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Friday, April 20, 2012

I can't even tell if I'm joking

I feel like Cosmo and Glamour's dating tips would be much more interesting if imparted through the lens of shitty 80s hair metal. Therefore I am proud (...) to present the Cock Rock Innuendo Index, A Work In Progress. Basically, look to the rough poetry of Axl Rose, Bret Michaels, and Vince Neil to be sure of whether the person in question is hitting on you and how you feel about that.

The line: "You're [insert typically masculine adjective here] for a woman." The lyric: "Slow down, hold on/you're too fast, too strong/slow down, make it last/take it easy, not too fast/don't let go" ("Let It Go," Def Leppard). The interpretation: He's slightly threatened by your cornhole game, sculpted biceps, or beer-pounding panache, but it's turning him on.

The line: "I thought I'd seen it all, until I met you." The lyric: "I've seen everything imaginable/pass before these eyes/I've had everything that's tangible/honey, you'd be surprised" ("Rocket Queen," Guns N' Roses). The interpretation:  No one's that jaded. Except maybe Chuck Bass...Is Chuck Bass creeping on you?

The line: "Bad girls get spankings." The lyric: "Nobody knows how to tie the simple knots I know/getting weak in the knees/and your bruises are beginning to show" ("Where There's a Whip There's a Way," Faster Pussycat). The interpretation: He may be into bondage or he may just be an abusive asshole.

The line: "Damn girl, you're nasty." The lyric: "You never act the way you should/but I like it/and I know you like it too" ("Talk Dirty To Me," Poison).  The interpretation: Keep talking, it's working.

The line: "Have you ever made out in an elevator?" The lyrics: "Here I come/my mind is set/get ready for love/you're my ten-second pet" ("Ten Seconds to Love," Motley Crue). The interpretation: He wants a BJ in between the hotel bar and his room.

The line: "Such a tease!" The lyric: "You see I'm beggin' you please/saying I can't wait to feel your love tonight" ("Feel Your Love Tonight," Van Halen). The interpretation: The balls are in your court, play them as you will.

The line: "Oh, you're dangerous. I know about girls like you." The lyric: "Like a fallen angel/with the devil's charm/she promised paradise/with the kiss of death" ("Kiss of Death," Dokken). The interpretation: Tread with caution--he might be playing coy or he might be a skittish, needy, once-burned Dokken aficionado. 

The line: "You're gorgeous. Are you here with someone?" The lyric: "You got it/but are you getting it?" ("Armageddon It," Def Leppard). The interpretation:You get to decide if a) you ARE indeed here with someone; b)c) you're not here with someone but now you have someone to go home with. you're not here with someone but this person isn't your speed; or

Monday, April 16, 2012

Changing views of sex and sexuality in SFF

"The Chaste Hero/ine" was the title of a panel I attended at a convention last weekend. It was a very interesting panel, one of several featuring Tamora Pierce (the con's major doubleplusbonus for me), but it didn't quite go in the direction I anticipated. If I'd had longer than 45 minutes to gather my thoughts, I might have stuck my hand in the air and said something; as it is, I will have to do my thinky thawts thing here on Ye Olde Blogge.

One thing that struck me immediately about the entire topic is the value judgement inherent in the word "chaste." It is a word intimately tied to concepts of purity, virtue, and moral goodness. Historically, in fiction and in life, those who are chaste are good and those who aren't are bad. For me this is the most salient point when talking about SFF protagonists, since by and large speculative fiction has moved away from overt portrayals of this value system. And the panelists did briefly talk in this direction when they discussed Galahad, but the point was never explicitly made or expanded upon that his power, stemming from God, was directly tied to his sexual purity. This is true for other male characters of the Arthurian cycle, including Galahad's father Lancelot, the wizard Merlin, and arguably even Arthur himself. Both of these men's powers diminish drastically after sexual contact with women; in some instances, Lancelot blames his tryst with Guinevere for his failure to obtain the Holy Grail, and Merlin is imprisoned (or dies) after his power is drained by his protege Nimue.  In some versions, the decline of Arthur's kingdom can be read as originating in his cuckoldry, or at least his unwillingness or inability to punish Lancelot and Guinevere. In these and other instances, magical, spiritual, and physical power stems from bodily (sexual) cleanliness. This runs the gamut from actual celibacy to faithful monogamy and sometimes ignores male-male sex as "not counting" (certainly there are examples, in fiction and in life, of female-female sex being considered to "not count"). The most bald examples are of male fantasy heroes dedicating their sexuality to a deity in return for power.

