, heaping-platter, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink pass, you’d need to pay $1500. The next price bracket above mine – the summits and tutorials pass – was $600, a significant price jump.

The Expo Pass gives you access to the main awards ceremonies and to the show floor. I figured that would be enough – especially since I’d only be there for two and a half days or so – and that the floor would keep me occupied with interesting content. I came to GDC looking forward to learning interesting new things about game design and being inspired to create something new.

The reality I soon discovered was that my pass essentially ranked me as a second-class citizen. I was astounded by how ostracized I felt at the conference. It began on Wednesday morning, when I traveled to the conference at 8 AM in order to accompany my friends (with summit passes) who were planning to attend the Keynote at 9 AM. Now, my pass did not entitle me to attend the Keynote, which I knew, but I figured that I could at least take advantage of having a mere Expo Pass to check out the floor early, when all the higher-level attendees were busy elsewhere.

However, upon reaching the expo hall, I discovered that the doors didn’t open until 10 AM, when the Keynote let out. I was barred from entering, and had to sit twiddling my thumbs in the lobby, waiting for the important people to get out of their meeting so we could start the show. A few other Expo Pass holders waited nearby, while exhibitors hurried into the hall to complete their last-minute preparations.

When I finally did step onto the floor, I was indeed wowed by the display of technology that I saw. Everything new and cutting-edge in the industry was on parade, although with notably fewer flashing lights and booth babes than E3, for which I was thankful. I had a great time just strolling around the floor, checking things out.

The thing is, the GDC floor does not match E3 for size, and touring the floor doesn’t take more than a few hours. Additionally, most of the vendors are (understandably) there for business; if you’re not handing out resumes, attending a pre-scheduled business meeting, or purchasing several dozen Maya licenses for your school, then the vendors are generally polite to you but ultimately disinterested. The only exception was the IGF corner, where all the IGF games were available for demo. This was certainly the highlight of the floor for me, and I spent a great deal of my time there playing the games and at the IGDA booth playing ninja.

When I met my friends at mealtime, I was subjected to the frankly tortuous experience of listening to them talk about how amazing the summits and lectures they’d attended had been. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t resent them for it, and I wanted to hear what I was missing as much as possible. But the knowledge that I had wandered around mostly bored after the third or fourth hour while they’d been hearing from some of the most fascinating people in the industry on topics I really cared about was crushing. I went to GDC as an academic, but I only had access to the sales pitches.

The evening of the first day was the awards ceremony, and finally I felt like part of the community once more – despite the roped-off section of VIP tables in the center of the awards hall with guards at every entrance. But given the caliber of some of the people in that area who were nominated for the awards, that felt almost reasonable. The awards ceremony even made me feel strangely elitist – being familiar with so many of the games nominated for the IGF awards made me feel like someone who’s seen all the short films nominated at the Oscars; it’s not exactly general knowledge for the general public.

The next day I spent almost exclusively at the IGF games booth, having nothing really better to do. I went to one of the IGDA Special Interest Groups, but was unimpressed (although the second such that I went to was a bit better). The games were fun and interesting, and it was great to get a chance to play them. I saw a lot of stuff I doubt I would have seen otherwise. It was a great mini-vacation from my classwork, if nothing else.

On Friday I had brunch with my friends and then headed for home. Overall I have to say that I’m glad I went – I would encourage people to go if they can, and particularly if they want to network or hand around resumes or similar. I did have a free pass, which was excellent, although travel and living expenses were still significant. But if I go next year, it will only be if I can get a higher-level pass – even if it’s free. (And it will probably have to be – if $200 was out of my price range this year, I doubt $600 will be in my budget for next year.) The Expo Pass experience was fine to do once, but if I attend again, I’m going to some of those lectures. I don’t think I could stand going again if I didn’t.