Gaslighting, Therapy, and Fanfic

Gaslighting is the process of attempting to convince someone that their accurate perception of a situation is incorrect; and, moreover, that there is something wrong with them personally for having perceived the situation in this way.

Based on what I’ve seen, a lot of the disagreement over this definition has to do with how many people need to be involved in order to a situation to be “gaslighting” and not “abusive behavior” or simply “being an asshole.” For example, if Person A says “There’s a strange smell coming from the kitchen” and Person B says “No there’s not, you’re just crazy,” then that’s probably not gaslighting. I would contend, however, that there is so much atmospheric discrimination against certain groups of people that even an isolated “you’re just overreacting” contributes to a broader system of systematic gaslighting. As a result of this atmospheric gaslighting, some people from marginalized positions can feel that there’s something inherently wrong with their point of view, especially during times of stress and vulnerability.

So there’s this thing that many American therapists do, which is to try to gently lead a patient to arriving at a revelation on their own, generally over the course of several sessions. I understand the theory behind this, but I still hate it.

I’m going to give a personal example. I was in a toxic relationship for more than a year when I was in college. I feel as though I’ve been conditioned to claim partial responsibility and say something like “the abuse went both ways,” but that wasn’t really what was going on. Essentially, the boy I was dating would be a disgusting assclown until I snapped and reacted, at which everything that was wrong with the relationship would be my fault because I got upset. I had never been in that sort of unhealthy relationship with anyone before, and I otherwise got along with most people really well, so I had no idea what was going on. I therefore went to a therapist and told her, in so many words, that I was “forcing” my boyfriend to abuse me verbally and physically, and that I needed her to help me figure out what it was about me that compelled him to hurt me.

If a scared teenager came to me and said this, my first response would be, in no uncertain terms, “Honey, you need to get out of there, because no one should be assaulting you for any reason. We can talk about this for as long as you want later, but you are in real danger and right now you need to get out.” What my therapist – and then another therapist – and then another therapist – said to me, however, was “Well, what do you think is wrong with you? Why do you think he hits you and calls you a dumb cunt?”

Even if this sort of thing isn’t technically gaslighting, it still feeds into the pervasive social narrative that teenage girls are crazy and irrational and deserve whatever happens to them if they don’t follow all of the contradictory “rules” about dating and relationships. Between one thing and another, I had never found a safe space where I could talk to other people my age about real relationships without being judged or losing face, which is why I didn’t immediately jump to the obvious conclusion that the reason why a boy would want to physically strike anyone is a conversation that needs to happen between him and his therapist.

Around this time I got on LiveJournal and discovered fic. What this meant is that suddenly I was exposed to all sorts of models of romantic and sexual relationships, and this was when I started to understand what was going on in my life. It’s not so much that the fic I was reading was explicitly like “this is what a healthy relationship looks like” or “this is what abuse looks like,” because Lord knows the BDSM Sailor Moon and Trigun femslash I was reading did not get even remotely close to that sort of thing. Rather, what I got from reading and discussing and eventually writing fic was that women’s stories are valid, and young women’s stories are valid, and queer women’s stories are valid, and nonbinary female-presenting people’s stories are valid. No matter how transgressive the fic or meta you wrote may have been, it was no less worthy of being taken seriously because you specifically wrote it.

That sense of “being valid” and “being taken seriously” is, in my opinion, an effective antidote to gaslighting. I don’t think fandom is or ever was inherently an activist space or even a safe space, but I do think it’s a place where a lot of female and transgender and nonbinary people first get the sense that it’s okay for them to exist in the world as themselves, no matter how weird or strange or non-normative or queer they might be.

I think this is one of the main reasons why the purity culture of anti-fandom bothers me so much. If people are only supposed to write “pure” relationships – or even, to take this a step farther, if they’re supposed to be so pre-enlightened about social justice that they need to tag everything they write with all applicable content warnings – then that’s tantamount to being told that they need to police themselves at all times in fandom, just as in real life. In addition, because the rules about “safe shipping” are so arbitrary and contradictory, this feels very much like the same sort of “Well, what do you think is wrong with you?” nonsense I got in therapy as a teenager (and then later, when I tried therapy again at several points as an adult).

If we can call fandom a safe space, and if we can think of fandom as an activist space, I think that’s because it’s a space where the voices of people who are so often silenced, marginalized, and discounted in the real world are allowed free expression. In this sense, a sentiment such as “don’t like, don’t read” can be a powerful and almost politically transformative expression of tolerance and empathy.

By the way, I get that not all therapists are incompetent jerks. Many of them are, though, and finding one of the good ones (who also happens to be a good fit for any given client) is not just a difficult and time-consuming process but also a community effort in many cases. I don’t want to suggest that fanfic is an alternative to therapy… but it sure is a hell of a lot cheaper.

