It was after discussing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Crimes of Grindelwald with a few mutuals that I realized something: I was the only one in the room bothered by a few things that the trailer brought up and made me even more angry than usual at Jo Rowling.
This post is going to be a little self-indulgent and may even come off as a little narcissistic but I want to talk about critical conversations about media when you’re the only person in the room concerned about it.
I’ll preface this by saying I am a well-intending idiot. I’m proud of my education but when it comes to the people I choose to spend my time with, I am the dumb one. Amber can talk circles around me in a dialogue, I am nothing as far as trivia goes in comparison to Victoria and Carlos.
I’m proud of my education and proud of my level of intellect but I am far from remarkable as far as I see it.
That being said, I’m also willing to cope to the remarkable amount of privilege that I have with my ability to be pedantic about comic books.
All of that aside, let’s get back to the topic.
My issues with Jo Rowling’s recent romp are numerous and the most recent trailer only pushed me over the edge with disappointment for Good Ol’ Auntie Jo. Choosing to make Nagini an Asian woman now held in animagus and bondage is vile and a perpetuation of the submissive Asian trope on a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 level and continuing to allow Johnny Depp to be in anything is a vile cash-grab. Additionally, the continual teasing of “finally getting a gay Dumbledore” have proven to be mostly a queer-baiting PR stunt. I had plenty of new reasons to be disappointed with this movie on top of the foundation of reasons I had to be disappointed with this movie.
And when pressed about my issues and explaining that I was tired of the mystical Native American trope and a world where it’s the 1920s and racism isn’t real but discrimination against non-magic users is a thing, I realized something. I was the only person who seemed to care about these issues.
I was the only person in the room that seemed concerned about perpetuating damaging stereotypes and authentic representation.
And that bothered me.
Time and time again I’ve been told that I’m too critical of media. That I should just turn off my brain.
Let’s kill that in its crib immediately.
I am an English major, literary student, research scholar, writer, reader and more.
My brain is hard-wired to be critical of the messages I see via the media I consume.
Turning off my brain is not something I think I’m capable of. I was even dissecting casual movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard because yes there was stuff to dissect in that raging garbage fire of a movie.
Keep in mind, I am a huge nerd. Well, not huge. I’m a very petite nerd. I have YEARS of canon knowledge and trivia. I am also an avid reader who tries to fill the void of existential dread with books and literary criticism. I know my references. And I’m passionate about knowledge and learning more.
And considering that literally every piece of media is trying to push an agenda, it’s vitally important to be aware of what comics, movies, television and more are trying to sell you.
Besides, being critical is sort of my thing. Never in a contrarian sort of way but being more “aware” and “critical” of the media around if has helped me carve out a niche that I’m quite proud of.
Let’s take a moment to remember that being critical doesn’t mean hating everything. Which brings us to the other part of the uncomfortable conversation I had:
Well, do you like anything?
Dear reader, I love many things. That doesn’t mean that anything is perfect. I love John Constantine as a character but he is a tire fire and I am empathetic to anyone who wants to punch him in the neck. I love most comic books but I also absolutely understand that the Marvel movies are just a scheme to funnel cash into Disney’s gaping monopoly. I tear apart the things I love because that’s what a critical reader and viewer does. Nothing is perfect, everything has flaws, everything has an agenda.
And there are times I can be highly critical of a piece of media while still mostly enjoying it. Deadpool 2 is a mostly forgettable superhero sequel with huge problems like another shocking instance of Girlfriend in the Fridge but for the most part, I really laughed during that film.
There are other times, however, where a story’s issues are too distracting like with Black Panther where I was so overcome with disgust at the misuse of words and verbage actual militant African-Americans used that I struggle to get through the second half of the film without a stomach ache.
And again, I’m surrounded by folks who echo similar feelings to mine. We may not all share the same opinions but Amber and I left Black Panther and talked about race relations for literally about an hour. I walk out of a movie and immediately have a call with Carlos. I get to talk with the other writers of FanGirl Nation and chat about tropes and more. I am surrounded by brilliant human beings who are just as critical, if not more so, than I am and I am a better person for it.
I do sometimes wish I could “turn off my brain” and come down and talk about a movie for just what it is. Increasingly, critical reading and watching is a rarity, kept in niche communities. I do wish I could talk about feminism in movies more and political themes in pop culture more but many just want to “turn off their brains” and enjoy their media.
I sometimes wish I wasn’t aware of how grossly sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic and harmful popular media can be.
But I am.
And with that heavy burden I will continue to call those things out for as long as I am able.
