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Spores, Molds, and Fungus

Pop Culture Miscellania

About Heroines
Whenever I see it being said that we need less bitchy heroines, less heroines who reject traditional femininity, so that we can uplift the reputation of femininity (not femaleness) in western culture, it stinks like gender essentialism.

Apparently it's not enough to want society to value the feminine: the feminine must also be the strict concern of female characters, even though female and feminine are not the same thing. Nobody ever asks whether male heroes should be more feminine, whether they should be more than just "badass" and have their soft side. We only ask this in relation to female characters.

This ignores the heavy prices still paid in stepping out of one's gendered role, and the fact that femininity is still the norm, still an obligation for women. To disparage a female character for not being "womanly" enough, we forget that everyone else does that to real people, real women, every day.

It's similar to the way discussions of female stereotypes in media are derailed by posters asking, "but why do you hate feminine things?" They miss the point, maybe to troll, maybe deliberately. It’s not that femininity is hated, just that it’s not a choice for many women. When a way of being and acting is not framed as a choice but a duty, then it's touchier to defend, and you can't act like it's all a choice.

All of this wouldn't be an issue if the strict equation wasn't between feminine and female. If we asked to value feminine traits in male and female characters, it would sound less like fandom is trying to push women back into the box that society made.

Calling a heroine a "bitch" or a "man with breasts" is still about the idea that there is a way to be a "good woman", or an essential femaleness that can be overridden by a female character acting "wrong" way. It's policing female characters as much as calling them "weak" for being feminine is.

I've also never really seen a female character as totally masculine as everyone seems to be describing. They always have some feminine traits, though one's view of what makes a character feminine or masculine changes with the person.

In a world where merely being assertive is still enough to get women called a "bitch", I'm suspicious of any claim that abrasive, unpleasant heroines are some kind of epidemic. Are they, or are our standards for female behaviour in characters still too high?

I am not comfortable with hating heroines for not being feminine enough, or considering positive and feminine female characters the only way to help femininity. Gender is not sex, and if calls for positive representations of femininity are restricted to female characters, I won't get behind any of this.

Quick Thoughts on IDW’s Baxter Stockman Micro-Series (One-Shot)
I am so, so lazy. I told myself I’d get caught up on the IDW Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series before this thing came out, but I never got around to that. I still know some plot details of the IDW comic, and will, *will* get around to reading the whole thing eventually, but I went in anyway. Not completely cold, but I won’t pretend I’ve actually read the preceding comics.

It’s a good little story, telling a complete tale and setting up a future. It’s a present-day tale of IDW Stockman being deceptive with his mad science run amok, interspersed with flashbacks of Stockman playing chess with his father at different times in his life. In the end Stockman seems to outwit Krang and gather important data in preparation for usurping his master, because Stockman wants control of the impending Technodrome. Not to rule the world, but to control and distribute the technology for his own purposes.

Well-played, Stockman.

There’s always a “but” and my problem is that, though the storytelling is competent and it whets the appetite for more, there’s something about the comic that feels cold and detached. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t make me want to run out and buy all the IDW comics yet. Something’s missing, and I don’t know what.

I used to think that Baxter Stockman was one of the recurring TMNT characters that wasn’t bound into a strict archetype--he started out as a simple (but likely tongue-in-cheek) portrayal of a mad scientist, but his animated versions pretty consistently embody failure beyond just “curses foiled again”, and an arrogance beyond typical villainy.

But IDW Baxter seems to embody that particular arrogance mentioned above, and he could be headed for failure, so perhaps Stockman’s other media portrayals have simply become the archetype, leaving the original Mirage incarnation to be more the exception than the rule..

Yet IDW Stockman is also distinct because his moments of fear and henchmanly submission are an apparent ruse, AND he has larger villainous ambitions that seem to have survived for a long time, instead of degenerating into simply surviving and getting revenge on things. I support this only as a means of making different versions of the character distinct; I don’t think Baxter Stockman “needs” to have more villainous oomph, because I don’t mind if he fails at supervillainy as long as he’s an entertaining character. But Stockman shouldn’t be the same every time, and for this I praise IDW.

I liked that his father isn’t simply the harsh dad cliche: he seemed strict and sometimes contradictory, but believed he was doing good. Though Baxter, being the lovable asshole that he is, repays in kind by booting Mr. Stockman out of his own company in the final flashback.

And yes, we get the “flyborg”, the experiment that Baxter uses to stage a rampage / diversion as part of his plan, with a potential army waiting in green tanks. I’m not saying I’m “too cool” for Easter Eggs, but something about this one made me cringe. I’m in favour of using transformation to represent Baxter Stockman’s failure, but I don’t think it *needs* to happen to him all the time. I didn’t even need a homage.

