hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities. (prozacpark) wrote,
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.

Reading Against Intent: Women in fiction, authorial intent, and negative reinvention.

This is somewhat of a follow-up to my earlier meta on authorial intent fail (mainly on BSG), where I argued that writers' lack of concrete authorial intent when writing female characters leads to female characters being read in widely different ways in fandom, often in ways that the canon did not intend. I did recap the ideas from there here, but the original meta is here, for those interested in it.

So I talked a bit before about the slut-shaming of certain types of characters in fandom, and I've been trying to figure out why reasons number 1 through 6 for hating Vala made me scoff and laugh at the person's fail, but the list calling her a whore inspired rage. Or how I'm generally amused by the Emma-hating that comes out of the Jean/Scott shipper pain, but Christy Marx dismissing Emma as a slut inspired thoughts of violence.

I think what’s especially telling about fandom’s perception of Vala as a whore and Emma as a slut is that even given the traditional (and entirely sexist!) definitions of the (sexist/offensive) words prostitute and slut, neither Emma nor Vala meet those definitions? There’s a level of patriarchal judgment going into these labels, of course. But there’s also a reinvention of canon in order to justify hating these women. (Not that it's ever okay to call anyone by those slurs.) Which I don’t think is uncommon in fandom, so I wanted to describe, name, and give examples of this phenomenon. Because I think this is why I really can't engage with mainstream fans.

I've talked before about how the abject and/or object position that most women occupy in fiction makes them more likely to be...interpreted widely differently by different people. And often in ways that canon didn't intend or didn't care enough to make clear. Female characters, in general, are often written in relation to the more narratively central male characters and filtered through the male gaze/male pov/male narrative, so the writers constantly fail to elaborate on their motivations/desires, especially when these things fall outside the things women are traditionally seen as wanting. I had suggested earlier that we approach texts more loosely as women in terms of authorial intent, similar to how research has shown women approaching patriarchal religions. So women, when faced with problematic portrayals of women in fiction, do one of the following things with the text: reject, repress, or reinvent/reinterpret.

I’ve always thought that part of the reason that women have a problem relating to other female characters in fiction is because so much of our fiction still approaches female characters as the other/object. So when women consume fiction, they have to make a choice: either continue to see themselves as Subject and identify with the male subject, or identify with the women and give up the subject position. This, of course, doesn’t excuse in any way the fact that most people refuse to take that extra step in trying to approach fiction from a different POV, but it’s still a factor in how women/minorities consume fiction and they're, of course, unfairly disadvantaged in this. So what happens when you actually realize this pattern consciously or subconsciously, or realize that fiction is treating women in ways that it might not treat men? You can either drop that show/comic/book, and reject it. You can repress that bit of canon. Or you can reinvent canon by writing fic, vidding, fanwanking, or having your own personal fanon or interpretation.

One of the things I mentioned off-handedly that I didn't really explore was the idea of what I called 'negative reinvention.' Where a person deliberately chooses to read a female character in such a way as to justify her/his dislike of the character. In the absence of the female POV, we're constantly forced to rearrange bits of the narrative in our heads for them to give them motivation that the narrative didn't care to explore. And I think how we do that, in large part, indicates how we feel about female characters in general.

I remember all the post-Departure "Roswell" fanfic about Tess that explained why she chose to betray them because the narrative didn't care enough to give voice to her motivations. Or all the BSG fic explaining Boomer's or Dee's motivation because Ron Moore didn't care enough. And this is a large part of why I read fanfic. And why I read fanfic even with female characters I am not fond of in canon? Because fanfic often switches them from abject to subject position and gives them agency that the source didn't.

Fan experience, in general, I think adds a kind of multiplicity to texts and adds layers that weren't there before. My favorite part of fandom is when female characters ignored by canons are taken up by bits of fandom and their canon is expanded. I'm entirely sure that there are characters out there that I love more for the fanon created by fandom than for canon reasons, and "Roswell" is a huge example of this.

But fandom does this canon reinvention outside of fanfic, too, and it often does it negatively and in gendered ways. I...don't think I've ever read a list of reasons to hate a male character that included any sort of comment on his sexuality? And even if they do exist, I'm willingly to bet that it's largely a sexuality established in canon and not a perception of promiscuity based on lack of morals/'revealing' outfits, etc.

I think what cemented my love for Tess, back in Roswell days, weeks before she had ever even shown up on screen, was a Dreamer-initiated hate-thread about her being a 'slut,' and that's *still* the label applied to her? Which is offensive in its slut shaming, but also especially ridiculous given that Tess, in two years of canon and for the duration of two lifetimes, *never* even crushed on anyone other than the guy she was married to. But she got slut-shamed even within canon by Maria.

Or how there was so much talk in BSG fandom of Dee marrying Lee for status and the fandom was fond of painting her as a gold-digger, which I never understood, given that, um, she didn’t really gain much out of the marriage that she didn’t already have? More importantly, there is no indication in canon of this, but this was a popular fanon among people who hated Dee.  And this is a common theory about Helen of Troy? That she ran off with Paris because of all the gold in Troy. Again, why would she give up being a queen of an entire country just so she could go be one of the two hundred Trojan princesses? Or how so much of Klytemnestra’s motivation in modern retellings is based on her being jealous of Helen, which makes no sense because Klytemnestra already is the queen of the most powerful city in Greece. But women don’t want things like power or kingdoms, they would apparently rather have BEAUTY. And in absence of concrete motivations for women, they constantly get reduced to these stereotypes. They end up being gold-diggers instead of competent officers or queens, end up being jealous of other women instead of content with being rulers. They end up being whores, sluts, hussies, homewreckers.

