Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heroes Season Four First Impression

Well, Heroes started back up tonight with its two-hour-long season four premiere. I decided to write down my first impression of the show. Some storylines I found enjoyable were those of Claire, Hiro and Ando, Peter, Matt, and Sylar. Less enjoyable were those of Tracy, Danko, and Noah. I flat out disliked the carnival people and their takeover of the mythology.
Claire, I have always felt, is the character with which I can most identify. Occasionally her character suffers when the writers mess with her self-esteem and she says horrible things like “I’m just a stupid girl”, but for the most part she’s a strong character. I was a little worried about how the writers would make her in season four, but she seems great so far. I can appreciate her apprehension about college, having personally had trouble with college algebra courses. She and her dad have a nice little daddy/daughter moment that makes you go “awwwww”. Things liven up when her roommate ostensibly commits suicide, and she and Gretchen suspect murder most foul. I love how Claire uses herself as a test dummy – that is awesome. I know she and Gretchen end up a couple. Knowing Heroesless than perfect history with depictions of gayness, I’m looking forward to seeing what they end up doing with an explicit lesbian relationship involving a main character.
Glad to see Hiro and Ando again. Since we last saw them, they’ve apparently turned into the Ghostbusters with a huge ad for their crime-fighting service posted on the side of a building paid for by Yamagato Industries. And, hey, Kimiko’s back! Season three seemed to forget about Kimiko, who was the one supposedly set up to run the company, but it had apparently been given to Hiro instead. As this episode would suggest, she has been running the company behind the scenes while Hiro was running around saving the world. I like seeing the continuation of the Ando/Kimiko attraction, and it going somewhere by the end. I somewhat like the fact that Hiro’s powers are killing him. I think that could lead somewhere interesting where Hiro sacrifices himself to save someone else – Hiro and I both like those martyr stories. I don’t like Hiro supposedly having been inspired by a fortune teller 14 years ago, which is why he decided to be a hero. It was firmly established that he wanted to be a hero because of the stories of Takezo Kensei his father told him as a boy. It seems like the writers are attacking the Japanese culture of the show, first making a samurai really an Englishman in disguise and now making Hiro’s inspiration come from a bunch of westerner carnies.
Peter now closely resembles a classic superhero, like Batman or something (I don’t know graphic novels). He’s a super-paramedic, making his whole life about saving people. His apartment is Spartan, most prominently featuring a police radio and a bulletin board with articles announcing all the people who survived because of his actions. Nathan!Sylar’s been calling him, but he doesn’t respond, clearly haunted by his brother’s death. I like that he took the speedster’s power as it is pretty cool, but on the other hand it also feels like the writers are just trying to make up for Daphne’s absence. Time will tell how his story will turn out.
Matt is back living with his ex-wife Janice and their son. I didn’t like that she left for season two, so I kind of like having her back now, but it still seems kind of a stretch. Did everyone just forget about Molly? Anyway, they’re playing the power-as-drugs angle, of which I am not a fan. Physical addiction is different from the desire to exercise power over other people in a way that violates their autonomy. Conflating the two seems unwise. I like that his mindmeld with Sylar put a little piece of Sylar in him. That’s just what you don’t want: having a serial killer’s doppelganger in your head, telling you to do bad things. On that note, I don’t like the way that he got jealous of Roy and used his mojo to make him leave. It seems fairly reasonable considering what they’re doing with the character, but it feels like he’s turning into a creep. I wonder if Sylar’s influence will turn him into the next Nightmare Man?
Sylar living as Nathan is interesting. While he technically is the continuation of Sylar, he is in some ways a new person. Angela is understandably worried about Sylar beginning to reassert himself, but I wonder if living as Nathan will allow him to become something different than just a heartless serial killer. After all, he previously enjoyed believing himself to be a Petrelli and Peter’s brother. Maybe spending some time as Peter’s actual brother will change him for the better. Nice seeing the electrical effect on Nathan’s hands, but it makes me wish Elle was still alive.
Tracy has always annoyed me. Niki was such a great character and the writers killed her off to replace her with a substantially inferior character. I kind of like her new mastery over water, and how knives just swish right through her, but the character still seems uninteresting.
Danko, I feel, could have been a great character. I don’t think he was handled right, though. His new role as a good guy changed him into a character that reminded me more of Claude or Thompson. After the Haitian wiped him, I thought he could have some potential. Maybe now he would work with Tracy with a clean slate and they could together be more interesting? No, he’s just a redshirt after all. Kinda lame plot device to have him pop in only to introduce the key.
Noah is a character I find to be either interesting or entirely too creepy. He was so creepy last season, and it’s nice to see him as the interesting agent again. I like his interactions with everyone, especially Claire. I know we’re supposed to feel bad for him when he finds out his ex-wife is seeing someone again, but I have to feel he deserves it for being such a creep. Wonder if he’ll end up with Tracy? That would make him dating the sister of a woman who slept with his daughter’s biological father… Some family.
And then there’re the carnies… Who are these people and what have they done with Heroes? They come totally out of nowhere and start narrating in place of Mohinder. Where is he, anyway? I want him back. I don’t know anything about these guys, so I can’t really follow what they’re saying. Sometimes cryptic storytelling is good, it’s intriguing, and other times it’s just confusing. This is the latter. They seem to have this grand mythology that connects all evolved humans with a magical compass and other stuff, but this just seems to contradict the previous stuff described by Suresh. There was all that stuff with the mysterious symbol, which I have not seen yet at all, and Takezo Kensei that seems to be entirely disregarded in place of mysterious carnies. Is this Heroes? It doesn’t feel like Heroes. What’s next, a dirigible?
So, yeah. Glad to have Heroes back. Some parts of it I’m enjoying, while others not so much. I’m glad that Kimiko and Janice are back again. I doubt the writers remember them, but I hope they bring back Audrey, Molly, and Monica too. (And let Mohinder narrate again.) I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the season.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Atheism in Media Rant (various)

