Tuesday, April 15, 2008

hurt/comfort: the praxis of transgressive connectivity in Star Trek (prize inside: puppies!)

somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence

---e.e. cummings

If I made a "Stuff I Like" list, in my Top Ten would be the way that seemingly unrelated things crisscross, forming new patterns. Right next to Capt. Kirk with a box of puppies. [puppies, right, from Prairie Dog Canine Rescue]

Here's a crisscross (or several) I tripped over today:

Recently, I posted Sheenah Pugh's poem "Sometimes" (in connection with Zimbabwe, but that doesn't come into this here).

I didn't know anything about the poet, so I googled her and came across the text of a talk she gave about slash fiction in 2006: The Erotic Space: A genre of subtexts and possibilities.
Because I adore double-barreled academic-y titles (they might even make my list), not to mention being curious about slash (erotic fanfiction, usually written by and for women, pairing two male characters), I cut-and-pasted Pugh's talk to read later.

Which I just did--a reward for having finished my taxes.
And, ta-da!, there was another key to my befuddlement about BDSM (bondage, discipline/dominance, submission/sadism, and masochism) in Star Trek, which I've muddled on about here and here. (That is, I wonder what purpose it serves that Kirk is always getting tied up and beaten.) The key Pugh gave me, which I'd never known of before, was the phenomenon of hurt/comfort fanfiction.

Hurt/comfort, or h/c, is fanfiction in which a character is hurt, either physically or mentally (sometimes called angst fiction), and then comforted/healed/rescued by another character.

[puppies from bichonbarn]

Pugh says that slash has changed a lot since the early days of K/S--Kirk[slash]Spock being one of the earliest 20th cent. slash pairings--when gay characters on TV were unthinkable. (Pugh barely considers K/S, however, being far more interested in Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s Illya and Solo).
She says, nevertheless, "one thing that still seems crucial to me is the element of characters metaphorically travelling somewhere they have never been, beyond any experience they have previously had" where they "find out new things about themselves...."

She points out that the challenge to a writer is figuring out how to get her characters to transgress the expected norms, which in slash means moving the story beyond the default male/female connection.

(Pugh also has a funny bit about the problem of pronouns in slash, as all the he/his/him pronouns can make it hard to tell who is doing what to whom. One of the great things about Pugh's talk is that she approaches slash as literature not as a psychological conundrum.)

Hurt/comfort is one possible solution to moving characters out of predictable interactions: having a male comfort another male (like the Greek vase painting of Achilles tenderly caring for wounded Patrocles) opens up the possibilities of emotional and sexual connection previously unthinkable. And it appeals to females who project themselves into one of the roles--the wounded or the tender loved one.
I would also say that hurting a powerful person like a captain reverses the magnetic power fields around him. [science alert--is that a viable metaphor?] The vulnerability of the powerful is always sexy, as long as it's temporary.

H/c is such a common device, in fact, I found it on the Big List of K/S Cliches. This very funny list saves you the trouble of reading any actual K/S fanfiction, as the compiler pretty much covers all possible plot variations. I myself don't read slash, I just like to read about it. (What an admission: I really should be an academic, don't you think?)

But, you might say, the Star Trek show wasn't written by fans. Not entirely true. One of the most gratuitous Kirk bondage scenes in Star Trek occurs in "The Empath," an episode that actually was written by a female fan.
Anyway, Pugh says she finds it hard not to conclude that TV writers knew perfectly well what they were implying in the way they handled their male/male connections. (Though it's possible that as a writer, she is giving her fellow writers too much credit.)

Whether consciously employed or not, there are only so many ways a writer can push characters into places they have never gone before, and I think that BDSM, which leaves a character hurt and in need of comfort, was one of the shorthand solutions available to writers trying to move a 50 minute TV show into new frontiers.
Aliens and plant spores and demented children messing with the characters' minds and time travel were others. Such is the arsenal of the sci-fi writer.

[puppies from dog-sled]

Pugh ends by discussing whether or not females writing about all-male pairings is antifeminist, as some people claim. She says it's quite the opposite:
"The most important character in any story is the writer, whether overtly present or buried; he or she is the puppeteer, as Thackeray put it, who chooses the characters and decides how they shall move."

I agree. Slash is all about female power and desire and, as such, is itself transgressive. Not to mention it's almost as much fun as a boxful--or even a basketful--of puppies comforting a hurt captain. Or vice-versa. Whatever takes you where you want to go.
Or where you didn't want to go but were glad to be when you got there.


bink said...

I think you are on to it...and the puppies are cute too. Kirk comforted by puppies does= God is love.

fresca said...

Now there's logic for you!