Queering the Narrative

  • Reading time:4 mins read

For me, art is a big part of any conversation. The discussion and representation and normalization of often complex ideas in art and media allows people to understand themselves and each other, and can provide a frame of reference, at times a sort of shibboleth for a group.

I think a lot of people who live with trauma kind of fail to develop in certain dimensions until they get the support they were lacking. You have to build up those parts of yourself from square one, once you know what’s missing.

There’s so much queer art out there in every form, and so much more becoming available, so much in the mainstream—and that is going to be crucial.

From personal experience, I figured out my queerness (and identified many related problems in my life) by engaging with a children’s cartoon of all things. Musical artists bring a face and voice and familiarity, and when they get vocal about their queerness they can start some important conversations. Janelle Monáe is a great one right now.

Tumblr, with its heavy focus on visual art and transformative fandom, of course serves as a bubbling pot of queer theory and drama. It’s used as a semi-safe place to experiment with ideas and passions and identities. There’s been this explosion of queer terminology and conceptualization over the last decade, and if you look at the citations an absurd portion of that originates on Tumblr. There are some ugly corners, like everything. But it’s significant—as is the overlap of fandom and queerness.

What with AO3’s 2019 Hugo award, lately fanfic has emerged as a major cultural force on a level not previously appreciated. Its status as a low-stakes garbage medium can often be a way for people to work out their feelings and experiences that can be hard to grasp or otherwise express—and as a format, oh lawd is it queer, almost by default. Going back to the 1960s, even. The basic terminology goes back to desperate queers finding romance between James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock.

From my own experience, I wrote my first fanfic out of desperation at the lowest point of my life—just to latch onto some kind of a creative effort with no expectations, no pressure to perform—and within a few months realized I was aroace and trans. It took someone else reading it and pulling me aside for a conversation to realize what I was saying, and even then I had to stew on what they said. But, I must stress firmly, none of this is uncommon.

Trash art like this is amazing, as it is so unguarded and earnest. And much of queerness is about embracing flaws and things other people write off, and saying, you know what, this is important too. To add to that, online in particular, such a community forms around it. Not just on Tumblr, though yeah, that remains a big launching pad even after the 2018 purge and exodus. There are so many outlets for this kind of a thing now, for people’s subconscious minds screaming to be heard.

Art is a way to communicate so much, coded so tightly, that you can transmit reams of information forming a sort of emotional handshake that no one will get unless they do, and for them the message is, you’re not alone. You are not wrong. We are out here.

Art is like Radio Free Europe for the dispossessed and the marginalized, who are told every day they are uniquely aberrant. It’s a way of reaching across the void and affirming a basic humanity to people who are denied it on the regular. And if that art can also speak to a broader audience, and loop them in on the message that there are other ways to be valid? It just knits us all that much closer.

These communities—sites like Tumblr and AO3—highlight how, unshackled from concerns for IP ownership, art serves as a conversation. Stories and icons and themes return to the culture where they live, where people spin them, riff on them, build on them as tools to understand their own lives and to model for others.

All our understanding of life and the world and ourselves, it’s a story we’ve been handed by the people around us, with a frame selected to encourage a particular reading and behavior.

Queerness is realizing, other stories are available. And we can write them together.

The Crying Game

  • Reading time:14 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part six of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation under the title “Can Videogames Make You Cry?”.

A few weeks ago, Bowen Research published the results of a survey, on the role of emotion in videogames. Hugh Bowen polled 535 gamers on their own views and history, with the end goal to rough some kind of an objective analysis out of their subjective experiences, and thereby maybe to shed some light on what emotional effect videogames have had in the past. The paper is well, and humbly, written; its conclusions, though, are less than revelatory: the only genre that tends to elicit reasonably complex emotion is RPGs (presumably Japanese ones), while other genres all inspire at least some basic kind of motivational urge in the player – be it rage or fear or what have you. Meanwhile, the paper is full of comments about Aeris, and the profound affect of her death on people who had never played Phantasy Star II.

The problem, I suppose, is in the question being asked: “Can videogames make you cry?”. It’s a binary question about a complex issue, much like asking whether Americans are happy and then concluding “sometimes!” And indeed, Bowen’s answer seems to be “well, yes… probably. In theory.” A second issue is the way Bowen approached the issue as a matter of statistics – and then based his analysis on the subjective responses of a skewed sample. “Gamers”, as with any obsessives, have by nature a peculiar perspective of their medium – a medium which, furthermore, is not yet refined as an expressive platform.

The question should not be whether videogames are capable of eliciting complex emotion – as, given the complex analog weave of our brains, anything can result in an emotional response of any depth and sophistication. Rather, what Bowen might have asked is how innately bound any emotion is to the current fabric of videogames (that is, whether it has anything to do with what the medium is trying to accomplish), how much emotional potential videogames might ideally hold, and – assuming some degree of innate potential – how best to insinuate emotion into the framework or theory of a videogame. Or rather perhaps, how best to cull emotion from that same framework.