Why the Xena Reboot Should be Queer, not Just Gay

As an avid, lifelong Xena fan, news of the reboot fills me with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Casting choices and possible Hollywood industry problems with ageing female actors aside, there’s a lot to look forwards to. Xena is camp, fun, dark at times but a love story that always comes to back to its core: that of one of the most beautiful, enduring relationships to ever grace the small screen. Xena and Gabrielle’s love is bright as day, despite the censorship they had to fight past and the wacky plot lines necessary to provide enough plausible deniability for on-screen kisses to get through that. Seriously, how anyone interpreted those longing looks, romantic affirmations of love and kisses as heterosexual is beyond me; but even if it was obvious to me it’s still exciting to consider a reboot where even that flimsy shyness could be discarded, where Gabrielle and Xena could show affection/flirt outrageously more openly and even outright, explicitly tell characters that this is my girlfriend and we’re in love. Gabrielle and Xena are already enough of a hallmark in the history of on-screen gay pride. Getting to admit what everyone already knows while bringing that relationship into this century would be an absolute dream.

But those conservative studio limitations, while they attempted to obscure true love in their fear, did unintentionally do something even more progressive than many other queer shows do today; they showed a successful, long-term queer and polyamorous couple. The characters of Hercules and Iolaus, amongst others, weave in and out of Gabrielle’s and Xena’s love lives with little to no interruption to their own relationship. One of the best examples of this is in Gabrielle’s marriage to Perdicus in Return of Callisto.

Her ex-betrothed from the village she left at the start of the series rocks up at Troy, makes moon eyes at her before she runs off with Xena again, and a while later resurfaces to ask her to marry him. Admittedly, tragedy can be seen a mile away, as the show has an established pattern of introducing love interests only to have them be killed or otherwise removed from the story so that they don’t get in-between Xena and Gabrielle. Still, the most interesting part about these events before Perdicus’ part in it ends are the ways in which Gabrielle navigates a marriage with him while remaining loyal to Xena.

When he initially proposes to Gabrielle, you see her hesitate very clearly, and it’s not her feelings for him that are the problem. She plans on rejecting him, but Xena, seeing how clearly happy Gabrielle is with him, tells her:

“Look, Gabrielle—if it’s me you’re worried about, let me set your mind at rest. Seeing you happy will make me happy. And if that means settling down with Perdicus, then… you have my blessing.”

Not too long afterwards, Gabrielle decides to accept, and Xena stands right by her side as she’s wed to Perdicus. There’s a flicker of seriousness on her face as she watches them; perhaps she’s less certain than before, worried things with Gabrielle will change too much or that she might lose her, but still, she’s there to support her all the way, and once the ceremony is complete they take a moment aside to reaffirm their own bond before Gabrielle leaves for her honeymoon.

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Of course, this includes a very non-platonic kiss whilst Perdicus waits patiently only metres away from them.

This entire journey is a really important, excellent example of compersion, a common part of the polyamorous experience. Seeing you happy will make me happy. Though this theme is never again explored as explicitly as it is in this episode, it is one that runs on throughout the series as both ladies find closeness and intimacy with others. Things are not always perfect, metamours are sometimes villains or pose threats, but Gabrielle and Xena support each other throughout it all and work on their problems and signs of jealousy as adults and as a team, no matter how hard it gets. As Xena once advised to Joxer as he sought advice from her on how to seek Gabrielle’s affection: love unwavering and unconditional, “no strings attached”.

Why is Polyamory Important?

In an article on Polyamory and Queer Anarchism, Susan Song wrote:

Queer theory resists heteronormativity and recognizes the limits of identity politics. The term “queer” implies resistance to the “normal,” where “normal” is what seems natural and intrinsic. Heteronormativity is a term describing a set of norms based on the assumption that everyone is heterosexual, gendered as male/female and monogamous, along with the assumed and implied permanency and stability of these identities. Queer theory also critiques homonormativity, in which non-heterosexual relationships are expected to resemble heteronormative ones, for instance in being gender-normative, monogamous, and rooted in possession of a partner.

Xena and Gabrielle are not heterosexual or monogamous, or even homosexual. They are both bisexual women (Although despite constant uses of anachronistic languages, never use this word despite definitionally falling under that umbrella). They are unerringly loyal and committed to each other, but they do not possess each other. Xena does have a certain amount of seniority in the relationship based on having roughly ten years of experience in relationships and adventuring over Gabrielle, but she defers to Gabrielle’s wisdom more and more as the series goes on and they reach an even par with each other. This creates a relationship based off equality which defies the usual attempts to fit same-sex relationships into boxes of traditional gender roles of who ‘wears the pants in the relationship’ (regardless of how many ‘butch’ jokes are tossed Xena’s way, she still also engages with traditional femininity on a regular enough basis to undermine that stereotype). Though they are both portrayed as cisgender, in many other ways they are radically queer, something which is astonishing to see from a show as old as it is. In our modern context, there is so much opportunity for that queerness to be embraced even further, for there to further rejections of gender-normative expectations and ideas of what relationships are ‘meant’ to look like underneath the current hetero-normative paradigm.

