I’ve had too much time on my hands. I’ve been coughing and lounging for days. I’ve been recovering and in my lax state, I found another reality television show that quickly sucked up too much of my attention and thanks to my heady mix of personal experiences and traumas quickly became a time sink that I have come to deeply regret. My 600-lb Life is a show that capitalizes on the trauma and poor coping skills within all of us and focuses on the morbidly obese of the United States who are ain desperate need of weightloss surgery to stay alive. The show is led by a small little foreign man who goes by Dr. Now and a revolving cast of people who desperately need help getting their weight under control. The show is mostly set in Dr. Now’s Houston clinic but does feature a decent amount of back and forth between the home of the patient in question and the Houston clinic.
There are a lot of things I wanted to cover as I sank myself further and further into this, let’s be clear, problematic as hell reality show but there was one thing that kept circling around and that was the finances and economics of weight loss and dieting. Maybe next time we can talk about my personal trauma when it comes to morbid obesity or the horrible framing of the show.
It started with an observation: many of the people on the show are living in poverty; that isn’t a judgement, it’s just a fact. And if the patient of the week is not indeed in abject poverty they are a part of a large family with a single breadwinner and several children/dependants that rely on one paycheck. Listen, eating healthy is expensive and Trader Joe’s aren’t all over the place. Food deserts are places where it’s hard to find healthy or fresh food in a neighborhood; besides if you have 20 dollars to feed a family of four: you’re going to McDonald’s, not Panera. Junk food is just more cost-effective. I remember being raised by vegans back in the early 2000s before it was cool and there is a reason Whole Foods Market is not-so lovingly called Whole Paycheck. In theory, you can shop there on a budget but everything there is indeed more expensive because you are paying for the luxury of organic and small-batch.
I say this because I noticed how often that participants of the show had a hard time buying healthy, not just because their minds and bodies had been conditioned to love junk food but because of the expense. Many work so fast-food is the only option to feed themselves or their families and even though in theory every fast-food establishment should have some options that are in theory healthy but even as a short-term solution; grilled nuggets at Chick-Fil-A does not a meal healthier make.
There were a few cases that particularly struck me: the ones where medication and money were involved. James K. is a patient who despite being very easy to mock and jeer at because of horrible framing faced quite a few financial issues during his journey to Houston which is a vital part of the show. That’s right, folks, you have to uproot your entire life and move to Houston: a hell swamp with miserable traffic and no memorable skyline. And you don’t even move to Houston immediately, though some do. Many have to make hours long trips across states just to visit a small man who is here to mostly berate you about your lack of weight loss. I’ve been on long trips: they are expensive, time consuming and I can’t imagine having the commitment to anything that isn’t anime to do so for one man who can’t even promise a solution. If the patient does not lose enough weight, they will be denied for surgery and while the show frames that as a lack of will and while my personal inner goblins do, too; we have to see food addiction and trauma as serious issues and realize that there are at times major psychological factors that lead to food addiction and not being able to work out. Another patient, a mother, could literally not afford to feed her family with the frequency of trips she was taking to Houston and she dropped out of the program and continued to lose weight on her own. Dr. Now vilified this action because he has to make money somehow and we the audience are thus told that driving yourself into poverty and letting your children go hungry are worthy sacrifices for weight loss and weight loss surgery.
My mother was obese and she developed a pretty serious case of agoraphobia because of it. She felt constantly judged by a world too small for her and while I wasn’t always the most caring child or teen about the issue as an adult I can now understand why such things are easily traumatizing and can lead to more complex psychological issues. I never knew what was the root of my mother’s obesity: what the inciting incident was that led her to turn to food rather than therapy but maybe it’s for the best that I don’t know. I think my mother’s own lost journey with food addiction, obesity and diabetes puts a lens on the show: it makes it doubly conflicting to watch: one part reliving the trauma of having a chronically ill parent and one part bitter anger at the lack of good personal choices made by seemingly everyone involved.
