Today we're going to talk about a topic near and dear to my heart: gender dynamics in Sailormoon fic. Or, more accurately, the complete bastardization of love and healthy relationships that takes place in Sailormoon fic. But before I get to the point, let me bore you all with a lot of background.
Now, feminism is "out," or "done," or something. I get that. To claim to be a feminist evokes images of women in the 70s who don't shave and burn their bras. Plenty of women, however, say that they support equal rights for women, the right to choose your own identity, but then say they aren't feminists. To-may-to, to-mah-to. Either way, you wouldn't know it if you skimmed the romance section at your local Borders. These are novels written for women by women, and the lessons they impart are both enlightening and scary. Remember, girls:
1. Stalking and harassment are okay if he's really hot and rich.
Oh, and while we're at it:
5. If he hits you, it's an expression of how the love he feels for you
Is this sinking in, or am I going to have to go out back and get the two-by-four of codependency (with the nail of marriage counseling embedded in it) and beat this into your head?
Romance novels have eased off the last four as times have changed, but points 6 & 7 in particular still appear. (The first four absolutely do.) These are the messages sent in these books, but you will these lessons taught both in stories and in life. Unfortunately, only the sweet little virgins and "manly men" in those novels are fantasies. They're also the only ones who are guaranteed a happy ending. You, who must eventually put down the book, are not so lucky. For a woman caught in an emotionally abusive relationship, her "romance" consists of lies, manipulation, guilt and shame, low self-esteem, isolation, and mental exhaustion. Tell me, is that the stuff of great romance?
Now, many people have fantasies that they don't necessarily want fulfilled. Having a sexy business tycoon with loads of cash giving me diamonds and multiple orgasms is all fine and good in my imagination. That's why these are fantasies. In the same thread, people write rape fic; it doesn't mean they actually want to be raped. Unfortunately, delineating fantasy and reality is difficult for many people, especially in many younger readers. Keep in mind you read these novels and enjoyed them because their ideas interest you. You relate to their messages on some level. They play into your idea of what a relationship should be like. No matter how much you dismiss their influence on you, they do influence your thinking, your perception of relationships, and your actions later. If you felt no impact or connection upon reading them, you would not read them.
So it's no great surprise that these same messages show up in fanfic. Remember that influence? You enjoyed these same paradigms to the extent that you actually wrote them into your stories. Again, you contend, they're fantasies. No one actually believes that a man who doggedly pursues a woman who repeatedly makes it clear she is not interested in him deserves anything other than a restraining order, right?
Not in fanfic, apparently. And this isn't a surprise. When you write fiction, it's a given you'd want to read what you wrote. And what you want to read hasn't just been influenced by all those Harlequin romances you downed. Remember Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty? Do you, gentle reader, recall any time in any of those childhood stories where the "heroine" did anything other than look pretty and sleep a lot?
So not only do you write these bad, scary things into your fics, you probably have no idea how fucked up the stuff you're writing is. Unrotunately, when constructively criticizing this in fic, focus often shifts to criticism of the author and her ideas. Therefore, you also implicitly condemn the author's beliefs about romance and sexuality. Many authors take this completely personally and set their fangirls on you, which is an unfortunate but technically reasonable response. (Except for the fangirl part. If that occurs, the author deserves a serious bitchslapping.) The writer sees no problem with their work, or they wouldn't have written it that way in the first place.
Enough with the con crit talk; let's examine a few examples. A common fic premise is that Darien/Mamoru is wealthy (usually in business), powerful, and blatantly sexual. He will pursue Serena/Usagi to the point of stalking her, basically forcing her into a relationship with him. Serena/Usagi's career is the sum total of its value as a plot point. Double points given if he knocks her up. They fall in love, and this has no resemblance to Stockholm Syndrome** whatsoever.
Consider a second premise, usually Silver Millennium: Serenity is a slave. Endymion some how ends up owning her. Serenity's fate in these is pretty grim. She'll either be "respected" by Endymion, which will still result in possessive and generally asshole behavior. In more unfortunate situations, they copulate in a beautiful act of blatant rape. Double points if she's screaming "NO!" during the scene. They eventually fall in beautiful, codependent love and have beautiful children that will need a good ten years of therapy just to undo their Mommy and Daddy issues.
