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Week Three: Commented Fics

My comment on a fic day has run into a snag. *sigh*

I've been reading Keira Marcos' Tangled Destinies series all week long. (It's incomplete.) And while I did find positive constructive things to say on her writing craft, I was so caught up in the Keira Marcos Misogyny Thing (KMMT) that I didn't actually find positive constructive things to say about her writing craft until after I'd worked through the KMMT and the resulting thinking I'd ended up doing about slash-fic tropes. So, there were no comments from the muffin gallery last week. At all. Sadly.

Originally, I was going to stop here, with the this-is-what-I-read-and-why-I-didn't-comment-as-promised so I don't have to read Sailor Moon het fic written by 8 year olds, but. I worked through the KMMT in writing, as I usually work through theory things and, perhaps it's narcissistic and self-indulgent of me, but there is a minimum of discourse on the subject and, as an academic, my default setting is to join the discourse when I've written on it. That, and I'm a nobody in fandom so I feel pretty secure in the idea that no one will actually notice my contributions on the subject. So, under the cut is my addition to the KMMT. Fair warning, it's written the same way I'd write any lit crit paper, though with some editing for clarity and rhetorical sensitivity.

Not so long ago, I heard about some wank with a Star Trek fan (STF) said in a rec-thread that the underlying misogyny in Tangled Destinies was not for her (paraphrase). I found the thread out of curiosity, and it wasn't wanky (which is not as advertised). STF was decent about it in the "it's not for me, and I bring this up only because this is information I'd like to have when someone recs a fic for me, not to badmouth anyone" way. She said nice things about Keiara herself, Keira put in an appearance with all of the graciousness you'd never expect from a self-proclaimed scary bitch. There was no wank. There was no problem. Fanlore added accusations of misogyny to the Keira entry. Life moved on. Sort of. Anyway, I got terribly interested in the Tangled Destinies = misogyny criticism, which cranked my tractor.

STF had a few reasons for the misogyny and I was kind of curious. I read TD again with an eye for the misogyny (and Keira released a new part, so my OCD gave me marching orders before I could read the new bit). I wasn't quite able to fully agree with the label of "misogyny". To be fair, I've been very uncomfortable with the use of the word misogyny in gender conflict situations. Misogyny literally is the hatred for women. I prefer to label it reproduction of patriarchal norms because hate is the wrong term to be throwing around unless you want to end any effective discourse. That, and I'm a conflict theory kind of a girl. That aside, STF is correct; there are some "misogynistic" issues in TD, but I think most of the misogyny is byproduct of trope, craft, and form rather than a reproduction of patriarchy.

On the what-she-does front, Amanda isn't her own person in TD. In the back story Marcos developed, Amanda completely changed her educational and career goals (xenobotany to xenolinguistics) simply to make herself more attractive to Sarek. He didn't ask it of her, but she did it so she could catch his attention. Once she had his attention, she didn't return to her previous educational track, but maintained the new one in order to please Sarek. Some people might think this is romantic, but this has June Cleaver stamped all over it. In the reboot canon, Amanda was a member of the Vulcan Council. She had a job and respect in her own right, rather than as Sarek's appendage. Would she have gotten that position if she weren't Sarek's wife? Probably not, but I think that has more to do with nepotism and cronyism than sexism because the Vulcan Council is made up of important people no matter the gender. In TD, it isn't clear what Amanda's occupation is, but it is clear that on Vulcan, she was not respected outside of Sarek's family. It is not clear if she was a member of the Vulcan Council in Tangled Destinies, but I find it highly unlikely that she'd have such an important and respected position if she was as unhappy and mistreated on Vulcan as the plot of TD required her to be. The only thing that is clear is that Amanda's job is intertwined with Sarek's. He's the Ambassador, she's what? Marcos does not say, but she does make it clear that Amanda's role in the Vulcan embassy is usually supporting. Again, this is a reproduction of patriarchal norms, but one that must be questioned. Amanda is from Earth. Surely she cannot be Vulcan's ambassador to Earth. Sarek has that job not only because he's Vulcan, but because canon says so. Amanda does help Sarek. A lot. However, because Amanda's occupation is unknown, that does not mean that her only job is to facilitate Sarek's. However, given the undue amount of time she spends on Vulcan embassy business, it's unlikely she obtained work on her own. She does have credentials of her own, however. She is a xenolinguist and she does do work separate from Sarek. Marcos' Amanda doing her job reminds me of the Shadow Emperor concept, where the real emperor of China was the wife, who managed the nation by managing her husband. So, I think of Amanda the Worker as following the patriarchal pattern, but with a solid, non-patriarchal reason. While the potential for misogyny exists, I think it must be read into the work situation as its written right now, not as something that exists by itself in the text. Unless of course, we factor in the theories of Fish, which is an entirely different discussion. I'm going to pass on that.