I could go on about this show, and I probably will considering how much real estate it now takes up in my mind. From the awful framing to the considerable pressure and toll that is put on caregivers I may touch on this show again but for now, cost was the most important factor to discuss. And while in theory TLC does offset some of the costs and participants are said to be paid; with many of the numbers not adding up it seems that Dr. Now and the producers are still asking too much and refusing to budge for the sake of patients that find it simply too expensive to try to save their own lives.
I have loved villains in media since I was a very small hellspawn. Whether it was my attraction to Lord Sesshomaru in InuYasha or my undying allegiance to Prince Vegeta in DragonBall Z, villains have always done it for me. Narratively, they usually get the coolest powers, best lines, and most interesting motives even if they make zero sense. Like really, what was Master Naraku’s problem? He didn’t get to sleep with one priestess and that was enough to want to mess with literally everyone else he came in contact with? But why? Doesn’t matter, he was hot and had a cool design.
But in the spirit of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, I want to talk about something that others have covered but I wanted to put my own spin on as well. I want to talk about queer coding and villains. In fact, there’s a great Princess and the Scrivener video that I’ll link here that talks about this mostly with Disney villains and I’ll use a lot of similar points but really, there’s only so much queer theory to go around.
Here’s the basics: villains in Western media (I exclude Eastern for now but put a pin in this) are often times coded (portrayed using mostly visual and linguistic shorthand) as queer or effeminate to prove a point, that point being mostly how virile and masculine the protagonist is. Think about Scar in The Lion King or Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas. They’re both pretty aggressively queer-coded with all the glitter and flamboyance to highlight how masculine and strong the protagonists are. Ursula looks and sounds like an angry drag queen because she’s based off an angry drag queen and Frollo, despite very clearly lusting after a woman, is given very showy clothes and his attraction to Esmerelda can even be read as somewhat closeted.
And though the video I linked talks about this mostly in the negative…I know I’m just one queer out in the world but I’ve never had an issue with that. I love Disney villains as you can tell by my very enthusiastic Dr. Facilier cosplay. This is one of those places I don’t think queer coding is terrible as if the internet is to gauge, a lot of queer people found themselves in Disney villains.
Now, my realization that I maybe wasn’t quite cis or het may have come from anime but I can also super see the appeal and reason why someone who may be a little different, a little sparkly, a little more fashionable and way more sassy may attach more readily to villains and thus celebrate that.
So that pin I asked you to put in about Eastern media, let’s come back to that because here’s where we tie in East and West. The question is why code a villain or antagonist as queer. Is it just to show off how masc and strong your hero is? Well, yes and no. The root of the reason is the same as the root of many evils: misogyny. It’s easy to take down a villain that is by most writer’s standards a perversion of masculinity which is femininity. Think of Szayel Aporro Granz in Bleach. What is the point of making him such a queen? What does that do for us? Well, when we see him in comparison to the mostly morally strict and pure Uryu, he comes an easy villain to wish ill upon. Except for me, I love him and can’t wait to cosplay him. Many cultures view masculinity as the most strong and most capable, so making your villain queer, feminine or even downright trans in the case of some anime (looking at you again, Bleach) is a great way to create parallel and difference between the force you’re meant to be rooting for. So when Szayel has a sword thrust deep into him, a strange phallic sort of metaphor at the hands of another queer-coded character, you’re meant to be reminded of his perversion, deviance and girly nature and think that those things are bad.
Again, it’s about optics. I love his character and him being aggressively queer-coded doesn’t bother me as much as other characters in the same show do. Even one of my favorite series of all time does this with a villain most ignore and that’s Barry the Chopperin Fullmetal Alchemist, really, what’s the point of making him a crossdresser? Does it add anything? No. But I can tell you that I can still recite his lines in the same lyrical sing-song fashion that Jerry Jewell brought the character in the dub and it scared one of my friends very much to know I can do so.
I’ve spent a lot of words talking about the fact that I don’t think queer coding in villains is that bad but if you follow me over on Twitter then you must know what is to come.
