Friday, November 5, 2010

We Are Sex Bob-omb

Last night, I finally beat Gideon Graves.

My mini-Kim Pine had been struggling to do so for a few evenings running, each time hanging on a bit longer, only to be yanked through subspace to the next bizarre torment—an assembly line full of robots and flying steampunk people, a dark, glassy maze populated by flying hydra heads where it rains giant drops of acidic blood, an embiggenated monster Gideon with abs made of what appear to be zombie faces… You know how it is. You grind your way through it a few times, and if you don't succeed, you just have to put the controller down for a day or two.

Anyhow, this last grind-through, I made it. To look at my HP, it might have seemed that Kim and I were hanging on by the skin of our teeth, each avoided attack a near miss, each hit landed with sheer luck. However, this was not the case. I had spent mine and Game-Kim's time apart over the last few days catching up with the original Book-Kim, where I had come to fully grok what many of the people who know me best in the real world had been telling me for weeks: "Not that we all live in 'Scott Pilgrim' or anything, but obviously Kim Pine is YOU". I resented it at first. "Yay", I would say. "I'm a sarcastic tertiary ginger sidekick, please marginalize me out of the narrative of our lives". However, I cannot deny that this was the reason I chose to play as Kim when given the opportunity, and indeed, the more I read the books themselves, the more I felt a kinship with her. Through the lens of the story's many relationship follies she and I fused, bonded, and emerged from on the other side determined and hungry, ready to face Gideon Graves again.

Kim's and my newfound sense of unity made "us" lucid, lethal and unstoppable. Gideon never really stood a chance. After a respectable struggle, he went down hard, erupting into a shower of Canadian coins, and his secret laboratory started to rumble ominously. I sat staring from my living room, but luckily Kim had the presence of mind to high-tail it out of there and watch the collapse from a high, safe building across the street. However, I couldn't shake the feeling that whatever ginger voodoo had been holding us together dissolved—and not a moment too soon, because what happened next sort of annoyed me.

I had already been informed that each playable character has a different ending within the game, and that only Ramona's was similar to the books/movie. Attached as I had become to Kim Pine, I looked forward to this, thinking it might provide some resolution, or at least hint towards her finding some kind of happiness. I knew that Stephen's ending in particular was pretty cool- The band goes on to become hugely popular and successful, and all the members end up with more than enough money to pay their bills, thereby freeing them from their horrible day jobs. This would be a great ending for any of the characters, particularly if it involved Kim being able to support herself by some other means that working at No-Account Video.

For a moment, it looked like Kim's ending was going to involve her getting back together with Scott. I braced myself for a facepalm, but she walked right past him and proceeded to go for Knives Chau instead. They gazed deeply into each other's eyes with longing. Hand in hand, they walked away smiling, leaving everyone to look surprised and mildly turned-on. The End.

Wait… what? Ok, to be fair, this is not without context or precedent. In the 4th book of the original series, there is a beach party during which both Kim and Knives are noticed to be suddenly absent. Everyone at the party is drunk, and Scott sets out to look for them, only to find Kim and Knives sitting together in a room, talking about their lives, and bemoaning their respective past relationships with Scott. He attempts to eavesdrop from the dark hallway, and witnesses Kim and Knives exchange a kiss. The still-hidden Scott is deeply freaked out by this for some reason, and retreats, telling himself that what he has witnessed will never be mentioned to anyone, ever.

That, I suppose, is the basis upon which Kim's in-game ending was written, because clearly, none of the writers knew what else to do with her character. (Sort of like in the movie. Zing! I'll be here all night - ed.) The incident doesn't happen in the movie, and is not really even a subplot within the comic. The kiss, as sometimes happens in real life, is just a kiss, and based on the "commiseration" vibe in the original context, not necessarily a romantic one. Or at least, it is far less romantic than the interaction that is implied to have occurred between Ramona Flowers and Official Evil Ex Roxy Richter. Perhaps the reason the game writers seized this particular moment for Kim was because they thought it was both convenient and a progressive thing to do. "Why not solve two problems at once? We can pair off two loose ends and throw in a LGBTQ character, too!" And yes, it is sometimes true that an effective way of getting the less open-minded segments of the population to be less bigoted and xenophobic is to introduce characters in mainstream media that are not rigidly heterosexual. It's a bit sad that it takes subtle inoculation through pop culture over time to accomplish this, but it does seem that the attitude is slowly changing for the better.

