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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fitzskimmons Lament Part One: Marvel and the Endlessly Straight Path

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a lot of things. Among them, the MCU is very, very straight. Aggressively straight. Obnoxiously straight, I might even suggest.

It's straight to the point where, after 11 movies and three-and-a-half-sum-total seasons of 45 minute episodes of various tv spin offs from said movies, the lack of any queer representation whatsoever has finally crossed the borderline from "minor stain on an otherwise remarkable record" to "holy shit this is indefensible and appalling."

Marvel and Disney apparently can make a movie about a talking raccoon and his tree friend but can't introduce a single queer character. Or make a movie starring a woman. But that's a rant for another day.

For a while now I've been lamenting the effect that's had on a number of my ships in the MCU--ships being fan parlance for preferred romantic relationships. I tend to gravitate towards queer ships because, well, in our modern media landscape they just don't happen that often in canon, so I have an inclination to stubbornly ship everything queer, which just results in me getting more irate when none of my queer pairings become canon, which just causes me to be more obstinate, until the next thing you know I'm up at three AM reading Draco/Neville/Hermione BDSM fanfic instead of writing Storming the Ivory Tower articles.

In fact that's precisely where I've been for the past eight months!

But no ship has suffered quite as much as Fitzskimmons, the ship that put the "One" and "True" and "The Numeral Three" in OT3, my one true poly triad, the relationship of my dreams. This is a ship that joins the Agents of SHIELD characters Fitz, Simmons, and Skye into a beautiful poly trio.

It will never happen, and I know it will never happen, but by god I can write an entire article lamenting the fact that I'll never see this group get together.

Pictured: more like GAYgents of SHIELD
That's what this article is in the broadest sense: a lament for Fitzskimmons. But I don't want to just sit here and babble about how great they'd be together (even though they would be) or how much more heartwrenching the events of season 2 are in the context of a poly romance between the three characters (though wow can you imagine it?). Ultimately this isn't about the worthiness or unworthiness of one particular ship. It's about the wider way in which the compulsory heterosexuality in an entire serialized and shared fictional universe leads to sub-optimal story decisions and lost opportunities.

It's about how restrictions on the range of possible relationships leads to bad writing.


Early in the show's existence, after the episode FZZT, I expressed a burning desire on Tumblr for this ship to be canonized. It made a lot of sense to me: Fitzsimmons were already treated in universe and externally in the fandom as a unified whole, we were slowly but surely seeing Skye and Simmons develop a strong bond, and really they seemed like they had great potential for a stable poly triad. In response to my wailing, tumblr user Hivernale created this amazing speculative storyline.

Its adorableness aside, I think the title of this piece is really quite telling:

"How to make your romance subplot exponentially more interesting: a case study"

That, I think, cuts to the core of why this interests me. Let's be real here, Agents of SHIELD and the other MCU properties as a whole are saddled with some real fucking boring romance subplots. Like I can't say that at any point I was engaged at all by the Grant Ward/Melinda May subplot, Bobbi and Hunter are deathly dull, I'm not sure what they were going for with the Grant Ward/Agent 33 plot and I'm not sure I really care because fuck Grant Ward, Coulson's cellist thing was sort of introduced randomly and then extroduced thereafter with no return since... Just, wow, there is not a lot going on romance wise that's worth writing home about.

Fitzskimmons seemed to me more emotionally resonant and more thematically interesting, and I think there's a whole host of other MCU ships that fall into a similar category. They all share an apparent implausibility from the standpoint of the MCU's creators, and I'd like to explore just why that's such a shame.

Now, I should note here at the outset that my understanding of how one writes a fictional character is not, from what I've seen, common. A lot of the folks I interact with talk of their characters as living beings, describe them wanting things or behaving in certain ways against their will, or telling them information. Perhaps this is another instance of neuroatypicality on my part--maybe my brain is just wired incorrectly for effective character writing!--but I can't see characters as entities that have agency of their own.