Y’all, I don’t like BBC’s Sherlock. I don’t like Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock, Martin Freeman is fine but the plot, the lack of plot and the aggressive queer coding of most of the characters rubbed me the wrong way to start. Episode one features many jabs at how gay Watson and Sherlock must be for each other and that was a bitter enough pill to swallow but then we meet Jim Moriarty. Oh Moriarty. What even is he? Why is he? What is he doing? Andrew, no. Please. Don’t do this. Not like this. Moriarty isn’t even queer coded because coding is meant to be at least a little subtle. He’s just the most. There’s an amazing Hbomberguy video that makes all of these points much better than I ever could but here is my problem with Moriarty’s queer coding while I’m willing to give it a soft pass in other places. What is gained by Moriarty being queer coded? Why do we need to know that he’s apparently slept with one of his bodyguards? Why does it matter that he’s dressed up in the crown jewels? Why do we care that he apparently has the biggest of possible hard-ons for Sherlock? Why? What does this add to the story? You can just have him be a villain. It feels like it’s pandering and that’s why Moriarty doesn’t get a pass from me. Nearly every other queer coded villain has a reason for it. Even if the reason is a crappy one like internalized misogyny but really if you made Moriarty less queer coded, does anything change? Does this make him interesting? Steve Moffat, do you think this is helping? I tend not to throw around the word queerbaiting a lot because I think it’s overused by fans who are just unhappy their ship didn’t sail but in this case queerbaiting Moriarty and coding so aggressively as a flashy queer man doesn’t do a damn thing for the narrative. It’s good for slash fic and even then to what end? Does Sherlock show any interest in Moriarty? No. He shows no interest in anyone, that’s the damn problem. What’s the point? Why are we doing anything? Is bear still driving?
Queer coded villains are frustrating. So much of it is rooted in old and toxic aspects of culture that prize traditional masculinity over flamboyance, style, fashion, good puns and excellent villain songs. And there are other examples where this fails. Think about all the fuss with LeFou being the first out gay for Disney in Beauty and the Beast(2017). What does making Gaston’s literal idiot sidekick gay do for the plot? A whole lotta nothing.
I can see why some in the LGBTQIA+ family are more up in arms about queer coding and villains because at the end of the day, a lot of these characters die or face some horrible evil and that just isn’t fun. It isn’t fun watching a character you relate to face a horrible death and it does continue to perpetuate a lot of things about being queer that many do not like. Not all of us are sassy, mean, flashy and out to steal your girl/boy.
But for those of us who are all of those things and oh so much more…well, let’s just say that I do love my queer coded villains… most of the time.
We’ve dedicated a lot of words to discussing how framing, writing and other magic tricks can manipulate readers into liking characters they shouldn’t. And we’ve done so because I am clearly a villain and it’s important to understand my people. In all of these discussions, we’ve almost ignored one key aspect that can truly sell you on a bad guy: charm.
It’s what makes Negan from The Walking Dead so damn good. He’s a sly bastard. You may have dated a guy (or several) like him. He’s positively exuding in a certain sort of energy that almost makes it okay that he’s for sure a murderer.
And while I could have an entire blog just dedicated to charming villains (perhaps an anime tie-in or two, as well) I wanted to use this time to talk about one of my favorite directors: Quentin Tarantino and how he effectively mastered our brains into liking two of the worst possible people and I get to discuss two of my favorite movies of all time: Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Is this self-indulgent? Yes. Will you continue to join me for this ride? I certainly hope so.
