Today’s post is the crux of two larger series I’d like to do for Freudian Fridays: friendship in fantasy and homosexuality in fantasy. And those two are not as disparate as perhaps they should be: it’s become a fairly common occurrence in fantasy for the line between friendship and attraction to blur and characters to throw their sexual preference out the window, despite evidence that they usually lean firmly the other way.
I’m talking about spontaneous bisexuality, the choice to engage in a homosexual relationship either because the character is lonely or because she likes a given person so much that she must escalate their relationship.
Okay, time for the required disclaimer: I’m aware that sexuality and gender are fluid, that Kinsey developed a Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale (I live near the Kinsey Institute, after all!), that it’s up to the individual, that none of these things are set in stone. I’m not trying to advocate for some sort of heteronormative caveman relationship standards in genre fiction. To the contrary, I’m pointing out something about the genre’s treatment of homosexual relationships that troubles me because it cheapens those relationships… it also damages the idea of strong female friendships. Disagree with me all you want, but let’s all stay civil to one another in our discussion.
I’ve been thinking about this topic for awhile and have resisted writing it because I’m afraid I’ll put my foot in my mouth and the internet will hate me. But the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 graphic novel I just read, Wolves at the Gate, finally gave me the nudge I needed to give up my reluctance and point out this little problem.
So what was it that pushed me over the hump, you ask? Well, spoiler alert: Buffy engages in a homosexual one-night stand that turns into two nights and maybe more.
In and of itself, that’s fine, I guess. My trouble is that Buffy herself is pretty staunchly hetero: she never shows any Phoebe-on-Friends-like interest in her friends, is shocked when Willow reveals her sexual preference, never pays any sexual attention to attractive women, even says herself that she’s not gay “so you’d notice.” No, she’s lonely, and so falls into bed with the first person to express a real interest in her. Of course, the scene devolves into a complete sexual farce, with Xander barging in, expressing a wish for Willow to appear, and then—poof—Willow appears. Willow later demands a description of Buffy’s behavior in bed from Satsu, suggesting that Willow herself wouldn’t mind the chance to hop in Buffy’s bed herself. The trouble is, Willow’s relationship with Tara is treated seriously and tenderly, while other bi-sexual choices and behavior are treated with levity—just look at Andrew, after all!
TV-Tropes calls situations like this “But Not Too Bi“: Buffy’s and Andrew’s attraction to the same sex is something whimsical, while Willow’s relationship with Tara is something beautiful.
There are many variations to this, but key is to create some form of pecking order between the sexes, presumably in order to make the character more appealing to the audience depending on what gender and sexuality they are expected to have, while at the same time having the titillation, comedic material or diversity of ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour. Of course, the prevalence of the trope brings some Unfortunate Implications for real life bisexuals; that in the end it’s only one gender that matters to them and that their experiences with the other one are worthless.
Which brings me to the heart of the problem. Have you ever played The Sims? Individual Sims develop relationships based on a meter bar which ranges from negative-x to 100, with 100 being the closest, most caring a Sim relationship can be. In the early editions of the game, though, when Sims crossed about 65, they automatically had romantic feelings for one another—regardless of gender. Yes, I say “gender” and not “sex” because Sims have no gender-preference: they fall in love willy-nilly with no choice in sexual orientation. It flies in the face of the scientific evidence that says sexual orientation is a product of biology and is not a choice.
Real people are not Sims. I love my best girl friend very deeply, but I don’t have sexual feelings for her. (Sorry, dear.) But sometimes, in fantasy worlds, people tend to act like Sims. I personally wouldn’t say this, but I’ve heard it pointed out that Willow transforms into a lesbian just because she and Tara spend a lot of time together and have a lot in common. Willow falls in love with Tara out of convenience. Magical power could also be read as a metaphor for gayness: it’s an Othering of the character, the characters have to deal with the consequences of what makes them special, and they’re naturally attracted to someone similarly Other, i.e., Buffy and Satsu. I don’t agree with that analysis (we have no evidence that Witch-Amy is other than heterosexual, for example), but the fact remains that it could stand.
We’ve been picking on Buffy a lot, so let’s look at another example: Rachel Morgan and Ivy Tamwood in Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series.
Ivy (vampire) and Rachel (witch) are business partners and (arguably) best friends. Ivy is bisexual, Rachel is heterosexual. Ivy is in love with Rachel. She also wants to drink Rachel’s blood, but, abused in her youth, can’t separate blood-lust from sexual-lust. Rachel wants to escalate their relationship, to know the intimacy that comes from sharing blood… but… “She’s totally not gay.” She insists on her hetero status, and yet she and Ivy share several sexual experiences with blood, and Rachel is left wondering how she can find a balance.
Rachel’s only romantic relationships are with men, but her relationship with Ivy is at the center of the series—and I frequently find myself wondering as I read if the two are really friends at all. Ivy set up their living situation in an effort to seduce Rachel, and it’s unclear what relationship she intended that seduction to create. Is Rachel teasing Ivy, torturing her by insisting that she’s straight but still engaging in what Ivy views as sexually-charged behavior? Is Ivy using Rachel, trying to “convert” her from what Rachel believes is her deeply-ingrained preference? Are they friends at all, or is this an abusive “romantic” relationship?
I’m not okay with the blurring of female friendships and abusive relationships. Maybe Rachel is using Ivy, and maybe Buffy is using Satsu: either way, it’s not a healthy friendship, and it’s setting up the bi-sexual or lesbian woman to get hurt. While there are examples in the fantasy genre of healthy female friendships and healthy lesbian relationships, we should’t accept the harmful relationships with question or, worse, with humor.
What do you think, readers? Agree, disagree? Do you hate me now? What are some other examples of healthy and harmful relationships? What do you make of Tara from True Blood, who I left out to save on length?