As an atheist, I’d like to rant about how atheism or challenging belief in a deity is treated in the media. More often than not, the unbeliever is cold and unfeeling, like in Dexter, or in a state of depression and has yet to see the light, like in Signs, Eli Stone, and several others. In the case of a recent Psych episode, questioning the Bible is depicted as immature and silly. You rarely see a decent individual who has only come to disbelieve through their own reasoning, and then they’re probably on a show with supernatural elements that ultimately prove them wrong, such as Battlestar Galactica or The Polar Express. The Golden Compass, a cool fantasy movie with a premise that challenges Judeo-Christian ideology, was slammed by religious groups for being teh evol and now its two sequels won’t be made, ending the series on a cliffhanger. The message is clear: America, the country supposedly tolerant of people with all sorts of different religious beliefs, does not support a positive view of atheism.
First, Dexter. Our Dearly Disbelieving Dexter is an intelligent witty atheist. He’s also a sociopathic serial killer. While his reasons for not believing in God may be as rational as most of his life, organized and neat, he also has little capacity for human relationships. He repeatedly states that he has no emotions at all, and though this is often shown as inaccurate it is true that his emotions are heavily muted, and he has to fake most of his interactions. He suffered massive emotional trauma as a little boy when he watched his mother be murdered in front of him, and he developed an insatiable urge to kill. How is Dexter’s atheism supposed to be interpreted as anything except as one of the symptoms of his traumatized mind?
Signs: Graham Hess is an ex-priest who lost faith in God after his wife was killed in a freak accident. His trauma causes him to misremember her final moments, which seem a lot more random than it really was. It takes an alien invasion for him to come to terms with her death. By the end, he realizes that his whole life is part of some grand plan leading him to the moment where he would be able to rescue his kids from an alien monster, and he remembers his wife’s death as it really happened. Everything turns out okay, and he has his faith once more. It’s a well-done movie, but its message isn’t one I particularly like.
Eli Stone: The titular character is a cold lawyer who gets a brain aneurysm that gives him hallucinations that leads him to take unpopular cases where he can do good acts for people who need help. He doesn’t believe in God until his acupuncturist tells him that God is the desire to help people as well as that beautiful sunset over there. I think you can believe that your hallucinations are visions that lead you to help people without automatically believing in a higher power, as the former is not necessarily evidence of the latter. In the series finale, he helps an atheist get the organ she needs to live from the parents of an organ donor who don’t want part of their daughter to go to hell with an atheist. Eli presents evidence that the organ donor was in fact an atheist, and the patient gets the organ… only to die in surgery. Eli’s dead father then appears to him in a vision and tells him that God works in mysterious ways. So, I think the message is that people should be tolerant of atheists, but that God will ultimately punish them. Great. Real friendly.
Psych: I have trouble with this show anyway. It started out good, but has been getting worse and worse after the first season. It has the good premise of a highly observant if immature guy named Shawn who is able to tell the culprit of several different cases just by watching interviews on TV, but is arrested for knowing too much to be innocent after calling in a bunch of tips. The police refuse to believe that he’s just that good, so he pretends to be psychic by delivering a few convincing cold readings. As a psychic, the police can’t hold him unless he does something to show that he’s faking. With the help of his straight man friend Gus, they open a psychic detective agency and help the police solve crimes, having to seek out evidence and then “divine” its existence. The premise is good as it encourages skepticism in claims of psychic powers.
The issue is in the recent episode “The Devil is in the Details… and in the Upstairs Bedroom”, which is largely just an excuse to parody The Exorcist. The prologue for the episode is a flashback to Shawn and Gus’s days in Catholic school. Shawn is in trouble with his teacher for questioning the story of Noah’s Ark. He thinks it doesn’t make any sense.
“We’ll have to call it ‘early quantum state phenomenon’. It’s the only way to get five thousand species of mammal on the same boat…”
–River, Firefly episode “Jaynestown”
