When Does a Fantasy Become Harmful?

Although I love video games and although I love Greek mythology, the God of War series never really crossed my path until recently. Now, I still haven’t played it, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the game or the plot or anything like that. All that I’ve seen is one scene, but as this scene wasn’t overly complicated or difficult to interpret, I feel fairly confident discussing at least it.

In God of War 3, your protagonist Kratos – a Spartan demigod with more muscles than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime – enters into Aphrodite’s chambers (Aphrodite, for those of you who aren’t aware, being the Greek goddess of love and sexuality). He finds her almost naked, laying in a bed with her handmaidens and having some sexy-fun-time with them (because lesbians). Upon seeing Kratos, Aphrodite banishes her sexy handmaidens to the other side of the room so that she can have a conversation with him, during which she is lounging out on the bed, rolling around, and very clearly trying to seduce Kratos (because boobs). After the conversation is over, the player then has the option to give into Aphrodite’s seduction. If the player does this, we see Kratos descend upon the bed, before the camera pans off of them and onto Aphrodite’s handmaidens across the room, who then proceed to watch the bed and swoon and sigh over Kratos’s supposedly exceptional lovemaking, making comments about how jealous they are of their mistress while simultaneously groping each other.

Now, the critiques of this scene are obvious. It is both objectifying to women and fetishizing bisexual women. But that being said, I can already hear the defence against this critique: that it isn’t supposed to be taken at face value. It’s all a fantasy, intended to make Kratos look like the manliest manly man that ever lived, not only exceptional at fighting and looking awesome, but also at pleasing the ladies.

And trust me, I get that argument. I love fantasies in the media. In fact, some of my favourite story lines are power fantasies, intended to make the viewer feel like they are strong and capable by making you relate to the all-powerful, impossibly strong hero. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these are all power fantasies.

But at the same time, they are different from what we see happening in the scene from God of War 3.

The thing about Spider-Man that makes him and his story arch very different from this scene is, well, content. Spider-Man is awesome because he fights crime, he has super powers, he looks like an average teenager but is actually secretly awesome. And at the same time, Spider-Man is awesome in a way that most young people know isn’t real. When it comes to things like superheroes, parents tend to be quick to remind their kids that, yes, Spider-Man is awesome, but in real life, people don’t have super powers and they don’t fight crime in quite the same way. When it comes to discussions of sexuality, parents don’t tend to be quite so quick to talk to their children.

When I saw this scene from God of War 3, the first thing that it reminded me of was… well, pornography. Not because it foregrounded sexuality, but because of how unrealistically it depicted sexuality. Let’s all just agree: Aphrodite did not act like a real woman would. Neither does she or Kratos look the way that the average man or woman does; they are both idealized versions of what society thinks their gender should look like. And nobody in the history of the universe has made comments like the ones that the handmaidens made about Kratos’s lovemaking. This is all fake, and it is fake with the intention of pandering to the man and his ego, while most pornography is similarly made with a male viewer in mind.

And for many children in the western world, pornography is their introduction to sexuality. According to a report made by the BBC in 2016, 53% of children aged eleven to sixteen have seen pornography online, and of these children, 53% of boys and 39% of girls saw it as a realistic depiction of sex. And, look – I’m not trying to shame you if you watch pornography, all that I am saying is that pornography is not only unrealistic, it is centred around catering to a male gaze and a male ego. Like this scene from God of War 3, it is a fantasy, but when no one is talking to young people about this topic or offering them an alternative way of looking at it, it becomes easier to accept it as truth.

To put it in perspective, it would sort of be like if every single movie made for young boys was Spider-Man, and every single young boy knew that super powers existed, but they weren’t allowed to see it or talk about or hear about it ever; after a while, they’d start to question why they don’t have web-swinging powers, and why some girls look and act differently from Mary Jane.

But let’s talk about another issue that this scene discusses; female bisexuality. Like sex, bisexuality isn’t really talked about or represented in our media. The only bisexual characters that I can think of off the top of my head in mainstream media is Maureen Johnson from Rent and Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black (both of whom are despicable human beings, but anyway…). In fact, probably the greatest representation of female bisexuality is, again, in pornography, meaning that you are more likely to see bisexual women having sex in our media than you are to see them going about their day or doing their jobs or anything like that.