In our last discussion on the importance of endings, I said something that I’ve said many times before: I am a selfish and self-indulgent writer. I don’t think that on its own is negative on its own but before I continue on with my thesis on the praises of the selfish creator, I want to talk about what I mean when I say that and then when it can fail us. When I say a writer is self-indulgent or selfish, I mean that they do as they wish. Maki Murakami in writing Gravitation comes to mind. She wrote the series as she wanted and didn’t care about basic things like plot structure or continuity or canon. If she wanted to treat a character terribly for several chapters for no apparent reason, she did. If she wanted a robot panda fight sequence, she got one. The thing was, people read it. Well, I read it. And while sure, I like most people, did struggle with her dips in and out of logic I was always inspired by her willingness to do what she wanted as a creator and even though this was a widely syndicated manga, she basically got away with literary murder. In a statement on why I write, I say that I write for revenge. My words are a spell. Oftentimes I am writing to right a wrong. Character I like doesn’t get enough screen time? There’s a fanfiction for that. Not satisfied with the way a pairing shakes out? There’s fanart for that. Unhappy with a series’ ending? Keep the story going. One of the longest running stories I have going is purely to spite Jo Rowling and her apparent hatred of Slytherins. But I am not famous (yet) and while my occasional conflama post online may get some traction, I’m far from someone who does this for a living. One of the biggest reasons I’ve been so stingy on publishing my fiction recently (I had no qualms about it when I was younger and thankfully, those places on the internet no longer exist) and I’m acutely aware that if I were to return to posting fiction, I’d likely be more considerate about how and what I post. I keep a regular schedule here because I know it’s what you all, my lovely readers, expect of me. And sometimes that’s hard to do. But I feel like I owe you all, my fair readers, a regular schedule. But I am selfish in other regards as I’m sure you’ve noticed by the months heavy in discussions of framing or the occasional rant about feminism. And because I do still feel beheld to an audience, there are things I still temper and keep quiet on. Which is where I’ll pause to talk about when being a selfish creator is less than ideal. I’ve ranted enough about Sister Claire but it’s a good place to begin. You can see where the creators are now just sort of writing whatever they’d like and it feels less and less like a narrative story and more like the create-your-own- lesbian adventure they really wanted to write. And webcomics may be one of the mediums where you can be the most self-indulgent, as a reader unless you are a patron, you can sort of just bail. But that doesn’t mean that you should. Remember that long standing grudge I have against Jo Rowling? She’s sort of the self-indulgent creator’s patron saint. Her prose is full of moments where you can practically see her oozing over her own brilliance. And I roll my eyes at every instance of it. Because there is a time and a place to be self-indulgent…taking several words to discuss how clever a name pun is simply is not the place. And her selfishness has affected fandom. She’s quick to correct people and tell people how to read her work and while I could and have discussed plenty on death of the creator, I am annoyed any time a creator tells me how I should read a piece. I will continue to advocate for a Draco Malfoy that gets things done and a House system where not everyone is a rival except for Hufflepuffs, they can stay on the outside (I’m kidding, mostly). And there’s no part of me that’s advocating for being a total sell-out. I can’t stand when a work gets watered down because it has to appeal to the masses. We’ve all seen television shows and books lose their edge once muggles find it. Lookin’ at you, seriously most comic book tent pole films. Watering down a work for mass appeal is frustrating. I myself has struggled with staying niche and not compromising myself and my style of writing or paneling versus trying to screech a little less about feminism and gender roles for a wider appeal. I am much happier in somewhat obscurity if it means never having to dilute what I have to say. I’m also far from saying we shouldn’t challenge creators at all. It’s about balance and knowing when and where it’s appropriate to do as you wish. Remember, we never reigned in Stephen King and now his cocaine-fueled nonsense are some of the most important parts of beloved horror stories and some would likely argue that It is somehow better with an uncomfortable sex scene and a giant world turtle (I am not making this up). There’s something to be said about not giving a hoot; a dear friend of mine produces art for a ship that I have researched just so I can admire and appreciate her wonderful art. I’m surrounded by wonderful creators who are happy to knuckle down and make what they love but are still willing to compromise when it really does matter.
I’m happy to hear feedback and criticism and I do listen to most of those things. But then I go back and write a fluff piece about a franchise I love or go on a long-winded rant about how much I dislike the way comics are writing Jason Todd right now.
After our last post about webcomics, a very common thread appeared as I ranted about why I fell out of touch with some formerly beloved comics: many of them just need to end. And this doesn’t just apply to webcomics, we realistically could have an entire other blog just on anime series and television shows that need to end for a myriad of reasons.But embracing the end of a series is hard; it’s something that I as a creator have really only dealt with once. I finally finished a long fiction project that I started when I was a teenager (no, you can’t read it). I’m by nature a creator and ending a work is hard. If left to my own devices I would never finish a story, hell the long fiction piece I was working on I continue to dip into that well with short stories and side narratives. I’m afraid to let this piece of fiction go. But we’ve established that I’m a bit of a self-indulgent writer. This fiction piece will never be seen by mortal eyes so it’s okay for me to relish in trudging up old plot points. But for creators who create to be seen, embracing the end is vital.
Before we dip too far into series that refuse to end, I want to talk about a few that ended perfectly. Cowboy Bebop obviously is a perfectly ambiguous ending that if you don’t question when the movie is supposed to be happening ends a serious and dramatic series on a serious and beautiful note. Adventure Time just gave us an ending full of heart and power thus proving that Pendleton Ward is now even better than his master, Butch Hartman (a man who is physically incapable of ending anything[ unless a network demands him to do so]).
Comic books are always in a strange limbo as far as endings go because death means nothing and a character will continue on despite different continuities and canons but that doesn’t mean that comic books don’t ever end. Watchmen as a graphic novel had a fantastically powerful ending. The Death of Superman was such an intense cultural touchstone that folks actually assumed the comic book industry is would collapse upon itself after the death of a beloved icon.
And even an unsatisfying ending is better than nothing. I’ll go on record saying that the end of Trigun is hot garbage but hey, at least it ended. Wolf’s Rain had a terrible ending that I am still angry about but more episodes wouldn’t have fixed the show’s serious structural problems. InuYasha and really most of the big shonen series have had lackluster endings but them ending has been so powerful and cathartic.
Enjoy positivity, we’re here to talk about the times where a show refused to end and thus have all dragged us down with its pathetic death rolls. I mentioned Sister Claire in my webcomics post and that’s very high on the list for me as far as webcomics that just need to end: we are so far from the original plot that it’s embarrassing. Case Closed is an anime that started many years before me and is now approaching the 1000th chapter of the manga and the point of the main series is so far buried that it is up to be the next mystery for Conan to solve. One Piece should have ended literally years ago and I am refraining myself from talking about it further because it will make me the angry.
But wait, my usual strawman screeches from the rafters:
But series have to keep going because of money!
Thank you, strawman. Where would I be without you?
Okay, so in anime especially there’s plenty of reasons why a company would keep a series going. Free! Is a series with zero plot that did not need a season three and the third season has taken a series I love and has made me hate it. Boruto is a sequel no one asked for because hey, you kids loved the Naruto. Bleach is going to get a stupid sequel because hey, you love that show, too, right? And many of these series just ended. Bleach’s ending was awful and weak and had easily 4-5 ending points that you can see where painfully drawn out because money. While I could have any entire post about the cash-grab sequel and the horrible thing that is a filler arc, this is more about a lack of an ending due to being a poor writer.
And I don’t say that to insult any writer who is objectively better than I am. But not being able to end a body of work does show some weakness as a writer: one very common to many writers including me, a well-intending idiot.