We’ll start with what may be my favorite movie right under another Tarantino classic (the answer to number 1 is Kill Bill), Inglorious Basterds. This movie. This powerhouse of a movie centers around a group of Jewish-American soldiers during WWII who heroically (and in a blood-filled fever dream) fight against actual Nazis and aim to take out Hitler. It’s Tarantino at his best, having fun with an all-star cast and plenty of fake blood and glamour shots of feet. But this movie features one of the most charismatic bad guys in film in Hans Landa (expertly played by Christoph Waltz). Now, here’s the problem with Hans Landa: he’s just so fun to watch on screen. Each of his lines is fun and dripping with danger and Waltz chews up every scene he’s in. I’m leaving out a key detail which is that Colonel Hans Landa is a Nazi and this isn’t a euphemism, he’s an actual German soldier and a very proud one at that. He will tell you that he’s only doing his job when he has to perform violence. He will explain the “reasons” he is a racist and he will do so quite well. He will tout the experience of his fellow German soldiers and how proud he is of Germany and the leader he serves. And if you keep listening, you start to like him. He’s fun when on screen, a damn near delight. He’s well-spoken, seems to know everything (which is scary) and when he’s excited about something; it’s damn near infectious: one of his last scenes where he marvels at his own use of the word “bingo” is a delight even though he is essentially holding our actual protagonists hostage. It’s a scene that I use a lot as a GIF set because it’s fun. Nazis shouldn’t be fun. Really, the entire movie has a tone problem with that but it’s Tarantino so most give him a past. Many of the German soldiers are more fleshed out characters than our actual protagonists and we spend a great deal of time with many German soldiers. We build a rapport with them so even though the movie is great about not rewarding them for being actual Nazis, we spend entirely too much time with them for there not to be a bond formed. It’s sad when Frederick Zoller dies at the end, we’ve spent so much time watching him woo a married woman. It’s sad when Wilhelm dies, he was a new father and a soldier who was doing his best. In this instance, it isn’t framing that wrongs us, it’s just the charisma of a great actor playing a terrible human being.
The best example of this is in our second example taken from a Tarantino movie: Calvin J. Candie. Oh, Mr. Candie. It’s really a shame that Jamie Foxx is so good in this film and he is still completely overshadowed by DiCaprio who really only appears in the last half of the entire film but the spotlight is on him as soon as he is on screen. That’s the power of DiCaprio. But in addition to a very charming man, Mr. Candie is also given some of the best lines in the damn film. He dresses well, is funny, is smarter than most of the antagonists of the film. He has a lovely plantation: CandieLand (yes, actually the name of the place) and almost all of those he “employs” (they are slaves) seem happier and better taken care of than the other slaves we’ve seen in Django Unchained. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The long and short of Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy centered around a slave named Django and his desire to get revenge on those who have wronged him. He teams up with a white dentist named King Schultz (not joking, this is a Tarantino movie so subtly be damned) who is played by Waltz (because he can only play German characters) and they go on doing what they can to disrupt the accepted reality that is slavery and to get back Django’s wife, Broomhilda (again, be damned subtly). Broomhilda had been sold off to Mr. Candie’s plantation which brings us back to our favorite Southern racist. Yes, I’m getting to that part. Calvin Candie is a slave-owner. He’s a racist. He’s every Southern stereotype wrapped up in a silk bow. And Tarantino does all he can to frame Candie as a bad guy. We first meet him running an illegal Fight Club with African slaves as bartering chips. He’s a monster who does not see the humanity in enslaved Africans. This is even more damaging because he uses rhetoric and “logic” (with the biggest possible quotes I can possibly generate). During Mr. Candie’s most powerful scene he explains quite plainly that he has every right to enslave Africans. To him and his “science” (again with giant quotes) of phrenology, they are lesser than he is. And he’s very quick to discuss just how strongly he feels about the whole slavery situation. And even though framing and his eventual death do highlight how awful Calvin Candie and the rest of his family is, DiCaprio is electric in this role. Hell, I miss him as a character as I watch the rest of the film: upon other watches I’ll tend to stop shortly after his character dies and then resume the film just to get to one more scene. And I should not miss a racist. I should not miss a slave owner. I should not miss Calvin Candie. But because of writing and a masterful performance: I do.
And this isn’t a problem Tarantino seems to have in other films. We don’t go through Kill Bill thinking Bill is in the right despite an excellent performance from David Carradine (rest in peace). We spend so much time with The Bride and we learn so much about her revenge mission that no matter how good the performances are in the movie, we hate every single obstacle in her way. The same can be said for Hateful Eight which is a very appropriate title because this movie is devoid of anyone you can empathize with.