The Bangaa in Final Fantasy XII

As I’ve been playing the PS4 HD remastered version of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, I’ve been following along with the Tumblr-based playthrough of Livvy Plays Final Fantasy, a writer I’ve admired for years. As I’ve been reading Livvy’s commentary, one post in particular resonated with my thoughts about diversity and representation in Final Fantasy XII:

Every now and then, someone asks me what I think of XII’s portrayal of the viera.
http://livvyplaysfinalfantasy.tumblr.com/post/55999684383/every-now-and-then-someone-asks-me-what-i-think

We also see that while XII’s viera NPCs all look pretty much the same, they are all very much unique in their thoughts and behaviors. Some are contemplative, some are brash. Some are hunters, some forsake battle completely. No two viera NPCs are the same, something that cannot be said of XII’s bangaa, seeq, or nu mou. In terms of personality, the viera receive better representation than most of Ivalice’s other races.

I personally take issue with the notion that Fran, Jote, and Mjrn can’t be “strong female characters” because their designs contain fanservice. Their plot arc is one of the greatest stories of love and sacrifice in the game, and they make up one of the best portrayals of a sisterly relationship in the Final Fantasy series.

I understand the need to acknowledge problematic elements in fictional media, but there’s a huge difference between acknowledging problematic elements in female characters and telling other people what they are and are not allowed to like.

These are good points all around; but, as an ardent bangaa appreciator, I’d like to argue that there’s actually a lot of diversity in the bangaa characters as well. Although I assume most players don’t have any reason to notice this, there’s a wide range of visual designs used for bangaa NPCs (although, unlike humes, we never see any bangaa children or older bangaa except Migelo). Like the humes, the bangaa NPC have a range of personalities and occupations. Ba’Gamnan and his crew are mercenaries, and the Hunt Club on the Phon Coast is run by four bangaa, but otherwise the bangaa are merchants and traders and architects and day laborers and clerks, just as humes are. A bangaa in Nalbina tells Vaan that the Archadian army only accepts hume recruits, and there are no bangaa on the streets or in the shops of Archades, but there’s a one-to-one ratio of bangaa to hume NPCs in Rabanastre, Bhujerba, and various other areas, and nothing except their appearance indicates that they’re bangaa. Bangaa work together with and hang out with humes and seeq and moogles in groups and in pairs, and this is a part of the visual and social landscape of the game that is never addressed or commented on by anyone.

One of my favorite bangaa characters is Barrong, who posts the bill for “The Creature Collector” hunt. He’s hanging in an alley next to the entrance to Aerodrome in Nalbina and muttering to himself, and the player is meant to think that he’s a creeper until he explains himself. He’s working on an illustrated bestiary, he says, but he wants the book he’s creating to be different and special, so he’s hiring hunters to track down creatures he’s heard rumors about. He’s afraid that people will make fun of him, though, so he wants to keep his pet project a secret. When Vaan returns to report that the hunt was successful, Barrong gets excited and asks all sorts of questions – which none of the other bill petitioners ever do, oddly. At the end of the conversation, Jovy (a seeq who was friendly with Vaan’s older brother Reks) comes by and wishes Barrong luck, telling him that his bestiary will be wonderful when it’s done. Since completing the bestiary in the Clan Primer is always one of my main goal in Final Fantasy XII, and since I love bestiaries in general, I am right there with Barrong, and I appreciate that he’s willing to be proactive and collaborate with people to achieve his artistic dreams despite being really shy.

I also appreciate Rimzat, the Arcadian grad student who was sent to Rabanastre to to study the sandstorms of the Dalmascan Westersands. Apparently he can’t get anyone to help him not because he’s a bangaa, but rather because he speaks with an Arcadian accent. Ultimately he has to go back home when his funding runs out, and I’m like, I know that feel friend.

There’s obviously much more to be said about how diversity is portrayed in the world of Final Fantasy XII, but I want to stick up for the bangaa, who are some of the most interesting and compelling NPCs in a game filled with wonderful NPC-related side stories.

The First Day of Class

The worst campus interview I ever had was at Michigan State University, which is located in the sad city of East Lansing, Michigan. I was living in Indiana at the time, and I made an executive decision to drive through a snowstorm (instead of flying through a snowstorm) to get there. Despite leaving as early as I possibly could, I still arrived at the scheduled welcome dinner 45 minutes late, and the search committee was not happy with me. Things went downhill from there.

I made it through the three-day dog and pony show of the campus interview by telling myself that there was a comic book store in East Lansing that I would visit once everything was over. MSU has a strong Visual Arts program, and the university library also has the largest collection of zines in the United States. Many comic book stores sell zines created by the local community, and I was excited to see what sort of cool things the store right next to MSU would have.

