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We are reprinting this review as part of our special trans/nonbinary issue. It first appeared at Strange Horizons on 20 July 2016.

Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy cover

It would be easy to look at this new collection of academic essays and write something along the following lines: this incisive and wide-ranging essay collection provides a much-needed point of engagement with the exponential growth of contemporary popular fantasy, in which new ways of performing sexuality and gender are continually emerging, as the social constraints of traditional binaries and hierarchies dissolve before our eyes. However, while this would be true enough, it would also do a disservice to the work that Jude Roberts and Esther MacCallum-Stewart have put into commissioning and assembling a volume that ambitiously seeks to chart not only how gender and sexuality are currently represented in fantasy across a range of media, including books, film, comics, and games, but also how that fantasy interacts with and blends into the everyday world around us.

We know this world has changed. A recent Guardian article quotes the journalist Laurie Penny: "It’s clear that people under a certain age are much more comfortable not just with same-sex relationships but with bisexuality, gender-fluidity and all sorts of other ways of living that fall outside the traditional binaries of straight and gay, male and female." How has this happened? Penny mentions the importance of the Internet both in rendering visible lifestyles outside the norm and enabling discussion about these issues. But ideas still need to come from somewhere. In this respect, Roberts and MacCallum-Stewart highlight the role of academic thought: "Following the interventions of third wave feminism and queer theory, gender and sexuality/ies have come unstuck from their traditional series of binaries and must now be understood as, at the very least, subject to change over time and at most, fundamentally ‘troubled’" (p. 1). This last word is, of course, taken from Judith Butler’s influential Gender Trouble (1990) and its importance lies in its complication of any simple notion of "change over time" or progress.

There is no simple "tipping point" of the kind occasionally declared in the media, such as Time magazine’s June 2014 pronouncement of the "Transgender Tipping Point." If anything, statements like this may implicitly function as a brake on change by suggesting that the change has already happened even while the vast majority of the world carries on as normal. The only thing that can be confidently predicted about a world in which all the binaries have been troubled is that it will be radically, almost unimaginably, different to the present in all respects. As Penny wrote in 2014, when trying to explain what a transgender tipping point might really mean, "I’m crossing my fingers that in ten years’ time, most of this article is going to look dated." Any moment of change—assuming that we do overcome traditional binaries without a backlash—will probably only be visible in retrospect as a complex range of developments and struggles taking place over an extended period of time. Therefore, it is particularly welcome to see Roberts and MacCallum-Stewart acknowledge the complexity of what could so easily have been presented as a straightforward project: "In many ways, each of the terms that make up the title of this collection—gender, sexuality, contemporary, popular and fantasy—is contested" (p. 1).

Key elements of this complexity and contestation are demonstrated in Stephen Kenneally’s opening chapter, "Hiding in plain sight: The invisibility of queer fantasy." While fantasy has the potential to represent any difference, including queer difference, this has not been the case historically, with a dominant heteronormativity generally restricting any queerness that does appear to the margins. Furthermore, the phenomenon of "Heisenberg’s queer fantasy" means that an observer, depending on their perspective, may view a text as "either fantasy with mild queer elements or queer with only a touch of fantasy" (p. 9). Neither of which would necessarily be counted as "true" queer fantasy. Hence, even attempting to identify queer fantasy (especially from the past) is "a process akin to panning for gold" (p. 13). Even the basic expedient of reading through Locus fantasy reviews for signs of queerness is made unnecessarily difficult by reviewers’ coy penchant for "understated and teasing phrasing" (p. 15). Kenneally notes that his own research in these areas led to him becoming "a type of identity policeman" (p. 16). This resonates with Andrew M. Butler’s discussion, later in the collection, of how the category of "homosexuality" has its roots in "medical diagnosis" and, implicitly, "criminal allegation" (p. 56). As Kenneally concludes, the next challenge for researchers is how finally to move beyond critical paradigms based on detection now that queer fantasy is "no longer hiding in plain sight" (p. 19).

Nevertheless, decoding is likely to remain a key element of queer literary criticism for some time to come because of the way that it reveals subtle shifts of meaning across the body of the genre as a whole and of the work of individual writers in particular, even within an overall conservative, heteronormative framework. For example, Lenise Prater’s analysis of Robin Hobb’s Realms of the Elderlings series—the Farseer, Liveship Traders, and Tawny Man trilogies and The Rain Wild Chronicles—concludes that "magical queering, symbolic or metaphoric queering made available by the conventions of the genre, are often more radical than the literal engagement with sexualities carried out by these texts" (p. 32). Similarly, Katharine Harris’s examination of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series suggests that while the books are not free of problematic representations of class, race, and empire, and do not fundamentally reject the nuclear family, "Carriger’s use of the supernatural offers a productive suggestion for fictional, and fantastical, resistance to normative familial structures" (p. 49). As Prater notes, on the one hand Hobb’s use of magic—e.g. Fitz’s capacity to use both the Wit and the Skill—queers our understanding of identity but, on the other hand, her actual representations of queer (or not quite queer) relationships, such as that which potentially exists between Fitz and the Fool, tend to be "rather conservative" (p. 32). The model here is one of contained subversion, where our investment in the text might, or might not, overcome our upset at the overall restoration of order generated by the closures of the various overall narratives.

