Aug 3, 2009

Snogging in Space

Time for another Brain Leak™. Let's see if I can nerd up sex.

I like science fiction, I have since I was a teenager. I have not shared this with others at the time, as I was afraid it would make me look nerdy and not fit in, and I was already nerdy and not fitting in. I also had a severe case of Bibliophilia at the time. Bibliophilia, the love of books for their content is not considered a clinical psychological disorder, unlike the obsessive compulsive collecting of books, Bibliomania. Well, nobody told that to my mother bursting into my bedroom at 3 am on a school night, catching me reading. She was very angry - something about my severely sagging grades, I think. I could not help myself. It's hard enough to be a teenager as it is, but being painfully shy, introverted, socially inept, but at the same time incredibly stubborn, and unable to show the obligatory respect to authority does not make things easier. So what do you do? You escape into the world of fiction.

Back then I read anything, good or bad. Fortunately both my parents had a quality collection of books and never tried to restrict what I read. I devoured A Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez at around age fourteen, which in my opinion is the perfect age for it. I would pick up a book from the shelf, open it in the middle, just to get a taste of it, and would be unable to put it down. I read books from middle to end, and immediately from beginning to end again, rushing through it as fast as I could. Then a couple of days, a week later I would read it again, this time slowly, savoring every nuance. Then probably read it again a few months later. I had favorite books I read at least once a year. For several years it was intensely obsessive. I bought a flash light and read under the covers. My grades were still pitiful, though I'm not convinced there is a connection.

If reading is escaping, science fiction is escaping even further. Back in those days the genre was even more disregarded as a literary form as it is now. I bought obscure SF anthologies and didn't talk about them to anyone. Years passed, many things happened, I was living on the other side of The Pond, going to college, and my grades were great, Dean's List and all. Probably because unlike high school, I loved college. I always crammed in as many classes into a semester as I possibly could, tried to sign up for all the interesting ones. It was like an all you can eat buffet. Aside from art, film and English Lit. classes were my favorites. One semester I took a class titled "Race, Class, and Gender in Science Fiction," and got introduced to a few interesting contemporary SF novels.

One of the biases against SF is that because of its speculative nature it lacks restriction, "anything can happen." The truth is however that plot devices are plot devices, and if a story has no internal logic it won't work, speculative or not. On the other hand, the abstractions of this type of fiction allows the examination of subjects too close to our lives, without the distractions of the concrete. For example, the New Caprica episodes of (the new) Battlestar Galactica were a study of the blurring lines between heroism and terrorism, the shifting lines of morality. Should it be a surprise that BSG crew discussed human rights at the United Nations?

There are a few preconceptions surrounding SF, one of them would associate the entire genre with its pulp roots. Another, closely related, is the assumption that it appeals mostly to teenage boys, and that women are not interest in SF. In reality SF literature as a whole is not only made up of an incredibly wide variety of subgenres, but some of the more inventive and thoughtful works have been written by women. Maureen F. McHugh's China Mountain Zhang follows several characters in fictional future, one of whom is gay. The novel centers around character development, relationships, society, all on a very human level. Octavia E. Butler - born and raised in Pasadena - was an African-American SF writer whose works explore aspects of race and gender. Ursula K. Le Guin's works are concerned with matters of sociology, anthropology, sexual identity - set in fictional worlds.

While literary works of SF have been on the forefront pushing issues of gender and sexuality, not much of it has filtered into television. In general, GLBT themes are thin on US television, outside of premium cable. While it's becoming somewhat "hip" to include gay and lesbian characters in tv shows, their portrayal has a lot to be desired. For most part they are still played for laughs, caricaturish, shown overly feminine (Sex in the City, Entourage, Will and Grace). Alternately, they are treated with so much political correctness that they end up totally bland and washed out. What is missing is the fully developed character with the same strength and faults as others who just happens to be gay/lesbian, and might even get a few satisfying romantic scenes. One notable exception being the ABC series Brothers & Sisters.

