Thursday, January 2, 2014

"Just" friends, and other lies

Disclaimer: I am well aware that not everyone who writes fan fiction is a woman. And I also know that there are many non-binary genders whose perspective may not be appropriately covered here. But the discussion that was started began as a discussion between hetero men and women. I recognize that a lot of women I know personally who write fan fiction are gender fluid and/or something other than hetero, and that a non-hetero male perspective would probably be significantly different. I don't want to leave anyone out, so if you've got something to say from another perspective, please do.

In the aftermath of the whole Fandom vs Journalists fuckup which I'm happy to say it sounds like the fangirls won, mildrednbobbin asked a very interesting question, which was this:

Do women wear romance goggles?

As it turns out, I have a lot of feelings on this subject, probably because of that whole idea of "just" friends is something  that I have put a lot of thought into. So much, as it turns out, that it's taken me a couple weeks to get my thoughts in order. Because the thing is, being as I am, there is no such thing as "just friends." For me, friendship is it. It's as far as I go, and the deepest combinations of feelings I am capable of. It's different every time. It's deep and meaningful, and sometimes difficult and fraught with affection and admiration, and deep, true feelings, that I sometimes feel pressured to keep half-hidden, because of knowing that so many others feel like friendship is just what you have aside from those other feelings. So throwing that Just in front of friendship is like slapping a barrier on my relationships, saying, "we go this far, but no further." Which is ridiculous, of course, because where romantic relationships tend to exist within pretty well-established structures and patterns, and sexual desire is, from what I can gather, largely autonomous, a thing that happens without you having any input other than (in the best scenarios) to say yes, I will pursue this feeling, or no, I will not, friendship is, as I said, varied and complex in it's in and outs and preferences and cherishable moments. So when looking at why women tend to see romance even when men insist there isn't one, I first want to examine the point I made on the actual post; that women are taught from an early age that there will one day be someone for them who will fulfill every possible need, whereas men are encouraged to look for a fullfilling life outside the home.

Today's tactics for keeping women separated from men seems to exist in a kind of divide-and-conquer method. Think of how many heroines we get who are proudly "not like other girls." Think of the constant messages that women are catty, that women competing with other women is somehow much less clean and honorable than it is when men do it, that women are insecure and jealous of each other. Think of the media's sudden interest in the brutality of "girl-on-girl" violence and bullying, of the excuses that "she just fell in with a bad crowd." and "she's not really like that." and all the many, many stories in which the romantic lead is, "not like any girl I've ever met." Add it all together and you'd almost get the impression that we're discouraging girls and women away from other girls and women, wouldn't you? The fact is, we teach women when they are still girls, that if you want to run with the boys, you're going to have to set yourself apart from the rest of "them." We live in a culture where friends are that thing that girls have before they start dating. Because other girls will try to steal your boyfriend, or because other girls will call you a slut, or because a guy may love you, but hate your friends... Meanwhile, men and boys are encouraged to never take the "opposite sex" too seriously, lest they be subject to endless ribbing from friends. Media narratives hugely reinforce these stereotypes; romantic comedies with female protagonists tend to be all about getting the guy, about getting him to notice you, getting him to fall in love with you, getting him to drag you out of whatever misery fate has dropped you in. When friends do feature (which is rare enough) It's usually a story of how one lifelong friend (because there is only ever one) has to get over her jealousy at being replaced, and be happy for her friend to be leaving her. Conversely, taking a  comedy about men and relationships, (which is almost never called a romantic comedy) The love story is generally not about falling in love, but about how his friends help him get the girl, or about how difficult it is for him to maintain his boy-time with his friends. A lot of the time, in men's stories, the love story has already happened. He's either married, or else comfortably single. In media and other storytelling forms, men are encouraged to have strong multifacted bonds with other men, and keep their relationships with women as self-contained as possible. Women are encouraged to pursue strong bonds with maybe one or two women if they can get it, but also understand that it is inherent in their nature that their most fulfilling relationship will be the romantic one, and with the knowledge that no woman can ever truly trust another. I remember when I was 19, a friend of mine who identified as bi, introduced me to her new boyfriend. As soon as he had me alone, he asked me, "So, when did you two stop fooling around?" I was pretty shocked.
"What? Did she say that?"
"Well no. She says you two are really close. And obviously, she's bi, so-" When I told him he had it completely the wrong way around, that nothing ever happened between us, and it never would, he seemed completely flummoxed. When, fuming, I told my friend she should dump him, because he was obviously using her for sex, she got angry with me. She responded with,
"Oh, don't be so judgemental. Of course he's going to think that. Guys always do."

Which is kind of a segue into my next point. Women's behaviors are constantly monitored. Women are not asked so much as ordered, to consider the implications and thought processes of other people. It's a lifetime of "If you wear that skirt, guys might think you're asking for it." "You don't want to come off too ________ or people will think ________" "You know, some people could take what you've just said the wrong way. Be careful you don't offend anyone." For men, by contrast, that sort of censoring comes up much less often. So I think another part of why male writers, producers and actors tend to shrug off the ideas presented in say, slash fan fiction, is largely because it really doesn't occur to them. And unlike women, they can then safely assume that it has never occurred to anyone else either. If you'll notice, women authors and actors are typically much less bothered by the idea of fan fiction then men are. (Sadly, there are not enough women producers to test the theory.) I'm not saying men's attitudes and opinions are never challenged but they're more likely to have only ever been challenged by other men. Women interpreting words or performance as different from what an actor or writer intended is more likely to throw them. And of course, when we're talking about a romance between two guys, that throws up a whole lot of, if not blatent homophobia, certainly a general threat to that character's perceived heterosexuality. Women's opinions, thoughts, and  stories, are open for interpretation. Men's stories are meant to be exactly what they have made them, and no more. I've made that complaint about Moffat many times, that unlike Doyle, or taking a different tact, the writers of Doctor Who who came before him, he can't seem to be able to keep sexuality ambivalent. He has to have his heroes as heterosexual males, and even when the romance is all off screen, it has to be explicitly stated with no room for interpretation. Because good Lord what would happen if other people had their say!

My third point is one of the major problems I have with slash fiction in general. Particularly heterosexual men have safe spaces to frankly explore their own sexuality. You can throw heterosexual sex on a screen, and people will allow it to be filmed, and people will watch it, and people will understand it. Men's stories are full of men who are less than perfect getting women who are idealized perfection. Women don't have that. If women are seen as wanting that, they are selfish and greedy and shallow, even among other women. If women are seen as being too desirable, she's a slut if she accepts the attention, she's a frigid bitch if she hates the attention. In stories, if women are curious about sex, they are punished, either through trials meant to redeem them, or by becoming cold, unfeeling women who no one could love. So here then, is a safe way for women to explore sexuality and desire: through interpretation of someone else's stories. Which is wonderful except for the underlining sense that, in case anyone should think your own sexuality is leaking through, get rid of the women entirely if you can, and focus on the men. Men being played by actors, and written by writers, and filmed by producers, whose sexuality will always be secured in its own acceptance. So of course, they're going to be dismissive of the need for women to have a platform and give a voice to their own sexuality. The ways they choose to express it shouldn't really be all that shocking. Given that we accept and understand that most mainstream pornography shows lesbian pornography essentially as by men for men. So really, is it so shocking that a portion of gay erotica is written by women, for women? Certainly, the latter is done with a lot more respect and affection, and a hell of a lot less exploitation for the former. Or at least, usually.

Anyway, I want to thank mildredandbobbin for getting my wheels turning on this one, because it's an interesting thought.

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