Charm is a part of the wider framing of baddies discussion because of the way it hijacks the brain’s logic center and creates a false connection to objectively terrible characters. And we could do an entire post on this just talking about anime (because, really, that’s my wheelhouse and you do not want to get me on that soap box…[Unless, you want me to. Leave a comment if you’d like for there to be a follow up to this just talking about anime.]) Charm is used to make you like a bad character and even though the frame around that character may still tell you this character is bad, it’s hard to hate someone who is so confidently evil.
It’s summed up by a line Negan gives us in The Walking Dead:
“I just slid my dick down your throat. And you thanked me for it.”
That’s it. The blog post could just be that line but I would like ad revenue one of these days and the current algorithm doesn’t like the profanity. But it’s exactly that swagger that made me want to cosplay Negan. It was that exact confidence and bravado that made me want to build a bat and made me walk with a little more power in my step. The moment I put on that jacket and zipped up my boots, I felt strong despite knowing that fact that Negan is a monster and wanting to be like him means becoming a monster.
Charm makes Ozymandias seem like a normal business man in Watchmen. Charm makes a racist lovable. And charm makes a literal Nazi a rooted for hero.
Charm is a skill good actors should have and really does separate the good from the great. The performances mentioned in this post are masterful and some of my favorites of all time and that is what makes them so damn insidious.
I still remember the first boy’s love series I picked up as a young one. It was Gravitation when I was a youngling and almost immediately I loved how radically different the series from from the shonen action fodder that dominated my anime landscape.
Ever since then, I’ve been a huge fan of shonen ai. For one reason or another, I found the aesthetic and tone much more rewarding and interesting than the typical romance anime and their shojo counterparts. But because shonen ai by default focuses on male characters, the women in them tend to be…well, they’re something. And sure, we’ll pause here for the folks saying:
Well, why are you up in arms about the women in a boy’s love comic?
Because biologically, I’m female and boy’s love is, hilariously, mostly read by women; particularly, young women and the internalized misogyny attached to the genre can be very damaging.
Today we’re going to go over the three main ways women are framed in boy’s love narratives.
For some vocabulary, framing is how we look at a person or a person’s actions. We’ve talked a lot about framing this year but I think it’s an important part of fictive language. Even though we may know a character is in the wrong or in the right, the framing around that act or character can flip those two things very easily. Again like with Killmonger in Black Panther or Thanos in Infinity War the movie frames them oftentimes in the right even though we know they are both genocidal and very very wrong. Framing is an issue because as a viewer, it isn’t always easy to point out the negative in that character. If everything else in the film or work is telling you that this thing, character or act is okay it’s difficult to buck against that even though you may know logically or in your heart that it may not be true.
And now without any further interruption: here are a few ways that women are framed in boy’s love.
The Woman, Obstacle
This is probably the most common and most hurtful. The woman in so many narratives from Gravitation to Yellow feature subplots or plots where the woman stands in the way of the love between the two male leads. Now, this isn’t entirely unheard of. Sometimes men do discover they do not care for their female partner and try either out of curiosity or genuine desire to be themselves be with a male partner. And sure, not every woman is gracious during such a time but the idea that the woman is a consistent barrier to love is frustrating and exhausting. You also see this a lot in fanfiction where authors who wish to ship two male characters will demonize the female aspect the more canonical heterosexual pairing. This is troubling for more than one reason, the first is again the often flat out demonization of the female for standing in the way. Gravitation is the example I’ll use because it is still one of my favorite animes of all time and does absolutely face is issue. Right as Yuki and Shuichi are ready to finally say they are together, a young woman appears claiming to be Yuki’s fiance. This throws a wrench into the entire plot of these two men finally accepting that they may have feelings for each other and the plot (which is peak Murakami hating women and she will continue to do this in almost all of her works for the series) is a series of sight gags trying to get this woman (whose name I refuse to Google or recall) out of the way. Her refusal to “give up” Yuki, a man she is promised because Yuki’s father is a terrible garbage fire of a person along with the rest of the Uesugi family is seen as not courageous or valid but as irksome and immature. Eventually, the plot of the anime and manga give her the sloppy seconds that are Hiro and she is forgotten as Shuichi and Yuki find better things to argue about like whether Yuki is bisexual or gay.