That visibility of counter-culture queer relationships is incredibly important, especially around the topic of same-sex marriage. As our culture moves closer to that becoming a reality, pressure builds up from both queer and straight communities to understand what gay marriage means for society and make it seem as non-threatening as possible. People seek to make gay marriage look just the same as straight marriages, to make it seem more and more ridiculous that it could be denied as a right.

Unfortunately, that goal often means throwing polyamorous queer relationships under the bus. Polyamory is hardly as common as monogamy, and many people in polyamorous relationships aren’t interested in marriage as an institution at all, but the process of alienating polyamory from gay communities, saying that gay marriage is not a “slippery slope” that will lead to multiple people in a marriage, is one of demonization, creating new borders of sexual diversity so that homonormative gays are now part of the acceptable “in-group” and everyone else is in the unacceptable “out-group”, quite literally dividing the LGBTQIA community.

This tends to be a fairly harmful process. The bottom line of this mindset is that, no matter how positive and consensual and harmless your orientation and expression thereof may be, so long as it’s not performed according to other people’s rigid expectations of normality, you deserve to have your rights as a human being taken away, to be shunned and treated with revulsion. If we as a society can only accept “gays” but not “queers”, we have not evolved past sexuality-based discrimination, or even shown much of an understanding as a society on why that was wrong in the first place. We’ve simply continued to assimilate without changing society for the better.

It follows a similar line of slut-shaming that gets applied on a daily basis to people with multisexual orientations: that if you are “greedy” or “promiscuous” you deserve to be treated badly and abused, a dark undercurrent of thought that already leads to higher rates of domestic abuse against bi women, amongst other issues. Bi and pansexual people are often directly challenged in their identities through expectations of monogamy; if you’re monogamous, your sexuality is frequently erased by way of defining it by your partner’s gender, while you are forced to choose between communities, excluded and have your unique experiences of discrimination silenced; if you’re polyamorous, you are rejected by society, reinforcing “bad” stereotypes of greedy/disloyal bisexuality, hypersexualised, forced to keep multiple relationships in the closet for fear of being shunned by loved ones, and so forth. Either way, it’s a paradigm in which multisexual people are forever being questioned and judged for their choices. And perhaps it’s that constant pressure which makes it easier for people who aren’t monosexual or cis or otherwise not part of the growing LG ‘mainstream’ to question the real necessity of monogamy and whether or not it actually suits them, and conduct the relationships regardless of external approval. Asexuality adds even more dimensions to the queer polyamory experience, defying the lie that polyamory is only ever about sex. The queer side to polyamory is undeniable.

So, in making Xena and Gabrielle have ongoing relationships with men and other women in the context of the show, even though that move grew from lesbophobia/homophobia, it was one that ultimately created an incredibly progressive, even queerer relationship than they meant to, an expression of queerness that people still struggle to accept in the mainstream today. Their polyamory and their bisexuality build upon each other to defy stereotypes in a beautiful celebration of women loving on their own terms.

Who Cares About Losing That When We Stand To Gain Something, Anyway?

This is the most common response that mainstream gays have to queerer parts of the community when we point out our rights being left behind in the Same Sex Marriage debate. And it shows just how far we really have to go before attitudes, even left wing ones, have to progress.

If Xena and Gabrielle continue to have histories with men but do not openly identify with queer or multisexual labels, then their bisexuality risks being erased altogether, allowing the lesbian community to once again co-opt bi stories and experiences into their narratives while simultaneously rejecting bi women and leaving them out. And even if they manage to get past the stigma in media against the B word, we still risk selling other aspects of their queerness down the river.

It is incredibly likely that their relationship will be recreated as a monogamous one. I have little hope to the contrary. But Gabrielle and Xena have always been a non-monogamous bisexual couple. If that’s changed, we aren’t just making them what they were ‘always meant to be’. We’re taking away what they are. This means we are making a value judgement on facets of their love and identities and what they should be. Do we really want to redefine Xena by legitimisation through assimilation? Or do we want Xena to be defined by accepting people and loving relationships for what they turned out to be even when that isn’t what we want them to be?

The queer and polyamorous community may very well have to say goodbye to one of the few instances of positive representation that they have access to in western media, with barely a nod of acknowledgement from the parts of the community which stand to benefit from this instance of exclusion. And you know what? I’m ready to deal with that. I’m ready to love the reboot and see the best in it. In many ways, those mainstream voices are right: the state of queer representation is so poor that I will take what I can get and still love it ten times more than most heteronormative media. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that we dont all stand to lose something precious along the way. The old show gave us all something bright and beautiful. The reboot will either carry that over, and be true to Xena, or it will be a show of the same franchise that tries to be but is not Xena. I will not stop loving the old series and what it gave me. I just hope that the new one will show love to me and mine, and the parts of us reflected in the original.

