29 December 2014

I think there's a deeper point here

Today I read this article by John C Wright which was a reaction- perhaps overreaction- to this article in Vanity Fair, which hyped- perhaps over-hyped- the content of a blog entry by the writers of the show Avatar: The Legend of Korra explaining the last scene of the final episode of that show.

Now, full disclosure and exposition: I and my two elder children were fans of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender (the tv show, not the movie) and we have been following Korra with pleasure. We have not yet seen the episode in question, but, from what has been said, the show ends with Korra, a young woman, walking into the sunset (or, more accurately, into a spirit portal- never mind what that is, you'd have to see the series) holding the hand of Asami, who is another young woman. Apparently, there was some ambiguity about what actually happened in that scene and its actual significance, so the writers of that show took to their individual blogs to explain that this scene was meant to display that these two were now a couple. Vanity Fair wrote to explain how pleased they were at this development. Mr. Wright wished to express his extreme displeasure that they would choose to show this on a children's show, or to use a children's show as a platform for this message.

My take: As far as Korra being gay or bi and its influence on my kids, I don't much care. My extended family situation is such that I had to explain homosexuality as best I could fairly early to the kids. It was better they got it from me than elsewhere, so I taught them what I believe as best I could. So they know some gay people, they know my (and our faith's position) on gay people, and so far, all is well. Will that change? I expect so. That's the way it is with children: at first they agree with whatever you say. Next, they agree with nothing you say. Eventually, hopefully, they figure a few things out and agree in some areas and not in others. By then, they are thinking for themselves, and my job, hopefully, has been done. But that's in the future. For now, what I taught them won't be much changed or even challenged by a cartoon.

As for having a gay or bi character in the story, again, don't care all that much. There are gay and bi people in the world, I don't much care that they turn up in stories. My main concern when I watch television or read a book that I watch some good and entertaining television or a good and entertaining book. Either way, I want a good story. What I don't want to spend my time doing is having someone show up to preach a message at me, as I hate message fiction. It bores me. If the story demands that a character be gay, so be it. But if it is instead a message that demands a character be gay- blecch. Judging from the Vanity fair article, the creators thinking is a little muddled on this point. One the one hand, they said:

No, not everyone is queer, but the other side of that coin is that not everyone is straight. The more Korra and Asami’s relationship progressed, the more the idea of a romance between them organically blossomed for us.

So the relationship has grown out of the story, rather than ticking off a box or sending a message. Right? Maybe not.

We did it for all our queer friends, family, and colleagues. It is long over due that our media (including children’s media) stops treating non-heterosexual people as nonexistent, or as something merely to be mocked. I’m only sorry it took us so long to have this kind of representation in one of our stories.

Now the relationship was done to tick a box and to send a message, and is an imposition on the story. So which was it? I haven't seen the end of the series, so I can't form an opinion on whether or not it played as organic outgrowth of the story or imposed message, but I am curious that the writers try to have it both ways.

One way or another, some are praising the move, some are infuriated by it- and it seems most of the people voicing their opinion in both camps (although not, I should point out, the two I cited above) seem not to have seen the actual show. They are pleased or infuriated by the idea of such a thing in a children's cartoon.

So Korra has become another bone of contention in this seemingly never ending debate over gay/straight relationships in the media. I haven't engaged in this debate in those terms because I think this is a distraction from what I see as the deeper issue, of which the imposition of gay relationships is a sympton, not the problem itself. I see the problem in more than just gay representations in the media. I see it in the straight relationships we call 'friends with benefits' and their growth in the media; I see it in silly books like Fifty Shades of Grey. Before that I saw the problem when I taught Shakespeare and all my students wanted to know if Shakespeare was gay or not, or they were insisting that the sonnets were homosexual in nature. What I believe to be happening, over and above homonormaticity, or heteronormativity, or the normalization of perversity, what I believe lies at the heart of the matter is the fact that our society has lost much of the meaning of love. We have- all of us, both straight and gay- settled for a smaller, lower and debased notion of love, and we can no longer imagine a love that is not sexual.