Another example of this is Lizzie in Black Butler. Lizzie is…well, she is a precious little thing (says this Sebastian through gritted teeth). Lizzie is Ciel’s fiance and she is entirely oblivious to the obvious relationship between Sebastian and Ciel while also managing to be the one thing that keeps Ciel from completely diving off into the abyss of the black space where Sebastian’s heart would be. Lizzie’s helplessness and stupidity (which is somewhat corrected in later parts of the manga and the movies but as far as I am concerned, the damage is already done) make her an item that often requires saving: she is in fact that only character that requires as much saving as The Little Master does. Her needing rescuing and just well, existing on screen takes moments away that are more vital to the narrative and Black Butler has a lot going on; story-wise, we simply don’t have time to humor Lizzie and thus she’s consistently one of the least popular characters in the series.
The Woman, Duplicitous
Ah yes, the woman who plays the field for the sake of ruining the main couple. If there is a more common trope in boy’s love, it’d likely only be rivaled with bad hand proportions and hair that covers over one of the protagonist’s eyes. I’ll pull one more Gravitation example because this is my blog and I can do what I want. Yuki’s sister, Mika (who confirms the concept of the Uesugi family being full of garbage people) spends most of the manga and a vast majority of the anime gaslighting Shuichi for the simple sake that she doesn’t like the pink-haired brat with her precious little Eiri. There’s just one problem: this is awful and manipulative and tiresome. And while, yes, Gravitation is an adventure in keeping Yuki Eiri miserable, it’s particularly harmful because Mika is one of the few female characters that: 1) is important 2) has a great deal of lines and 3) isn’t a moron. Mika’s fall from grace is tragic because of what she could be which is a supportive sister who does rightfully have some reservations about her brother’s new boyfriend. We’ll pull a recent example as well, Hitorijime My Hero is the anime that made my heart sing after the Summer of Incessant Ice Skating. Hitorijime My Hero is pretty standard as far as boy’s love plots go centering around Setagawa ( a high school student ) and his mentor and crush Kousuke. During one of the later episodes of the series, Kousuke’s somewhat overly protective friends including one of his stylish female associates decide it’s a great idea to plant seeds of doubt in Setagawa’s mind. Keep in mind, Setagawa comes from what may be one of the more tragic of backgrounds for a mainstream boy’s love character that includes him being a former member of a gang, a neglectful mother and him struggling with the fact that he is in love with a man that’s easily 10 years his senior. It’s actually such a turn from the heart of the series that it took me a while to get back to it: I felt Setagawa’s betrayal and resented the show for using such a cheap trick for the sake of plot advancement.
The Woman, Pious Saint
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the woman as victim and saint. This one is strange at first because it makes you wonder why it’s such a bad thing. Isn’t it good after all of these examples of women who are bad that a woman can be good and pure? Well, here’s why it’s a problem: it removes a woman’s agency and choice. A noted example is Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners where Dr. Haskins’ wife is absolutely oblivious and in the dark about just how much of a tool her husband is. Dr. Haskins is as garbage of a garbage person as you can get, he’s been cheating on his wife since before they were even married and in one of the best parts of the manga, Dr. Haskins is entwined with his polo partner: Danny, who mind you is also engaged to a lovely woman; all the while, Dr. Haskins refuses to acknowledge the commitments either men made to their respective future wives and during their time entangled, Danny’s fiance is looking for him, calling for him and she almost catches them in the act and while Danny struggled to stop the encounter, he didn’t want to be caught. During the whole thing Dr. Haskins continues not only egging Danny on but actively stopping any of his partner’s protests towards the act. It’s selfish and terrifying. This sets up one, Dr. Haskins as a tool (we’ll pause here for people saying he’s gay and just trying to live his life but cheating is cheating) and that his wife can do no wrong as she is during him cheating with Danny which is alluded to be one of many times, is conveniently out of the country . What’s even more tragic is that Dr. Haskins is a loving family man on the surface despite his affair with the series protagonist, Johnathan. One of the most interesting scenes in Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners involves Johnathan meeting Dr. Haskins’ wife and daughter and she is nothing but gracious and loving and treats the starving college student to a lavish ice cream sundae. She seems totally unaware that her husband is a serial cheater and she praises how loving her darling is despite her constant traveling for work.
