How Not To Defend Fiction From Criticism

Fantasy and science fiction universes have a little problem with diversity, as we all know. I'm talking mainly about sexism in this, but it's applicable to racism and other -isms (except prisms, fuck those guys). 

Recently my attention was drawn to a Mary Sue article, written by one James McConnaughy, about the problem of diversity in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It's a fantastic read and was catharsis as it stated many problems I've conversed with people about before. As much as I love me some little plastic soldiers to paint up and roll dice with (and spend an embarrassing amount of money in the process), it's very much painted as a Boys Only club.

Like this, but the adorable tiger is a hulking green muscled man-Ork.

Like this, but the adorable tiger is a hulking green muscled man-Ork.

More importantly, my attention was also drawn to some of the comments against this article, one in particular, which read: 

Allow me to point out that there is no problem with the canon stating the Marines are male-only. They don't even need the S[isters] o[f] B[attle] there to validate that. There is utterly zero reason that anyone should have to alter their creation to suit the desires of a niche that they did not intend to cater to, because they want it this way or that way. It gives the story an interesting dynamic by making the Astartes stand out.

No, I'll agree they're not required to alter their creation in the face of criticism, of course that's their right. But it must be open to criticism, which is all McConnaughy's article was doing. It does come with an implied plea for Games Workshop to introduce some parts in their kits to have mixed gender units, but out of a sense of inclusion, as a natural result of the logical arguments laid out. It is one call for a change, which is his right, just as it is Games Workshop's right to ignore that call or to listen to it. Nothing is being forced on anyone here!

This is a knee-jerk reaction to something that criticises 40K quite fairly, and written by someone who is a big fan of the medium, stated right at the beginning of the article. Criticising something or examining a particular facet of it critically is not demanding immediate alterations to obey the will of the minority. It’s pointing out the inequality in the property and asking why there are no females in the model range, and stating that it would have been perfectly easy to add in a few torsos to make your unit stand out both aesthetically and in terms of progress. Even if they are demanding female models in the boxes, it’s not going to be forced on anyone, as it will be totally optional for the player – there are multiple ways to build all models in the GW range so no one will be required to have awful women in their armies that they didn't want. It’s similar to how people, for some reason, see the phrase, Black Lives Matter as having an implicit 'Only' at the end, rather than an implicit 'Too'.

All works of fiction and art and, well, anything, must be open to criticism, and generally positive criticism is how we move forward in the world. Do I hate a movie because of one distasteful joke in it? No, I look at the context, not as an excuse, but for some measure of explanation (for instance, if it's an old movie, lack of female characters was typical of the time/certain humour wasn't considered unacceptable etc.) and I give that scene, that joke, that line of dialogue, whatever it is, I give it some criticism, adjusting the scathing levels appropriately. 

Per example, Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo, creepin' on Leia, the scene where they kiss in the ship and it's disgusting and gross and really forced. But don't take my word for it:

Seriously, don't take my word for it, take David Wong's, he's got loads about it. And a lot of examples involve Harrison Ford. According to films from the '80s he was the most charming and handsome rapist.

I love this film but I don't love the romance, except for the 'I love you/I know' scene. I never really got the romance angle as a kid, not saying I was tuned in to the fact that it had a dab of sexual assault to it, but it just never really worked for me. Do I now hate Star Wars? Nope. I hold criticism against it and move on with my life, until finally The Force Awakens gives us a female character who doesn't end up as a literal sex slave.

My favourite book of all time, The Lord of the Rings, has approximately six female characters, two of which are just wives/prizes for two of the male characters (Arwen and Rosie Cotton), and one of them is a giant fat spider. Am I happy about the diversity of Middle Earth? Nope, but it's still my favourite book, even if I wish a few things were different about it and have some critical opinions about it. Also, I've created a Monstrous Regiment-style backstory for my space marines where all the ones that wear helmets are women, the only ones who are men are the ones who decide to not wear helmets to prove to their superior officers that they're still an all-male army, despite whatever rumours they've heard. It also helps explain why their armour is so stylised and masculine (fucking six packs on their armour), gotta make sure the commanders don't question a thing, although you wonder why Dante is wearing a mask now...

As Anita Sarkeesian says in her excellent series of videos about tropes against women in video games, it's okay to criticise something while still enjoying it.

Blindly rejecting criticism shows that you have occluded the outside world from your thoughts, unable to allow another opinion weigh in to the discussion. A blinkered view, which leads me to my next point, which comes from my attention being also drawn to an entire reaction article on TechRaptor (I'm sure there are more, but one was sufficient). I don't think I generate enough traffic to feel bad for diverting a small portion of it there

If you can't be bothered to read it (I do not blame you) it basically defends the Space Marines being only men due to some garbled nonsense about the science in the universe only working on men. Or something. It's nonsense. It also, in its carefully thought out argument, dispenses with all the supposedly genderless alien species in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, including the Orks which are green, muscle-bound, clearly male, pseudo-power fantasies. Oh, but in the universe they're not technically gendered, oh right, I forgot, thanks for reminding me, we can't mention them then.

Except we totally can and should. This type of argument is what is known as the Thermian Argument, where an in-universe explanation is used against a real-world criticism. As you can see, that's somewhat flawed. Here's a delightful video to explain it in more detail.

One example from the TechRaptor article defends a character called Lelith, from the Dark Eldar army. In particular, it notes that she wears almost no clothing or amour to show off how many scars she doesn't have due to her prowess in combat, and not just as eye candy for the assumed straight male audience of the game, oh no. It's a 28mm high model, DO YOU REALLY EXPECT ME TO WANK OVER IT?! It's somehow topped the Metal Gear Solid V controversy of the (pretty much only) female character Quiet having to breathe through her skin as an explanation for her almost total nudity. Utterly bizarre diegetic reasoning to justify rampant sexism. It results in an attitude that you can display anything as long as some in-universe rule states it's okay which means it can never be criticised by feminazis and social justice warriors and hugh-mans.

The only reason people use the Thermian Argument is just through severe cognitive dissonance. They love X so must defend it at all costs, can justify anything in that process. Hey, we're all human, we all do it to some degree. Cognitive dissonance is perfectly natural.

Another consequence of using the Thermian Argument struck me though. If only what is inside the text counts for informing sexist attitudes/characters/whatever, then if we take that as fact, no piece of fiction can ever have any meaning or symbology or importance outside of that work of fiction. How can you have allegory if it’s so contained that it has no relation to the real world? Either it has a relationship to the real world (which is a two-way street) or it doesn’t have this relationship, meaning it’s completely free from criticism, yet also cannot ever have any implications of a world outside the boundaries of the pages. And this would result in a lot of boring fiction that never has any connections beyond the printed words.

Wait, what’s that, you say? Allegories exist? Fiction often represents a part of the real world? Then it must be the first option I said! Which means you have to be able to criticise it. God damn it. 

If you accept that a work of fiction has a reflection of the real world, then it must be open to real world criticisms. And how do you deny that Voldemort is wizard Hitler? He's fairly analogous. So you cannot use diegetic reasoning as a shield. It’s simply not an argument and it’s a last resort for people who exhibit huge amounts of cognitive dissonance to desperately defend something they love, because they have forgotten that they can love something AND still find flaws with it. I know lots of people who, excellent people though they are, like the film Love Actually, which is a film that actively hates women.

And just fucking sucks.