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.