If we look to the ancients, we see the Greeks divided love several ways, with the main three being Eros (the lowest form) Caritas (the middle way) and Agape, (the divine form of love.) Only Eros is sexual in nature, the others are more giving forms of love, less about taking. Socrates in the Symposium patiently explains that, when it comes to eploring the true nature of love, Eros is a good place to begin, but a terrible place to end. But that is exactly what has happened to us, and what I see behind these issues. In our time we seem to have lost Caritas and Agape- or at least they have faded from our consciousness. We are reaching a point where all love is erotic, and the media is relentlessly pounding us with the message that this is the way it should be. For me, the problem is not homonormativity, but more along the line of erotinormativity, or eronormativity. (I'm not terribly good at inventing words.)

When all love is fundamentally sexual, then the idea of friendship changes, or, more accurately, disappears. Korra and Asami had been friends throughout the series, but the love of friends is not a notion we are comfortable with: we are more comfortable with eroticized friendship. We look at the statements of love between men in Shakespeare's sonnets and we come to the conclusion that it can be only homoerotic, because we know of no other kind of love than the erotic. As we think more and more in terms of sex being everywhere and behind everything, we impose it on everything including more of our history and literaature. We read, say, the beginning of Moby Dick, and come to the conclusion that because Qeeqeg and Ishmael shared a bed in a hotel, their relationship must have been homosexual. If we were to further learn that renting space in a bed in a hotel was the normal practice of the day, and it was common for thre or four men to split a narrow bed, we come to the conclusion that hotels must have been the scenes of great nocturnal orgies, because we can picture no other possibility. And if we make it that it was always and everywhere so, it must be so today. We have normalized eros, made it universal, and stuck ourselves on the very bottom rung on the ladder of the possibilities of love.

To get a different view we could look at the Harry Potter series and the character of Dumbledore. JK Rowling's announcement that Dumbledore was gay sent a shockwave through the media, causing a series of triumphant roars from the gay activists and their friends and calls of dismay from right wingers and conservatives. Once again, it seemed to me, none of them had read the book. They were reacting to the idea of a major character in one of the most popular series of all times being gay, not to the reality of how that gayness was presented. If they had known the reality, I think perhaps it may have been the conservatives who cheered, and the activists who cried foul.

The book only tells of one of Dumbledore's relationships. It may have been the only one. It occurred when he was young, just out of school, brilliant, aware of his brilliance, and filled with a desire to shine above all other wizards. He meets another ambitious, brilliant young wizard, and together they plan to dominate the whole world, both wizard and muggle, for the good of all. Dumbledore is swept up in his passion and his dreams. Unfortunately, reality intrudes, a fight breaks out, and an innocent life is lost. Dumbledore learns from this that he is not worthy of power, and instead seeks the simpler position of teacher, so he will not again be tempted with the idea of imposing his will upon others for their own good.

(Upon rereading that last line I am struck by its irony.)

And yet, it is as a teacher that Dumbledore tells his students that love is the most powerful magic of all. Not the erotic passion he felt for Grindlewald where they both sought their own gain and glory, but love that gives and bestows. It is the love of Harry's mother, who died trying to protect her son, that saved him from Voldemort. It is Harry's love, when he willingly surrenders himself to death, not even trying to defend himself, that touches all his friends at school and protects them in the final battle. Far from Dumbledore's homosexuality being glorified in the book, the love he felt for Grindlewald is presented as an unmitigated disaster. Dumbledore's power increases when he moves on, and understands that there are greater loves than that of Eros.

My issue on the whole is that by insisting on all relationships being fundamentally sexual we are limiting ourselves, making ourselves smaller. Some of us are already aware that what society seems to see as normal and healthy is not so. A disillusioned young woman once said of her 'freinds with benefits' relationships': "They got the benefits. I didn't get the friendship." Eros is a necessary, fundamental part of our makeup, but it is not the only part. More than resisting homonormativity, I believe we need to resist and push back against Eronormativity, and remind people that, as human beings, we are more than our sex lives.

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