Feudal Engagements

I talk a bit about liking things, queerness in media. It got to be a bit longer than I was expecting, so here’s a fold.

There’s a little meme – not a big one, a little meme – running around on tumblr where someone tries to claim that in the Legend of Korra, because the characters of Korra and Asami comply to typical gender roles, their relationship is a heterosexual one, and because Mako and Korra do not, their relationship is ‘more queer.’ Mostly this meme is queer people pointing and laughing at a stranger’s comments out of context, which is fine because I’m going to overanalyse them out of context.

Specifically I’m going to look at this comment as a symptom of something Tumblr does – a lot – that worries me.

Now there are only really two contexts in which you’ll see someone trying to argue that in the context of cis characters, a man and a woman having a relationship is More Queer than a woman and a woman having a relationship. One context is an academic discussion of media criticism, where the discussion of the text as a created form by writers and a media landscape create all sorts of strange tropes and inversions of expectations. The other, however, is Tumblr. I suppose there’s a third, a place like 4chan where someone is trying very hard to convince people of a nonsensical idea for funsies, but I am assuming good faith argument.

Tumblr has a reputation as being a very progressive space. Broadly speaking it isn’t – It’s a conservative space where ideals that are progressive in our current political landscape form the bedrock of the conservatism. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, not necessarily, but it does mean there’s a powerful social system in place urging people to find some way to comply to an existing social context.

What bothers me about this little ‘feudal lord’ meme is that it’s the crux for two ideas that worry me: Queerness as Currency and The Legitimisation Of Joy.

Look, the person writing that probably isn’t proactively homophobic or queerphobic. Chances are they are trying hard to be the exact opposite, in the face of all those social systems that exist. They are trying, as it were, to move from our existing conservative landscape, to be part of the Tumblr conservative landscape, where different systems are trying to overcome the previous landscapes’ biases.

Why would you want to make this argument? Why would you try to tell people ‘Actually, the lesbian relationship is less gay than the heterosexuals?’ What kind of logic ticks in the brain to make that argument? To me, reading it, it comes from an emotional space with these two ideas:

  • I like this thing
  • I need to justify my liking of this thing or I’m not allowed to like it

When you start to create a social climate where people feel they need to justify why they like a thing, rather than necessarily just letting people share their joys, you get this kind of impact. I’ve seen it in religious circles, where people start justifying ideas like exercise, or drinking wine, or not eating cheese or hair dye from The Bible, because they can’t simply want and like things. And if I was a fan of Korra-Mako (which I’m not) I am pretty sure that there’d be a lot of reasons to want to justify it, what with there being large screeds insulting those people as bad people.

Queerness as currency is pretty simple. I’ve seen numerous friends make a big point about how queer characters justify a shows’ entire fandom. I’ve seen people use It Has A Queer X as the only motivation to watch a show. I’ve seen Show Has Two Or Three Queer Xs as justification to flood the world around them. Queerness in media is meaningful and valuable – but when people start using it as a value they can use to drive things it gets a bit weird and gross. It creates situations where characters strive to put Queerness first and foremost, because that’s what other people value, rather than any reason in and of itself. In a media landscape starved of representation, that makes sense, but it also comes with a sad side effect of queerness matters more than anything else. More than if the relationship is healthy. More than if the relationship is part of the text. More than if the relationship is consensual.

So, then we have this paradigm where queer relationships are (always) better than nonqueer relationships, and this weird side effect where any queer relationship that doesn’t meet a standard’s problem is that it’s Not Queer Enough or it was Made By The Not Queer, and you need to be able to argue to justify liking the thing you like in these queer spaces, so, you get people – almost universally kids, almost universally self-taught in tumblr-style conversation and argument – who tie themselves in knots to make it acceptable for some arbitary bar in their own mind to like something.

Broadly speaking I have a hard time being too mad at tumblr. It still feels to me like a sort of holding pen for things, a carved out section of landscape where people struggling with things are able to find communities that let them feel safe and comforted. That’s good, we need spaces like that. But it does also have a greater context and landscape, and with that come its own strange cultural traditions. The twofold traditions of love whatever you love and how dare you like that thing it’s gross do butt heads in some weird ways, though, and I wonder about the kids caught between them.

You can just like things! It’s allowed! I mean, everything, literally everything, you partake of, in all media, comes from a world with large social structure full of systemic biases and political influences, it’s not like anything you like is somehow outside of that. You spend your time looking for The Perfect Show to Like, for The Perfect Reasons, you’re only going to reach that end point by ignoring things, deliberately or otherwise.

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