Don't yuck my yum: it's all I've got

Wednesday July 24, 2013 @ 09:37 PM (UTC)

I’ve been thinking about this Zefrank video, the last few days: “Don’t Yuck My Yum”.

“And the Yum getting Yucked is when you like something harmless — and ‘harmless’ is the trick here and leads to my confusion — when you like something harmless and someone tells you to stop liking it.”

This is, I am sure we’re aware, absolutely endemic to fandom. That version of the show is inferior to this and here’s why, I could write a whole book of reasons — that show was ruined when that person joined the creative team — why do you like that movie, it’s so stupid? Tearing down each other’s likes seems to be fandom’s favorite sport (too bad, Quidditch is way more fun to watch.) I have very, very, very much been guilty of this, and I’m sure I will be again, despite any good intentions I enshrine in this blog post. I hope thinking through the implications for this post will keep me on the straight and narrow.

I do think it’s worth a sidebar here: I, like Zefrank, emphasize ‘harmless’ here. I keep meaning to write a blog post about consuming and loving media that contains retrogressive tropes and attitudes (spoiler: all media does) and I do definitely advocate talking about that stuff — criticizing. But there’s a difference between saying “this is harmful, we should talk about that” and “that thing you like is trash.” It’s the difference between saying “Really? You spend time smelling glue? That’s…not really healthy. Let’s google up why.” and saying “Really? You like papayas? But they taste like vomit, and now I’m going to describe how disgusting they are in detail for like ten minutes.”

Good training for this sort of differentiation is, I think, disliking something terribly popular. When you hate That Space Show Series 4, and so do 75% of That Space Show fans, it’s really easy to get going on a rhetorical rampage, since you’ll almost always have backup and a cheering section. When you completely fail to grasp the appeal of Mr. Popular’s Space Adventures, you soon learn that actually, the fact that you don’t like Mr. Popular isn’t very interesting, doesn’t contribute to the conversation, and is best served by you avoiding Mr. Popular topics entirely.

And the point of this post: there’s one sphere where I think this ability, to suppress the inner grognard whose SAY MUST BE HAD, to skate gracefully away from the target instead of casting Internet Fireball, is particularly important. Characters of underrepresented stripes. Recent internet commentary on a character I really really liked reminded me of the horror of having to argue Princess Leia is awesome. This was in the aftermath of a post about poor female representation in Episode III where I wrote “I love Princess Leia. She’s one of the most important fictional characters in my life — probably the most.”

People, I have a bracelet with the letters “WWLD” on it. I made that bracelet, myself. As an adult. To remind me to be awesome. When you tell me Princess Leia is a shrill bitch, you tell me my best self is a shrill bitch. When you tell me she’s unimportant, you tell me I can never be important. When you try to talk me out of loving her, you are trying to talk me out of loving myself. Because I have been identifying with her since before I knew your name. (Guaranteed: anyone I knew before age 2 wouldn’t pull that shit.)

We live on stories, we humans. We eat them and digest them and turn them into muscles and bone. We build ourselves out of what we see, and when we don’t see enough of the people like ourselves, we resort to writing it ourselves. (See: a certain subset of fanfic.) If there aren’t characters quite like us, we distort what is there until it’s enough like us to go on. If the only character like us barely gets any lines, maybe we imagine she or he or they have a huge important story behind the scenes, if only you knew.

And having characters be like us is a form of privilege. I know that’s a fighting word in fandom these days, but it is. If you are a straight white cis dude, you have a million stories to identify with. You don’t like Indiana Jones? Try Luke Skywalker. Or Bruce Wayne. Or Jason Bourne. Or Jack Ryan. Or Harry Potter. Or Jack Aubrey. If you feel intimidated by hypercompetence, there are heroic everymen or sweet bumbling accidental heroes. If you got picked on in high school, there are the nerds made good, through genius, financial success or superpowers. There are shy heroes, chatty heroes, bookish ones and brash ones for you. This is awesome, and wonderful, and I’m so glad you have those stories. I love many of them too, even though I can’t inhabit them the same way1.

I have fewer stories. I go to an action/adventure movie praying I will like the love interest, because usually ‘heroine’ is an exaggeration. And…here’s the thing. She’s all I’ve got. You’ve heard of the Smurfette principle? There is only one girl. If it’s a team, she doesn’t even need her own identity, cuz she has ‘girl’! If I am watching a mainstream adventure/heroic narrative, and it’s not by Joss Whedon (or is Avengers) that girl is almost always the only one2. The Main Hero, the Deadly One, the Funny One…all dudes. And when that girl, that only girl in the world, is smart, self-reliant, opinionated, and a damn good shot with a blaster? I love her forever, for rewarding my optimism, for giving me a story I can make part of me without pain and adjustment.

