Love Triangles: Why? - A List

| Friday, May 31, 2013

Angry Jacob is like, super tired of everyone whining about love triangles.
Today's Tune: Unbelievers

Everybody likes to whine about love triangles in YA. Myself included, let's be real -- you guys know I love to write about them even though I don't especially like them. I feel they're often wedged in for added drama and not pulled off with much success. HOWEVER: I have read love triangles I enjoyed and that functioned very well, and the reality is that love triangles are popular in the YA category (and other categories) for real, psychologically and sociologically sound reasons.


Why Love Triangles?

1.) Probably most importantly: they sell books. Agree with it or not, but they are popular fare for consumption. For their own reasons, readers enjoy them. So they're there.

2.) Digging a little deeper: a good love triangle is not about Hot Person #1 and Hot Person #2. A good love triangle is about choice. Relationships and love are very human things, and our literature has long reveled in making a metaphor of it. Matters of the heart are directly tied to our passions and emotions. Different potential partners represent different paths for the protagonist. One may represent her past, the other her future. One is a metaphor for giving in to revenge and destruction (Gale), the other represents finding peace and healing in his own way (Peeta). It's not just about making out, guys. We can see love as a metaphor in other fiction, so why are we blind to it in YA? Because YA dares to incorporate girly feelings instead of serious man-pain?

3.) More on choice: it's not a secret that YA is most popular with young women. Young women often don't get much choice in love, sex, and relationships. We're fed a constant narrative of "wait for your One True Love to find you" and "be a sexual gatekeeper" and "heterosexual monogamy within these strictly defined terms or else SLUT SLUT SLUT." There's still an element of possession with many young men (and older men, really). Hell, a guy doesn't even have to be dating a girl to lay claim to her -- friendzoning, anyone? So, is it any wonder that young women find enjoyment in living in a world where they get to choose? Where they can be attracted to more than one guy and it's okay? Where they can have sexy feelings that aren't immediately shut down? I very rarely see anybody complaining that male protagonists get to get it on with multiple ladies, but apparently we still like to slut-shame and belittle "indecisive, whiny" little girls.

4.) Because YA often includes sexual awakening because it's about adolescence and coming of age, and part of a sexual awakening is learning what you want in relationships and in bed (or not). So yeah, sometimes it's about not knowing whether you want one thing or another because you haven't quite figured out what you like yet. I have known many a person who has discovered that they're into certain kinks or types of people because they discovered those feelings in books first. Also: not everyone knows for a definite fact that they want the package hetero marriage-and-kids deal at 16 years old. AND THAT IS OKAY.

5.) Consider whether you're really bothered by the "useless" love triangle, or if you're just being unduly critical of the young female protagonist. Or, alternately, the woman who wrote the novel. You may be automatically hand-waving like, "pssshhhh no way, I just don't like things that suck," but I'm serious. Really lower your social filters and consider whether you'd feel the same way about the situation if it were a man writing about a boy choosing between two girls who wanted all up on his business.

And look, I feel you completely if you want to talk about the misogynistic elements present in novels featuring love triangles. You want to talk about how the female characters are still disempowered? Or that certain male leads get really rape-y? LET'S TALK ABOUT THAT. But I'm not going to talk about wah wah wah love triangles are always 100% yucky and horrible and serve no purpose, because that's not true.

Blah blah blah, TL;DR, here's the gist: SO WHAT THAT THERE ARE LOVE TRIANGLES. You don't like them? I don't like them! I still manage to find books to read! And I don't begrudge other people for being into a selection of love interests! Not my bag, but so what! Play on!

et cetera

Vanquishing the Literary Male Gaze

| Friday, May 10, 2013

Today's Tune: Short Skirt, Long Jacket

This is a post I've tried to write on and off several times, but I keep holding back because I know posts like this one occasionally garner some backlash. But tonight I decided I was going to go for it. I'll just include this disclaimer: if you read this and feel that it doesn't apply to you, than it doesn't apply to you. This isn't a blanket statement, and there are people for whom it won't apply. I know that, you know that. This is general commentary, not personalized attack. So let's just keep that in mind, cool? Cool!

Anyway, let's talk about the male gaze in fiction. Particularly fiction aimed at young women.

What do I mean when I talk about the "male gaze?" I mean the inherent tendency to view lady characters as sexual vessels, collections of body parts, or generally focusing on visuals of female bodies and beauty standards, particularly with an aim toward sexual objectification. We've all seen this sort of thing in novels.