The Brits, on the other hand, have a head start on this field, and have managed to sex-up the field of science fiction too. Torchwood is a much more libidinous spin-off of the iconic Doctor Who series. The central character, Captain Jack Harkness is played by the irrepressible and openly gay John Barrowman. The basic premise of the show is that a time rift runs through Cardiff, Wales, being monitored by a small team of experts, led by the mysterious Cpt. Jack. The show has much of the same qualities as the one it originated from; a mix of action, humor, junk science, a bit of cheekiness - overall good entertainment, but not incredibly deep. What makes is different is its liberal attitude towards sexuality. There is a constant undercurrent of sexual innuendo, as if Jack's 51st century pheromones have permeate the set. It also ventures to portray same-sex pairings with the same matter-of-fact and earnest approach you'd expect if they were heterosexual ones. A time traveling episode from season 2 delivers romantic and sensuous with the best of them:

Jack is said to be "omnisexual" and in his Doctor Who appearances have flirted with male, female, alien. On Torchwood he has an ongoing relationship with another male character, Ianto Jones. The show enjoys quite a popularity, some viewers favor because they see it more adult than Doctor Who. Understandably it has a pull with the gay/lesbian audience. However an intriguing aspect of the show is that it has a sizeable heterosexual female following, who especially taken to the Jack/Ianto affair. This is not a new phenomenon either; Doctor Who and Torchwood creator Russel T. Davis' previous endeavor Queer as Folk, about a group of gay man, had the same viewer demographic oddity.

So why does a considerable section of the heterosexual female audience find the (male) same-sex romances so thrilling? Is it that the female audience is more open minded, and any romance will do as long as it's well written? Or is it just spill-over of the fag-hag phenomenon? Or maybe a flip side of the cliché male fantasy about lesbians? I have another theory. I might be completely off the rail here, but I think that it is - at least in part - a product of generations of conditioning. Let's face it, cinema, and the theater too, are extremely male centric. When we view a film we identify with the protagonist - or more precisely, we take up his point of view. (Which, by the way can get some intriguing results when the protagonist not an exactly likable character. See: Taxi Driver, American Psycho, etc.) The majority of movies center around male leads, with women in supporting roles or as eye-candy. If you are male and you watch a James Bond movie you have a studly Daniel Craig to identify with and a couple of curvaceous female supporting characters to ogle. If you are part of the female audience, it's unlikely that you'll switch your identification to the interchangeable bimbo, especially since the movie is not shot from her point of view anyway.

While women have gotten used to identifying with male figures onscreen, the opposite is not true. Movies centering around female characters, about women, appeal only to female, and maybe gay audience - and only of a fraction of that even. Even romantic movies, and romantic comedies, where the weight is evenly distributed, tend to fall into the "chick-flick" category, that straight men will see only to make their girlfriends happy. In the few films that center around a female protagonist, and enjoy a broad popularity among a heterosexual male audience, said woman display exaggerated male characteristics - Ripley from the Alien series, or Nikita, from the French film La Femme Nikita are prime examples.

Another key cinematic ingredient is the "object of desire" - which is generally the above mentioned curvaceous female character. Even movies about giant robots manage to find room for some T&A. However that will hardly do for the heterosexual female audience. So who do we get to lust after? The male lead of course. So we end up with a female viewing audience that have grown comfortable with the markedly peculiar situation of their object of identification and desire being one and the same. From this point it's only a hop and a skip to the effortless enjoyment of the view of two handsome men "snogging" onscreen - to use the popular British term. Of course there is a bit more to it, otherwise gay porn would be sexy too, which it isn't. The difference is in the writing and the production values - which makes all the difference. Let's be honest, the critically acclaimed Like Water for Chocolate is just a big budget soft porn. And there is nothing wrong with that.

"I object to all this sex on the television. I mean, I keep falling off." (Graham Chapman, Monty Python)

I personally would rather see more sex on television, provided there are also well written stories to go with it. It seems ABC is tinkering with all this sex and drama in space concept with their new series Defying Gravity. I missed the pilot, downloading it on iTunes. Shall see if it's any good.


Margaret said...

Fascinating. I especially liked reading about your reading habits as a teenager, and I find it impossible to imagine you as socially inept. Very smart stuff, Miss Vanda.

CrazyCris said...

you've got some good points there on gender ogling in the movies... we need better written female protagonists in our movies! I'm tired of the predominance of teenage males on the screen...

When you say this:
"immediately from beginning to end again, rushing through it as fast as I could. Then a couple of days, a week later I would read it again, this time slowly, savoring every nuance. Then probably read it again a few months later. I had favorite books I read at least once a year."
I think I'm hearing myself! I've always read that way... my favourite books are old friends to be re-visited regularly :o)

altadenahiker said...

