On Mary Sue, her origins, popularity and the ubiquity of simple wish-fulfillment narratives in melodramatic manga..
Walker, Cynthia W. 2011. “A Conversation with Paula Smith.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0243.
“It isn’t every fan who rates a Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_sue) and a mention on Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/04/21/mary_sue) for a term she invented, but Paula Smith will be forever known as the person who coined the phrase “Mary Sue.”
In case you have never run into Ms. Sue before, here is her home page: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue
To stumble upon the Paula Smith interview left me momentarily stunned and then struck by a violent bout of nostalgia; not for the invention of the Mary Sue trope, but for the odd coincidence that I was at some of the very same early conventions she mentions, at the times mentioned, and probably ran into many of the same folks mentioned in her interview. I may have met her in passing but I can’t remember doing so. I did some table manning volunteering at Tri-con. How’s this for a secret handshake to prove I was there: I was privy to the not-so secret insider gossip that one of the celebs needed a quick prescription due to… la la la
Hold on tight, this one is going to be messy!
Oh misspent youth! I was playing hooky from high school and sneaking off to sci-fi conventions (…and Patti Smith concerts, which together warped both my sense of the future, and my ideas of female sexual agency).
Why would you want to read a blog post where I get all nostalgic about my misspent youth? I promise useful theory-ish insights! I swear! Something has been banging around in the idea bucket since my last post on prof. Saito Tamaki, and it involves Mary Sue, Shojo (or Shoujo) manga, professor Tamaki, Adrian Piper and why the new and improved yuri V2 is a lot closer to yaoi than everyone first thought.
On the construction of an imaginary other / an imagined other sex:
First Dr Saito Tamaki and his friend again…
“”Enomoto explains that “male fans cannot experience moe until they have fixed their own position”— an observation that may well have validity beyond otaku and yaoi fans. In general a man fears the undermining of his own subject position, and he must establish that position firmly before he can desire an object. This is probably the fate of all who possess a phallus (as distinct from a penis): if the position and orientation of the phallus is not defined, the male cannot face even the object of his own desire.””
(Otaku Sexuality, see prev post for the full citation)
The wimmens are supposed to lack the constraining need for the phallic signifier and therefore can better play with yaoi puppets and enjoy seme, uke and god-narrator-author points of view all at the same time. Taken to insulting extremes, this kind of psycho-babble suggests that women don’t even possess a conventional “identity” as unified subject, except as a reflection of a lack, so they can identify with and partake in desire with rocks, rivers, Hello Kitty, jet airplane turbines, living room furniture and days of the week.
The assumption here again is of a certain vulgar essentialist view of gendered behaviour that fits with the Freudian “original sin” mythology of the development of the modernist “subject”. Blah blah blah. This is as close to the core of the whole mess as one can get, and it presents a weak spot for critics to sink their hooks into it. Suffice it to say that once the wimmins theorists got hold of this little gem, they found a big internal contradiction in it: what is usually now refered to as “male hysteria”.
This is a theory in-joke, because the word hysteria derives from old greek or old latin or old middle earth dwarvish and means something like “womb madness” and therefore should be a relative of PMS – a girl thing. But instead of some 1950’s Betty screaming madly until Cary Grant slaps her upside, “male hysteria” is now far more common in pop culture overacting.
Some guy “breaks” under pressure and goes all violent/ fearful/ batshit psycho/ suicidal because he cannot live up to his internal standards of guy-ness. So Ms. Enomoto’s quip and Dr. Tamaki’s elaboration of it above is just orthodox Western psych canon, used in an interesting way. On the surface male-hysteria boy is just snapping under the pressure of defending his subject position. But If the subject position is so easily broken, was it, and all the high theatre of male-ness all there, and so fixed in the first place?
Whoooooohooooo Scary! Careful you don’t lose it buddy, or you will turn into a woman – which is even worse than being a gay man!
The best short-form version of this kind of thing that I have found so far is Rio Otomo’s work on how Mishima overdoes this kind of pop Freudian view of female-ness (http://rio-otomo.net/academic-papers/mishima-yukios-sex-which-is-not-one)
“Following the first coup attempt, Isao is arrested. During one of his long nights in prison, Isao dreams of turning into a woman. Although this episode functions as a prophecy of the next reincarnation, a young Thai princess, the description of Isao’s becoming a woman conveys more messages than is necessary for a lead into the following volume.
