We Will Keep Her Safe

This comic was drawn by FungiiDraws (@fungiiyells on Twitter) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

One of the things I love about the worldbuilding in the Legend of Zelda games is how gorgeously Gothic it is. Monsters and captive princesses and buried secrets, oh my! This comic isn’t just about castle spires and demon lovers and enchanted princesses, however; I also wanted to explore the troubled gender and racial politics of the Zelda series and make a statement about how the exclusionary prejudices that create monsters and damsels are hidden but ever-present in the legends that make heroes.

Ganondorf, Villainy, Race, and Fandom

Despite a few occasional bouts of drama, I love the Legend of Zelda fandom, and the only real unpleasantness I’ve encountered has had to do with Ganondorf. I want to talk about this briefly, because I think it’s representative of an alarming tendency in fandom as a whole.

The United States is in a strange and difficult place right now. It’s been like this for as long as anyone can remember, but the current presidential administration has brought some very ugly sentiments right out in the open. It was never particularly easy to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country, but since 2015 or so the violence of the rhetoric of prejudice has been omnipresent and overwhelming. We now have, for example, black women whose children were effectively lynched being subjected to all manner of humiliation and abuse for speaking out against police violence even as a mainstream presidential candidate won voters by belittling the Muslim family of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.

This is just one of the myriad reasons why many of us are very sensitive to expressions of hatred against ethnic and racial minorities. Some people may feel confident in saying that ethnic stereotypes exist for a reason and that they don’t understand why people get upset over certain depictions of fictional characters, and I think it’s important to point out that not everyone who feels this way is (or identifies as) white. Fandom is supposed to be fun, after all, and no one wants to feel as if they’re being given a lecture when all they want to do is talk about video games.

I completely understand the desire to make fandom a politics-free zone, but I also think fandom should be large enough to accommodate multiple views and approaches. When it comes to Ganondorf specifically, I think there should be room for both silly jokes and serious analysis. On one hand, how ridiculous is the fact that Ganondorf built himself a giant murder castle in Ocarina of Time? On the other hand, how is Ganondorf’s intense love/hate relationship with Hyrule representative of the legacy of colonial ideologies both within the game and in the real world?

Ganondorf is clearly a villain in the Legend of Zelda universe. There are people in the Zelda fandom who love Ganondorf because he’s a charismatic and fascinating character, and there are also people in the Zelda fandom who hate Ganondorf because he’s just not a very nice person, to put it mildly. Both receptions of the character are totally understandable and valid.

The complication that arises with Ganondorf is that he is demonized according to real-world patterns of white supremacy, one of which is the common narrative that holds that “the Evil Barbaric Dark-Skinned Oriental Other” must be defeated by the virtuous heroes of a holy empire. Accordingly, the trouble I’ve experienced with fandom is that it can be easy for people to inadvertently slip into projecting negative racial and ethnic stereotypes onto the fictional world of the games.

Like men of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent in the real world, Ganondorf is portrayed in a number of fanworks as unintelligent, bestial, violent, and incapable of human emotion. This is a gross oversimplification of how Ganondorf is canonically characterized in the games, but there are powerful cultural forces in our own societies that attempt to ensure that many of us become invested in the narrative of “the Brutal Evil Dark Man” to such an extent that we replicate it without intending to. Because of the nature of the narratives of the Zelda games themselves, in which Ganondorf is portrayed with very little sympathy, dealing with the character is always going to be tricky. This is why there needs to be a multiplicity of voices both addressing these issues. For example, what does it mean that Ganondorf is imprisoned without a trial in Twilight Princess? Meanwhile, it’s equally worthwhile to make silly jokes and shitposts about the character; because let’s be real, you can bounce a quarter off that man’s leotard-clad ass. In other words, there needs to be room in fandom for humor and smut and serious analytical meta essays and silliness.

Unfortunately, Tumblr-based fandom has become so polarized that this sort of exchange is almost impossible. On one side of Tumblr are people who insist on ideological purity, and on the other side are people with good intentions who nevertheless feel alienated by “The Discourse,” an expression that refers to an incendiary argument that something or someone is “problematic.” What this means in practical terms is that, while one side of Tumblr is quick to attack anyone who engages with a “problematic” character like Ganondorf, the other side of Tumblr has come to ostracize anyone who’s interested in a more nuanced critique of popular media.