I could go on for a long time. Many cliched plots have serious problems attached to them. But what these plots have in common, other than my overwhelming urge to rip my hair out and con crit your borderline-misogynist ass after reading your fic?
Darien/Mamoru gets a power boost. He is wealthy, influential, and very sexual. (The author often preserves his canonical childhood or, if he has parents, makes them horrible enough to guarantee that Mamoru has NO positive relationship role models.) Invariably, his male prowess in both boardroom (or other employment setting) and bedroom are praised by the author. Not only does he apush, cajole, and bully other characters to get what he wants, but the author praises and rewards the character in the story. Trifling matters, such as the wishes of his "lady fair," or even getting clear consent, do not interest him. You'll find this portrayal in fics such as Crystal Rose's "Wounded Souls," Dreamwriter's "Operation: Mr. Right," Lady M. Harris's "Dance Beneath the Moon" and Violet Goddess's "Dark Obsession." I recommend reading or rereading these with this essay in mind.
In the Silver Millennium, the author may choose to portray Endymion as a ruthless dictator, someone who appeals to the "barbarism" of "taking" what he wants. (Here he corresponds nicely to his corporate counterpart in so many OSAU* fics!) Otherwise, the author makes him a kinder, gentler politico, a humanitarian of sorts, (read: would be dead meat in a US election) who "saves" Serenity from her life. As the sole heir in a hegemonic system, Endymion receives the benefits of power and wealth. Because of the more fantasy-enriched environment, possession becomes the red flag for "love." Rape is prominent in these stories' landscapes. Even if Serenity verbally consents in the story, the circumstances will be murky enough to cast doubt on her desire for sex. You can find examples of this in Eternal Angel and The Rose Society's "Desert Mirage," the original draft of SailorPerfect's "The Dark King" (with much of the subtler misogyny in her new draft) Lady M. Harris's "Moonlight Midnight Glory," and...oh hell, just start reading slavefic. You'll be able to recognize them because if at least half the words are spelled right, then they'll have at least 50 reviews. The primary problem (of many) with master/slave/servant paradigm is that its common side effect, Stockholm Syndrome, often gets confused with real love. It's not your fault if you confuse these two. Just try not to let it happen again.
Now, what about Usagi? Well, Usagi's portrayal varies, but is rarely positive or empowered. In fics where she's depicted as a nerd or tomboy , she is made desperate to embrace the world of lipstick and stockings. In fics where she is given the financial and/or intellectual prowess to compete with Mamoru, she never wins. "Great sparring matches" end 90% of the time with Usagi humiliated, no match for Mamoru's superior wit. I could understand this pattern in canon-based stories, but AU where Usagi's intellectual capacity purports to be greatly boosted? When exceptions are made, a huge point is made of showing them off. Does this drive anyone else nuts, or is it just me?
Some authors choose to take Usagi's (usually Serenity's in this scenario) core traits of kindness and empathy to extremes. Somehow this equates to Usagi becoming painfully shy, sweet beyond failing. She loses most of the crassness that kept her from being a Mary Sue in Naoko's canon. Usually she is given a submissive societal role, such as in slave!fic, or any fic where she is a servant or underling. Ironically, in doing this, the author is "hyperfeminizing" Usagi. Folks, can you tell me what is wrong with idealizing a girl who never talks, or do I have to get the two-by-four back out?
These particular characterizations (and to a lesser extent, the one I'm about to delve into) often have a degree of fetishization attached. Usagi's beauty, purity, and innocence are emphasized to the point of ludicrousness. I think the childlike aspects of her canon character take some of the blame here, but some of the authors take it so far that I'm scared afterwards. In these fics, Usagi is placed on a pedestal she doesn't belong on. A charismatic girl/woman is transformed into a prize to be won, more trophy than partner. Even an Usagi who resists this initially eventually gives in, growing more passive as the story goes on. Anyone who actually thinks about your fic beyond "OMG dis iz sew KWEL!!!111!one" will find this Really Fucking Creepy.
