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.

Why We Still Need Labels

I have a lot of labels to go by.

I am a woman. I’m bisexual, I’m white, I’m cis gendered. I’m able-bodied, but I am not completely neurotypical, as I have dealt with anxiety and depression.

And, admittedly, some of these labels get exhausting to live with sometimes. Just today, I thought about sitting down and writing something feminist, to which some part of my brain responded with an endless groan and the question, “do I have to be a woman today? Can’t I just be a person, without any concern about rape culture or objectification or whatever the topic of the day is?”

And I don’t think I’m the only person who has felt this way either. You see this opinion pop up constantly on the internet, though perhaps not always from the specific group of people being referred to.

For example, whenever a movie studio makes a big deal about outing a character as gay, you tend to see a plethora of reactions, and one that always makes its appearance is the question, “why does this matter? As long as the character is good, who cares who he sleeps with?” And although I am not trying to condemn the people who say this, I do want to point out that the majority of people who hold this opinion are straight people who have not experienced what it is like to be LGBT+.

Another example of this that I’ve seen is the internet’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. Many people (and primarily not black people) saw this movement and felt offended by the name, offering up the question, “don’t all lives matter?”

When questions like this are asked, I feel that it comes from a very similar place as my own internal grumbling about writing something feminist: they’re tired of dealing with it. They’re tired of people segregating themselves under different labels, of feeling as though one person is different from the other because of their race or their sexual orientation or whatever the case might be. They just want all that to end and for people to just be people already, not a label.

And trust me, I get it. I do. The fact that all these different labels exist in our world is exhausting. But there is one glaring problem that arises when you suggest that we should just label everyone as people and move on with our lives: society doesn’t work that way. We are still living with huge imbalances between people that will not get fixed if we don’t address them.

Yes, all lives matter, but Black Lives Matter was created for a very specific purpose – to address the fact that black people in America are killed by the police at an alarmingly high rate, and that needs to stop. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to bring attention to something that specifically affects black people, and if we are ever going to find equality, we need to talk about that. If we continue to ignore that issue, then cops are going to continue to brutalize and kill black people because no one is telling them that it’s wrong.

Yes, at the end of the day, who cares who that character in the movie wants to sleep with – he’s a fictional character and none of us are sleeping with him anyway. But at the same time, it matters that he’s gay – especially if it’s in a genre that doesn’t typically feature LGBT+ characters or if he’s the lead in a mainstream movie. It matters because gay characters are too rarely seen in mainstream films, or if they are seen, they’re sometimes delegated to minor characters or stereotypes. It matters because the invisibility of LGBT+ characters in mainstream media leads to a generation of LGBT+ people who have internalized that there is something wrong with them, that they shouldn’t be seen, or even in some cases, that they don’t exist. And if we don’t make a big deal out of the fact that this character is gay, if we don’t celebrate and encourage it, then Hollywood is not going to get the message that we want to see more LGBT+ people represented in our media, and thus, nothing is going to change for LGBT+ youth who need to have their existence validated.

And as much as it might get exhausting from time to time for me to talk about feminism, it’s still something that I need to do, because if I don’t, then I’m part of the problem. I’m sitting back and allowing these injustices to my gender to continue on.

Don’t get me wrong – I am in full support of getting rid of labels someday and forming a society that does not even notice our differences, but the key word there is someday. We just aren’t there yet. Systemic sexism still exists, systemic racism still exists, systemic homophobia still exists, etc., etc., and if we are ever going to actually end it and form a society where we can all just be people, we need to address that. Because until we end these issues, we are not treated as just people – our lives and experiences are still determined by the labels that we have no choice but to live under.

Why We All Need to Talk About Biphobia (Discrimination Against Bisexual People)

I’m not going to lie – I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with my sexual orientation, and I blame part of that on the fact that I am not attracted to one singular gender. I am attracted to girls, boys, transgender people, gender queer people, non-binary people, etc. – basically, I’m attracted to people before genders, a phenomena that is more commonly known as being bisexual.

Now, bisexuality can come in multiple forms. By definition, it is the attraction to two or more genders, but what this means is a bit more complicated than it sounds. It is possible to be bisexual, but have a preference for one gender or the other. You can be bisexual and be attracted differently to either gender. Or you can be bisexual and experience equal attraction to either gender. At the end of the day, there are no straight-forward rules for identifying as bisexual – if you feel like you identify as bisexual, then you are bisexual. It’s as simple as that.

