Joss Whedon thing is still young but there are a few things I want to
tease out of it because I think they have value in a broader context.
As I said yesterday I don't want to dive too far into the specific
scene that started all this because I've only seen it once whilst
half-distracted by people around me texting, eating and being
generally annoying. No, I want to discuss some more peripheral
aspects of this whole thing, first of all the tendency we have to put
creators on an unsustainable pedestal.
get some distance from Whedon first because emotions there are
running hot and that's never useful to a conversation. One of my
favourite webcomics is Go Get A Roomie by Belgian writer-artist Chloe
C. One of the most notable aspects of the series is the amazing
diversity of its cast which features a surprising variety of sexual
and gender identities, each explored in interesting and considered
ways. There's even a character (currently) portrayed as asexual and,
let me tell you, as someone who identified as asexual for years it is
refreshing not only to see that identity portrayed but portrayed with
a clear understanding that there's nothing socially or medically
wrong with the character. Once the context of her sexuality is
understood by the other characters its accepted and any “pushing of
boundaries” is either done by her own agency or in reference to the
still open question of whether she's aromantic.
summarising hugely here, by the way, and the character may turn out
not to be as asexual as she currently seems but, hey, I'm intimately
aware that sexual identity can change so yet again we're in “Yay!
Representation!” territory as far as I'm concerned. Seriously, read
this comic, its cool.).
so apart from a two paragraph fanboy plug how does this relate to our
subject today? Well, because Chloe C. has several times addressed
concern about how people put her on a pedestal when it comes to queer
issues. It isn't hard to see why people are inclined to do this,
she's a fantastic author and I've learnt things as a direct
consequence of her work so I definitely see why its happened. For the
record she's expressed her discomfort with the pedestal both on her
Tumblr where she's cautioned people that any advice she gives on
these issues should not be taken as a definitive statement and in the
strip itself through the title character Roomie having insecurities
surrounding other idolising her.
by the way, is probably the worst blogging system that exists for
when you want to quote something: posts don't have titles and the
archive system uses this not all that useful thumbnail method and
though I can't find the post I want to quote, this Ask one pretty
much sums up the whole shebang).
what's wrong with the pedestal? Well, its unsustainable, frankly.
People screw up. Everyone. You, me, Chloe C., Whedon, the lot of us.
There's no amount of editing or self-critique that's going to stop
someone someday putting out something that will play poorly to
someone out there, maybe to a lot of someones. To use another
example, one of the braver creative acts I've seen on the internet
was when Jeph Jacques, writer-artist of Questionable Content,
revealed one of his characters to be trans and openly said in a news
have to admit, I am nervous about posting this comic, because
including a trans person in my cast is something I have wanted to do
for years and I really, really want to do a good job of it. One of
the major themes of QC, I think, is of inclusion, and this seemed
like a pretty important thing to include. I have given it a lot of
thought and done a lot of research, so hopefully I won't screw up.
I'll do my best, anyway.”
brings us to a second issue I want to bring up, a sentiment that I've
seen in a few quarters and that I'm going to paraphrase because I
don't want to look like I'm calling anyone particular out. This has
been expressed in a lot of different ways and to a lot of different
degrees but the basic sentiment is this:
Joss Whedon can't write good female characters he shouldn't bother.”
the question of what “good” even means in this context because I
could write a dozen posts on that alone, the idea that a perfect
portrayal is the only one that can be worthwhile is intensely
problematic. Jacques introduced a trans character and expressed his
concerns that he might not be able to do the idea justice and in
other places he's solicited criticism to help him improve that
portrayal. In an ideal world criticism is about a social
conversation, not necessarily involving the creator under critique
but that's a nice bonus if you can get it, about how art can be
improved. Just yelling “Stop!” when something isn't perfect
defeats the whole point because how does anything ever improve under
why would anyone create under those conditions? There's no incentive
to take risks there. All the creatives I've mentioned in this post
have one thing in common: they're progressives (or liberals or social
justice types or however you want to express it). Jacques and Chloe
C. identify inclusivity as a central tenet of their art and Whedon
came to prominence through creating Buffy The Vampire Slayer which is
perhaps most notable for its female and queer characters.
a not unnatural consequence the fans of these peoples' work are also
generally progressives because people tend to latch on to things they
agree with. In the dim mists of long ago when I started writing this
post I mentioned how I identified with the sexual identity of one of
Chloe C.'s characters and that's a big part of why she became a
creator I took an active interest in to the point of, say, reading
her tumblr and looking up her Deviantart page instead of just
reading that one project of hers.
because progressives are interested in progress (not, y'know,
unnaturally) when one of these creators takes a retrograde step,
intentional or not, it can make the progressive fan very angry.
Progressives are usually politically engaged and by the nature of
that we're often politically enraged in what feels like an
increasingly conservative culture. So when one of our heroes, one of
the people we've emotionally invested in for agreeing with us when so
much mass media doesn't, makes a mistake we can take it as a very
not unjustified in feeling let down, I'm not suggesting anyone gets a
free pass here. Criticism is an important force that should be
applied to all art as a matter of course. Its just that I think we
would all (creators, critics and consumers alike) be better served by
remembering that no one and nothing is perfect and never will be.
Mistakes should be brought up and discussed but by no means should
they be reason to disregard all work of the author, let alone future
work that could be improved by a reasoned conversation about those
mistakes the creative could learn from.