Writing and Progress

Ah, an early entry for you today, brothers and sisters! I actually had this done and edited a few hours ago, so I can post it a little early, when it’s almost Friday rather than mid or even early Friday 😀

I give to you some musing on Wayward Son, writing in general, and politics. I beg your indulgence, for I must begin this entry with a bit of a long-winded story at first. Don’t worry, I’ll tie it in with my fanfic, just be patient 😀

So a little while ago I was chatting with a friend of mine (who will remain anonymous, as prudence dictates). He’s of a fairly progressive bent, big on social justice and all that. I’m not, personally, but he’s a friend of mine and has done more for me (taught me a bit about spriting and game design and such) than any right-winger or reactionary has ever done. I therefore at least make an (admittedly desultory, but not non-existent) effort to be respectful of his politics. But anyways, we were talking about Dark Souls, and the conversation turned to Gwyndolin.

A brief explanation for those of you who don’t know: Gwyndolin is a deity (and possible boss) in the game who is apparently a crossdresser/trans (the game itself is unclear on this point). Several descriptions for some of Gwyndolin’s equipment (robes, mask, etc.) say, if you’ll let me paraphrase, “Gwyndolin was the last born son of the god Gwyn. However, he had a strong affinity for the moon, which was associated with the feminine [in Dark Souls’ world] and was thus raised as a daughter.”

At first, I thought such a thing would please my progressive-minded friend, since Gwyndolin seemed to be a (relatively) positive portrayal of a character who transgressed gender norms. In game, he (this is the pronoun used in the wiki article, so I presume it’s accurate) is portrayed as powerful and influential. My friend soon corrected this misapprehension, however.

He told me, “You see, Gwyndolin’s portrayal in Dark Souls isn’t actually progressive. If I recall correctly, the narrative implies Gwyndolin was forced to dress up in female clothing–it wasn’t his choice. Now, this might have been acceptable (or “progressive,” as you might put it, Gunlord) if the game had explicitly critiqued the society in which Gwyndolin was raised for being oppressive when it came to gender in such a way. If there had been text that said, “the culture of Lordran [where Dark Souls took place] is unjust for enforcing gendered expectations on boys or girls who didn’t have a choice,” that would have been progressive.

“Alas, it did not, and that makes it unprogressive–antiprogressive in fact, if you ask me. Portraying oppressive biases and cultural norms without critiquing them actually reifies them, in effect. This goes for bigotry and any other cultural evil, not just in reference to gender, by the way. Really, I think there’s no point in portraying bigotry or injustice in fiction without explicitly critiquing them. Obviously, explicitly saying “hell yeah, they’re good!” would be bad, but even just showing them and not saying anything is bad as well.”

A thought-provoking argument, and I told him as much. After digesting what he said for some time, though, I did come up with this:

“I guess that’s true, though then the problem becomes how to incorporate progressive biases into the descriptions convincingly. For instance, it’s easy enough to say an individual is evil, like some of the item descriptions saying, for instance, “The ruler of the Tower of Latria [an area in a previous game in the Souls series] went mad.” But when it comes to more abstract cultural constructions…like, if the description is, “the moon is a feminine aspect and Gwyndolin was thus raised as a girl,” it seems harder to criticize that without coming across as preachy.”

My boon companion thought I had a point here, but only to an extent. His reply was, “I’m not interested in continuing this conversation, Gunlord. However, I will at least say you’re not entirely off-base. It is true that such things would have to be handled with care, wouldn’t always be simple, and would require good execution. But! Such a task wouldn’t be impossible, and ought to be attempted. And that’s my final word on the matter.”

And thus, the discussion turned to other things. I’ve been pondering this subject for a few days, though, even after the original conversation had been long forgotten. I actually began to wonder if I succeeded or failed at doing what my friend recommended in my own writing (not my own Souls-style video game, unfortunately XD).

For those of you not keeping up with it much, my main fanfic Wayward Son takes place in a typical fantasy medieval European world. Knights and kings, magic and dragons, all that stuff. The protagonist, Renault, is (currently) a clergyman within that world’s fictitious version of the Catholic Church. In the latest chapter (77) of my story, he encounters a noblewoman who’s being pressured by her parents to marry, because marriage and childbearing is expected for women in that world. It is how, as she says in the chapter, women display their virtue and loyalty to the state and society.