But let’s go back to the scene from God of War 3, and let’s talk about the issue of desire here. Because, yes, Aphrodite starts out making out with her handmaidens, and yes, when Kratos is in bed with Aphrodite, the handmaidens are groping each other. But throughout all of this, the primary object of their desire is always Kratos, a man. Aphrodite sends her handmaidens away so that she can seduce Kratos instead. When the handmaidens are groping each other, their eyes are constantly on Kratos and they are going on about how hot he is. In fact, I am almost hesitant to describe them as bisexual, because outside of a few small sexual acts, they express nearly no desire for women; it always goes back to the man. And I have absolutely no doubt that the reason why the animators included these small sexual acts into the game was not because they wanted to represent Aphrodite as a strong, bisexual woman, but because they thought that it would be a nice treat for the presumed straight male player to see.

As I discussed before, this scene is harmful toward women in general because it perpetuates these unrealistic expectations that men have about how women should look and how they should behave sexually. But in some ways, it is almost more harmful toward bisexual women, because it perpetuates a very harmful stereotype that we all live with from the moment we come out of the closet: that we aren’t actually bisexual, we’re just trying to get attention from men.

This stereotype is one that hinges on dismissing the existence of bisexual women (and bisexual people in general). It portrays them, not as their own sexual orientation, but as promiscuous straight women – and as much as it is not okay to treat women differently depending on how many sexual partners they have had, it is an unfortunate fact in our society that that frequently happens, and it happens to bisexual women from the moment that we come out of the closet. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are frequently dismissed, by straight men and lesbians alike, as ‘dirty’, a good, quick fuck but not actually worthy of love. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are seen as ‘owing’ sex to men, because they obviously went to all the work of seducing them by being bisexual, and as a result, 61.1% of bisexual women are raped by an intimate partner, while 46% of bisexual women report being raped at any point in their lives, compared to 17% of straight women and 13% of lesbians. And don’t even get me started on the emotional side-effects of being consistently told, by both straight people and the LGBT community, that you aren’t enough, you’re too dirty, too promiscuous, to be accepted.

But, hey, maybe this stereotype would be less frequently relied upon if our media would just give us alternative representations of bisexuality.

So to sum this all up: when is a fantasy harmful? Well, my answer would be that a fantasy becomes harmful when it’s the only narrative we’re given. Sex is nothing like the way that it is represented in either pornography or God of War 3, but you wouldn’t exactly know that as an inexperienced young person who knows that sex exists but has never seen it for themselves, because the vast majority of our depictions of sex come through a heavy lens of fantasy, and a very male-oriented fantasy at that, resulting in some unhealthy ideas of what sex is and what women in sexual situations should be. And actual bisexual women are not lounging in their beds, making out with their handmaidens until a man shows up to sex them up properly, but if that’s the only image of bisexual women that we are given, then how are we ever going to know that?

So maybe my issue is less with God of War 3, which is nothing more than a stupid fantasy for young straight boys who like the idea of being a super powerful, super masculine lady-pleaser, and more with a society that doesn’t really give us much else than that. Where are my depictions of sex from a woman’s perspective? My bisexual women who don’t care if a man shows up or not, they’re perfectly satisfied with the woman they’ve got right here? If we had more of those, not only would this scene be much less harmful, it would be easier to recognize it as silly and unrealistic by comparison.

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The Door to the Rest of My Life

I found the door to the rest of my life, and it is open.

Now, I am expected to walk through it.

Now I have no choice but to walk through it. It doesn’t matter that I never thought I would get this far. It doesn’t matter that my life was supposed to end several years ago, in a bathtub, in a pool of my own blood. It doesn’t matter that I was born to be a sad story stuffed into the smallest corner of the newspaper: TEENAGE SUICIDE, it was supposed to read, and people were supposed to hear about me and shake their heads and say “what a shame” before moving on, forgetting me.

It doesn’t matter, because it didn’t happen. I’m here. I’m alive. And I will never be a teenage suicide, because I will never be a teenager again.

I’m an adult.

I’m a possibility.

I’m alive. And there’s so much that I can do so long as that remains true.

Because death is so final, and life is ever changing.

I can walk through that door. I can follow the plan that I didn’t have until recently, the plan that I never made when I was young because I was never supposed to get this far. The simple plan: job, move, school, career, maybe get married, maybe be happy, run into problems along the way but always push through them. I can do that now. I can live a life.