No, I see characters much the same way as I see real people: as puppets that dance for my pleasure, and also as potential sources of Patreon revenue! StIT Inc. has no time for characters or customers that think for themselves! DAMMIT THIS CENTURY OLD WINE WON'T BUY ITSELF!

I think in many ways this is a disadvantage--it makes writing dialogue a special kind of hell for example--but if I'm going to be somewhat hobbled in my own writing maybe I can use that disadvantage as an asset in analysis. This distance leads me to a sense of characters not as immutable beings with individual subjectivity, as fans and creators sometimes treat them. You can't point to a character and say "Look, this character just isn't gay, that's just not who they are." You ESPECIALLY can't do that in the context of a shared world serial story with countless individuals that could lay claim to a character's "true" nature. After all, in the absence of a definite "I", a definite subjectivity, who gets to claim that a character is straight or queer? Where does the true subjectivity of a character reside? With the actor? With the writer? Director? Editor? Shadowy executives at Disney?

I would describe this as is a variation on the intentionality fallacy, the fallacy that still plagues much analysis through reliance upon authorial insight and word of god to drive analysis.one Here, though, instead of the critic claiming to know the author's mind, a variety of authors claim to know the mind of the character as though it exists external to their own mind and biases. This is something that fans are occasionally quite eager to go along with, as well, so you've got fans claiming to know the mind of an author claiming an independent existence for a character but also unique insight into a character's mind.

When I put it that way I think the dizzying nature of this logic becomes more obvious.

Let me ask, if a character truly has a subjective existence, is that character really "knowable?" More importantly, how can we trust that an author isn't forcing a character to behave in ways contrary to that character's nature? Let's take the claim that characters speak to their authors at face value. Let's accept that characters have an independent subjectivity external to an author. What makes us believe as creators that our characters are honest with us, or that we're not misinterpreting the characters in accordance with our own biases?

I'm really trying to forestall, with this, any arguments about the creators of the MCU having no choice about whether or not queer characters show up. I want to basically head that off immediately so we can talk about these character interactions in terms of what is most interesting, not what best fits the imagined subjectivity of these characters. I'm not really interested in debating even whether or not certain things "make sense" or are "in character" because let's be real, there's absolute queer signifiers that characters must have to be queer.

What I'll be posting this week and next week, then, is an exploration of a number of places where the introduction of queerness into the MCU would result in better, or at least intriguingly different, narratives, narratives that went unexplored due seemingly to a refusal to consider the possibility of queerness.

Everything About Lorelei Is Terrible


People got really mad at me last year actually because I complained about this, so if for some reason you're absolutely wedded to the idea that Lorelei as a character makes any damn sense then...

...Then how did you find this blog and why are you still reading, actually? This... look, I think you're in the wrong place probably?

Anyway Lorelei's whole gimmick as a two dimensional character from the terrible first half of Agents of SHIELD season 1 is that she can seduce men to her power because she's just that sexy I guess. It's some sort of magical mind control thing that--and this is important--specifically works on men.

Which falls apart under even the SLIGHTEST scrutiny of course. Just absolutely goes to pieces in a really disappointing way, like a poorly forged chain mail bikini collapsing into a bunch of disconnected rings at the first spank of the paddle, which is a metaphor that I'm sure we can all relate to easily.

Like, ok, how do these powers work? Do they work on cis men? Trans men? Trans women? Do they work on straight men specifically? Can Lorelei seduce a gay man? Isn't that a little fucked up? And, hey, in the context of what is essentially a military operation to take out a dangerous warlord wouldn't it be relevant for Sif to mention what the mechanics are of the magic her opponent exclusively relies on to achieve her goals? Or do the Asgardians, this advanced alien race, simply have no conception of homosexual or transgender people? Why? Why does no one question this? Why do the fucking science nerds on the ship who question literally everything not interrogate Sif further on this? Even if Sif doesn't know, why did no one else think to ask?