Now, my friend would say this is exactly the sort of oppressive gender norm that should be critiqued. He would, therefore, say I shouldn’t have portrayed it (at least in a fantasy story) without explicitly critiquing it.

In return, I would fall back on my original response: When it comes to abstract cultural expectations like gender norms, critiquing such things is hard to pull off without coming across as unnatural or preachy. The preachiness is a definite concern for me; since Renault is a clergyman, I don’t want him to be too annoying or pushy with any of his beliefs (religious and secular). And in the context of the story, the Church Renault belongs to, while wielding a good deal of worldly power, doesn’t dominate the secular culture either, so it would have been unbelievable and out of character for Renault to take a stand against a deeply entrenched cultural practice like marriage.

And yet I imagine my friend would offer the same retort he gave earlier: “You should have found a way, Gunlord. It would have to be done deftly, but there’s no point in portraying reactionary beliefs without critiquing them. Perhaps it might be hard for you, but it shouldn’t be impossible.”

Maybe, maybe. And as it so happens, I wonder if my fic did demonstrate a way to subtly critique such things convincingly, even if not explicitly. After hearing of this girl’s woes, Renault offers her some advice to get around the restrictions placed on her, even if he doesn’t condemn those restrictions outright. He says, “there are other ways to support your state and community, such as teaching, religious work, or charity. Those will give you a respected position in our society until such a time as you feel ready to marry, if you ever do.”

Again, I couldn’t have Renault just say “Pressuring anyone to marry is bad!” because that simply wouldn’t be in character for him. But I wonder if him providing his parishioner with alternate paths outside of marriage would be the sort of subtle social criticism my friend would approve of.

Perhaps, perhaps not. If not, I suppose there’s little I could do but shrug. As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I don’t genuinely care about progressive politics at all, and certainly not enough to rewrite my fic (much less limit what I choose to write about as an artist-and yes, forgive the indulgence for referring to myself as an ‘artist’ XD) for someone else’s preferences. If so, however…well, I suppose I could smile rather than shrug. As I also said, I hardly consider progressive politics my enemy either, at least not at this point in my life. So if my friend would be pleased with what I write, there’s no reason not to be happy. 😉

I would also be interested in your thoughts on these matters, though. What do you think of all this, brothers and sisters? Have you any ideas on how out might incorporate politics into one’s art and writing without harming the quality of your work? Or do you think such a thing shouldn’t be attempted at all?

An aside, number one: You will note that all throughout this post, I’ve said my friend “would say” and “might have offered.” Perhaps some of you are wondering why I didn’t just ask him all of this directly? Well, the truth is he doesn’t like fanfiction in general and resolutely refuses to read mine for a variety of reasons (it’s too long, he’s not familiar with Fire Emblem, and he has no faith whatsoever in my writing skills–not so much an insult as it sounds when you consider most of our other conversations consist of me discussing my favorite girls from anime and video games). It’s unlikely he’ll even read this blog post, in fact. But if my readers or other writers could get something out of it, I thought I’d post it 😀

With all this having been said, I must present aside #2 as a clarification: I was thinking of none of this when I was writing the chapter. I posted it late last week, on Saturday, while I had the conversation with my progressive friend a few days ago this week. Even so, I thought it might be amusing to consider how well I wrote something in accordance with his precepts, even if I hadn’t learned of those precepts until after I had finished writing it. A bit droll, certainly, but not too arrogant, I hope, and worth it in terms of intellectual stimulation. 😀

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5 comments

  1. The way I see it is, you’re both right. It all depends on what the author/creator’s intent was. Did he/she want to create a game that toppled norms and had a gay character as a protagonist for a focal point? Or did he/she want to write an adventure story that didn’t dabble with that stuff?

    I’m more on the side of the political spectrum as your friend. I think you both have valid points, and all I can say is, “There’s a time and a place for both.”

    1. Thanks very much for your reply, brother 😀 I get the distinct impression my acquaintance would say something like, “Intent is no excuse, and even ostensibly “apolitical” fiction has a duty to serve progressive ends.” Even if that’s the case, though, I wonder if Wayward Son did that, in its own little way. XD

      1. As a progressive guy, I can say I have no complaints with WS. It’s a medieval story, and it serves that purpose. Ergo, I love it.

      2. 😀 Thanks for the vouch of confidence 😀

  2. […] our conversation last week (discussed in the previous entry), this person said “Portraying oppressive biases and cultural norms without critiquing them […]

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