InuYasha comes to mind. Rumiko Takahashi is a brilliant storyteller and its because of her characters that I am the fan I am today. But she started with a series that could have easily been a few volumes and stretched it out into a series that finished when I was in college. For the record, I started this anime and manga at the same time when I was 12. And it finished when I was an adult: that’s weak storytelling. You can even see the series start and stop and drag on and not know what to do with its at times bloated cast and meandering point. And you can see her be more concise with her more traditional romances, no other series of hers has such a problem ending: she simply struggled with InuYasha. She likely built a world too big for herself and then spent a great deal of time trying to fill that world. Eventually the ending to InuYasha Final Act which was already beginning to meander on after the first anime was cancelled due to her not being able to end she had to rush an ending that left longtime fans like me deeply unsatisfied: but hey, it did eventually end.
Webcomics are an entirely different format that are suited for being longform. And for a slice of life, that’s okay. It’s okay to have a webcomic that doesn’t have a foreseeable end as long as it stays consistent. Girls With Slingshots ran for a small eternity but stayed consistent for its 10 year run and when it did it, it was satisfying and perfectly appropriate for that series. But comics like Sister Claire are now so far removed from its plot that I long for its final end. I’m happy to know that Menage a Three is hopefully wrapping up soon and the other affiliate comics should wrap up.
To rag on a franchise I love, Harry Potter as a world has refused to die because Jo Rowling apparently has too much time on her hands and truthfully her intrusions into the lore and canon of Hogwarts have only soured my desires to continue my studies with the esteemed school: I’m happy to go rogue and create my own stories based on scaffolding that Rowling built for us.
As I mentioned at the top of the post, I divulged that I just finished up one of my long-running fiction pieces. It’s based on a series I love and I started it when I was in high school. I finished a few years ago because I was determined to finish it. During my time after high school, the muse I had to write the series was my then partner, but when my partner left me, I stopped writing. I did my best to will myself to finish the work and I did. It likely will never be published because it’s about as self-indulgent as self-indulgent can be and likely no one would want to read such a thing. But I struggled to end that work and I still dabble in its lore and with its characters because I’m afraid of what will happen if I let this rest. I’m scared I’ll lose that world, those characters, their personalities.
When I say that refusing to end a work is a weakness it’s one I’m fully aware of.
I fell in love with webcomics as a medium in college. I had a pretty steady schedule which left plenty of room to check in on the comics that updated regularly and a steady WiFi connection that did not discriminate. That means that there are some comics that I have literally been reading for over a decade. I say this because it brings me no joy to admit that there are comics that I have absolutely fallen out of love with. I am passionate about this artistic style and some of the creators have been integral to finding form to the things I feel inside but some are in their slow death and to better understand how we got to where we are and how things used to be.
I don’t do this because I really just enjoy being negative. I don’t do this because I just really hate small creators. I do this because I do genuinely love the medium of comics and especially the kind for web. I love the creators that pour their hearts into this medium. I admire them. I consider myself lowly in comparison to them.
I’ll start with a comic that I started reading in more years ago than I care to admit: Go Get a Roomie. This comic done by Chlove centers around the titular Roomie (yes, that’s her name because she’s a bit of a wanderer who is everyone’s roommate at one point in time) and her misadventures through free-love and freeloading. I fell in love with the free-spirited Roomie and her friends including a dom named Ramona and her twink brother, Richard and the ultimate foil to joyous Roomie: Lillian. When this comic was just a slice-of-life day to day adventures in regional beers and taking home a different person each day, I loved it. But then the series too a more narrative turn and now in pure predictable fashion, the comic now centers around Roomie and Lillian in a relationship. Now, I have no issue with this from an LGBTQ standpoint (I hate that I have mention this) but I have a problem with it from the cinnamon roll vs. promiscuous person trope. It’s the exact same problem I had with Yuri On Ice which went out of its way to mention how innocent and pure Yuri is to his clear lecher of husband, Victor. Roomie has been around, it’s part of her character and while it is somewhat nice to see someone change for a partner, it’s just a trope I’m tired of. Additionally, it puts most of the owness on Lillian to be more like Roomie rather than having to reign in anyone else. Lillian starts off as a listless amorphic blob who barely leaves the house: sure, her arc of doing more than sleeping has been fascinating but it all just seems out of left field considering that these are all changes that happened in the comic in just the past few years. I love GGaR for its dedication to authentic diversity and mostly strong storytelling but I’m bored of the tropes, quickness to fall into a more traditional love story and occasional preaching from the author.
Next on the list are the collective comics of Giselle and the rest of the folks who work on such works as Menage a 3 and Dangerously Chloe. I found this comics in the second half of my college career and was sold on them being a little raunchy. Ma3 billed itself as an HBO-style rom-com and it was. Love triangle after love triangle and that was fine for many years. The comic is working towards its ending but with its out of nowhere wrestling plot arc for a character who is literally only known for her bust, I am tired of keeping up with its updates. Dangerously Chloe has a similar problem where we have strayed so far from the original plot of man meets succubus that I am simply wishing for the sweet release of death.
We now reach the comic I take the most ire with. We’ve reached the ultimate comic I have absolutely fallen out of love with. Each update further confirms that I dislike the current direction and only further alienates me from a narrative I began nearly a decade ago: Sister Claire.