[Isao] felt as if the world had been turned inside out … his flesh had lost definite form, turned into flesh that was soft and swaying. He was filled with a mist of soft, languid flesh. Everything became vague. Wherever he searched, he could find no order or structure. There was no supporting pillar… Comfort and discomfort, joy and sorrow – all alike slid over his skin like soap. Entranced, he soaked in a warm bath of flesh. The bath by no means imprisoned him. He could step out whenever he liked, but the languid pleasure kept him from abandoning it, so that staying there forever, not choosing to go, had become his ‘freedom.’ Thus there was nothing to define him, to keep him under strict control. What had once wound itself tightly round and round him like a rope of platinum had slipped loose. (Mishima, 1985: 449-50)
While Isao is determined to banish the memory of the dream, he cannot deny the fact that the sensation he felt was not thoroughly disagreeable. The feminine is defined here as freedom from the restrictions not only of body but also of mind:
Everything he had so firmly believed in was meaningless. Justice was like a fly that had tumbled into a box of face powder and smothered; beliefs for which he had meant to offer up his life were sprayed with perfume and melted. All glory dissolved in the mild warmth of mud… Sparkling snow had melted away entirely. He felt the uncertain warmth of spring mud within him. Slowly something took form from that spring mud, a womb. Isao shuddered as the thought came to him that he would soon give birth. His strength had always spurred him with violent impatience towards action, had always responded to a distant voice that conjured up the image of a vast wilderness. But now, that strength had left him. The voice was silent. The outer world, which no longer called to him, now, rather, was drawing closer to him, was touching him. (Mishima, 1985: 450)
A womb-like zone – comfort and pleasure ‘inside’ the skin – is within him. The body has now lost its contour, and a smell of ‘decaying seaweed,’ ‘an entirely organic odour’ has permeated this body. But whose voice are we hearing in this passage? Is there a speaking agent in this formless body? Judith Butler contends that there is no pre-existing agent behind performance, and that rather, the agent is an effect of performance (Butler 1993:30).  The voice of Mishima’s text speaks from the no-man’s land that lies between man and woman, and the owner of that voice is what Butler calls a ‘linguistic effect’, the image projected on the surface of the body in the bath. Through this transgender narrative Mishima destabilises the authority of a speaking subject, first and foremost that of male sex.
Let us read further the carnivalesque space which Mishima produces in this passage, in which the realm of the feminine undermines the said order. The woman-like being in the bath is overwhelmed by the sense of eternal pleasure, jouissance, and a division between subject and object disappears in her. There seems no scope of binaries conceived in her realm.
Justice, zeal, patriotism, aspirations for which to hazard one’s life – all had vanished. In their place came an indescribable intimacy with the things around him… Things clung to [Isao] like paste, and, at the same time, lost all their transcendental significance. Trying to arrive at some goal was no longer a problem. Everything was arriving here from elsewhere. Thus there was no longer a horizon, no longer any islands. And with no perspective at all evident, voyages were out of the question. There was only the endless sea. (Mishima, 1985: 450)
This new imagery of woman as a formless, all-inclusive existence like the endless sea is a considerable shift from the way in which Mishima depicts women in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The central character of that text, Mizoguchi, finds women’s corporeality incongruous to the spiritual value embodied in the beauty of the Golden Temple, which was handed down to him by his late father. All women – his mother; the woman who rejects him; the prostitute who accepts him; the pan-pan girl who accuses him – stir anger and hostility in him. The world of the Mother and that of the Father are clearly marked in black and white; there is no room for negotiation or switching positions between the two. Mizoguchi’s narrative indeed takes place within a strictly Oedipalised and regulated space. In contrast Isao’s dream scene presents a different narrativisation of the feminine, the one that posits a powerful antithesis to the ruling regime of the Symbolic order. The she-man, Isao, is without skin or body contour, and thus no longer demarcating himself as an autonomous and unified subject. He instead feels being part of the endless sea. This passage is one of the rare occasions in which Mishima makes a reference to the title of the tetralogy. He sexes the sea, as it were, and makes it fertile.”
Overwrought Mishima is overwrought!
What a classic Freud/ Lacan male mash-up fantasy of female-ness. Here is male hysteria creating an imagined (and rather silly) feminine other, just like the hegemonic “ruling regime of the Symbolic order” theory-verse does. If the female narrator is such an amorphous blob-monster, why are so many of her daughters creating Mary Sue avatars – which are pure naked agency, devoid of any polite restraint?
Sarcasm aside, Mishima is one of the big high lit novelists of 20th century Japan: If he wants to construct a pop-psychology cliche of “the female” built in the solitary mind of a male protaganist who is “breaking up” and bang it violently against his other fave cliche of masculinity the Shonen Jump-ish Koha, then he is playing with extremes for novelistic effect. Fair ball – you can’t do that kind of thing in an essay. Just don’t get carried away and try to stage a real-life coup, then disembowel yourself.
