Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Girliest Show on Earth

(Note: cross-posted to my friend Debbi's excellent blog, Kiss My Wonder Woman)

Allow me to begin with a grand, sweeping declaration: 'Supernatural' is the most feminine show on television right now.* Yes, the gory supernatural horror show starring two male characters and an almost entirely male supporting cast, that Supernatural. This may seem to you like a non-obvious statement, given the nature of the show, but allow me to explain. It's all in the definition of feminine.

Let's take a moment to look at two media landscapes side by side: the pop-culture mainstream media (fictional media only, for the purposes of this discussion), primarily produced by and for males, and the fan-media landscape of fanfiction, fanvids, etc., produced primarily by and for females.** 

Shows in the standard pop-mediascape tend to center around things happening. They can be dramatic things or wacky things depending on the type of show, but we are nevertheless expected to understand the characters based on the things they do - the actions they take in specific circumstances and in response to events in their lives. Characters tend to be defined by what they do. 

Take, for instance, the show 'Community.' We know Jeff is narcissistic and arrogant, but ultimately tends to come through for his friends. We know this because he can and does make grand speeches at the drop of a hat, because he used to be a lawyer and often still acts like one, because despite what he says and however reluctantly he does them, his actions are usually those of a reliable friend, at least by the end of the episode.

Take Britta - we know her as a somewhat hypocritical feminist who latches onto any nearby cause that seems even vaguely political, and has a tendency to be unaware of her own flaws. We know this because we see her fickle attraction to men who don't treat her well, we see her jumping onto convenient bandwagons, and we see her constantly screw up things around her, often from lack of self-awareness. Her actions speak for her. If you were to give a breakdown of the sequence of actions of an episode of one of these shows, it would tell you most, if not all that you need to know about the nature of the characters involved.

Here, by way of a for instance, is a detailed summary of the actions in one episode of Community: The biology professor assigns everyone in class random lab partners. The members of the study group request that they be allowed to pair with each other instead. This is allowed, but the group has an odd number of people so they pick up a random person from the class, Todd. After attempting to work together in the first set of pairs, most of the group members discover that they are incompatible with each other one-on-one; Troy and Abed because of over-exposure to each other, Britta because she doesn't want to hear Shirley talk about her baby, and Annie because Jeff doesn't want to do the work. They return to the study room and demand a partner change, relying on Abed's impartiality to create an algorithm to choose partners. When Abed's algorithm is revealed to be based on popularity, the group devolves into more bickering about their relative popularity. The rift is finally healed by the group coming together to gang up on Todd, who was sick of the in-fighting and just wanted to do the assignment.

This summary gives us a pretty good indication of the insular but tension-frought nature of the study group, and how the characters love and hate each other at the same time. But we get it entirely through the actions of the characters, the plot of the episode. The episode isn't really about the nature of the study group so much as the nature of the study group is something that can be inferred from a set of wacky circumstances.

Compare this to the fan-mediascape. Fan-media tends to center around characters feeling things, and we are asked to understand the characters based on those feelings and on the inter-character relationships. There are plenty of fanfics and even more fanvids in which nothing or almost nothing actually happens, but our understand of the characters is significantly deepened or changed based on their introspection or their emotional reactions to events. When things do happen in fanfics, these events are almost always catalysts for the author and reader to explore how the character feels about them and what the character's emotional reaction is. 

Even the character's actions in response to this catalyst are shown as an organic growth from the character's emotions, or are shown specifically to indicate to the reader the nature of the character's emotional response. Obviously this can be and is presented with varying degrees of class and subtlety - a poor writer will just outright tell us what the character is feeling, while more experienced writers can more subtly examine the tension and emotionality through things like tone, inner dialogue, and strategic emotionally-motivated actions.

Take, for instance, this fic: Play It All Night Long ( This is a Supernatural AU where Dean is a radio DJ and Cas is one of his listeners who calls in. If you were to describe the central action in this fic, it would go like this: Dean hosts a radio show, and Cas calls in repeatedly. Then, when Cas gets kicked out of his apartment, Dean offers to help him out by taking him in, since he himself experienced similar issues in the past. Dean's brother and Cas's brother show up, and everyone meets each other. Dean and Cas hook up. The end. But of course that doesn't come even close to describing what is interesting or memorable about this fic.

The fic is about the way Dean feels about his past and his present, the way Cas feels about the same. It's about the connection that their similar emotional landscapes allow them to make with each other. It's about the way they both feel about their respective families, and the way that who they are as characters makes them interact with those close to them. It's about navigating the treacherous waters of loneliness, guilt, expectations, and companionship. It's about the emotionality of the characters, and how they interact with each other.