Or seductresses. I have huge issues with the fourth season of “Farscape” in terms of a total lack of an Aeryn point of view narrative. She comes back to Moya acting completely differently from when she left, and I waited a whole season for the narrative to give me answers only to have it reduced to, “Oh, BTW, I was still in love with John while I was away.” Because apparently, that’s the most important thing about her narrative. So I went searching for critiques of this plot arc and instead found a lot of meta trying to explain why Aeryn deserved the abusive treatment from John.  And somehow, Aeryn’s season four make-over that had valid outside the canon reasons ended up being explained by the fandom as Aeryn’s attempts to either distract John from the mission or attempts to seduce him back. And, um, how does this make sense with ANY of what we know about either of these people? But this theory is popular enough that it kept popping up in meta even by people I otherwise liked. Season four narrative left a huge gap in Aeryn’s motivation, and predictably, fandom rushed to fill it with gendered stereotypes rather than seeing problems with the way the narrative is constructed. And from my brief forays into the Stargate fandom, this is similar to the perception Jack (and I assume Jack/Daniel) fans have of Sam? Where they see her as a distraction for Jack and generally not worthy of his interest.

And while I have repressed large bits of BSG fandom/canon, I remember that Cally was widely hated in fandom for various reasons, one of which was that she stayed with an abusive men. (This is especially ironic because the fandom loved the said abusive man!) So she was weak and somehow deserved what she got. But Tory was too strong, assertive and all for the wrong reasons. So she also deserved what she got, apparently.

The most popular theory regarding the relationship of Emma and Scott among Emma haters is that Emma telepathically forced Scott into having sex with her when the canon shows no indication of this. But apparently, it’s easier to see a morally ambiguous female as a rapist than to admit that a male hero is actually kind of an asshole, who arguably had a history of cheating even before this incident. And the Roswell fandom was exactly the same way with Tess, where any interest Max showed in a relationship was apparently put there by Tess telepathically. Nevermind the fact that Tess’ telepathic powers did not work that way.

And then there are Bonnie and Elena from “The Vampire Diaries.” Bonnie’s totally justified and understandable reasons for hating Damon and being wary of vampires are reduced to RACISM (against vampires!), so fandom can continue to hate her for not worshipping Damon and projecting its own racism on to a WoC. And Elena is constantly dismissed as not worthy of Damon’s and Stefan’s interest because she’s 'dull.' Or hated for not being able to make up her mind between Damon and Stefan, or giving Damon mixed singles. All of which is entirely baffling because Elena has been very, very clear and assertive about being in love with Stefan and not at all interested in Damon in that way. Even DAMON knows this, but fandom continues to grasp for reasons to hate Elena, Bonnie, Caroline, Vala, Emma, Cordelia, and the list is probably endless.

And this is why I stay out of fandom outside of my friendslist because the rest of the fandom? Is apparently not even consuming the same canons I am because of how differently (and offensively!) they interpret the female characters I love. Unfortunately, fandom isn’t the only one to blame in most cases because I think that writers create problematic canons that make this possible. Bonnie has all but disappeared from canon since her issues with Damon started, Tess was retconned to make the fandom’s interpretation the valid one, much of Aeryn’s motivation for season four was left unexplained by the canon, BSG failed on epic levels at writing women towards the end, and this is not going to change until the writers start approaching some of these stories from the women’s perspective or until fandom is willing to do the same even when the writers have failed to.

And this tendency is especially frustrating when compared with how fandom bends over backwards defending male characters like Damon, Tyrol, Dean, Sylar, etc, while handwaving things like rape, abuse, murder, but if Emma dresses a certain way or Aeryn puts on make-up, it’s apparently reason enough to now hate them.

I think people have been trained to read from the men’s POV, but I think that the writers constantly forget to write women as protagonists with their own stories and end up writing them as plot devices in a man’s story. As a result, I think the female characters often become the Other for the writer. I have come across this constantly in interviews, but the two that really stand out for me are David Kemper and Ron Moore. Kemper’s perception of the Aeryn/John relationship is this, “...the reason they weren’t together [...] it was bad timing, but it was the woman, Aeryn Sun, had absolutely no capacity to understand what living in a picket fence house in North Carolina and raising kids and dogs. She was a wild animal, that didn’t have any concept of the civilization that Crichton knew. And as you guys were talking I thought, wait a minute, this guy, he waited. He could have easily walked away from her, said this is too hard. But he knew he loved her. And even when she didn’t know that she loved him and even when she wasn’t ready to be…he waited.” Which is worse than possibly anything fandom had to say about Aeryn? Because he’s referring to her as a Woman, primarily, and not with her NAME. And Othering her further by calling her uncivilized and a WILD ANIMAL. Not to mention that he has no concept of the journey from Aeryn’s POV. It’s all about what JOHN did to deserve his happy ending, with no conception of the fact that Aeryn made sacrifices along the way as well, and she has a story, too.

Then there’s the fact that the writers constantly second guess themselves when describing the motivations of female characters. I have ranted about Dee’s suicide on BSG several times already, but what made things worse was the fact that Ron speculated on her motivations for doing that in an interview as if he couldn’t bother to give her concrete motivations or couldn’t get inside her head. Because, you know, WOMEN ARE SO DIFFERENT. And he did the same thing with Tess on “Roswell,” which, why YES, I am still bitter and angry about some ten plus years later. Then there was the time that Ron referred to Kara as a ‘slut’ in an interview.

And to point out that this isn’t limited to the male writers, we have Julie Plec saying offensive things about Caroline while seeing things from Damon’s pov. So it’s not just the fandom’s perception of women that I constantly disagree with, but also often the writers’ view of their own female characters that are deeply offensive.
Tags: authorial intent, bsg, fandom fail, farscape, feminisms, gender fail, meta, roswell, stargate, women in fiction

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