The Sepia Tinge of Decay

Echo of footsteps
A sharp fluorescent buzzing
Empty grocery store

I spent way too much time watching Dan Bell’s Dead Mall series on YouTube last night, and it creeped me out. Dan Bell himself is appreciative of the period architecture and kitsch aesthetic, and he doesn’t film in a way that attempts to create elements of horror where none exist, but there’s still something upsetting about these places.

This video series is all very Rust Belt; and, based on the specific locations, I would assume that this slowly creeping neglect is connected to both rural depopulation and the institutionalized economic marginalization of Black communities. That’s upsetting enough in and of itself, of course.

But there’s also a more universal memento mori quality to these videos that inspires a dread of cultural senescence.

I feel like someone should make a video series along the same lines about abandoned websites, because they give off the same sort of energy. It’s not nostalgia, because the affect is distinctly negative, but it’s similar. I think what makes the urban exploration of abandoned malls unpleasant is that they’re “abandoned” instead of “closed,” meaning that the lights are still on and the water is still running. If they were completely shut down and gradually being overtaken by nature, they would be beautiful, but there are still people inside these almost-dead buildings, and that’s disturbing. In the same way, online spaces like Blogspot/Blogger feel weird because there are still a few people using them, and websites for children’s movies from the 2000s are a little eerie because someone is still paying to host them. You want to feel nostalgia when you look at the past; but then, when you realize that it’s not safely in the past, it’s uncomfortable and uncanny.

Also, can I be real for a second? Tumblr is starting to take on an “abandoned mall” feeling, and I don’t like it.

The Three False Equivalencies of Anti-Fandom

(1) The False Equivalency of Representation

Even if a fanfic has hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of kudos, it is never going to achieve the same level of cultural impact as big-budget mainstream media. No matter how much wholesome fic you write about Finn, it is not going to be the same as John Boyega’s face on every movie screen everywhere in the world.

(2) The False Equivalency of “They’re Just Fictional Characters”

Because “positive representation” isn’t really a valid concern with fanwork (although, in a collective sense, it absolutely can be, but that’s a different conversation), it doesn’t matter whether your fic or art is about Naruto kissing Sakura or Naruto kissing Sasuke. In fact, those three names are probably nothing more than nonsense words to 99.999% of people on this earth. It also doesn’t matter if you, as some rando on the internet, get off (for whatever reason) on the idea of Sasuke forcing himself on Naruto, Sakura, or both at the same time. They’re just fictional characters, and it does not matter to the broader culture. What does matter is if systematic structures of inequality and discrimination are uncritically reproduced in the fictional texts embraced by fandom without commentary. It’s therefore a false equivalency to put “I don’t like this m/m ship” on the same level of critique as “I don’t like how the source text marginalizes female characters.”

(3) The False Equivalency of GO OUTSIDE

Saying “I don’t like a particular m/m ship” is not only fine, it’s par for the course in fandom. Saying “I don’t like how the source text marginalizes female characters” is also fine, and we could probably use more of that sort of thing in fandom, to be honest. Someone writing about the details of their disappointment regarding a work of fiction is also fine. It’s okay to not like things! What is not okay is sending death and rape threats, accusing people of pedophilia, finding someone’s personal information and threatening to contact their family or employer, and doing things like creating a [username]gokillyourself account on AO3 in order to leave comments containing concrete instructions on how to commit suicide. It is a very clear false equivalency to suggest that expressing a negative opinion about a fictional character is “just as bad” as harassing an actual human being.

American Gothic Posthuman Romance

I’ve been reading an epic ongoing Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfic series, Everything Is All Right. I know almost nothing about the Five Nights at Freddy’s games, but the fic’s author, R. Lee Smith, is a prolific and extremely interesting writer who happens to share to one of my more arcane interests, interspecies romance. Smith’s writing style and subject matter resemble those of Stephen King – and I say this as a fan of Stephen King, if that needs clarification – except if all of King’s protagonists were female and also down to romance monsters.

Smith’s work came highly recommended by @corseque on Tumblr, whose taste in fiction I’ve grown to trust over the past two or three years. Corseque mentioned that this author has been writing fanfic, so I clicked on the link and started reading the first novel in the series, which is about the developing relationship between the author’s original character romancing Bonnie, a rotting animatronic rabbit without a face.

People say of writers they admire that they would read anything they wrote, up to and including a shopping list, but I think the real test of how much you like a writer is whether you’d be willing to read their erotic Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfiction. For me, regarding R. Lee Smith, I guess that answer is “yes.” I’m not sure that this is the sort of thing I could recommend to most people, but it’s quite good. Like, really good. I’m taking my sweet time reading the series, but I’m hooked.

By the way, I want to take this opportunity to comment on how amazing fanfiction is. It’s so cool that so many fantastic writers put their work up online for free, and it’s such a gift that anyone can access it at any time from anywhere. Sometimes I get frustrated with fandom, but there is not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful to every single fanfic author on this planet.

I Blame Capitalism

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I’d like to write about the department meeting. There’s a lot to unpack about what goes on in these things, and I think a lot of professors probably have similar feelings regarding the more unpleasant aspects of their own department meetings. Without trying to make any generalizations, however, I want to try to get to the heart of what I find so upsetting about my experience.