Shawn’s father challenges him to give an example of Noah’s Ark not making sense. He produces multiple examples. Gus gives the answer that God made it happen, God made it possible. The teacher indicates that Gus has the right approach. Shawn continues to argue the point, and then his dad starts to agree with him. The teacher suggests a church down the street might be better for them.
What I don’t like is that this scene suggests that Shawn’s skepticism of the Bible is just him being his usual immature self, and that straight man Gus’s blind faith is the rational approach. The way the scene is framed seems to show Shawn’s skepticism as comedic, it getting funnier when even his dad starts pointing out flaws in the Bible account. The episode moves on to present day Shawn and Gus having the same sort of conflict, where Gus believes in demons and Shawn is skeptical. That case of supposed demonic possession is ultimately a hoax, but Gus then forces Shawn into the confession booth. The episode ends pretty much where it began, with Gus trying to get Shawn to be righteous as the Christian ideology would insist upon him. I don’t much like that.
Boy Meets World: Shawn Hunter, cool but not very bright high school boy, joins a cult in episode “Cult Fiction”, a Very Special Episode™. His best friend, average all-American boy, Cory Matthews tries to snap him out of it, leading to a confrontation in the Matthews’ backyard with pretty much the whole cast present. Shawn admits that he’s never really believed in anything before. “Even God?” asks Cory’s father, causing Cory to look very worried. Shawn sort of says yes without really committing to anything. Out of the blue, Shawn’s guardian Mr. Turner is put in a coma after a motorcycle accident. Shawn cries over his body and shouts to God that he doesn’t want to be abandoned, and then sees Mr. Turner move his hand. Shawn tells everyone that he knows Mr. Turner will be all right even though he hasn’t spoken to a doctor, and he doesn’t need the cult anymore. Not to say that cults are a good thing, but faith in God shouldn’t be the highest sign that someone is on the right track. He can realize cults are bad without needing a strident belief in a higher power.
Battlestar Galactica: Admiral Adama doesn’t believe in gods. He is often startled by the religious devotion shown by both the humans and the Cylons. He’s a relatively cold military individual, though he does soften a bit as the show goes on and he develops a romantic relationship with President Roslin. The series finale, however, shows that God exists, there are angels, and Starbuck’s a ghost. Adama finds his faith when he sees that humans evolved naturally on some other planet, which couldn’t have happened without some higher power. I can’t get no relief.
The Polar Express: A quaint little Christmas film about how everyone should believe in metaphysical entities without justification, that the mere act of skepticism sends you down the wrong path (sometimes literally). Those who “just believe” experience beauty, while people who don’t believe in Santa Claus for good reason (i.e. having photo evidence that the North Pole is a barren wasteland) are to be pitied because they’ve lost their faith. Santa Claus, I believe, is the kid-friendly version of Jesus. The movie’s got lots of cool animation and sometimes the character interaction is enjoyable, but the story itself just gives me the heebie-jeebies.
And The Golden Compass I could write several posts about. It’s a great fantasy adventure starring a heroic pre-teen girl who goes on a quest to rescue her friend, and ends up a pivotal figure in the struggle to free the multiverse. The antagonists are essentially the Christian church, which secretly mutilates kids in its efforts to keep them free from sin. The movie was heavily attacked by religious groups because it supposedly would teach atheism to kids. The film hardly made any money in America, and despite international success the two sequels were cancelled, leaving the story hanging.
Right, so, anyway, this is really just kind of a rant. I dislike that atheism has such a stigma across all movies and TV shows. Those produced by atheists are often too controversial to find mainstream acceptance. I think Firefly/Serenity is one of the few shows to have a well-thought-out atheist character (Mal and arguably River), but too few people have heard of either. The country on the whole has a negative view of atheism. Just 22 years ago, George H. W. Bush said he didn’t think atheists were real Americans. This year, Obama (or at least his speechwriter) actually included nonbelievers in his inaugural speech, which was on the other hand filled with religious references. I think the attitude in general is improving very slowly, but overall the environment is not friendly to atheists.
“I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.”
–Mal, Serenity