Sister Claire started as a comic about a nun who through shady God dealings gets pregnant. The comic references a ton of other media in homage and in blatant ripoffs and at first was a mostly light-hearted romp of magical lands and a questionably hot version of God. What the comic is now…oh boy. Now the comic centers around a quest for a magical deus ex-machina, more anachronisms than a Tarantino movie. But what really irks me is the shift in comic from when it was done by one creator, Yamino, to now two creators with Yamino’s wife, Ash. Ash has seemed to take over the writing of the comic thus the shift from kind of magical romp to anachronisms and heavy-handed guilt narratives about LGBT themes. The homage and rip offs in Sister Claire have also caused some controversy. Famously, there’s a scene with some strange mecha that is somehow related to a holy war and the words to speak the robot to bring it back from its sleep are “Cast into the name of God, ye not guilty.” If that sounds familiar, congratulations, you’ve watched Big O. And so did many of the fans of the comic. And many of us said so. And Yamino was defensive! She said it was a Crusaders’ chant, which, sure. It was. But it was also in Big O and instead of just being humble and accepting that she was caught in a small rip-off, she caused conflama. Yamino has also straight up steals a character from Rose of Versailles in the form of Lady Oscar who is so indistinguishable from her anime “inspiration” that people forget that Oscar is not an original creator at all. And wait, you may be saying, but Sister Claire is so diverse with its lesbian couple at the helm and cast full of queer people. Sure, that’s fantastic. I’m happy to have diverse characters and diverse creators: you know what else makes me happy? Strong storytelling. Being full of queer characters does not an automatically good story make.
This was a negative post and I’m sure by now, many of you are asking: well, why don’t you just stop reading these comics if they cause you such strife?
Good question, astute straw-man. I have put time, energy and money behind almost all of these comics between donations and Kickstarter campaigns, I have invested in these works. Because of that investment, it’s even more personal and tragic to watch them fall from grace. It’s never easy to admit that a relationship is over so I will continue to check in on these stories just because I want to know how it ends. I want to see how we end this saga. I want to know what the final moment where either I break from weak storytelling and leave the series or how it so graciously redeems itself.
When I first started following Deadpool as a character in the 2000s, he was really a interesting but far from the only character doing what he did. 4th wall breaks were somewhat common in comics and She-Hulk was much better at breaking the 4th wall than Wade Wilson ever was. It may have been my love of manga and anime which is full of meta humor and puns that made me sour on the whole thing faster than the average American, but I’m frankly quite tired of meta-humor. Here’s why I dislike meta humor and some practical examples of how it actively usually hurts the narrative its in.
Let’s take a moment to discuss some vocabulary, because once I get started, I will not be slowed down. Meta-humor as currently defined is humor at the expense of the subject. For instance, Scream calling out all the logical fallacies in other horror movies makes it metacritical and metatextual while still being at the time subversive. To subvert or be subversive is to undercut or defy the expectations of a medium or genre. For instance, Rick and Morty subverts the sci-fi genre by being mostly bleak and entirely nihilistic. Meta-humor like this has been popularized for decades and is a vital part of the postmodern culture we live in: thanks, late-capitalism. Meta humor is said to be funny at all because it’s calling out the tropes we know and hate now because they are so overdone. A 4th Wall Break (an instance where a show or piece of media admits it isn’t real and breaks the wall between performance and audience) is rare in theater and was rare in other pieces of media but got more popular with comic books. This is different from being an anti-joke or even surrealist as the goal with these is to defy expectations by being either entirely serious and completely doing something out of the norm. Think of the Lobster Telephone done by Dali. Again, to give credit where credit is due, the earlier runs of She-Hulk was full of 4th wall breaks but let’s be honest; when you think of a 4th wall break currently, you think of Deadpool.
Deadpool as a movie franchise is interesting, really the character is a hard sell if you aren’t super into comic books. Wade Wilson is a character who cannot die and essentially has gone crazy due to his mutation and is in no way a cheap rip-off of Deathstroke. That being said, the whole idea around his particular version of meta humor is actually pretty strange, Wade Wilson knows he’s a comic book character and knows he isn’t real but most of that is chalked up more to mental illness or lazy writing than it is to anything else. The movies ignore that aspect of canon keep him as every teenage edgelord who thinks he’s funny and too good for the humor of the common folk. This worked in the first movie that came out just after the first big wave of superhero movies. It was funny to have a character comment on the logical fallacies in superhero films. It was great to have jokes lobbed at the film’s own expense, it was, at first incredibly refreshing. By the time we reach Deadpool 2, it’s simply tired. The superhero movie bubble has started to burst and since Avengers: Infinity War had ripped the hearts out of most fans, his humor was just tired. It was no longer new, refreshing or subversion: it was a chore and that movie was mostly a slog for me except for a few scenes that genuinely almost made me spit out my overpriced cola in the theater. Because by the second time Deadpool is commenting on Cable’s weirdly limited time travel abilities or the fact that there are still very few people of color in comic book movies despite there being several people of color in comic books: it just feels like it’s exposing a plot hole. That is a problem.
A 4th wall joke is funny the first time, the second time may even be insightful but the third or fourth is just tired and if anything can take you out of the film. It’s no longer subversive once the trope has already been subverted. Think of the last post we did on the Trope Trope: once being subversive of tropes is established, it then becomes a trope.
It’s especially difficult when a large company tries to comment on the tropes they established. Disney has recently gotten very meta about Disney and it’s infuriating. I grew up with Disney movies and while I didn’t notice many of these errors as a kid, I certainly don’t bat an eye at them much now as an adult. It doesn’t bother me that Beauty and the Beast was full of plot holes: it was a beautiful movie. It doesn’t matter to me that Cinderella isn’t “feminist” enough, she was engaging and the animation on the older movie is gorgeous. But the newer Disney movies have been determined to comment on the tropes that made the movies famous. Don’t like Disney princesses falling in love? Frozen is here to comment on that and then cop to Anna falling in love with her new disposable boyfriend. Disappointed that Belle didn’t fight back more? Beauty and the Beast (2017) is here to make her extra “feminist” and actively weaken her character with an invention subplot that goes nowhere and a total lack of performance or chemistry from Emma Watson. Tired of all those pesky cookie-cutter princesses? Here’s Moana with a character (in the form of Maui who is supposed to be our secondary protagonist) who is literally every teenage edgelord of a kid to undercut the serious moments to the movie’s detriment.