"His eyes started at her crimson toenails, perfectly peeking through her strappy velvet sandals. Her legs were lean, smooth, fit; her hips ample and perfect for resting hands on. Plump breasts strained against the silk of her dress, her milky white bosom spilling over the top, begging to be nuzzled. And those lips. Full, slick, red. He could imagine that mouth on his, that tongue on his neck, his chest, his..."

You get the idea.

That was a blatant (but sadly not unimaginable) example. It assumes that anyone reading this novel is interested in the male protagonist's thoughts only and will immediately sexualize any stereotypically desirable female character until she's reduced to the parts that can be used for sexual pleasure. Her thoughts are often unimportant, her desires and goals non-existent, unless that desire and goal is to give the protagonist the most awesomest of awesome pleasure. You can imagine reading this in a real crime novel, or a noir, or an action thriller.

But much like the general public's view of Sexism with a capital "S" and Racism with a capital "R," it's only real or a problem if it's this blatant. This is easily recognizable, easy to pick at and call out as an example of "doing it wrong."

Here's the problem: this sort of dehumanizing male gaze is still present in novels where lady characters are fleshed out and interesting people. It's still present in novels where a woman or girl is the viewpoint character. I like to joke that I can almost always tell when a female character has been written by a man because of how he describes her, or how she describes other women or herself if she's the POV character. Which is not to say some men don't write incredible and realistic female characters -- they do it all the time. But there are a few indicators that always make me shake my head and go, "A dude clearly wrote this."

What are those indicators? The male gaze is there. Female characters are described in a way that draws attention to their body parts; their lips, or breasts, or legs. There's less attention paid to their dialogue or personality, or even the clothing they wear and their signature habits. Excuses are made to slip in nipple tweaks, butt grabs, or other touches, with consent or not. The narrative assumes that the reader is more interested in the sexual availability and attractiveness of the ladies than anything else about them.

This is especially jarring and obvious when the viewpoint character is a girl or woman. They'll look at themselves in the mirror and lovingly describe their perfect lips, their round breasts, their ample thighs (or, alternatively, lament how these parts aren't good enough). There's no connection between the body and the mind. It's not about how they use and live with these parts, what this body means to them and the history of growing into it. It's just about what everything looks like and if it would be suitably attractive to someone who wants to have sex with them.

They do this to other women in the narrative, as well. Their best friend isn't described in terms of memories or relationships, but in height and measurements. A canonically heterosexual girl or woman will notice other women's sexualized figures, or the way their neck curves in the light, or the desirability of their mouth. It's not unheard of for women to notice the bodies of other women (that happens all the time), but not like this.

But what of queer women? I can hear people asking. Don't women who are attracted to women think like that? I can't speak for those women, but in my experience with having lady friends who are into ladies, that's not really the way it works. Yes, they absolutely do think of women sexually and notice bodies in a sexual light. But it's not just about parts and how they can best enjoy sex with those parts. Women can relate to being attached to their body, to seeing the person inside the body. They know what it feels like for your body to be viewed as something that isn't yours. Every lady knows that feeling. It's a different mindset.

(Obviously there are instances in which this is untrue and a woman could objectify another woman. But knowing the multitude of ladies in my life, this is generally speaking not the way we function. If we do, it's often due to internalized patriarchy and beauty standards.)

Well, what about all those YA novels where the guys are just hot pieces of ass? I hear from the back. And to this point, I say read it again. Sure, there are novels where male love interests are described in terms of abs and rugged jawlines, which is more patriarchy at work dictating what "real men" should look like, by the way. However, those men are rarely (if ever) inactive in the narrative, or their thoughts and opinions dismissed or given less "screentime." Their bodies may be lovingly described, but so are their words and minds. Because in the eyes of women AND men, men are complete people, not collections of body parts for sexing up their lady. Stereotypically (racist) Latino Pool Boy Toys aside (why racist? Because rich white ladies are using young brown men in their employ and it's treated as a joke, that's why).

This is something I always notice because I can't not notice it. This is something that has happened to me in real life since I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. Certainly after I grew breasts at 13. It's one more thing that stands out to me in the way men, even well-meaning men, misinterpret what it means to be female. That the way we view the world is inherently different, not because of VENUS and MARS or anything, but because we live in a world that disconnects us from our body parts and sexual selves for the benefit of someone else. And when this is what's being written for young women, they'll just get that much more reinforcement that this is the way the world works.

When male characters look at female characters and see lips but not words, breasts but not hearts, and sex organs but not brains, it reflects what women go through every day. It reminds us that we are ultimately sex objects, that our goals and desires are always second to the men in our lives. And sometimes it takes someone calling it out for what it is to make a guy step back and go, "Shit, I didn't even realize I was doing that. I didn't even think about it."

