Before the article was predictably downvoted to oblivion I did get one comment useful not so much for its contents, which were predictably terrible, but for the interesting irony that it presented. This redditor simply dismissed my article as "the babblings of a patreon-begger." Interesting. The claim there seems to be that my article can be safely ignored because I'm merely out to grab cash off of Marvel's success.
I'll own up to it proudly! In fact, I'll encourage you all to donate to my Patreon today! I'm absolutely shameless. In fact, it's a little off theme, but is it time to bring back the supervillain suit? I think it is!
|I know what I am.|
These are concessions I MUST make, to a certain extent, if I want to make this blogging thing work for me. Marvel is in no such position. Anything they do seems to turn into a megahit, even if it's, say, Thor 2. Marvel fans will even get a little bit smug about this, proclaiming that DC can't make a movie with a female lead while Marvel can make a movie about a raccoon and a tree in space.
Ay, Marvel fans? You know who else can't make a movie with a female lead?
So let's take this week to talk about the various ways in which Marvel, a studio that seemingly can do anything, continues to do, in a myriad of ways, absolutely nothing to support its queer fans.
Mack and Fitz: Engineered RomanceWhen I was a kid, every so often I'd bug my mother for Pringles. Why? I don't know. Advertising, probably. It was a futile plea, of course, because we didn't each much junk food--too expensive, mostly--and because my mother had a particular counter to my pleas prepared:
"You know if you get them you won't be satisfied. That's the scheme they've got going! Pringles don't taste like real chips so you keep eating more hoping that it'll taste like a chip. But it never will."
"Mack" MacKenzie and Leo Fitz are great together and I was really for a hot second expecting something to emerge from their friendship during this most recent season. I mean, we had this interesting dynamic where Fitz, sort of abandoned by Simmons, forms this powerful bond of friendship with Mack which ultimately helps him get his confidence back and adapt to his new disability. Could something more have emerged from that? Not, apparently, in the MCU, but we can play a game of "what if" here in the confines of the bloggerdome.one
Imagine an alternate second season where Mack and Fitz grow more and more affectionate as the season goes on, before finally becoming romantically entangled. Imagine how torn Fitz is between comforting his boyfriend after the mind control in the ancient Inhuman temple and defending Skye from his boyfriend and his former partner as they both treat her with suspicion and fear. Imagine how he responds to Mack betraying the group to The Other SHIELD and--
Actually let's explore that last just for a little bit. This plotline was dead for me, absolutely dead in the water, in part because it took too long, in part because it distracted from the far more interesting inhumans plotline, and in part because it was grounded in a truly boring romance. I'm sorry, I just... not only can I not find a shred of interest in Bobbi and Hunter, I cannot conceive of how anyone else would, either. Hunter's a reasonably interesting character, and Bobbi's ok although frankly her personality is so thinly painted that I'm not sure how much character there really is there, but nothing about their romance really did anything for me.
This is an issue, given that much of the emotional weight of the Other SHIELD Invasion plotline is grounded in this relationship and the betrayal Hunter feels. Honestly, Mack's distress at having to kidnap and betray his friend felt far more dramatic than Bobbi's betrayal. Possibly because Bobbi as a character is locked into this minimally emotive Serious Action Hero With No Feelings mode, which works for Akemi Homura because she is embedded in a story about emotion and desperation and despair but which in the context of a show that seems to only nominally be about spies comes across to me as rather a rather lazy attempt to add in "deep" story beats without actually exploring the implications of those tropes (and a retread of May's character development).
This is another instance though where the material is right there in the text, but it goes unexplored. I mean, folks pointed out to me in the comments of last week's article that they do, in fact, hint at the possibility that Fitz might be bisexual. His mental projection of Simmons that emerges after his injury has at least one and possibly a couple conversations with Fitz about Mack having a nice ass, and Fitz acknowledges that as a projection of his subconscious Simmons is reflecting information that he's aware of.
