Friday, May 25, 2012

Star Trek vs. Firefly: where would you like to live?

I'd forgotten about writing this. It resurfaced in a file recently and I decided to polish it up a bit. I wrote it during the early days of the OWS protests because I wanted to find a way to discuss capitalism in a fun geeky way. Enjoy.

The driving difference between my two favorite future universes is the ways power is made available to their characters. Firefly is a universe in which capitalist systems of distribution and power are still very much in effect. It is a gritty universe and we feel good watching it and fighting for the underdogs who are trying to escape the boot heal of the Alliance. In the Firefly universe there is a premise accepted by all the main characters as well as the audience that you have to be a little but of a renegade or obedient to the current authorities to survive. Under a capitalist system somebody always has to be oppressed, someone always has to lose. This contributes to the drama and connection we feel with the characters of Firefly. We sympathize with their struggle for survival.

In the Firefly universe you more often usually have dramatic life-and-death dilemmas that are intellectually engaging; survival comes first and philosophy coming importantly second. The struggle to survive comes first in the firefly universe. In the opening sequence it is repeatedly presented, through a back story voice-over (& as a recurring theme), that the crew of Serenity is always looking for some kind of work. In the Star trek universe the complete opposite is true of the main characters.

In the Star Trek(TNG) universe more often than not the drama comes from deeply intellectual and often existential questions or thoughtful riddles about morality and ethics. The potential for mortal danger is occasionally present but is less often the focus of the action and discussion. The time and space to think and philosophize is the setting for the majority of the plot lines in the Star trek universe. People are fighting others and themselves to be ethical, not to survive. Fighting for survival is a novel plot device. It is sometimes employed in Star trek but certainly not in every episode. It is most often used to heighten the drama of a two parter or a season finale. Mortal danger in the Star Trek universe is something so foreign that when it occurs it is much discussed and very clearly upsetting to the entire crew. This runs in stark contrast to the ever present mortal danger under which the characters of Firefly live their everyday lives (they joke about almost dying/barely surviving with great frequency).

Of course there are a few other major features that distinguish Star Trek and Firefly universes from each other. Jean-Luc (others too) often recites (without much provocation) the fact that humans in the 24th century are without poverty and even without the need of a monetary system of exchange. There are also higher intelligences or more advanced beings featured as a sort of deus ex machina in the back story of the Star Trek universe. I find myself inferring, from this back story, in addition to the utopian distribution and availability of resources (replicators) that having contact with more advanced beings (like Vulcans) assisted humans in the abolishing of capitalist systems. In the Firefly universe there is no evidence that any organized race other than humans exists. This contributes to both the feeling of aloneness the crew feels as a theme but also the aloneness one feels when struggling to survive. Mal touts at one point: "you make your own luck". This loneliness makes for some really great dramatic storytelling and also lends to the shows larger commercial appeal (more explosions more people getting shot). 

The same reason some people might find Star trek boring are the same reasons others might find Firefly too overblown. My love of both of these shows is painful when I think about it critically. Part of me thinks "yeah the Firefly universe is totally an awesome future.” but people (people we love!) die with horrifying frequency & the government doles out large scale oppression over peoples bodies, movements and actions. They employ mercenaries to take out threats to their infrastructure. When I think about the Star Trek universe as a possible future. I find myself heartbrokenly skeptical. Whenever Jean-Luc says "we abolished poverty" the realist in my gut tells me that no, we aren't coming to that, too many humans are still too vehemently and proudly like the hyper-capitalist ferengi. Even those of us who see and feel poverty and hunger and abuses of power are still stupidly hungry for our own pieces of the pie. Honestly, I don't think that, even if there were a Vulcan god machine to descend upon us with a superior and awesome code of ethics, we would be able to relinquish that survival state without our own choosing.

I has been pointed out before that that technology of the replicators presents a solution to the scarcity that causes the fear that drives folks into a survival state. And yes the replicators make the essentials as abundant as needed (and easily distributed). But I'm not convinced that any technology will contribute greatly to the equal distribution of resources. It's failed to happen thus far even though productivity has soared exponentially in the last 40 years

Think about the distribution of information and the way that is metered by the availability of access to modern technology. Even if they make it simpler to do so, shiny new devices in and of themselves, will not, and have not compelled us to behave in a more equatable manner. This is evident in the Firefly universe where the unequal distribution of resources is very apparent. It's even one of the driving forces of the action. Think about the fancy accommodations on Ariel in comparison to the way colonists are treated or the "rustic" accommodations on Serenity. There is a well developed separation between the classes in the Firefly universe, despite the existence advanced technologies. Some places  are “flush" with it "other not so much."