“What is kōha? … youth, violence, naivety, straightforwardness, anti-social behaviour, small-group hierarchy, or ethnocentrism. If one looks closely, one will find that emotions in kōha mentality are represented by politics rather than romantic love. Politics in the Orient is the ideal of machismo and the relationship amongst men. Although both politics and romantic love are naturally saturated in emotionalism …what makes the former distinct from the latter is that while the latter strives for individualism, the former is the urge to mould oneself into an ideal shape [as part of the whole]. Therefore, [kōha affiliates] have no danger of self-mortification…their desperate attempt to preserve their power begins in conservatism and racial fundamentalism. Since action is considered to be the embodiment of their power that blindly aims at justice, kōha will never suffer from a guilty conscience for their own action. (Mishima, 1989: 1015)
Despite its often violent and anti-social behaviour, the men who were called kōha [the school of the solid] occupied the place of legitimate masculinity, while nanpa [the school of the soft] was not necessarily excluded from the patriarchal order, receiving a certain respect from kōha affiliates. As Japan rapidly evolved into the post-industrial society, in which kōha values were regarded as excessive and therefore redundant, nanpa became the norm. The hidden agenda of the article above are: Mishima’s denunciation of the modern novel, which he now calls ‘nanpa-style literature’ which has dominated the Japanese literary scene since the post-Meiji era; and his call for ‘kōha-style writing’ that represents Japan in its pristine state. The article also expresses Mishima’s yearning for a life that is steadfast, fleeting, emotional and devoid of psychological complexity, in other words, his longing for a story-telling that predates the modern novel. Kōha, according to Mishima, defies things logical and intellectual, demonstrating a Japanese native characteristic – distrust in logocentricism. Mishima is here re-defining the concept of masculinity (and the kōha-style that represents it) to be emotional and non-verbal, taking over the properties of the feminine. It is an ironical twist given by Mishima who started his writing career as an emblematic nanpa writer and is now steadfastly transforming himself into a boxer, a sport-reporter, a swordsman and an army officer. The politics that Mishima takes up is a natio nalism without logic and words; for him kōha literature – the story of Japanese masculinity – is a counter-discourse to the masculinity foregrounded by Western imagination.”
The project of imagining the other gender seems to be fraught with what i can only call “category slip”. Are we speaking of real-world behaviour here? Is it public or private behaviour? Or is it confined to the real of “play” or imagination? Does it stay in the safe space of “the simulated”, in recreational fiction, or in the imaginary that is built when the subject takes parts of the the imaginary world, performs a personal bricolage on the components and creates a personal “fantasy”. Are these fantasies best left private, or are they the stuff of the gift, of symbolic exchange? Should the exchange be limited to experts, or can anyone play?
We are already three or four layers deep in category slip here: public identity, to private life, to gendered categories of desire in recreational narratives. Things get messy really fast. One could easily start off trying to figure out why poorly socialized males obsess over certain types of stories and fall into speculation on the “desires of the beautiful fighting girl”? (yup, prof. Saito does it on occasion) Excuse me – she’s a one-dimensional category of fictional character, she can have any “desires” any particular writer cares to give her, or none at all. Myself, I think she wants to hijack a time machine and become Mishima’s mom. She should ask Dr. Doom; I hear he lets Squirrel Girl use it.
I bet Rio Otomo thinks she wants an account at fanfiction.net and a laptop.
Professor Saito Tamaki has a bigger problem than the limits of Freud-zoku concepts of gendered subjectivity. Either he has to go full blown Mishima and acknowledge that the subject is not only formed in relation to the other, but that the subject expends a ridiculous amount of energy first constructing the imaginary other out of all kinds of bat-shit crazy cultural detritus that is found lying around, or he can just stick to the useful stuff, like the quasi-libinous kick that comes from being a second-order or third order producer of ephemera that surrounds the consumption of a cultural artifact. That has traction. Whooooeee! Its time for a big potlatch party! Make friends, hang out, play with your fave fan-stuff, do some mash-ups, put out a dojin – hey wait: sounds a bit like the idealized space of the Genshiken. Myself, I would drop the Freud-speak, or at least view it as one among many convenient “scripts” that can be rummaged out of the dumpster.
Bad method acting school time: “What’s my character’s motivation?”
I won’t hold my breath.
OR: Prof Saito Tamaki knows all this, but Japan has lousy disability pension laws and regulations and he is trying to symptom-ize the condition so that Hikis and really withdrawn otaku – types get coverage and do not starve to death ????
Query: Is hikikomori in the DSMV ? prof Saito pioneered the study of the condition! That’s a pretty high honour Remember, no DSM listing, no insurance coverage, at least in the USA, Canada, etc.. I can find no mention that it is in the DSMV yet. Perhaps one has to dress the condition up in Freud drag to make it “real” within the clerisy. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-244X/12/169
On presenting the public self:
Shift POV back to memory lane:
Way back then I swear I bought some of those early Mary Sue Star Trek fanzines! No one warned me they were gendered artifacts. I was soooooooo crushed when I was told by someone who I lent them to that they were nothing but horribly written girly wish-fulfillment fantasies. Sure they were, but they had steamy hawt (and rather odd) secks scenes in them! No slash thankfully. Whew! Only original heterosexual characters bonking, so it wasn’t too weird; no Kirk/ Spock/ Mary Sue threesomes.
Let me say that again. They were written by female fans and they had hawt secks scenes in them, and I was rather young at the time, and by the way this was in the early Pleistocene era and they used mimeograph machines to print the things! (Damn, I am still putting off that honking big theory post I promised 2 months ago!). Those fan-women/ fen were -gasp- sexual creatures, as much as Patti Smith was, and incidentally equally unconcerned with being embarrassed about publicly taking their desires for reality.
Oh brave new world that hath such creatures in it!
