My Big Mouth: Queer up the media

This feature can also be found at the South West Londoner, here.

A thought experiment for you:

Think of three pieces of media (books, film, games, whatever) that meet the following criteria:

  • The main character is straight. 
  • The piece is not of the Romance genre. 
  • The sexuality of the main character and its social impacts are not the main plot point.

You could probably name at least 10 without thinking too hard. Now try to do the same, but with a queer main character. Go on, I’ll wait.

If you’ve managed to think of any, congratulations! No, seriously, it’s a pretty difficult challenge; feel free to tell me what you’ve thought of in the comments.

I suppose it’s nothing that you think too much about unless you’re actually affected by it, but the presence of characters in fiction that aren’t straight and white isn’t thrillingly prevalent.

However, queer media definitely exists out there – this month had BFI’s 27th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. The problem is, all this content is kept away from the mainstream, and only given a chance to shine once a year.

That’s great for all the pretentious artsy types who already know how wonderfully liberal and accepting they are, but the people who need to see queer media the most barely know it’s around. The teenagers who are questioning their identity and sexuality; people who are jaded with the stereotypes they’re spoon-fed; that one old homophobic guy down the pub. You know the one. I hate that guy.

What we do get in the mainstream media isn’t making me super-thrilled to be open about my sexuality. I’m not too keen on the idea of having my skull cracked open with a tyre iron (Brokeback Mountain), nor do I want to pursue a career in being a Sassy Gay Best Friend (The Hellish Nightmare that is Glee). Though I’m sure I could make a killing if I did. Maybe with the aforesaid tyre iron.

For sure, I would have been a lot more confident in my identity growing up if there was a role model who was much like me. That’s not to say my imagination was so poor I couldn’t project myself into a James Bond power fantasy – the assortment of gay villains excepting – but a reminder that queer heroes (or black heroes or female heroes…) are allowed to exist would be nice.

To flip it on its head, only those who are the most literal and devoid of critical thought could argue that an increased number of openly queer protagonists would be alienating to straight audiences. Last time I checked, empathy and sexual expression were two different things, unless you consider How I Met Your Mother the pinnacle of character-driven storytelling.

Speaking of which, I’m finding it a lot harder to watch action films these days. Aside from gunfights and explosions being tired mindless pap; the levels of machismo are so over-emphasised and forced, it’s like a high budget blockbuster Shrine to Straightness. Sucker Punch managed to be full to the brim of bubbling testosterone with barely any men on screen. The sight of Vin Diesel flexing has been scientifically proven to instantly impregnate women.

The secret to creating reasonable queer media isn’t some kind of well-guarded secret. They’re the same as the media we already consume, with the genders of the romances switched around. It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable demand to have, say, a crime thriller where the long-suffering detective happens to be a lesbian.

Oh. That actually exists. Well okay then.

That’s not to say that good queer media can’t or shouldn’t explore sexuality as a main theme, it just often feels like that’s all that we’re given. I want to identify with an escapist fantasy, not systemic oppression so gritty I could use it as sandpaper. Explorations of sex are enjoyable enough in private, but it’s not something I could share with others, for obvious reasons.

Then again, maybe some soapboxing and issue awareness is a first step in what we need right now. It recently came to light that the ‘Ex-Gay’ advertisements produced by the Christian group Core Issues Trust was, although banned in short order, deemed ‘not illegal’ by the High Court. Regardless of legality technicalities, that the advert exists at all is indicative of a serious need to queer up the media.

Author in Profile: Jasper Fforde

You can find this feature at The Yorker, here.

With a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy works, there’s a heavy emphasis on world-building in lieu of character development. Call it an artefact of Tolkien’s impact on the genres, but in many cases it results in a feeling of extreme padding, getting in the way of story. It’s not a problem for everyone, but for me it can be a real deal breaker.

There are authors who get the balance right, however. Many are familiar with Douglas Adams and his devoting of whole chapters to fantastical encyclopaedia entries; but in his passing we now have Jasper Fforde and his wonderfully meta takes on getting us involved in his worlds.

Jasper Fforde (51) has a knack for taking a ridiculous idea, turning it into a straight-laced aspect of his fictional worlds, and just rolling with it. Did you know that talking bears have an underground porridge and honeycomb criminal ring? The Fourth Bear will tell you all you need to know. Did it cross your mind that British society in the distant and/or parallel future consider dancing a sordid and saucy act (not to mention a society where everyone is ranked by their ability to perceive colours)? It’s common knowledge in Shades of Grey.

His main series, the Thursday Next novels stand out as both his strongest writing and the biggest display of his love of literature, if not just his love of the Meta. The series, starting the The Eyre Affair are centred around the idea of writing and storytelling having otherworldly production and mechanics beyond the authors that wrote them. The process of reading is powered by Operating systems, characters have to physically act out a book as it’s read, and best of all, there’s a police force – Jurisfiction – to keep the Book World in safe running order. Move over Steampunk, this is a Book-punk setting through and through.

And of course, I can’t avoid mentioning the glorious torrent of puns. This may be something of a personal bias, but I adore the use of puns for names, and in that regard Fforde definitely doesn’t disappoint. Where else would I find a villain called Jack Schitt; or a side character called Floyd Pinken; or a pun set up that takes half a novel and is so awful the characters themselves complain about it?
As with any popular Science Fiction Work, it would be disingenuous to not mention the fans. My earlier comparison to Douglas Adams is apt, as there’s the die-hard subsection of the readership; to the point where a fan-made convention, the Fforde Ffiesta (har har) that happens every June. Held in Swindon (the setting for the Thursday Next novels), they’re as off-beat and pun-filled as you’d expect.