This is almost off theme for this article because this isn't even about like "what if Sif seduced Simmons" this is literally just "what if the writers paid even the slightest amount of attention to their own story and its implications." This is like bare minimum competency we're talking about here. We're not even getting to the level of theme, we're just talking "can you write coherently for a 21st century audience" and apparently the answer is "this is definitely still 1985 what are you talking about?"

I think the extent to which this represents negligent writing can be seen in the impact of Lorelei... or lack thereof, I suppose. Trigger warning here for discussion of rape--feel free to jump to the next section which is about a much cuter ship if you'd rather avoid this material.

Ok?

So Lorelei totally raped Grant Ward. There's no way around it. She used her powers to take someone who was sent to attack her and capture her, transform that person into someone infatuated with her, and then she raped him. This is literally what happens. This is canon. A character in Agents of SHIELD used magic to mind control someone and have sex with him. That's rape. You can't... I mean... this is obviously a coercive situation? Like, blatantly?

But as far as I can recall this is never addressed in any way shape or form in the show. Now, I hate Grant Ward as much as... well, actually, no, my hatred of Grant Ward runs deep and pure, probably the next guy can't match up to the depths of my loathing for Grant Ward. But hey, as I've said before, everyone hates Grant Ward.

He still didn't deserve to be raped, though, and the way the writers treat this as fundamentally not a big deal or even something worthy of sustained analysis, I guess because that disrupts the like semi-serious tone of the shitty first half of the series, is negligence and reproduces heinous narratives about what rape is and how men should respond to rape and how other people should respond to men being raped.

There's a number of cases in both parts of this article where the apparent total ignorance of the mere existence of queer people reflects a larger failure of imagination in various ways, but no example is more heinous than the example of Lorelei.

Best Damn Avocados


That was unpleasant. Let's talk about adorable avocados at law instead for a bit.

I was struggling with this article, trying to get words on the page and failing, and my friend Zomburai! of Everyday Abnormal fame suggested I get really angry. And then he reminded me at length that we'll never get an impassioned confession of love from Foggy Nelson to Matt Murdock.

And, well, the article got written, so...

I think it's probably one of the most striking examples of this kind of frustrating status quo for the MCU, actually, because there's so much depth that can come out of a relationship between Foggy and Matt, in the specific context of the Daredevil live action series. The series is already, in a lot of ways, an interrogation of masculinitytwo and one of the most fascinating examples of that is the way it examines deep friendships and relationships between men.

Hell, one of the best parts of the series is watching Matt and Foggy cry at each other over how fucked up the whole Superpowered Vigilante thing is. We have an entire episode to just watch their hearts break. Oh and hey we also get this amazing flashback to their first meeting where Foggy, mouth gaping, describes Matt as a "Very... attractive... blind dude."

Fantastic.

But also ridiculously frustrating because it's impossible to judge whether the latent attraction between Foggy and Matt that the writers allude to several times remains unexplored simply because of time constraints (they pack a lot of content into just a handful of episodes), meaning it may be explored further, or whether it is simply a vague nod that even in the future would never be developed further because, well, in the MCU we can watch a Russian's head get pulped in a car door but not two men fall in love.

This is the essence of what in fandom cultures we call "queer baiting"--the sensation of being strung indefinitely along by writers of serial fiction, coming back continuously in order to see whether the relationships hinted at will ever come to fruition without ever actually reaching any kind of satisfaction. Now, Daredevil is no Supernatural thank Christ but it's hard not to look at this and ask the question, are we being queer baited? As soon as you start asking that question, to some extent you've already lost, because the question will linger in the background until resolved in some way, like a dark shadow over the experience. It becomes an ongoing frustration. And in the context of an entire shared serialized universe with apparently no queer characters that question looms perpetually.

Beyond this question of queer baiting and whether or not the writers are sort of doing due diligence here, though, I think there's something to be said for the potential that is unexplored here, or almost explored, or explored but maybe not with the same kind of emotional weight that it could have, or...