But nothing is done with this! We have this amazing opportunity to explore the experience of someone who suddenly is forced to come to terms with a disability, loses a friend because of that disability, and also, perhaps for the first time, begins questioning his sexuality. This is powerful stuff, and it's stuff that we should have on TV, particularly as part of a property that is so hugely popular. And it almost feels at points like they wanted to--Mack's "I'd never hurt you buddy," the way he blocks Fitz with his own body when the Other SHIELD agents bust down the wall... this stuff is there, but then, in the season finale, suddenly we revert to Simmons as the primary love interest! Was this ridiculously stupid eleventh hour change implemented just to shoehorn in some extra emotional content before sucking Simmons into the Cosmic Deathstone? Or was it also implemented because they had teased at the Mack/Fitz relationship a little too much and they needed to rapidly reverse course?
As I noted last week, I'm always a little nervous about calling things "queer baiting" because it does inherently depend upon motive: queer baiting is specifically a dynamic where a queer audience is cultivated but unfulfilled for avaricious reasons, strung along as a reliable weekly viewership that keeps hoping for something more. Is it really fair to claim access to that kind of access to an artist's inner world?
Well, probably not, just as it probably isn't "fair" to claim that pringles are actively designed to be unsatisfying little cardboard discs so that people will remain perpetually unsatisfied. But, and I know this will probably net me some hate from the large and active pringles fan community, I don't think from the perspective of the person experiencing their chain being yanked endlessly, experiencing an endless cycle of tantalization and refusal, fairness necessarily matters. I experience this arc as queer baiting, because queer elements are introduced, I come back hoping to see some of my hopes finally realized, and then everything snaps back to compulsory heterosexuality.
Now, let's be real, the sudden reintroduction of the Fitzsimmons romance is terrible, terrible writing. It's unearned, it's slapped together, it ignores most of their character development over the last season, and it brushes the very real experiences Fitz had being abandoned by his closest friend after he stopped being neurotypical. On a deep level, that last bit in particular bothers me, particularly because there is no coming to terms with those events and their changing relationship before the romance element is suddenly reintroduced. No matter what, the sudden swerve is poor writing.
Exploring the alternative relationship, though, in the context of the wider MCU's refusal of queerness contextualizes this bad writing as a kind of compulsory heterosexuality that eschews more dramatically meaningful character interactions in favor of streamlined emotional shocks. Fitz and Mack might be the closest we've come to an actual canon queer attraction--god, not even a relationship, just an attraction!--and the experience of it, I think, is one of being baited.
Even if the creators weren't consciously aware of what they were doing, in the end the experience is the same.
All that said, there's sort of a nagging doubt here niggling at me, because there's something a little... hm, stereotypical about this pairing shall we say, in that you've got this big strong dude and a much slighter, even dare we say feminized male, which seems to reproduce dynamics of heteronormativity in this queer relationship. I'm not sure I agree with this hypothetical critique but I can recognize that it is a critique that a scholar could make in good faith. If someone levelled that charge at me, I'd have to respond that, well, that's probably a valid way of looking at this particular ship!
In the absence of other queer pairings in the MCU, the first pairing to become canon would, I think, inevitably fall under that sort of scrutiny. And that's really the crux of the problem, isn't it? The tokenization of queer relationships--the canonization of this single ship--wouldn't really solve Marvel and Disney's problem of representation or the problem of queer baiting, because it inevitably places this relationship in the status of sole cypher for all queer experience.
I really want to emphasize that these relationships that I'm suggesting are not demands for specific acts of canonization, nor are they necessarily the best possible choices for queer representation! The point I'm trying to make is that these are possibilities that are going unexplored, and even exploring one possibility as a way of quelling the displeasure of fans like yours truly isn't really a solution, per se, because the fundamental problem is an apparent unwillingness to explore these narrative possibilities.
And some of those possibilities have the potential to dramatically affect the larger social conversation.
Bisexual Steve RogersBisexual Steve Rogers is a fairly common headcanon on Tumblr for a number of good reasons--reasons that to a certain extent make this almost inevitable, I'd argue. I think what's going on here is that people see the connection Steve has with Bucky and so find themselves shipping the two characters quite passionately. But at the same time, The First Avenger is, to a great degree, built around the relationship between Steve and Peggy Carter. The days where demonizing female characters in order to further a gay pairing seem to be receding into memory, thank goodness, and as a result the logical compromise that people have come to involves the transformation of Steve into a bisexual and possibly even polyamorous character.