If the value of such fantasies of contained subversion lies in their relationship to how identities are actually formed in the highly contested environments of human society, this is not surprising when considered in terms of Tzvetan Todorov’s conception of the fantastic, which, as Butler explains, focuses on texts "whose truth statuses are unclear, where the reader hesitates between supernatural and natural explanations of events" (p. 53). For the reader, engaging at both levels with a text by simultaneously reading according to the conventions of fantasy and realism, it becomes possible to move beyond the subversion–containment binary by virtue of a dual perspective which maps queer possibilities over the clearly visible lines of the heteronormative framework. It is this perspective which underwrites what Roberts and MacCallum-Stewart describe as the collection’s capacity to explore "the ways in which [fantasy] can be and is being used to reflect on the contingency of gender and sexuality norms" (p. 2).

Butler’s own discussion of gay protagonists in YA fantastic fiction illustrates this propensity by focusing in part on the relationship between the "individual self-realisation" of the realist "coming-out narrative" and the importance of a fantastic "location within a supportive community" (p. 62). In particular, he examines potential spaces of resistance to the dominant order, such as the woods, shopping precinct, and streets of Paul Magrs’s Strange Boy; the pier, amusement park and record store of Aidan Chambers’s Dance on My Grave; and the whole town in David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. These locations function as sites where gay identity and agency can be unlocked by bringing hard-won self-realisation and acquired discourse into conjunction with a landscape of possibilities not directly constrained by dominant heteronormative values.

By this point in the collection—five chapters in—a picture is starting to emerge of fantasy, itself, as a heterotopic space, which is not just outside the "real world" of gender and sexuality norms but also embedded within it as a hidden kingdom waiting to be discovered by those who seek it. The next two chapters develop this relationship, between everyday life and an imaginary realm, theoretically by drawing on ideas from psychoanalysis. Crucially, the key figure here is not Freud, whose normative accounts and attitude to sexual abuse are problematic, but Melanie Klein.

As Anna Madill explains in some detail, while discussing Boys’ Love (BL) manga (male-male sexuality portrayed largely by and for women), Klein’s model of infant development posits that the ego develops from birth through "phantasy" (spelled in this way to suggest an unconscious process): "Phantasy instantiates an internal reality populated by versions of ‘people, things, situations, and happenings’ (Klein) from outer reality, modified by the individual’s psychological needs" (p. 69). Externalised, phantasy becomes the basis for what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary order, a fictionalised world of shared maternal belonging which the classic (male) psychoanalytic subject is supposed to overcome by asserting his difference from the potentially overpowering nature of the mother, thus entering the patriarchal Symbolic order. After showing how the protagonists of various examples of BL remain sundered from this patriarchal order, Madill cites Tamaki Saitō’s argument that manga, computer games, and digital technologies generally have all contributed to a dimensional increase of the Imaginary order, and goes on to endorse his suggestion that "what we call ‘everyday reality’ is predominantly in the realm of the Imaginary, since it is largely constituted through levels of fictionality differentiated merely by conscious awareness of their mediation (e.g. a TV documentary versus a TV drama)" (p. 81). A similar argument is made by Lisa Bennett in her chapter concerning how Weird fiction highlights the twenty-first-century condition of "our increasing reliance upon and integration with the things we have created" (p.86). It is this mediated world that we have developed for ourselves which is slowly being transformed into a landscape of non-normative possibilities.

There are writers who have always recognised these possibilities and whose work is actively political in the sense that they seek to raise readers’ consciousness of the possibility of refashioning the worlds we inhabit. One such is Alan Moore, the subject of Mathew J.A. Green’s superb chapter, "‘Everything’s interconnected’: Anarchy, ecology and sexuality in Lost Girls and Swamp Thing." Green focuses on Moore’s anarchistic commitment to a "freedom that emphasises the interconnection of sexuality, ecology and politics" (p. 99). The overlapping multiple realities operating in Swamp Thing (which connected with DC’s overarching Crisis on Infinite Worlds storyline) highlights the importance of the relationship between fantasy and consensual reality. The consensual sexual relationship which Moore and the illustrators depicted between Swamp Thing and Abigail Cable, once Swamp Thing became the first mainstream comic to be published outside the Comics Code, literally represents "interaction between the human and natural worlds" (p. 99), resulting in the consensual transformation of that world. In Lost Girls, a less idealised vision of sexuality "reminds us that every act of consensual sex involves a complex negotiation in which power is omnipresent" (p.106). It also suggests that the complex politics of consensual sex offer a model for understanding how a genuinely consensual reality might function once liberated from ideology and a heteronormative framework. This is not to say that fantasy and reality are not distinct but that there is a clear relationship between desires—conscious and unconscious—and the actions we take in the world. The onset of the First World War as depicted in Lost Girls represents the thwarting of desire and its perversion into fantasies of political domination and violence. Moore’s fantasy, therefore, advocates the need for us to act on our desires consciously and consensually in the world. As Green concludes, "Pleasure—and sexual pleasure especially—remains an awfully important aspect of the reading experience, but if we remain unable to translate our readerly activities into performances that go beyond the page, we will have missed the point" (p. 114).