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Review: Child of Light

I’m about two years late to the Child of Light party, but now that I’m here, I do want to talk about it. I had multiple recommendations to play it, due to my dabbling interests in poetry and it being one of the few games I know of that employs the use of poetry in any relatively meaningful way. I was really ready to like it, and I did, but I left the game with an odd mixture of admiration and disappointment.

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Spirit of Punk – Evening Reflection

On Thursday night I went to a spoken word event for the Emerging Writer’s Festival 2016 about the “Spirit of Punk”. I expected it to be full of activists, queers, old punks and maybe the token posers who think that punk is about music genre purity. The night was advertised as a place to bring or write something about what punk is and read it out to everyone else, to encourage people to really write from the heart.

To begin with, it felt a little disconnected and less genuine than I thought it would be, much more focused around the Writer’s Festival scene than anything else. The guy running the night clearly had elements of old guard punk and nostalgia driving him to run it, but it seemed weirdly mixed in with class privilege in a way that seemed a little oblivious. He waxed lyrical about his aimless desire to rebel in the face of a father who seemed to love him unconditionally and encourage his taste in punk music, and it was heartwarming, but did kind of clash later with his message when he sneered at the memory of young punk guys trying to scare him on the train, repeating what he said then; “Is that all you’ve got?” I was really tempted to stand up and ask him if that was all he had. To ask why he thought he was any different, any tougher than the young men he was disdainful of. If “rebel without a cause” and “punk is dead” were the prevailing attitudes of the night, I wouldn’t have been satisfied. But to be fair, this guy made that night for other words and perspectives to be voiced alongside his own. Still, I was not ready to see that what I expected as a fringe element of the evening feel a little more like the main course.

There were a succession of writers who weren’t there quite as much for the punk as they were there for the spoken word, and while their work wasn’t bad, it did feel off-key. And it was strange to go to an event expecting to share an understanding of  disenfranchisement and anger, to look for an inter-generational community who understood that feeling, only to have a lot of smiles and gentle laughter and flowery prose. There were poems about sex and intimacy and jealousy, and one in which I couldn’t hear the words but I could hear the deliberate musicality of them. It was an open stage, and while I’m glad that different types of stories and levels of experience with spoken word were welcome, I was still waiting to see the energy I felt in my chest reflected on the stage, still waiting to be swept up in the passion for the theme of the night. I paid a little more attention to one guy who got halfway to punk by saying that it wasn’t about aesthetic as much as a political attitude, only to disengage again when he lost the path I hoped he’d go down and started talking about how buying a CD from a store wasn’t the same as exchanging zines and secret mailing lists. I get the more advanced concepts of not selling out or buying into consumerism, but when punk speakers dwell on those concepts in isolation from class issues, they feel like rather privileged discussions.

Maybe he said something more that didn’t have elitist, gate-keeping overtones when I was tuned out but I wasn’t holding my breath or ready to give the benefit of the doubt. I had anticipated that there would be some element of rosy-tinted uses of punk as a vehicle for excluding people who weren’t cool enough or educated enough about who the “classics” of the music genre were or how appreciation for it was meant to be performed. That petty purism and exclusionary condescension towards other disenfranchised youths is honestly why, IMHO, the punk scene stopped being what the old guard remember it as. It’s why the ‘spirit of punk’ has been maintained elsewhere, particularly in the queer + activist counterculture scenes I started exploring in university. I don’t think punk was ever meant to be curated like a piece of art in a rich old museum. It was never meant to turn a cold shoulder to poor kids who were too disliked or isolated to be shown the ropes or crack the secret codes. And god forbid anyone ever draw comparisons between punk and emo subcultures, the latter of which contained the same disenfranchisement and counterculture sense of challenging authority, and was a direct musical descendent. I wondered if any of the adults in the room were the kind who’d complained about the emo scene when it happened. The generational gaps seemed to hang in the air at that point in the night, an emptiness I had forgotten to account for. That drove me to write and perform my piece basically then and there.

honestly not my best or nuanced but it felt as good as I could get in half an hour

After I performed I was followed up by Snow – who’d basically had a lot of the same thoughts and sentiments that I did. We were both quite emotional and angry and ready to flip off everyone in that audience for not saying what we wanted them to say. I think I was simultaneously surprised and not at all to find that the crowd seemed to respond to that energy with enthusiasm.

It was a little confusing when we found afterwards that enthusiasm manifesting in people approaching us – and particularly Snow – telling us how brave we were. I want to say that the encouragement was lovely, but have to admit that those words sounded disconnected from what we had both tried to say. I don’t think anyone who’s felt that kind of anger is ever expressing it to be happily congratulated for it. I feel like usually, by the time you hear those kinds of words in your life, you’ve already made yourself into the kind of person who doesn’t need them. I think maybe we wanted to see, if not an echo of ourselves, then an echo of our own righteous anger against society in the hearts of the people around us.