It’s just exhausting. The reason why it’s such a cheap shot is because rather than, you know, fixing the narrative issues; writers assume that calling it out acts as a blanket to cover them instead of just being better. So when Deadpool calls out Cable having a crappy motivation as an antagonist, guess what. I’m aware of how crappy his motivations are. When the new trailer for Wreck-It Ralph makes a jab at how horribly Disney treats its princesses, I’m not laughing. I’m just hyper-aware of how terribly they are all treated and how repetitive it is. When you intentionally poke a hole in the curtain, it becomes easier to see all the other holes in it. Do you know what would be actually subversive? Doing the right thing. In this age of cynicism and senseless cash-grabs, what would really be shocking and subversive would be to just write well. It’d be subversive to have a princess with two loving parents and a stable home life. It’d be subversive to have a gay character who is complex but not magical, a martyr or a token. Sincerity in this cynical postmodern age would be more unique and special at this stage and I can’t believe I have to say that now.
If there was one concept I could just magically teach people when it comes to the matter of how to be more critical readers and more skilled writers, it would be understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy. And it’s a lesson that it took me a while to learn as a writer and reader, myself. There are apparently very few sage teachers in such a discipline. The two words are used pretty interchangeably in common speech but they are not the same at all and understanding that key difference makes for richer reading experiences, better movie watching and a better understanding of the real people around you.
Let’s firstly go over some basic vocabulary.
The fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.
The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
These definitions seem very similar, hence this little discussion. We’re going to boil things down here: sympathy is understanding a feeling while empathy is feeling that experience as well. I can sympathize with a person and not empathize with them and vice versa. I can sympathize with Erik Killmonger in Black Panther with his feelings of anger after the loss of his father, but I cannot use his grief to rationalize him being genocidal. I can empathize with Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist, his use of pragmatism and cynicism to cope with the loss of his mother is almost exactly how I dealt with the loss of my own father and I could even sympathize with his decision making, even when it was less than ideal.
By now, you may be asking: well, why does it matter if these two words seem so similar?
It goes back to the theme of this year’s blog posts: framing.
Framing gives form and shape to empathy and can influence, force or even create sympathy.
Let’s take an example that I’ve beaten nearly to death: Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.
Thanos’ motivations seem so rational, so easy to understand, his pain so real. Because Josh Brolin is an amazing actor and there’s fantastic writing behind his portrayal of The Mad Titan. And that is a huge problem. Thanos’ point of view is insane but clever writing made him seem like the most rational character in the damn film. That feeling of looking down the road and seeing only one crazy choice is one many feel now and for some reason in our hellscape of a current world: The Mad Titan’s plan doesn’t seem so mad. And that is bad.
Here’s one of the most interesting parts of this discussion: for the most part, it’s entirely subjective, too. I have the background of the average anime antagonist, so it’s easy for me to empathize with them and thus sympathize with them. It’s harder for me to wrap my head around characters that are more outgoing or optimistic; their motivations are foreign to me and thus, it’s difficult to build a sympathetic bridge to understanding them. Your world view changes how you feel about characters and narratives and it absolutely can change and grow over time. Characters that I looked to with great admiration when I was younger suddenly seem entirely too impulsive and egotistical now as an adult.
One of my favorite things is looking at a movie from my admittedly jaded worldview and listening to a friend who didn’t see or feel the same thing that I did during a movie. I may gloss over an issues that is morally repugnant to others. I may take immense umbridge with a scene that others think is fine. Our experiences shape how we view narrative but there is where writers and creators also have to be careful: writing is a powerful tool and a good story line and likable characters can turn evil into something not so deplorable.
I’ve used this example before but he really illustrates the point: Richmond Valentine from Kingsman: The Secret Service. Valentine’s motivations are straight up genocide but Samuel L. Jackson is so charismatic and his plan almost doesn’t seem like it’s so bad: hell, he seems logical and rational with his plan to wipe out a majority of the population and let the cream of the crop reign over a newly mostly emptied world.
That’s a problem.
Anime historically had a problem with making bad ideas sound great, Death Note despite being one of my favorite series has a major sympathy and empathy problem. If you were anything like me: too smart for your own good, cynical and bitter and angry at the entire world; Light’s plan of wiping people out using a magical murder diary sounds excellent. I was proudly Team Kira during most of my high school years. The work however does all it can to show that Light is the bad guy. We almost immediately meet L who calls Light exactly what he is: a murderer. And that shift in framing greatly dampens how easy it is to empathize with Light’s murder plan but by the time it tries to establish Light as a bad guy, many have already gotten on board with his delusional idea.
Let’s use a really tricky example and one that actually touches my personal life: Tony Stark.
Stark as a hero is complex. He’s the first to say he isn’t actually heroic but his story is more universal than I think many give credit for. His descent into substance abuse and excess is not too uncommon for many who lose their parents and have the world in their hands. While we all may not be billionaires many of us who lost the thing that keeps them grounded are playboys and are addicted to something be it a substance or to a person. But many can see themselves in Stark, even if their pasts are not as dark or extreme as his. He’s charismatic even when he isn’t likable and there are rationalizations even when he makes the most reckless decision (another good comparison on that front is Peter Quill but I dislike the Lord of Stars so I rather not talk about him). And we see this come all to a head during Age of Ultron the hot hot mess that it is. Stark’s choices are the reason we have Ultron in the MCU (which is a whole other can of worms but back to sympathy I go) and he’s made bad choice after bad choice in the comics. But dammit it’s easy to let him off the hook because we can either personally understand how grief affects judgement and decision making or we are willing to give him a pass because he’s just so damn smooth.
This liberal dosing out of passes is especially problematic when more troublesome matters in media are perpetuated. Comic books still have a major issue with trivializing trauma and exploiting the death of women as a plot point (looking at you, Deadpool 2), modern romance movies often end up being a series of stalking or downright blatant examples of harassment (looking at literally most of the romances Chris Pratt has been a part of film-wise [we’re touching on that, don’t worry]) and television continues to perpetuate a casual level of misogyny that is just gross (looking at you, Big Bang Theory, you loathsome toad). But oh, those likable characters. It makes it so easy to gloss over their nonsense.