It’s also so obviously an Easter Egg it hurts. If you want to fuse an insect with a robot for offensive purposes, why choose a common housefly? Why not something stronger, more armoured?

Also, while I wouldn’t bet the whole farm on it, I assume this means that Baxter Stockman will remain human in the IDW-verse, which I’d prefer. I love Baxterfly and Baxterborg, but there’s a world of possibilities out there for the character, even if you want to keep him embodying failure and self-destruction. Baxter Stockman still isn’t as set in stone as some other TMNT characters, and writers should take advantage of that.

Besides not clamouring for Stockman to be transformed, I find it a little...silly to see the IDW comic continuously bringing elements exclusive to the old cartoon into a more serious universe. I giggle every time I see a picture of the gritty gun-toting Neutrinos, or that steampunk-ish homage to Krang’s android body. Believe me, I know concepts can be remade into anything, but I can’t help it. It’s a side effect of being tired of the TMNT fandom’s urge to deny or bypass the original cartoon’s wonderful / painful silliness. It just makes me think of dopey fanboys who are secretly insecure about the things they like, and want to prove these things are “gritty and adult”.

Mea culpa.

Also, I still love the main cover for this issue. The variant cover, with Baxter playing “chess” with figures of the characters, is pretty trite compared to the excellent play on M.C. Escher’s “Hand with Reflecting Sphere.”
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Why Do I Write Fanfiction?
Sometimes, I write fanfiction. Off and on. I’ll go through a dry spell of months or even years, and then the urge hits me again. It might go away when I go pro, it might not. I don’t hate myself for doing it at all, though for me it’s become a more private activity since the early 2000s.

It's very difficult for a casual insider to distill fanfiction, and other creative fannish activities, into purely objective terms so that others can understand why they do them. I'm not very deeply absorbed into the creative aspects of fannish culture, but I'm inside it enough that on some level, creative fannish activities (fanfiction, fanart, cosplay, and whatever) are hard to put into concrete terms, and especially to imagine as something bizarre or strange. They simply are, such an accepted part of my landscape that I can’t imagine them not existing.

So I'm not going to try to define a universal motive behind writing fanfiction or other creative fannish activities; I just want to talk about my own experiences with fanfiction (since my involvement with other fannish creative projects is almost nil), and what I think drives me to indulge in it.

My involvement with fannish creativity probably reached its peak in the Transformers fandom, which was my first entry into “fan culture”. During that time, I would actually read fanfiction, think of my own original characters and settings, and discuss fanfiction with others.

However, my interests in these things whittled away, until I only wanted to deal with offical materials and characters, wrote fanfiction only sparingly, and never read any other fanfiction unless a friend wrote it. I lost touch with the community around fanfiction, too. I don’t regret what I did in the past, but that simply isn’t where my interests are anymore.

Yet when I look back, I understand that my motivations behind these fannish activites have largely gone unchanged. I try to keep a leash on things, to not totally disregard what I think are the rules of "good" writing, but fanfiction is still a self-indulgent activity regardless of how prim and proper I try to make myself, and I’m comfortable with that.

The quote "write what you want to write" is still a useful rule for writers, but writing fanfiction lets you put all this into overdrive. When you write fanfiction, you are writing a version of other peoples' stories that you want to see. You privately paste your own preferences and desires over somebody else’s work, which is a big self-indulgence.

My major reason for writing fanfiction is one of the best examples of fanfic's self-indulgent nature: I’ll end up preferring a minor character and want to write a story exploring them further. I prefer to do this with "side stories", pieces that don't actually upset the canonical character hierarchy but simply tell stories that happen while the main characters are off doing something else.

The thought of actually treating my favourite secondary characters like the protagonists makes me cringe. I still feel like I should respect those canon hierarchies, even if it seems contradictory to want to, when I write stories about the characters I like, rather than the ones the narrative intends me to focus the most on. I don’t only prefer minor characters, and don’t want to write stories about every minor character I enjoy, but it just happens sometimes

A good springboard for a story can be the desire to "fix" things in a character's life. If I feel they got an unfinished arc or a bad ending, I sometimes want to write a story to see what else could have happened, what else could be done. Or I may simply want to see what lies ahead for them in life.

However, something like this is risky. Original fiction writers are taught, and rightly, to not play favourites with their characters, or to spoil any one of them. There's just something so saccharine about the idea of giving your favourite character all they want, like eating too much sugar at once.

Furthermore, perfect stories make for boring stories, and boring characters. So, whenever I realize I want to write a story about giving a character more than what they've gotten, I feel like I'm juggling a flask of nitroglycerine.