Now, I have known that I am bisexual since I was about ten years old, but I did not know the above information until I was around twenty years old, when I finally decided that it was time to be proud of who I am and research information on what that meant. In my searches, I came across several blogs and websites on bisexuality, and it was here that I found the official definition of what bisexuality was, because I had previously thought of it merely as an attraction to both boys and girls, split equally down the middle. It was also in these blogs that I first came across the word ‘biphobia’.

For those of you who are not familiar with it, biphobia is, as you might expect, the discrimination against people who identify specifically as bisexual. Although bisexual people can experience homophobia as well, biphobia is a partly separate issue, relating to the issues that bisexual people in particular face.

Now, I want to emphasize that this is not a word that I had ever heard until I started looking up information on bisexuality on the internet. And if I had not had reason to look this information up, if I was either straight or gay, I very well might never have come across it. Which struck me as exceptionally strange and disappointing, because the more that I read about it, the more I realized that biphobia is something that we all need to talk about – not just bisexual people. It is something that straight people need to remember, and it is something that homosexual people need to remember.

And why?

We need to talk about biphobia because whenever someone gets romantically (or sometimes sexually) involved with someone of their own gender, the dominant response is “oh, I guess they’re gay now” or “I didn’t know they were gay”, even if aforementioned person has had multiple partners of the opposite sex. The possibility that they might be bisexual never even crosses most people’s minds.

We need to talk about biphobia because in an interview with Larry King, Anna Paquin, an openly bisexual woman, was referred to as a ‘non-practicing bisexual’ because she is married to a man, whereas married straight women are not referred to as a ‘non-practicing heterosexual’ and married lesbians are not ‘non-practicing homosexuals’. And this is not an isolated incident either; this is something that even believed in my teen years – that when I get married, my identity would change depending on who I married. If I married a man, I’d magically become straight. If I married a woman, I’d magically become a lesbian. But that isn’t how it works. Bisexual people are bisexual – that doesn’t change based on who their current partner is.

We need to talk about biphobia because bisexual people are often accused of being queer people who are able to ‘pass’ as straight because they are capable of entering into relationships with someone of the opposite gender, but it is not a privilege to have your identity consistently dismissed and ignored throughout your life.

We need to talk about biphobia because bisexual women are automatically assumed to be promiscuous women who are merely trying to impress men, whereas bisexual men are automatically assumed to be gay men who are too afraid to come all the way out of the closet. Either way, bisexual people are automatically assumed to just want men at the end of the day. This assumption is so strong that many lesbians have stated that they would never date a bisexual woman because she’d probably just leave them for a man, because we all know that that’s what bisexual women really want (cue the eye rolls).

We need to talk about biphobia because I as a bisexual woman feel like that is not something I should disclose too early in a relationship, because it might cheapen me in my partner’s eyes.

We need to talk about biphobia because bisexual women in particular are dismissed as dirty, promiscuous, greedy, and unlovable, while simultaneously being sexualized, fetishized, and objectified by men who really like the idea of a woman who will sleep with other women, but also with them as well. Perhaps as a result of this, bisexual women are nearly twice as likely to be abused than straight women (according to a Buzzfeed report). Bisexual women also have a 46.1% chance of being raped in their lifetime (whether that be by a romantic partner or not) – a rate that is 2.6 times higher than straight women and 3.5 times higher than lesbian women (according to the bisexual support website Bitopia).

We need to talk about biphobia because I as a bisexual woman feel as though I cannot or should not date a man, because if I did, I’d lose something in the process – a feeling that is only emphasized by biphobic representations of bisexuals such as in the television series Glee, wherein there is one episode where a gay character becomes upset because his boyfriend kisses a girl. But it wasn’t the possible cheating that made him upset, no – it was the fact that the kiss resulted in his contemplating that he might actually be bisexual, as though his realization that he might be bisexual makes him less valuable in his boyfriend’s eyes. This conflict is resolved when the boyfriend character comes to the conclusion that he is completely gay, and thus the gay character can rest easily knowing all is as it should be. There is also a later episode where a lesbian character discloses that her ex-girlfriend was bisexual, to which the girl that is currently flirting with the lesbian character responds by saying that it’s “for the best” that she’s an ex then, and that what she really needs is a “100% Sapphic goddess”. This openly biphobic character is then treated by the lesbian as ‘better’ than her exes because she’s a real, bonafide lesbian. And this is a television show that marketed itself as being open-minded and inclusive.