Speaking of Mr. Pratt…I want to use this time to explain just how much I can’t stand the movie Passengers and how we ultimately are held hostage by not only Chris Pratt but how passable movies and tricky writers can manipulate you into caring. If you haven’t seen Passengers, there’s a spoiler warning here. So long and short is Pratt plays a guy who is on an interstellar cruise from Earth to find a new planet. He’s in a stasis pod and suddenly, he is woken up years (hundreds of years) before he is set to. He is alone. No one else is awake on this cruise ship version of the S.S. Enterprise. He has a weird robot bartender friend but no other companion. All his physical needs are met by the ship and the ship’s robots but no one else to talk to. He spots a woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence at maybe her laziest) who is still asleep as she should be. Pratt wakes her up. He destroys her pod and wakes her from her beauty nap but he doesn’t tell her that he did it. When Lawrence comes to, she asks what happened. Pratt lies. They spend blissful time together and try to solve the “mystery” as to why they woke up. And in the end, it is revealed that it wasn’t an accident that woke Lawrence and damned her to frightful mortality, it was Pratt and his selfish loneliness. She forgives him because movie has to movie and I left fuming at this. Pratt’s character ruins any chance Lawrence has at making it to the planet they are spiraling in space towards. His act removes her agency and choice but because Chris Pratt is such a nice guy and we spend so much time with him and we watch him struggle with being alone: it’s okay that he damned a woman to die because his sassy queer robot from wasn’t enough companionship for him.
That’s where sympathy fails us as an audience. Pratt is the villain of this narrative and any other re-telling of the story is irksome and troublesome. Sympathy bypasses the logic centers of the brain and allows characters to murder, rape, assault and more under the guise of romance or charm.
It’s why I much rather have an empathetic character. One that I can absolutely feel for but still can disagree with. I love Light’s world view in Death Note but I can agree that the way he wants to craft his new world is awful. I can admit that Samuel L. Jackson is the second best part of Kingsman but still say that his plan is terrible and also genocidal. I can feel Edward Elric’s loss and not let him off the hook for being abusive to those who care about it.
Empathy is just as subjective as sympathy but it brings with it the wisdom of hindsight. I get where Bruce Wayne is coming from as far as using trauma and grief to be the best version of one’s self and knowing that feeling from my own personal life means that when Bruce Wayne is a garbage fire of a human that I can recognize it even faster because during those times I was also likely a garbage fire of a human.
Strive for empathy in your critical watchings and writings. Strive to understand motivations while also being able to admit something is troublesome. Call out troublesome things in media: things only get better the more we express being tired of stalking as romance and the girlfriend in the fridge. Be critical of everything you ingest media-wise and hold your characters accountable, even the ones you didn’t create yourself.
When I was little and watching the Star Wars prequels (yes, I grew up with the prequels) I didn’t question Senator Amidala and her power. I didn’t question the waffling between her being a queen or a senator or even really when she just became arm candy to Anakin. What I saw was a woman with a blaster who, when the movie let her, was a badass. And when I later saw her daughter, Leia, in the movies; I found an equally powerful and strong woman on screen. But her transition from Princess Leia to General Organa was one that was met with cynicism by me.
Today, we’re going to discuss why I still sometimes bristle at the “strong female character”.
I’ll pause here for the immediate cries of misogyny.
I’ve been humble enough to mention that many female narratives haven’t captured me. Often times, it’s because the writing just isn’t strong, a lot of it is personal bias. But I also grew up in an era of some of the weakest written female characters. That’s one of the biggest reasons I turned to anime, even though many of the female characters were still insufferable, they were insufferable in a different way. But Western media stayed rather stagnant with how it portrayed female characters. That was, of course, until the 90s. The 1990s were a strange time for media: female characters suddenly had to be very self-actualized. I suppose hundreds of years of patriarchal writing has a systemic effect on women and how they see themselves based on the media they consume. In fact, you can watch an entire panel of me working through the angst of not having strong female role models in media in a panel and you get a bonus dramatic retelling of the story of Lilith.
The examples I had as a kid were Batgirl, Wonder Woman, and the token sassy female in every Disney cartoon. And for a while, that was great. It was just enough to still feel genuine. It was great having comic book characters that could hold their own while also having other females on television that didn’t have to sacrifice being girly to be strong: a lot of the late 90s and early 2000s Cartoon Network shows come to mind like Ed, Edd and Eddy and Codename: Kids Next Door.
But by that time, I had happily sold my soul to anime and I dipped out of Western media for easily 10 years and in those 10 years, a lot has seemed to change. Every show has an intensely self-actualized female character but there’s something missing in many of the newer examples of this seem a little hollow. I saw the pilot to the new Duck Tales and I was so annoyed by Webby being the smarmy know-it-all that writers assume that a hyper-competent girl must be. She wasn’t much better in the old version of the cartoon, but irksome is irksome and helplessness to me as just as damaging as dumbing down the rest of the cast to make the girl shine.
Speaking of Disney, I take particular umbridge with their sudden influx of “strong” and “independent” princesses that realistically began with Belle and culminates with a princess that I cannot stand, Tiana. Tiana is arguably the worst part of her own movie and she is so strict and self-actualized that Naveen’s immaturity seems very valid and okay. By the end of the movie, sure, she does loosen up a little but it wasn’t enough to make her easy to empathize with for the bulk of her own damn film. It’s their fault we have this damn trope to begin with, you can’t decide in the mid-2000s to suddenly have female characters that aren’t just sexy lamps. And the influx of Disney princesses who are “independent” and “strong” is not new. We started getting it in the 90s with Pocahontas who was a tan sexy lamp and Esmeralda who was an outcast tan sexy lamp and we didn’t get a genuinely independent strong female lead in a Disney movie until Lilo and Stitch and even more, Disney has yet to have a “strong” female character be in a relationship. Because remember, self-actualized means sexless.
Very few examples come to mind of this trope working positively: one of them is Adventure Time. Princess Bubblegum is a complex character, more so than a little animated show about a boy and his dog can give credit for. Bonnibel Bubblegum is a scientist, monarch, warrior and more but she is far from flawless. Even though she is smarter than most of those in the Land of Ooo, her intelligence is often a hindrance, she lacks empathy at times and her overanalyzing leads to more complicated situations. Steven Universe is full of women (or female-appearing space rocks) that are almost too flawed for plot to even happen and while it’s easy to empathize and feel with them, it’s also somewhat damaging. Pearl’s lesbianism is damn near predatory, a trope that many lesbian women struggle with to this day.