Now, I'm not saying that no mainstream media contains any feelings, just like I'm not saying that fanfiction never has a plot. I'm talking about what drives the two mediascapes, the underlying causes behind why these media are made the way they are, and the elements that determine who most enjoys consuming them. These things don't make up the entirety of either mediascape, but I believe that this is at their respective cores; you couldn't easily get away with having a TV episode where nothing happens other than people talking about their feelings, but you see this in fanfiction all the time. 

I also believe that this trend towards emotionality in fan-media is at least in part a female-driven response to a lack of strong emotionality in the mainstream pop-media. I think the contrast between the two is very telling, and in fact that the general lack of emotionality in the mainstream pop-mediascape is actually a symptom of the relatively small proportion of women involved in its creation. 

But what does all this have to do with Supernatural? Well, let's take a look.

What, at it's core, is Supernatural about? It's about the relationship between two brothers who hunt monsters. It's about the way that Sam fights against the darker aspects of himself, and his ability to cope with the shit that life throws at him. It's about Dean's low self-esteem and his self-hatred, his broken soul and his complete inability to cope with the shit that life throws at him. It's about Dean wanting to reach out and make connections with people and being afraid to do so. It's about Sam wanting to reach out and make connections with people but getting slapped in the face every time he tries. Oh, and also monsters and blood and gore and stuff happen.

More and more (as the writers catch on to the nature of their fanbase and how best to cater to them, one assumes), Supernatural has become a show in which the actions are little more than an excuse to show us something about the emotionality of the characters, or the relationships between the characters. Heck, one of the major storylines in the end of the last season was Dean coming to grips with Cas's betrayal and coming to forgive him for it. Again, it was about Dean reaching out to try and make a connection with someone.

Yes, things happen in Supernatural, I'm not saying they don't. But more and more it's becoming apparent what the fans really crave: it's the conversations the characters are having. It's the way Dean's been carrying around Cas's coat the whole season, presumably in the hope that Cas might yet come back to them, despite the complicated state of their relationship. It's about why we care about these characters, and who they are. We long ago established what it is that they actually do, and that hasn't really changed in ages; who they are is given to us in how they behave with those they care about, and how the things they do affect them emotionally. That's the core of emotionality, and the core of female-centric media.

So when I say that Supernatural is the most feminine show on television, what I mean is that more than any other show I've see, it's the most correctly-targeted towards a female viewing audience, and the most ripe to appeal to female viewers (the hot male leads certainly don't hurt). Unlike most shows that the media says are targeted towards women ('New Girl' and similar sitcoms, etc.), Supernatural - dark and bloody though it is - is the one that actually shows women what they want to see, to the point where the emotional exploitation of the male characters might almost begin to be on par with some of the less egregious physical exploitation of female characters in main-stream male-targeted media.

And I, for one, say: bring on more shows just like it.

* Or one of the most feminine, at least. I don't watch nearly as much television as Debbi does, so there might be other shows that also fit my particular definition of feminine on the air right now that even do so to the same or greater degree that Supernatural does. But if so, I've never seen them. I leave it to others therefore, after reading this, to argue whether certain other shows fit this definition better or worse than Supernatural does.

** There is a corresponding male fan-media landscape as well, but it's somewhat different in nature and not what I'm discussing here. If you want some good breakdowns of the differences between these fan-media landscapes, go look up some essays and/or books on fan culture by Henry Jenkins. Seriously though, that guy is awesome.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Uke As Guilt-Free Anti-Feminist Female

When I was just starting the fifth grade, I had a friend. We'll call her Mary. Mary was four years older than I was, and when I first met her we bonded over our mutual love of anime - specifically Sailor Moon. She was the one who leant me her untranslated volumes of the manga Kusatta Kyouhei no Houteishiki - describing the story to me as she had half learned from assiduous internet research and half deduced from following the illustrations - and, in doing so, gave me my first introduction to shounen ai.

Shounen ai, literally "boy love" in Japanese, is a genre of Japanese manga and anime (comics and cartoons if we want to be boorish and ignore the subtle cultural differences) that focuses specifically on gay romance between men or boys. This genre is much more popular in Japan than any similar equivalent in the states, and is targeted not at a gay male audience but primarily at straight females. In fact shounen ai is generally written and illustrated by women as well, occasionally to the point of radical inaccuracies about male physiology.

A typical shounen ai story focuses around two characters - the "seme" and the "uke" (pronounced "sehmeh" and "ookeh"). In a literal sense, the seme is the top and the uke is the bottom in the gay relationship. But much more than in any Western story, the characters in shounen ai manga are defined by these labels. The seme is generally gruff, stoic, and often pushy often to the point of being almost rapey. When he is not tough and stoic he is cheerful and puppy-like, overbearing in his eagerness, and still the more aggressive of the two. The uke, by contrast, is usually smaller, more feminine, easily confused, easily brought to tears, overthinks things, is highly emotional, and in most cases, is either reluctant to accept the seme's advances or secretly pines for him without realizing that his feelings are reciprocated. There are a number of stories that can be told with these two archetypes, and for the most part these same stories are told over and over and over again with different set dressing across various manga.