This is tragic. We see a woman who is so in love with her husband that she cannot see what is in places a very obvious lie. There are chapters in the manga where it doesn’t even seem like Dr. Haskins cares much about hiding his torrid affairs from his doting wife and robbing women of agency is a huge issue in any narrative. At least if she knew about the affairs, it would still be tragic but it would either be her choice to stay or her choice to leave: both automatically give her more power in a narrative that is strongly run by one man. And yes, it isn’t her story Dr. Haskins being married is a huge part of the story. And his wife isn’t even given the chance to be an obstacle like Lizzie from Black Butler is; she’s just sort of there and she does her best to be supportive and kind. She does eventually become a bit of an obstacle, Johnathan does feel immense guilt after meeting his lover’s wife but not enough to stop sleeping with Dr. Haskins as a means to achieve his goals.
I’m going to take a moment here to address that pin I’m sure all of you have of:
Well, it’s boy’s love. What do you expect?
Here’s the thing. I know plenty of boy’s love stories that feature almost zero women entirely, especially if all they are going to do is be blocks of wood or literal obstacles to plot. Fumi Yoshinaga is an excellent boy’s love mangaka and many of her works either feature no women at all or they are relegated to supporting roles which means they cannot ruin the plot. Even Yoshinaga-senpai’s most noted female character in Antique Bakery appears for an episode and vanishes after dropping a bomb on the plot that is neatly wrapped up within the same episode she appears. Kyo Kara Maoh features several female characters that either push the main pairing together or are there to support the other main characters and not a single one is an obstacle to plot: some are antagonistic but none ever grind plot to a stop.
And here’s why we’re doing this: readers hold onto that misogyny and perpetuate it. I’ve been reading shonen ai for longer than I feel comfortable admitting as well as just shonen anime in general and years of women being irksome plot obstacles sticks with you. Even now, if you’ve been blessed or cursed to read any of my fiction, you can practically see me struggle with writing female characters that aren’t either aggressive Mary Sues or utterly useless pieces of furniture. It would be one thing if that internalized hatred simply stayed on the page but it leaches into other aspects of life. It forms and informs casual sexism and keeps old stereotypes afloat through confirmation bias. It fosters a complacency that means we don’t challenge the norms of female characters and thus create a feedback loop that perpetuates all the things we hate about them and quells any desire to change them for the better.
What’s even more fascinating is that many boy’s love novels are written by women who seem to hate or are irked by women; it’s typically the male shonen ai creators that either don’t worry about female characters at all or show them in a more complex light either as mostly supportive or actively antagonistic. And it is almost entirely women who read (indulge) in shonen ai so this harmful message is really hit home.
Challenging female characters regardless of genre is one of the only ways we can continue to hold creators and characters to a higher standard. Having the same message hammered into your head over and over again that just by being a woman you are lesser in a narrative is immensely hurtful and readers deserve better. They deserved to be loved, respected and appreciated. If we can do it for the boys, even in a trashy shonen ai manga, we can do it for the girls.
There was one aspect of Black Panther that settled in my stomach, rough and raw for weeks after I saw the film. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and left a haze of a film that I had mostly praised. It was around the issue of Erik Killmonger. I mentioned it in my review of the movie so I’ll get straight to the point. The issue I have with Killmonger is a framing problem. His actions, his motives, his motivations, his everything is framed as “perfectly fine” and that is to be very frank, troubling as hell. Killmonger is compelling, heartbreaking, tragic, real and very valid. His anger is rational and he is very much a sympathetic character. So when Erik says radical things like “Hey, maybe we should make our own militant colonizing force.” and similar statements, he sounds like a rational, logical young man. How else would one expect for someone in his position to feel and act?
And in his final moments, there was the line that burrowed deep into my gut and remained there. “Death over bondage.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing but in my horror, that was all I heard.). And that brings up to framing.