And this brings us back to General Leia. I’m not here to rant about how I feel about the state of Star Wars, that could be its own blog post but I was one of the few folks who was not elated to have Princess Leia become a General. Is it because I hate women? No. It’s because I love strong storytelling and for me, Leia Organa was the canary in the coal mine. How many more characters would be leveled up like this just to keep up with the times? Now, Leia has earned it and we see this whole thing backfire with Admiral Holdo (who for the record, I do not hate). We don’t see Holdo do much of anything, at least with Leia, we grew up with her; her promotion makes sense. And because of that lack of feeling that Holdo “earned” her rank (a problem real women have) she is considered to be the worst part of an arguably bad movie.
And while yes, women “earning it” is a sick and twisted aspect of the patriarchy (see the remake of Ghostbusters as an example), it’s an important part of making a character relatable. And that’s why so many struggle with “strong” female characters. To me a “strong” female character almost always is a Mary Sue. Let’s use Rey as an example because Star Wars. She is good at everything. She doesn’t have any questions about using lightsabers or the force or anything. She doesn’t get a training montage (until The Last Jedi and it would appear that she barely needed it) and she’s just supernaturally talented. Again, thanks to the patriarchy, when I female character has a linear arc, it’s bad while when Luke did the same thing in his trilogy, he was just “gifted” but I have to agree with some of the criticism of Rey being a Mary Sue. I think I would have connected with her much more if I saw her struggle even a little.
Now, dear reader, what have we learned? I’ll sum it up for you here. If we continue to dose out titles like this to female characters, it only stands to weaken the case as to why we need these characters to begin with. I got to look up to Storm as the leader of the X-Men and that was not a title she took laying down. I got to see Padme grab a blaster and do her best to hold her own against a sea of droids, clones and more. I got to see Leia take up arms and defend herself. It’s so much more powerful to see a female character be active in her narrative than passive. Simply blowing power into a female character does not make her strong: she has to do something with it.
I still remember the first boy’s love series I picked up as a young one. It was Gravitation when I was a youngling and almost immediately I loved how radically different the series from from the shonen action fodder that dominated my anime landscape.
Ever since then, I’ve been a huge fan of shonen ai. For one reason or another, I found the aesthetic and tone much more rewarding and interesting than the typical romance anime and their shojo counterparts. But because shonen ai by default focuses on male characters, the women in them tend to be…well, they’re something. And sure, we’ll pause here for the folks saying:
Well, why are you up in arms about the women in a boy’s love comic?
Because biologically, I’m female and boy’s love is, hilariously, mostly read by women; particularly, young women and the internalized misogyny attached to the genre can be very damaging.
Today we’re going to go over the three main ways women are framed in boy’s love narratives.
For some vocabulary, framing is how we look at a person or a person’s actions. We’ve talked a lot about framing this year but I think it’s an important part of fictive language. Even though we may know a character is in the wrong or in the right, the framing around that act or character can flip those two things very easily. Again like with Killmonger in Black Panther or Thanos in Infinity War the movie frames them oftentimes in the right even though we know they are both genocidal and very very wrong. Framing is an issue because as a viewer, it isn’t always easy to point out the negative in that character. If everything else in the film or work is telling you that this thing, character or act is okay it’s difficult to buck against that even though you may know logically or in your heart that it may not be true.
And now without any further interruption: here are a few ways that women are framed in boy’s love.
The Woman, Obstacle
This is probably the most common and most hurtful. The woman in so many narratives from Gravitation to Yellow feature subplots or plots where the woman stands in the way of the love between the two male leads. Now, this isn’t entirely unheard of. Sometimes men do discover they do not care for their female partner and try either out of curiosity or genuine desire to be themselves be with a male partner. And sure, not every woman is gracious during such a time but the idea that the woman is a consistent barrier to love is frustrating and exhausting. You also see this a lot in fanfiction where authors who wish to ship two male characters will demonize the female aspect the more canonical heterosexual pairing. This is troubling for more than one reason, the first is again the often flat out demonization of the female for standing in the way. Gravitation is the example I’ll use because it is still one of my favorite animes of all time and does absolutely face is issue. Right as Yuki and Shuichi are ready to finally say they are together, a young woman appears claiming to be Yuki’s fiance. This throws a wrench into the entire plot of these two men finally accepting that they may have feelings for each other and the plot (which is peak Murakami hating women and she will continue to do this in almost all of her works for the series) is a series of sight gags trying to get this woman (whose name I refuse to Google or recall) out of the way. Her refusal to “give up” Yuki, a man she is promised because Yuki’s father is a terrible garbage fire of a person along with the rest of the Uesugi family is seen as not courageous or valid but as irksome and immature. Eventually, the plot of the anime and manga give her the sloppy seconds that are Hiro and she is forgotten as Shuichi and Yuki find better things to argue about like whether Yuki is bisexual or gay.
Another example of this is Lizzie in Black Butler. Lizzie is…well, she is a precious little thing (says this Sebastian through gritted teeth). Lizzie is Ciel’s fiance and she is entirely oblivious to the obvious relationship between Sebastian and Ciel while also managing to be the one thing that keeps Ciel from completely diving off into the abyss of the black space where Sebastian’s heart would be. Lizzie’s helplessness and stupidity (which is somewhat corrected in later parts of the manga and the movies but as far as I am concerned, the damage is already done) make her an item that often requires saving: she is in fact that only character that requires as much saving as The Little Master does. Her needing rescuing and just well, existing on screen takes moments away that are more vital to the narrative and Black Butler has a lot going on; story-wise, we simply don’t have time to humor Lizzie and thus she’s consistently one of the least popular characters in the series.