So after a great deal of misery this awful, harrowing process is finished, and the last lunch has filled me with so much anxiety that I spend a good fifteen minutes crying in the restaurant bathroom after everyone else has left, but finally I can go to the comic book store. I get there, and it turns out to be a small box of a room with stained carpet and fluorescent lighting and a few cheap particleboard bookshelves from Target displaying a depressing collection of the most mass-market graphic novels you can think of, like, The Complete Far Side and the first five volumes of Naruto.

Thinking that it’s rude to walk in only to then immediately walk out again, I go to one of the shelves and pretend to look at the titles. I start counting in my head, like, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” reasoning that maybe it will be okay to leave after three minutes. I pick up Watchmen or something, and I begin to zone out, replaying some particularly mean thing someone said to me during the interview or some idiotic and cringeworthy thing I said in response, and then the store clerk comes up to me.

“Do you need any help?” she asks.

“No,” I reply, panicking. “I already have everything in the store.”

She looks at me, and I look at her, and then I suddenly become aware that I smell like I just spent fifteen minutes crying in a restaurant bathroom, and I put down the book I’m holding and walk right out the door. I already have everything in the store. I wonder if she still tells people that story sometimes, you know?

Anyway, sometimes I get nervous about the first day of class, but it’s comforting to know that at least it won’t be as awkward as this one exchange I had with a clerk in the comic book store of East Lansing, Michigan.

Video Games and Japan

This semester I’m teaching a class about The Wind Waker! I commissioned the artist Visi Herman (@visicolors on Instagram) to create the image above to use on promotional posters and flyers, which I hope to use to try to nudge the GMU Game Design program into crosslisting my “Video Games and Japan” course in the future. If you’re interested, I’ve posted a syllabus for this semester’s class here:

https://kathrynhemmann.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/japa-370-syllabus-spring-2019.pdf

The Backlash Against Tidying Up with Marie Kondo

If you’ve watched the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, then you can confirm that its appeal is a combination of three things: One, judging other people’s lives, two, psychoanalyzing other people’s damage, and three, Marie Kondo’s facial expressions. The first two are standard reality television, but the third is really special. I don’t say this ironically; Marie Kondo is an interesting person, and it’s a pleasure to watch her interact with people and move through space.

As far as I can tell, the reaction to the show on Twitter has been humorously nihilistic, like, “How do I throw myself away” and “The joke’s on you, Marie Kondo – I no longer know how to experience joy.” In print media, the running joke about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been that none of us can escape the awful capitalist hell we’ve trapped ourselves in, and not even Marie Kondo can save us now. (See, for example, this cartoon that ran two years ago in The New Yorker.) Also, some people have gotten passionate about not wanting to throw away their books, and other people have mocked them for their performative intellectualism, and this exchange has become a meme in and of itself.

And then, after two weeks of people having fun with a silly show on Netflix, other people started bringing race into the equation. If you watched the show, you’re racist. If you didn’t watch the show, you’re racist. If you make fun of Marie Kondo, you’re racist. If you respect and appreciate Marie Kondo, you’re racist. If you have no idea who Marie Kondo is but still insist on folding your shirts in a certain way, you’re racist and you don’t even know it.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up was originally published in translation in 2014 by Ten Speed Press, a small outfit in California that specializes in “healthy lifestyle” and crafting books. They have a good list of nonfiction and autobio comics as well; and, if you’ve ever seen one of those ridiculous “How to Draw Manga” books in a chain bookstore, they probably published it. The press commissions a lot of translations, and their scope is fairly international. When they put out their translation of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, they gave it the subtitle “The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” not because they were playing to some sort of “Oriental mysticism” but because there is a huge market for books like The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter and Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Essentially, people in the United States want to escape the awful capitalist hell we’ve created for ourselves, but we don’t want to give up our perceived standard of living, so we want people in other “developed” countries to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how to fix it.

I won’t deny that racism may play a part in this, because we live in a system of global white supremacy in which racism plays a part in everything, but what the publishing market has done is to group Japan with what I think it’s fair to call “fancy Europe,” which is problematic but not, I think, overtly racist. In the book itself, which is a translation of something originally published in 2010 in Japanese (人生がときめく片づけの魔法), Kondo does indeed talk to her Japanese readers about “ancient Japanese cleaning rituals.” Japanese writers have been doing this before America existed, however, and they will probably continue doing this after America fails. I therefore don’t think it’s fair to make American conceptions of Orientalism the center of a conversation about what’s going on there.