It may sound like these stereotypes lack nuance, but that's a problem endemic to manga and anime as a whole and not unique to shounen ai. Most anime characters fall into broad archetypes - the "tough guy," the "shy girl," the "nerdy character," etc. Much more so than Western media, Japanese media is oriented around comfortable stereotypes that the audience recognizes. I won't spend a lot of time belaboring this point, but if you're interested in the idea, there's a very good book called "Otaku: Japan's Database Animals," by Hiroki Azuma that explains this trend in great and fascinating depth.

When I was in middle school and receiving my first shounen ai education from Mary, these stories were fascinating to me. I was too young to read critically and pick out the fact that all the stories were basically the same - all I knew was that they appealed to a very visceral and newly-formed notion of the romantic (a childish one, yes, but I was a child). To this day I still find myself enjoying some shounen ai here and there, provided it doesn't adhere too faithfully to the basic stereotypes and devices of the genre. There was and still is something appealing about the sheer, unapologetic emotionality of them - the longing, the heartbreak, the misunderstandings, and so forth - that is enjoyable in a very onanistic sort of way.

I had given up more traditional shounen ai for several years when I recently stumbled upon an anime that encompasses all the worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) of shounen ai cliches. (The series, pictured right, is called "World's Greatest First Love" and is available on, for anyone who is interested.) Looking over it again with a much older and more critical eye, I tried to pinpoint what about it was so pleasing to me back when I first discovered it, why it sparked an interest in me that I have to this day not really lost.
I started to think about the uke character - I have long believed that the uke is basically a wish-fulfillment stand-in for the author/reader, but in male form. At any rate, the character is almost always written in an unbelievably feminine way, either intentionally or from lack of writing skill. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the uke embodies a very specific subset of characteristics.

The uke is everything that we as young women growing up are taught is supposed to be romantic, but which we are simultaneously taught is a sign of weakness in women (or, less charitably, the weakness OF women). Confusion, being too quick to mope and overindulge in negative emotion, sighing crushes from afar that the character is too shy to act upon - all of these are characteristics that are rather Victorian in their notions of how women should behave in a romantic situations, and all of these are traits which modern feminist women abhor in female characters.

If you don't believe me, take Bella Swan. Bella is the main character in the Twilight Series (for the two people who aren't already familiar). She is universally defined by her love for her man, she accepts his stalker-like behavior as a sign of the trueness of his love, and when he breaks up with her she literally spends four months locked in her room staring at the wall and moping. She's that kind of protagonist. Bella Swan is a non-character created to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy for author Stephanie Meyers and her twelve-year-old female audience. A very specific demographic absolutely adores these books, while most of the rest of the reading public basically despises them.

We despise these books because Bella is weak. As more mature women, we don't want to be anything like Bella. We've learned to cope with our emotions, to not let men rule our lives. We hate her for being the sort of character that flies in the face of the equality and respect that women strive for in the modern world. And yet, Twilight DOES have a huge fan following - which indicates that these situations and these behaviors have found some appeal somewhere. How is it that these things can be simultaneously romantic and detestably anti-feminist?

Well, for most readers of Twilight, they can't. You're either in the pro or anti Twilight camp, and there's not a lot of room for compromise. But with shounen ai, there is room for compromise. With shounen ai, you neatly side-step the problem of "is it okay for a girl to be like this?" by making the character a boy. Many of the uke characters in shounen ai manga are just as bad as Bella Swan, but much better received by many of the same women who would scoff at Twilight.

So I suppose the question is, is this okay? Does the fact that the character is male make these behaviors acceptable? Are the actions of the uke scornful, or are they actually romantic in the absence of feminist baggage? It's not a question I feel comfortable answering on my own. Am I a bad feminist because I found (and occasionally still find) these subservient, melodramatic characters compelling, even though they're male? Is shounen ai somehow groundbreaking, or is it just the opposite? And why are these plots compelling at all in the first place - what is the cultural construction that causes us to find these things romantic at all? And if I DO find these things romantic, does that make me a hypocrite for disliking Twilight?

More and more questions pile up, and I feel inadequate to answering any of them. Perhaps it is because I know that the answers will lead to some heavy self-evaluation, always a daunting prospect. But regardless, I hope some of the questions will lead you to thought as well, and encourage you to examine your own preconceptions. Are female stereotypes universally detestable, even when applied to men?