This article is going to start out profoundly superficial, but I hope it will end at a place that is at least superficially profound.
I want to start the article with a discussion of shipping in the Dumbing of Age fandom.
Yeah, see what I mean? Don't worry, you won't need to be familiar with the comic for this article--it's one of those articles that's not exactly about what it's ostensibly about.
Dumbing of Age is a webcomic written by David Willis about a wide range of characters navigating their first year of college. It’s not particularly important for this article, but it’s maybe interesting to note that almost all of these characters came from several other interconnected comics that Willis has been writing since the early days of webcomics. To an extent, Dumbing of Age gives these characters a new lease on life.
The post that got me thinking about this week’s topic was actually a piece of fan art posted on the blog Queering of Age, whose purpose you can probably figure out from the title alone. The art depicts four of the characters on a couch together, cuddling and playing video games. I’ll link to my reblogged version of the post, since tumblr shenanigans have made the original post inaccessible:
You can see, in my reblog, basically an elevator pitch for this article. In summary, this article came about because of three reactions in quick succession that I noted in my response to the post:
First, I felt excited and gratified that a polyamorous ship that I had considered before was getting play in the wider realm of the Internet (or at least that’s the implication I read into the picture).
Then, I checked myself and thought, “No, this is cute, but it’s impossible with these characters. It simply isn’t plausible.”
And that thought was followed by the thought that prompted this article:
“Wait, what’s actually plausible about my own relationships?”
I want to start by looking at these characters and what makes them implausibly unstable as a poly relationship. We’ve got Amber, the brown haired girl, who deals with traumatic abuse by becoming a costumed vigilante. No, really, look it makes sense in the context of the comic. She used to date Ethan, the black haired fellow, before he realized that he was very, very gay. She’s currently dating Danny, who recently has started coming to terms with the possibility that he’s bisexual, but who has yet to address the fact that he is very boring. And finally, Dorothy used to date Danny, and the implication I’m reading here is that she might be in some sort of relationship with Amber, which would be awesome but uh… actually, you know what, that might be one of the most stable possible relationships here now that I think about it. Except she might be straight. Though frankly at this point in the comic the odds are increasingly against it. As so often happens in real life, we’ve got a queer domino effect going on here.
Anyway, so, it’s complicated, it’s messy, Amber has all kinds of issues with abandonment, two of the characters are still sorting out their sexualities, there’s all kinds of fraught interactions. Implausible.
This is quite close to real life for me, though--I’m in a poly relationship myself, with a delightful boyfriend and a delightful girlfriend. And I’m not sure that this imagined poly relationship configuration is that much more implausible than my own. Based on my personal experience, a relationship that seems on paper to be implausible can exist quite comfortably in the real world
To give some context for this, I might as well talk a little bit about my particular node of the polycule (the extended polyamorous family that I’m a part of).
Because wow, my life is some harem anime bullshit.
One of the aspects of this that might be considered implausible is the queerness of the relationships depicted here, and the fact that this is a developing queerness, not an identity that these characters have necessarily entered the relationships knowing about. My relationships are all pretty remarkably queer as well, however--Lee is a trans man, I’m some sort of strange genderqueer mix, and Sara IDs as genderqueer as well. We’re all attracted to multiple genders, with different levels of sexual and romantic interest.
It’s a relationship straight out of fanfiction, really, but I think it’s the kind of relationship that often gets caught in a no-win argument trap when used fictionally. On the one hand, people will (to some extent rightly) deride tokenistic inclusions of a single queer character as being cynical attempts at currying favor. But some of these people will then turn around and complain about a high level of queerness as fundamentally unrealistic, because you have “pandered” to demands for representation that don’t, purportedly, correspond to the “real world.” There’s a transparency to that argument I think--it’s clear that what many of these arguers wish for is fiction without queerness of any sort. But I think it’s worth noting the way that this charge of implausibility doesn’t match up to my own lived experience.
I mean, this is a relationship where I am dating one person that I’ve known since I was a baby--there are literally baby pictures of Sara and I together, because our parents (both of my parents and Sara’s dad) all play, of all damn things, double bass. I’ve known her forever. We started dating late in high school and went to prom together and have been together for seven years, somehow, despite living two hours away in different cities for most of our time together. It’s textbook First Girl Wins; it’s the classic harem anime trope!
But then I got on Cool Teen Website Tumbler Dot Com a few years ago and met Lee. What started out as a casual relationship stemming from a shared love of theory applied to totally dorky subject matter developed gradually into a passionate love that existed solely online. We met in the flesh for the first time during an academic conference that our respective thesis projects were accepted to, and spent a week in New Orleans watching people talk about New Media and Popular Culture. Also there was drinking, because New Orleans.
Harem. Anime. Bullshit.
I describe my own life and it’s so ludicrous; it seems like such a bizarre fantasy.
And yet, here I am, in a situation that I can’t really say I deserve but that I’m endlessly thankful for. If polyshipping is wish fulfillment, I’ve had a wish granted, bewilderingly, in real life. It seems strange to me, therefore, that I still find myself writing relationships like this off as implausible wish fulfillment. I find it difficult to translate my own life into what I desire to see from fiction, even if my blog persona allows me to write stridently about the ways in which popular culture has failed me. Life may be stranger than fiction only because fiction is held to an unreasonable standard of realness.
One of the things that I think is at stake, then, in the question of plausibility is our ability to translate the lived experience of queer poly folks into fiction, and to translate back out from fiction as something actually conceivable in real life.