Although Virgin Power (as TV Tropes would have it) exists for female SFF characters--the Keepers of Darkover, for instance--the god-human-sex-life relationship for female protagonists tends to take somewhat of a different tack. In mythologized history, there are examples of women mystics who derive (thinly veiled) sexual experiences from their spiritual experiences; Teresa of Avila and Joan of Arc come to mind. In place of sexual appetite being swapped for physical, spiritual, or magical power, spiritual fervor and physical chastity lead to sexual ecstasy. In fiction, the first warrior maidens appeared as equal to their male counterparts in all ways save one: sexual prowess and appetite. It's safe to say that "manliness" has been and is often still tied to boning everything in sight, and many SFF heroes have voracious appetites. The first SFF heroines outside of the damsel-in-distress, exotic-Other, and evil-enchantress molds were strong, capable, good, powerful...and still virginal, so that something might be left for a man to conquer. Eowyn is an example of this early on in fantasy literature (Red Sonja is another who combines Virgin Power with Rape As Backstory, and who despite her sultry appearance has very strict rules about when the sexin' happens). We have departed a good deal from the stock story of ladies doing "men's work" until the right man comes along: many speculative fiction heroines have active sex lives these days and many are treated with a great deal more nuance than "exotic dusky-skinned temptress," "maiden a-questing 'til it's time to settle down," "pure wide-eyed damsel," and "femme fatale sorcerer-dominatrix." Some are even lesbian or bisexual or pansexual (sarcasm italics).
And sometimes, male and female heroes alike are not sexual at all--and this is a facet of their personalities, rather than being a hinge on which the entire story turns. Sulien in Walton's The King's Peace is raped at the outset of the story and afterward manifests no sexual desire of any kind. She is effectively asexual, saying that she was "not made that way" (for taking pleasure in sex). This is barely notable in her culture, which is one of relative sexual permissiveness. She is also  referred to as a "walkurja"--a Valkyrie, the archetypal warrior maiden of Norse myth. Tarma and Lavan Firestorm, from the Valdemar books, are celibate for different reasons--Tarma is referred to at one point as "sexless" by dint of being a Shin'a'in Swordsworn (she also has sexual assault in her history); Lavan is lifebonded to his Companion, who is not human, and he has no interest in human partners. Paks, in Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion, is asexual, and arguably Bilbo and Frodo Baggins are as well. These examples are significant to me because they indicate things beyond choice dictating sexual activity. Most of the panelists' and audience discussion of hero/ine celibacy was restricted to why protagonists choose to have sex or not, but that doesn't have to be the only route an author takes and it is certainly not the whole story for people in real life. Paks specifically bridges the space between "I have dedicated my sex life to my god(s)" and "I have no sexual urges"--she is a paladin and has no sexual desires to begin with. Over-reliance on sexual tension--no matter what form it manifests in--is, according to my tastes, found too often across all literary genres.

I guess my rambly point is, there are different tropes at work depending on what book you're reading. SFF in many areas has turned away from the all-consuming need to make sex The Big Point Of Everything (we finally got past Heinlein), coming to recognize that there are ways of writing about a character's sex life and/or sexuality without discarding or ignoring other points of interest. 

The "chaste" panel kind of tied in to another panel I attended about LGBTQ characters in speculative fiction. There is a growing market for genre fiction featuring LGBTQ characters as well as a burgeoning library of books which do just that. Best of all, it seems that, like sex in general, differing sexualities are moving from ZOMG PLOT POINT! or ZOMG SEXY WINDOW DRESSING! to being part of well-developed, thoughtful characters. I read a review of Walton's Small Change series once which complained about how many gay characters there were--and not even major characters, just side characters! This was actually something I enjoyed about those novels, because heterosexuality is not and should not be portrayed as the default. When I walk through a crowd, not everyone around me is straight. From early exploitative examples of male-gazey lesbian trysts in pulp novels we have created a legacy of such treasures as Ethan of Athos, some of the Bordertown stories, China Mountain Zhang, Swordspoint, and Huntress, to name just a few.