Leaving behind education and occupation, the primary issues the STF had were 1) Amanda doesn't have agency, 2) female characters were either Mother (nurturing and protective) or Evil while male characters have a variety of roles, and 3) female characters are marginalized. According to STF, she did not read the full arc, though it is clear that she did read a significant enough chunk of it to make these conclusions from valid observation.

I thought about this a bit. STF is correct. Amanda's most powerful moments are always in a nurturing role. When Jim was attacked, Amanda immediately reacted like a mother and brought Jim home to care for and protect him. Even T'Pau, who wields a great deal of personal and political power in the fic, nurtures Jim. Other women are either Evil (Winona Kirk, a human substitute teacher, Grandma Betazoid) or are Mother. Now, this is a "most" situation, rather than "all". A few non-Mother/Evil female characters exist, but they are marginalized with childishness---the really old Vulcan scientist that rushed right off to her lab to figure out was discussed with fond amusement, as if she were doing a trick, and the Vulcan-Halanan hybrid teenager who has, so far, played to every single stereotype about irrational, emotional women.

Two things about Tangled Destinies have to be factored into the whole reproduction of patriarchy/misogyny mess: it's very slash and it works the Get Together Trope. In the GT Trope, everyone in the fic exists for one of two reasons: 1) to facilitate the romance between the two main characters, or 2) to be the bad guy that must do evil things to the two main characters so their romance will only grow stronger as they defeat the bad guys. Now, if you take the Gender Theory-Colored Glasses off and put the GT Trope-Colored Glasses on in an analysis of the fic, different interpretations of the stereotypes begin to crop up. They fall into three types: 1) they are nurturing and protective (witness Chris Pike, Admiral Archer, Jaret Molina), 2) they are Evil, most of whom are evil for sexual reasons, or 3) they allow Jim and Spock (mostly Jim) to show how really, really awesome they are. I think that most of the gender issues are there because Marcos' characters are all flat in nature. Stereotypes define the characters and the plot is designed by trope. For instance, Jim and Spock are attacked by slavers in the mall parking lot. Trope demands that these slavers be as atrociously evil and sexual about it as possible. Which they are. Despite exposure to the worst sexual depravity sentient beings have to offer through his mind-reading abilities, Jim is largely unaffected by the incident. The result of this confrontation was an advancement in Jim and Spock's physical relationship, not development in either Jim or Spock's character. Such development isn't really possible with this form of fiction. Jim and Spock do mature in the fic, they do learn things and alter their behavior accordingly, however the multiple dimensions of character that make round characters unique aren't present.

Now, this does not mitigate everything. In several extremely significant events in Amanda's life, she had no agency. One, she was fully ignored when it came to bonding Spock to T'Pring. Two, the move to Earth was decided for her, without her at all. Three, who would create their home environment; Sarek and Spock decided she would do it without their input to make her happy. She made decisions about her education and career in order to pander to a male, decisions that were logically pointless in the narrative because she caught his attention by being his escort to diplomatic functions. Winona Kirk, specifically, was turned into Super Evil Woman for no reason other than to 1) give Jim a horrifically abusive childhood, and 2) give Amanda the role of mother.

Of the female stereotypes that play out in Tangled Destinies, the Halanan hybrid bothers me most. She is irrational because girls aren't supposed to make any sense. She has to be handled with care and wooed in a certain way. And there is no mistake, she must be wooed and he must do the wooing. He has to do the things that girls like to make her happy, and that won't make her happy. It's not only irritating, it's really, really sad. This is the epitome of womanhood in the patriarchy. He chases her until she catches him, and then they live happily ever after where she has a fulfilling life managing him. It's the diva thing that puts her into perpetual childhood. She must be catered to because she can't be expected to make sense, or to be ruled by anything but pandering to her immediate wants.

To look a bit deeper in the gender analysis, Marcos' narrative is just as misandrist as it is misogynist. The Evil Men are sexual predators with few, if any, redeeming qualities, with the exception of Sybok who instead works the family jealousy motive for murder (in complete contradiction to canon Sybok, who embraced emotion and spent his life as a cult figure that relieved people of their pain). The non-Evil men are Daddies who, instead of nurture and protect, provide and protect. While male characters who do not have agency are cast as victims whereas female characters with no agency are cast as heroines, male characters are just as much at the mercy of patriarchal norms that rigidly define gender roles.