We got to see the kind of act we had really been waiting for when an older woman wearing the classic punk outfit of a wrinkled white shirt and blood red tie brought her chair up to the front of the room. She identified herself as an old member of the spoken word scene, as a woman who’d had barbed wire wrapped around her naked body during a piece about pain, and had to spend four hours afterwards agonisingly removing it. She spoke directly, had wiry arms that moved her seat and microphone around with a strong grip, with a battle-ready edge to her body. She was the most hardcore person I’d ever witnessed in my memory.

She spoke of all the old punks that she knew – “dead, to a man ” – and of squatting in a house with 12 people and no heating or electricity or anybody who cared for them, using stolen musical equipment to give themselves an emotional outlet, and it was a heart aching story, one that I think continues to resonate in the increasing class divides and rising living costs we deal with today. I felt that the tone of her words were different from a lot of other people there that night. Punk didn’t sound like an elite club of rockers when she sat on the stage. It was a refuge for the disenfranchised. Her set dealt with drugs and death, not about those earlier days as a time when things were better, or some kind of golden age, but as a time when things were worse, when music and culture was the only escape for people who were made to feel that their lives didn’t matter. It was no lighthearted tribute. You couldn’t deny that this was a person who had lived through it; that regardless of what the surface of disenfranchisement looked like, she knew what it felt like.

She finished her set, and there was some more poetry before the night wrapped up, and I went home with my head buzzing.

I know that the movement was art, and fashion, and politics, and it wasn’t just one thing. It was diverse. People empathised with different parts of it to varying strengths. If it wasn’t so malleable and welcoming and resonant, it wouldn’t have been the amazing, big thing in our culture that it was. It’s fitting that a Spirit of Punk night was an open mic, chaotic and sometimes at odds with itself.

I’m glad that I was challenged and inspired to challenge others, and it was right to take even a small moment out that night to dwell on the sense of mourning and loss, of the punks who might have grown up and contributed to the night, but are now only echoed in art and history and our memories. Especially considering the crossovers between punk and queer subcultures; between the losses the queer community faced during the AIDS crisis, and in the days prior to the spoken word event. All of that noise and anger and yearning for freedom and recognition had been intermingling in my head, and I think that night helped me process even just a small part of that.

Home is Where the Upper Class are

For a short time recently I was classified as homeless. It was a safer experience of it than the stereotypical kind, in that I wasn’t on the streets. My living situation was ‘unstable’. I couch-surfed between the homes of people who love me, shared rooms, and though none of the places open to me could give me the space to actually live my life and be a fully realised and autonomous individual, it was still breathing room which I was lucky to have. But it’s a position which comes with a lot of introspection, self-doubt, and a lot of hard questions. One of the key underlying factors to my situation was mental illness, in which I am not alone, but the point which is most relevant to why I spent three months and 22 lease applications to end up without a home is the fact that I am unemployed and survive on Newstart.

I could talk a lot about the whys and the hows of that, but that’s getting beyond the discussion. It was a hard time, though, and I keenly felt all of the rejections I got and it felt a lot like being kicked when I was down. And while searching for solutions, and for sympathetic voices in the media, there seemed to be a distinct lack of conversations about what the reality of housing is like for people on income support. Most tips I found (and advice from well-meaning family) included some variation of the advice, “have more money“. I could find article after article about housing from business perspectives, from the perspectives of people with salaries allowing for mortgages, discussions dominated by people who can be classified as nothing other than middle or upper class. People whose only advice seemed to be along the lines of ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with it’. Society seems happy to tell individuals that the problem is theirs to solve alone. But the problems facing individuals in these circumstances go beyond any one person’s capacity to solve, and beyond any individual’s temporary situations. There are no bootstraps to pull, no savings to pull on or financial cuts to make that would make overpriced rentals any less unreachable. Eventually, I got out of that situation and returned to sharehouse living, but it remains a vividly alienating experience, and one that I know other Australians are still caught in right now.

The reality is that there are some rather big problems within Australian culture and our understanding of the right to a home throughout periods of unemployment. There are two important elements laying down the baseline values and expectations of our society, on which my own expectations are built:

  1. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission“Every person has the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the right to adequate housing.” Adequate housing is defined as more than just shelter from the elements. It’s not just about survival, but dignity. This statement is also supported by Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights, set by the United Nations General Assembly, of which Australia is a part.
  2. The Australian Government National Commission Audit states that; “The primary purpose of income support to the unemployed is to provide a minimum adequate standard of living to people who are temporarily out of work and unable to support themselves through their savings or other means.” 

So, we have a welfare system that is specifically designed to provide housing, laws regarding housing as a right rather than a privilege. So, by nature we have demand, and laws requiring that supply meet the demand in quality as well as quantity. But what do we rely on for supply?