Did I mention my high school was very catholic? And that all this took place in the early Pleistocene era? Dinosaurs and Playboy bunnies walked the earth. Skinny, nearsighted geek boys who couldn’t do sports were supposed to have absolutely no chance for romance and misbehaviour – at least until we finished University. And yet I already knew a terrible secret…
This January I saw a 68-year-old Patti Smith perform at a concert hall in Shibuya. She still can’t play guitar to save her life, and routinely makes an ass of herself on stage and gets Japanese culture and mythos dead stupid wrong, and has a Mishima fixation, and none of it matters, because she is a rock and roll goddess and at 68 years of age she can wank out on stage all she wants. She is still hawt! She doesn’t look a day over 50…
And her soul sisters in the Mary Sue brigades have taken over the world.
What I am trying to say is that a certain moment in time, with just the right mix of technology, and weirdness, mass culture suddenly allowed a lot of folks who previously had stuff to say, but couldn’t bear the hassle and expense, who were shut out of the commercial channels, to get up on stage and “act out”. Fanwriters didn’t have word processors yet, let alone the interwebs (no gopher, pine, email and usenet groups, not even fidonet! – that would all have to wait until the 1990’s) but they did have slightly more available IBM Selectric typewriters and Gestetner (screen cut mimeograph machines go back to the 1920’s or earlier) machines that were fairly easy to borrow or appropriate. And they had an expanding fan convention culture, no longer centered on traditional “hard” sci-fi.
Meanwhile over in rock and roll land, “at the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating…”
Perhaps it would be best to ask Lenny Kaye, garage band historian, pop music anthropologist, producer, meddler and lead guitar to the Patti Smith Group (still after all those years and yup, he was holding it together in Tokyo that night..) what changed. Or go read the liner notes to Nuggets. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenny_Kaye
Whatever the reason, something had slipped in the control rooms of the big record companies some 30 years before mp3’s would destroy them and plenty of people like Patti Smith got up on stage to bring their own messy, raw and painfully, embarrassingly naive idea of how rock’n’roll should be done to anyone who would listen.
And yeah we look the same
Both pumpin steel, both sweatin
But you know she got nothin to hide
And I got something to hide here called desire
I got something to hide here called desire
And I will get out of here–
You know the fiery potion is just about to come
In my nose is the taste of sugar
And I got nothin to hide here save desire
And I’m gonna go, I’m gonna get out of here
I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train,
I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City
I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City,
I’m gonna be so big, I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return,
Never return, no, never return, to burn at this Piss Factory
And I will travel light.
Oh, watch me now.
Patti Smith, Piss Factory (1974)
Bloody amateurs! Mary Sues all of them!
The sins of Mary Sue are all sins of degree. Recall slash-kami “Mary Jean Johnson’s” admonition about yaoi fan-writing:
“Yaoi isn’t like other fictional writing. It’s a private vision written for personal satisfaction, and to apply the standards by which we judge ordinary literature to yaoi is to willfully ignore this private element. You can say ‘Male pregnancy stories don’t do it for me’ if you like, but to say ‘Male pregnancy stories are stupid and childish and people should stop writing them’ is not only arrogant, it’s dangerous. All fantasies are legitimate or none are, and to discredit the male pregnancy fantasy is automatically to discredit your own fantasy of mutual empowerment and non-penetrative sex. As for trashing a fanwriter’s style, it’s like shooting the piano player. Chances are she’s doing the best she can. The only way you get to play the piano better is by playing the piano more. And quite possibly she writes that way because she likes writing that way, typos and all, and belongs to that huge group of people (of whom Word’s Spell-check is one) who really believe that its should be written it’s on all occasions.””
It could also be that plotting standards have slipped precipitously, or that naive story telling is comfortably non-threatening to a modern mass audience (as is tone-deaf pop singing), but ms. Sue has found a permanent place as one of the zashi-warashi of contemporary Japanese Visual Culture. Blame Comike(t) It doesn’t matter. She is wabi-sabi as all heck; a flawed guardian spirit/ meta-heroine. (we will leave aside Western women’s genre fiction, either young adult or the slightly older age bracket’s “spunky girl in the big city finds interesting well-paying job, brand name goodies and two competing good boy/ bad boy lovers”) At least ms. Sue gets written, a lot! You can’t keep a gal like her in the kitchen, or off the page.
Did I mention she is Legion?
Trick question: both are Mary Sue; one is just a bit more
polite sneaky about it.
Ogiue is not a Mary Sue. Neither is Watamote (she might be the anti-sue), but Mary and her cousin Marty (sometimes Gary) Stu (AKA Die Wesley Crusher Die!) are damn hard to escape in manga land. Genshiken may be free of the both of them, but adolescent themed fiction is up to its ears in them and their ilk, so much so that their “meta”, Chuunibyou has been also rising in the popularity stats. Note how Chuuni is a “bit” different Western models of high-school “acting out”
No matter, we will still read the stuff, unbelievable main character with special powers and all – if the rest of the story does something for us. Mary Sue and over-the-top wish-fulfillment charas have colonized throwaway shoujo Manga, while her cousin Marty has made a home for himself in any number of harem high-school grinders. One day he will grow up and become Walter Mitty, or Hunter Thompson, or some rap star or even Oscar Wilde.