What’s happened within the specific context of Zelda fandom, then, is that many people will only draw and write about and reblog work featuring the light-skinned protagonists, while many of the people who are interested in the darker-skinned antagonists are surprisingly tolerant of what would generally be considered borderline racist representations in any other context. It’s not that any one approach to a character like Ganondorf is upsetting in and of itself, as it’s only natural that different people participate in fandom for different reasons, but rather that the aggressive refusal to consider or even acknowledge the validity of alternative opinions and perspectives can make the Zelda fandom a very weird and uncomfortable place to be sometimes.

To minimize potential confusion, I’d like to clarify the points I’m making about race and villainy:

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are not good people.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who do bad things and make mistakes and gradually grow and change.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are irredeemably evil.

Let racial and ethnic minorities be villains! While you’re at it, let women and LGBTQ+ people and neuordivergent people and differently abled people be villains! Villains are great!

However:

IT IS NOT OKAY for a large multinational corporation to tell stories about how everything that is or has ever been bad in the world is the fault of one person whom we are supposed to know is evil because he is the only person in the story with dark skin.

Likewise, IT IS NOT OKAY for fans to tell stories that purposefully reproduce overt white supremacy in their portrayal of dark-skinned characters. For example, it’s not okay for fans to tell stories about how a dark-skinned character is “saved” by light-skinned people who teach him that his cultural heritage is bad so that he can be fully integrated into the “good” culture of the light-skinned majority ethnicity, or for a dark-skinned character to redeem himself by learning to apologize to representatives of the light-skinned ethnicity for his anger regarding the slavery and genocide of his people.

In other words, it’s totally normal to have a character who is a villain with dark skin, because expecting characters with dark skin to be perfect while denying them the full range of human experience and emotion is a ridiculous and counterproductive way to approach representations of racial and ethnic difference. That being said, it’s weird and gross to have a character who is a villain BECAUSE he has dark skin.

I’m excited that the recent Breath of the Wild sequel trailer has inspired a renewed appreciation for Ganondorf. It’s my hope that, while fans are enjoying the design and storytelling potential of a fun and interesting character, they’re also able to engage in critical discussions of the politics and ideology of the Zelda series without the conversation devolving into an exclusionary black-and-white mentality. The real-world implications of video game ideologies are multifaceted and complicated, and it’s important for these issues to be discussed outside of academia. Transnational fandom cultures are a perfect place for a wealth of diverse perspectives to come together, which is why I’d like to advocate for a better tolerance of a multiplicity of fanworks and opinions, as well as gentle and nuanced pushback that doesn’t take the form of death threats, bullying, or other forms of harassment.

1,000 Words at a Time

How I turned an idea into an outline
https://bookishdiplodocus.tumblr.com/post/178570150561/how-i-turned-an-idea-into-an-outline

Then I calculated how many scenes I need in which part of the story. My WIP is a YA or 12+ book, so I want it to contain about 75,000 words in total. I want my scenes to be around 1,000 words long to keep it snappy, so I need 75 scenes.

This is an interesting and useful post about how to plot a novel, and I appreciate that it succinctly cuts through the bullshit of so many mainstream writing guides that are often treated as one-size-fits-all industry standards. I tend to structure my plots a bit differently than the method suggested in this essay, but it’s still helpful to think of a huge project like writing a novel as “75 chunks of 1,000 words, give or take.” What this set of numbers means is that, if I can write a thousand words in a week, which is absolutely doable for me, then I can have the first draft of a novel finished in about a year and a half. Nice!

As an aside, I’m going to have to admit that I find the obsession with wordcounts a bit ridiculous. I understand that wordcounts help writers keep track of the progress they’re making, but it bothers me when it’s taken for granted that wordcount defines genre. What I love about literary fiction, as well as fiction published outside the United States, is that it defies the unwritten rule that something needs to be a certain number of words or pages in order to have market value. I actually really enjoy novellas and longer stories and essays that don’t fit into neat American categories! I resent the expectation that a manuscript needs to weigh in at 130,000 words in order to be taken seriously, but I can start evaluating the market once I have something to sell. Until then, I might as well enjoy myself without worrying too much.

