Identifying with characters and other insults to women

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Title: Identifying with characters and other insults to women
Date(s): Nov 7, 1993
Medium: post to mailing list
Fandom: The Professionals and Blake's 7 are mentioned but it's multifandom
External Links:
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Identifying with characters and other insults to women is a 1992 post at Virgule-L.

It is used here on Fanlore anonymously with permission.

Some Topics Discussed

From the Essay

There is this notion going around, promulgated by Russ, Camille Bacon-Smith and the Religious Right that women need to 'identify' with characters, that we need to have male characters androgynised so that we can experience vicarious pleasure.

Some of us are a hell of a lot stronger than that. Give me a break--yet more theories about the little women all sitting at home waiting for their hero to sweep them off their little bound feet--it's enough to make me puke.

Not all women identify with the characters, not all of us use them for 'vicarious' pleasure--and a lot of us who prove the inconsistencies and weakness of this theory are the very ones who publicly subscribe to it, even though we go out there, take these men by the balls and make them do what *we* want them to. I for one do not identify with them--I objectify them. It doesn't matter how fond of them I may be, I no more identify with them than I do any other so-called hero. As we say where I grew up, 'they all eat, sleep and go to the bathroom like the rest of us', i. e. they're all as flawed as the rest of us, and I really resent this notion that we need to have these 'heroes' up on the screen so that we can 'identify' with them and raise ourselves up.

And as for vicarious pleasure... Sorry, slash is definitely one-handed reading as far as I'm concerned, and while their pleasure is important to the story, it's also important because it gives *direct*, not vicarious, pleasure. There's a fine line between, for instance, the vicarious pleasure of seeing someone happily married and what could be argued as 'vicarious' pleasure of reading slash--but vicarious has always been used to imply a much more pallid version of the pleasure and happiness or pain etc of the people being in the person viewing the pleasure, pain, etc. of those primarily experience the real situation, and vicarious is used to mean *secondary*--and I argue that the pleasure of the writer and/or reader is far more important than the pleasure of our fictional characters in a story we'll read one day, file the next and replace the week after. Or even a story that we never forget, never leave behind and go back to time after time after time.

I am so tired of all these theories that make us out to be helpless little bints dependent on the outside for our pleasures and our insights--*we're* the ones creating all this, *we're* the ones in control of this, and the theorists can be damned as far as I'm concerned. Identify with the characters. Oh, yeh, right, we all want to be raped by our best friend, beaten up by thugs, shot by Avon, trapped in the Bastille with sundry bugs, out-thought by Cantrell [sic], verbally abused by Cowley, poisoned, shot, stabbed, fired, abandoned, betrayed-- or is that just us writing from our pain (as if that isn't what every writer in every genre could argued to be doing)?

When I write something, it's mine--based on plagiarised characters, yes, but then, Homer did the same thing, and no-one claims he only did that because he 'identified' with the hero and wanted the 'vicarious' pleasure of his life. Why can't it be accepted that for quite a few of us, slash is for pleasure, fun and creativity? It's an escape no more harmful than watching football on a Monday night or playing golf on a Sunday.

Do all of us, when watching something, identify with the characters? Or do we sit and watch, look for 'the looks', listen for the nuances--and fix the plot holes and poor characterisation? And are we all thrilled and made ever so glad when one of these dear boys is given a promotion? Where's the vicarious pleasure in that? Just because Bodie also enjoys getting an eyeful of Doyle's bum doesn't mean that we can only experience that same pleasure through him., either vicariously or by identifying with Bodie. Some of us are capable of lust all by ourselves. And what's more, we don't need anyone to tell us how to do it!

Fan Reaction

Now I know that all I have to do to get you to froth at the mouth is say "I [heart] Joanna Russ." Your rant was very entertaining, but if it was meant as a response to what *I* said (as opposed to an automatic vomit-launch in response to the simple mention of one of Russ's ideas), then clarification is in order, since it sounds like you're responding to something I didn't actually say. Either that or we have completely different notions of what the phrase "identify with the characters" means.

I agree with you that women don't need to somehow take on male sexuality in order to experience sexual pleasure, or whatever the hell it is you think "identify with the characters" means when Russ or CBS or the Religious Right says it. I agree with you that when we enjoy slash, whether as readers or writers or both, we're shamelessly creating and enjoying sex objects that we've tailored to our own specifications. We are definitely in control of every aspect of the experience.