For most people seeking adequate housing, supply comes from the private market, a system based off profit and competitive sales and investments in which there are winners and losers. The housing industry is inflated, the cost of living rising every year above the low income markers. For many people stuck in the rental system who are being pushed around from suburb to suburb and further out from job opportunities by rising prices, home ownership is, according to a 2011 report on Gentrification and Displacement, “a borderline fantasy which has logical appeal but is nevertheless outside the bounds of their real or imagine resources.” This isn’t a system which can be boycotted and still have your rights met, like whether or not you buy bottled water. Public housing is only available to people the government decides are vulnerable enough, demographics which have been artificially tightened to allow the government to present prettier statistics without any real improvement. And the demand on public housing well outstrips supply, with tens of thousands of people Australia-wide stuck on waiting lists.

So, if our government can’t enforce our rights to adequate housing, what do the attitudes of the private sector look like, when it comes to understanding their part in providing an essential service for every Australian?

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In response to this particular forum post, there were dozens of cries of illegal discrimination, but there were also a fair few agreeing with it to varying extents. And it’s tempting to respond to this screenshot with thinking that it’s just ‘a random on the internet’, an inconsequential outlier, and that a single voice does nothing in the face of our own anti-discrimination laws; but when you look at the wider trends of gentrification within Melbourne, it’s clear to see that these kinds of attitudes are having a very real effect on the situation. We may not be able to pinpoint and prosecute every case of discrimination, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; the wider spectrum points to very real and common discrimination practice.

And I’m sure it’s tempting for many people approaching it from the business side to explain these practices away as ‘just common sense’. Unfortunately, what might make sense for a business is rather senseless when it comes to matters of human rights. Demand outstripping supply is, for luxury goods, an extremely beneficial thing. It allows business owners to raise prices, put more value on their resources and employees and expand on profits. But for an essential service with little to no alternatives, this is one of the worst things that could happen.

Besides the risk of homelessness, many people are faced with constantly having to move house to find affordable rent. This has a very real health cost to add to the pressures of low-income earners. Moving house is counted as one of the top five most stressful events in life, ranking above divorce. This article claims that “the average Briton will move five times during their lifetime” and the stress of that event will last more than three months. But for people in the rental market the number of moves is likely much higher, as the majority of Australian renters are on a fixed-term residency for under 12 months. 40% of renters also have children, adding to the stresses to deal with in moving; besides possible job relocation, lowered job opportunities and/or added commuting times, school relocation becomes another factor. All of these have massive impacts on the emotional stability of a child’s growth, with far-reaching consequences well into adulthood. The dark footnote of the Residential Mobility, Well-Being, and Mortality study linked above is that there may even be an increased mortality rate for people who move frequently as children, an impact that could be seen within the decade of the study. That is a link which requires further research to corroborate, may be correlated rather than causal, but is beyond grim to contemplate even as a possibility.

But even for people without dependants, the prospects of having to move once every year for an undetermined amount of time still has negative impacts. Stress is incredibly well-known as a factor in lowered life expectancy through ways such as increasing the risk of heart disease, which is known as one of Australia’s largest health problems and a big burden on our economy. Not to mention the high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide attempts in young people facing homelessness. Bad quality housing also has noted effects on health and life expectancy that disproportionately affects people on low incomes, people who can’t afford to refuse bad housing in favour of something on par with basic standards.

I know that some of this is the kind of thing people might respond to as being off-topic or picking at irrelevant or less important details, but when it comes to analysing the links between experience and consequence on a systematic scale, this stuff is important. Overcoming nuanced problems means understanding the nuances. These kinds of consequences are why we have philosophies such as human rights, and Maslow’s hierarchy. If we ever want to create a society in which each individual has the opportunity to reach our fullest potential, we must create a society in which our needs and rights can be met. Otherwise, we should acknowledge the fact that we do not, in fact, live in a merit-based society, however popular that idea is when it comes to job applications and problems of discrimination. If you are willing to deny someone the right to a home based off employment status, willing to drive out your tenants with price hikes while knowing that you are contributing to a trend of gentrification, you are actively promoting homelessness and poverty and class divides. Real estate agents and landlords making decisions on rising rental prices are an active, driving force putting pressure on the income support system. Considering the outcry the government makes on the way the welfare system contributes to the “Budget Crisis”, one would think that holding property investors responsible for rising housing costs would be a major priority.

desirability

There are too many things I wanted to say at this article. Allowing access to human rights to be defined by how “desirable” one can be to someone with money is dystopian to the extreme.

We are facing a genuine cultural problem. This is something we should be talking about–in mainstream media, not just on specialised/niche websites and organisations–and actually addressing on all the levels on which it affects us. Gentrification tears apart communities, and undermines family systems. It damages and impedes our attempts to create an equal society. I haven’t even gotten around to talking about the uneven spread of consequences in regards to oppressed minorities; LGBTQ+ youth often leave home and enter the rental system years earlier than their straight/cisgendered peers, and attitudes against leasing to young people quite likely contributes to the higher rates of homelessness for LGBTQ+ demographics–an estimated 1 in 4 homeless people in NSW are LGBTQ+, which is shockingly disproportionate. If homelessness affected the population evenly, that number would be closer to 1 in 10.