This is interesting to me because of its disruption of a progressive narrative of social equality. Rather than embracing an idea that everything gets naturally better and more "liberal" over time in an easily comprehensible and linear fashion, Steve disrupts this narrative simply by being a bisexual character (perhaps even relatively openly bisexual) living during the Second World War and then coming to a present still grappling (as this article shows) with issues of acceptance. Midcentury sexuality in New York City isn't an area of my expertise but I've seen claims bouncing around that Steve's particular background and life made it likely that he'd be aware of alternate sexualities and even be exposed to groups where such experiences were accepted.two
This is actually symptomatic of a wider problem with Steve as he appears in things not directed by the Russo Brothers. There's this assumption that Steve being from the 1940s must be quite conservative, and this seems to be how Joss Whedon has him positioned in The Avengers, somewhat frustratingly. It's a lazy reading, though, I think, particularly if you want Cap to represent The Best Of America. If he really is sort of a symbol for everything this country aspires to be and you turn him into a 2D conservative because old people vote Republican, like, I don't even know how to finish this sentence, you just, you gotta do some soul searching here I think about your own assumptions.
There's so much potential here for a radical reconsideration of how we conceive of our own history and destiny culturally, and that's even leaving aside the dynamic potential narrative of Steve and Bucky finding a way back to each other once again! There is so much power here, so much to dig into, so much to think about, and it honest to god is more interesting than any straight relationship they could whip up for Steve because it has something that no other relationship possibly could have:
Seventy years of lost history.
Would writing the icon of America's aspirations be too outrageous and alienate too many conservative moviegoers?
But so, apparently, would having any queer characters at all.
You have to hand it to Marvel and Disney: at least they are consistent in their greedy cowardice.
This article, without my conscious plotting, ended up sort of progressing from the most plausible to the least plausible possible relationships, from a relationship that seemed almost likely to a relationship that would be grand but wouldn't happen right now, to a relationship that, frankly, I can't imagining happening within my lifetime.
This is a somewhat bleak pronouncement, but tell me, how likely is it that any blockbuster or major TV show is going to have a positive portrayal of a queer polyamorous relationship that's developed to any real extent?
I started out writing this article angry, and I'm still angry, but now that I'm reaching the home stretch I have to say that this whole thing really brings me down to the point where anger's not the primary emotion at play here. If anything I'm more weary than angry at this point, because it's not just Marvel, it's not just speculative fiction, it's culture at large that still is locked in the same holding pattern that it's been since fucking Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on the air. It's the endless, relentless reminder through omission that the experiences which are important to me, even most important to me, are not suitable for a mass media audience.
This article is about and yet not about Fitzskimmons. It's about a ship, which is silly and fannish, but it's also about the omission of people like me from popular culture, which is anything but silly. Over the past few months, I've fallen deeply in love with one new partner, Hex, and watched my other partner, Sara, develop relationships of her own.three As these bonds have developed I've become more and more acutely aware of the void in popular culture where experiences like our own could and should be.
I think that absence is most acutely felt in the context of the humanity of queer and poly experience. I think it's very important to note that many of the examples I've related here explore relationships as stages for conflict and character development, not as perfectly protected crystalline structures, never to be touched or disturbed. When I say that I wish Fitzsimmons was canon, I do not mean that I wish they were together forever and ever god bless uwu, and when I wrote in the previous article that they represented a potentially stable triad I didn't meant that I demand the showrunners give me my ship in absolute stasis or they are Problematic and possibly Literal Hitler. Instead, I am frustrated by the fact that the possibility of a loving and caring relationship that falls dramatically to pieces due to external pressures is off the table in our media climate because it is too far outside of the heterosexist norm.
And rest assured, over the course of season two I would fully expect the relationship between Skye, Simmons, and Fitz to collapse in on itself dramatically.
If we peer into our Crystal of Less Shitty Dimensions to the world where this narrative came about, we can see how in the first season Skye's development is grounded by her relationship with Jemma and Fitz becoming more than mere friendship. The frustrating back and forth of the early narrative, in which Skye's loyalties are in question, is seen through the lens of a very different kind of family than the one we get in the show in our crappy dimension. We get a certain amount of development with Ward showing interest in Skye as well... is he jealous of her relationship with Fitz and Simmons? Maybe that makes his relationship with May more interesting. Anything that can do that is probably worth throwing in, I think.