Framing in film language is how a thing is set up. We code (another film and sociology term) lots of things about characters and setting based on framing. A hero is a hero because of swelling music, bright colors, bright clothes and handsome looks. A villain is a villain because of dark music and tones and velvet and other things that make a villain a villain.
And framing done wrong is just as bad as framing done not strongly enough. Poor framing gives up the Victorian mustache twirling villain and the overly Jesus-like hero. Now, weak framing does a similar thing were a bad guy doesn’t seem so bad. Let’s take a scene from Rent that Folding Ideas and Lindsay Ellis both took umbrage with and that I mentioned in my post about Rent. There’s a scene in both the musical and movie during the whole No Day But Today thing where Mimi stands out in the cold with her posse that doesn’t know here while Roger remains in his ivory tower refusing to come down and play. But the framing makes it look like Roger is a stuck up mean guy for not wanting to leave his lonely life but really, his concerns are valid. Mimi is a known stripper and drug-user and Roger is a recovering drug addict with HIV. He has every reason to not want to be with her but the framing makes Mimi’s lack of care, concern or logic seem good and warm while Roger’s very valid logic and hesitation is framed negatively and that’s just not fair.
But plenty of films recently have had framing problems. A big example that comes to mind is actually both Kingsman films. We’ll use the first one mostly because it’s my favorite. Valentine is compelling, charming, charismatic and in parts of the movies just plain right. He has lots of ideas about how the Earth is going to hell and how to stop global warming. The problem is that his plan involves a violent mass genocide. But by the time he gets to the “I want a lot of people to die.” part, he just sounds like a pretty okay guy with a good plan to save the world. And that is a framing problem. The film around him has done a piss poor job of saying “Hey, watcher of this film, this man’s ideas are not good.”
Anime has had this problem for easily 20 years with antagonists and villains who are far more relatable than their hero mains. I’ve been paneling about this topic for literally almost 5 years. Many times, this is done to create more empathetic villains while also giving the hero/main something to do but again, it’s weak storytelling when your villain is more compelling than your protagonist.
Which brings up back to Black Panther. Erik’s sympathetic backstory makes it easy to ignore some of the venom that drips from his mouth. And in today’s current socio-political climate, I am sure that many see his vision as logical, sure a little radical, but surely sound. We’ve seen militancy fail over and over again for African-Americans. And while Black Panther does kill off Killmonger, his actions and words leave a heavy shadow over the film.
How do we correct such framing issues? Well, by simply not rewarding them. We’ve talked about characters getting what they deserve in a previous post and that is one of the best ways to combat poor framing. At least in Black Panther, Erik does not make it to the end of the movie but his message lives on and forces T’Challa and the people of Wakanda to think more closely about their isolationism. Not glorifying clearly horrible things is easy to do in real life but difficult to impose upon fictional characters. Consequences are vital. Erik’s rage rightfully makes him too unstable for this world and his exit is a pained sigh of relief. And those consequences don’t always mean death. Think of Loki in the rest of the Marvel movies: he is denied empathy at every turn despite his actions being mostly reprehensible. And movies are particularly fertile ground for framing issues. When you’re a handsome and well-known actor, you want screen time and being a mustache-twirling villain can be fun but often means that you are not on screen very long. Additionally, movies are a complex and visual media, creating sympathetic and likable characters is vital to keeping your audience’s interest. And I’m happy to see more complex characters, it has come at the cost of clearer storytelling. And I love morally ambiguous stories but those still have the stakes and consequences vital to keeping such narratives afloat. Valentine still dies at the end of Kingsman. Poppy for sure dies at the end of Kingsman 2. And if we’re talking anime then most of the time, the villain goes down with his or her overly complicated plan in a blaze of flames and glory.
Framing is a vital part of writing but an even more vital part of film and other visual media. How a character, scene and act are framed tells you a lot about how to feel about this character, the scenario and about the work. And when you frame a bad guy as a pious saint, you not only risk betraying your work but you risk muddying the waters of your own narrative.