And I am not in any way saying that people should avoid describing physicality or sexual attraction. You can say that your characters look pretty! Your characters can have sexy thoughts about the way someone's mouth moves! That's cool! The uncool part comes in when the focus is on the mouth alone. When desiring someone sexually becomes only about you and never about them.

As always, research and speaking to the people you're trying to represent is key. Don't just assume you understand how other people think and roll with it. Really try to understand they way they view the world.

Also, please never again use terms like "heaving breasts" or "supple buttocks" unless you're writing erotica, okay?

These are my thoughts. What are yours?

Geek Girls Exist. We Always Have.

| Friday, May 3, 2013

Today's Tune: Crazy In Love (Gatsby cover)

For context, allow me to direct you to the image that inspired this tweet, which is a quote from one of the new Trek reboot's writers.

Honestly, I really for real do not understand how anyone who's not being intentionally obtuse could still believe that women are not in the Star Trek fandom. Not in the age of the Internet. I mean, it's bad enough that people completely ignore the history of the original Star Trek fans, many of whom were women who forged and attended the first conventions in bulk (more women attended than men! MORE WOMEN THAN MEN!) and campaigned (successfully) to keep the show on the air.

But ON TOP of that, people (the writers of the damn reboot!) are still acting like there's no way to get women to watch science fiction unless they throw a birth scene in at the beginning? When they have access to fan fiction and fan sites and Tumblr? No excuses. None.

You show them, Uhura.
This is sadly not remotely unusual. I've written before about how the marketers behind the science fiction channel have tried to distance themselves from their "geek" image by renaming the SciFi Channel the "SyFy" Channel instead. In this instance, it was because they thought people who deemed themselves cool would refuse to watch science fiction on principle, even though the genre is varied enough to include everything from The Fifth Element to Star Wars to Back to the Future to Eureka.

Likewise, the myth that science fiction is "boy stuff" persists. Science is for boys, politics is for boys, space is for boys, adventure is for boys. STAR TREK IS FOR BOYS. And you'll always find the dudes who hold up a handful of women as representative of their entire gender -- "Well, my girlfriend HATED Battlestar Galactica." It's not at all possible that women are individuals with different tastes, no. The only way a lady could possibly be interested in this stuff is if her boyfriend made her, or she's pretending she likes it to please him.

Sounds remarkably like the persistence of the fake geek girl myth. You know, girls can't be into "nerdy" things because nerdy things are about science and strategy and action, which are inherently male, which means if ladies act like we like those things, we're only doing it for attention. And apparently to seduce innocent nerdboy virgins so we can use their blood as a balm for our overblown egos? Or something?

In the rare instance that people do begrudgingly admit that lady nerds do actually exist, it's almost always in media representations that paint us as unattractive weirdos, displaying overtly masculine-coded traits, or pathetic little gnats. Because nerd ladies are abominations, see? They couldn't possibly allow anyone to believe women are individual people with as much variety to their personalities and preferences as, GASP, men! Never do that!

I can think of ONE geek girl regularly in the popular media that is portrayed in a (mostly) positive light: Felicia Day. One. And even some of her roles are negligible.

This isn't even about science fiction. Not really. It's about territory. Even though women are well established as a significant and involved part of the SFF community, and even though dudes have a very extensive history with being all about flowery emotional literature, people still build these moats. Girls stay over THERE with Fifty Shades and Twilight! Boys stay over HERE with Frodo and Han Solo!

Because admitting that it's possible for women to be individuals rather than a seething mass of frivolity and makeup is a bad idea. We do that, and they might start getting ideas that like, THEY can be the hero! That we're not that special! That maybe they're here because they enjoy the media, not to rub up on us!

I don't know. It's times like these that make me want to go curl up with my cats because I feel like the tides will never turn when people are willfully ignoring the facts in favor of the sexist rhetoric they've been spoon-fed. When you could go on any website and see men and women alike roleplaying, fan vidding, dissecting theories. When ladies are literally the reason Star Trek conventions happened. And it either doesn't register, or you pretend it doesn't exist.

I'm so exhausted from remaining stagnant. Why do we still fight so hard to maintain the status quo when everything about our population is telling us "no, no, no, you do not get to define who I am anymore" in increasingly louder voices due to our growing technology?

When will I get to go to a Star Trek movie and feel good because I know they view me as part of the fandom and not a disgruntled shrew who had to be tricked into it?

Sigh. Thoughts, readers?

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