It's actually quite difficult to describe this, I think, because there are all these incredible parallels and suggestions in the text that can be delved into and explored already. This is a very, very well written series from the perspective of complex character readings and their thematic implications. But as with the Best Damn Avocados ship itself, grappling with these implications is like wrestling with steam. It's all very difficult to get one's hands on because it's hard to determine at any given moment whether you're grasping something solid or simply seeing figures where there is only light and shadow glancing off the air.

Nevertheless, let's imagine a more explicit parallel between Matt and Foggy... and Fisk and Wesley.

What is Wesley's motivation? We never really find out. We know that he and Fisk are friends and they seem to care deeply about each other. Fisk, in what is probably one of the more heartwrenching moments of the series, freaks out when he finds out that Wesley is dead. I honest to god don't think it's a stretch to suggest that this is a one sided romance, with Wesley utterly devoted to the man he loves while knowing that Fisk doesn't return his affection but still appreciates him deeply for it.

Suddenly you get this amazing contrast between Wesley as this person that unquestioningly follows his love interest, even to his own death, and Foggy as someone who will do so much for Matt but has hard limits, limits like listening to people's hearts without a warrant for example. (In fact he immediately pegs this as creepy, invasive, and a violation of a person's constitutional rights.) Wesley's devotion is what makes him a cold blooded monster. Foggy's is what makes his struggle to come to terms with Matt's reality so difficult, and what ultimately leads him to join with Matt in doing things the right way, legally.

Mostly legally.

Look Nelson & Murdock Avocados at Law run a complex and multifaceted practice.

The point is that this is a path that they didn't go down that they could have gone down, a path that explores the way love can be constructive or destructive depending on whether characters let it guide their actions ethically or whether they let it consume them utterly. This is powerful stuff, and it would've made, I think, for an interesting narrative.

I'm not sure I'm going to fault them for not going down this path because Daredevil is a really, really good show, and like I said a lot of this stuff is already present within the text if you want to pull it out and see it this way.

It'd just be nice if in this garden of forking paths the writers for the MCU didn't always seem to pick the straight path.

And that's where we'll continue things next week with the second, and final, part of this series, with a path not taken, a path they could take but won't, and finally the greatest path of all, the path to Fitzskimmons.

Storming the Ivory Tower will update again on Sunday, May 24th. These articles are made possible by my backers on Patreon. Subscribe to view article drafts, see behind the scenes artwork, my notes for upcoming articles, or even to commission an article from me. 
Stanford actually has a pretty good guide to this which is worth reading I think. It's an idea I touch upon a lot as it underlies the concept of Death of the Author.

Someday I'm going to write an article on the series and it'll begin with the line "When we see Matt for the first time, he's crying. That's what he's doing in the second scene as well"

4 comments:

  1. Can we also talk about the expanded queerbaiting happening in the first half of season two, with the constant and overt flirting between Fitz and Mack and Bobbi and Simmons? Like, Fitz's attraction to Mack is explicitly spelled out and acknowledged canonically onscreen. That's a huge deal! But then it's NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN and it NEVER GOES ANYWHERE. They've also carefully managed to dodge ever using gendered pronouns when referring to Mack's past love life. I personally continue to hold out hope that Fitz and Mack will wind up together in season three, but then, I'm an eternally stubborn optimist.

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    Replies
    1. Is it mentioned on screen?! I forgot about that o_o Do you remember when?

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    2. It is! It's in the very early part of season two--when Fitz is still hallucinating a version of Simmons. Hallucination!Simmons comments on how hot Mack is, and Fitz tells her to stop that, because she's a part of his subconscious. I don't remember exactly which episode it's in, though.

      Delete
  2. I don't have anything good to add, just wanted to say I was VERY FRUSTRATED that Wesley died before we really got to learn very much about him! I had been really hoping we might find out why he was so devoted to Fisk. Maybe we can still get more of his backstory, like via flashbacks, but it won't be the same as if he were still actually in the story.

    ReplyDelete

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