I’m a grownup now, and it’s not going to give me much of a skinned knee if you hate my heroines (though, you know, shocking bad form, see above). But this world is full of girls and young women, and those characters they love aren’t just a yum you’re yucking: they’re good, nourishing food they need to grow strong3. And kids of color, gay kids, trans kids, have even fewer heroes to love, fewer stories to fold into themselves. Let the kids eat. Don’t tell that girl Katniss sucks. Don’t tell that black kid Miles Morales is the worst Spider-Man ever. Don’t take the food out of their hands because you don’t like it. You don’t decide how to feed their hunger. They do.

1 Let’s not get too far into literary theory here. Yes, I can sometimes inhabit a male character. But there’s often a rude awakening. “Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical.” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.

2 Reasonable people can differ on whether Xena is mainstream. But there are of course more exceptions covered by that ‘usually’. I don’t think I actually wept with grateful joy when Toph joined the hero group on Last Airbender but I think I danced. Representation makes people happy. And lack of it makes them unhappy: I remember a heartbreaking story of a six-year-old Last Airbender fan who went to the live action movie and bawled because Katara wasn’t brown like her anymore.

3 Even when you don’t think it’s good for them, try to be delicate, encourage critical thinking, and listen: I have fought down my opinions and listened to a young woman’s reasons for loving Bella Swan, and gods help me, I learned something.

Comments

Ripley? (Yes, I know there are fans and anti-fans of the movies, and the quality of the writing is uneven. But looking just at the Ripley character — she’s smart, gutsy, resourceful, indomitable, and good-looking (parenthetically). On the other hand, I must admit that her gender seldom matters to the story, except as subtext in her problems with authority figures.)

Hey Dad!

Well, yes. There are lots of other female characters I love besides Princess Leia. Although there’s no way you would have let me watch Alien at the age I watched Star Wars, and more power to you on that!

But the Smurfette Principle observes that most movies with groups of heroes/characters have only one girl (and that often she’s a romantic interest for the hero or defined largely by her Girlness.) If a kid loves the (movie) Avengers and loves Black Widow, tearing down Black Widow for her just means “hey kid, you should have no hero to identify with in this story.” It isn’t that she wouldn’t still have other characters to love from other media — it’s that her entry point and identification character for that particular story has been trashed and humiliated.

Sidebar on Ripley: I’ve read that the Alien script was written gender-neutrally, which does explain the (refreshing!) lack of emphasis on gender in the movie (although I’d say there are some directorial gestures about gender here and there.) I have also heard Ripley dismissed, therefore, as a “man with boobs” character, which is one of my perennial least-favorite dismissals of a female character*. Activities culturally tagged as masculine are not off-limits to women. Women do all sorts of jobs. Women have all sorts of personalities. Seeming real and human (which is sometimes incompatible with poorly-imagined displays of over-the-top femininity) is way more important to me as a viewer/fan than engaging gender directly.

*The fact that there are a bunch of standard dismissals of female characters, which I’ve heard many times, is part of the problem, I think!

I agree that the role as written is nearly gender neutral. But I think Weaver made more of the character than could any male actor I can imagine in the role. Maybe it’s just that Ripley can’t survive by smashing the enemy with his/her fists, but wins by keeping his/her head under incredible pressure — a male gives up half his arsenal if he can’t confront the baddie head on — and thus I just can’t see a male action movie actor in the role.

I have this problem all the time! I love movies and TV shows, and I have gotten very good at connecting with “my” characters, and imbuing them with all the emotional meat they may be lacking in reality. As a result, when people try to point out flaws in those characters or stories I become very defensive. I try not to take those sorts of things personally, but it can be difficult to break away from something you’ve invested so much emotional energy on.

Fortunately I know a wide enough swath of film/tv appreciators to find kindred spirits. But I do have a tendency to spend a lot of time with folks who are either extremely picky, or, well… just plain pretentious. Which is fine really, and I enjoy our discussions, but I find it hard sometimes not to feel hurt, or even stupid, for liking the things that I do. Even though I know that was never my fellow viewer’s intention…

*I agree. Those “standard dismissals” as you put it, are incredibly aggravating! And, unfortunately, sometimes justified, when it comes our culture’s lack of solid, ready-made heroines… : \

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