Furthermore, most authors who DO want to "empower" Usagi change her canon personality to do so. If she possesses the traits at all, clumsiness, kindness, and emotional intelligence are qualities this "new" Usagi is ashamed of. More often the author wipes them away entirely for snarky, sarcastic, cynical girls who are romantics deep down. Traditionally "feminine" qualities are diminished and belittled unless the quality is (traditionally defined) physical beauty. Don't think this is a crime of AU fic; how many runaway fic have you read that result in Usagi praised for embodying traditionally "masculine" qualities such as great physical strength, stoicism, and anger? Even with its eventual resolution, Usagi only receives respect from Mamoru and the senshi after they admire her for getting a personality transplant. The intentions are good, folks, but the reality is stickier upon analysis.
Don't get me wrong. I relate to the snarky powerbitch better than I do to the traditional nurturer, and therefore my love for the well-developed tough, sarcastic girl in media always brings the love. But why is this "new" version of Usagi better equipped to handle life, either as a senshi or as an ordinary girl, better than Naoko's Usagi? Is this "masculine," "empowered" Usagi an improvement on Naoko's canon? Some fic authors might say so, or they likely wouldn't write her that way again and again. I admit I don't find much to identify with in canon Usagi. But why is it necessary to change Usagi in order to "empower" her? Is she really better off for having the personality Naoko crafted for her thrown away? Why can't we empower Usagi the ditzy, whiny klutz? What are fic authors really saying by implying that Usagi as she is cannot be an equal to Mamoru? And furthermore, what does that say about your feelings about the value of traditionally feminine personality traits?
And Christ, we haven't even touched poor Rei. What exactly is wrong with having a crush on the same guy as our beloved heroine? First off, everyone knows that Rei and Minako are fucking like weasels. Got that? FUCKING LIKE WEASELS. More importantly, the repeated demonization of Rei for--gasp!--being interested in a guy who her best friend showed NO interest in during early canon, combined with her tendency to criticize Usagi, has repeatedly turned her into the villainess of many a badfic. Besides being blatantly contradictory to her character, which we can let slide since the issue shows up in OSAU fic a little more often, authors repeatedly punish Rei and Rei's character for going after what she wants. Even though she stepped aside the instant the Miracle Romance went public, the writer destroy's Rei character, often making her cruel and insane, for daring to have feelings for Mamoru and making fun of Usagi. This is despite Rei showing her friendship and devotion in other ways throughout the anime.
Why is Rei so threatening to readers? Is it because she actively pursues Mamoru in the anime? Is it because she tells Usagi what others only think? Is it because she reaches out for things she isn't "allowed" to have? Is it because women who have any type of temper are stereotyped as being "irrational" or "overemotional" in our society? Is it because too many badfic writers, who often don't pay much attention to their source text, instead read their own feelings of jealousy and resentment into Rei and turn her into a stereotypical punching bag for girls who felt threatened and intimidated by the Reis in their lives? I can't answer that.
Right around now, a clever reader would point out that Naoko's canon actually supports a lot of the sexism that goes on in the fic it inspires. The Japanese aren't exactly a shining example of positive gender roles. Usagi and Mamoru's relationship isn't exactly a model of mental health. After all, Mamoru has NO positive role model for healthy relationships we know of, and Usagi has proven she'll bend over backwards for her loved ones, even when it endangers her life, and that her motives go beyond mere selflessness. We also don't see Usagi make the transition from Sailor Moon to Neo Queen Serenity to Sailor Cosmos, and therefore the reader doesn't get the full impact of Usagi being a very powerful woman. The PGSM canon offers fascinating insight of its own, but also falls short of developing the concepts it introduces at the end of the series. (It does, however, provide a canon where Minako and Rei are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, FUCKING LIKE WEASELS.)