So what are we left with in the end? It's not misogyny. Marcos does not hate women. It is not misandry. Marcos does not hate men. It's not misanthropy, either. Marcos does not define her characters the way she does in order to develop or reaffirm patriarchy. I think it's the prevalence of ideology. Marcos reproduces the dominant cultural ideology---patriarchy---with her fic because of the way that our culture values the ideas and judgments from the patriarchy. Men are this way, women are that way. Good men are this way, good women are that way. This is where I run into problems with the word misogyny (or misandry). Patriarchy just is. What we do with it decides whether or not it's good or bad. Our use of it is mostly bad. It takes time and effort for people to change cultural values and to change a system. We are still transitioning from patriarchy and for most everyone, understanding what is something we truly do value and what is something that's an artifact of patriarchy isn't clear. For example, women will rail against the patriarchal idea of "slut" while, at the same time, pass negative judgment on women who choose not to have children. Both slut and negative views of childfree women are patriarchal, but culture is a work in progress. In Tangled Destinies, the paradox is the idea of Amanda Greyson as a powerful, self-reliant woman, yet at the same time, she is stripped of choices or agency, and relegated to supporting roles to the men in her life. She is the Shadow Emperor. The reason why Marcos reproduces the patriarchy so paradoxically is a pretty simple one: she's writes pulp fanfiction. For lack of a better term, I will be using pulp to help me classify fiction since I don't think the usual classes of literary and genre or commercial are useful in this discussion.

The key elements of pulp fiction are flat characters, formulaic plots, and the ease of making assumptions about characters and setting based on few words that will connect the reader to a stereotype. Development is sublimated in favor of acting and reacting to events. Jim and Spock are a love at first sight thing in Tangled Destinies, but the beginning of the romantic part of the relationship, where Jim and Spock connect emotionally, is a reaction to an attack on Spock by a xenophobic substitute teacher (female, FYI). This attack allows Jim the opportunity to protect Spock. As with most violence in Tangled Destinies, there is little character development following. So far in the entire fic, the Magical Healing Cock isn't appropriate, but there is are emotional equivalent. To get over pretty much any upset, no matter how devastating, Jim just needs a few hours of basking in Spock's love to be perfectly okay. These formulae do not allow for much character development, and in any case, development is not necessary and would be out of place.

Care must be taken when considering developed fiction and pulp fiction. It is easy to assign a judgment value. Development is good and pulp is not. This is not so. The quality of any fiction lies in the craft employed by the writer. Charles Dickens wrote pulp fiction. Everything he wrote was flat and relied on stereotype and formula to interact with the reader. I defy anyone to say Dickens work is "bad" or that Dickens work is somehow less than, say, John Milton. Marcos' rendering of her fiction should be judged "good" or "bad" based on its own merits, not based on whether or not it uses stereotypes and formulae rather than development. Neither of these things have any inherent goodness or badness to them. Like patriarchy, they just are. It's what people do with the system that makes it good or bad.

So, clearly there are misogynistic issues in Tangled Destinies. The roles and traits both men and women are assigned in the fic are patriarchicly gendered and negatively so. However, This is not a reproduction of the dominant cultural ideology so much as it is a byproduct of the form. Pulp fiction does not allow for the kind of development that would remove the negatively gendered roles and make the fic itself less a reproduction of patriarchal ideology and more of a character-specific use of that ideology. If Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale had used the pulp fiction form, it would be disgustingly misogynistic. As it requires character development, the misogyny instead becomes entrenched in the novel's culture, not our culture, and the reader is not required to accept the misogyny as normal in order to enjoy the story. If Tangled Destinies had required character development, the same would theoretically be true. Of course, this does not mean that the misogyny is necessary or even okay. The narrative did not provide a reason for Sarek and Spock to make the decision without Amanda, they just did it and the narrative carried on as if it was okay. How sensitive should pulp fanfiction writers be about underlying patriarchal norms? My opinion: as sensitive as the fic requires them to be. If a female character is supposed to be powerful, she should not be okay with significant events that strip her of any power.

Now, to take the literary criticism hat off and put the fanfic reader hat back on. I adore me some Keira fic. I love how the good guys exist solely to make sure the two main characters get together. I love how the bad guys are over the top in the Snidely Whiplash way, and how the good guys can do absolutely terrible things socially (diva! diva! diva!) and be praised for it, and how every fanfic trope rears their cliched little heads to make the whole thing a world of character-bashing fun.

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