The growth in the cultural significance of games—whether of the role-playing, board, or computer variety—over the last few decades shows how pleasure and performance have become publicly linked through play. In his chapter "Playing past the ‘straight male gamer’", Steven Holmes looks at the evolution of the Canadian company BioWare from the Baldur’s Gate franchise of the late 1990s, "where LGBT themes, particularly transsexual themes, were treated primarily as comic relief" to the current, ongoing, Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, "where players can develop intimate relationships with sympathetic bisexual or queer characters" (p. 117). As Adam Brown and Deb Waterhouse-Watson point out in their chapter on board games, "Playing with gender," gender-flipping the hero and otherwise blurring binary understandings of gender do not necessarily destabilise the dominant heteronormative frameworks of games. Rather, as Keridwen N. Luis observes while discussing Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch, it is only when the protagonist becomes self-aware of the kind of story they are in and then reconstructs it in order to not only reflect their own desires but also to transform the role that they themselves are performing, that the dominant framework is, in effect, hollowed out from within by a multiplication of agential identities and possible relationships. Luis is talking about the protagonists of stories but her argument can be applied equally to gamers, who by exposure to a limited range of possibilities become self-aware of the much greater number of possibilities potentially open to them. Significantly, Holmes demonstrates that the "fan-based modding community" that developed around Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, which originally came with a range of heteronormative romantic subplots, "had a strong interest in exploring non-heteronormative sexuality in the context of fantasy role-playing games" (pp. 121-2). Historically, it looks as though simply giving people the possibility of playing either option within the traditional binary division of gender has led to a curiosity and desire for ever more options.

Holmes’s chapter title refers to an occasion in 2011 when an anonymous player used one of BioWare’s online discussion forums to argue that the company was neglecting "its core demographic, the ‘Straight Male Gamer’" (p. 118). This prompted David Gaider, the lead writer on Dragon Age: Origins, to respond that the romances were for everyone including the many fans who are "neither straight nor male" (p. 118). Consideration of this exchange leads Holmes into an interesting discussion of to what extent discussion forums run by the company function as virtual public spheres, permitting rational-critical debate as envisaged by the theorist Jürgen Habermas, or whether they serve to homogenize ideas and thereby contribute to a fragmentation of common cultural values into strongly opposed camps. While examples, such as "Gamergate" and the attempts by "Rabid" and "Sad Puppies" to influence the Hugos, demonstrate the potential for oppositional groupings to emerge in this manner, the overall effect of the Internet, as already mentioned in the introduction to this review, has been to raise awareness of alternate genders and sexualities on a scale unimaginable even as recently as the 1990s. The fact that in fifteen years or so we have gone from a position where queer themes were largely absent from games to a situation where it is now hard to imagine game worlds where heteronormativity is the only option is only one indication, alongside others discussed in this review, that suggests a deep-rooted universal shift in the way that human beings collectively understand sexualities and genders, even if the responss of different groupings to that shift vary in terms of positivity and negativity.

This argument might seem overly optimistic but, if anything, it is a considered rational response to the realisation that the complex range of developments and struggles by which gender and sexuality are being detached from bodily essentialism—including, as discussed in Katherine Farrimond’s chapter, such formerly fundamental concepts as "virginity"—has passed the point of no return. Once people have seen the world in colour, they cannot make themselves go back to seeing it in black and white; at least not without doing violence to themselves and others. In this context, the overall value of this collection of essays, above and beyond the considerable worth of the individual chapters, is twofold. First, the central concept, outlined from the introduction onwards, is that all the key terms considered should be troubled and contested. Only this kind of critical attitude—for which academia, while not being the sole source, is a key repository and training ground—can help us keep up with the changing dynamic of gender and sexuality and not allow our views to ossify. Second, as the chapters collectively demonstrate, fantasy, in its broadest sense, is a key mode—maybe the key mode—by which we not only interact with but also constitute the consensual reality of the everyday world in which we live.



Nick Hubble divides their time between Aberystwyth and Uxbridge.
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