My university is an extremely neoliberal institution. What I mean by this is that everything is measured and judged according to its quantitative value. To give a concrete example, almost all classes with an enrollment of less than fifteen students are canceled, regardless of whether it’s a class that, by its very nature, should ideally have a small enrollment (such as a graduate seminar or an upper-level language class). These classes are usually canceled less than a week before they begin with no regard for the concerns or wellbeing of the students (who may need a specific course to graduate), the academic programs (who may lose majors or minors as a result of required courses not being available), or the instructors (many of whom are adjunct faculty paid by course) simply because they’re not “cost effective” in terms of numbers.

Faculty are accordingly evaluated almost entirely on how “productive” they are in terms of how many “points” they can accrue from certain activities and accomplishments listed on a spreadsheet. This results in bureaucratic inefficiency, as everyone needs to serve on a certain number of committees (to give one example), and it also results in everyone’s time and energy being spread dangerously thin across multiple competing commitments, some of which are of dubious necessity. This emphasis on “productivity” not only makes people tired and bad at their jobs, but it can also make them bitter and competitive.

Relying on “positive” discourses of “productivity” in order to make workers so exhausted that they’re unable to find the resources to free themselves from the mentality being chained to their jobs is a major part of the ideology of neoliberal capitalism, which relies on an authoritarian cult mentality to perpetuate itself. You must devote the entirety of your life to the cult, and there is no room for diversity, difference, or disagreement. People in administrative positions literally go to “retreats” to learn how to better serve the institution, and they come back with an almost religious fervor.

What I find so distressing about department meetings, then, is that there’s always a strong undercurrent of “you’re not doing enough.” This is especially upsetting to me because I feel like I work all the time, even if what I’m doing – like preparing lectures for classes, giving productive feedback on assignments, and meeting with students to talk about their career goals, for example – can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet. And don’t even get me started on how many emails I have to write over the course of any given day.

So, when I already feel stretched way too thin, it’s just about the worst thing in the world to walk into a meeting where the underlying message is “you should be doing even more.” It’s like, haven’t I already sacrificed enough of my life for this job? I’m already pushing myself way beyond a healthy work/life balance, and I’ve been doing it nonstop for years, and it’s still not good enough?

Basically, a department meeting is a highly concentrated collection of external confirmations regarding many of the most common intrusive thoughts stemming from anxiety: You’re not good enough. Your best is not good enough. You will never be good enough. Your work is without value. You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve the privileges you’ve been given. You haven’t accomplished anything, and you never will. Everyone knows this, and everyone hates you. Everyone is judging you. You’re just causing trouble for other people, and they resent you.

What I mean by “external confirmation” is that this is literally what is being said in these department meetings. It’s probably best to leave that discussion for another day, though, because OH MAN it’s not fun to talk about any of this.

I really wish that more powerful and experienced people in academia were willing to talk about this sort of thing in a way that transcends useless corporate HR pablum and the hand-wringing “academia is broken now and forever” clickbait that people always seem to be sharing on social media. I wish I could do something myself, but I’m just as mired in the tenure-track swamp as anyone else. It’s like, Sure, I’ll fight neoliberal capitalism, right after I work on my article and my book chapter and respond to some emails and prepare a lecture and put together a handout and go teach two classes and sit in traffic and come home and then respond to more emails and update the course websites and maybe do some grading. Right after all that’s finished, I’ll get right on it.

Just for the record, however, I do want to say that I love my job.

My colleagues are all good people, and it’s nice to be paid a comfortable salary to read and write. I don’t particularly care the for the administrative aspects of teaching, but I have a lot of fun in class. This semester, for instance, I’m teaching an actual college course that counts for actual college credit about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and it’s magical. Every day is an adventure.

I could do without the panic attacks, but anxiety is what it is, and we’re all doing the best we can.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

Since the start of the year I’ve been ordering a lot of zines from Etsy, and they’ve been a great source of solidarity for mental health issues. I’ve been suffering from severe anxiety since around 2016 or so, and I’m thinking that it might be good to talk about it.

It’s hard, though. So maybe I can discuss it bit by bit?

Okay, here goes.

My department has a meeting every month during the school year. These meetings are generally terrible for multiple reasons, and I hate them. During the fall semester, when I was in a truly dark place, I stopped attending altogether (meaning, in concrete terms, that I skipped the meetings for October, November, and December). It’s not strictly necessary for me to go to these meetings, but it’s expected that I be there as one of the tenure-line faculty members. It reflects poorly on me if I don’t go, and the rest of the faculty notices.

Our spring semester doesn’t start until the last week of January, so our first department meeting of the year was in February. I bit the bullet and went, but it was so awful that I had to leave after an hour so that I could have a panic attack in the privacy of my own car. I’ll be honest, there was a lot of self-harm involved. It was intense.

The next meeting is this afternoon, and I am not looking forward to it. Thankfully, I have a friend who has agreed to drive me to the university, park in one of the “15 minutes only” spaces outside the building, walk me up to the department office, find a regular parking space, and then stand outside the meeting room and wait for me to come out. There will probably still be tears, but hopefully there will be significantly less self-harm this time around.

Dealing with anxiety is difficult, but I’m lucky to have friends who are willing to be there for me.

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.