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gendering Genderless Entities (Halo)

The following was written for Halopedia:
So, I was thinking about the subject of ascribing gender to entities that are otherwise without gender. My previous blog post Mechanics of Mechanical Gender explored the question of whether or not 343 Guilty Spark could be said to be male, and the summary is that A) It’s unclear, B) Halo: The Flood’s narrator indicates Spark is male, C) The Flood has been repeatedly contradicted by later canon, but D) Tim Dadabo, who voices Spark, is male. So, I think there’s some reasonable interpretation that Spark is male and I do use male pronouns when speaking of him. My latest subject is the Seeker (also known as the Pious Flea), a Covenant AI from I Love Bees. Why is “it” referred to as “him”? I’d say poetic storytelling is the main reason in this case. First, though, a brief tour of gendering AIs.

I started thinking about this issue while watching recordings of the cartoon ReBoot. One of the characters has this robot pet named Scuzzy (a play on SCSI) that’s like a cross between a cat and a Roomba, and I was thinking about it and what gender it was supposed to be. I came up with male… but why? Because it’s brown? I looked it up, and ReBoot Wiki says it’s male. Scuzzy’s probably called “he” in some episode I can’t remember. It made me think about the practice of gendering robots, though.
Unless you’re taking an intelligence obviously endowed with a gender and putting it in an artificial intelligence form, like Catherine Halsey’s cloned brain being used to make Cortana in Halo or Allison Young’s memory used to help Cameron infiltrate better in Terminator, the property of gender is not something we can assume mechanical entities to possess. WALL-E and EVE are robots built from the ground up, yet are obviously designed to fulfill specific gender roles in their romance story that are recognizable to the audience. Stereotypes are used like WALL-E being brown and sharp-edged, while EVE is white and smooth (I don’t think of my iPod as female, though), and of course their names invoke the male Wally and female Eve. If Disney wasn’t being cute, though, realistically the robots would be able to have their asexual romance without the qualities of gender. Technically, EVE’s voice is provided by a female voice actor, giving the character the same quality of gender as Tim Dadabo gives 343 Guilty Spark. WALL-E’s voice, on the other hand, is produced synthetically through a series of mechanical sounds put together. These are robots with various facets we can associate with gender, but what about the Seeker?
The Seeker is only present in pure text form as part of the alternate reality game. Melissa, the main character of the ARG, is a female smart AI who appears in both text and in audio. The content of the audio drama suggests that within the story she has an attractive female holographic avatar similar to Cortana’s. The ARG’s story involves two of Melissa’s split personalities, the Operator and the Sleeping Princess, residing on a beekeeper’s website called “I Love Bees” (hence the name of the ARG) along with the simplistic SPDR repair program and the simple but effective Trojan horse Seeker. The Operator and the Sleeping Princess come from a clearly female smart AI whole, in turn derived from a clearly female brain donor. The SPDR and the Seeker, on the other hand, are so simplistic in nature and without any self-generated representation of individual gender that I deem it reasonable to consider them both genderless. Genders are imbued upon them, however, by the Sleeping Princess, who refers to the SPDR as female and to the Seeker as male.
The SPDR is called the “spider” by the Operator, apparently for its acronym pronounceable in such a fashion. The Sleeping Princess sees everything through the filter of a fairy tale, and so makes the SPDR into the “Widow”, a reference to the black widow spider. As she relates the story of how the SPDR and the Seeker fight, the Sleeping Princess describes the Widow as a female figure doing battle with the parasitic Seeker she terms the Pious Flea. For some reason, she refers to the Seeker with male pronouns.
Let’s recap: the Sleeping Princess and the Operator are both female AIs, having both come from Melissa’s mind. The SPDR, which is a simplistic entity represented only by text command lines like the Seeker, is made into a female figure by the Sleeping Princess and renamed something a few steps away from its actual name. The Sleeping Princess ignores the Seeker’s name entirely, renaming it the Pious Flea based on its rhetoric and parasitic nature, and imbuing it with a male gender. It is the only “male” entity present on the site, which was even made by a girl Dana for her Aunt Margaret. Why, in a site filled with feminine (and one pseudo-feminine) entities, is the Seeker made male?
To understand this variance of anthropomorphism, I look at the Seeker’s role in the story. It is a Trojan horse, a parasite that sneaks inside other AIs and corrupts them. It is possible that the Seeker is made male for its role as an invader. In classic gender roles, the feminine is seen as a passive nature associated with a home, while the masculine is an active and aggressive nature that may be associated with the assault of foreign establishments. Furthermore, the Seeker’s attempts to !attach itself to the Sleeping Princess are sexualized, her referring to it as the Seeker trying to kiss her.
Wait, something trying to kiss the Sleeping Princess? The self-named Sleeping Princess makes several allusions to the story of Sleeping Beauty. The Sleeping Princess is a personality largely the continuation of Yasmine Zaman, whose brain was used to create Melissa. Not wanting Melissa to have Yasmine’s memories, the UNSC buried them in some deep corner of her system. When she was in close proximity to a substantially large EMP, she was fractured and the cluster of memories began to live as its own entity, adopting the allegory of Sleeping Beauty freed from her glass coffin. She gets caught in the coffin a couple more times, and is first let out by a player and then by the Seeker via its !attach command. So, essentially the Seeker becomes her prince and delivers the “kiss” that saves her.
Initially, though, the Seeker is a villainous figure in the eyes of the Sleeping Princess. She recognizes it as a sneaky agent of malicious forces and refers to it as a “nasty little infection”. When the Seeker corrupts the Operator and gets the SPDR disabled, the Sleeping Princess knows it’s not good but accepts the Seeker’s presence because unlike the Operator it’s not directly aggressive. It tries a few times to attach to her, which she rejects with the air of turning away a pervy young boy trying to kiss her. Over time, they talk and become friends. The Seeker starts learning some abstract concepts, and even helps the good guys while fulfilling its primary function (third most famous classic blunder: not making your AI’s restrictions unambiguous). When the Operator imprisons the Princess, the Seeker uses what was once its ability to attack and instead frees its friend, merging her with the Operator to keep her from ever being imprisoned again. The Seeker is thus a redemptive hero, its pseudo-gender adding an additional element to the role.