It Was Fun While It Lasted

“The Linux of social media” — How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging
https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2019/01/the-linux-of-social-media-how-livejournal-pioneered-then-lost-web-blogging/

But perhaps there’s no better microcosm for LiveJournal’s epic journey than the blog that belonged to the man behind Game of Thrones. Even though George R.R. Martin managed to hang out for a decade after the site’s initial downfall, nothing in particular seemed to trigger his 2018 move to a personal site. No fanfare accompanied it, just a brief message from one of the fantasist’s “minions.” Such is the nature of the erosion of our once-beloved digital spaces: there’s none of the collapsed majesty of a physical space like an abandoned castle, ivy threading its way through the crumbling latticework. Instead, LiveJournal moves forward as an aging pile of code, one day potentially rendered obsolete by something newer and better and remembered by those who lost countless hours to rigging it up in the first place.

The passage I quoted above is the conclusion to a wonderful essay about the rise and fall of LiveJournal and the creation of Dreamwidth. This is a bit narcissistic, but it always makes me happy to see people writing substantial articles about things that actually mean something to me personally. LiveJournal used to be a big deal to a lot of people, but I often get the impression that not even that many professional Media Studies scholars know what it was or how it nourished and enabled online cultures that have since become mainstream. Then again, the platform died almost ten years ago, and perhaps there are always going to cultural black holes like LiveJournal that exert a huge gravitational influence even though most people can’t see or measure them.

Left Behind

This comic was drawn by Moonjelly Creations (@moonjellybeans on Twitter) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

I’m really interested in the relationship between Ganondorf and Tetra in The Wind Waker. While Link’s journey is full of light and laughter and discovery and growth, both Tetra and Ganondorf are associated with some fairly dark themes. They’re also literally in the dark in Hyrule Castle, which has lain dormant for centuries under the Great Sea. The Gothic creepiness of this scenario is fascinating, and I love how both Tetra and Ganondorf are painfully human even as they represent mythical forces that are much larger than themselves.

Support Writers!

“I don’t like that no one has written about this” has the potential to be super offensive. The chances are that someone most definitely has published writing on the topic, but the person making this statement hasn’t bothered to look for it.

I see this all the time in academic essays that I peer review. The author will claim that “there has not yet been any serious writing on this topic,” either having failed to do their research or thinking it’s somehow okay to dismiss prior research without reading it.

Along the same lines, “members of [minority group] never get published” is incredibly hurtful to writers who have gone through the arduous process of publishing only for their existence to be denied by people who would rather perform outrage than seek out and promote their work.

Support emerging writers!
Support lesser-known writers!
Support marginalized writers!
Support writers!!!

The Captain-Planet-Official Problem

I’ve been open about my distaste for “call-out” and “canceling” culture within left-leaning spaces on social media. My overarching point is that people shouldn’t be harassed online, especially not for stupid shit that doesn’t matter.

I’m going to put it out there, however, that sometimes people do in fact need to be shut down. Figuring out where to draw the line between “something you don’t like that isn’t hurting anyone” and “a toxic asshole who can just be blocked and ignored” and “a serious problem that is affecting far more than a tiny online community” isn’t always easy, however. There’s a lot of moral gray area here, and I think it’s worth talking about.

In my experience, one of the main issues that comes up during these discussions is something I’m going to call “the Captain-Planet-Official Problem” after an ecofascist blog on Tumblr that was extremely popular in relatively mainstream circles before it got shut down. The problem is this, basically: A lot of alt-right gateway accounts are popular because they’re funny, relatable, friendly, kind, and filled with memes that most reasonable people will find silly and inoffensive.

If you’re unfamiliar with ecofascism, its message is more or less “save the planet by getting rid of all the brown people.” This is often couched in terms of “controlling invasive species that are threatening native plants and wildlife,” and it’s connected to the tendency of various “European identity movements” to celebrate the natural beauty and “environmental heritage” of places like Germany and England. There’s often a superficial level of anti-capitalism accompanying this messaging, like, “What if this beautiful landscape were bought and destroyed by global capitalists?” In this case, “global capitalists” usually means “Jewish people,” but I’ve also seen it applied to “Asian people,” with no attempt to differentiate between people from various East Asian and South Asian countries, obviously.