An additional factor that seems implicit in this question of plausibility is the mental suitability of the people involved in any polyamorous romance. As I noted above, the characters in that image are not exactly comfortable with themselves mentally and sexually in a variety of ways. I think it would be easy to look at this and say that it could never work because the relationships are too emotionally unstable, too fraught--there’s no way it could become a healthy poly relationship.
I’m leery of this construction of poly as a thing for neurotypical people--people who already have their brains in order. This doesn’t seem super fair or reasonable to me. To say that the prospect of a satisfying poly relationship is only open to you if you have an already-well-ordered brain seems exclusionary.
More than that, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I am not exactly neurotypical. I grapple with depression, anxiety, and certain types of insecurity and neediness (we’ll go with that descriptor for the moment). The sense that I have of poly discourse is that I’m not what one would call well suited for the polyamorous lifestyle. Yet it seems like I have managed in a way that if one were to assume this was an experience open only to the neurotypical would not seem plausible (perhaps due in large part to the incredible patience of my partners). I feel that I have more in common with these characters than not.
I will say as well that Sara and I also developed our understanding of our sexualities at the same time, together. We started our relationship as monogamous, straight, and cisgender. Somehow. In fact, this process of self actualization has not stopped and we are still developing our sense of what we want sexually and romantically and how we want to present to the world as far as our genders are concerned. Lee, similarly, has slightly changed how he identified as far as gender is concerned during our short time together. While these changes we’ve all gone through have been at times difficult, particularly as Sara and I first began navigating polyamory and discovering how important queerness was to us, for me, at least, having partners that could help me work through these changes made the process significantly more bearable. My sense of Lee and Sara’s relationships is that they’ve also benefited from having partners that could help them address these questions in a variety of ways.
The conception of a relationship as something immaculately conceived, something that will be stable from the outset, does not ring true to me, because my experience has been one of working through things with my partners, on a variety of psychological fronts. The relationships did change, grow, and develop as we found new ways of being in the world.
I would deeply appreciate it if the opportunity for relationships that heal, support, and sustain was not restricted discursively to those people who are already healed, supported, and self-sustaining. Please let us not, in particular, treat those of us who struggle in various ways as poor candidates for the complexity of polyamory who should be gently discouraged. I would like it if we could avoid reading into reality the implausibility that we read into a fictional relationship.
To an extent I would agree that a complex poly relationship between people sorting out their mental states feels implausible, but only to the extent that any relationship is implausible. It seems so easy to cause harm and to open oneself to harm that it sometimes seems incredible to me that we seek interaction as humans at all, let alone the kind of deep vulnerability of relationships.
This seems like something of a bleak statement but I think there’s a measure of hope and optimism in the sense that we do continue, we do carry on, despite what suffering we may experience or inflict. That to me is remarkable--to me, that is radical.
I want to develop this thought by talking about a music video that I think approaches these ideas from a much broader, perhaps even universal, perspective:
Oh, wait, no, that’s… that’s wrong…
Ah, here, THIS video:
This video, from my first viewing, cut to the core of how I approach these ideas, and as a result really cut straight through me emotionally. It's one of those Cannot Watch Without Crying videos. This, to me, is a video about the tension between humans. The dancers, Shia Labeouf and Maddie Ziegler, are not what I would call literal characters here, they’re more like archetypes for particular forms of interaction and tensions inherent in human interaction. They represent an interaction that is needful but also fraught with peril.
This interaction involves people engaged in a violent back and forth throughout the video--there are moments of connection and conjunction, rejection and disjunction. It is collaboration expressing violent disharmony in a way that I find quite beautiful.
This is a video about the implausibility of all relationships, the implausibility of any humans finding a way to connect through our penchant for hurting one another. The video reflects this idea from the lyrics: "I've got thick skin and an elastic heart/but your blade it might be too sharp/I'm like a rubber band until you pulled to hard/I may snap and I move fast." In the lyrics there is the hope for connection but the knowledge that with connection comes the possibility of deep pain.
There’s something very Jungian about this video. It reminds me of Karl Jung describing his prophetic visions where he battled his own soul, in the form of a young woman, in the desert, like Jacob wrestling the angel. For Jung, part of being human is experiencing the internal struggle with the soul, a struggle that could itself be collaborative in the way this video is. For Jung, part of self actualizing was the struggle with the soul that ultimately led to peace.
I love the moments late in the video of Ziegler and LaBeouf making faces at each other--it feels like such a beautiful expression of connection that is playful, yet tense, yet tender. It takes place within the context of earlier moments, such as the moment when Ziegler, who has described herself as a werewolf in the video, approaching LaBeouf tamely only to bite his hand and set them at each other’s throats once more. These moments of care and recovery happen in the context of remembered violence.
To me, this is where the radicality of implausibility lies. With knowledge of the pain that humans can cause, to love, to continue to try to love, becomes a radical act. My relationship with Lee came at a time when I was burning with that knowledge. Sara has been beside me through these kinds of painful realizations for many years. My relationships sometimes seem implausible to me when I think about the rawness inherent in opening myself to others, but they are also grounded in the knowledge that opening up might not always lead to pain or trauma. Asserting the possibility of that which is implausible means asserting that healing is, against all odds, possible as well.
This is far more than the question of whether or not we can argue for canonical polyshipping in fanfic. That’s the entry point, but ultimately what I’m interested in is the possible conception of love as a technology and practice of healing and connection that is process-based, an ongoing becoming, not dictated by your mental state when you start the process of loving/being loved. What implausible love offers is a way of asserting the possibility of connection even within the context of peril.
The process of finding these relationships in fiction and drawing parallels to life is not the process of inventing wish fulfilling fantasies. It is the process of bringing into fiction the positive experiences that people do experience, against the perceived odds.
It is only implausible to the extent that you might describe any relationship as implausible.
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