The Firefly universe is great for escapism but you wouldn't want to live there. You wouldn't feel safe in that society. You might die, or most likely get shot once every year or two. The Star Trek universe on the other hand, while it's conventionally less exciting, would be comfortable and safe. As a human you'd rarely ever have to fight to survive (unless it is the season finale and you are a captain or first officer). Now I know staunch capitalists & free-market junkies would love to tell me that it'd be lazy or against that natural Darwinist way of things to want this. But even though the struggles represented on Firefly are pretty shiny, I would infinitely prefer living in the non-capitalist less survival-driven future of Star Trek TNG. Cause I really prefer not being shot. How bout you?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This is why being kinky is different from being LGBTQI: A response to Natalie Walschots' interview

I’ve been following the recent controversies surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey, as well as Katie Roiphe terrible Newsweek article about it. I have mostly been loving the coverage and the deeply thoughtful responses. Unfortunately, an argument I’d previously only heard by suggestion and in passing, one I find particularly unsettling, has started to gain some serious traction.

In an interview for Feministing Natalie Walschots talks about a bunch of awesome stuff (especially about sexuality being a spectrum and how using extreme examples is useful but not really representative). I was, however, disappointed to read about her view on this point (one she repeats a few times in the interview):

“For some people, just as being gay can be the cornerstone of their sexuality, so BDSM can be the cornerstone of sexuality for many others. Acknowledging kink as a full-fledged sexual orientation is the key to de-stigmatizing it, and writing from that perspective is the most useful, inclusive and healthy.”

So... I have a problem with the rhetorical habit certain kinky folks seem to have, of equating, with utmost certainty, that some kinky folks feel that their identity as submissive/kinkster/dominant is equal to that of those who identify as LGBTQI (believe me this is not the first time this has happened).

As someone who identifies as both queer and kinky, I feel the important need to say, that identifying as kinky is not as pivotal in my life as identifying as queer.  One of the reasons I chose the moniker of “queer” because of its vagueness. I choose it to recognize that my sexual identity is a living force that changes often and often radically. In some ways the label of kinky comfortably fits under the umbrella of “queer”. But this is not the only reason I feel uncomfortable when folks equate kink/BDSM to being LGBTQI.

I don’t believe that kink/BDSM can happen without an education in and preparations/space made for rock solid consent. If any kink/BDSM activities are attempted without these things they are unsafe non-consensual play. At worst such activities turn into assault/rape/violence.  I recognize that this is an optimistic and even exclusive definition of kink/BDSM but I can’t feel ethical extending my definition of kink/BDSM to situations/activities where consent is squishy. What’s important about this definition of kink/BDSM in the conversation of kinky/submissive/dominant as an identity, is that it comes from a place of privilege.

What I mean by “place of privilege” is that folks who engage in kink/BDSM tend to have a well-developed awareness and expression of their sexual preferences. Within the kink/BDSM community folks are generally (and by the intent of most kink) encouraged to be honest about their sexuality. Ideally kinky/BDSM communities offer both physical and social spaces to generate language to communicate about sexual wants/fears/triggers. This practice keeps consent and accountability alive and present in kinky interactions. This is awesome. I am proud to be part of a community where this occurs. However when kinky folks fight to be recognized as healthy, fun-loving folks (which, by majority, they totally are!), they need to remember that part of what they are defending is their incredible, wonderful privilege.

There are many people who are unable (whether it is from external or internalized oppression) to be honest in their sexual expressions & who don't have access to spaces where it is safe to do so. These are folks who, under above definition, are
unable to participate in kink/BDSM. Many of these folks come from traditionally oppressed populations; they are often queer, female, trans, genderqueer, people of color, trauma survivors etc... They might someday be into kinky things but at the moment lack the knowledge, safety, and space to choose to explore it. The inspiring thing about kink/BDSM is that, if it is done responsibility, it provides safe space for folks (including those oppressed) to express and explore their sexual identities.