This is what bothers me so much about the application of American configurations of race to who Marie Kondo is and what she’s doing and how her work has been received – America is not the center of this particular transnational cultural phenomenon, and assuming its centrality is not “racist,” exactly, but extremely arrogant. Within the specific context of American conversations about the Netflix show on Twitter, there are so many different voices from so many different people that you would specifically have to go looking for white people being racist. They exist, obviously, but who does it benefit to treat their gross fringe options as the most important voices while ignoring everyone else?

Meanwhile, speaking of Japan-America relations, the nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project is still under St. Louis, and it’s still giving people cancer; and, if you care about such things, it’s still disproportionately affecting African-American communities. Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water, and we’re still imprisoning the children of refugees, and the federal government is still shut down because of a legitimately racist pissing match over a “border wall,” and… I mean, you know, everything. I feel that we’re all constantly under assault during the administration of POTUS45, and the sort of incessant angry buzzing noise generated by endless waves of thinkpiece articles about how some innocuous Netflix show might be covertly racist only makes everyone more exhausted without actually doing anything to help anyone.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t like the “Which One of Your Friends Is A Secret Racist?” game that I’ve seen (white) people play on social media. If the basis of judgment is liking a tweet of a round animal or watching a self-improvement Netflix miniseries on New Year’s Day, then we’re all racists; and, by implication, we’re all just as guilty as POTUS45 in making the world an awful place.

It’s like, then why even do anything, you know? Why even try.

The problem with an insistence on ideological purity is that it denies the existence of allies and punishes people who don’t have the resources to devote to following the minutiae of the social media conversations surrounding whatever cause or movement they’d like to support. This is especially upsetting at the current moment, as trying to help people affected by the administration is not some sort of abstract intellectual game, especially since so many of us are doing our best to stay afloat ourselves.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

I’m a fan of the Superbrothers OST because there was a period of my life that was more or less me listening to Basco’s Gamebient mix on loop, but I never played the actual game until it came out on Switch at the end of November.

It’s difficult to control and interact with, and the exploration elements feel wooden and perfunctory. I’ve played the first two (out of five, I think?) “sessions,” but I’m still not sure what this game wants or expects from me. I appreciate the cleverness of the writing, and I’m intrigued by the Zelda references, but this isn’t enough to keep me going.

I don’t think Superbrothers is for me. I’ll leave it on the system in case I get bored or ambitious later, but I’m going to give myself permission to quit playing it for the time being.

The soundtrack is still very good, though. I especially like the two-song sequence of “The Maelstorm” followed by “The Ballad Of The Space Babies,” which is a solid five minutes of focus and calm.

Monument Valley

I’ve been interested in Monument Valley for a while now, and I’m glad I finally sat down and played it. It’s actually much better than everyone says it is, but that’s probably because it’s difficult to describe what makes the game so good.

Monument Valley consists of ten stages, each of which will take most people about five minutes to play (except the first, which is very short, and the last, which can be very frustrating). I’ve heard this game criticized as being “easy,” but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s carefully designed to facilitate player engagement. Each level (again, except the first and the last) has a core mechanic, and the player is encouraged to learn the limits and potential of each mechanic in a guided yet natural way. My favorite stage is “Level VIII: The Box,” in which a cube can be opened, closed, rotated, and then opened again from a different perspective. This might sound complicated, but it isn’t; in fact, it’s nothing short of pure joy.

The story is hinted at in a few scattered text panels, and I’m not sure I have a good grasp of what’s going on, but here’s my interpretation: A human society used magical “sacred geometry” to create fantastic buildings (presumably in a valley?), but they fell into decline when their sacred geometry was stolen from them, and now all that remains are monuments haunted by flightless crow people. The player-character Ida is a princess who has been told that she will be given her crown only when she restores the sacred geometry to the monuments. As she does so, she begins to remember that she herself is a crow, and that it was the crow people who stole the sacred geometry from the humans. When she returns the last piece of the sacred geometry, the human curse on the crow people is lifted, and Ida and her people regain their wings and fly away. After spending the entire game forced to walk on linear paths along the surface of the monuments, the final animation of free flight is very satisfying.

I appreciate the narrative progression of returning treasure to temples instead of taking it, and I’m interested in what a traditional adventure game – okay, let’s be real, a Zelda game – would look like if the player’s abilities were limited instead of enhanced as they made their way through the story. I also appreciate the conceit of realizing that the player-character is actually the bad guy – or, in this case, the bad crow girl. Speaking of power, it hit me really hard when I realized that Ida is a crow. Monument Valley isn’t all that deep, but I can’t remember another instance of a game flat-out saying, “No, you are not, in fact, the hero of this story.” (I think Braid is supposed to be like this, but I’m garbage at platformers and was never able to get too far into it.)

In any case, the Monument Valley OST is fantastic. It’s almost exactly forty minutes of soft energetic ambient music, which makes it perfect for a good, solid writing session.