Representation Destination vs. Journey

I mentioned when linking this article about Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that while I understood why a lot of arospec and/or ace people connect to him, I don’t. Nevertheless, I still linked the article–because I think there’s a convincing argument to be made about Odo, and the article pulls out a lot of the textual support to make it. I don’t connect with him not because I’m unconvinced but because I don’t want my life to end up like his.

To continue the conversation about representation that focuses more on storylines and themes than checking off a box on a spreadsheet, a salient question might then follow, do we need to know how the story ends before we can make any judgements?

Certainly that’s at least part of the source of my disconnect with Odo. I watched DS9 having already known the entire story because it was reading The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion that convinced me to watch it at all. If you have the whole thing laid out in front of you, it’s very clear what we’re looking at is a guy who is carrying a secret, unrequited torch for a close friend for years while convinced he doesn’t have a chance with her largely because of how he innately is. The story ends with him nobly leaving behind his love interest, whom he had finally gotten together with, to go help his people, in what is likely to be a long, if not permanent, absence. Is it so surprising that I, a teenager without community or clue, would see this ending to a fiction bearing striking resemblance to my deepest insecurities at the time and instinctively and categorically reject it?

But that’s why I say I can see where others are coming from. It’s very easy for me to see how someone who watched the show without knowing its ending would get emotionally involved enough not to care, or how someone at a different point in their life would not even have a problem with it at all. Honestly, I might be in that latter camp if I were watching it for the first time today.

In general, I find myself focusing on endings. The most recent example that stands out for me is Yagate Kimi ni Naru, which had a lot of themes that were thought-provoking and personally relevant, but I was scrupulous to reserve judgement until the end and ultimately had that instinct validated. I also saw a video recently on Robin and Barney from How I Met Your Mother, which I have not seen and witnessed enough of the backlash around to make me glad I hadn’t. Or, to use an example in the opposite direction, I despised Katagoshi no Koibito when I watched the drama the first time around up until the literal last few minutes of the show, which ameliorated my opinion so much I went back years later to read the book.

But while I think the focus on endings is natural, I wonder if there isn’t something to the idea of taking meaning where we find it, as we find it. Captain Marvel was brought up to me again recently, and I was linked to this rant by Rowan Ellis, which, despite how angry I got about this in the first place, did succeed in making in me laugh. Watching it, though, I kept thinking about how all the ambiguity she was pointing out was for me a feature and not a bug. It was the thing that allowed me to make a space for myself, one that surely I will eventually be denied as the films inevitably continue.

I did not include such a disclaimer last year when I linked an article by the same author about Rey from Star Wars, because I think it takes a subtly different tack. Namely, it doesn’t matter if Rey “is” or “isn’t” asexual or aromantic in the end; the meaning for her in Rey’s story will stay the same because she made the meaning. Is this not perhaps the most powerful representation?

3 Comments

  1. “…do we need to know how the story ends before we can make any judgements?”

    Ooo, that’s the big question, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to a serialised medium. I gave a conference paper about The X-Files a while ago in which I made my case for a queerplatonic interpretation of the main characters’ relationship in the early seasons. Of course, the question inevitably came up: can we really view the relationship this way knowing the turn it took in the later seasons?

    In the case of a T.V. show like The X-Files or DS9, I’d like to think the answer is “yes”. Partly because of (the lack of) author intent: often the creators started off planning to write a platonic relationship and only decided later on to add a romantic element. The platonic relationship was therefore presented as a platonic relationship; later events can’t retroactively change that. The other reason is that fans watching the show during its original run had no way of knowing how the relationship would end up. They experienced the relationship as a platonic relationship, and nothing can erase that experience.

    Then again, fans who come to the shows now, when their endings have already been set, will generally not experience them the same way. Is it desirable that they should? Maybe. As an X-Files fan, I would definitely like to see other people come to the show and learn to love it the way I did – including loving the queerplatonic partnership! But maybe that’s not realistic.