Back to misspent youth stories:
Somewhere in the attic is a box full of
treasure crap from those days. After the labour day weekend worldcon in Toronto, our paths diverged. Star Trek fandom was getting too commercial and uncomfortably a-social (at least for me). Paula Smith’s sisterhood found the guy-verse of mainstream sci-fi fandom suffocating and used the lameness in early trekkie fandom to carve out a female fen-space. They went on to do “vidding” which I believe is a slash variant done with VCRs. For me, mainstream sci-fi had more wild, wonderful and risqué stuff to rot my impressionable male teen-age mind.
The costume balls at sci-fi conventions had semi-professional girl (yes, as in teen, yikes!) models in extremely skimpy outfits (who swooped in to bag the cash prizes), all-night movies (to nap through), real computer games (a terminal to U of Toronto mainframe playing something called “sumer“) and late night drinking parties that did not ask if you were of age. Of course I had to keep my enthusiasms to myself; bad trekkie behaviour had tarred the lot of us as the lowest form of annoying noob.
I might have been the over-enthusiastic motor-mouthed young fan who so pestered the venerable Isaac Asimov that he proposed to another senior writer that I should be strangled lest I grow up to become another ??? (was it Harlan Ellison?) (Then again, this might have been a running joke between senior writers at that convention, as there were at least a hundred overenthusiastic male youth running amok that weekend.)
You would think that I would have stayed with this life throughout my teen years – alas ugly mundane reality intervened and violently pulled me out of geek paradise soon thereafter.
Of course I still watched Star Trek reruns whenever I could, and read Analog, and all the used sci-fi paperbacks I could get at 3 for $1, but the worldcons were too far away, and there were no Genshikens at the universities I managed to later squeak into. (There were however university newspapers and someone left Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on Campaign Trail 72 lying around.. Hijinx ensued… )
On the precarious nature of the subject:
Yipes! too much geek reminiscing. According to professor Saito and his posse, I and all my male brethren at the time were supposed to be fixing our own positions and our identities, developing our subjecthood vis-a-vis “the other” and male-hysterically defending it and phallic agency/ privilege etc., etc., etc. Or in the language of the day “To yourself be(ing) true”.
Good effing luck locating this “yourself” thing buddy…
Or we were supposed to be trying to score with Mrs Robinson…
Perhaps 40 years of economic decline and the interwebs changed all this. Liminality is now the buzzword for everyone under 40. As for over 40, again – good luck!
And we all are what we do. We have to change what we do a lot, and in life we all get to do what we are second best at…
The whole modernist subject/ other myth was never really even modernist – it was a romantic narrative born out the rupture of euroethnic peasant life caused by industrial urbanization. It was cobbled together by swiping ideals of semi-autonomous behaviour from tales of imaginary privileged nobility and shoe-horning them into a guild model of profession-derived identity so that the new city dwelling underclass didnt go stark raving mad once they left their villages. Dick Whittington meet Horatio Algier, and both of you make sure to stop demanding to be fed before your women-folk! (Strange how rates of tuberculosis tumbled once economics and social practice allowed that European females should get to eat meat protein too – note the the “subject” was a gendered concept even back then. women didn’t count.)
One doesn’t have to go all postmodern to realise how shaky the modern subject always was – modernism always knew this too: go read some T.S.Elliot or at least some Auden. Later you can have a bit of Ginsberg if you promise not to freak out at the gay bits. There is also a nasty analysis of WWI mass hysteria by Modris Eckstein called Rites of Spring The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age that riffs on what happened when it all went balls up.
Postmodern, database, grand narrative fail, total new thing, yup, right,
Meanwhile, I like to think that all the low-budget sci-fi I ingested, including many poorly written wish fulfilment fantasies (both fanzine and commercial pulp varieties) gave me something akin to the only true modern capital that does not depreciate: a taste for different points of view (and a self-reflective sense of humor).
You’ve probably got it too (or why are you here reading this?), but only a certain vintage of graybeard nerd will grasp all the shades of truly embarrassing horror in Futurama’s Zap Brannigan. Want more? Try Spinrad’s vicious parody “The Iron Dream”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Spinrad#The_Iron_Dream) You have been warned. Adolf as Marty Stu done viciously!
In my first year of university, I struggled with my paper on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, frustrated beyond reason at my inability to wrap my head around a 400 year old fable, while the tiny, tinny TV speaker interrupted me with Shatner’s Kirk over-acting out his passion for Flint’s daughter Miranda.
(Miranda! Huh! Ker-Ching! Enlightenment! Good marks!) Who said all that sci-fi crap was useless? Oh Gawd! Forbidden Planet too! WTF is it with all the Tempest rip-offs in sci-fi? On is not The Tempest the penultimate Marty Stu vehicle for an ageing male playwright? That’s why I like Greenway’s Prospero’s Books so much; it is the Arials that take over the writing of his tale of vengeance in his magic book and stir him to mercy and humanity.
Cue Adrian Piper:
“Here the aim of appropriation would not be to exploit deliberately the Other’s aesthetic language, but to confound oneself by incorporating into works of art an aesthetic language one recognizes as largely opaque; as having a significance one recognizes as beyond one’s comprehension. Viewed in this way, exploitation is an unintended side-effect – the consequence of ignorance and insensitivity – of a project whose main intention is to escape those very cognitive limitations.