It’s an LGBTQ+ issue. It’s ableism, as disability is so often a reason for unemployment and lower incomes. It’s relatable to racial and cultural issues within Australia, since something as simple as a name on an application can affect housing accessibility, since gentrification can remove people who require language assistance from the communities and areas which share their language and ethnic backgrounds, and create social isolation through distance. It’s a women’s issue, relating to the struggle to reduce violence against women–families fleeing domestic violence are at big risk when looking at that gap between public and private housing accessibility, especially in a rental market which discriminates against leasing to people with kids. I could go on, but the fact is, it’s incredible that something which affects so many different demographics unfairly can continue without much outcry, or even for it to be actively encouraged by governmental policy.

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By this logic, my Newstart payments would need to be doubled in order to afford the sharehouse I’m living in now.

This is a problem that our government should be concerned with, if it is in any way committed to Australia’s long-term future, to eradicating racism and class divides and lifting our own citizens out of poverty. If the government is really concerned with taking the pressure off the national budget in regards to the income support system, they shouldn’t be shunting vulnerable people onto the streets by removing support: they should be concerned with housing prices.  They should be extremely concerned with a housing market which prioritises profit over rights, and with the large gap of available housing between low-income earners, job-seekers and the perpetually unemployed. So long as disabilities exist, decreasing unemployment and homelessness by creating jobs is only ever going to be a measure of limited effectiveness. If the government doesn’t want to raise income support to actually meet the price of living costs in Australia, then they must initiate restrictions on the private housing market, or else increase the emergency and long-term public housing systems. 

Everyone has the right to a home. Our society needs to acknowledge the human rights that aren’t being met and have more conversations about how to change that, instead of just giving everyone the unrealistic and hopelessly ineffectual and ableist advice to climb the class ladder and get over it. Those attitudes are ones which–amongst everything else–tolerate homelessness as a punishment for being low-class, homelessness as punishment for being queer (or disabled, or otherwise othered by society). If we are to realistically battle these problems in Australian culture, we must battle homelessness, too.

The displacement from homes that gentrification causes is an active sign that our anti-discrimination laws aren’t being enforced, and aren’t effective. And the gap between public and private housing availabilities to people on low incomes is a gaping wound in our social system.

If we care about a fair Australia and a bright future for everyone, if we care about eradicating class inequality, these are problems which we need to solve.

Cyberpunk 2077: Punk or just the Aesthetic?

Cyberpunk 2077 has a while to come out yet, but the trailer raises many, many questions about what it’s going to be. It may seem rather forward to condemn a product before its release, but the purpose of this advertisement is to tell us about the intent and quality of the product. With how incredibly powerful the trailer is and what it’s already doing as a standalone piece, it’s worth breaking down what it’s doing in each moment, and why this matters.

Before I get into the thick of it, let’s look at Cyberpunk and what the title alone could tell us about the story. Punk itself is a movement with decades of history, but mainly today it ties into ideas about anarchy and grassroots power structures and left-wing activism. Cyberpunk as a genre has grown to have its own conventions, but over a good half of the genre is still about that at its core, still about resisting corrupt structures of power and Orwellian futures. For such a message to be effective, it must tie into the human experiences of its audience. So far as most cyberpunk stories are concerned, that’s easy. We’re effectively living in a cyberpunk story right now; we have Murdoch media, we have social inequality, we have multinational private corporations bargaining for power over entire countries in the TPP deal, and we also have the internet and social media and citizen journalism and 3D printed prosthetics. Technology today is giving everyday members of society the ability to improve their lives and resist corruption. We are ready to take control of our futures away from corrupt bodies who seek to destroy us for profit. We are burning for it. The emotional work of the story is already provided.
So, why does it feel like this trailer fails at that?

The first shot is a woman’s eyes, colourful, brow unfurrowed, gaze steady. Accompanied by the line, “have a look in my eyes”, the lyrics poise her as the speaker, the protagonist, the viewpoint character. We are poised to be sympathetic to her. We’re lead straight into the image of her resisting bullet fire, the lyrics refer to her as powerful, having ‘violence’ under her skin. In that first shot, I think it’s important to note, no clothes are visible. The primary focus is the bullets, smashed into nothing but dust upon impact with her, but the second underlying thing to note in that shot is the initial appearance of bared skin. The woman is powerful, but she is also soft, bare and, as we see going into the rest of the trailer, completely surrounded by enemies. This sets her up as our underdog, our chosen protagonist taking a stand against the odds. It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that we’re opening with a powerful but vulnerable woman. We’re in an age of push-back against feminism, where vocal speakers for truth and equality face doxxing and swatting and serious cyber abuse. These images immediately tap into that cultural context.