Instead, Usagi and Mamoru's most obvious strengths and weaknesses are overemphasized by fic writers. With these exaggerated traits, combined with the reader's idea of a "sexy" or "romantic" scenario, the characters are twisted into caricatures of themselves. This primarily disempowers Usagi, but a good case for it also disempowering Mamoru can be made. Some readers excuse these problems by pointing out the issues are symptomatic of lazy writing, and therefore shit characterization. Yet even technically and stylistically skilled authors fall into the same traps. Of course, many stories with these storylines, because they touch the same spot those novels did, are immensely popular, perpetuating these messages in fic writers influenced by popular authors. So while the writer could compensate for the problems I've laid out in this rant, why should they?
More importantly, why the should you, the reader of this rant, care about gender dynamics in fanfic?
Here's a thought: would you want to be treated the way Usagi is in many of these fics? Grafted into a real-life context, does that sound like an appealing life to you? If you say yes, either you're at some risk to enter an emotionally and/or physically abusive relationship or have never been in any relationship.
Writers publish their fiction, even just on the 'Net, so that others will read it. Otherwise you'd keep it in a drawer a la Dickinson and Kafka. To be read is to have influence. When people admire your work, that influence is all the more powerful. By crafting that piece, you have an effect on the people who read your work. For those who read, you have captured a tiny little piece of their psyche. And if you use screwy gender dynamics in your fic, they will be stored in a tiny little part of your reader's brain. Your influence may not be dramatic, but it is real.
So is this the model you want other readers picking up? Would you want, say, your son or daughter, or your best friend, modeling relationships off your fic? To say one fanfic will result in their being abused is ludicrous, but modern mass media bombards us with images just like these. Do you really think so many greedy-bastard corporations would spend billions on advertising every year if it had no effect? Your fic is not the be-all end-all, but one brick in an ever-strengthening foundation of fucked-up gender identity. The debate on the social responsibility of writers and mass media may still be raging, but why not err on the side of caution?
When you write in this vein, odds are a good portion of your audience is under 18. As I noted earlier, these are girls who are still forming their perspectives on love and life. Fantasy and reality intermingle more freely in the teenage mind. Sure you're just one voice in the crowd, but why shouldn't you at least consider taking the time and effort to offer a different perspective to your reader? I understand that real relationships are more complex and difficult to portray than fantasy stereotypes, but the conflict and problems that rise out of a realistic treatment of a relationship not only have their own compelling, suspenseful dramatic attached to them as well as being easier to relate to, but set up one decent model of how the world works for your reader. You cannot solve all of the problems of relationship dynamics in one fic--because you are dealing with one couple, one snapshot, both of whom bring flaws to the table. Portraying Mamoru and Usagi honestly doesn't mean they both become little marriage counselors. In fact, that in of itself would be unrealistic, because true equality of the sexes doesn't exist. Also, it's boring. But recognizing each character's strengths and flaws, acknowledging those in your story, and outlining actions, reactions, and consequences that correspond to those character's personality traits will make for stronger, more thoughtful fic.
I don't expect most people who write these fics actually realize the issues in the scenarios they create. The danger of these images lies in their insidiousness, of our society's collective inability to recognize these as unhealthy and possibly dangerous to one's welfare.
I would love to see authors exploring how they could integrate honest explorations and relationship portrayals into these story cliches without lessening their appeal to the crowd. It's a challenge I've tossed around in my own head repeatedly (and the seeds of that fic are indeed beginning to sprout) and would urge any other writer to take it up as well. Solving the problem will require both a recognition of the issues by a large body of readers, but dedicated authors who are willing to challenge these stereotypes. Authors must aspire to the ideal of fic that is funny, sexy, and romantic, yet does not perpetuate negative gender roles for readers. This is a difficult, if noble, aspiration. Authors must also hold one another accountable for these stereotypes, encouraging their friends and fans to take up the same ideals. Only widespread efforts will result in sweeping change, but that effort must start somewhere. Let it start with you.
And, if you derive nothing else from this rant, remember: FUCKING LIKE
*OSAU - Original Story Alternate Universe. Story derives almost nothing from canon and characters can be changed to suit the author's whims.
**Stockholm Syndrome - Syndrome where someone held captive may become sympathetic to or relate to their captors. Over time, a relationship may develop. It lies at the heart of many a romance story.