[. . .]
The appropriative character and formalism of Euroethnic art is, then,intrinsically connected with its self-awareness (or self-consciousness). To recognize an alien cultural practice as different from one’s own, and as inaccessible to understanding with respect to content, is implicitly to recognize one’s own cultural practice as a cultural practice, with its own rules and constraints. This just is the awareness that one’s own cultural practice is merely one among many. And the recognition that alternative cultural practices are cognitively inaccessible just is the awareness that one’s own furnish the only available conduit for interpretation of formal anomaly. So the cross-cultural appropriation of alien formal devices is a reminder of one’s own subjectivity. Self-consciousness of this kind is a necessary condition of innovation. “
Adrian Piper is not the only modernist theory wizard to riff on this. Charles Taylor does a very good job at explaining how what we think of as “identity” differs radically from what our self-reproducing farm equipment forebears thought about the matter. We would struggle to get their idea of it, and ours might drive them mad. Baudrillard’s gem “The Mirror of Production“, which alienated him from French Marxian orthodoxy gleefully takes a similar insight and lays into the historical myth of dialectical materialism with it. (but succumbs to the old trap of an edenic “legend of the fall”)
I even recall an anthropological sci-fi story that riffed on the “bicameral mind” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Jaynes) theory and located its “subject” (or ur-subject) in a hero that didn’t hear the voices of his tribe as group proto-unconscious, and as such was able to lie about what “god” told him to do to save his tribe. Even as it gave our hero powerful headaches.
Think outside the box! One could argue that the truly modernist subject is the one that can “load” alternative, multiple, contradictory modes of processing reality. Whoops! we just fell into Deleuze and Guattari land! Or Elliot’s Wasteland. (hint: try reading it as a screenplay)
How to fool yourself for fun:
Back to clumsy wish fulfillment stories and “bent” libidinous manga:
Just because we guys are supposed to “fear the undermining of (our) own subject position” in public, (“A real man speaks only with his fists!” declares the shonen manga hero.) doesn’t mean that we cannot be tempted by the illusion of forbidden knowledge in private. Especially if we can rationalise the excursion as an intelligence gathering mission with bonus naughty bits. What we (and the gals too) read in the easy chair, or watch on the monitor, or load on the console is a private matter carried out under the sign of “play”. It is the epitome of personal space. That the reading material would drift into pr0n land is not surprising. What surprises me is how fast it has drifted out again.
Plenty of correspondents have followed up on Rachel Matt Thorn’s early observation that yaoi and BL are offshoots of shoujo manga. What is even more surprising is how yuri – traditional home of fake lesbo orgy smut has of late been re-situating itself within shoujo manga conventions.
Yuri’s new cover story is that it tells tales of girls love and therefore it is “really” for girls investigating that forbidden longing, like the melodramatic Japanese S-class lesbian-ish short stories of the 1920’s. There may be more than a few women in Japan who read and are stirred by the stuff, but what Erica-sensei calls “the creepy male gaze” present in much of it complicates the issue.
What is inescapable is that the majority of current yuri and shoujo-ai is nothing more or less than shoujo manga for male readers. (referred to by some as Loser Fan Boys – I use the term ironically, re-appropriating it with a certain mock-embarrassed grin. “Why are men broken?” indeed… ) There still is plenty of girl-on-girl-on-girl smut out there, but it is slowly being edged out by this new curious hybrid form that might be for women who like women, but not quite.
The consensus is that guys reading this stuff is an excusable quirk and still guy-like as long as there is still -some- smut in the story. (We can always delude ourselves into thinking we are picking up a few rezbian ruv techniques when looking for the naughty bits – the shoujo-ai stuff is in many ways creepier because it is often just an excuse for lolicon. Hi Madarame!) As the flip-side of yaoi for rotten girls, the illusion that those yuri- stories- which- are- not- total- smut- fests are somehow more “authentically lesbian” plays both to an urge towards affected political correctness and the thrill of peeking into the girl’s (completely fake, staged) changing room. Wow! there are even female mangakas writing it, so the newer stuff must be “real-er”.
Saito’s asymmetry is rapidly being levelled out. Note the change from old yuri to new yuri: the newer stuff bows to romantic convention and avoids threesomes and moresomes.
The overwrought romantic dialogue (little more than what Erica-sensei calls “story A”) is extra spice and offers forbidden insight into the mind of that most enigmatic of all creatures; the female, portrayed in its “purest” state (no guy in the way). Wasn’t it Amis again who quipped that romantic love was a lesbian invention? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho) Contemporary smut-lite- might- be- lesbian- approved- yuri exudes concentrated female emotional truth-iness! (even when penned by male mangakas.. Yeah right…)
Can any guy actually think that real females emote like this? That a real-life woman will get hostile towards you because she cannot express her deepest feelings or melt when one deploys some affected “sensitivity”. Bakka! Emotional awareness is suspect in males; one is either a dangerous “player”, an emo or worse – Richard III. Snap out of it!