I would love for it to be okay for kinky folks to talk about their preferences with folk in their greater communities; making these spaces more & more available to others. But equating kinky identity/orientation with LGBTQI identities/orientations is not the way to do it. It’s a lazy argument that oversimplifies the struggles of both parties. Sexual orientation exists in a person’s body mind and soul regardless of privilege (you are still gay even if you aren’t able to say it out loud yet!). Kink/BDSM cannot exist without an education and language about consent and safety, (which is a privilege I wish all were afforded). I recognize & respect that some folks do, as Natalie Walschots says, identify being kinky/submissive/dominant as “the absolute keystone of their sexuality and a crucial component of their health, happiness and self-actualization”. But you can’t be (responsibly) kinky without an education in consent and sexual safety. This is why being kinky is different from being LGBTQI, you can be LGBTQI all alone and without a language or freedom to act and speak, but kink needs dialogue at the least and community at best.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lit Review Special: Reading Mr Collins as a Nice Guy

I usually pride myself on being into subversive things. However, of my more shameful habits I have to say, I enjoy reading canon literature. I go back to Steinbeck, Austen, & Dostoevsky when I want to read something “fun”. I don't want to defend this habit nor would I argue that it is the BEST way of reading. I just wanted to share something fun I noticed while reading Pride and Prejudice (again) this winter. If you have never read (or watched the BBC version of) P&P then this will probably make only a small amount of sense or impact. What follows is my analysis of a secondary (or even tertiary) character in the novel Pride and Prejudice.

Mr Collins is a picture perfect example of what is today known as a nice guy.
He may not exude the token insecurity nice guys™ are known for but he seriously socially awkward and tries & fails harder than any other character in Pride & Prejudice to be seen as “good” and “amiable”. Now, trying to look good isn't necessarily nice guy™ pre-req but folks in the nice guy™ club tend to generally ooze this trait. On the reader's first encountering him at the Longbourn dinner table he brags that he takes great pleasure in being able to compose and deliver "those delicate compliments which are always acceptable to the ladies." I don't know about y'all but whenever I read this line it always sounds as if it came straight out of the mouth of a pick up artist.

Mr Collins looks even more like a nice guy™ if you focus on his persistence when proposing marriage to Lizzie. He assumes for quite some time after several of her clear refusals that he and his request must certainly be accepted soon, simply on the basis of the merit of his words and his moral and material wealth. This is classic nice guy™ behavior. In the same vein as "But I did all the right things! I buy her flowers and go to all of her poetry readings. I listen to her talking and I tell her she is pretty. So why does she still say NO when I ask her out?" Because dumbshit; she doesn't want to be with you romantically. In the same way as is done by the modern nice guy™, Mr Collins denies repeatedly the agency or existence of any preference that Lizzie might have. Now certainly those sorts of denials run rampant through the book (and during the social climate of that period) but Mr Collins' post-denial proposals are especially persistent and painful to watch (the only person who ignores Lizzie's agency more than this is Lady Catherine de Bourgh in what I like to call the "final battle" scene). 

The unfortunate thing for Lizzie (and also for many of us modern ladies!) is that it's not only Mr. Collins who sees her as ungrateful and not having any agency in the matter but also her mother and many of her peers. I see this as akin to someone saying to the lead in a romcom or a sitcom today “Why won't you go out with him (the guy in unsuccessful pursuit of the protagonist), he's a great/nice guy.” The implication being that she is so lucky to have a man pursuing her that she should acquiesce to a romance she clearly doesn't desire.

Mr Collins brings his nice guy™ mindset into full period prose after he discovers through gossip that Lydia and Wickham have run off together. In the letter he sends the family about the whole debacle, Mr. Collins engages in what can only be called pure slut shaming. In a classic act of asserting the Madonna/whore paradigm claims that it would be better if Lydia had died and that the whole family should permanently sever connections with her as quickly as possible:
The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. And it is the more to be lamented, because there is reason to suppose as my dear Charlotte informs me, that this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence; though, at the same time, for the consolation of yourself and Mrs. Bennet, I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age.

Even more than that though, what cements of him as a nice guy™ in my mind is his servile and unrelenting commitment to the superficial and the hierarchical concerns of life. His straight up worship of Lady Catherine's material and moral superiority and his attention to personal presentation and material opulence make him especially fit to carry the title of nice guy™. He in meticulous about the way he appears and actually even admits at one point, that he wants a wife not because it is his particular wish or that he has fallen in love, but because it is the expected thing for a clergyman to do, as professed by a character imposing the status quo (Lady Catherine).

And finally, this is my favorite part, Lizzie herself jokes with Jane, who, having just wished Lizzie to be as happily engaged as she, receives the response "If I am very luck, I may in time meet with another Mr Collins."
Which is the rhetorical equivalent of a woman today (think Liz Lemon) cynically grumbling out the side of her mouth about how if she's very lucky she might meet a man as nice as her last bf (who she dumped for pulling some entitled nice guy™ crap)." Lizzie's response is a pitch perfect critique of the way her society expects her to settle for nice guys like Mr Collins. As women (and really not just women), let us hope that in this day and age we are closer to being over such societal evils as expecting and encouraging one another to settle so below our own convictions.