Friday, December 5, 2014

Roles Only Cis, Straight, White Men Can Get Away With

Because of the prevalence of straight cisgender White men in this genre, it’s actually quite easy to pick up on the repeated tropes. Cisgender White men do get to play multiple roles in fiction; however, these roles all come with rigid rules which help define  exactly what White straight cisgender masculinity is. It’s all one nasty performance of gender which both imbues the body with power, even as it disciplines it into conformity.

While we’re very used to seeing a lot of cisgender white male character templates, what is noteworthy with some of them is that, in some ways, the normal opponents of diversity are right: these are not roles that can be played by someone who isn’t a cisgender white man. Not because a marginalised person is less capable or appropriate - but because our perception of marginalised people is so much harsher, so laden with stereotypes and so unsympathetic that we would never support or accept them in this role

Take one of the most common troped protagonists out there, especially when detectives appear, the Antisocial Genius Arsehole. If there’s one troped protagonist I would happily bury not just with a shovel but with industrial mining equipment, it’s this one. He’s brilliant, he’s super insightful, he has flashes of amazing insight that stun lesser mortals around him, leaving them in awe of his genius

And he usually has the social skills of a chilli in the eye. Maybe he’s merely socially inept and awkward, but quite often he’s actively unpleasant, abrasive, belittling and lacking in even the most basic of social graces. Time and again, this man with the social skills of a wolverine is given a pass because of his brilliance. We see this a lot in crime dramas - but it creeps on in paranormal shows as well as we see with Forever and Helix.

These unpleasant geniuses are overwhelmingly cis, straight white men - because, frankly, it’s unlikely anyone would put up with that arseholery from anyone else. Sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic et al tropes that would fall on any minority acting like this and pretty much ensure that very few writers would be willing to put them in this role - and very few fandoms would tolerate them there anyway

An anti-social genius woman may get away with it if she’s cute, manic and oblivious in an adorably-helpless kittenish kind of way. But aggressive, abrasive behaviour is going to catch all kinds of sexist crap (the word “Bitch” would echo through the net). With POC, anger is always seen as disproportionately more threatening and less acceptable than it actually is -  and if she were a WOC the labels “dragon lady” and “Sapphire” would definitely arise: at the very least she’d be expected to be comic.

An LGBT person could work it, if they were advising the ACTUAL protagonist and, again “bitchy” and “bitter” and “catty” would arise. Just think of Felix in Orphan Black who demands that his life be taken seriously, so that he can run off and serve yet another straight, cisgender, White woman. Oh Felix is catty, but he always knows his place - servant and comic relief. His snark isn’t there to be taken seriously - it’s supposed to be comedy.

In general, the sheer lesser rate of sympathy afforded marginalised characters would ensure that a character that is personally objectionable is going to be a hard sell to audiences in ways a cis, straight, white guy isn’t. We are programmed, as a society, to expect marginalised people to apologise and walk small for existing - or to be grateful for being tolerated. It is seen as a breach of  tolerance if they are not on their “best behaviour”. Anything less is not just seen as rude, it’s seen as ungrateful, as spitting on the “gift” of their presence being tolerated.

Which brings us neatly to another role which screams for a cis, straight, white guy - the anti-hero. He’s the protagonist, he’s the hero of this piece… but he’s also something of an arsehole. Sometimes he’s just a good guy facing harsh circumstances and having to make hard decisions (Constantine and Supernatural are classic examples) but sometimes he isn’t even that. He’s left a trail of bodies behind him several hundred deep and no-one could even remotely justify even a tenth of what he’s done - but we’re still backing him. Klaus on The Originals is still our tragic hero despite the oceans of blood on his hands, Damon and Stefan on The Vampire Diaries are both our beautiful, sexy love interests despite all that unfortunate killing. And how many would gleefully support Killian on Once Upon a Time or even Gold, the devious Dark One himself? And everyone is positively eager to bare their necks to the sexy and vicious Eric on True Blood

Antiheroes are dark. They’re sexy. They’re dangerous and edgy and awesome… but this ability to ride on your dark deeds and still be eagerly loved as a protagonist is predominantly something only the most privileged can pull off. Simply the amount of sympathy the cis, white male character is likely to get compared to a marginalised character doing the same thing - their Redemption Trains are shorter (or non existent), their transgressions more happily forgiven or forgotten and both the other characters on their show and even fandom will be more forgiving. On Once Upon a Time Regina faced a truly brutal slog to hero status and can anyone say that Katherine on the The Vampire Diaries is more morally objectionable than Damon and Stefan?

There aren’t a lot of examples because it simply isn’t attempted all that much - women being active, let alone actively evil, is repeatedly met with push back and minority violence or anger is, again, viewed with disproportionate fear and revulsion. Between raging Black and Latino people, sinister Asians and Middle Eastern terrorists, POC aggression is heavily troped and dripping in disproportionate negativity.

Usually if you’re a minority villain you have little hope of reaching antihero status - unless your dramatic, redeeming death is involved (hey Tommy, you managed to hit good guy in the end!)

