(Warning: This post contains spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Buffy Season Eight comics. You have been warned. ~ Ian)
One thing that I did this summer was watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
All seven seasons, in its entirety.
Mostly because I’d seen episodes here and there, but never watched the whole thing all the way through. But when I did, then WOW. BtVS is a show that needs to be watched in its entirety to really get the whole scope of the thing. The growth of the characters is incredible. Buffy goes from a sixteen-year-old girl with not many concerns beyond parties, clothes, and boys to a woman who commands an army of Slayers. Willow goes from an awkward, shy teen to a cool college student with a werewolf boyfriend to a lesbian wicca to a world-destroying supervillain and finally to a woman at peace with herself and the world. Even minor characters, like Jonathan and Harmony, have their own character arcs. The whole series could be used as a textbook for writing long, sustained narratives where the world goes through real and fundamental change.
Because I’d watched all of Buffy, a friend lent me the Season Eight comics, because I wanted to read them. I’d been expecting for them to be collected in the trade paperback editions, because that’s what I’m used to. I’m the wait-for-the-trades guy. I don’t read comics monthly– I buy books and read a year’s worth of story in one big gulp.
I was wrong. These were the individual issues, kept in neat plastic sleeves. And there are differences between reading the comics in trade paperback form and reading them in monthly format.
Specifically, I’m talking about letter columns.
Now, in one issue (I think it was issue #12), Buffy has sex with another Slayer under her command. All Slayers are female in BtVS, for those of you who are completely unfamiliar with the mythos.
So, Buffy had gay sex.
This wasn’t a big deal for me. Yeah, Buffy had no inclination towards liking girls before. But it’s not too uncommon for women (especially young women) to be more flexible with their sexual orientation than men. And even so, sexual orientation isn’t a binary thing: it’s a continuum. I self-identify as straight, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been attracted to men before.
For the people in the letter column in the following issue, though, this was more of an issue.
No, scratch that. They lost all their shit.
“BUFFY WAS A ROLE MODEL FOR YOUNG WOMEN!!!!!!!!!!!” they screamed. “HOW COULD YOU TURN HER GAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! MY DAUGHTER LOVES BUFFY, AND NOW I CAN’T LET HER SEE THIS COMIC LEST SHE SUDDENLY BECOME A LESBIAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHY ARE YOU PROMOTING ALTERNATE LIFESTYLES???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????“
You know. Standard-issue homophobia.
This made me think for a moment. Mara, one of the main characters in The Lotus Imperiate, my current pet project, is a lesbian, in a relationship with another woman when the story starts. I realize that I’m walking a delicate balance while creating Mara. There’s a danger, when straight writers create gay characters, that they become too one-dimensional, with nothing more to their character than their sexual orientation. Furthermore, when straight guys write lesbian relationships, there’s the danger of making the relationship too eroticized– basically, creating straight-guy lesbian fantasies. Neither of which are things I want to do with Mara.
However, I hadn’t considered the perils of depicting gay characters– any gay characters– in fiction before. For some people, any whiff of gayness in their protagonists locks up their brain, making them think, “Nope! Not gonna read that!”
I thought about, when The Lotus Imperiate gets published, receiving angry letters from homophobic bigots. I thought of getting into horrible arguments with them. I thought about the fact that I’d be cutting off a whole section of my audience. At the very least, I’d never get blurbed by Orson Scott Card.
Do I really want to bring all that chaos down on me? I thought. Can I handle that kind of pressure?
That’s when I realized something. Something that I think is the root of good art.
If you fail to give your audience a strong emotional reaction– any reaction– you have failed as an artist.
It doesn’t matter what those emotions are. It could be love, it could be hate, it could be anger or grief or joy. Whatever the reaction is, you succeed as an artist if you stimulate your audience’s emotions.
And speaking honestly as a writer and a creator, I’d rather have a thousand people buy my book and either feel warm ecstatic love or blood-spitting hatred for it than have a million people buy it and feel generally okay about it. Because even if my book sells a million copies, it won’t do me any good unless there are some people who care about the world and the story I’ve created.
Go ahead, artists. Piss people off. Make them squirm. Make them feel.
Just don’t bore them.