We get flashes of other shots setting the scene. A discarded red stiletto heel with a bullet passing in front, a recognisable symbol of femininity passed over for violence. The placement and framing of that shot is too significant for it to be something we’re meant to ignore. Environment shots of the city, advertisements for 80’s pin-up women wearing tech, telling us this world is ‘gritty’, it’s grim-dark and consumerist, the shitty gender politics are much the same as what we have to deal with today. Tech has progressed, people have not.
Wider shots give us the police department that surrounds our viewpoint character. These are pretty important establishing shots so far as the villain is concerned: villains in cyberpunk stories are nearly always authority figures, inciting readers to question where power is held and why. The beginning of this trailer sets us up with the police as the threat, suggesting this story is one about anarchy. The split between organics and synthetics has been established: our viewpoint character is marginalised, alone, a criminal (and therefore a traditional cyberpunk protagonist) and clearly not organic. The question now, apparently, is whether she can use the technology at her disposal for her liberation and the redemption of her society, or if she’s at the centre of a battle she can never win.
But as we get more details, these initial conceptions are undermined, and the portrayal of our viewpoint character is revealed to be less sympathetic to her cause and more…. ‘video gamey’.

 

the only thing threatening to me about this image is the resonances it has of female sexuality posed as a force of evil Is this used as a promotional image for the powerful concepts it raises, or is it just aesthetic? Are we meant to be asking questions and anticipating answers, or are we simply being promised titillation through violence?

She’s revealed to be wearing some kind of corset, underclothes, and she is covered in blood. Her hands appear as if broken, fingers curled as if in pain, scythes extended from her arms. We take the first steps away from ‘cyberpunk protagonist’ and towards ‘horror movie trope’. We don’t know enough to say for sure which horror movie trope this woman fills, though my guess at this stage would be the ‘overly liberated woman’ trope. She’s modded her body, she’s taken control, and now she is out of control and has Gone Too Far. We have echoes of the lyrics “personal responsibility” over the panning shots of her in her underwear, the blood, the bodies around her, bodies of her victims. The voiceover tells us “…Fourteen people are dead,” and we are taken back from the shots of her as the progatonist and into an outsider’s point of view with the flicker of a TV stream over the scene. Here we are told, she is not the hero.

We transition to see the newest player on the field, a stubbly police officer holding a gun to the back of her head. We get a close-up view of his set jaw–my mind still resists the New Guy as Protagonist as his eyes are covered, hidden, he is depersonalised, but that puts him even further into the Men In Black trope–and a panning shot of his shiny Police Department Badge, as resplendently shiny as any symbol of hope ought to be. Once this scene is done, we see the woman don the same uniform and helmet that he wears, and smile as their helicopter takes them off to a new mission.
So now, instead of an anarchist story where technology gives people power to resist, we have a Secret Police story where Technology Eats Your Soul and turns the average tech user into a monster (Ooh, technology scary, woo). These are both typical subversions of cyberpunk genre tropes, not incredibly unusual to see a story take this path, but presenting this subversion in this way risks alienating any audience who would sympathise with the initial shots of this woman. Promising one story then showing another isn’t always the best way to tell something, not when the twist uses a marginalised audience as its scapegoat. It shows that this subversion is less, well, ‘subversive’ so much as another reinforcement of old, tired tropes, encouraging socially progressive, punk-hearted audiences to feel betrayed by the corporate AAA industry. It seems like a sell-out. The Men in Black trope is ancient history in the world of TV Tropes. Trying to tell that story in our current sociopolitical context seems nearly tragic in the way it threatens to completely fail to connect to everyday audiences.

Current game industry narratives are ones of a shifting power dynamic, of making room for everyone’s voices and different stories to be told. But this game appears to be trying to maintain a status quo of power (whiteness, maleness, capitalism) which resonates really strongly in clearly unintended ways here: the misguided sense of heroism holding a trigger to the heads of a disenfranchised audience; the adaptation of a rebellious force (the cyborg woman) into a weapon against those who would rebel (tech users) is rather like the ways that abusers turn the language of protection and safety into further methods of abuse. Like how SWAT teams created for disarming bombs are appropriated by abusers into a tool to terrorise women in Canada and the USA. The image of the badge on the “hero’s” chest feels like dangerous propaganda, particularly as we’re in an age where we have individuals hiding behind police organisations in order to get away with racially-motivated hate crimes. I could go on. But essentially, by using the Men In Black trope, Cyberpunk 2077 is far from politically neutral, but actually aligning itself politically as a conservative piece of media.