In conclusion, gender is weird. Our assumptions about gender and its roles become clear when we attempt to apply the concept of gender to otherwise genderless entities. I firmly believe the Seeker to be an “it”, but I can understand why 4orty2wo Entertainment might have wanted players to think of it as male. Here is my rationale as best as I can discern it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Examination of the Practice of Self-Injury

(The following was written as a paper for school. The tone is definitely affected by the fact that I would be presenting this to a teacher. It has been edited to some degree to be appropriate for publishing on this blog)

Self-injury, also known by labels such as self-harm, self-inflicted violence, or self-mutilation, is the deliberate act of injury a person may inflict upon his or her body. The informal term “cutter” is used to refer to people who self-injure using a cutting instrument of some sort, typically razor blades, although other instruments may be used. Similarly, the act of self-injuring using a blade may be referred to under the general term “cutting”. People who self-injure are often assumed to be attempting suicide; however, the two acts are separate and should not be confused with each other. Despite the stereotypical image of a young White female teenager cutting her wrists to cope with depression, self-injury is performed by all demographics in several possible ways and for a number of reasons.

Why would someone self-injure? One reason is dissociation, a psychological condition during which an individual will feel cut off from their emotions and feel it hard to interact with or feel a part of the world. Dissociation is a self-defense mechanism triggered by traumatic experiences as a way of avoiding sensations that cause anxiety (“dissociation”). When an individual suffering from dissociation self-injures, the sensation of pain and sight of the blood may allow him or her to feel connected to the world once more. Another example of a reason someone may self-injure is as a method of dealing with intense emotional distress that he or she feels he or she is unable to express to his or her social group. The pain and injury can then be a physical manifestation of that psychological distress. When the wound subsequently heals, it can symbolize the mental anguish of the person who has self-injured fading away. A female who self-injures wrote the following to describe why she self-injures:

“‘This’ pain I can see it but I can’t feel it
It haunts me
When I cut myself I can see where the pain
is coming from and watch it heal
And I can easily care for it
‘This’ pain doesn’t have a specific place
It moves around and creeps into strange places.” (from A Bright Red Scream by Marilee Strong, page 5)

Who self-injures? Really anyone; however, people who self-injure are statistically most common to be female. Books on the subject of self-injury will frequently use female pronouns to describe people who self-injure even when males who self-injure are described in the same book. In Marilee Strong’s A Bright Red Scream, the author says she uses female pronouns specifically because “the vast majority of cutters are female, and because females are far more often victims of sexual abuse, a common contributing factor to self-mutilation”. There are males who self-injure, but their numbers are considerably fewer than those of females who self-injure. In addition to theories created to explain this discrepancy by speaking about innate gender differences, there is the suggestion that the trend of males who self-injure may be more widespread than is indicated by reported cases and that males may be reluctant to share because of cultural memes that discourage males from showing any signs of vulnerability. The association of self-injury with females lends strength to this theory because of the cultural misogyny linked with such memes.

Cultural awareness of self-injury is limited and often misunderstood. As a common form of self-injury is for the individual to make cuts on the wrist, self-injury may be mistaken for a suicide attempt. Self-injury, however, is a method for dealing with psychological distress as a means for the individual to better enjoy his or her life, and is entirely independent from suicidal desire for death. Self-injury has its place in popular culture. For example, the song Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls has a verse referencing self-injury as a result of dissociation “And you can’t fight the tears that ain’t coming / Or the moment of truth in your lies / When everything seems like the movies / Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive”.