But Tiresias is the only human I've ever heard of who knew what it was like to fuck in both a male and a female body. And if you get sexual gratification from reading about men fucking each other, then it seems to me that you must be in some way imagining ("experiencing vicariously") what it would feel like to have sex in and with a male body. Unless you're satisfied just to "watch." Me, I like to imagine what it *feels* like. And no hunky he-man character ever tempted me much to try to imagine what it felt like for *him*--it takes a certain snaky androgyny to get me interested. I don't mean "femminess." I mean androgyny. Like Mick Jagger in "Performance." (Or Mick Jagger in real life, for that matter, though not recently.) For christ's sake, I see *TRAVIS* (number 1) as an androgynous character. His obsession makes him accessible to me, his mutilations interest me and give me a bridge into what it might feel like to be him. Spock was one of the first media characters to evoke this sense of sexual accessibility. Probably the first were the characters in Mary Renault's books, which I read with my (female) lover at the age of fourteen in between stealing moments to kiss, cuddle, and fuck. With characters like this, gender wasn't an issue. Later, when life got more complex, I started to see this kind of "way around gender" in many figures that weren't coded as queer; weren't coded as he-men either. Or if they were, there was a fatal flaw somewhere. *That* is what I mean by "identifying with the characters." But that was just me.

I bet that for a lot of women (and women are people, an I have a low opinion of most people, including women), it worked just as Russ described. Spock literally gave them a role model for an imaginary relationship with a peer who was a man. It had to be imaginary because in real life, men were by definition not peers.

I get off on androgynous characters. You may get off on John Fucking Wayne. Big deal. It doesn't mean either of us is *stronger* than the other.

Just in case you're laboring under the delusion that I subscribe to these theories, publicly or not, let me state clearly and for the record that while I consider any idea put forth by *anybody* to be fair game for consideration, adaptation, and exploration, I do not now and never have *subscribed to*-- that is, wholeheartedly swallowed--these theories. Like I said before, I think Russ's ideas are perceptive, but they *do not* fully explain slash, nor are they applicable across the board.

Now then. I fully agree that we go out there and take 'em by the balls and all that. I wouldn't have it any other way.

You're the one who called them "heroes," please note. I don't see them as heroes at all. The fact that they eat, sleep, shit, fuck, fart, and get sick and die is what makes them interesting and accessible as characters --it's what gives me my "way in" to enjoy playing around with the idea of their sexuality as if it were Play-Dough. I don't raise myself up by identifying with any of 'em. I simply have a good time exploring a space I wouldn't be able to get into otherwise. What is this--do you think that we fall down and worship Bodie and Doyle or something? Well, maybe some people do --but I hope they stay *far, far away from me.* It's the fact that the characters have strengths *and* weaknesses that make them evocative.

There is a difference between getting fucked through the floor and reading about somebody getting fucked through the floor. I use the word "vicarious" to refer to the latter experience, which in many cases I find just as satisfying as the former if not more so. This satisfaction could, I suppose, be called "direct",but it is obtained through a sort of voyeuristic indulgence in a *vicarious* act. This is getting too far into the realm of semantics to be very much fun.


Again, I don't see "vicarious" pleasure as in any way "secondary"-- though I can see that in general, social convention would have it so. I think it's an act of radical independence to prefer reading slash (vicarious) to actually fucking some geek (nonvicarious), which is a choice I've made many times.

As to the pleasure of the characters, I wasn't even thinking of that. I don't give a hoot about the pleasure of the characters, which is one reason I can enjoy rape stories. They may not get off on what's happening, but I do. What matters to me is my own pleasure, which requires the skillful delineation of some rather exciting goings-on, preferably involving black boots (or androids, leather, red-hot pokers, etc. either singly or in any combination). If the characters have a good time, that's one "way in" for me--if their good time is being had in a way that I find exciting. If they're having a good time by giving each other a nice massage, well, that's nice, but unless the scene is very very well written, it's not going to pump *my* nads very much. I would imagine that other formulae apply to other fen; sexuality is an area of *such* diversity, wouldn't you agree, dear? Hand me another biscuit.[1]


  1. ^ from EB at Virgule-L (Nov 7, 1993)