I want to pause and go back here, and talk about what this does as an image. This female character doesn’t look like a monster. Scythes aside, she looks like she’s been displaced from the bedroom, taken right from a place of comfort and intimacy and placed in the middle of a place of pain, where she is deserving of being shut down and attacked. She is a typical depiction of sexiness in modern media; knees spread, shoulders back: and now she is being punished and portrayed as evil, a twisted monster. The scythes extending from her arms don’t look like a part of her. They look like they have violently cut away from her arms, a monster from within, treading closer and closer to the trope of sexiness and vulnerability being a trap for victims. (I really have no amount of words for how dangerous this trope is) I want to ask questions such as – why was she dressed for bed when she went on her rampage? What about an intimate moment turned her into a villain? I’m not sure those are questions that even have an answer. The label of “punk” promises me that marginalised people will have their heyday, but the history of portrayals of women in mainstream media tells me that this may just be titillation, which once again is showing it has more loyalty to generic mainstream sci-fi aesthetics than the spiritual origins of the cyberpunk genre.

Hints of the story from other sources tell me that the motivation behind her ‘rampage’ may be out of her control in more ways; a drug called Braindance which causes people to lose control and commit crimes, that the police force pictured rescue people whose brains have been ‘burnt out’ by the drug and recruit them where possible in order to reduce crime.
This is pretty bad on the surface of it for multiple reasons. One is that the War on Drugs narrative suggested here is one that is currently understood by scientific communities as a complete misunderstanding of why drugs are a problem in society; drugs are a symptom of a problem in society, something people turn to when they lack a proper support structure, not the source of problems themselves. Turning to that outdated idea for narrative fuel devalues the story before it’s even told.

Someone argued elsewhere that this trailer can’t be an example of more misogyny in gaming, because the fact that this woman is clearly a serial killer means that she has ‘agency’ and therefore this entire trailer is not misogynistic. So long as the drug narrative is in play, this is false. One could argue that agency is in the choosing to take drugs, but we’re getting further and further away from the trailer content here: either she is directly responsible for mass slaughter and is a malicious, deliberate antagonist who cannot be redeemed, or she has ‘lost control’ over her own brain and emotions; and if the latter we’re edging closer to an example of mental illness as a source of violent and conflict, as well as the ‘hysterical woman‘ trope. They’re playing with the lie that she’s normal, she just needs help to get control again, whether a slap on the wrist, face, or a bullet to the back of the head. And that trope really awkwardly falls back in with the patterns of this video as a dangerous reinforcement of ideas behind both domestic violence, the demonization of mental illness and the excuses made for real-world murderers when people refuse to hold them accountable for their own actions.

As someone who was seconds ago in the trailer sympathising with her as a protagonist, someone who has been acutely aware of the risks I have to navigate every day in regards to domestic violence in Australia and as a bisexual woman, this is starting to hurt. I’ve gone from, “shit yeah, I can be a bullet-proof woman standing up against the corrupt status quo!” now I get to see that my sympathetic voice in this world is evil/out of control and punishable by extreme force. The resonances to domestic violence against women are made stronger by her dress code, by the justification of extreme violence against her (because she’s ‘too powerful’, because she’s hurt others, she’s getting a gun to the brain on a grimy street instead of a court trial), by the image of vulnerability and a man with a gun against the back of her head, and an entire street filled with people–an entire organisation–who are supporting this male character. The fact that this woman is later seen on the same team as the male character reinforces this rather than undermines this. Women are often forced to forgive their abusers or work with them in order to maintain their status and avoid losing their freedoms and rights. At the start of the trailer, she was implied as rebelling against an unfair system; now she’s joined on board with it, so it’s promoting the falsehood that it’s okay, that it justifies the actions of the enforcers of ‘justice’.

I want to come back to a quote from Emilie Buchwald about rape culture, as “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women.  It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent”. This trailer appears to support this in its imagery. The woman does nothing in this clip but display her sexuality, and it’s shown to be a force of violence that must be stopped. The violence against her is a power play, one acted upon by what appears to be the Official Protagonist: it’s portrayed as exciting, the part of the game we’re all waiting for, the AAA promise of boss fights and shooter mechanics. With her in her underwear, feminine objects scattered about the scene as though discarded in haste for a hook-up, and a powerful man ready to punish her for her transgressions, the ways in which this video relates to femininity is harmful. Cyberpunk is a genre in which “nothing is what it seems” but if that genre promise is leading to nothing but a reinforcement of the idea that Femininity (or Sexual Freedom/Vulnerability) Is a Trap, or any of the ideas around drug/tech use and mental illness being sources of true evil in society, I have a lot of doubts as to what this game is actually going to achieve. There’s nothing surprising about this. There’s nothing new, only disappointments. How can the game make up for a trailer that can tap into so much harm in such a short span of time? It would have to be a completely different beast to stop from turning into a monster of a failure to contribute positively to games media.

This is a great trailer, on a technical level. It has great sound, animation, the level of polish is a beautiful display of technical skill. The environment shots are gorgeous. But it is precisely because it has so much beauty behind it that the messages it threatens to spread feel so insidious; high quality work of this kind is taken seriously by millions of consumers. They will internalise the lessons it teaches. We must always remember that everything in design is a choice. If the teaser trailer is a promise of what is to come, it is a promise of outdated narratives spreading harmful ideas. It chooses not to question anything, but to instead revel in aesthetic over meaning.