In this reality, Lorelei doesn't exist. Fuck that.
Or, perhaps in this reality Lorelei's powers are based on attraction and Skye falls under her sway, but Simmons doesn't! Simmons, it turns out, is very romantically interested in Skye but is, in fact, asexual.four May tries to help Ward work through his issues, but when he behaves callously with respect to Skye's experiences a wedge is pushed between them. This is, perhaps, the first hint that not all is right in the land of Grant Ward's messed up psychology.
In retrospect, while it's very shocking that Ward throws Fitz and Simmons out of an airlock, it ultimately has a certain sick sense to it.
The season finale plays out largely the same way with the added dimension that now Ward is not just threatening Skye with assault, he's also threatening her partners, his possessive, furious jealousy contrasted with the caring and giving relationship Skye, Fitz, and Simmons have developed. And Ward gets the shit kicked out of him. That is constant in all dimensions. Because everybody hates Grant Ward.
|fuck this guy though|
This failure of Jemma to support her partners is actually very important, I think, because it shows how someone can be a good person, be a good partner, and still internalize some absolutely toxic shit--in this case the ableism that pushes her away from Fitz and the fear of metahumans that pushes her away from Skye. These are, again, important ideas to explore, I think, that the MCU seems to be totally unwilling to touch.
It's all the more frustrating because we do see some creators attempting to break the pattern. If a poly group does show up in popular televised spec fic anytime soon, for example, I wouldn't be surprised if it showed up on The 100.five I don't want to spoil anything because the show is really excellent--at least after the awkwardly written and often awkwardly acted first few episodes--but the show is not only willing to kill off main characters, it's willing to have them fall in and out of love in complex ways... even willing to have the main character show romantic attraction to another woman, romantic attraction that dramatically shapes events in the narrative and the way we as an audience understand those events.
If the possibility of these relationships could be treated even as merely conceivable by Marvel it would be... well, not enough, obviously, because Marvel exists within a superstructure of profoundly unequal representation. But it would be something.
And that is what is so galling about Marvel's failures here. It galls that they, who could accomplish anything but won't, have erased even the possibility of conceiving of queerness within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as it galls that Marvel and Disney have no interest in their female fans and would frankly rather they shut up and went away. It galls that in the context of speculative fiction that speculating on queer relationships is absolutely forsworn.
And it galls that critics of other media turn their noses up at this and say, in effect, "Well what do you expect from superhero stories?" There is one My Little Pony critic on Tumblr who shall here remain nameless who I've seen making claims of this ilk, assertions that the representation in children's cartoons, for example, is far weaker than the representation in, say, The Theater. Let's just really take a moment to dwell on the ludicrous pretension of that statement, and the underlying assumption that I should sit through some boring-ass play to get representation, rather than expecting it to appear in media and genres that I actually enjoy. Really just... let that sink in!
Ultimately, popular culture is the realm where these battles must be fought because plays or, though I loathe to say it as someone with two damn degrees in Art History with a focus on the modern and contemporary, Fine Art just don't have the impact that Captain America does. However, making concessions to the reality of the blockbuster's dominance, as I do in writing these articles, does not mean accepting the catastrophic failures of the system as inevitable and it certainly does not excuse either the fawning fan or the dismissive critic of their culpability in failing to analyze this media!
And at the end of the day, bad writing is bad writing. Agents of SHIELD in particular, and many other areas of the MCU in general, have been saddled by bad writing because of executive shortsightedness, authorial pigheadedness, unexamined homophobia, and sheer, stunning laziness. I think, given how high Marvel and Disney are flying these days and how ecstatic the fans are in their support for The Company That Isn't DC, it is worth taking the time to drag them off their god damn cloud.
But what do I know? I'm just some raving Patreon-begger, and in a world where money is speech, and Marvel's money speaks loudest of all, my two cents--or the $12 I haven't spent on Age of Ultron--merit barely a whisper
Storming the Ivory Tower will update again on Sunday, May 31st. Next time on StIT: "Building and Breaking, In Comics as in BDSM," an article taking my thesis research and applying it to a comic TOO HOT FOR ACADEMIA!!! Tune in and have your affect aroused, and also find out what I've REALLY been doing for the past eight months!
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