    And I have to admit that I’ve become much more cynical than I once was about relationships in the media. For example, I’ve heard that a lot of ace people identified with Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy because of her lack of romantic interest in anyone and her constant refusal of Peter’s advances. I had a feeling Gamora and Peter would eventually hook up, though, and in Avengers 3 they kind of do. Does that mean I was “right” and that the other interpretation was “wrong”? I don’t know. Being pessimistic isn’t necessarily a virtue.

    As for your comment that viewers make meaning and that this may in fact be the most powerful representation… well, it’s a nice thought, and I definitely think the meaning viewers make can be very important. But I don’t think it’s “the most powerful representation”, because it’s only representation in those viewers’ minds, and usually it’s a representation of something they’re already familiar with and want to see. It’s not representation to anyone else; it doesn’t force anyone else to change their views about what’s real or what kinds of relationships and lifestyles are valid. So, no, I think there’s a real need for explicit representation. Although, given a dearth of explicit representation, fan-made meaning may be the best we can get.

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  2. Thank you for such a long, thoughtful comment! I especially appreciate your insight on The X-Files, because it’s one of those shows that I think is a key milestone in both fandom history generally and background-asexuality-in-regards-to-media-fandom, and yet I’ve found it hard to actually get myself to go back to, honestly for reasons similar to what we’re talking about here (I had a friend who was a hardcore fan and so while she did lend me some of her tapes for key episodes she thought were good, I actually started watching the show in the season where Mulder is replaced by Doggett (well; replaced by Scully and Scully is replaced by Doggett, but), and like, how do you possibly avoid letting that color your interpretations??)

    I guess something I hadn’t consciously considered but that you point out, correctly, is that it really does matter the context of if you’re constructing a case for the media itself, on its own terms/merits, or if you’re looking at it as a sort of recommendation. And that’s sort of sticky, because you may be doing the former, but by doing it, people may take interest in the media they wouldn’t have otherwise. As example that comes right to the top of my mind is that I watched White Collar solely because there were so many asexual fics being written about it. Surely those authors didn’t intend their works as recommendations per se, but they did stir up an interest for me in a show I likely never would have watched otherwise.

    I wonder, too, if there’s not a bias towards linearity that is maybe unfair. Like, all stories are essentially arbitrary in their beginnings and endings, are they not? We generally don’t say stories have to start at the main character’s birth and end at their death, and even with stories for which that is true, we’ve probably met other characters (or institutions) over the course of it who existed before or after, and so why not demand their entire histories be chronicled as well? And like, I am not hesitant to recommend works that have problems in their beginning. For instance, I love the TV show M*A*S*H, but I tell people flat out not to even watch the first 3 seasons, because most of what I think was great about the series was not yet present before they changed directions with season 4, and a whole truckload of the things I am critical about of the series was. But I find myself hesitant for some reason to do that with shows where the beginning was good but then it went off the rails, and I feel I’d be especially hesitant to do it if the purpose of my recommendation was for some form of asexual representation.

    Certainly part of that is a practical problem: how do you convince someone to watch something while telling them upfront “stop at the end of season 3 bc after that it’s bad”? But I think it’s to do with not wanting to lead people on… not wanting to get tricked… again. Like, when you talk about cynicism, I definitely feel that too. So often with ongoing series it’s almost like I can’t enjoy them as they’re happening because I have to hold my breath, brace for the betrayal. Redbeardace’s post about Elementary really encapsulates the feeling, I think.

    Certainly someone could still wander over to Netflix/Hulu and turn on X-Files or DS9 without necessarily knowing how anything eventually goes down… but then do they get caught up emotionally waiting for the other shoe to drop? I don’t know. :/

    Well, and, the thing is, I do think there’s paradoxically something easier looking back on these older shows? Like, there was a point in my life where I would have been like, “no, Odo’s asexuality/aromanticism is DISPROVED by x, y and z, and [blah blah blah]” whereas now I’m much more like, “okay, but we could make it work in this way, or in this way, or in this way, so with so many possibilities, who’s to say he’s not?” And I think that impulse I have to hold back and wait for the other shoe to drop in ongoing media inhibits such flexibility of mind. And that’s why even with Odo I say I’m not unconvinced; I just am lacking any emotional connection that would make it personally meaningful, which unfortunately is… the whole ballgame.

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