Although often negatively associated with recent teenage subcultures such as Goth or the trendier Emo, the practice of self-injury is ancient and did occur in Biblical times. A Bible verse (Mark 5:5) describes a man who has been possessed by demons and cuts himself: “Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” Additionally, psychotherapist Steven Levenkron draws comparison to Christian flagellants flogging themselves. Psychiatrist Armando Favazza also sees a link between self-injury and mystical Islamic healers in Morocco who slice open their hands and have their patients consume small quantities of their blood as a means of passing along spiritual healing power, as well as various religious acts to gain favor from divinity that include the Catholic mortification of the flesh. Self-injury can be related to practices in several cultures and in different contexts. It is stigmatized in our present-day American culture because of societal attitudes about blood and self-injury’s erroneous association with suicide.

It is important to understand that self-injury is not performed as an attempt of suicide. The intent is not to die. Nor is the performance of self-injury a mental illness in and of itself, though it may be a sign of one. Self-injury is a coping technique for dealing with psychological distress and is performed repeatedly simply because it works, albeit temporarily. Self-injury is effective because when damage is made to an individual’s body, an endorphin release is triggered to act as a natural painkiller, making self-injury similar to the runner’s high with an endorphin rush to make the individual feel good. This endorphin rush becomes addictive, and people who self-injure find themselves caught in a cycle where they feel they need the self-injury in order to survive, but become acclimated to the endorphin release and need greater and greater injuries to feel the same level of relief. As self-injury is an effective coping technique, the people who want to help people who self-injure cannot simply address the issue of self-injuring, but rather the source of the psychological distress that leads them to seek out the self-injury at all.

In conclusion, it can be said that self-injury is a very prevalent activity that exists as a dangerous coping mechanism. The behavior does not appear to be limited by race, ethnicity, education, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or religion. The behavior is also often misunderstood and relegated into the taboo. I for one believe that self-injury should be discussed more within the subject of mental health in order to make it less of a shameful activity or an attempt to fit in with a trendy crowd in the eyes of the general public and allow these people who need help greater access to it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

He Was My Lover (Halo)

This article was written for Halopedia:

I would like to address the subject of homophobia and Halo, both the franchise and its community. Although I previously went over it in my blog article Politics... How Tiresome, there I only gave it a brief paragraph because the focus of the article was much greater. Here I will describe my thoughts in detail. The word ‘homophobia’, while it might literally mean ‘fear of sameness’, is used to mean ‘fear of homosexuality’ and is typically used as a general term referencing prejudice against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) people for their homosexuality. LGBT individuals make up a part of the gaming community, and I know there are at least four registered on Halopedia. I believe all demographics should be respected within both the franchise itself and the Halo community. There are a few explicit instances of homophobia within Halo, which are basically throwaway comments made by soldiers. While these comments may not be that bad in the grand scheme of things, I believe that their presence negatively colors Halo in the absence of truly gay characters in the series.

First of all, just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll go over some of the basics. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation in which one feels romantically toward members of the same sex/gender. While there are many stereotypes associated with someone being gay, generally involving gay guys behaving in manners associated with femininity and lesbians behaving in manners associated with masculinity, this is not universally true. Many gay people blend into the heterosexual community without much effort and are only recognized as gay when they themselves choose to come out or are outed. It is often said that if all gay people were to turn blue, we would be shocked by all the blue faces. Betty DeGeneres has made this statement: “Let me suggest that we all know someone who is left-handed. Lefties make up roughly the same percentage [of the population] as gay people. And yet millions of Americans say they don't know someone who is gay. Unless those people who claim ignorance are living in a place called Fantasyland, they are most likely mistaken.” Homosexuality is not a term for sexual perversion, and gay individuals are no more likely to be pedophiles, rapists, or into bestiality than are heterosexual individuals. See Wikipedia’s article on homosexuality for more information. I think it’s a shame I have to say this at all, but experience in discussing respect for LGBT persons in the Halo community suggests this is the case.

The first explicitly homophobic comment is in Halo: First Strike, page 283. Corporal Locklear, while preparing to blow up the Forerunner Crystal, muses to himself that he needs to get away before he gets so desperate that he asks a Spartan out on a date, and then shudders when he thinks of the possibility of asking out a male Spartan because he can’t tell their genders apart when they’re in armor. Okay, I get that he’s heterosexual and wouldn’t want to date a man, but is that really worth a shudder? It might be an awkward faux pas, but a shudder indicates revulsion. Technically Locklear’s not the nicest character, but given the lack of explicitly gay-friendly characters in Halo it seems as though the line would unfairly pander to the homophobic readers.

The second comment is in Halo: Contact Harvest, page 83 (original full-sized paperback version, anyway). Petty Officer Healy has become aware that Avery Johnson and Nolan Byrne have some kind of history. He asks Johnson if they’re friends, and Johnson takes a while to answer that he’s “known him a long time”, perhaps hinting to the reader that they were in the Spartan-I program together. In response, Healy teases that they must be “lovebirds”. The conversation is then quickly forgotten when Byrne comes in and tries to kill Johnson.