Perhaps the allure of the illusion of forbidden lore is too strong. The rotten girls keep insisting that their contrived boys-ruv is “purer” because the unequal power relations in a male-female relationship are snuck past in their stuff, and they don’t need lesbian love stories because they already know how this romance stuff works on females. It is us blockheads who are incomprehensible. Where is Dr. Zizek when we need him? I keep ringing his office and all I get is some Tireseus jerk!
Smut- lite- contemporary- yuri (shoujo-ai V2 ???) shares many of the characteristics of yaoi for rotten girls as it provides a risk-free simulation space for playing with elaborate and overdone narratives of emotional “relationship-y” courtship behaviour and romance – much as yaoi-space gives rotten girls a chance to simulate what it would be like if fuckmad predatory male behaviour could somehow accommodate all the same relationship-y emotional stuff that the wimmens crave, but recognise as a blind spot in traditional guy behaviour and a dangerous liability to themselves in the real world.
And the girls like to see crude representations of bishie guys getting it on, while we guys are only reading yuri because we are waiting for the hawt girl-on-girl action. DURR HERP DUR DERP!
A spectre is haunting the modern subject:
And then the melodrama starts to bleed all over the place…
You doubt me? Why then do Otaku characterise their moe blobs in terms of tropes of courtship behaviour? Tsundere might be stupidly simplistic but it is still an exponential leap from slut or frigid. Did the tendency of male otaku to characterise their fave charas in such a manner carry over form rotten girls’ elaborate typologies of semes and ukes? (recall female to male ratios at early comikets) Or was it the other way around? Or were both tribes caught in the inexorable pull of Azuma Hiroki’s database?
“What’s my motivation?” Who cares. It still is all about emotional relationship-y melodrama and fluff. Add a horrible tortured past for the main character and both tribes can get all emo and angsty while waiting for the resolving secks scene. (If it was shonen manga it would be a fight scene.. no wonder the rotten girls have such fun)
Aoi Hanna and Sasameke Koto have no hawt secks scenes, but still have plenty of LFB fans. As mentioned previously, much angsty chaste longing ensues. Maybe just a happy ending is enough. Looks like we won’t get one with Aoi Hanna: the MC will be lucky to make it out of high school sure of herself as an autonomous lesbian subject, but radically disenchanted from the magical world of young high-school love. Odysseus slumps over spent, still tied to the mast as his ships slip by the Sirens’ rocks; Kristeva’s German burgher contemplates Holbein’s “Dead Christ” and realises that he is completely and terribly alone in the world and the Enterprise warps out of the system seconds before its sun goes nova…
Disenchantment is the sacrament of modernism ™
Call it a win and cue theme music.
Hanna is of course “better literature” than Koto, precisely because of the unresolved ending. The real love story here is the love that Fumi Manjōme might be finally able to develop as a full person, for herself.
Not satisfied? Plenty of other “creepy” bits of contemporary visual culture have all the emotional angst, the over-powerful hero (/heroine) the hawt secks and the just-so story happy ending anyone could want. As for the bleed-over, what is with all the weird emotional stuff coexisting with violent rape-y behaviour in manga like Tsukehime and Melty Blood ? It does not fit! It should not be there; then we recall that both are derived from modified eroge games where the goal is to clear all the females in the harem.. And kill some vampires too..
I think you have to get all the females to feel for you, and not piss off/ break any hearts in order to get them all to help you kill the last boss. Ok! A mechanistic reason for having to pay attention to the emotional interpersonal messy stuff, we can process that, no problememo!
“Muwwhahhaha! See how easily these fan-boys can be tricked!”
At least this approach is a bit more direct than building a complicated theory edifice of otaku and fujoshi libidinal shift to the realms of imaginary. The rotten girls and Loser Fan Boys are just processing allegorical narratives, looking for stuff they can use, trying to work out puzzling contradictions by running scenarios (wow, just like the CIA) and indulging in a bit of “wouldn’t it be nice (or really hawt) if…” all while reading trashy stories.
Have another chocolate!
I think the whole 2D-only fixation phenom is pure learned affectation and subculture trope. It is a device for mangaka to shatter characters like Mada with, and look how easy that was. It is too close to other recent fashionable male misbehaviour, like “herbivore men”.
Here’s a further weird thought: In trying to get a handle on faux-feminine emotionalism, aren’t guys finally implicitly recognizing full autonomous subject-hood in the elusive feminine narrative? Wow, that’s one up on the Freud-zoku.
And while we are at it, when a gendered “ruling regime of the symbolic order” recognizes rotten girl practice, does it miss a very very old sci-fi trope?
Analogy time: a bunch of nekkid humans get abducted by alien zoo-keepers – how to prove sentience? The “cage” is too damp for fire and 3.1415 banged on the walls is not getting through. All seems lost until one person weaves a wicker cage for a cricket-like pet. Release and apologies from the aliens ensues.
Only intelligent beings put other critters in cages. And only fully autonomous modernist “subjects” make silly porn of “others”. Could all the Freud -zoku hysterical theory around rotten girl practice be an elaborate denial mechanism?