Something I have noticed in my reading journey is that trans people are also getting more of a presence in fiction, and more of a thoughtful, realistic one. The first arguably trans character I encountered in fantasy was in the absolutely redonk If I Pay Thee Not In Gold (the first and last Lackey/Anthony team-up) in the form of the demon Ware, who shifts from male to female depending on who s/he was sleeping with. Not exactly a nuanced representation.  There is also somewhat of a tendency to treat trans characters in terms of magic or extreme technology (scientific marvels of post-human or trans-human tech, for instance) instead of "real people" characters. But we have other examples to look to--Okha and Nestor's relationship in Pierce's Bloodhound (her earliest heroine, Alanna, has themes of transvestism and gender performance if not transgender issues); The Left Hand of Darkness comments on human gender roles through the lens of androgynous aliens; Joanna Russ' The Female Man and The Adventures of Alyx center, not unproblematically, around what it means to be a woman; Lilith's Brood and other stories by Octavia E. Butler examine sex and gender in human, post-human, and alien societies; and River of Gods and especially Brasyl by Ian McDonald feature third sex or trans main characters. Science fiction and fantasy have long been natural playing fields for speculation and innovation regarding the human form, societal and cultural roles, and gender strictures. Where once upon a time this meant men writing about the sex they wished they were having, more and more it is coming to mean truly fantastic and speculative literature, exploratory and progressive fiction. Heterosexuality and monogamy need not be the norm in fantastic fiction. Triads such as those found in novels of Walton and Simmons, gay protagonists, asexual heroes, and trans characters--these are things I want to see in genres which purport to imagine all that can be imagined and to look forward to the futures we want to shape.

Monday, April 09, 2012


This weekend was Easter, of course. No longer being of a Christian faith and having a convention to attend in Columbus, I didn't really remember until today, when I realized that all my favorite candy would be on sale at the grocery store. A few of my beau's classmates invited him to church with them, which (I believe) the former Catholic declined. If we had been at home, we would have had lunch or dinner with our families, and that's really what I miss the most. As zany and irritating as our respective clans may be, the weight of cultural holidays is centered around family and togetherness, especially for secular people, atheists, or people whose religious paths don't celebrate that particular holiday. For many years when I was growing up, Easter Sunday was the day that we took our family photograph, and it still feels somewhat strange to not see my mother's family that day. 

But Easter still happens here in Ohio, and in many ways the season is more overt; maybe because of the preponderance of giant old Catholic churches in my new area and the streams of people I saw tracing the Stations of the Cross, maybe because of the extravagant flowers and blooming trees everywhere. As Christmas is the season of preparation and anticipation, Easter is the season of promises making good and tangible results. It is easy to feel inspired by the newness around me,  it is simple to enact the rites of spring in the everyday, and that is my religion.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Leave me alone

There's kicky little saying that Mormons love to parrot regarding apostates: "They leave the church, but they can't leave it alone."

Aside from how incredibly short that sells the church in terms of spiritual and cultural impact (like, you guys realize you're saying that the church is totally easy to ditch and completely forget about, right? THAT SHOULD NOT BE A GOOD THING), this adage also ignores the church's tendency to never leave anyone alone ever, not even after they've died. I don't remember if I talked here about how my mother had given the missionaries in Tampa my new cell phone number and how that made me feel--it pissed me off. A very simple invasion of privacy. Furthermore, by that time I had not been inside an LDS church in five years.

Who can't leave whom alone?

Thursday evening I got a charming email from my lady parent detailing the coming apocalypse as brought on by President Obama declaring "peacetime martial law" (I know, I know). I replied briefly and vulgarly. In her response to my brief vulgarity, my mother reminded me that this weekend is General Conference! AS IF I COULD FORGET, since she reminds me of this twice a year. Now, sure, if I had cable I'd be slamming down shots every time an old white dude mentioned Joseph Smith, but I don't and so I'll just have to conduct my weekend the way I normally do: a little library, a little grocery shopping, maybe get laid.


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