Unfortunately I haven’t read Fforde’s other independent series The Last Dragonslayer (due to them being Young Adult novels, though I shouldn’t let that stop me), but I would be very surprised if they lacked the fast-paced wit, quirky settings, and unabashed dorkiness that makes his other works shine.

This entry was posted on March 28, 2012, in Literature.

Have You Read… Norwegian Wood

University is difficult. Not just the academics, but the social side more than anything else. We are forced to sink-or-swim in a setting where we initially know no one, and rarely have old friendship groups to rely on. And yet at the same time, it’s a blank slate – we are encouraged, if not outright told, that this is our best opportunity to ‘be ourselves’, whatever that means.

Some get through that just fine, and others are left feeling lost and aimless. Your life isn’t going as smoothly as advertised, and you wonder if you’re a little bit broken because of it. Norwegian Wood is for those people; not because it’s some feel-good, Chicken Soup for the Soul pap; but because it asserts that although your life might be driving you a bit crazy – everyone else is also malfunctioning.
The story follows Toru Watanabe in his years at university. His pursuit for higher education is in a bid to leave behind painful memories of his best (and only) friend Kizuki’s suicide. While he manages to extricate himself from complete dispair, Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko is less lucky. The death brings them both together and a connection is felt; but Naoko is still unstable, and admits herself into a sanatorium, deep in the woods of the countryside.
Trying to move on, Toru encounters Midori in one of his classes. She, like him, feels like an outsider; but her outgoing and fickle personality contrasts starkly to the quetly beautiful Naoko. Moving back and forth between university life and visits to the otherwordly calm of the sanatoruim, Toru acts as something of a catalyst in the lives of both Midori and Naoko, while everyone else impresses on him how he should look at life.
While I could just chalk it up to careful writing and confirmation bias, it’s easy to find the points where one’s university life reflects that of Toru’s. The burning desire to get away from the grind of uni; the attempts to try and innundate yourself in the culture to try and fit in (even when that proves unsatisfying); the quest to find a balance between friendship and something more intimate. The aspects of Japanese culture and the 1960s setting distance things from modern Western affairs somewhat, but it’s in no way an obstruction.
While Naoko is the only character who is somewhat defined by her illness and insecurities, there isn’t a single named character who has the luxury of being comfortable with themselves; though they all handle it differently. None of these outlooks are inherently wrong (though some are morally dubious), and actually call for some honest thinking about. Is isolating yourself from the rest of the functioning world to repair oneself the best idea? Is a culture of one-night-stands actually so fulfilling? Are close friends appropriate emotional crutches?
While Norwegian Wood has a film adaptation, at time of writing I’ve not seen it. I’ve grown to be wary of novel adaptations, but if it retains the same thought-provoking yet subtle commentary of university life and the flaws of human nature, then it’ll be on the right track.
This entry was posted on February 20, 2012, in Literature.

Have You Read: Idoru

When it comes to fiction, I far prefer the worlds of Sci-Fi to High Fantasy. While both genres could be argued to share many traits; swords, sorcery, and god forbid ”elves” do very little for me. To me, science is the real magic, and when that can be applied to our everyday mundane realities, so much the better. As such, I’m entirely in love with the idea of Cyberpunk.

The term was coined by William Gibson (though it’s popularity is partially down to movies like Tron); his initial work Neuromancer set a precedent – a setting where technology has moved beyond our present abilities, but human nature hasn’t progressed with it; looking at how society deals with a world where computers can improve our lives incredibly, but also bear dangerous concequences if and when misused. The only problem is that I’ve never liked Neuromancer much. The pacing is slow and stolid; the characters flat and unlikeable; the tone so overbearingly grim and ‘edgy’ I found it hard to read without rolling my eyes.

So I started reading Idoru with some trepidation; but it turned out I needn’t have worried. Gibson really must have found his footing as time went on, as Idoru deftly avoided the problems that marred Neuromancer for me; especially in how relateable I found it.

Idoru is build around the lives of two characters – Colin Laney, a man hired by the entertainment industry to dig through the data records of celebrities; and Chia McKenzie, a die-hard fan of the band Lo/Rez on a trip to Tokyo to have a meeting with the Japanese branch of the fandom. Both are chasing the rumor that Rez of Lo/Rez is planning to marry an A.I., an entirely simulated Pop Idol. Their stories are linked in the most tenuous of ways; but as the story progresses and the meaner side of the entertainment industry (and inexplicably, russian smugglers) get involved, the directions of the two begin to overlap.

The story goes to great lengths to keep the characters from either story arc from overlapping for as long as possible, which does wonders for the buildup in suspense concerning the final acts of the book. The chapters alternate between Chia and Colin, keeping the events feeling simultaneous. The Bartimaeus Trilogy, while a slightly childish example, also use this style of writing to great effect, and I loved it there too.

What I find most fascinating about Idoru is just how close the events and ideas it covers are to the technology we’ve achieved today. Sure, umbrellas that fold out of business cards, the Internet functioning entirely as Virtual Reality, and skyscrapers built from nanomachines are amusingly silly and presently impossible, but the idea of using someone’s Internet browsing and social network history to dig for information and gossip is very much real; even the average Facebook user does this to a degree! Robust online fandoms for actors, musicians and even fictional characters have existed for well over a decade, and the idea of digital popstars is way more likely than you think.

Idoru is a wonderful piece of imaginative and well-paced writing, but it’s an even better example of how Sci-Fi (and Fantasy in general) can be down-to-earth, relateable, and at the same time entirely out-there. The tone is moody and sometimes dark, but never too serious or brooding. I like my Sci-Fi how I like my coffee – gritty and dark, but with a hint of sweetness and mystery as to how it works.

…Wait, that would make a terrible coffee.

This entry was posted on July 11, 2011, in Literature.