Methinks you doth protest too much.
All this could well be a lot more dangerous to “hegemonic narratives of gender roles and desire” then wanting to shack up with your Nintendo DS Lite. There is no prohibition in the West against guys reading Harlequin romances, but neither does Harlequin offer faux-lesbian romance series for Loser Fan Boys to peep at. Once again Japan ichiban no cultural innovator!
Once Mary Sue gets lose in fan fiction, she so distorts the genre with her quick and dirty emotional payoff that the effect soon bleeds over into related, then all genre fiction – just as fan-fiction and/or dojin practice and tropes bleed over into commercial products. This ensures that elite “taste”, which was always a good cover story for more complicated gate-keeping is blown aside.
Whoops! I Might have gone too fast on that last one! Lets try that again in a nice orderly sequence:
1) Mary Sue gets lose.
2) Mary Sue evinces a desire for wish-fulfillment, melodrama and easy emotional payoff in fan-lit.
3) Commercial genre fiction takes the piles of it as market research and starts cranking out variations.
4) The cheap thrill spreads throughout mass culture.
5) Loser fan boys and rotten girls start peeking over the fences when looking for smutty stories.
6) Entropy sets in and all plots and tropes start to converge.
As for “fantasy is fantasy (or simulation space) and reality is reality”, we can assume that everyone is scared shitless of their fave hobby narratives getting lose in the real world. Fortunately keeping a public face and a private life is what adults are supposed to do in Japan, and the rest of the world too.
Here’s the Western version of the shop manual – feel free to tinker. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Presentation_of_Self_in_Everyday_Life)
Note how later sociologists expanded the concept: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_Trouble
Poorly written, formulaic, wish-fulfilment fiction has always been with us (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion) as has tone-deaf singing. What is so odd about Mary Sue is how she serves as a symptom of global mass culture’s ability to democratise her violence. She is the (originally) wimmens’ AK47 of narrative, if not the 3D printable gun. And the freedom is intoxicating for both girls and boys. We will not be rid of her for a while, so we might as well offer her a glass of barley tea and recognize her naive charms, and the deep longings that she embodies – desires which may be somewhat like our own as well.
Awwwwwww, (careful, don’t get carried away!)
Hold the presses! I just heard that Prof Saito has an article on fujoshi in Mechademia 6! Perhaps he has had to shave off some of the sharper corners of his theories in order to accommodate fujoshi practice. I’m sure I can pick up a copy for $12 used on eBay (plus $48 shipping, because the stupid bookstore will only send it super expensive overnight registered) Anyone care to lend me their MUSE login fo Jstor? Dammit! Mechademia used to be openly downloadable to all. -sulk-
One more time in unison please: Academic journal paywalls suck!
Next time: So many ideas about Genshiken 87 and 88, but can I trust those Bulgarian scanlation scripts and Google xlate? And what of the whole messy epic digression on technology and fan “productive consumption” and those mimeograph stencils? How about D+G’s Temporary Autonomous Zones and Fujoshi/ Otaku space? This one writes itself, wonder why we are not already up to our eyeballs in it?
Must get organized!
For more information on the rise and fall of the mimeographed (and later xeroxed fanzane, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factsheet_Five
http://www.factsheet5.org/ and http://www.alternativepressreview.org/
both seem to have stopped mid 2010
From the Wiki:
The magazine was originally published in 1982 by Mike Gunderloy on a spirit duplicator in his bedroom while he lived in an Alhambra, California slanshack. The original focus was science fiction fanzines (the title comes from a short story by science fiction author John Brunner), but it included other reviews. Bob Grumman contributed a regular column on avant-garde poetry from 1987 to 1992.
Gunderloy later moved to Rensselaer, New York, where he continued to publish. By 1987, he was running a zine BBS, one of the first associated with an underground publication.In 1990, Cari Goldberg Janice and (briefly) Jacob Rabinowitz joined as co-editors.Gunderloy quit publishing Factsheet Five following the completion of Issue #44 in 1991.
Hudson Luce purchased the rights to Factsheet Five and published a single issue, Issue #45, with the help of BBS enthusiast Bill Paulouskas, cartoonist Ben Gordon, writer Jim Knipfel, and artist Mark Bloch, who had authored a mail art-related column called “Net Works” during the Gunderloy years.
R. Seth Friedman then published the magazine for five years in San Francisco, with the help of Christopher Becker and Jerod Pore, until Issue #64 in 1998. Circulation grew to 16,000 during that time.
Gunderloy currently works as a computer programmer and farmer. He co-authored the book SQL Server 7 in Record Time ISBN 0-7821-2155-1.
Mike Gunderloy’s Factsheet Five Collection of over 10,000 zines and mail art is now held at the New York State Library in Albany, New York, where it occupies 300 cubic feet (8.5 m3). However, only about 4000 zines in the collection have been cataloged. About 1/4 of the zines in the collection are listed on Excelsior, the New York State Library’s electronic catalog; staff of the Manuscripts & Special Collection can help locate other items. Two hundred and forty zines that R. Seth Friedman donated are in the collection of the San Francisco Public Library.