We need to talk about biphobia because it is everywhere, and it isn’t something that I even thought about all that much until I had need to think about it. If I wasn’t bisexual, then chances are I’d be continuing to perpetuate these toxic beliefs today, because I wouldn’t know any better.

And people need to know better. That is why I talk about biphobia.

Because bisexual people are not dirty, greedy, naturally promiscuous, or whatever a biphobic society that enforces these beliefs paints us as. We are people. We are people who want to find love as much as anyone else. The only difference between us and anyone else is that we have to live with these assumptions held against us, and people are not talking enough about that. And we deserve better than that.

Should LGBT+ Characters Be in Children’s Films?

In 2012, an animated children’s film called ParaNorman featured an openly gay character – a stereotypical jock character named Mitch Downe, who reveals his orientation at the end of the film when he says “You’re gonna love my boyfriend. He’s like a total chick-flick nut!” Also in 2012, an animated children’s television series called The Legend of Korra featured as its titular character and hero, Korra, a bisexual woman who shares a romance with another woman named Asami. And more recently, in 2017, the live action Disney film Beauty and the Beast featured an openly gay character in Lefou, the villain’s sidekick.

Slowly but surely, LGBT+ characters are making their appearance in children’s media, and people are fairly divided on the matter. On the one hand, we have those who support the idea, saying that children need to see LGBT+ people represented in media because LGBT+ people exist. Maybe the child in question will grow up to belong to the LGBT+ community, and if they do, then the process of coming to terms with themselves will be that much smoother if they have grown up feeling like they are valid and like they are allowed to exist. As a bisexual woman myself, I grew up seeing bisexual people in the media, but they were always represented as morally inferior, dirty, and incapable of fully loving or being loved, and so these were the ideas of bisexuality that I grew up with, and the ideas that I applied to myself when I began to realize what I was. Perhaps the process would have been a little bit easier for me if I had grown up watching The Legend of Korra. And if a child does not grow up to belong to the LGBT+ community, this type of media continues to be of use to them, because chances are, they are going to meet an LGBT+ person at some point in their lives, and this media normalizes this community for them. A gay boy is not “weird” or “effeminate”; he’s just like Lefou.

But then again, on the other hand, we have the people who are opposed to LGBT+ people appearing in children’s media, and this is the perspective that I want to speak to. For the most part, the argument that I hear to support this perspective is that, if children are surrounded from a young age by LGBT+ people, then this will lead them to become LGBT+ when they grow up.

There are two things that I want to state toward this: first of all, being surrounded by a particular sexual orientation at a young age does not influence your future sexual orientation. Both of my parents identify as straight, most of the couples that I saw in movies and television  were straight, all of my friends’ parents growing up were straight, and I still wound up being bisexual, and I imagine that this is the case for most LGBT+ people. The majority of people identify as heterosexual, and more than that, the heterosexual narrative is the one that is most focused on in our society. So why would a child who would identify as straight have their orientation changed because there was a queer couple in their favourite movie growing up?

But even saying that, I’m going to continue on to make a somewhat contradictory statement here: maybe it will influence them a little bit, and maybe that’s okay. I’m not saying that a child who would have otherwise grown up to be a completely heterosexual, totally masculine cis-gendered manly man will now be a homosexual drag queen because he grew up watching ParaNorman (I mean, if he did, that would be awesome too), but maybe he’ll grow up to be a little bit more open, a bit more fluid with his identity. Maybe he’ll question gender roles a little bit. Maybe, if he does feel even the slightest crush on someone of his own gender, he won’t be ashamed to pursue it, even experiment if he wants to. Or at the very least, maybe he will support LGBT+ people, when he could have hurt and bullied them otherwise. And what’s wrong with any of that?

To say that you don’t want children watching media with LGBT+ characters in it because it might make them grow up to become LGBT+ implies that there is something wrong with that. It makes it sound like growing up to become LGBT+ is a) a choice that people make at some point in their development and b) a wrong choice. It is a mistake that must be avoided, and that just isn’t true. There is nothing wrong with growing up to enter into the LGBT+ community, and there is nothing wrong with learning more about the world around you, and there is nothing wrong with experimenting with and questioning your identity. And although I say this, I know that there are people who are going to disagree with me, and there are going to be people who continue to keep their children at home when the newest animated film comes to theatres featuring an LGBT+ character, but personally, I think that’s a shame, and specifically, it’s a shame for the children in question. Films that are willing to tell the stories of LGBT+ characters are offering children a gift: the gift of understanding and open-mindedness, the gift of questioning and learning about the world around them and the identity within them. This is a gift that should continue to be given, and it is a gift that I wish everyone could experience.

