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.

Advertisements

Why I Love Fantasy

“It seems as though there needs to be a monster in a story for you to like it.”

I remember being told this a few years ago, and at the time I felt the need to deny it. Because there are, in fact, many stories that I enjoy that don’t have monsters or creatures or magic in them. I like a lot of realistic fiction just fine, but when I think about the stories that I love, the ones that I, as a writer, want to emulate and would die of joy if I was even just compared to, they’re always fantasy stories.

I love fantasy stories. I love myths, legends, and fairy tales. I love Victorian Gothic novels, like Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Shelley’s Frankenstein. I love the classic works of fantasy, like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. I love fantasy novels, short works of fantasy, fantasy films, fantasy television, fantasy comics, fantasy video games. I love Star Wars, Star Trek, Disney films, Marvel, DC, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – whatever medium fantasy comes in, I love it.

And the strange thing about fantasy is that it seems to get a bit of a bad name. Not from everybody, of course – some people have more tolerance for it than others, but there are still some that will scoff at my fantasy obsession and think of it as lowly, unintelligent, a waste of time when I could be indulging in more realistic works. But the more time I spend exploring fantasy, the more I disagree.

Fantasy, as we all know, is a genre dependant on imagination. The only limits to fantasy are how far one can extend their mind. But, at the same time, fantasy doesn’t just come from nothing. A lot of fantasy stories are dependant upon the context of culture and mythology to inform them – and there’s no limit to the mythologies that they can borrow from. They can borrow from Norse mythology, Greek mythology, middle eastern mythology, Arthurian legends, pagan superstition, the Bible – they can sift through all of this, choose what suits their needs and they can make these things exist alongside one another. For this, I would argue that fantasy is actually a highly intelligent genre, continuing to teach people about ancient beliefs and mythologies.

Or, they can choose to ignore all of this background (which is also a perfectly valid choice) and they can instead choose to defamiliarize the world in which they live – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a very good example of this, taking the Victorian society of Lewis Carroll and turning it into something insane, something just barely recognizable, and therefore, satirizing it. It forces the reader to look at the things around them from a different angle. Something as mundane and constant as the lessons upper class Victorian girls were forced to repeat suddenly become ridiculous and not very useful when placed in the context of the fantastical world known as Wonderland.

And then there’s the ways in which fantasy writers place their own experiences into their work. Tolkien, for example, spent a lot of Lord of the Rings reflecting on his experiences living through World War Two. J.K. Rowling used Harry Potter as a vehicle to come to terms with her mother’s death. And only recently, Howard Ashman, one of the writers to have worked prominently on Disney’s original 1991 Beauty and the Beast, was in the news because it was revealed that he saw the Beast’s curse as a metaphor for AIDs. All of these examples are real, human issues – so big that it’s very difficult to actually put them into words, but nonetheless, they found a way to properly convey them through fantasy, and in my opinion, it doesn’t take anything away that these issues are being vocalized through hobbits, wizards, and beasts.

Fantasy forces people to open their minds and put aside their biases. Think about Harry Potter’s Professor Lupin – another character who was written as a metaphor for someone suffering from AIDs. Going into the story, one might have their own preconceived notions about someone with AIDs – they might think that they’re dirty, that they’re sick because of their own doing (I feel uncomfortable lingering on this, but you get the idea). They might be too quick to dismiss a character who is introduced, right off the bat, as someone with AIDs. But the thing is, Lupin is not a man with AIDs. Lupin is a werewolf who has been forced to live in near-poverty, shunned by society because of it. And most people don’t have preconceived biases against werewolves, so of course they sympathize for Lupin. And maybe once they find out what his character is intended to be read as a metaphor for, they might reflect on their own opinions about people with AIDs and how they are treated by society.

Fantasy forces people to consider others’ perspectives. If you can easily understand the perspective of a wizard, a hobbit, a prophesied hero – three things that you will never be – then why wouldn’t you be able to understand the perspective of someone of a different gender, or race, or sexual orientation?

Fantasy teaches people about the world around them – not by representing it exactly as it is, but by discussing its issues in a context where you’re mind is free, where you aren’t grounded by reality. Fantasy makes you think that anything could be possible – maybe not dragons and sorcerers, but at least bravery and standing up for what’s right. Fantasy is an open genre, one that you can take anything to. Fantasy is not just one thing.