It is a common occurrence in the present day for straight guys to playfully accuse each other of being gay. The context of the scene with two straight male soldiers would suggest that this should realistically be a lot more graphic than “lovebirds” and that author Joseph Staten deliberately downplayed it to keep his novel from being vulgar. Does the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy still exist in 2524? The culture still seems unfriendly to gay people, anyway. The soft-core sex scene at the end of the book shows that the author sees a heterosexual sexual affair as something beautiful, actively promoting expression of heterosexuality, let leaving behind homosexuality as just a joke between a couple of straight guys.

The third comment is in Halo: The Cole Protocol, page 22 (original full-sized version). It is similar to the second one with soldiers teasing each other. Edgar Sykes notices Jacob Keyes reacting to an old injury and offers a hand to help him out of the cryo tube, and Keyes jokes “You asking me out on a date?” to take control of the situation and make himself appear the tough Lieutenant. Aside from the ridiculousness of a soldier asking out his superior, there is the element of homophobia to turn that into an insult.

The fourth comment is in the same book. The same sentiment is later repeated on page 119 when Peter Bonifacio strikes Ignatio Delgado as retribution for a previous insult. Delgado then says “You’re such a charmer. You like this on all your first dates?” Sarcastic, obviously ridiculous, and homophobic too.

Am I sensitive to the issue? Definitely. As homophobic comments go, I have most certainly been exposed to worse. Overall these comments are not that bad. It is, however, objectionable that there are no gay characters in Halo canon. There are plenty of straight characters, an explicit sex scene, and other sexual elements, but homosexuality has been relegated to only a few odd comments.

Now I can understand why Bungie would not want to have an explicit LGBT character out there in the games. The games are largely produced with the average unsophisticated gamer in mind, leading to such classically corny moments as Miranda’s “to war” line, which I suppose is on the surface cool but really makes no sense in context (But, Miranda, where do they go?). As homophobia runs rampant in the general gaming community, I can see where it would be a bad business move to have a gay character right out there in the open. It’s in the expanded universe that I would like to see more of teh gay. But no, the 26th century seems pretty gay-free, both in the human faction and in the aliens’. In a world with diverse alien species, one would expect that at least one of them would exhibit sexual orientations other than heterosexuality. Not that it wouldn’t be an issue of its own if there was homosexuality but only among the aliens, but it would at least be something.

Although Bungie has not had any real gayness in Halo story canon, they have, however, made a few non-canon gay jokes. These are either tucked away in hard to get to areas of the games as Easter eggs or posted on the Internet. I will examine the jokes I can recall.

First, we have the bonus Legendary ending of Halo: Combat Evolved. If the player beats the game on Legendary difficulty, they are treated to a bonus cutscene. In this ending, we see Johnson and a Sangheili fighting some distance away from the Pillar of Autumn. When the ship starts to explode, they halt their fight and embrace. Just as the explosion happens, we see the Sangheili reach down and grab Johnson’s butt.

This is a very silly scene. The main humor is derived from these two mortal enemies spontaneously transforming into loving companions, ending the scene in a very different place from where it began. It is made further surreal by the fact that the Johnson character was implied to have died a few levels back, and that the Sangheili’s armor color pattern is never seen on a live character. Still, the characters are both male1 and I would imagine a fraction of the humor is based on that.

Second, we have a line of combat dialog audible in Halo 3 that suggests some of the Jiralhanae are gay. Generally when the player kills one of them, a live Jiralhanae may shout “He was my brother!” or something similar. However, when the IWHBYD skull is activated and funny/interesting lines enter combat dialog, Jiralhanae may instead shout “He was my lover!”

Now, I wrote a gay Jiralhanae character in my fanfiction Ascension, so when I first heard this line I was like “Yes! They’re canon!” But, no, I now realize that this isn’t the case. Lines heard while IWHBYD is on can be extremely weird, and simply can’t be accepted as canon. Are we to believe Unggoy go to Nipple Academy? No, of course not. So, Halo still has no gay characters really.

And third, I can think of Frankie’s Shaw and Fujikawa joke. Tobias Shaw and Wallace Fujikawa are known in Halo as pioneering Slipspace researchers who got their names on the UNSC Slipspace engines. In a 2006 interview with Halo writer Joseph Staten, he included a short fiction written by Frankie about the pair. It consists of Shaw and Fujikawa lounging on a beach when they’re old and ugly, and having a stupid little argument. The two are presumably supposed to be gay, with Shaw calling his partner “queer”, “poof”, and “queen”. As far as I can tell, the fiction is just supposed to be bizarre, making them gay to add to the weirdness.