The Woman, Duplicitous
Ah yes, the woman who plays the field for the sake of ruining the main couple. If there is a more common trope in boy’s love, it’d likely only be rivaled with bad hand proportions and hair that covers over one of the protagonist’s eyes. I’ll pull one more Gravitation example because this is my blog and I can do what I want. Yuki’s sister, Mika (who confirms the concept of the Uesugi family being full of garbage people) spends most of the manga and a vast majority of the anime gaslighting Shuichi for the simple sake that she doesn’t like the pink-haired brat with her precious little Eiri. There’s just one problem: this is awful and manipulative and tiresome. And while, yes, Gravitation is an adventure in keeping Yuki Eiri miserable, it’s particularly harmful because Mika is one of the few female characters that: 1) is important 2) has a great deal of lines and 3) isn’t a moron. Mika’s fall from grace is tragic because of what she could be which is a supportive sister who does rightfully have some reservations about her brother’s new boyfriend. We’ll pull a recent example as well, Hitorijime My Hero is the anime that made my heart sing after the Summer of Incessant Ice Skating. Hitorijime My Hero is pretty standard as far as boy’s love plots go centering around Setagawa ( a high school student ) and his mentor and crush Kousuke. During one of the later episodes of the series, Kousuke’s somewhat overly protective friends including one of his stylish female associates decide it’s a great idea to plant seeds of doubt in Setagawa’s mind. Keep in mind, Setagawa comes from what may be one of the more tragic of backgrounds for a mainstream boy’s love character that includes him being a former member of a gang, a neglectful mother and him struggling with the fact that he is in love with a man that’s easily 10 years his senior. It’s actually such a turn from the heart of the series that it took me a while to get back to it: I felt Setagawa’s betrayal and resented the show for using such a cheap trick for the sake of plot advancement.
The Woman, Pious Saint
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the woman as victim and saint. This one is strange at first because it makes you wonder why it’s such a bad thing. Isn’t it good after all of these examples of women who are bad that a woman can be good and pure? Well, here’s why it’s a problem: it removes a woman’s agency and choice. A noted example is Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners where Dr. Haskins’ wife is absolutely oblivious and in the dark about just how much of a tool her husband is. Dr. Haskins is as garbage of a garbage person as you can get, he’s been cheating on his wife since before they were even married and in one of the best parts of the manga, Dr. Haskins is entwined with his polo partner: Danny, who mind you is also engaged to a lovely woman; all the while, Dr. Haskins refuses to acknowledge the commitments either men made to their respective future wives and during their time entangled, Danny’s fiance is looking for him, calling for him and she almost catches them in the act and while Danny struggled to stop the encounter, he didn’t want to be caught. During the whole thing Dr. Haskins continues not only egging Danny on but actively stopping any of his partner’s protests towards the act. It’s selfish and terrifying. This sets up one, Dr. Haskins as a tool (we’ll pause here for people saying he’s gay and just trying to live his life but cheating is cheating) and that his wife can do no wrong as she is during him cheating with Danny which is alluded to be one of many times, is conveniently out of the country . What’s even more tragic is that Dr. Haskins is a loving family man on the surface despite his affair with the series protagonist, Johnathan. One of the most interesting scenes in Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners involves Johnathan meeting Dr. Haskins’ wife and daughter and she is nothing but gracious and loving and treats the starving college student to a lavish ice cream sundae. She seems totally unaware that her husband is a serial cheater and she praises how loving her darling is despite her constant traveling for work.
This is tragic. We see a woman who is so in love with her husband that she cannot see what is in places a very obvious lie. There are chapters in the manga where it doesn’t even seem like Dr. Haskins cares much about hiding his torrid affairs from his doting wife and robbing women of agency is a huge issue in any narrative. At least if she knew about the affairs, it would still be tragic but it would either be her choice to stay or her choice to leave: both automatically give her more power in a narrative that is strongly run by one man. And yes, it isn’t her story Dr. Haskins being married is a huge part of the story. And his wife isn’t even given the chance to be an obstacle like Lizzie from Black Butler is; she’s just sort of there and she does her best to be supportive and kind. She does eventually become a bit of an obstacle, Johnathan does feel immense guilt after meeting his lover’s wife but not enough to stop sleeping with Dr. Haskins as a means to achieve his goals.
I’m going to take a moment here to address that pin I’m sure all of you have of:
Well, it’s boy’s love. What do you expect?
Here’s the thing. I know plenty of boy’s love stories that feature almost zero women entirely, especially if all they are going to do is be blocks of wood or literal obstacles to plot. Fumi Yoshinaga is an excellent boy’s love mangaka and many of her works either feature no women at all or they are relegated to supporting roles which means they cannot ruin the plot. Even Yoshinaga-senpai’s most noted female character in Antique Bakery appears for an episode and vanishes after dropping a bomb on the plot that is neatly wrapped up within the same episode she appears. Kyo Kara Maoh features several female characters that either push the main pairing together or are there to support the other main characters and not a single one is an obstacle to plot: some are antagonistic but none ever grind plot to a stop.
And here’s why we’re doing this: readers hold onto that misogyny and perpetuate it. I’ve been reading shonen ai for longer than I feel comfortable admitting as well as just shonen anime in general and years of women being irksome plot obstacles sticks with you. Even now, if you’ve been blessed or cursed to read any of my fiction, you can practically see me struggle with writing female characters that aren’t either aggressive Mary Sues or utterly useless pieces of furniture. It would be one thing if that internalized hatred simply stayed on the page but it leaches into other aspects of life. It forms and informs casual sexism and keeps old stereotypes afloat through confirmation bias. It fosters a complacency that means we don’t challenge the norms of female characters and thus create a feedback loop that perpetuates all the things we hate about them and quells any desire to change them for the better.
What’s even more fascinating is that many boy’s love novels are written by women who seem to hate or are irked by women; it’s typically the male shonen ai creators that either don’t worry about female characters at all or show them in a more complex light either as mostly supportive or actively antagonistic. And it is almost entirely women who read (indulge) in shonen ai so this harmful message is really hit home.
Challenging female characters regardless of genre is one of the only ways we can continue to hold creators and characters to a higher standard. Having the same message hammered into your head over and over again that just by being a woman you are lesser in a narrative is immensely hurtful and readers deserve better. They deserved to be loved, respected and appreciated. If we can do it for the boys, even in a trashy shonen ai manga, we can do it for the girls.