Left-leaning communities in social media spaces love the environment and hate capitalism, which is fair. What this means is that, if some well-meaning person sees a random post from a blog with a catchy username like Captain-Planet-Official about how capitalism destroys the environment, they probably won’t think twice about reblogging it. Maybe they, or one of their followers, might even go to the Captain-Planet-Official blog, which (based on the screencaps I’ve seen) had a lot of clever shitposts and a charming and active moderator. If they decide to subscribe to this blog, they’ll probably realize soon enough that there’s a disturbing current of white supremacy underlying the memes.

At this point, one of three things will happen. Some people will unfollow the blog and resolve to be more careful in the future. Some people might have gotten a taste of the Kool-Aid (or red pill, or whatever) and decide that they like it and want to pursue it farther into some of the more overtly right-wing blogs that regularly interact with Captain-Planet-Official. Most people, however, will decide that it’s just Tumblr or Twitter or Reddit or Imgur and therefore doesn’t really matter. This latter group of people is willing to put up with occasional messaging about “invasive species,” which they might not understand or even see if they’re not familiar with that specific type of coded dog-whistle political language or just don’t spend that much time on social media.

The people who are interested in the white supremacist messaging will probably only be a tiny minority, but those people are out there, and I’m willing to bet that there are actually a lot of them in the left-wing spaces occupied by their peers. They feel increasingly alienated, but they’re also like, “I’m not a literal Nazi,” so they won’t enter clearly marked right-wing spaces directly. For people like this, something like Captain-Planet-Official is a gateway; and, the wider the gateway – the more people who promote it by reblogging its more inoffensive posts – the more people who will end up passing through it.

(By the way, this is a post with screencaps of a good collection of tweets about how these gateways work.)

Obviously there’s something unpleasant going on with left-wing spaces that alienate certain subsets of people so much that they’re driven to white supremacy or men’s rights activism or whatever Breitbart is going on about these days, but that’s an unpopular conversation to have for many (extremely valid) reasons. It’s also highly likely that a baby cryptofascist would have found their way into the alt-right anyway, even if they didn’t encounter Captain-Planet-Official on Tumblr. So why bother doing or saying anything about Captain-Planet-Official? They’re not aggressively hurting anyone, and they’re probably doing more good than harm in the way by spreading awareness of environmental issues and helping vocalize resistance against capitalism. Right?

So this is the problem: How do you explain that what a blog like Captain-Planet-Official is doing is a completely different type and level of “problematic” than a blog that celebrates an imagined romantic relationship between two fictional characters? And are you going to send a message to everyone you follow who reblogs a popular post from that blog? And if one of these people tells you that they don’t care, because it’s just a stupid meme on Tumblr and doesn’t matter, are you going to unfollow them? And if you unfollow them, what are you going to say to the other people in your fandom who still follow them? That they shouldn’t interact with them because they don’t take white supremacy seriously? Because they reblogged a Captain Planet meme about protecting the environment by fighting capitalism?

I should mention that this goes for radical left-wing messaging as well, especially when it comes to TERFs who use catchy feminist slogans to promote homophobic and exclusionary rhetoric and ideology. “How dare you say that protecting women’s rights and reblogging pride flags is bad” works in exactly the same way as “How dare you say that protecting the environment and reblogging cute animal pictures is bad.”

In any case, I don’t think the answer is necessarily to appeal to the powers that be to shut a particular blog down. As the Tumblr “flagged posts” debacle proved last December, there’s a lot of potential for abuse and basic ignorance when distant authorities are invoked, so it’s in the best interests of a community to figure out how to handle problems like Captain-Planet-Official on their own. Deciding where the line is between the normal stupid bullshit that happens on social media and something that’s genuinely scary isn’t always as easy as it is with Captain-Planet-Official, nor is it always easy to tell when someone has crossed that line and isn’t coming back. This is why I wish left-leaning communities would stop devoting so much energy to inane ship wars (Will Rey and Kylo Ren kiss? Who cares??) and start using the principles of social justice to figure out what to do about the promotion of dangerous ideologies that’s happening in the real world right in front of them.