We also have to mention that there’s some crossover here with the often mandatory cisgender, straight white male protagonist and the prevalent trope that says the protagonist is always right. The protagonist gets a pass the side characters do not - and in group situations the side characters are not deemed to have the authority to do what we’ve frequently forgiven the cis, straight white male leader doing - just look at the treatment of Carol on The Walking Dead

Speaking of destructive emotions, what is a straight, White male cisgender protagonist without his manpain? For example, Konrad, in Marie Treanor’s Blood Hunter’s series, experiences pain like no other vampire hunter. All hunters have lost something or someone precious to a vampire but Konrad, the special snowflake that he is, is so bloody damaged that this justifies his kidnapping, physical violence and even starvation of Maggie. Anyone else would at the very least be subject to some sort of censure from their community, but not Konrad. Why? Konrad has manpain. That’s all it takes to excuse the most unexcusable actions - MANPAIN. These poor dears aren’t meant to suffer, though we are constantly told how hyper masculine they are at every turn. This supposedly justifies why their pain is more significant, more traumatic just more of everything than anyone else could possibly hope to experience.  

Manpain even leads to the justification of ridiculous decisions as we learn with Andevai in Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker Trilogy.  All the citizens are suffering under an oppressive government.  Many are struggling under great privations but Andevai who has been educated, given fine clothing to wear and is an extremely powerful mage cannot for one moment see his privilege or his blessings. Andevai has manpain and if that means that others around him have to suffer, be forced into marrying him, or even go hungry, then so be it.  

I would of course be remiss if I didn’t bring Ann Rice’s Louis de Pointe du Lac. Louis with all of his angst and his suffering is absolutely the king of man pain. First he wants to die because he is suffering and then of course he chooses to become a vampire and wants to die again because he is suffering. Suffering is literally Louis’s only character trait and without his moping pathetic angst, there would be no Louis.

Again this is not the kind of behaviour that would be tolerated in marginalised characters. Women faced with angst and grief are expected to fold and collapse, perhaps Taking To Their Bed. Their pain is weakness, pathetic and to be scorned, belittled or to be diminishing of them. They are expected to be passive objects in their pain. Again these tropes often apply to LGBT people as well, pain isn’t a sign of their mighty suffering, but for gay or bi men it’s a sign of their feeble weakness and fragility while lesbians or bisexual women are caught by the sexist tropes or expected to be too tough and immune to such frailties. Inevitably, their pain will be linked to their sexuality and will be more a clumsy aesop or the eternal singal story of tragedy that dogs LGBT depiction. POC are generally not expected to feel pain at all - indeed Black people are often assumed not to feel pain to the same depth as white people.

And even if they did, just like the Antihero, them reacting with violence or rage because of it would not be viewed with the same sympathy because of the terror of POC rage and violence. A Black man kidnapping a woman, for example, due to Manpain would never be regarded with the same level of sympathy.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the straight cisgender White male identity is the ability to be sexual or have sexual thoughts without being slut shamed into oblivion. This is a pass most certainly not given to women as the Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Series will attest to. Eric our favourite viking vampire seduces women at will but any woman other than Sookie (bless her irritating heart) who has sex must be a dirty, dirty whore. Women must be gently used if they are to be acceptable for partners. These tropes are often exacerbated with POC, with hypersexualisation, sexual predation and fetishism frequently demonising the sexuality of POC - presenting it as perverse or threatening

Of course if you’re gay the same tropes apply - with monogamy as a foreign concept and LGBT people presented as hyper-sexual from Lafayette in True Blood (television show AND the book), Felix from Orphan Black (both of whom are sex workers). Bo from Lost Girl and Arika on Dominion both throw in predation, deception and ulterior motives with a heavy dose of sex-as-a-tool. Even if they’re not actually having sex, sex obsession is common as we see with Aaron on Switch (and also part of the comic relief). These depictions of sexuality are used for comedy and to shame with hypersexuality or predatory or devious sexuality being common place or the norm - it is not depicted as healthy, affirming or positive.

If you are lucky enough to have two gay men who are married, they absolutely must be unhappy and one of them has to be cheating (or on their way to an early grave). Yes, I’m looking at you American Horror Story. The sex is dirty and must be punishable by death. Who ever heard of gay sex ending in anything other than death?

Compare these examples to Dean of Supernatural, Datak Tarr, John Constantine, and just about every single member of the Blackdagger Brotherhood. In the case of Datak Tarr, not only can he sleep with any woman he wants, he also demands that Stahma remain faithful to him. Having sex with random women is just something one does and has no bearing on one’s worth; it’s simply normal. It’s a nice break between battling demons or running a drug cartel. It’s a double standard that allows straight, cisgender, White males to express not only their sexuality but a very specific form of masculinity that privileges their existence and desires even as it reduces women to casual play things and whores and LGBT people to perverted, hypersexualised, predatory, sexual fiends.  

As we see cisgender straight white men take these same roles time and again we have to remember not only the ubiquitousness of these characters but also the power their privilege allows them; their freedom from the pernicious toxin of tropes that beleaguer marginalised characters allows them to be seen in wider and more controversial roles. We need to be able to see marginalised people in these roles - which means challenging the tropes and empowering the characters within them - we need to shatter the stereotypes and judgements so they can be routinely ignored as they are for cis straight white men and that will happen when we cease to perpetuate them.