Thursday, May 10, 2012

I See Myself as an Endless Fountain of Immortal Drink

A friend linked to a review (of an episode of Legend of Korra, but that's not particularly relevant), offering up the quotation: "When I was a kid, I insisted on being an extra Michelangelo at recess instead of April. (Believe that I had a costume.) The lone female character who hung out with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably wasn’t as heinous as I remember... But 7-year-olds at recess have a way of boiling down characters to their defining characteristics, and [t]he job of the designated April was to hang out on the jungle gym until she was rescued, which was boring. An April couldn’t lead the gang. I could sometimes lead the gang, but only as Michelangelo. ...

"So even while watching 'The Spirit Of Competition,' in which significant time is spent on the long-dreaded romantic-polygon plot, my inner 7-year-old was still dead jealous she missed out on being Korra."

When I see people say things like that, I tend to find it somewhat alienating. Here am I, who was once a seven-year-old girl, and I just don't associate with that at all. I didn't have this kind of visceral reaction against the designated female characters in stories, that wasn't an issue for me. So I worry - does that make me a bad person? What does it say about me that I didn't feel that way? Shouldn't I have been offended by the limited roles open to females? Shouldn't I at least have shown more obvious evidence of having actually noticed?

But then I tried to dig more deeply into my memories of the time, and it occurred to me - I wasn't trying to play Michalangelo at seven, but, honestly, I wasn't exactly trying to play April, either. When I tried to envision myself as a character in an already-created fictional world, I was doing self-insert, at that age, and not self-insert as a Mary Sue heroine of either type, either. When I was doing self-insertion, it was as this kind of omniscient, omnipotent authorial figure. I didn't tend to envision myself as any of the characters in fantasy stories that seriously (I mean, I sort of associated myself with Nan Pilgrim in Witch Week in a kind of vague way, but when I tried acting out the book with my best friend, it was Charles's Simon Says spell that I was (alarmingly) obsessed with casting). Instead, I pictured myself coming into the worlds of the realistic fiction I was reading at the time, The Babysitters' Club and Sweet Valley Twins and being in control. When I made up a huge BSC fanfic in my head, it was from Kristy's POV, even though I was a character, and I went around being mysterious and having magic powers and doing strange things to Kristy. There was this one SVT book about how Jessica arranged for Elizabeth to have a really terrible, unpleasant day in order to orchestrate giving her a surprise party at the end, and I hated that plot. I always felt intensely sorry for Elizabeth. So whenever I reread that book I would make up fix-it fanfic where I was the magical omnipotent author-figure saving Elizabeth from Jessica.

Even my imaginary games - the most significant imaginary games from my early life were Good Rabbit, Bad Rabbit and Good Mole, Bad Mole, which I played with my grandmother and little brother. I think Good Mole, Bad Mole was the long lasting one. It was a story about an orphaned little girl who lived with her evil stepfamily and whose only friend was the protective good mole, but they were at constant risk from the evil, dangerous, bad mole (I think that Good Rabbit, Bad Rabbit was basically the same plot but with rabbits?). So you'd think that I would be the poor little orphaned girl, right? Except I wasn't. That was my grandmother, and my brother was the good mole, but I was all the other characters, especially the evil ones. I don't think so much that it was that I wanted to be evil, though; I think it's more that the evil characters were in control of the plot, and that's where I wanted to be, in control of the plot.

Later in my childhood, once I was around ten or so, I became more involved in playing more normal imaginary games, the kind where I actually explicitly took on the roles of particular characters and acted specifically from their points of view. And at that time, I did default to playing largely female characters (with the occasional male). Those characters are still too important to me for me to easily classify them as "token females" or "powerful females" or anything like that - to me, they're just a lot of the best characters, and of course the best characters I create would include females, given that I see myself as female and I am the source of my own characters. I don't know how much all of my characters draw on stereotypical tropes of female characters, and to a certain extent I would even have to say it's something I'm uncomfortable thinking about. I love my characters too much and too personally to be entirely comfortable with the idea of confronting the potentially reprehensible cultural detritus that has helped to form them (this is a feeling that I wouldn't say I ever have about, say, books I adore, but somehow when I am the creator it's a lot more personal). Nonetheless, I would say that it's important that my experience of playing the games I love was very much still that part of the enjoyment was the sense of being the author, of creating plot. And this remains a feature of my collaborative imaginative life even as an adult - when I first started playing games like AD&D, I was disappointed because the only role for me as a non-GM was to be the character, not to be the author. And I've desperately enjoyed the "story games" that a friend introduced me to because, even if you have a bias towards one character in those games, you're still involved in collaborative plotting - and that's something that I need in order to feel comfortable with the game.

I think these aspects of my imaginative life say something interesting, especially in contrast with the more oft-told story mentioned above of the girl who wants to play boys' roles, about my imaginative life and what the function of imagination is for me - less the fantasy of escaping into being a different person with a more active role at the center of the story, and more the fantasy of escaping outward, into being someone with less personal stake in the world and a more controlling role at the peripheral of the story. It shows a lot about my personality and my expectations of life and my desires. It also reminds me of one of the many awesome papers I wrote in graduate school, the one about Endymion and Keats' letters. I was fascinated by the way that Keats, as poet writing about characters, tends to figure the poet not as the one in control, the one who was developing the story, but rather makes the poet a passive figure guided by others to create. Perhaps Keats was not imagining himself into his own stories as the author. And yet I have always done so, and I expect this will continue to be the form of engagement with stories that continues to appeal the most to me.