To assure myself, I try to give the characters what we're told to give our original creations: make them suffer, make their mistakes, and don't give them everything. I try to know what these characters' weaknesses are, and extrapolate on them. Pragmatism makes a good artist, and too much sugar can spoil the sweetness of the story. To treat my favourite characters as if they were innocent makes me wince. I won’t even use the term “woobie” to describe a pathetic character that I feel for, since they are not innocent even if they are sympathetic.

Doing these things are a way to work out small frustrations, rather than create viable replacements. This doesn’t erase the issue I had with the official story. I am totally baffled when I see fanfiction considered equivalent to canon, or “better than canon”. Canon is always better, simply because it’s canon.

Another reason why fanfic is self-indulgent is that I can go hog-wild with sequels and story lengths. I don't have to worry about whether I’m writing a novel, novella, or short story. I don't have to worry about whether I’m wearing out characters, or if my new story "really" needs to be told. I've declared myself finished with a storyline, only to want to go back to it again and again because I can’t stop myself; fanfiction is just addictive. While this all can make for crappy writing, it’s also liberating.

Original writing is certainly more fulfilling and satisfying for me, but I also get the fanfiction bug because fanfiction allows for a mental break. Sure, there are unique challenges that come with writing fanfiction, but I nonetheless find myself able to write it with ease, to automatically extend less effort but still be satisfied with the results.

Even though I try for reasonable plotting, and loyalty to the character's voices, writing fanfiction is still easier than original fiction, and doing it lets me recharge mental batteries. Writing fanfiction is coloured with this sense of unbridled passion plus laziness.

I've also been a shipper. I try to approach that like I do everything else: I create conflict, I don't spoil my characters, and don't give them everything. In this case, I also don't expect the stuff I come up with to be shown in canon, or put too much energy into defending the pairing to others, not that I've ever had to.

But shipping can be a rich source of character development. I try to set up little challenges for myself as a fanfic writer, to create something that stretches the narrow boundaries I've set up for myself and try to make it work, and sometimes shipping can be just what I need.

I want my final product to feel like it's "just enough", close enough to canon that I can feel satisfied in my own subjective way. Of course, no fanfic can be exactly the same as canon, but I still seek out that sense of “just enough”, that these characters still sound and act just familiar enough that I still feel I've done them a decent, if strange, tribute.

All of this adds up to a writing sensibility that is very vanilla. I know that accuracy and fidelity is subjective, and so are obscenity levels, but my stuff probably doesn't match up with the mistaken perception of fanfiction as outrageous in terms of content rather than concept. I play it "safe", I suppose, but you can’t call it “playing” when it’s what you want to do.

Such a state doesn’t make me better than anybody else. All fanfic writers are freaks, all of us are self-indulgent and screwing around. Sometimes I see some character interpretations that I disagree with on various terms, or things that do personally disturb me, but I don't want to see people stop writing these things, and I don’t want to form an angry mob. This is just how fandom goes. It’s better to assume that fandom will write anything, before you find out. It’s just a way of life.

I have written fanfiction for few properties, while having no urge to write fanfiction for others. Despite being comfortable with writing fanfiction, I view it on some levels as a matter of respect, and if I respect a piece of fiction deeply, I'm less likely to write fanfiction for it, because I feel like it’d be like a peon trying to be a noble.

It also happens because a well-written work has less gaps to fill, and less unexplored angles, so fanfiction would be harder, if not impossible, especially those small, out-of-the-way stories I prefer. If a character has a complete story, with an ending that was powerful or conclusive, I see no need to tell more about them.

This all means I can usually predict with some regularity which canons will inspire me to write fanfic and which will not, but exceptions could be waiting in the future.

Fanfiction isn’t anything bad. It’s harmless to the original work., because fanfiction automatically is a smaller thing than canon. Legally it may be in a grey area, but ethically, I don't find fanfiction problematic. The argument that a bad adaptation doesn't hurt the original is equally, or even more, applicable to fanfiction. It’s just amateurs having some fun. If it helps us as writers, great. If it doesn’t, also great.

I do make a personal distinction between professionally written and guided licensed stories and fanfiction written by casual amateurs, though I know they come from the same wellspring. The guiding hand of the licensor or a professional sensibility can make a lot of difference since, when it's written for personal reasons, fanfiction can be tremendously, wonderfully self-indulgent.

So, I see fanfiction as a way to pay tribute to a thing I enjoy, and to give my writing-brain a rest. I try to do good work, but know it’s fundamentally decadent. And whenever I see a piece of professional media described as "like fanfiction", that's what I picture: a work that charges forward with something just because "it's cool", and restraint be damned.
Sometimes, I need a little bit of that.
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