Bi Erasure in Disney’s Live Action Mulan

Growing up, I watched the 1998 Disney classic Mulan a lot. Mostly because it was my sister’s favourite Disney movie, but over time, I began to gain appreciation for it as well. The animation is truly stunning, the songs are incredibly fun, the subject matter is impressively brave, and come on guys, for a cartoon character, Li Shang is pretty hot.

So when I heard that Disney was going to make a live action adaption of Mulan, I was really excited. I felt that the Chinese setting would lend itself to some truly stunning visuals and Disney always takes advantage of that, and the story is a very important one that should be told again. Along the way, a few things sprung up to try and deter my excitement: there was speculation that the film would be whitewashed, but I had faith in Disney to prove that speculation wrong, and fortunately enough, they did. There was the announcement that the amazing songs, the songs that I grew up with and loved, would not be in the film, but you know what, I understood that choice. It was a different adaption, and it does need to be taken in a different direction to be a successful film.

But the third time’s the charm, because it only just now came to my attention that Li Shang will not be included in the live action adaption. Instead, he will be replaced by another character named Chen Honghui.

Now why would this bother me so much? After all, from everything we can tell so far, Chen Honghui will play a very similar role to Shang, being Mulan’s love interest, and it’s not really like Shang was all that integral to the plot of the original that he absolutely needs to be repeated. And, yes, I have fond memories of singing along to I’ll Make a Man Out of You and realizing that Shang is actually kind of hot, but since there’s not going to be any songs in the film, I already know that that experience won’t be repeated anyway. So why get upset? Why does it matter?

Well, it matters because of the speculated reason that Disney has for replacing Shang.

Let’s get this straight right off the bat: Disney has not officially released an explanation for replacing Shang, but there has been speculation, and from where I am, it does look bad. Because, you see, since the original movie’s release in 1998, Shang has somewhat gained a reputation (especially amongst the LGBT+ crowd) for being Disney’s first bisexual character, mostly because he may or may not have started developing feelings for Mulan when he thought she was a man. Whether or not Shang is intended to be interpreted as bisexual by the writers is difficult to say, as no actual statement has been made by Disney at any point, but does that really matter? So long as the audience keeps believing that it’s true, and there is evidence in the film to support it, then for all intents and purposes, Shang is Disney’s first bisexual character. Which is awesome.

And I know what you’re thinking: that’s an awfully big leap to make, implying that Shang is being replaced because he was interpreted as bisexual. There could have been a million reasons for the choice, because his character was much more than just a speculated sexual orientation. Except Disney has said very little about this Chen Honghui fellow besides the fact that he will serve as Mulan’s adversary up until the point where he realizes that she’s a woman.

Okay, first off, correct me if I’m wrong (I don’t understand you weird people attracted to a single gender), but isn’t disliking someone up until you realize you can fuck them kind of skeezy? And secondly, that makes the replacement of Shang look really bad. Because as far as we know at this point, Chen Honghui will be the exact same character as Shang, with two alterations: his name (unimportant) and the question of whether or not he developed feelings for Mulan when he thought that she was a man (hugely important). It takes away the possible interpretation that Shang could be bisexual. It reassures the biphobic audience that, don’t worry, there’s no gay stuff going on here. Just heterosexual dude-bros doing their heterosexual dude-bro thing right up until, oh look, a woman! Better drop all that aggressive testosterone and turn it into lady-pleasing testosterone.

And as I have implied earlier in this article, I want to have the most faith in Disney possible. Their most recent film, the live action adaption of Beauty and the Beast, featured their first openly gay character, and I was all gung-ho about supporting them for it. But Shang is a bigger and more important character than Lefou. It is more significant for little boys growing up bisexual to watch a film where there is a man who is represented as masculine and desirable, and yet he is still bisexual, and that doesn’t take away from his ability to find love and help save China. Lefou was a tiny step forward for Disney, but replacing Shang with a character who we are assured is 100%, totally heterosexual is a giant leap back.

And maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. At this point, production for the live action adaption of Mulan is still in its early stages, and most of what I’m going off of here is speculation. But let’s just hope that Disney proves me wrong and gives me a film with both a badass female warrior and her openly bisexual boyfriend.