Freudian Friday: Girl Friends in Fantasy

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.

Post-coital, pre-comical.

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!

Their first onscreen kiss is part of a devastating, un-sexual episode.

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.

These two are actually pretty cute.

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?

PDR: Stories and Settings

Blame this article in the February 1 issue of The New Yorker about Dresden, but I’ve been thinking about cultural memory and the ‘story’ of history, and that comes out in the story we told in this week’s cards.

Who/Protagonist – Seven of Wands
A lone, cloaked figure stands guarding a portal, holding his (or her!) lit wand defiantly into the air. This character is a loner, a protector, someone who defends whatever it is they believe in, whatever lies on the other side of that portal. Interestingly, the figure is ghostly and appears to be dematerializing…

Who/Antagonist – The Magician
The magician (an alchemist?) holds an orb and lightning between his hands. He wears an expression of rapt concentration. His hands, as a side note, are deformed, with six fingers on each. In our case, this represents a person of vast power, one who can ‘magically’ effect change (oooh, the right effect, even, and in a blog post!).

Where – Five of Cups
A distraught young woman sits in the shards of three broken glasses, clutching the remaining two perfect glasses to her chest without looking at them. We saw this as a place or a culture (I’m again thinking Germany) so ashamed of or traumatized by its past that it cannot move forward, instead focusing on that trauma and failing to see the positive in its present.

What/Why – Two of Wands
Two wands frame two similar locked boxes; one key floats between them. It is unclear which box the key will open, and a choice must be made.

Story Possibilities
I’ll give you two possible stories to fit this scenario.

  1. In story number one, we have a culture like Germany (please forgive me Germans for abusing your cultural past), which has difficulty accepting a horror in its past. Out of shame, it cannot accept its past and has trouble moving forward. Our main character has spent her life defending her culture and getting them to accept the bad with the good in order to move forward. Just when she feels she’s making progress, a ‘magician,’ individual or group, enters the picture, offering a quick-fix and the ability to erase the nation’s cultural memory. He offers an artificially blank slate for the future: forget your horror and move on! Become a new country! So the nation must choose between the easy but false whitewash and the honest but difficult struggle to acceptance. The main character faces her own choice: continue to fight, or accept a whitewash of her own and wash her hands of the whole thing.
  2. Story number two lends itself to the popular postcolonial literature frequently found on college campuses and in Oprah’s book club. Also on the Nobel lists… Okay, it’s popular for a reason; it’s important. And this story touches on themes that are fundamental to this genre. In this scenario, our main character is trying to help a nation recover from a history of colonization, trying to integrate a native culture with the new hybrid culture. The magician appears, saying ‘Return to your roots! Pretend it didn’t happen!’ or ‘Start fresh! Make your culture anew!’ etc. The choices are similar to above.

My point, finally, is that stories with archetypal or deep-seated cultural themes transcend their setting. These can be contemporary stories, or historical, or sci-fi, or whatever suits you, because these are issues that humanity has faced since the dawn of time and that the cockroaches will probably face when we’re all gone. The tarot is a tool to help you access those themes, just another of the tools every writer should have, like grammar, metaphors, and a word processor, and lots of vodka… Okay, kidding on that last one.

Happy storytelling.

PDR: Storytelling

One of my very favorite tarot activities is story-telling: I draw four or five cards as “Who – Protagonist,” “Who – Antagonist,” “Where,” and “Why/What”. Generally “why/what” is a theme or a goal.  I do this as a creative exercise for me and as a fun way to draw my boyfriend into my hobby — without having to resort to strip tarocchi.

I’ll give a brief description and some thoughts we had of each card drawn tonight, and then try to outline our thinking process  and the story we came up with.

Who/Protagonist — Knight of Wands
The Knights in the Legacy of the Divine deck are portrayed as masks, the uniform of the enforcer, to draw on Ciro Marchetti’s metaphor from the book accompanying the deck. We named a few qualities (i.e. brash, passionate, adventurous), coming up with a dragon-slaying, knight-errant king.

Who/Antagonist — The Sun
This deck features a non-traditional sun, and the card depicts a priest standing in front of a large, mechanical mobile of the solar system. Keywords included enlightenment and revitalization — we thought of the new burning away the old facades.

Where — Justice
Tricky for a setting, but it gave us a mood. The card refers balance and the blind rule of law. In combination with the other cards, our story, then, takes place at a time when we’re trying to find balance between the old and the new, between passions and enlightenment.

What/Why — Eight of Cups
The key word mention here was “evolution.” The card features an octopus-man in the water, turning away from the cups (and his way of life) towad the moon. He is half of the water, half of the sky, not fully part of either world. (I’m trying to resist the Little Mermaid comparison here… oops, I failed.) In our story, we have a king caught between two worlds: his young, brash self and his older, wiser self; an old government and a new, etc.

The story
After some initial discussion, we thought we had a choice between two archetypal stories: the coming of age story bildungsroman, and the Fisher King or ‘wounded king’ Celtic myth. While that seems pretty standard and dull, we realized that our story in synthesizes those two fables into one. Here we have an aged king who began his rule in the brash, knight-errant style, now ruling at the time when his kingdom is being shifted from a feudal rule to a republican rule. His country is being ‘enlightened’ toward wanting a republican, the slow-acting, balanced government, the opposite of this king’s style. The king must allow the Sun to burn away his mask and let himself evolve into the monarch that his people will need. In this story, the eight of cups evolution is changing both the kingdom and the king. The old king must become the new king, but he also must face his trials and come of age as a grown man. It’s coming of age because the king must grown past his former self, but it’s a king replacement because he must slay his old self and begin a new rule.

Interesting, yes? Not material for a best-selling novel by any means, but definitely short story potential. If you enjoyed reading this, drop me a note and I’ll make it a weekly posting.

PDR: Wands, wands, wands

I’ve drawn at least one wand a day for the past week: very interesting. Today’s reading:

Focus card: Four of Cups (The ‘focus card’ is to help me with meditation and is also a sort of tarot mantra to keep me from sassing customers when they bug me at work.)
This card seems pertinent today. I’ve been having very strong ‘grass is greener’ feelings the past couple of days, wondering if I made the right choice when I moved away from a reporting career. I know that I did (or at least I think I did), but reporting seems much more appealing after four months spent hawking clothes at Old Navy.

Mind: King of Wands
I wish! I haven’t been feeling very creatively empowered lately, but this guy just keeps popping up. I’m going to read this positively, to say that even if I haven’t done a lot of writing lately, it’s in my brain, waiting for me to seize the moment. Anyway, the King of Wands definitely seems to have a major part to play in my life right now.

Body: Three of Cups
Hmm. I mostly feel blah physically, so I’m not sure where to go with this. This woman is very sexy and seductive, with her dancing and her veils… I don’t feel like that at all! I did wear a cute outfit today, though… does that count? 🙂

Spirit: Four of Wands
I don’t feel like I’m quite in this place, but I think this card shows where I’m headed. I’ve been practicing meditation and trying to refresh my spiritual side, so I’m taking this card very positively. I’m definitely headed toward that sheltered spot among the wands.

All and all, today’s reading made me feel good. Post-meditation, pre-work seems like a good time to do my daily read. It’s good to know that the wands are in my life one way or another, even if I don’t have a lot of time or energy to write.

On a side note, my poor Legacy of the Divine deck has gotten rather beat up since we started our monogamous PDR journey together. The Knight of Swords has some major cat claw gouges, the Fool’s border is chipping, and they’re all showing a little wear. I made a bag last night that I’m quite happy with. It’s soft yet sturdy, flexible enough to fit in my purse and still protect the deck. So yay.

Cheers.