And what a strange party it is that I hold for myself, alone, in private. No invitations can be sent out because no one can know the reason why life overwhelms me and thrills me all at once. No one can know why I think it’s a miracle to be alive. If they knew they would worry, but they really shouldn’t because I survived. I made it through. I didn’t kill myself and I won’t kill myself. Instead of cutting into my skin, I fortified it with armour so that when the feeling comes back, I’ll know what to do. I’ll have prepared for this.

And for now, I found the door to the rest of my life, the door that was never supposed to exist in the first place. And I am walking through it.

The Ghost in My Apartment

Until I was about nine years old, I lived in an apartment that I was convinced was haunted.

Or perhaps it might be better to say that I lived in an apartment that I hoped was haunted. After all, to live in a haunted apartment would have been a great adventure, wouldn’t it? And besides, I was obsessed with death from a very young age – it isn’t very surprising that I saw ghosts.

But looking back on that apartment, if ghosts do exist, they most certainly inhabited that place. It was an old apartment, in a neighbourhood where I would come across blood splatters and gun shells on the sidewalk when I went for a walk. My next door neighbour was beaten regularly by her roommate, the building was once evacuated for a week because someone fell asleep with a lit cigarette in her bed, and the only mundane image that I vividly remember from the apartment was a very horror movie-esque stain in the poorly lit car park, in the shape of a smeared handprint.

But as far as evidence of ghosts, there are only two that I have a difficult time explaining today.

It was not rare for me to pass rooms by and think that I saw people out of the corner of my eye. This was one of the reasons why I came to the conclusion that the building was haunted, but in retrospect, I can dismiss that easily. I was young, I had a big imagination, I wanted the building to be haunted, I passed them by too quickly to be sure what I saw, etc., etc. But there was one time when I saw a figure face-on.

I was asleep in my bedroom, the door wide open and the hallway light on because I was… well, I don’t remember how old, but I was young. It was late, and everyone else in the apartment was asleep, when for whatever reason, I woke up. And when I woke up, I saw someone standing in my doorway.

I wouldn’t be able to physically describe him. Though the hallway light was on behind him, he looked to me like a black silhouette – no facial features, no clothing, nothing. He was too tall to be my mother and too thin to be my father. And when I saw him, I was immediately terrified. I just gave a little gasp and then, acting with perfect child logic, I threw my head under the blankets and waited for him to go away. And when I lifted my head out of the blanket next, he had.

The next morning, I asked my family if anyone had checked on me in the night; nobody had. And I know what you’re thinking – I could have dreamed the whole thing, but I maintained firmly that I was not asleep. And I can still vividly remember seeing him, standing there in my doorway, a man’s figure with no distinct features. I know it happened.

But that was just the first event that I couldn’t explain; the second took place years later, after I had moved out of the apartment. This new house was in a much safer neighbourhood – in a fairly typical suburb, in fact. At the time, my sister and I were home alone, sitting in the living room and talking about our old apartment – specifically, we were talking about how we both used to think that our old apartment was haunted. I told her that I used to see a man, emphasizing the time that I saw him standing in my doorway, because that was the time that I had seen him most vividly. My sister too said that she used to see a man, and that she used to dream about him too. And as the pair of us were talking about this (and, admittedly, freaking ourselves out about it a little bit), the phone rang.

Now, to explain why this freaked us out as much as it did, there are a few things that I need to explain first: the phone that we had at the time had two ringtones, one for when someone was calling from the second phone that we had, the one that was kept in the basement, and another ringtone for everyone else. My sister and I were quite used to the sound of the former ringtone, because my dad would often call the house phone from the basement phone, asking for us to bring something down to the basement. But the thing is, nobody was home besides me and my sister. And we were both in the living room; the door to the basement was closed, the room empty, the only sounds coming from it being a repetitive beating noise against the door that we chalked up to the wind. And when the phone rang, while we were talking about the ghosts of our old apartment, it was the phone in the basement that was calling us.

Just like the first time that I encountered a figure, I made no attempt to investigate. I didn’t answer the phone, I didn’t go into the basement, and my sister and I agreed to stop talking about ghosts after that. And I’m sure that someone will be able to come up with an explanation for one or both of my encounters, but I know what I saw and what I heard. To this day, years after both events, I have a hard time dismissing it all. And although I do not know if what I saw was a ghost or a shadow person or whatever, I do know that the figure in my doorway was something more than what we encounter in our everyday lives.