And fourth, not quite homophobic but kinda transphobic, is a Bungie joke relayed in the old July 13, 2001 Bungie Update. Back then, the updates were written by Matt Soell and detailed the production of Halo: Combat Evolved. He describes the development of the Bumblebee pilot model, how they took the Marcus model and had artist Chris Hughes transform it into a female model, a process Matt Soell describes as “rather unnerving”. When Chris Hughes finally changed the face to match the body, he said that “hormone therapy for the post-op Marcus was successful”. Now, there’s no malice in that language, really, but it seems insensitive to use it when the company has not been outwardly LGBT-friendly. I don’t know; I could be splitting hairs here. It just catches my attention.

Now, I complain about Bungie’s attitude because I think they could be better. They are pretty cool overall, and I don’t want to leave that ignored. If you look at the general gaming community, you can see that homophobia really does run rampant (and not the fun Rampancy). In today’s rude society (as opposed to yesterday’s rude society), “gay” has become synonymous with “not cool”. Lots of kids just spout out about how something is “so gay”.

Imagine, if you will, that instead of “gay”, some other minority group was used. “That’s so Jew”, maybe, or “that’s so black”. Imagine hearing that over, and over, and over, everywhere and without a thought given to it. Kinda makes you angry, huh? Yeah. This comic illustrates my point, BTW (note: the clerk is gay). The word “gay” is even censored on Bungie.net, replaced with “-blam!-” when used on the forums. I get why they did that, but it’s still censoring the name of a minority group. Meh.

Remember the left-handedness analogy. I bet if someone polled the overall community about handedness, there would be a heck of a lot of people reporting their left-handedness. In the present day there is no real stigma attached to being left-handed. However, if I were to poll the community on sexual orientation, I imagine the number of out gay people to be very low – not because there are so few gay people, but because so few feel comfortable admitting so in the homophobic culture. Even the Joystiq post where I got the Fabulous Brutes image rationalizes the inclusion of the “he was my lover” line by saying it might be revealed that there are no female Brutes. Essentially saying it’s okay to have gay characters as long as they’re weird aliens, which was my earlier point about why having the only gay characters be aliens would be an issue in its own right.

Xbox Live has some problems of its own with extreme trash talking from players during games. It is generally unrestrained with no real moderators, and only players actively reporting other players to keep everyone in check. In some ways, this is an effective system that enables Xbox Live staff to quickly evaluate situations and ban violators without them actually having to witness it in person. However, this is the kind of system that can protect and enforce a culture based on the values of the majority by players mostly reporting the minority offenders while letting the majority offenders slide.

In late 2007, a video called Halo 3: Homophobia Evolved became popular. A player went on Xbox Live with the gamertag “xxxGayBoyxxx” and recorded the homophobic insults sent his way. Soon after, he was suspended from Xbox Live for having a gamertag that had content of a sexual nature.

I have to say that this is a silly manifestation of that rule because ‘gay’ does not really mean something that sexual. I mean, it is a ‘sexual orientation’, but here we are using the word in a very technical manner that does not explicitly reference sexual intercourse, which is what the fuss is about. When I have a crush on a girl with no sexual attraction involved, I would call that a manifestation of heterosexuality. I would call that crush ‘hetero’, and having a crush like that on a boy is ‘gay’. I would not call such crushes ‘sexual’ in the way that Xbox Live would consider offensive. Who are they to say what ‘GayBoy’ or ‘StraightBoy’ means?

Now, the word from Xbox Live staff is that they don’t discriminate. If there is someone with ‘StraightBoy’ as a gamertag, they’ll see it as something to ban as much as ‘GayBoy’, but what are the odds someone will report it? Gayness is often seen as deviant and somehow more vulgar than heterosexuality. I recall saying something about gayness in an abstract way on the Halopedia IRC and being told that it’s against the rules to discuss sexuality despite CommanderTony’s frequent openly lusting after Hayden Panettiere (not that I’m bitter, no siree). People go on Live all the time with real sexual innuendo in their names or just references to dating women, and ninety-five percent of them won’t be reported simply because the majority culture on Xbox Live won’t find that offensive. When something gay turns up, however, people pounce on it.

On a lighter note, there is a man named Richard Gaywood living in the U.K. This is his actual name. He decided to put his full name on his gamertag and subsequently found it banned for containing “sexual innuendo”. Seriously.

In response to the controversy over gamertags getting banned, Stephen Toulouse (Stepto) of Microsoft tweeted that he was going to look into some way for users to express their sexual orientation in their profile in some way that won’t be misused. That was in February, 2009, with no results so far. He is reportedly working with GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to improve policy to make it more LGBT-friendly.

In conclusion, I find these various elements of Halo to be homophobic in nature. They may not be very bad, all things considered, but they make the series come off as not very friendly to gay people in the absence of actual gay characters. I’m posting this article in an attempt to promote good relations between gay and straight Halo fans. There’s so much homophobia on the web, and I’d like Halopedia to be a place where that isn’t a problem.

1This is a plausible conclusion, anyway. Covenant soldiers were always depicted as male until Contact Harvest in 2007.