So why, then, would I have such mixed feelings that Kim's happy ending is to be with Knives Chau? Because I think turning Kim into a lesbian is not necessarily part of the solution, and potentially part of the problem. By doing this, the writers may think they are doing the LBGTQ community a big huge favor by having one of the main female characters discover that she likes girls. Oh, thank you, game devs! You guys are really in touch with the struggles faced by people who are pigeonholed by sexuality and gender roles! However, a different way of looking at this is that by making Kim and Knives hook up, they're actually just reinforcing another tired stereotype: If you're not The Exceptional Girl ®, there must be some other reason that you are not a rival or a threat to said main girl. If you're not the Stupid Ugly Best Friend, Villain/Dangerously Unbalanced Crazy Girl or Mother Figure, it must mean you're a lesbian (unless you're bisexual, in which case your bisexuality will become a plot point, or at least a subplot). Kim's mannerisms and behavior do not fall into any pre-existing "female character" pattern. She is guarded and sarcastic, but very smart, so not a Stupid Ugly Best Friend. She is not always nice, but she's not a Villain. She's obviously not the nurturing sort, so not a mother. Must be a lesbian.

Yes, I realize that this is a difficult complaint. On the one hand, Scott Pilgrim 's gay characters are written with a lot more grace and dignity than many of its contemporaries, in both the books and the movie. You've got Wallace, obviously, and you've got Stephen (in the books), and I'm probably forgetting a few others. These characters are very human in that the things they do and say seem much more representative of what they're like as individuals than, "Oh, I better have him say something 'gay', since he's gay". And this emphasis on individual personality traits above the expected stereotype holds true for all the characters in the Scott Pilgrim universe, really. Even the antagonists are filled with a nougat-y human center, with the possible exception of Gideon himself. Most of Ramona's evil exes have their moments, and even Envy Adams' scathingly demonic bitchery is offset with hints of remorse when she realizes how clearly she's alienated herself from everyone she used to love in her quest for perfection.

Keeping this in mind, nothing in Kim's character or background would suggest that she'd get together with Knives Chau as her be all, end all finale, except for that one drunk, sad kiss. It's just that maybe she reminded the game developers a bit too much of Peppermint Patty from Peanuts, or Velma from Scooby-Doo- Oh WAIT, there is even less evidence to support the notion that either of them prefer to date girls. At least not at the time that the characters were originally written. Chalk any recent references to that up to the boilerplate of "Not femme = wants femme".

When you think about it objectively (as much as the human brain allows, anyway) why would we make such assumptions about what amounts to fairly arbitrary aspects of a character's nature, anyway? This is Motherfucking Planet Earth. We've got tomboys who like boys, tomboys who like girls, tomboys who like everyone, transgendered lesbian metalheads, curvy androgynes, straight male hairdressers, neutrois janitors, and people who identify as asexual. And we've got all these identities and more in every possible ethnic flavor. We have all kinds of people, and this is what makes us awesome. Unfortunately, having all kinds of people also means that we have jerks. Additionally, it means that the jerks sometimes influence influential folks who would otherwise be non-jerks, and the closed-mindedness spreads like a lovelorn park ranger-sparked wildfire in a high desert climate. When we're encouraged to think of anyone who's not exactly like the lead characters in most contemporary narratives as "other", it also encourages us to create categories and lump one another into them.