My scifi lit is extremely limited, but it does seem to be moralistic, and fall within the specs of other genres -- romance, wester, private eye -- just the fantasy takes place in outer space or other planets.

I'm w/Margaret. Your teen age years -- well written!

WV: Or as we say on Pluto: Whelpo.

Jean Spitzer said...

I had a different technique for getting into a book, but the same tendency to read anything, most often from the public library, just picking up books as they were shelved and trying them. This led to some strange choices, including a period when I would check out musical scores from the library and learn the lyrics to songs. Since I didn't do this in the children's section, I never read many children's classics until I had a child myself.

pasadenaadjacent said...

Can I be your Netflix friend? really

I managed to snag one of the cities community computers while I was awaiting jury service today. I think the case I may be sitting on relates to this post. I'll let you know.

so do you like the work of Octavia Butler?

dive said...

Wonderful post, Vanda.

I only saw a couple of Torchwoods (not having a TV) but was lucky enough to see the one where Jack flirts outrageously with James Marsters (Spike from Buffy … yay), Too darned funny!

Hey, have you checked out the massively popular genre of Manga called "Yaoi"?
Japanese gay male comic books with a HUGE female following.

Weird, but it kinda ties in with your post.dered

Vanda said...

Margaret, thanks. Truth is I can be very awkward in certain social situations still.

CC, so it wasn't just me! I'm so glad to hear that someone else is like that too. I don't read as much now, bot gotten into audiobooks.

Karin, that's pretty much true.

Jean, that's funny. What was your technique?

PA, you will laugh at me, but I don't have Netflix. I was quite into O. Butler at some point, but have not read all of them. You? I'm really intrigued by this mysterious jury service connection. Keep me posted.

Dive, that was one of their best episodes ever! That bar scene... wow. James Masters is a real hottie. He was the best thing on Buffy. Too bad he hasn't done much since, he is a good actor.

No, I didn't know about Yaoi. Did you know about "Slash" fiction? It's a fanfic genre that pairs up male characters from popular films, tv shows. It all started with Kirk/Spock from Star Trek that were mostly written by female fans.

It's all just odd.

dive said...

Thanks, Vanda, I'll have to check out Slash Fiction.

If you scroll down this link for a bit:

you'll find my original review of that Jack and Spike snogfest episode.
I'd forgotten just how good it was.

Vanda said...

Dive, you blow my mind. Are all British men so cool? If so, I'm packing my bags and moving over.

Btw, have you watched Serenity (tv) or Firefly (film)? They are Josh Whedon creations too. Not Buffy, but really good. Share Josh's obsession with waif-like girls kicking ass.

dive said...

Hee hee. No Englishman could ever be accused of being cool Vanda.

And yes, I have both seasons of Firefly and the movie on DVD. Space cowboys are such fun and yay for girls kicking ass!

Petrea said...

This was so much fun to read. Took me ages to get through, because I had to go read about BSG at the UN, then watch videos on Youtube about it. Amazing.

I used to read a lot of scifi. Not so much anymore. I remember I liked the Heechee series especially. Was that Pohl? I think so. And good translations of Lem.

As to this subject of male protagonists and identification, I've given up. I hardly ever go to movies anymore. I'm tired of the cast being 10 men and one woman. I'm just not frigging interested. I don't identify with a cute gay male protagonist either. Years of seeing the same damn movie over and over again didn't condition me. When they start having females I can identify with, I'll go back and watch the movie again.

Vanda said...

You know Petrea, I can remember how angry I got even as a teenager of the use of women in movies. They were just plot devices - something to rescue, someone to do stupid things just to move the plot forward. Grrrr...

Come to think of it, BSG had a lot of strong, interesting female characters.

Petrea said...

They say we need more women writing screenplays, but they're out there. Just ask how easy it is to get those female-centric scripts produced. Producers are afraid no one will pay to see them (it doesn't fit the tried and true formula). I'm just one person, but I'm not buying tickets already.

altadenahiker said...

I think there are a lot of good movies out there -- just not the big budget disasters.

For example, The Savages, Little Miss Sunshine, No Country for Old Men, Man on a Wire ...

Diligent Daydreamer said...

An enjoyable read, you bring up some great points.

Jean Spitzer said...

My technique was/is to read the first paragraph or page, read the last few sentences in the book, then page forward from the back, doing some sampling. (At some point in this perusal, I decide to read the book or not.)