Honestly, whether or not Kim Pine, Velma or Peppermint Patty are lesbians in reality is not even relevant, because they are not real people. However, they are characters written by real people. The more we come to associate certain personality traits with specific gender identities portrayed on television, in games and other media, the more likely we are to make those assumptions about people in real life, which is simply not how real life is. In real life, human beings are complicated, nuanced and multi-dimensional. That is, unless the aforementioned assumption is potentially taken one step further, and people believe that they must behave in a certain way as a social signal to those around them, as though there are a limited number of ways in which a person can be "customized" from a tropological drop-down menu. This may sound ridiculous, but ponder the following excerpt from Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, written by Chuck Klosterman in 2003. In it, he ponders why, when discussing a reality show such as The Real World, it's not necessary that the person with whom he is discussing it necessarily be familiar with the characters:
"You don't need to know the people I'm talking about, because you know the people I'm talking about. And I don't mean you know them in the ham-fisted way that MTV casts them (i.e. "The Angry Black Militant" or "The Gay One" or "The Naive Virginal Southerner Who's Vaguely Foxy"). When I say "you know these people", it's because the personalities on The Real World have become the only available personalities for everyone who's (a) alive and (b) under the age of 29. "
At its worst, morphing a character's personality into a tired racial, gender or sexual orientation stereotype is socially irresponsible. At its best, it's just uninspired writing. "Surprise! This character is gay/lesbian/transgendered!" may have worked in the 80s and 90s, because non-heteronormative characters were so rarely portrayed in the mainstream, and there was a time when such an occurrence could have been seen as a progressive political statement from the writer. But I'd like to think we've moved beyond that by this point. To continue to use that mechanism as a novel plot twist trivializes anyone who does identify this way. It's time for game character development to be brought up to speed with postmodernism. The time has come, if you will, for "postgay". Because maybe if we create environments within our media where a person's gender and sexual preference ain't no thing, it will become that way out in the world, too.

Having said all that, I am additionally compelled to ask why Kim needed to end up with anyone at all. Stephen's in-game ending didn't involve a coupling, he just went on to become a rich and famous musician. Why is the win-condition for female characters always presumed to be a romantic partnership? Why can't she just be happy on her own? Why couldn't Kim's ending focus on something having to do with her achievements or her professional aspirations?

I realize that it's all well and good to moan about this. After all, how easy for me to call out stereotypes displayed by a videogame character who's twice removed from her original context. One could easily say that I am not the one who had to write the damn ending in the first place, and one would be right; that is not my job, and it probably never will be. My job, in this context, is to write about stuff like this. However, if I were to be tasked with trying to come up with a better ending, I would prefer it go down thusly:

After Kim's defeat of Gideon, the Chaos Theater does indeed collapse, but everyone makes it out safely. Scott turns to Kim and thanks her for continuing to be his friend while he's had to work out his utterly ridiculous personal bullshit. Kim then goes to Knives and wishes her well, telling her that if she is interested in the music scene, she should try channeling some of her excess emotion into learning to play an instrument, as it's one of the only things that got Kim through all of her own angst.

Finally, Kim is approached by Envy, who points out that she is missing both of the other members of her already super-successful band, The Clash at Demonhead. Her boyfriend/bassist Todd Ingram was recently arrested by the Vegan Police and then turned into a handful of coins, and her drummer, Lynette Guycott, has lost her bionic arm and disappeared. Envy asks Kim if she would be willing to step in as Demonhead's drummer for a bit and see how she likes the band. Kim agrees to give it a shot, on the condition that Envy must stop acting like a gargantuan bitch, must give her equal input as to who the new bassist will be, and also must give her time off to continue to play with Sex Bob-omb. Everyone's happy, they all go out for beer and pizza. End cutscene.

Perhaps that sounds ridiculous, but really, it's not that different from the original endings. The only difference is that the closure is not provided by way of having Kim sign off on a partnership that by all appearances is motivated by mutual misery and convenience, implying that her validation comes from being in any relationship at all. In this case, her happy ending comes from something for which she has worked hard and achieved by her own merits. And perhaps most importantly, it's still a happy ending.

In some ways, it feels as though the world of character development has just hit its awkward teenage years and started to experiment a bit. Yes, of course it's ok to have girls kiss girls and boys kiss boys, but shouldn't we be past it as a novelty by now? The people who are responsible for such things certainly aren't teenagers (although that would explain why it is so difficult for many college graduates to find jobs). Until we start demanding that our game characters not be written as boring caricatures designed to appeal to what publishers seem to think the majority of gamers desire, we're going to be stuck in this awkward adolescent phase. My hope is that eventually, our society will be able to notice the sexuality, race or apparent gender of a character (or even a real live person), acknowledge it as an important detail of that particular person, but at the same time acknowledge that it does not dictate an entire personality. It simply combines with myriad other details to make one whole, complicated, labyrinthine human being.

Roll your eyes if you must, but if you're not a tiny bit labyrinthine or at least a bit complicated and confused from time to time, you might want to make sure you're not secretly living on MTV. And if it turns out that you are on MTV, don't worry. You'll know who you're supposed to be soon enough.

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